Jenny Mitchell’s Her Lost Language reviewed by Daniel Bennett
Jenny Mitchell’s Her Lost Language reviewed by Daniel Bennett. £8.99 Indigo Dreams. ISBN 978-1-912876-19-8.
The weight of history and its eventual impact on family provides the over-arching theme of the debut collection, Her Lost Language, by London-based poet, Jenny Mitchell, joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize. Invoking voices marginalized and erased, Mitchell positions herself as the conscience of after-empire: resilient, haunting and implacable in her accusations.
Mitchell’s focus is on reclaiming the stories of the victims of British slavery, with family represented as at the cutting point of the effect of this history. The lives resurrected within these pages are often offered to us with their hopes, dignity and dreams briefly intact, set against the way those lives played out. Mitchell is a talented performer, who at readings will recite her work from memory, but, crucially, the poems on the page retain that sense of breath and measure, of a voice. The character escape the silences that have been imposed on them, the treatment reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop as they speak to us with intimacy and violence. This, from ‘Before The Silence’:
‘They were not my parents when they first held hands,
Pushed up against a corrugated shack,
Her breathless with the shock: his body,
A hard shape pressed to her floral waist.’
The central theme is played out through the historical reclamation of ‘Emancipating Ancestors’ ( ‘The love I have for them/ will be a nursery rhyme / with hushing sounds, / and promises of home) and the poignant social history of ‘Caribbean Service’, with its portrait of a young Jamaican woman working in the National Health Service, from the ripe opening lines ‘Ever since I first taste words/ none as succulent as England,’ and its wrenching conclusion:
‘Cried alone in my bed-sitting room,
Haunted by the ghost of paraffin.
Burn marks on my legs;
always edging closer.’
The stanza illustrates a technique used throughout the collection: of removing the agency from the sentences at key emotional moments. The characters seem to absent themselves from the words they speak, as though surrendering to how they have been robbed of identity and the ability to shape their own narratives and histories. It’s a subtle device that hints at the importance of ownership of our own stories, particularly when set against the malign legacy of the ownership of people.
And, of course, as the title makes clear, this is a collection focusing on gender as well as race. The theme reaches a high point in the triptych ‘Eve’s Lost Daughter’, ‘Dark Sisterhood’ and ‘The Healing’. Remarkable for their capacity for blending myth and dream, they reminded me of Shivanee Ramlochan Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting for their imaginative range. In ‘Dark Sisterhood’, a woman’s corpse undergoes a strange transformation, ‘pressed beneath the dirt so long, / her body turned to glass – clear shapely / as the burial ground was murky flat.’ The dead are returned to us, offering their tale of injustice and violence: ‘she spoke, so crystal clear/ but in a long-lost tongue.’ In the Bible, Eve’s nakedness is a state of innocence and grace, yet in ‘Eve’s Lost Daughter’, a past of violence and abuse is heightened as ‘her mother stripped her nightly, imprisoning in shame.’ The lost daughter is instructed at the end to ‘Steal back your clothes and scale the wall/ or be part of its fabric.’
It’s an idea we return to throughout the collection, in such poems as ‘Someone Thank The Tailor’, ‘The Veil’, and the vibrant and potent ‘Black Men Should Wear Colour’, not to mention the titular poem ‘Her Lost Language’ (where ‘English mouths are made of cloth,/stitched pulled apart with every word’): how dress and clothing become a signifier in personal language, that badges and protects us, but also emphasizes our differences and consequently identifies us for attack. In the ‘An Unfurling’, a stranger reaches out to unwind the narrator’s headscarf, an ugly invasive act that is responded to with imaginative grace and energy, the headscarf becoming an act of language, running free and wild:
‘A woman rode past on a bike just as the headwrap billowed
Dipped close to a bridge the water shining dark green fish
Jumped to the surface as more cloth trailed along […]’
In the age of social media, we’re accustomed to communicating when, perhaps, we don’t have much to say. Everyone does it; it’s the currency of our time. Probably, this has influenced the way we think of poetry, where words are spun out of dilettantish poses, lacking reference and tangibility in their attempts to offer a perspective. And, why not? Poets have propagated their egos long before Twitter and Instagram came along. Still, Mitchell stands outside of this instinct. These are poems that exist out of a sense of duty and fury, giving back weight and breath in their desire to offer language back to who have been muted and ignored, not only forgotten but never really considered. This is a raw collection, filled with lashed hopes, bitterness and pain, yet haunting in its capacity for resilience, beauty and redemption. Read it and listen.
Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire and lives and works in London. His first full collection West South North, North South East was published by The High Window in 2019. He is also the author of the novel All The Dogs.’
Deborah Harvey’s The Shadow Factory reviewed by Lucy English
The Shadow Factory by Deborah Harvey. £9.99. Indigo Dreamss. ISBN: 978-1912876204
The Shadow Factory was a factory in Patchway, Bristol, which was demolished in 2009. It was also the enigmatic end destination of the 75 bus. In her title poem she reflects on the disappearance of such an apparently nebulous building:
Perhaps it retired to a sunlit meadow,
sat itself down by a puttering stream
far from the whine of lathes, the scream of Harrier jump jets
The desire to find a place which is ‘not a leisurely stroll from the ice cream van,’ is a strong theme in this collection. She comments on the natural world as if this, and not human life is the greater force. The dead man forgotten in the undergrowth is ignored by:
You lot driving past/ after tiles for your bathroom, this week’s fashion/ upgrades for last year’s mobile phone
Wild animals are ever present even on the periphery of vision; feral dogs, hares, starlings, red kites and larks. Even plants take on animal qualities. The Aconite doesn’t ‘drift through gardens in sapphire silks’ but ‘you bundle about your business with diffident squirrel glances’. Landscape, animals and birds have an intrinsic beauty which she describes with care: ‘ Only something looking closely sees a greenfinch deep in leaves, feathers mossed with yellow edges, barred by shuttered sun.’
The people in this collection are more problematic and create, for Harvey, deep feelings of unease. A relative turns up unexpectedly and is less a person, more a collection of unwanted fragments. He is also sinister, ‘signs his name in the mist on the window his breath doesn’t leave.’ In the sequence of poems, ‘Bad seeds’ about the death of her father there is a suggestion that his death may not be ‘natural’; ‘my father said he finished his mother off gave her half the tincture in the phial from her doctor, flushed the rest down the toilet.’ In ‘Nature Notes’ Harvey reminds us, by the stark details of women killed by men , that it is people who kill people and those who survive human violence are never free from it:
of those who escape, but scathed
like hares chased so hard their blood runs to bubbles.
My favourite sequence was the one about wallpaper. She takes us through stages in her life via the patterns in the various bedrooms. Here I felt Harvey at her strongest; drawing our attention to the simple unnoticed details. The 1990’s Blown Vinyl in red, gold and white, can’t even stay attached:
It peels straight off
Underneath, the thin plaster is spotted
with damp from a crack in the render
and the six-petalled flowers
embossed on the paper
have reproduced themselves
like mildewed ghosts of masons’ marks
Here again the natural world, in this case, ‘the creeping mould’ is a source of comfort and respite, ‘its curious spores trap our nightmares in the walls’.
The collection ends with the delicate poem ‘October’ and its message of trust and hope. Oaks shouldn’t be growing here , but they are, ‘looping roots around heaped rocks’ and the narrator wishes to meld with the landscape, ‘until my skin grows green with moss / my tongue bleeds sap,’ and become truly part of it.
Lucy English is a Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Her most recent project is, The Book of Hours, a reimagining of a medieval book of hours in poetry film format. Films from this project have been screened at many international poetry film festivals and the whole project was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in 2018. She is researching the placement of spoken word in poetry films. The poetry from this project was published in book form by Burning Eye Press in 2018
Chrissie Gittins Sharp Hills reviewed by Kathleen Bell
Sharp Hills by Chrissie Gittins. £9.99. Indigo Dreams. ISBN 978-1-912876-17-4
This review should have been written months ago, but life intervened – and then came Covid-19. When I returned to Chrissie Gittins’ Sharp Hills under lockdown conditions almost every poem took on a different slant and demanded a fresh look. I ditched my old ideas and started again. It was a helpful reminder that poems change according to the circumstances in which they are read and that any reader’s view comes from their own circumstances and experience as well as from what the poet has to offer.
In the Spring of 2020, mostly confined to a small flat, I want to know that there is a world beyond. I am also learning to look afresh at details with much more care and, from a window, I often marvel at the surreal incidents of everyday life in the street below. Imagination has become a key means of escape. Chrissie Gittins’ book feeds into this new, constrained way of living in a way I never expected when I first read it last winter.
Sharp Hills begins with a sequence in which Gittins as she travels to parts of India where her father was stationed during the Second World War. The poems combine her own observations with haunting images from the past; a damaged 11th century statue of Parvati in a museum becomes a frame through which she can see crashed fragments of a fragile aeroplane and then her father, at ease, listening to Glenn Miller:
… yet to hear about the fuselage in the glade,
the bamboo leaves stroking the rudder,
his pals the pilot and the navigator,
who sat touching, side by side.
But the India Gittins visits – and the one her father knew – is not primarily a place of tragedy; it provides encounters with inequality and the relics of imperialism but also with kindness. Members of hotel staff ‘sleep on blankets covered in sheets/ on the floor of reception’, fellow train passengers share food while in the tea plantation there’s a reference to the estate ‘planted by our men,/ before they left their bairns behind.’
In these poems about India the landscape is often at a slight distance. The ‘sharp hills’ which give the volume its title are ten miles away and also linked to the past, when Gittins’ father photographed then in 1942. The blending of past and present in the poet’s journey, which necessarily combines observation with both a known and an imagined past, makes relationship with place primarily a means by which human relationships can be explored.
Elsewhere, however, the details of place are in the foreground, even when the subject of the poem is wider than those details. In ‘Noss,’ for instance, the very sound of the words invites the reader to appreciate the texture of ‘the spongy sphagnum moss’ underfoot while wide vowel sounds conjure a tremendous image of how ‘To the east great skuas pose,/ flagging their high striped wings’. Those skuas are both majestic and dangerous; a line later we’re informed that ‘They’re keen to feed on newborn lambs’ – and that word ‘keen’ suggests a little more deliberation than mere instinct as well as reminding us that nature at its most sublime is never actually friendly.
In ‘The Unseen Life of Trees,’ the final poem in the book, the trees observe human life but from their own arboreal perspective. The poem begins:
When the fraying skeins of silver birch
sway in the wind they think of
lulling water in the floating harbour,
the dried out plants on a deck,
the bespoke barge door cut to close
on a trapezium
and ends with oaks climbing the hillside ‘dragging children by the hand’ as they whisper:
canopy to canopy.
‘There will be time, before
all our leaves stretch out across the frosted ground.’
That final stanza seems to recall another theme of the book: children who may be lost, dead or unborn – or merely imagined. Poems with titles ‘So You Think You Killed Your Daughter,’ ‘There’s a Baby on my Compost Heap’ and ‘Your Unknown Sister’ suggest that the question ‘Where is Freya?’ – the title of another poem – has a tragic answer. The speaker of the poem looks for clues in ‘the surface of the trampoline’ which may hold ‘the imprint of your sole’ and also finds Freya ‘in the rain that comfort brings.’
Different in mood are poems where the poet’s imagination takes a surreal turn as in ‘The Apology Lab,’ ‘How to Sell Your Soul on eBay’ and ‘W.H. Auden Got Married in Tesco (Ledbury)’ which reimagines Auden’s 1935 marriage of convenience to Erika Mann (providing her with the British passport that protected her from deportation from Switzerland back to Nazi Germany) taking place not in Ledbury’s registry office but in a modern Tesco store, with the registrar asking:
As we stand here between Meal Deals and Price Drops
wilt thou have this Ripe and Fresh woman to thy
wedded wife, even though you’ve never
set eyes on her before in your entire life?
It’s hard in a review to do justice to the range of poems in this collection from the delightfully scrambled and often entirely logical sayings in ‘No Salmon is an Island’ (‘A drowning man will clutch at a saw,/ A fool and his money are soon to open a joint bank account’) to the surprise of the woman survivor in ‘Clifton’ who starts by telling us ‘I owe my life to the moon.’ But perhaps the poem that offers most – to me, at any rate – in these locked down days is ‘The Man Who Moved from Shetland to Glasgow’, which has the dedication ‘for Bruce, who opened a window in Glasgow and wondered where the wind was.’ Many people now are aware of places they are missing and thinking of landscapes that are out of reach. This poem ends by evoking a lost landscape:
Where is the wind?
It’s lashing the cars on lonely roads
where heath is cut with peat-black wounds.
Where is the wind?
It’s flattening the cotton grass to red,
It’s flipping leaves on strained branches,
it’s whipping up white lace shawls on slate blue sea.
I have never been to Shetland but this conjuring of a distant landscape through the lens of loss offers me a sense of a world waiting to be relearned when lockdown ends and when we are free once more to move beyond confinement and watch, in wonder, the beauty and strangeness of the world.
Kathleen Bell is a poet and fiction writer based in the East Midlands. Until recently she was an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at De Montfort University.