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Steve Spence

"Floss" by Sarah Crewe, pub. Aquifer. 68pp.

I love Sarah Crewe’s poetry which combines a hard-hitting political perspective with a variety of formal experiments and an awareness of the sound-aspect of the written word which fuels an ongoing avalanche of creative energy wonderful to behold. Take the opening line from the initial poem ‘preface (portmanteau)’ for example: ‘idiomatic   tongue twister   ken dodd’s dad’s dog’s dead’.  Many of the poems here are ‘open-field’ and made from phrases which work as psychogeography in terms of a mainly Liverpool-based location but also look well ‘on the page’ and the relation here between form and content is exceptionally well realised. These poems feel and look good as well as being filled with subversive commentary and challenging attitude which often presents in terms of a fragmentary and ‘overheard’ narrative, snippets of conversation melded together to create an onward movement which stops and starts but keeps the whole show on the road. ‘gloria   did not teach young children   how to read / newspapers. gloria did not say precocious. gloria’s son said, that kid is a walking dictionary.’ Throwaway lines and clichéd language are given new life, familiar phrases are upended and challenged in a combative manner which makes you think while also enjoying the sound/shape of the words on your tongue. Crewe combines sophistication and learning with a streetwise ‘patter’ which is pleasurable to read (hear read – I’m sure these poems work well ‘in performance’) while losing none of its critical ability, a rare mix I’d venture. I’m thinking of Geraldine Monk, Maggie O’Sullivan and the emerging work of Clive Gresswell here as reference points. The cover artwork, Alter Ego, (Marion Adnams, c.1940) is an arresting, surreal image which provides a good starting point for the poetry in this book.

               imaginary friends   imaginary wealth   an actual sibling

                                           a little princess  black velvet   pink sash

                                                                                          bears in turquoise      a reading school

               all such wonderful militants

                                                            prodigy living    recite:

               the herald of free enterprise capsized on the night of march 6th 1987

               especially cold   the flat flooded for a second time that year

               the child made a lego model of the big ship she named

                                                                                  TOWNSEND THORESEN

                                                                                              in red   like all things of permanence

                                                                                   negligence

                                                                               controlled atrophy

                                                                                    submersion

                                                                                       (from ‘74A’)

 

This way of writing social history reminds me a bit of Robert Hampson’s work (‘Assembled Fugitives’ and ‘Seaport’) and its mix of political commentary, framed within a sort of personalised memoir, with an aestheticized layout, is impressive and convincing.

In ‘lung’ we have a mix of celebration and assertiveness, where the language combines wordplay and literary reference (‘done / because we are too many’, from Hardy’s Jude) and an upfront feminist declaration with political combativeness throughout. Yet the whole piece rushes along in a welter of images and conflicting moods: ‘and so it was butchered – the bronchi torn apart / like a fight.  too young for bronte disco / too old for false consciousness. barricaded - / but still broken up. dispersed. a city council / plays mary poppins. shelter for investors - / breadcrumbs for birds. Rats with wings. …’

Class and gender are foregrounded in poetry which remains exuberant and forceful and if there is an element of rant here it’s an eloquent and challenging motivation which delights in its language via a mix of onrush and fragmentation, hard to pull off but gloriously successful in this debut collection where childhood street games mesh with ‘a glut of irish surnames’ and ‘the last vestige of a pre war utopia’. In ‘seaside girls (dublin 12)’ we get: ‘ utterly affirmative   these acts of resistance   young women   romanticised   the refusal to take instruction   i’m not goin’ anywhere’ . Incamping tryptich’ (site) we’re given a mix of art reference – ‘the tent as a mondrian’  and ‘chiaroscuro’  plus a descriptive  piece (‘llandudno’) which combines a reverie on pronunciation with a celebration of seaside holidays, warts and all. The final section, ‘betws-y-coed’, is Crewe’s homage to Patti Smith which fuses shape with list with a series of memorable phrases and exuberant snapshots.

I’ve come across Sarah Crewe’s poetry elsewhere, in magazines and in a short, shared chapbook with Sophie Mayer, I believe, and it’s good to see a decent gathering of her material in one place at last. I look forward to further collections in due course as I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from such an eloquent and uncompromising voice.




 

 
Copyright © Steve Spence, 2019