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?”

Elizabeth-Bishop
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

#WADOD – Day 16: March 16th 2019

Works and Days of Division – 29 poems by Martyn Crucefix

Drawing on two disparate sources, this sequence of mongrel-bred poems has been written to respond to the historical moment in this most disunited kingdom. Hesiod’s Works and Days – probably the oldest poem in the Western canon – is a poem driven by a dispute between brothers. The so-called vacana poems originate in the bhakti religious protest movements in 10-12th century India. Through plain language, repetition and refrain, they offer praise to the god, Siva, though they also express personal anger, puzzlement, even despair. Dear reader – if you like what you find here, please share the poems as widely as you can (no copyright restrictions). Or follow this blog for future postings. Bridges need building.

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Saturday 16.03.2019

‘between a drowning man’

 

between a drowning man and my child’s skinny dipping

between lip and kiss

between brother

and estranged younger brother

between a mother and one of her six children

between the kissing gate

and the coffin route between cup and lip

between the first slurp and sip

between the fibreglass fishing rod and the spinning lure

between old Capague and Montulet

between the will

and the contraction of the atrophied muscles

between town and country

between wealth and what is a simple lack of money

between the biscuit tin

to put their money in

and fake news a hedge fund or tabloid confessions of sin

the letter unsent the deleted email

the skilfully incised lapidary inscription

tragically lost

with its improbable cost

with its ‘always and forever’ critical burden

words scrawled on a scrap of paper by someone

by the old gods of rumour

all the bridges are falling down

 

Read next poem

Read previous poem

Workshopping With Will Shakespeare

Last weekend – what with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death just gone by and seeing an advertisement on Facebook I think it was – I signed up to be a participant in a Shakespeare and writing poetry workshop. Being an English teacher, love of Shakespeare rather comes with the territory but I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who enjoys being a participant in classes. So much of my time is spent initiating, organising, timing carefully and concluding that it’s a wonderful holiday-feeling to be initiated, organised, timed carefully and concluded by somebody else. (In what follows I am able to quote the work of nobody else but myself – for which apologies).

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The workshop was part of a series organised through the South Bank Poetry magazine, co-edited by Peter Ebsworth (its founder) and Katherine Lockton. They were both present for the workshop – upstairs, above the Poetry Society’s Cafe in Betterton Street, Covent Garden – but it was Katherine who ran the session. We gathered about 10.45 for 11am, most of us arriving clutching the mandatory take-out coffee from the cafe or elsewhere on our walks from the Tube. A big table, a plate of biscuits, greetings, sign in (whose name do I know here?). Upstairs at the PS is a strange mix of store room, kitchen, second hand bookshop, classroom. I thought it could do with a tidy-up myself – then tried to curb my flicker of nerves, that need for control. Actually, I’ve not taken part in a public workshop like this for ages. We were probably all feeling the same: what if I write total crap and Katherine asks me to read it out. Maybe a biscuit . . .

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We started with free writing for 5 minutes or so – “to loosen up”. Katherine wanted us to set off from “My Shakespeare is . . .” What sprang vividly to mind was an occasion teaching not Shakespeare, in fact, but Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. A student read the “face that launched a thousand ships” speech so very badly that it achieved a weird sort of beauty in her inarticulacy. A bit like those ruins of classical statues (not far from where we were, in the British Museum) that seem to have acquired an added poignancy in not remaining whole. I rather like free writing (it’s how most of my own poems begin, a sudden splurge of material that then gets worked on) and as I wrote I ended up (from that halting reading of Marlowe) to love in a life or its opportunity missed:

 

Those encounters where you don’t have the words

Just stops pauses some musical sense

Of the word order but no –not the words themselves

And she turns away dips her head

Laughs at something somebody across the room has just said

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Katherine then dished out the text of Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” On the Tube in I had been wondering how I’d tackle Shakespeare in such a setting and I thought I’d not go for the more familiar moments. Katherine did and I have to say she was probably right. I’d have ended up explaining too much perhaps (too teacherly) when the point was to respond creatively to the poems. So most of us were familiar enough with this poem in which the narrator does compare his love to a summer’s day and the summer’s day turns out to be liable to be windy, over too soon, too hot, over too soon . . . The lover apparently suffers from none of these things not even death itself – because the poet has preserved her in “this” poem: “So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”. We wondered, among others things, at the manly arrogance of this.

We picked a phrase or even just a word to respond to from the poem and set off for 30 minutes or so. On this first occasion, many of us seemed to get sucked into the vortex of the sonnet form and rhyme especially. But the quality of the group that day was extraordinary. Several produced sonnets which worked well (in 30 minutes!) and all the pieces eventually read out were interesting responses. I chose the phrase “By chance, or nature” and was exploring (again) the chance or fate of meetings with the one’s you love. I was imagining the alternative worlds we jettison or turn our back on with every choice we make:

 

So that in one of those plural worlds

We might have met before, or later, even not

At all – through pram and playground, into school

To college, old flames, chance turn, random plot.

 

You can see what I mean about getting locked into a formal mode. It may be that most of us realised this as when Katherine then tried us with Sonnet 130, more of the group struck out – away from formality, probably into something more like our natural mode. This was also probably encouraged by the fact that Katherine was showing us contemporary responses to these poems as we went. Several of these were quite encouraging in that they were pretty poor as poems – there are a number of anthologies where contemporary poets respond to Shakespeare (especially this year) but so many of the poets try too hard to up-date originals into some hip idiom; embarrassing like Dad-dancing). I guess that at least gave us permission to try something more adventurous of our own.

daodejing

I found myself interested in the way the Sonnet 130 tries to define the lover through a kind of via negativa, what she is not. It’s a kind of anti-poetic in that the poet dismisses the ability of comparison (one of the poet’s main tools) to capture her in truth. This was reminding me of repeated occasions in the Daodejing poems I have been working on for 3/4 years (just published now – so fully on my mind last weekend) in which the text also argues the elusiveness of the One. The latter is often given female characteristics so it was an easy step to my scribble:

 

She lives in the live darkness between

The opening and shutting of my eye-lids

 

Between ascender and descender

Of this pen this white expanse

 

This Microsoft space not knowing what to do

With itself not being busy

 

In the moment when instructions cease

And what opens is that snow-field

 

Beneath the first or second chair-lift not yet

Inscribed [. . . ]

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The third piece Katherine gave us were extracts from Romeo and Juliet (the balcony scene, the “what’s in a name” speech” and Juliet’s “O serpent heart”). We discussed these and annotated them to pick out certain patterns and concerns. We then compiled a small list of words of our own and set off with the aim of writing in the voice of a character from Shakespeare. I’ve always had a soft spot for Horatio and especially Hamlet’s gentle, though firm, put-down: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. I had Horatio realising the truth of this, a bit Prufrock-like realising that he was not meant to play the Prince, but be an observer, something of a by-stander at the big events:

 

O but it’s enviousness I breed

Here listening to you roar

And glitter you go on to the very point

Or way off kilter

And patronise me yet even this you do

With such grace with warmth making me love you.

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The rhythm of this particular workshop was a lot of time for individual writing. We shared all we wrote (no one objected – and absolutely none of it was “crap”), and Katherine introduced the extracts quite briskly while still allowing plenty of time for people’s reactions to them. The time was now about 4pm. The final piece was stimulated with small bits of cloth from Katherine’s Mum’s sewing box but also with a story she told (no details – it’s her story) which we could incorporate if we wanted to.  My final piece was the strangest I’d produced so far. My cloth was a rich red – a bit sexy – and the encounter was on a staircase, I was coming down to meet someone. Perhaps by this time I was more Juliet than myself, or I’d carved myself into two:

 

Everything possessed

Of that clarity

And the weight

Of heraldry—

 

So the long dress

I wear is gules

Its blood-red

Slit to the thigh

 

Its plunging neck

A sunlight wedge

At the foot

Of the shallow stair

 

I lift my chin

As if called for [. . . ]

 

I don’t know if the 4 pieces I produced will come to anything further but I can honestly say they would not have been written otherwise. In running my own workshops, I always say the simple thing they achieve is to take your writing to places you’d not have got to alone. That certainly happened the other day and I’m grateful to South Bank Poetry for the chance to participate: now back to the front of the class.

DR FAUSTUS
DR FAUSTUS  – Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton