2020 Forward First Collections reviewed: #1 Ella Frears’ ‘Shine, Darling’

As in the previous five years, I am posting – over the summer – my reviews of the 5 collections chosen for the Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. This year’s £5000 prize will be decided on Sunday 25th October 2020. Click here to see my reviews of all the 2019 shortlisted books (eventual winner Stephen Sexton); here for my reviews of the 2018 shortlisted books (eventual winner Phoebe Power), here for my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

 The full 2020 shortlist is:

Ella Frears – Shine, Darling (Offord Road Books)

Will Harris – RENDANG (Granta Books)

Rachel Long – My Darling from the Lions (Picador)

Nina Mingya Powles – Magnolia 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press)

Martha Sprackland – Citadel (Pavilion Poetry)

 

41QV8J+9foLElla Frears’ Shine, Darling is brimming with youthful exuberance and despair, yet not a jot lacking in thoughtful sophistication. Her subjects are boredom, sex, a woman’s body and the harassment that rushes to fill the void left by uncertain selfhood. A key poem is ‘The (Little) Death of the Author’, about a 13-year-old girl texting/sexting boys in her class, though the title is, of course, one Roland Barthes would have enjoyed. The narrator – looking back to her teen self – remembers pretending to be texting in the bath. The “triumph” is to make the boys think of herself naked (when she’s really eating dinner or doing homework). Hence “Text / and context are different things”. Her texts are careful constructions, evocative, alluring, full of tempting ellipses. On both sides, there is a filmic fictionalising going on (in the absence of any real sexual experience). The poem (which is a cleverly achieved irregularly lined sestina) ends with the authorial voice breaking cover: the poem itself is “a text I continue to send: Reader, I’m in the bath . . . / Nothing more to say than that. And if you like / you can join me”. The flirtation is a bit overdone (but other poems show Frears is wholly conscious of that) and the poem indicates one of this book’s chief concerns is with the difference between the truth of what happens and the truth of a poem.

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Rubens’ St Sebastian

But Frears’ balance between biographical revelation and fiction-making artistry is a subtle one. The book’s frankness is to be praised. Apart from on-line flirtation, poems allude to masturbation, oral sex, teen sex/petting, periods, prostitution, a pregnancy scare, urination (thank you Andrew McMillan!), a couple of disembodied penises, but also domestic violence and suicide. Many of the poems seem to reflect Frears’ own upbringing in Cornwall. ‘The Overwhelming Urge’ evokes a restless teenage boredom suffered in St Ives. The lines jitter across the page, starting and restarting little narrative moments, opening with images of (either) bullying or self-harm. The narrative voice mocks herself as “Saint Sebastian” as well as her attempts at the role of seductress, of a Marilyn Monroe. The reality is more sordid: a man exposing himself. Her remoteness from the moment is neatly caught in the choice of language, the mocking art-speak: “She [. . . ] files it under: / penis, moonlit”. But erotic experimentation remains an available distraction as ‘Fucking in Cornwall’ makes knowingly, hilariously clear: “The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow / over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top”. There’s an uncharacteristic confidence to this narrator who knows what she wants, but there are many more female narrators in this collection who are troubled and confused about what they want, indeed who they are.

300px-Shell_Hayle_2020The obvious risk of such sexual adventuring is the subject of ‘Hayle Services (grease impregnated)’. The parenthetical allusion here is to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Filling Station’ where everything is “oil-soaked, oil-permeated [. . .] grease / impregnated”, a poem which concludes, against the odds of its grimy context, that “Somebody loves us all”. In contrast, Frears’ crappy, retail-dominated English motorway service station is (ironically) the stage for a pregnancy scare, a desperate search for a test kit in Boots and an anxious, “[p]issy” fumbling in the M&S toilet cubicle, then waiting for the “pink voila”. The headlong, impossible-to-focus, sordid anxiety here is brilliantly captured in the short, run-on lines. Frears also catches the young woman’s multiplicity of streams of consciousness, the scattershot: the potential father is present but soon forgotten, his reassurances dismissed, the pushy sales staff avoided in anger and embarrassment, the difficulty of urinating, the cringingly inappropriate joke-against-self in “et tu uterus”, the conventional moral judgement (“soiled / ruined spoiled”) and the final phone call to “Mamma, can you come pick me up?”

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Elizabeth Bishop

Frears shows her female narrators bringing about many of their own difficulties, but the pressures of their social, sexual, cultural contexts are sketched in too. This is especially so in the 16-page long poem, ‘Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity’, in which Frears represents, diagnoses, resents and warns in equal measure. The material here might have made a novel, but it is assembled from fragmentary texts (verse and prose), not particularly chronologically arranged, the latter decision bringing out more clearly the recurrent traits – both the weaknesses and the harassment – of the central female figure. At the age of 10, she experienced a near-abduction by a predatory man in a hotel. She seems to have run off just in time but then failed to identify the man later (this isn’t wholly clear) and the man went on to abduct another girl (again not wholly clear). So the near-abduction of the girl is a moment of danger (heavily gendered), of guilt at her passivity and fear, but also a moment when she sensed “something new in me”, an adult self, perhaps as a sexual being.

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Ella Frears

The concern for male aggression also surfaces in later relationships with two pushy boys and (later still) with a manipulative man she meets in a pub. All three male figures impose on her (on her uncertainty and lack of confidence) their own interpretative narratives. They persuade her to believe things she suspects are not true and thence they also impose on her sexually. The man in the pub is especially, pathetically dangerous: “He apologises, tells me he has just separated / from his wife. She moved out today”. Frears also adds into the mix two relationships with young women. Lucy is one of six in a shared house with the narrator. But Lucy makes up stories about a gay relationship between them and later attempts suicide. Even so, the narrator finds it hard to hold on to the truth: “When I think back on Lucy, / I see myself doing the things she said I did”. A similar pattern emerges in her (not much developed) relationship with Millie who does suddenly kill herself. The narrator is then cast, almost cajoled, into the role of best friend by Millie’s father and twin sister and, again, she seems to shrug and accept another person’s truth: “Who am I to say no to this?”. This uncertainty about herself (“Who am I”) is once more compounded with a guilty passivity (she does not defend Millie against their driving instructor’s criticisms).

The poem ends with the narrator adopting the role given her by Millie’s sister – it’s shocking but Frears would surely argue not so uncommon and more so for women in our society. This overriding and underlying mystery about “[w]ho am I” perhaps accounts for the book’s frequent engagement with the image of the moon. Juliet warns Romeo, “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb”. ‘Moon Myth’ seems to want to reject the sun = male (strong, constant) and moon = female (changeable, uncertain) tropes. “[W]e have been assigned the moon” it complains and we know the patriarchy has done the assigning. Yet – in a good example of another Frears’ trait, switching the language register – we hear “58% of women say ‘take what you’re given, lest they assign us an even smaller celestial body”.

imagesAnd yet, poems in Shine, Darling do regularly turn to the moon for possible explanations of actions (‘Phases of the Moon / Things I Have Done’), for a witness if not for protection (‘Walking Home One Night’) and for directions (‘I Knew Which Direction’). The latter poem is a beautiful lyric opener to the book but is rather misleading. The repetition of the word “moonlight” seems to give an almost visionary access: “no longer a word but a colour and then a feeling / and then the thing itself”. It is curious that a poet asserts the transparency of language in this way (Frears is not much concerned with the nature, limits and impositions of language, unlike Nina Mingya Powles’ shortlisted Magnolia 木蘭), but also the idea of such an untrammelled access to “the thing itself” is countered by every poem that follows. Frears’ world view may not be too much troubled by words but the very idea of a unitary truth to be beheld with clarity is profoundly doubted.

The moon’s final appearance and the collection’s title appears in the concluding poem. Men have been feared, ignored, desired, condemned and occasionally manipulated in some of these poems. Here a mischievous female narrator decides to maroon her boyfriend on the roof of their house while a dinner party goes on below. It’s at once a funny, tender, awkward image of emasculation and this ambiguity of tone is captured in the book title’s appearance – a little sarcastic, a little affectionate, rather camp and performative:

 

As the guests left I looked up and realised that there

was no moon. Shine, darling. I whispered.

 

And from behind the chimney rose his little head.

 

Such a finely judged ambiguity of impact is all of a part with this intriguing, shape-shifting, uneasy and often very funny first collection.

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Shine, Darling

Reading Archive: April – June 2016

Up-dated June 2016

This is turning out to be the place where I often admit my lacks and ignorance. Elizabeth Bishop – apart from 3 or 4 of the obvious poems – has always been something of a blank spot with me. I have been re-reading her Complete Poems and understanding maybe my problem lies in getting to like her earlier work before A Cold Spring (1955). What I do begin to appreciate more clearly is her modesty, accuracy of observation and own-furrow-ploughing determination as a poet.

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Anne Stevenson’s Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop has been helpful with thoughts such as “Bishop’s instinct was to look hard enough at nature to lose herself in it – and thus, as in the Biblical paradox, find herself”.

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As has Seamus Heaney’s ‘Counting to a Hundred: on Elizabeth Bishop’ (from The Redress of Poetry). He argues, at her best, she reveals how “obsessive attention to detail can come through into visionary understanding  [. . .] intense focus can amplify rather than narrow our sense of scope” (something I have written about in recent thoughts on McGilchrist’s ideas about right/left brain work).

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I’ve also been reading two collections by friends . . .

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Lynne Hjelmgaard’s A Boat Called Annalise (Seren) is a sequence of love poems to a husband and a sailing boat and vies with Bishop in some of its evocations of tropical harbours: “We fell asleep with the roosters, / the waves, rumblings in the bay”. For a land-lubber like me, there are powerful portraits of life at sea such as ‘That Feeling of Boat’: “We confide and trust in twenty tons, / talk to it, nurture it”. ‘White Clover’ is a delicately symbolic poem dedicated to the late, much-missed Dannie Abse.

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Danielle Hope’s Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham), which I mentioned in an earlier blog, again shows how effective the Mrs Uomo character is (a near relation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito) as a vehicle for social commentary which is quirky, engagingly funny and incisive, particularly about the NHS for which Hope works as a doctor.

Up-dated May 2016

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Last month it was heavy-Hughes (as you’ll see from my April up-date below) so half following that lead and half influenced by the 400th anniversary celebrations across the media, I have been swimming my way through Hughes’ A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse. First published in 1971 and up-dated in 1991, Hughes is right in suggesting it’s been hard to “place” the bard amongst the “poets in English”. It’s not just because he wrote mostly drama (if mostly in verse) but also that critics retreat before his work feebly flapping and gesturing towards a special case. So Hughes’ “looting [of] portable chunks” from the plays serves largely to confirm two things: his plays consist often of the most astounding poetry and that – yes – special case status is hard to withhold.  But Hughes is onto something suggesting that Shakespare’s Catholicism in a world of Puritan jihad (Hughes’ word) has much to do with it. An astonishing read – whatever the rights and wrongs of the case.

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Gill McEvoy’s HappenStance chapbook, The First Telling, is terrific. Told with exquisite poise, it recounts the after-shocks of a rape, the adjustments, the progressive self-forgiveness, the therapy sessions. You need to know the sequence is punctuated by poems about birds – this is not a plain sort of confessionalism, but rather work of great artistry, to be recommended for its use of the blank spaces on the page as much as for its exploration of traumatic experiences.

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McEvoy’s book was noticed (winning the 2014 Michael Marks award); Simon Richey published Naming the Tree (Oversteps Books) in the same year and I’d not heard of it till I heard him read at Poetry in Palmers Green. Richey writes about abstract matters – language, time, consciousness – and material events with a wonderful precision and approaching a philosophical elegance. Something of the impersonality of TS Eliot is matched with personal attentiveness to detail – highly recommended.

Up-dated April 2016

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It’s been a heavy-weight Ted Hughes month since I’ve been reading Jonathan Bates’ biography over several weeks and then supplementing it with the poems themselves. The Bate is far more comprehensive than Elaine Feinstein’s earlier biography and if nothing else shows how much material Hughes left behind (100,000 pages of unpublished drafts) so the academic exploration of it will clearly take many years. On the poetry itself Bate gets a bit irritating in relating  just everything back to Plath –  even the late work apparently shows unmistakable evidence of his continuing obsession with her!

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Crow remains extraordinary though it makes more sense to see it as Bate suggests as the unfinished epic that Hughes had hoped to complete. There was to be a phase of restoration but Hughes never managed that – perhaps because this was too close to the two suicides of Plath and Assia Weevil.

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I’d missed Remains of Elmet when it was originally published. With Bate’s help and Hughes’ own Note from 1993, it’s clear now that this is a very coherent and powerful portrait of the region of his childhood.

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I loved Gaudete when it first appeared in 1977 as I was in the first flush of my Hughes period! Most commentators (including Hughes it seems) now consider the ‘filmic’ loosely-constructed narrative poems as not quite the real thing. It’s the strange, tough little songs of Nicholas Lumb that conclude the book that pay more dividends.

Review: Kate Bingham’s ‘Infragreen’ (2015)

There is a side to Kate Bingham’s poetry that might be (and has been) described as steady, calmly observed, dispassionate, elegant and formally accomplished. But I also see another writer – one largely unacknowledged in Seren’s blurb to Infragreen and the many critical comments arrayed in her praise – for whom the world is endlessly atilt, above lethal undertows, aching distances, the formal wizardry in large part a white-knuckled hanging on in fear of letting go. I don’t mean the latter in any silly psycho-babble way but in relation to that moment when the black gulfs open up under all we thought we knew.

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The more conventional part of this new book is the second section which seems to be visiting a landscape, a house and wooded countryside where the poet perhaps spent time in her youth. We are given reflections on early love, motherhood, the daughter becoming a mother herself, the English countryside, cattle, blackberrying. Most of these poems are obviously viewed through the perspective-glass of time past and time present and this somewhat disrupts Bingham’s more characteristic way of seeing things which is from within and without. One really marvelous poem here assumes the stance of the innocent younger girl encountering an apparently friendly farmer who keeps a bunch of string in his pocket to entertain the child while also using it to keep “his trousers up” (‘String’). It’s the humming, obsessive, ground-base of end-rhyming (string, string, twine, string, mine, strings, string, hem, string, hen, string, him) that evokes the worrying undertow of adult threat without anything explicit being said at all: “He didn’t need the string. / I tugged his arm and trotted after him”.

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It’s the clash of viewpoints or perspectives – using that unsuspecting, unreliable narrative voice – that makes this gem of a poem so disturbing to read. And it is the manipulation of viewpoints that yields such rich dividends elsewhere in Infragreen. On a domestic level this is played out in ‘Next Door’ where the tone is one of some surprise that the neighbours “experience life to the full”, the latter word forming on this occasion the repeating ground-base rhyme that imports irony into the seeming admiration for the “bang and slam” of their lives. But the collection is carefully opened with two brief, curiously abstract treatments of perspective. ‘Ultragreen’ takes the ‘above and beyond’ implication of the prefix to have the narrator observe a water drop “at the end of the garden”. Through a disturbing synaesthetic travelling, the drop instantaneously appears “in my brain”, indeed takes up the narrator’s perspective precisely as it “looks out / and sees what I have seen”. What was without is now within and something “like photosynthesis begins”. As a way of announcing this poet’s basic strategies and as a metaphor for (artistic) generative fecundity this is brilliant.

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This is followed by the six cryptic lines of ‘Infragreen’ itself. I take Ultra to suggest ‘out there’ so Infra is more ‘within’ and here suggests a more harmonious coincidence of perception in which “the sun and I see eye to eye”. However, this frail connection seems always in danger of being broken, “half letting go of itself / half hanging on” and though Bingham does write occasionally of the fertile experience of such connectedness (see below) she more often writes in the throes of its breakdown, of distance and the accompanying sense of loss of control. So the archetypal ‘feel-good’ season of ‘Spring’ seems to be remotely occurring rather than directly experienced, the sun (again) “rising above its various nationalities / and making things grow”. The romantic gift of flowers is undercut in a meditation on tulip harvesting in Holland and the deliberate wrenching cliché of “the international language of flowers”. Even the self, viewed from deep within, has to be recognized through experience and even then not reliably: “it is her face my face projects / and for a moment I look strange” (‘Look’).

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Seamus Heaney has a number of car poems in which the vehicle seems to be working benignly as a mode of travelling into wider experience (my favourite is ‘Postscript’ from The Spirit Level (1996): “As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open”). For Bingham, in contrast, the narrator’s car is a place “I have to return to”, a place of (admittedly rather dull) security, “somewhere to look from” (‘Silt’). So much so that there are occasions, even when “London at night is a blaze of company”, when sitting alone in a stationery car, “seat belt on / and the engine running”, seems the best thing to do, or even the most that can be done. This is from ‘Between’, another of Bingham’s best poems in this collection, opening in the familiar only to end in another dizzying, atomised gulf.

The familiar surroundings, the container of the car, perhaps works in the way that Bingham’s use of rhyme can be seen to work, as providing a firm base from which the poem gazes outwards into the truly disturbing (Tony Harrison has said something similar about his use of metre and rhyme; it also makes me think of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Art of Losing’). So the lulling rhymes of ‘On Highgate Hill’ make the stabbing on a London bus more shocking than a more informal, realist treatment. The hypnotic, mono-rhymes of ‘At Night’ (night, white, light, sight, tight, right, bright and so on) evoke a drowsy, sleepiness of thought that ventures closer and closer to the edge. On this occasion, the vision is a brighter one of something (like Edward Thomas, Bingham enjoys the nonspecific of such a word), something “mine and right / and unconditional”.

The unconditional is an escape from the binaries of perspective. It is a fleeting moment – impossible really to be written about because impossible to be disciplined into language – when self and other, those distinctions we lean on and then find ourselves manacled to, vanish. Bingham approaches such moments cautiously, “my hairs on end, my senses trespassing”, occasionally there are successes: [I] look back from where I am at where I stood / and see the wood for the trees, the trees for the wood” (‘The Wood’). On other occasions the plenitude is more overwhelming like the fisherman faced with an overflowing fish farm: “tongue-torn, foul-hooked, half tame / when there was nothing more to take more came” (‘Cull’).

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But there are also a few untitled experimental pieces scattered through Infragreen that seem to be approaching this state of the unconditional in a lower-case, unpunctuated tentativeness. On page 24, a couple wake into a sleepy uncertainty in which bird song and growing buds seem one, as do thoughts and birds on a branch, the human and the natural, “one listening one listening to itself”. The final poem too, page 63, starts by undermining language (“call it what you like”) and proceeds to a car crossing Exmoor, an unaccountable stopping, the driver leaping out into a gale force wind, a slammed door offering a brief framing device, the observing voice trying to “make what I can” of it all, though within and without are bewilderingly blurred, “the other side of the force in the fence // of the foreground”.

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Kate Bingham’s skill in tacking the vessel of form against the breeze of colloquial language is certainly to be marveled at. There is great pleasure to be had from the rightness of her positioning of words on the page. But I also admire her willingness to gaze past what Seren’s blurb refers to as “necessarily” her subjects, “the familiar, the seen again, and the returned to”, to glimpse something far more terrifying and in this she reminds me less of Edward Thomas, less of Elizabeth Bishop, more of Robert Frost.