Monday 23 May 2022

Review by Gary Day of "I Left My Hair in San Francisco" by Sallie Durham


Lucky the reader who stumbles on this debut collection. Here they will find balm for the spirit, succour for the soul. Sallie Durham’s poetry is wistful and gentle with tinges of melancholy and, very occasionally, a hint of the macabre. Her great achievement is to conjure a feeling for the being of things, whether it is her mother’s old cook book or sunflowers - one of her favourite subjects. In one poem they speak of themselves with pride and stoicism: ‘we, who were once goddesses- / suddenly old dames in hard hats.’ 

The connection between females and flowers is apparent in one of the best poems in the volume, ‘Iris,’ whose life cycle ‘recall[s] the lives of women / our weeping and our bleeding disguised in fine attire.’ Durham’s nature poems are quite different from the moralising Wordsworth and the melodramatic Ted Hughes in that she insists on identity and kinship, even with the humble ‘The Crane Fly’ whose stumbling dance of death proves as much a work of art as a poem, a defiant gesture against inevitable extinction: ‘slumped down on the windowsill / his last two fingers up in a V.’ 

The poems about love and family are deeply touching. ‘Ladders’ will resonate with anyone who is, or has been, in a long relationship. ‘Vigil,’ a poem about Durham’s dying father, is full of tender, piercing images and uses rhythm to great effect, repeating the same words at the beginning of the poem at the end but changing the earlier chugging sound to staccato sobs. The tonal range is impressive from the comic title poem to the slightly manic ‘Finland’ but it’s the imagery which stays in the mind. It is consistently striking and inventive: ‘The clouds continue to bank / their platinum.’ One can only hope there is more to come from this new kid on the block. 

About the reviewer
Gary Day is a retired English lecturer. He is the author or editor of a dozen books including a two volume history of modern British poetry. He had a column in the Times Higher for a number of years and has been actively involved in amateur theatre for many years.

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