Northwords Now

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Rib by Sharon Black

Wayleave Press (2021) £5.00

A Review by Anne MacLeod

How many meanings can one word encompass?  In Definitions Sharon Black offers  us 10 possible explanations of rib, from ‘a slender, curved bone/ articulated to the spine’ to a ‘Rigid, inflatable Boat/or to tease good-naturedly’.

There are 24 poems in this  elegant slim volume – one for each of the 24 ribs found in most humans –  but whether she’s describing the framework of a hull, a vein of leaf or insect wing, or knitted fabric, the rib is both elastic and supportive.

In Thoracic Black considers ribs as porcelain cage – perhaps a zoo, or animal refuge  where ‘the echo/of the keeper’s heartbeat was a comfort’  until the porcelain bars are damaged,  ‘bars cracking one by one;/the inmates pacing, highly strung.’  In Cavity, she characterises the heart as a ‘chubby fist clenching/unclenching, banging its plastic hammer/onto tiny wooden tracks’ the lungs as ‘twin sacks of air, slung/on a hook’ the liver as washing machine, and the kidneys as sponges.  Tlaltcuhtli  is darker.  Here she meditates on Aztec sacrifice and mythology, where ‘the blade slips in, scoops out/the heart’.

A number of the poems deal with personal experience of illness, of pain caused when ribs damaged by radiation eventually fracture. ‘A common side-effect/up to fifteen years after treatment’ .   And though her ‘ doctor advises /rest, it’s no big deal’  there is no comfort in that reassurance. Still, though, courage and hope flourish in Seasonal, even when ‘My chest hurts, I can’t turn on the mattress./The weeks stretch on and on….   I breathe carefully, noiselessly/ so none of them topple.  Last night/I dreamt I swam all the way through Antartica.’

Sharon Black is a master of the pared-down, under-stated line, but the 24 short poems in this highly-recommended collection burst into life on reading whether aloud or on the page.  As she says in Beach ‘Out there:/ribs tug at empty boats, at buoys./ Such bodies of land and water!/

And– an interesting detail – this book boasts no page numbers.  Reading the poems, like reading life, remains wistfully unmapped.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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