Louise McStravick’s collection explodes into the reader’s consciousness, seducing with vibrant, colourful imagery while also shining a light on life on society’s fringes. The opening poem ‘Just another road in Erdington’ sets the tone, filled with vernacular phrases and talk of prisons, arson and drug addiction that was the backdrop to childhood.
From the outset, it’s clear that the poet is trying to navigate a way through her own cultural identity – while the opening poem swirls with the grit of a terraced English street, many of the poems in the collection burst with the colour of the Caribbean. There’s a dark undercurrent here as McStravick seeks to question the inequalities of modern society “When I stay over, I am strangled by darkness”.
The immediacy of the contrast between the opening poem and ‘Tanned feet’ shows the two extremes of her heritage, but as the collection continues, these two strands become more and more closely linked as the poet picks through her tangled identities.
This untangling is done in some interesting ways, using fresh motifs. There’s a strong link between food and cultural traditions explored the early poem ‘Earl Grey Tea’ closes with
“I no more builder’s brown brewed
I breathe regal breath with bergamot-scented hues.”
This use of food as cultural signifier is obviously clear in the title poem, a poem which also plays with language, mixing patois, vernacular and more literary phrasing to form a heady mix as spicy and enticing as the curry in the poem. Food is used to suggest a class and cultural divide between narrator and partner in a number of later poems such as the superb ‘The Last Buffet’ and ‘Pasta, pesto, rocket and tomato’. This use of food images keeps the poems grounded and adds a lighter-hearted touch when exploring the idea of immigration and the struggles to adapt to new worlds without leaving the old ones behind as beautifully summarised in the line “We sunbathe in ship’s shadows”.
There is anger here too which comes to the forefront in those poems that question gender imbalance and societal norms such as ‘Cleansing ritual’ and those that draw on the writer’s experience as a teacher dealing with trauma in the face of bureaucracy “Every Child Matters.’ I returned to many of these poems again and found more layers in this richly woven collection.