Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review of Claire Askew's 'The Mermaid & the Sailors'

I’ve read through Claire Askew’s first pamphlet, ‘The Mermaid & the Sailors’ and enjoyed it. I know Claire and (disclaimer time) wouldn't have written anything had I not liked the pamphlet. But, seeing as I did, I will try to bring some kind of critical discpline to the table. Claire has a good ear for sound and rhythm and her writing is noticeably tighter than when I first came across her poems a few years ago. There are certain points where it really soars, such as in ‘Moloch’, a poem in which a father has taught his offspring how to make a fire:

...It was what this town worked for –
the men up at dawn, crawling
into the lit-up earth like colourful bugs.

It’s a mining town and the depiction of the men as insects, however colourful, is painfully apt given what was to befall British mining communities later on. Good writing, but it’s in the second and final stanza that the poem lifts full off the ground. The son/daughter remembers the father’s instructions and begins making the fire with newspaper, kindling etc, and then:

Finally, the few ancient apples of coal –
its cold choke the thing
that would cripple this town, given time.
And the first thought of heat would occur
to the grate, as the first flame
ghosted up out of the pile.

The title poem is very strong, with its drunken men (‘sailors’, metaphorically) spinning their tales to the narrator at the bar, “hooked by my red hair,/ swarming like fish/ to a bright fly”, which put me in mind (in a good way) of Sylvia Plath’s “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air” (from ‘Lady Lazarus’).

There are also intriguing connections between poems – images of fire and fish keep surfacing. In fact, steam, smoke and fire all rise both literally and metaphorically in several poems and men who’ve “dived right in” eventually “come up sparkling,/ wheezing, waiting to be saved.” (‘The Mermaid and the Sailors’).

Negatives? A villanelle-type-thing tries hard to take on a big subject and doesn’t get anywhere with it. ‘Visiting Nannie Gray’ is strong (and indeed won a prize), but starts off with the dull, “We go on Sundays to make her tea”, when it could have begun with what immediately follows, “I’ve known her years, but every week...”, a far more interesting lead-in! A few poems are well written but don’t get under the skin in the manner of ‘Moloch’ and others (but at least there are others, which isn’t always the case with poetry collections). These blips are more than made up for by a highly imaginative three-part poem on ‘UFOlogists’, a list of place names which, for whatever reason, I liked a lot (‘Fell’), and an unexpectedly fine sestina, ‘Dream Lover’:

He’d know how to hot-wire a Ferrari in the dark,
eyes closed. He’d smell like kerosene and a quiet road at night,
and touch my face as if I’d made him blind.

Well, OK, I’m not certain that the eyes need to be closed in the dark, but I love the way he can smell both like kerosene and like a quiet road at night, and the third line is a great image, combining tenderness and wild passion in one vivid, economic sweep.

(The Mermaid & the Sailors is available from Red Squirrel Press for £4)

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