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Four Reviews by Mandy Haggith

A Review by Mandy Haggith

How to Burn a Woman
Claire Askew
Bloodaxe Books (2021) £10.99

she tells me
Amelia Graham
Peanut Press (2021) £5.00

The Grass Boat
Imogen Forster
Mariscat Press (2021) £6.00

Wild Women of a Certain Age
Magi Gibson
Luath Press (2021) £9.99

All shapes and sizes and styles

Here are four radically different women’s poetry collections. They span the spectrums of scale and experience, from a tiny first pamphlet from a new graduate (Amelia Graham) to a chunky 21st century anniversary edition of a key work by a much-published poet (Magi Gibson). They also display a range of styles and content, from the quiet precision of Imogen Forster’s nature poems, to the ferocious passion of Clair Askew’s poems about witches and sexual abuse.
How to Burn a Woman is the standout collection in the group. Written with assurance, these feel like the work of a poet who is at the top of her game. They arise out of Claire Askew’s deeply researched investigation of the deaths of women convicted and executed as witches, and she brings them back to life with compassion and well-justified fury. The collection comes with a trigger warning, as might this review, for the poems do not shy from details of torture, sexual abuse and assault suffered by women and girls either in historic witch cases or more modern times. One of the powers of the collection is the way that the past and present crimes are woven together, which both serves to make it easier to see those accused of witchcraft in former times as just like us, and also proves the relevance of this history to present day women’s struggles. But it’s not all about sexual horror – one of the ways the collection is potent is that it presents the reality of being sexually active and the possibility of love with a gorgeous man (‘lying on my plain bed like it’s white-/ hot coals, my body a hammered blade’), yet the backdrop of other women’s stories shows how vulnerable we may be if or when things go wrong.
Many of the poems begin with an epigraph taken from a historical document, which sets the context for poetry, often in the first person, giving voice to female victims in language of searing power. Here’s just one example, the voice of Eunice Cole, who died in 1680.

‘I counted every cobble in the floor of
their jail. I slept on straw
like the whipped grey calf
that never grew right. I dreamed about
the gallows rope holding
its blue teardrop of night.’

We are similarly shown Merga Bien, Sarah Good, Anne Askew, Janet Horne and other women who were simply ordinary, misunderstood, poor and, crucially, unmarried, and therefore both uncontrolled by men and vulnerable to their predation. In A Field Journal of Witches the poet draws a picture of women at a time and place with ‘not enough men there to wed them’. The logic of the poem unfolds. They were landless, and thus dependent on and thereby knowledgeable about wild plants. ‘So they knew their Jack-by- / the-hedge from their Robin- / run-in-the-Grass’. The shack / attracted vermin, so they kept cats.’ Survival on the margins and at the mercy of men is deftly demonstrated through the names of wild herbs, from Jack-in-the Pulpit to Bruisewort. This is important and profound poetry that reclaims the wisdom and strength of our forebears.
Also sexually active and strident is Magi Gibson, in her collection from 2000, Wild Women of a Certain Age, republished and still potent today. She too presents us with a rage at injustice against women, but instead of horror stories from a historical past, her approach is to retell stories from legends from a modern female perspective. So we get Queen Maeve transplanted from a Celtic twilight into 21st century Scotland, Goldilocks as a grumpy teenager and the faery women telling us what really happened with Tom of Ercildoune and Tam Lin.

‘But my bright eyed boy
with the hunger in your groin
and the fever on your brow
don’t ever claim you didn’t know the score
when you placed your lips on mine...
You bounded to my arms
as eager as the cock runs to the hen.’

This poetry is often funny and always confident, though it’s less subtle than Claire Askew’s, and after the ‘Me Too’ years it has a swagger that seems risky and unquestioningly self-assured and, to quote the jargon, hetero-normative. But it is great to read, and we need much more poetry that celebrates ageing as neither scary nor full of loss.  ‘For there she stood! / Naked as sin, her whole life written on her skin’.
While Gibson’s collection, at 120 pages, feels long for a book of poems, she tells me, by new voice Amelia Graham, runs to only 16 pages, several of which are black-and-white drawings, so we have only eight poems to get a flavour. She, too, indulges the sexual theme, but here, in ‘boy’, we have a much less confident persona.

‘You prise my body unopened and make it yours;
the dreams of you are thick and coarse
and make me thin
to tremble….

I am tired.
I want my own bed,
runaway sly fingers
don’t creep and crawl on me
touch itches.’

She is at her strongest exploring images, such as when she dreams herself into becoming a fish, letting herself slide ‘into the silver, /rocked and overgrown water… the peaty gold flow… the stream’s awesome load’, or out on the hills on ‘foaming overcast days’ or under trees that ‘open up their blossomed eyes’.

Imagery is also the strength in Imogen Forster’s pamphlet, The Grass Boat, and I love her fresh, insightful ways of describing the natural world. A dead leveret has ‘feet as small as the pigs’ / trotters hanging in a dolls’ house kitchen’. A wagtail’s nest of chicks is ‘a ragged yellow handful / of desert flowers’ and fish are ‘smudges / of black ink, brushstrokes / dissolving through our fingers’. My favourite is a heron that ‘puts down careful feet, / two bunches of loose keys’. This is delicate, precise writing, a tantalising and impressive debut.

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