GIRL GOLEM by Rachael Clyne
Family lies at the heart of this collection. Its narrative arc moves from a Jewish childhood through to the tender recounting of clearing elderly relatives’ homes after their death. Its focus on family members who fled oppressive regimens of the mid 20thCentury is specific but also resonates with the plight of more recent refugees.
The first poem in the collection small histories remind us how houses and indeed lives become littered with the detritus of the past . This is a cleverly structured poem, cleft into two adjacent stanzas that serves as a visual reminder of the fragmented nature of memory. Indeed, Clyne has a gift for using structured to effectively reinforce meaning. A later poem, Art of Erasure replicates with enviable skill the shattered thought processes of a brain beset by dementia.
Jewishness enriches the portrait of a family with the use of dialect, customs, history and indeed cultural expectations on children. The cast of characters includes an eccentric grandma who with skill ‘re-pins ‘the child’s dressing gown . There is precise and effective use of detail here as the elderly lady’s mouth holding the pins is described as having ‘ gummy lips’ . She ‘ cackles at her own jokes’ and ‘ indulgently feeds the child egg-fried bread ‘ mum and dad clearly do not approve of . Revealing here that grandmother-granddaughter alliance that often leaps a generation. Yet this is no soft and fluffy grandmother as she is also given to ‘rage. Like the time she flung a pan of peas, cursed in Russian.’ Tailoring is the family trade , carried with them to the new country. The narrator’s father is revealed as master craftsman who in a touching poem makes , The Only suit he made me that allowed her to ‘strut my stuff on Lord Street’ during the swinging ‘60s.
The verse set in a post war childhood is rich with details that will create recognition in the reader familiar to this era. The poem That Was Downstairs evokes the austerity of a post war house lacking modern conveniences and comforts. The tone is blackly humorous with terms such as ‘Bathroom was a bastard ’ and recalls the dreaded harsh toilet paper that’ slid off bottoms.’ In a sense this poem subtly infers a family occasionally at war with itself, not quite settled in its new country, still haunted by the violence that drove it from mainland Europe. In other poems there are echoes of violence, the grandma alters the child’s dressing gown with ‘a razor blade in her trembling claw’.
Poems focussing on the older family members who lived through the flight from Russia are beset by memories of the horrors of war and indeed of the lost homeland. Jewish words pepper these works. They are verbal cues that create flashbacks to the horrors of the holocaust and pogroms. There are touching references to family members who did not escape such as the great aunt who worked for Coco Chanel. The illusion to the family trade of tailoring and this specific detailing serves to make the horrors seem more personal. Inevitably the referencing to Jewish refugees resonates with the horrors of more recent and on-going atrocities and the flight of civilians who are collateral damage. Nothing it shows has changed. The poem Toadsong is particularly effective poem in that it conveys a double meaning. Whilst on the surface it deals with toads who invade the house and are tolerated but on another level it obliquely references, refugees as the four characters ‘shared childhood tales of being Jews’. Their sense of unbelonging strikingly evoked in the words ‘The ugly undertones, sense of foreignness’.
Yet the works are also keen to reveal how inter- connected we all are. Not just in our shared sense of family but also in shared repercussions to worldwide catastrophe. This is best seen in Chernobyl Museum where the shocking man-made disaster in Russian, has repercussions years later when it ‘spawned a cancer, in a friend’ in Wales, ‘that took decades to flower’.
At the heart of the collection lies the eponymous Girl Golem whom we take to be the narrator herself. The poem starkly reveal how the child almost resisted birth ‘clung bat-like to the womb wall’ somehow knowing that she was destined to carry the hopes and dreams of that family’s future. More than this her role was to ‘compensate for millions’, ‘make up for the lost numbers’. Born into such expectations it is inferred that this child would never fit into such a mould.
Growing up she self-defines as a ‘a hotchpotch golem /that would never fit’. It is inferred further that being gay she would never be accepted by the family or indeed be able to fulfil the family expectations of providing grandchildren so consequently left ‘in search of my own kind.’
The latter sections of the poems hints at reconciliation albeit when the relatives are elderly and, in some cases, losing their memory. These are starkly honest poems with experiences that resonate with us all. A father figure is paid respects to after his death. Again, fine details are tenderly deployed as his personal effects are handed to the daughter. Hints to his personality subtly betrayed in the ‘fake Rolex’, ‘credit cards’ ‘clothes in a black bin bag’. The realities of clearing a family home after death are then looked at. Again, the lost personality is revealed in things. The father stock piled clothes deemed bargains, hoarded everything from clothes to ‘pinched’ Asda plastic spoons. This very need to hoard harping back to a time when as a refugee, personal effects were few. False teeth are a motif throughout the collection bringing with them the images of the piles of dentures found stacked in concentration camps. They are a bizarre but also macabre image. Again, in this poem Taking Account they are darkly humorous as fourteen sets of dentures tumble on the narrator’s head from head from atop a wardrobe. The up- shot to such hoarding is a staggering 80 bins of items left out for rubbish collection.
This is a very fine collection that deals with families and our place within them. It demonstrates too how on the wider political stage, nothing changes, conflict still sees civilians as collateral, who become dispossessed, and must struggle to find new homes. The poet is particularly adept at using structure to reinforce meaning and using very fine imagery throughout to make this a vivid piece of work.
– Fiona Sinclair
BLACK BICYCLE by Lesley Quayle
Black Bicycle – a superb book of poems from the hugely talented Lesley Quayle (though I do wish she would stop making me cry with some of her word-pictures!). Cannot recommend this ‘pamphlet’ (it’s not – it’s a book) highly enough. Many thanks for such pleasure.
Lesley Quayle’s poetry has a wonderful sense of the local without ever falling into the parochial. “Old Yowe In the Market” (“Old, barren yowe, teats dry as corn husks. . .”) is one lovely example, employing as it does the local Yorkshire word rather than the more standard “ewe.” And it definitely isn’t guilty of sentimentality:
Shepherds in greasy caps and shit-stained trousers,
belted, braced by baler twine, walk on,
rubbing their raw-boned hands.
The Yorkshire explored in several of these poems (Quayle lived in rural West Yorkshire for two decades) is not picturesque and the life, not easy (“We gather, a disparate flock, summoned to the desolation/of a winter quarry” is how “Fell Rescue” opens, while “The 7.25 to Leeds” enters bleak urban territory) yet what lifts these poems, alongside others in the collection rooted in other places, is a warm humanity and close attention to detail.
Several of the people who dance, drink, smoke, sing and dream in this collection are street people, rough-sleepers and hopeful buskers. They have names like Scarlet Mary, Holy Tola, Old Moley (“three coats, two waistcoats, jumpers, vests-/layered back to a museum of skin”), the names given them by passers-by, their “regulars.” And while one can feel sympathy for their difficult circumstances, there’s nothing in these poems that reeks of condescension or pity.
Quayle is equally at home with landscape, with Dorset as much as Yorkshire:
Smell the sea-
lungs brackish, brine rinsed
gulls bickering over a thin westerly.
(“Climb to Mupe Bay”)
Towards the end of the pamphlet she moves further still, into wider territory and into different voices, one of a man in Raqqa recalling the violent death of a friend, another in the voice of Edward Snowden. As in the street poems, there is a respect and warmth here for the individual and an honouring of the individual’s experience.
-Sheila Hamilton, poet ( ‘The Spirit Vaults’ published by Green Bottle Press)
I love these poems by Lesley Quayle! …such subtle music…they need to be read aloud to fully appreciate the rhythm and craft …often melancholy…lost people and places and times… wise and beautiful writing!
Journeying with Lesley is invigorating, fascinating, unexpected. The light she shines reveals the essence of whatever or wherever it falls. Her portraits of the ordinary, the outcast, the old, the quirky, glow in the beam of her humanity. She describes a landscape I know intimately myself. Her personal experience of it is expressed fearlessly. She paints the colours and sounds of life with knowledge and passion.
-Dame Josephine Barstow DBE
ANDROGYNY by Kevin Reid
Kevin Reid’s Androgyny is bittersweet, funny, hurt-filled, observed and heard. Pithy, quickly caught, and held for a lifetime. It’s huge strength is it’s never just one thing.
– Beth McDonough
AFTER EDEN by Stella Wulf
Stella Wulf’s poetry occupies a space of dissolution between reality and myth, historical awareness and immediacy. Her language is layered with the ruggedness and density of impasto, but there is also transparency and precision. The muscularity of verbs, the rich specificity of nouns and an underlying musicality keep the poems fluid through subtle formal placements. They are rhythmical and carefully wrought, moving from Wales to France, from personal engagement to archetypal human and non-human characters, allowing time and historical depths to be disclosed through compact and evocative images. The poems artfully interrogate the lives of women, the choreography of the sexual dance, with cool irony and grace. They don’t flinch from dissonance, allowing a sense of moral complication and verbal multivalence to prevail. This is a sensuous, alert, and impressive first collection.
– Graham Mort