Review in Assent 65/1 (October 2011)
by Julia Gaze
Soundswrite Anthology of Contemporary Poetry – Soundswrite Press, 2011. £6
The Leicester women’s writing group, Soundswrite, formed over a decade ago and brought out their first anthology in 2005. This new anthology is a testament to the strength of the group, featuring seventy thoughtful and carefully crafted poems by twenty-four poets.
As may be expected, then, there is a great deal of variety here, but it is far from a jumble. As Jenny Swann points out on the back cover, this is a collection in which the “poems talk to each other”. Indeed, from cover to cover, the book reads a little like a Platonic dialogue, modulating through a sequence of related themes through a series of diverse voices. These themes include the familial and domestic – childhood, motherhood, relationships – but the collection also looks beyond such traditionally female topics. There are thought-provoking poems about nature, language, myth, philosophy, history, war and current affairs.
Part of the success of this anthology, then, can be put down to its courageousness, and part also to the expert editing of Karin Koller and D.A. Prince. But what makes this anthology really stand out from others is that it is written, edited and published by members of Soundswrite (even the cover features a painting by Helen Jayne Gunn, one of the poets). Karin Koller and D.A. Prince describe Soundswrite in their introduction as a “democratic group open to all women enthusiastic about poetry.” There is certainly something of the flavour of the women’s collective movement of the 70s in these pages – a warmth, and honesty, a collaborative, exploratory tone – that fans of Adrienne Rich or Louise Gluck, for example, will recognise.
The collection opens with a burst of enthusiasm and flame as Helen Jayne Gunn’s ‘Fire Juggler’, the “queen of flames” performs her “hot tricks”. The poem is cleverly placed, making the reader alert to the notion of female performance – an idea which is interrogated from a number of perspectives throughout the collection. ‘Fire Juggler’ also ignites a heat which emanates right up to the final poem, Marilyn Ricci’s ‘And when you thought’ which describes:
a thin-air hammock,
woven in light,
to be flung up
a cold house and a home,
harsh words and a smile.
Lie in it. It will hold you.
Temperatures are often brilliantly evoked in the poems and demonstrate how rich the sensual-emotional texture of the collection is, as the poems distil elusive emotion into the clarity of sensation. Helen Jayne Gunn’s ‘Traded’, for instance, declares:
Now I understand fridge –
that forced chill cuts off the spoiling heat.
How light dies behind a shut door.
While Christine Coleman’s ‘Climbing to Livaniana’ remembers “ripples of wind -chimes” in an “airless heat” and the scent of thyme that “nudges/ against something/ I can almost/ open.”
The last line of Christine Coleman’s poem reveals a subtext, which pervades the collection, of confinement and escape. Karin Koller, for instance, describes her frantic attempt to free a fly from the house, only to watch it “bang into the pane… inches from all the freedom/ it could ever want.” (‘Leaving Home’). Elizabeth Rogers’ poem about the rape of Proserpina (‘Winter’), ends with the chilling lines “Winter ice – so long suppressed – / insists on its power and on go the boots and uniforms.” Marilyn Ricci’s ‘Passing’ tells of a conversation between middle-aged professional women where “words … pile around our feet, / swirling around us until we can barely breathe.” Anna Nurpuri’s poem about the woman who “was married into Stone”, however, ends with a stunningly affirmative vision of feminine autonomy:
So, this now old woman who says to us how she longs to be a child again
hop-skippety-hopping down town
may have uncoiled herself from the flex of gravity
and been flung, trapeze-long,
into playing a full part in her own existence.
On the whole, freedom wins out in the collection, though it is a freedom often associated with nostalgia or aspiration. Nicki Hastie declares, for instance:
when summers had legs.
They ran forever with no breaks
I remember a power,
how the blood running freely through
my veins made others fearful.
Helen Jayne Gunn’s poem, ‘Housewife’ ends with the vision of the neighbour’s cat:
through an open window
I envied her talent
settling a hair’s breadth
from that terrible brink
unworried as a leaf
This book earns its place on any bookshelf because of its gift of hard-won affirmation. It is also a book of intricately and masterfully crafted poems. There are some dazzlingly memorable phrases – Bernice Read’s description, in ‘Scissors’, of her mother’s “undersurge of organised snippery” for instance, or Sally Festing’s memory of an old friend who died young:
Strange fish, still wet from your own shadow,
you slide into my mind like someone singing
the same song over and over.
(‘The same song’)
There are also poems which are quite simply brilliantly conceived and executed. Christine Coleman’s ‘Daedalus’ makes an inspired connection between Icarus’s wings and the ‘waxy-coated thing between her thighs’ which “kicks, cries out/ and is a child”. Ruth Stevely’s ‘Homecoming’ is a gripping read and an innovative twist on the theme of new motherhood. Marilyn Ricci’s ‘Shorthand’ is a concise and efficient circular poem. Alice Beer’s ‘Stranger on a train’, about her father’s close escape from Austria during Nazi occupation, is breath-taking in its frankness.
The poem that I keep coming back to, however, is rather rougher around the edges. Its tentative tone sums up, for me, something of the interrogative and reflective attitude that the writers of Soundswrite take towards themselves as women and as writers. It is a poem that reminds us of Cixous’s observation that for woman, writing is “risk”, or “the good vertigo” p43, ‘Coming to Writing’)
I strut my stage and tell
But the stage is thin.
One false step and my foot
will pierce the fragile layers
and I will tumble through into
the cellar of disconnected
Clinging to the paper
edge with my finger tips,
slowly slipping amongst
the odds and ends
left over. An an, an oh,
another an, a single a.
Obscure. Clay, grit
sink, stone, car keys.