Adam Warne reviews Sarah Crewe
In recent years Sarah Crewe has built up an impressive back-catalogue of pamphlets including Aqua Rosa (Erbacce, 2012), flick invicta (Oystercatcher, 2013), sea witch (Leafe Press, 2013), flick/shift (Dock Road Press, 2016) urchin (Dancing Girl Press, 2016) and echolalia (Litmus, 2016). She also co-wrote, with Sophie Mayer, the excellent Signs of the Sistership (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2014) which is where I first encountered her work. I was therefore excited when floss, Crewe’s first full collection, was published by Aquifer in November 2018.
In floss the reader is invited to explore Liverpool, Crewe’s home city, and other places in the company of floss and flick. Who are floss and flick? The prose poem ‘anfield fleet maintenance’ includes an outline of both these characters and the major themes of the collection:
floss is a dog. imagined as rather like the black rabbit of inlé from watership down. another incarnation of my psychogeographical self is flick, a girl version of spring heeled jack. legendary menace. flick/slick, sleek and all aerial like. dogs in a maelstrom more visible than women. even dead dogs. both of these more palpable than dead women. most of all, dead poor women.
dead in my language as alternative to very. dead good. dead bad. dead old.
floss as flick/loss/fleeting. working class women: we learn early [dead right] that we come and go on pay rolls, registers, phone books, electoral rolls, archives. nobody is indispensable.
Crewe uses these ludic incarnations to break away from ordinary ways of perceiving and experiencing the modern city and reveal what has been neglected and oppressed. Psychogeography, the playful exploration and critique of urban environments, is key to this. Mainstream psychogeography has been dominated by the likes of Will Self and Iain Sinclair, but Crewe is more in the tradition of the psychogeographer Laura Oldfield Smith, author of Savage Messiah, who has written:
I think a lot of what is called psychogeography now is just middle-class men acting like colonial explorers, showing us their discoveries and guarding their plot. I have spent the last twenty years walking around London and living here in a precarious fashion, I’ve had about fifty addresses. I think my understanding and negotiation of the city is very different to theirs.
Living in a ‘precarious fashion’ and its influence on how people understand and negotiate a city is a theme which runs through floss. Crewe, herself working class, explores what life in the city is like for those on the economic margins. This is a world where there are loans sharks ‘in low grade social waters circling light bites&snacks’ (‘flick/pound café). There are three poems set at Ann Fowler’s, a women’s refuge in Liverpool, a place that is used locally as a threat: ‘women like you end up at Ann Fowler’s.’
The three Ann Fowler poems are dated 1922, 1968, and ‘2013&counting.’ Memory, place, and identity shape each other through the generations and the poems mix past and present to show this process at work. Throughout the book Crewe reveals a palimpsestic city where new buildings overlay old ones, the lives of new family members overlap with the lives of past family members, and ‘maps&faces’ are ‘blended’ (‘preface (portmanteau)’). Crewe’s working class ancestors are important characters in floss and are often summoned by name. Even the persona of floss the dog is part of the family, described as flick’s dad’s dad’s dead dog (‘preface (portmanteau)’). As ‘reflection (berwick street)’ puts it:
a gene pool is not the universe
it is: a split surface glass cobwebs a substructure
beating a path invisible
This is a path that Crewe follows in her psychogeographic explorations and makes visible. These ancestors lived lives that were insecure, vulnerable, and politically neglected. floss acknowledges this suffering and hardship, but it is far from a mournful collection. The bad is tempered by fun and companionship. ‘flick/towbridge street’ celebrates the Bronte Youth and Community Centre in Liverpool as an ‘inner city safehouse’ where ‘secret handshakes,’ ‘daydreams’ and ‘collective aspiration’ are “made in L3”.
floss reminds me of the poetry of Geraldine Monk. This influence can be seen in the way Crewe’s poems play with sound associations, as ’floss’ slides into ‘flick’ into ‘loss’ into ‘fleeting’ (‘anfield fleet maintenance’), and in the use of puns, such as ‘housing (dis) association’ in ‘concentric’. Crewe and Monk share an interest in understanding places through the history of those who lived there. However, whereas Monk tends to explore a place and its history via well-known historical figures, such as the victims of the Pendle witch-trials in Interregnum and Mary, Queen of Scots in Escafeld Hangings, Crewe’s inclusion of her own ancestors and family history is more intimate. Here, the personal is political.
The title of ‘west curve (june 2017)’ refers to the month when at least 72 people died in Grenfell Tower. That avoidable tragedy shows that class oppression continues to be a deadly force. The poem demands an inclusive working class response: ‘we need an armada white working class diminishes all of us.’ The explicit inclusivity of this ‘we’ is important at a time when narratives about the neglect of the working class are exploited by the far right.
In ‘rat in the kitchen’ Crewe tenderly mocks her own project as she describes a series of encounters when out walking. This self-deprecation adds to the poignancy of her collection:
to the car park attendant: i have no car but this is my land. to the barmaid: this used to be slum housing…..my grandfather….her eyes glaze. to the gull at my feet: i see you
Such acts of seeing are central to floss. Crewe’s psychogeographic poetry is an excellent exploration of the working class city that combines play with a serious political purpose, acknowledging the marginal, forgotten, and neglected in Liverpool and elsewhere.