Pat Edwards, Only Blood (Yaffle Press, 2019, £7.50)
Kittie Belltree, Sliced Tongue and Pearl Cufflinks (Parthian, 2019, £9.00)
The central problem at the core of all pamphlets is space. There’s so little time to build up to anything of substance that many err on the side of caution, opting to tackle a tiny concept in great depth. In Pat Edwards’s Only Blood, however, the subject is the greatest and longest: life, complete and whole. This is a bold decision, one that easily could have floundered. But instead of feeling lacking, the experience of reading the pamphlet is akin to watching a train go by from the platform: you can see individual snippets in each window, each frame showing a complete, succinct image, and then in a flash it’s gone; but the next carriage is still part of the same train, the whole thing connecting seamlessly. Life is short, but deep, made up of tiny moments that define us.
One of the main reasons it succeeds is because Pat Edwards establishes the facts of each poem ahead of time in preceding poems, weaving a careful narrative thread throughout. For example, without the context of the collection the poem ‘Gems’ could simply be about a girl snooping through her mother’s jewels. The emotional underpinning – the fact that her mother is dead, making the ‘want to find my mother’s jewellery’, ‘her wedding band/brooches that once fastened scarves,/all the souvenirs and sentiment’ so powerful – is unstated within the confines of that poem. Yet we don’t have to linger and puzzle over the potential literal meaning, because the preceding poem was ‘The year Mum died’. This also prepares us for a stepmother in ‘Not quite my mother’; the ‘urgent tension/tight as a fist’ around her father in ‘Gee-gees’ sets the scene of potential violence well before ‘My step-mum is screaming/down at us kids/that he’s threatening her’ in ‘Boiling’. The narrative builds, allowing Edwards the space to create poetry that flows remarkably naturally: we are never lost, because there is always precedent; and we are never bored, because the focus moves away from explanations and towards the poetry itself.
Edwards has a clear knack for creating poetry that reads fluidly, with a close attention to rhythm, that almost implies rhyme in how well structured it is. ‘Wired’, for example, has such a pulsing rhythm at its centre that it must sound great in performance. An example stanza reads:
There’s no sleep, not a daydream,
she’s forgotten the unconscious.
There’s no pause, no redemption.
She is climbing without ice axe.
Reading, and then re-reading this, it felt like I must’ve seen a rhyme in there – and yet there isn’t. But that rhythm creates a sense of continuity, without the sometimes overthe- top gumminess that rhyme can lend a piece. It feels intelligent and careful, painting a distinct voice that stands apart from some of the more archaic rules that new poets often feel they need to stick to just to prove how poetic they are.
‘Gems’ opens the collection on a succinct summary of the entire collection – reading it feels as though we too are sorting through jewels, picking up each and examining it closely and individually, before placing it back in the context of a whole. But it is the penultimate ‘Inspecting the dead’ that truly pulls the themes together. Formed of tercets, this poem mirrors ‘Gems’ as we ‘inspect the line-up’ of the dead, picking up the faces we’ve encountered across the collection. This is the end of life, and yet there’s still so much character: ‘it is interesting the different/version of themselves/they choose to bring’; ‘thankfully, they do not bring/their sick or damaged selves,/preferring to remember happier times’. This is apt for the collection, where life is not shown through the momentous occasions, the highest highs and lowest lows, but the everyday ones surrounding them. Although much of the text deals with death, it notably never touches it head-on. We are always right before death, or in the mourning after it; always in the process of rebuilding. Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans, and in Only Blood, the same can be said of death. This lends the whole collection a lightness that makes its notably heavy content not just accessible and enjoyable, but striking, hanging around far after you’ve finished your first reading.
There are few words to better summarise Kittie Belltree’s debut collection, Sliced Tongue and Pearl Cufflinks, than the ones she opens on:
I’m trying to write a poem.
It’s about my mother
When I finish it, it will be so deep, so dark and dislocating
spilling all the years so suffused in beauty and truth
that she would put down her
gardening gloves, or paring knife, or knitting needles
and her heart would break. Instantly
These appear in ‘A short poem about my mother, who could hear a pin drop on a motorway,’ which is neither a short poem – running across three pages – nor really about her mother. Instead, the poem deals directly with a kind of writer’s block, as ‘only when I write this poem/will I be able to write/all the other poems I have stagnating inside’, and indirectly about grief, sadness, and a simmering anger that will carry through for the rest of the collection.
The first section of the collection is titled ‘Unspoken’, but in many ways this could have been another title for the book. Belltree manages to deal with intense themes of trauma without sinking to melodrama, through careful framing: there’s a distinct feeling that everything is just about contained, though bubbling beneath the surface. There’s a coldness to the images she presents, and a calculated detachment that forces rereading to pinpoint what exactly has set us on edge, what is the source of discomfort and concern. In more narrativeheavy poems, such as ‘The Magician’s Daughter’, we are made uneasy by violent language long before any actual violence occurs. A man takes his silk scarf and ‘snakes/it around wrists, splits in two, twists it taut’; a girl is fed on ‘a diet of sliced tongue and pearl cufflinks’; a chest is ‘dead flat’; all this before a man ‘inserts/the knife into her velvet and feathers’, or ‘feels the thickness of the blade like honey inside her’. There’s clever trickery at play here: everything is about violence, except violence itself, which is presented to be about trauma.
By the third section, titled ‘Bond’, there’s a retreat inward. Instead of discussing parents (‘My Father’s City’) and grandparents (‘My Milk Chocolate Grandmother’), building up an image of a person through the people they know, there’s a withdrawn focus on the individual. It questions at what point identity, and by extension trauma, stop being something moulded by the people we know and the family we are born with and start becoming something we individually shape. In ‘A river runs through me’, a shape poem shows two banks of a river, while the narrative of the poem presents us with the problem: ‘I on one side/of this great/divide, on the/other, a strange/woman lives/in a house identical/to mine’. But the end of the poem, in which the lyric I burns her life down and swims to the other side to find that the other woman has done the same, should come as no surprise: as the structure of the poem already told us, both banks are the same story, the poem is one person. Identity is presented as complex, shifting and stagnant in equal measures, and the controlled free-verse of much of the collection pushes this further.
However, standout poems of this collection come when Belltree flips her formula. Until the final section, titled ‘The Whole Thing Looks like it Could Collapse at Any Moment’, she has largely been allowing us to bask in this aforementioned unspoken, unseen anger, the kind that lies underneath ordinary words and images. But in a couple of poems, she steps out of the personal and into the wider world, where a cold violence exists in the forefront, presented as jarring and loud and at times deliberately upsetting. ‘On the morning of September 11, 2001’ was such a tense read I had to remind myself to breathe upon finishing. It’s a masterful sestina, in that you would be easily forgiven for not noticing it was a sestina on first or even second reading. That rigid form is there, but instead of being bridled by it, the content has supremely benefitted: there are few things more unsettling than irrational anger presented in coolly rational structures.
Across the entire collection, Kittie Belltree presents not just multiple images of self and the formation of identity, but undertones it with different styles of trauma, silence, and the unspoken. It’s a remarkably intelligent collection in its structure and style. One moment it can feel overwhelmingly sad, the next you’re being pulled back in by the absurdity of it all, the gallows humour. By playing these contrasts off one another, Belltree has left us a complex image of personhood: who made us who we are – our parents, ourselves, or the wider world – and just how feasible is it to push back against these?