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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.

Northwords Now acknowledges the vital support of Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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