Wednesday 28 October 2020

Review by Vic Pickup of "What Girls Do in the Dark" by Rosie Garland

Rosie Garland’s writing is wildly imaginative; in breaking the rules of possibility, her poems are liberating and powerful. 

The space theme in What Girls do in the Dark is striking, and how the poet weaves its darkness and beauty within the mystery and humanity of her poems, masterful. The opening poem, ‘Letter of Rejection from a Black Hole’ sets the scene for the rest of her book, as she tells us: 

          You have the right to glow. 
          It’s not your duty 
          to light up anyone else’s day. 

Garland entrances and empowers her reader in much of the poetry which follows, such as in ‘Eloping with a comet’: 

          Breathless with forbidden flight, I grasp his tail, 
          hang on. Drunk on escape velocity, I boot night in the ribs, 
          ride the sky till it runs out of I told you so’s.

It’s not all space dust and sparkle; there is turmoil here, too. Darkness comes in the theme of persecution and the fragility of life, which the poet explores in varying forms. In ‘The last pangolin,’ a precious and endangered creature is stripped of its scales: 

          Only when          
          the final petal is torn away, 
          do they discover 
          there is no 
          choke, no 
          living thing, 
          no answer.

‘The correct hanging of game birds’ is also barbaric and sinister - a descriptive account of ownership and pain: ‘Permit yourself the luxury of appreciation. This bird / is yours, now … Pluck right away and you experience the thrill of / naked flesh.’

The persecution of women is a focus too - as in ‘Saint Catherine’: ‘They will kill you / for being cleverer, / worse than laughing at their dicks. / You know all of that but / won’t stop. Can’t. You didn’t read the Library of Alexandria / to bat your eyelashes and keep schtum.’ The poem concludes: ‘the truth of it: woman answers back, ends up dead.’ That said, it is the great wonder and strength in Garland’s explorations of womanhood which overpowers this darkness.  

In ‘They are an oddness,’ the poet describes a female sea creature, who is taken home by her male owner and placed in a goldfish bowl which she quickly outgrows, followed by the sink and the bath. ‘You eat, and grow. Your tentacles climb / the tiles around the tub. You pool the floor with slime … You wrap your tongue around him, squeeze till he gasps.’ This glorious and disturbing image is fantastical, and in keeping with the otherworldliness echoed throughout Garland’s work.

We venture beyond the earth in many of the poems of this collection: In ‘The dark at the end of the tunnel,’ ‘A woman walks upon the ocean floor. / Her skirt balloons around her legs / with the slow grace of a manta ray … Her stride is a keel, her chin a prow. She cleaves the thickness.’ This is one of many poems where our subject morphs into something other: ‘She no longer employs the agony of air in, air out.’ Our subject inhabits places beyond our reach, beyond her physical being, quite often disappearing, as in the final poem ‘Bowing out.’ 

In What Girls Do in the Dark we contemplate vast expanses in space and time, beyond us. There is fear but with this mystical ability to shape-shift and explore beyond what’s possible there is power and hope - summarised beautifully in ‘Biography of a comet in the body of a dog’: 

          Every time 
          I toss hope away it brings it back, drops it 
          at my feet, tongue drooling a glittering rope.

And there is also power and hope in the final sentence of ‘Personal aphelion’: ‘Permit darkness, find light.’ Garland even manages to approach grief with positivity and beauty in ‘Now that you are not-you,’ my favourite poem of the collection (I’m not exaggerating to say it moved me to tears). The infinite wonder of a spirit and the letting go of death is so beautifully explored: ‘like fireflies stopped in a jar, / and dying is the slow unscrewing of the lid.’ 

This is a collection full of opposites; vulnerable strength, persecuted freedom, imagined realities, but ultimately any darkness is dwarfed by the incredible, shimmering and unfathomable beauty of space, and our insignificance and importance within it. 

About the reviewer
Vic Pickup is a previous winner of the Café Writers and Cupid's Arrow competitions, and was recently shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth contest. Her debut pamphlet Lost & Found is published by Hedgehog Press.  

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