Penguin Modern Poets Three: A Review

This series aims to introduce readers to new, contemporary poets. I bought this collection as I’m of the belief that one cannot have enough Sharon Olds poetry in their possession and I’d never read any substantial amounts Booker or Shire although I have been a big fan of everything I’ve read or encountered. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed.

The overarching theme in Booker’s poetry is the strength of women. Booker explores female relationships in a way that is at times painful and disturbing but always full of power.  The poem ‘Erasure’ was one of the most difficult to read as she exposes her pain with a rawness that forced me to stop reading and put the book down for a while to digest the suffering in stanzas such as 

“I did what we women have always done.

Froze the tears into a block of ice

Buried so deep that the guilt is a cold in me.”

Pregnancy and motherhood are put under the microscope in this collection as Booker examines the effect of unwanted pregnancy – whether carried to term or aborted.

The opening poem ‘Red Ants Bite’ meshes the patois of her culture with language that is brutal in its simplicity “her mouth was brutal, like hard-wire brush, it scraped me.” 

She explores the role of misogyny in poems such as ‘Warning’ and ‘After Liming in the Local Rum Shop on Diamond Street’ with a directness that is also uncomfortable to read as the women blame one another for the abuse they suffer.

The collection moves between her mother, her grandmother and herself, exploring the difficult relationships between them as she comes to an understanding that it is mistreatment by men that have contributed to their hardness:
“My father made my mother stony,

A martyr for her kids, brittle and bitter.”

As the collection matures, Booker’s depiction of her mother becomes more tender as she comes to the end of her life. Motherhood has changed their relationship and the final line in the collection is a beautiful ending

“What can I do? Let go, she said. Let go.” 

 

The second poet Sharon Olds has divided her poems into sections. The first explores her relationship with her parents. Unlike in Booker’s collection, Olds’ father features heavily as do other men as she examines the journey of sexual discovery – as a teenager and a new mother in poetry that is wry and humorous in parts. The men are treated with humour, as a backdrop to a female world ‘The Pope’s Penis’. The second section is more concerned with motherhood, with beautiful observations such as in ‘Physics’:

“I have not grown 

up yet, I have lived as my daughter’s mother

The way I had lived as my mother’s daughter,

Inside her life. I have not been born yet.”

This sense of legacy permeates the collection, but there are also tender poems about the intimacy of marriage, such as in ‘Psalm’. The last poem in this section ‘His Crew’ about the self-sacrifice of a pilot for his crew is very powerful, woven as it is with surprising images:

“Parachutes unfolding and glistening, little

Sacs of afterbirth.”

The third section is more brutal and painful, its main concern the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her mother. The poems are less lyrical, more broken in form, more raw but no less affecting. The final section is short and feels conclusive. Olds has come to terms with the events in her life and this pair of poems feels very definite. Like Booker, the last line also explores the notion of the mother daughter relationship, ending in a very similar way:

“You held me

Close, for 18 years, and then

You let me go.”

 

The last poet in this collection is Warshan Shire. Like the others in this book, her poetry centres around the female experience, but is more aggressive in tone and much more political, including a prose sequence entitled ‘Conversations About Home (At the Deportation Centre)’ which are filled with incredibly powerful imagery “Well, I think home spat me out, the blackouts and curfews like against loose tooth.” later sequence “I hear them say, go home, I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant?

Again, this collection looks at the experiences of a range of women across the generations, exploring traditions like Female Genital Mutilation with imagery so delicate it makes the subject matter even more disturbing in poems such as ‘Mermaids’

“After the procedure, the girl learns 

how to walk again, mermaid with new legs,

soft knees buckling under new sinless body.”

Poems such as ‘Your Mother’s First Kiss’ show that this violence against women has crossed generations “The first boy to kiss your mother later raped women/when the war broke out.” and the short poem ‘In Love and in War’ is more powerful for its brevity:

“To my daughter I will say

When the men come,

Set yourself on fire.”

There is a sense of wisdom and teachings being passed through the generations here, as in the poem ‘The House’: “Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women…

And sometimes, the men – they come with hammers.” 

A lot of the poems explore sex and how it has been used to find connections, such as in ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ where she talks about an uncle who spends years with “women who cannot pronounce your name.” 

However, there are much lighter notes – she talks of her grandparents with tenderness and there is a lot of playfulness in ‘Backwards.’ The final poem in the collection, much like those of the other two poets, deals with the sense of letting go: “going to float.”

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