Tuesday 3 October 2023

Review by Colin Dardis of "Cockroach" by Elizabeth McGeown

The 2022 UK Slam Champion, three-time All Ulster Poetry Slam Champion, and winner of many other spoken word plaudits Elizabeth McGeown delivers up her debut full-length collection, a book version of her successful hour-long live show, Cockroach. An exploration of self-identity, from teenage awkwardness to perplexing adult encounters, we find personalities of movie stars tried on and cast off in a litmus test of affinities, the rejected cockroach character searching for answers in pop culture, in art, within seclusion and amongst perceived peers.

McGeown’s preferred style of delivery feels rapid-fire and urgent on the page; the reader is often caught up in the intensity of delivery through short lines that drive the narrative forward. Such form can threaten to become staccato, fired out like so many other spoken word performances for the sake of a neat series of rhymes. Rather, here we sense that the narrative turns against itself, the speaker questioning and analysing along the way, evoking angst and self-doubt.

Sometimes the source of such anxiety and hesitation is internal, from fibromyalgia and other medical complaints (this reviewer challenges anyone to try and find a better poem about self-applying an enema for a gastric issue), but often the sources are external; we find mention of #MeToo, and McGeown’s experiences of gatekeepers and sexism in the fields of music and the spoken word scene. We see school bullying, and the weight of expectation to conform:

          I did not pay the daily toll
          and call Angela pretty
          when the prettiest thing about her was
          the relief we felt when she left.
- "Witch"

This blends naturally with the larger search for the self that the collection is primarily concerned with, and McGeown is aware of the perverse paradox that the self is frequently defined through the company it keeps. Hence, we find various house parties, dates, the need for space and solitude conflicting with the search for meaningful company. This leads to compelling observations such as "a misfit + a misfit = a kind of sanctuary." We also see this attraction reflected in a self-deprecating style:

          A painting of a loser is vivid
          perhaps never quite so vivid
          until witnessed by another loser.
- "Villain (ix)"

Indeed, self-deprecation is something McGeown excels in, as there is enough humour, spark and playfulness to stop the poems ever descending into self-pity or despondency. Ultimately, we find an authentic voice that isn’t afraid to question or defend itself. Cockroach is postmodern mal du si├Ęcle, enjoyable and engaging from start to end, and never losing any of the energy and tension McGeown brings to her live performances.

About the reviewer
Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent writer, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His most recent book is What We Look Like in the Future (Red Wolf Editions, 2023). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA.

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