Saturday 6 October 2018

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Dirty Laundry" by Deborah Alma

These vivid and sensual poems sing of women’s strength and survival, sexuality and subversiveness. Deborah Alma offers readers an invitation to share her story, perhaps with '...some smoky tea / and two china cups / laid out with a silver spoon / on an embroidered table cloth.' The power of female friendship shines through and creates a space in which women’s voices are heard. The opening poem is dedicated to Jo Cox, silenced by murder, and in ‘Still Life’ an abusive partner ‘pulls the words from under her feet / as he stamps and stamps and stamps.’

Perhaps the implied question underlying these poems is ‘How did I get here from there', the '1950’s baby overwrapped in a perambulator / with its bouncing chassis?' There are ‘a silver of bangles on a wrist, round mirror chips embroidered / in the the hem of my clothes, my white skin seen tiny times over, / sequins sown into my childhood.’  The sense of difference and exclusion is disturbing, the ‘mix up family half caste council estate bastard.’ In the North London school ‘Miss Minchin says I must show the children / my clothes from Pakistan’ ... ’as I turn round and round up on teachers’ tables / to twist in my pretty pink pyjama suit / like a little blonde doll.'

Shifting roles are charted sensitively. In ‘I am My Own Parent’ there is no longer any need for ‘My Dad’ to pick up beloved red shoes ‘by the scuffs of their dirty necks / and leave them shining in the morning.’ A neat piece of magic realism has sisters swapping eyes, ‘left with little chance of rejection / each looking into our own eyes.’ A broken mug, thrown into the sink by a mother who ‘Moves into Adolescence’ cannot be replaced and it is ‘Suddenly, / terribly, unbearably sad / that there is no Woolworths, / I tell her to go and never come back.’

Sexual experimentation and erotic possibilities are celebrated.’To start with I tried sex with a space hopper’, curiosity leading on to a pencil, a swingers group who ‘drank tea in the intermission / in a Llandrindod Wells hotel’ and a lustful encounter in a cattle lorry on the A49. There is pride in the strength of thighs which could ‘wrestle attacking Picts’, but there are the inevitable judgements and condemnation. The priest’s book ‘open at Revelation’ is countered, bizarrely, with images of dead popes’ penises ‘pickled and preserved’, a practice so weird it is probably true. (I wasn’t going to google ‘popes and penises’ to find out!)

Dark humour is used to painfully excise the wounds of failed and abusive relationships. ‘Only God or his grandmother / could love him the way he wants to be loved.’ Nursery rhymes and fairy stories take on disturbing resonances – ‘After the bird the spider the fly / ... perhaps I’ll die.’ The brutality of the natural world is evoked, a cuckoo ejecting fledglings, ‘and so, in my own kind of pain / push the big baby over the edge, / see it fall on the concrete.’ ‘Dissociation’ is chilling in its listing of strategies developed to cope with abuse. And there is poignant acknowledgement of the price of escape, no one but the AA man to call after a car accident, a ‘yellow striped dress / with deep pockets,' in which 'there is string, a pin, / garden wire and three sweet pea seeds’ but no money.  But there is also the growth of power and strength, the expression of rage – ‘Do you walk on eggshells asked the therapist? No I crunch through / them in my Doc Marten boots.’

There is pleasure and solace in ‘making things tidy’ as my Welsh mother used to say. In the title poem, ‘I hang up a rough white linen sheet / some pretty skirts / a raspberry nightie / and lemon-yellow pants. / I am wiser than Canute / against a tide of grey.’ There is gentle recall of past homes ‘here is the mountain ash I planted / come tall now.’ But there are also ‘plastic soldiers taking aim, / still kneeling steadfast in the dirt.’ Taken for granted, the ‘Angel in the House’ can turn nasty as ‘She hangs up her wings / in the understairs cupboard. / She takes up the three pronged fork.’

The narrative of the poems conveys a strong sense of the passage of time, from the confidence of ‘I will shake off this man I am wise enough / witch enough to know that I can cast again’ to ‘We heal more slowly as we age / don’t quite recover our old selves,’ become fearful, like the chicken, ‘not sure anymore / that we want to cross the road.’ But perhaps there is also wisdom gained, a fantasy not acted upon, a ‘Co-op carrier bag-for-life full of regret and relief, / I found green sequins scattered in the street.’  A magic spell which enchants men ‘Sewn into a tiny felt pocket, pinned into my knickers’ is passed on to a younger woman, ’A gift or curse, I cannot tell.’ There is sympathy for a young woman with ‘naive city eyes ‘I could see me in her bit, / twenty years ago, before babies, divorce, / Guardian soulmates, other shit.’

There is anxiety about ageing, ‘When I am old’... 'Will a lover recognise me / from more than 200 yards / across a car boot sale?’ and in a disturbing dream, ‘... here she is, the crone in her feathered nest,’ who passes her a folded fan with ‘ japanned panels, / a white lily, lavender, a dandelion, a rose.' ‘Oh but  I cannot make it neat again. / I cannot get it back to how it was before.’

But there is also a sense of contentment and peace, in ‘Morning Song', ‘the women I have been no longer fight their corners ...They stay and stare, these women, across the hazy / sunstrewn wooden floor of my dreams / and my ageing; the mirror crazed / and hung with beads, the pink and the red.’ The joy of a warm and trusting relationship is evoked in ‘The Dog Knows its Mistress,’ ‘scratch my back where the bra strap is too tight and release the clasp / let my breasts sag and sigh out / with a wonder of release.’ There is also anticipation, a sense of excitement at what is to come, ‘I still choose the window seat on buses, / trains and planes, and ‘Fortune lives in a hut / in the garden...’ It is to write poems in / to please Fortune.’ Something for us all to look forward to.

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell‘s poems and short stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Agenda and Fairacre Press. She has an MA from Loughborough University, and taught creative writing there for several years. She enjoys working on local history projects, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, such as local witches and Leicester Conscientious Objectors of the First World War. 

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