Dawn Gorman reviews Deborah Alma
Nine Arches Press
If Deborah Alma’s name wasn’t on your radar before, then as editor of this year’s Saboteur Award-winning #MeToo anthology, highlighting the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault on women, it probably is now. A good time, then, for a debut collection – not only (pragmatically speaking) in terms of catching the wave, but also – and more importantly – for Alma to re-assert her own identity as a poet. But how do you follow such a landmark publication?
As statements of intent go, her book’s title is pretty clear: this is no shrinking violet of a collection – it will defiantly air its ‘dirty laundry’ in public. There are, as we might expect, poems which say #MeToo. In the bleak, gritty I Don’t Know Why, Alma draws cleverly on metaphor from the children’s rhyme There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly to tackle ‘the way he wants to be loved’ – in which his ‘bird, a small one’ is ‘pushed down shoved / between teeth over tongue stuffed / swallowed’. The speaker clings to scraps of rhyme woven through the lines – ‘chest’, ‘breast’; ‘less’, ‘mess’; ‘stayed’, ‘paid’ – adding to our sense of the situation’s relentlessness. She says: ‘I gave up hope and gentleness, / the pain became hard to ignore’, ending with a chilling echo of the children’s poem: ‘Perhaps I’ll die’.
There’s further victim paralysis in Dissociation, in which the speaker tells us ‘Whenever he shouted at me / his spittle would fly out’, but, as a coping strategy, she focuses on that spittle’s ‘perfect parabola’ trajectories, not the words, man or intent. In Still Life, meanwhile, a man is forced to face his own ‘ugly words / the cunts, the bastards, the bitches’ because, in a wonderfully surreal turn (and there is much surrealism in the collection), he imagines them ‘wriggling around her’, and, even after he’s tried to clear them away, he feels they’re ‘still alive’ inside the vacuum cleaner.
Alma’s use of fairy tales, fables and nursery rhymes gives a one-step-removed quality to some of the heavyweight content of the book – and a sense of possible escape. In Troll, which draws on The Three Billy Goats Gruff, we move from reality, where graffiti declares ‘Anwen Price is a slut’ to a made-up place – and gorgeous made-up language – ‘past the peckled rocks’, where ‘the bus dreeps to the distance’. Here, lullabied by rhyme, we find ‘sheep-bitten grass’ and ‘sleep’. Meanwhile, in The Magic Spell – more short story than poem – Alma offers her own, deeply satisfying modern-day fairy tale in which she passes on the spell that makes every man fall in love with her to a ‘bespectacled, shy of any notice’ girl on a train.
Another route to escape is defiance, and we find both that and, at times, Alma’s personal possession of violence. In the three-stanza, nursery-rhyme-style Borderline, she refuses to ‘walk on eggshells’, crunching through them in her Dr. Martens boots, and saying ‘No!’ when a Humpty Dumpty-esque terrorist asks her if she’ll put him ‘together again and again’. In a neat handover, the next page offers Then in June, which switches the nursery rhyme egg for a cuckoo’s. Here, the speaker weighs empathy for the hungry chick – ‘The cuckoo does not know itself to be a cuckoo / and is to be pitied’ – against its suffocating of her own brood. ‘I cannot stand it’ she says as the scales tip, and pushes the cuckoo ‘over the edge’.
That balancing act between compassion for, and reaction against, resurfaces in My Mother Moves into Adolescence, where a conversation with a needy elderly mother culminates in the older woman shattering the speaker’s ‘green mug with the spots from Woolworths’ – another tipping point, and one of many instances in the book of Alma’s startling emotional honesty:
terribly, unbearably sad
that there is no Woolworths,
I tell her to go and never come back.
There is more about her mother in three poems focusing on clothes, combining early memories with details of her half-Indian heritage, those ‘sequins sewn into my childhood’ (Roshan), her sense of self as ‘half-caste council-estate bastard’ (Pink Pyjama Suit), and as her mother’s ‘little blonde doll’ (Mustard Cardigan). With its splinters of light and darkness, this is complex, intriguing material, leaving us wanting more.
Mothering is seen from an instinctive angle in connection with Alma’s affinity with the countryside. In One Mother, ‘Cheryl’ would rather return to her ‘council estate concrete’ than face the uncomfortable reality of ‘ewes calling for the lambs’. The empathy is direct: ‘the milk twitching at teats. / She can feel it, needing the pull and pull’ – an idea revisited in Cattle Lorry Lover, where sex in a lay-by on the A49 means ‘calves from their mothers / are forced to wait’, but her ‘breasts’ milk drips’ as she leaves.
Often, Alma’s weapon of choice is wit – I like in particular The Angel in the House – one of a plethora of house-based poems – where we see domestic angel turn devil against the man who nods at her tea and says ‘Didn’t you make me one?’ (Alma has a fine ear for such fragments of dialogue). Another tipping point, then, at which ‘She hangs up her wings / in the under-stairs cupboard’ – ‘the white feathers, after all, / keep blocking the filter in the hoover’ – and ‘takes up the three-pronged fork’.
The humour is sometimes ribald. The unbeatably bluntly titled I put a pen in my cunt once, although certainly set to relieve the monotony of your day, feels more a statement about taboo than something to stand up to poetic scrutiny, but The Head of the Church in Rome, about pickling ‘the cocks of cardinals / the penises of the popes’, spills wit with glorious irreverence.
Elsewhere, the chime of half-familiar religious phrases is cleverly used. In Sex We Sing, with its echo of ‘in God we trust’ suggests sex is not perhaps what we thought – it’s not about being ‘strong as blackbirds’ after all, but about us being ‘feather-brained’. This connects with Morning Song, where there’s a sense of release from hormone-driven battling – on a ‘church-belled morning’ we find an ‘ageing’ but bewitchingly contented woman luxuriating in bringing ‘back to bed a blue enamel / pot of hot coffee’, where ‘lazy eyed / the women I have been no longer fight their corners’.
Alma, generous in her objectivity, refuses to wallow, and this, together with the book’s heartbeat of resilience, make it an uplifting read. In the lovely final poem, She describes herself like this, she admits: ‘I have had many lovers / and I have been many times loved’, and leaves us with a memorable metaphor capturing an intoxicating sense of joy about a life well lived:
I am each of the processes of laundry,
but most, the unfolding in winter
of sheets – a sudden punch
of trapped summer on white linen – heat.
Clean laundry, dirty laundry – whichever way you look at it, this is a bold and unapologetic parade of the moving, unsettling, shocking and irreverent. Expect to be taken repeatedly by surprise, and into complex territory far beyond #MeToo, to places of taboo and uncomfortable truths, to see woman as wounded, flawed, tough, voluptuous and, finally, healed.
Dawn Gorman runs community arts events and collaborates widely, with work turned into art, films and a symphony. Her pamphlet This Meeting of Tracks was published in the Pushcart Prize-nominated four-poet Mend & Hone.