Stride Magazine -


DEAD REDHEAD by Tracy Herd, Bloodaxe, 78pp, £7.95

Tracy Herd writes narrative  poetry. The protagonists of the stories she tells in Dead Redhead, her second collection from Bloodaxe, are all female, all dead or about to die. And, as Edgar Allan Poe has remarked, 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world'. Poetical Herd wants to be, her poems abound with beautiful, adjective-ridden detail, ‘the white, pleated dress’ of Marilyn Monroe (in 'What Gentlemen Prefer'), the ‘corps de ballet of pale roses, / the drifting midwinter of swans’ (in 'Black Swan'), ‘the huge, overgrown gardens, the marble // statues, toppled or cracked or discoloured…’ (in 'The Mystery of the Missing Century'). 

And beautiful the women in these poems are: Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Jean Harlow, Holly Golightly, heroines of the sixties alongside the obligatory Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Ophelia and, alas, Diana, Princess of Wales (‘with flashbulbs tearing at my broken body / because broken was the way I felt inside’, in 'Ophelia's Confession').

The poet's focus is on the moment of death, looking for an ultimate vulnerability. However, she does not succeed here. The names seem to be employed for name-dropping and for quoting over-familiar detail (such as Marilyn's white dress), thus merely re-enacting popular iconography and exploiting it for contextualisation – if the author has delved more deeply into her subject matter than the average tabloid, it doesn't show.

'The House of Special Purpose', for instance, which is one of the more interesting poems in this collection, needs to tell us of the speaker – ‘I am Grand Duchess Anastasia, / the youngest daughter of the Tsar’ – spoiling what could indeed have been a haunting poem about (nameless) executions in cellars. Unfortunately the use of an icon's name is often the most specific detail in the poems which otherwise abound with ‘roses’, ‘diamonds’, ‘snow’, with things described as ‘slender’, ‘elegant’, ‘pale’.

'Breakfast at Tiffanys' [sic], one of the few non-narrative poems in the book, is exemplary: a villanelle, the two repeated lines are ‘Holly Golightly haunts the streets of
New York’ and, with progressive alterations in the course of the poem, ‘each diamond simply a start in the dark’. Later, diamonds are, and are compared with, ‘tears from the dark’, ‘lovely tricks of the dark’; ‘the stars are her jewels, the night, [sic] her gown’. The last asks line ‘and each diamond?’ answering ‘just a diamond’ – which could turn a poem into a reflection of metaphor and simile in modern poetry – and spoils it by adding ‘lost in the dark’ which, like other images in the poem, is there for rhyme's reason.

Besides the overuse of familiar images and metaphor, I find the book suffering from a more fundamental problem: is the tragedy of a woman's death, or (even) a beautiful woman's death (feminism, where are you?) all that poetry can convey today? I do not doubt that Tracey Herd is haunted by these deaths, that she is moved by beauty, that she can identify with the heroines of her poems – I doubt, however, that these poems reach beyond that.

STONEPICKER by Frieda Hughes, Bloodaxe, 88 pp, £ 7.95

Stonepicker is Frieda Hughes' second collection from Bloodaxe, the title poem a verbal counterpart to the cover illustration featuring one of the author's own paintings. The woman in this poem remains nameless as most of the people in these meditations on 'Visitants', 'Black Cockatoos', 'Landmines' and 'Endometriosis'. And, like the painting, the poems feature stark, abstract land – and mindscapes and a vocabulary that defiantly does not want to be 'poetic' or pretty.

'Sisyphus', one of the book's most successful poems, sees the protagonist carrying his wife's dead body across a river:

          He reaches the river bank. Mud
          Is thick at his ankles.
          Her body stinks from
          The buckle of his shoulders,
          But the gathered crowd
          Will not land him. They stand,
          Bank-bound, their words
          Sharp like swords, and hold him off.

Sisyphus tries to return to the side of the river he came from , but finds another (the same?) crowd waiting there, and is forced to turn again. The poem contains no further explanation, no colours, none of the 'specifics' contemporary workshops are so fond of, yet the impression of a Kafkaesque futility is alien and memorable. Lingering acoustic effects are achieved through a careful application of nouns (much fewer through verbs) creating a static density that is further enhanced by the rather conspicuous capitalisation of line beginnings.

The reader is left with mixed impressions: interesting and haunting poems such as 'Dr Shipman' and 'Conversation with Death' are distinct from less successful poems 'Driver', 'Beauty 1' and 'The Wound' (wounds are a recurring image) where the poetic impulse is scarcely noticeable and the language appears sloppy, the line breaks arbitrary:

          It is her mother's fault,
          When her mother imagines
          Her child might not be

          It is her father's fault,
          For not having a hole
          Like hers, so
          Not understanding.
                   (from ‘The Wound’)

Possibly, the poet uses the capitalisation of line beginnings in reference to the poems by Georges Ryga to whose ‘Ballad of a Stonepicker’ the title seems to allude. However, it is often hard to see how this aids Hughes' poems. I would like to see the poet try longer lines with greater syntactical variation and a wider array of images. Furthermore, many of these poems seem to be written towards the last line which then contains a turn, an epiphany or a final emphasis – which causes  the poem to tilt towards the end. I would have liked to see a more consistent construction and density.

Occasionally, the reader is left to wonder how the editor of this volume defines her or his role. The poem 'Playground', for instance, features two children, 'Big girl' and 'Small girl', who are first introduced without a preceding article; later in the poem, however, the definite article is reintroduced. In the already mentioned poem 'Sisyphus', the crowd gathered on the banks of the river utters 'words/Sharp like swords'; later the crowd's 'tongues/' are 'Pointed like knives.'

Stonepicker is an unusual book in that it does not sport many of the affectations present in the current English poetry scene (such as half-hearted attempts at formalism); instead, its language is terse, almost  stark with some interesting sound effects.

                   © Barbara Thimm