Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Fiona Sinclair, Nick Asbury and Eleanor Livingstone
Women lie at the heart of Sally Goldsmith’s pamphlet Singer. These are poems celebrating teenage coming of age, female sexuality and the narrator’s need to escape into a secret world of imagination.
It is in individual character studies that Goldsmith excels, often using personal names to encourage an intimacy between these women and the reader. Her cast is made up of beloved aunts and friends, many of whom are now deceased. What links them is the narrator’s yearning for their company in a world that is diminished by their loss. There’s a sense that Goldsmith believes such extraordinary women have no place now in our homogenised society.
I found the characters in ‘The Bird’ and ‘Lil’ to be the most memorable.
Both are delightfully eccentric women with a zest for life, all the more interesting for not being conventionally pretty. In ‘The Bird’ the aunt is listed as ‘‘broad faced, buck teeth, fat plait”. The poet then chooses the word ‘‘exotic’ to describe her ‘‘jiving lilac skirt’’, the adjective skilfully linking her to the colourful budgerigar she purchases. Throughout this poem, as with others such as ‘The Singer’, the pronoun ‘‘we’’ reinforces the love felt by the narrator for the subject.
‘Lil’ focuses solely upon a strong, independent woman in an era predating feminism. In her close rural society Lil is condemned by the locals as ‘‘loose, a flibberty-gibbet or worse’’. I particularly like the way Goldsmith’s vocabulary of jaunty slang and dialect undercuts any idea of Lil being a victim. She’s a ‘‘game old bird slap happy and cackling’’. Her sexual confidence is superbly shown in the phrases ‘‘she knew she’d always have men easy’’ and ‘‘their eyes watching the wig-wag of her bum.’’
The earthiness of the lexis surrounding Lil reinforces the significant link Goldsmith makes throughout the pamphlet between women and nature. In poems such as ‘Mahadevi’ and ‘The Holloway’, she has her women take refuge in hidden coverts whose description is almost womb-like. The poet hints that it is their men who try to drag women from these private worlds. Her allusions to men are strikingly concise but when she does include maleness, the references are all the more powerful for their brevity and indeed their ambivalence. In ‘Mahadevi’ the narrator is ‘‘pawed at’’ by a husband when she prefers to be ‘‘lost in the sky’’, and in ‘The Bird’, the state of the relationship between the remarkable aunt and her husband, the man ‘‘with Billy Fury hair’’, is hinted at in the superbly understated threat of the last line ‘‘She stays with him, even when’’.
This is a gentle, lyrical, at all times good and at some times great collection. The title itself is the best way in. A biographical note explains that the writer was a songwriter before turning to poetry, and it shows. Her writing is characterised by well-tuned ear for the sound and rhythm of words and how that links to their sense.
To pick one example, from ‘Out of joint’, there’s a wonderful description of the poet and her childhood friend on their brand new Woolworth’s skates “ker-chunking over flags and kerbs,/ the lumpy tarmac where the garage used to be.” You can feel the bumps in the road.
The parallel with song becomes explicit in the second and third poems—’Song’ and ‘The Singer’. (This in itself reminds me of an album, where the stand-out singles are often tracks 2 and 3.) The former is a sestina that makes absolute sense of the form, the six end-words gently singing to each other across the page, building layers of harmony as they go along. Simply listing these end-words—wireless, grandfather, love, listen, gone, house—is enough to give a sense of the poem’s mood, as well as a hint to its source: Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sestina’, of which this is a kind of cover version.
This leads straight into the title track, ‘The Singer’. In a lovely interlocking of metaphors, the Singer here is a fondly remembered sewing machine, where the poet’s mother (we assume) once showed her how to “coax the wheel, dip the bar,/ draw up the whirling bobbin’s loop/ from under the throat plate until/ the two thread ends lay side by side,/ everything taut, just so.”
Almost every word in this poem is alive with multiple meanings, many of which reveal themselves when spoken aloud—the echo of “taught” in “taut”, or the suggestion of a different kind of Singer in the mention of the “throat plate”. The poem goes on to lament this lost maternal craft from which the poet has drifted away:
Grown, I packed my dolls in a trunk,
snapped up cheap clothes at Miss Selfridge,
turned away from old songs.
Now she yearns to go back:
Some nights, I strain to hear
the whirr and clunk, her singing line
and I spool through the dark,
catch at her thread.
This is a skilfully sustained metaphor that the poem itself justifies, with each singing line testifying to a different kind of craft.
The collection closes with another stand-out track—’Hare Ghazal’—a further example of the poet’s interest in traditional form. Like the sestina, the ghazal was a form originally intended to be sung. This one is a self-portrait of the poet and needs to be read in full in order to appreciate the deftly handled rhyme scheme and overlapping layers of metaphor. Strangely, the poet’s self-characterisation as a madcap hare—”lolloping from one damn thing to another,/ hopping and boxing yourself into this clumsy metaphor”—isn’t one I recognise from this collection, where she always seems to be gently in control, and about as far as you can get from clumsy.
The blurb inside the flyleaf of this slim Smith/Doorstop publication mentions that Sally Goldsmith is also a singer songwriter. So even before you get into the poems, there’s word play going on here, for the closest-to-title-poem, ‘The Singer’, is not obviously referring to music—though it’s there in all these poems— but rather to the sewing machine familiar to many childhoods “tick-tacking, tending our tracks/ of stitches beneath its metal foot.” Then the narrator grows older, turns away from “the old songs”, and the focus is on the woman, a mother figure controlling the wheel and bobbin and her once “singing line”.
The blurb also describes Sally Goldsmith as a poet-naturalist, but the evidence of that is often subtle, like the “faint notes/ of robins in a spinney” in the opening poem, ‘Cerebos’. And more word play—the poem entitled ‘The Bird’ is in fact about a memorable aunt, another of the pick-and-mix assortment of women who sidle and career through these poems.
Dog-eared moments from childhood also make a regular appearance. ‘Cerebos’ neatly conjures up a blue tin which might be rusting at the back of the kitchen cupboard of anyone above a certain age. I preferred this to a carefully worked sestina entitled ‘Song’, summed up by its envoy—
Croon for the grandfather, dead and gone,
for the aunt who listened with softness of love,
for the house, the child and an old brown wireless
—which reminded me a bit too much of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sestina’.
Poems about childhood and harder-edged adolescent recollections are balanced by others about age. ‘Out of Joint’ wryly compares youthful feet and ankles strapped into skates “ker-chunking over flags and kerbs” with older ones which descend stairs carefully towards a regular morning dose of glucosamine. Later on there’s a poem in the voice of a similarly arthritic bike, looking for a squirt of oil and someone to love it.
There’s an intriguing tension about this pamphlet. It starts with the understated design which is nevertheless wrapped in a glowing orange/gold cover, and this tension continues in the straightforward and yet often gleaming lines of poetry—one thing pulling against something else. As anyone who has used a Singer sewing machine will recall, once the tension’s right, the grip on thread and stitches adjusted for the weight and weave of the material, you pretty much have it all sewn up.