The New Girls by Sue Dymoke, 56pp, £7.95
The Weight of Cows
by Mandy Coe, 57pp, £7.95
Laughter from the Hive
by Kate Foley, 60pp, £7.95
all Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Avenue, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1BS


Love and death may be the real subjects of poetry, but there are a lot of poems around about paintings, and about childhood as well. All three of these poets write about childhood – by no means exclusively, but enough for this to be one axis of comparison.

About half of Sue Dymoke’s first full collection The New Girls
is poems from earlier pamphlets, including the title poem with the new girls at school who

       …rearranged friendships,
       blew them apart.
       Frightened our boyfriends,
       then stole them forever.

In ‘Transformation’ Dymoke describes her mother hairdressing at home, and in an understated conclusion, how she later needed a wig herself. Her father appears in ‘The Shed’ with all its smells, where ‘Old furniture waited for transformation.’ Dymoke herself is in the swimming pool with a teacher who

       …didn’t feel the chlorine bubbling up our noses
       as we struggled to complete a single length
       without touching the bottom,
       without gripping the sides,

In the new poems an aunt takes the child to an assignation with her ‘occasional friend’; she cancels an order for wool in ‘Janet’s’: ‘a hushed world where voices spoke of / the ‘op’ and the ‘things they didn’t let him know’.’ Dymoke’s is an informal and cheerful voice, much more at home in free-form reminiscence than when it is crushed into a ‘Weekday Sonnet’. She evokes her past for us, but doesn’t take it anywhere: these are poems you get in one. 

Mandy Coe’s voice is energetic. The Weight of Cows
opens with ‘The Art of Dying’, and the first line: ‘We were nine years old when we killed Brendan.’ The poem gathers momentum until the speaker encounters Brendan’s dad:

       And with my cheek pressed
       to the sharp, damp grass, I felt
       the safety of being dead.

The childhood moment has been opened up from the particular to the general. She returns to the violence that lurks beneath play later in the book with ‘In the Tongues of Guns’, a poem in which one girl refuses a girl’s role until

       Sally Fisher was hanged from the willow tree
       then rehanged until she agreed
       to make the sound of her own neck breaking.

But it’s not at all dark collection. ‘Becoming Short-Sighted’ is typical of the light humour which comes effortlessly to Coe: ‘and even the oldest / of friends look good. Hell / even you look good.’ It’s that ’Hell’ that makes all the difference; Coe’s language is easy and vigorous. It’s peopled with a wild collection of speakers: a chocolate polisher, an embroiderer, a fool, a pickpocket with a compulsion to confess as well as pick pockets, a shoe-shop assistant who says in her second stanza:

       Lips pursed, the women posed
       on six-inch heels, while we crouched
       on nylon carpet, looking up and longing
       for them to trip over and die.

You can absorb these poems in one read, yes, but they’re worth revisiting for their energy and surprises.

Kate Foley is altogether more ambitious. The final poem of Laughter from the Hive
runs to eleven and a half pages, and it isn’t in sections either. It’s a sustained attempt to integrate childhood influences into the adult’s present narrative. At least that’s how I read it; ‘The Bleeding Key’ isn’t a poem that you can ‘work out’ easily. But then, neither is the way that a child’s experience bears on the adult s/he becomes.

The key in question in this poem is in the poet’s bag as she arrives home slightly drunk, but her fingers find

       …Her key lies,
       sharp, shiny teeth in a pool.
       Wet warmth. Slippery.
       She pulls it out. Shakes.

and we know that this is also a metaphorical key, something alive, the key to who she is. And it’s a scary key as well: ‘A black drop / collects on its silver snout’. In fact it scares her so much, it has be plastic-wrapped and put in the fridge. ‘There’ she prays

       may its wounds slow
       and congeal, its vivid weeping
       cease. A small corpse
       wrapped in a Sainsbury’s bag.

After bagging the Yale, the poet sleeps – now the dreams and memories of childhood take over through a turbulent and disturbed night, the fridge and ‘its undigested load’, still there in wakeful moments. Past conversations, smells, companions, occasions: the significant moments – not necessarily related to each other - accumulate in this sleeping/dreaming, so that the body of the poem is an accretion of childhood moments brought into the present by the key references. In the morning, the hung-over poet, now unafraid, takes the key from the fridge: it smells of ‘meconium and blood’: something (the adult?) has been born.

That’s my reading of this long piece, but it’s long and complex and I know of one reviewer who read it differently. I’m not altogether comfortable with this extended real/metaphorical role for a key; oddly it isn’t so convincing in its real role as in its metaphorical one: it’s too much of a contrivance. But I admire the extended endeavour to DO something with childhood memories and bring them forward as an influence in adulthood.

Foley does the same in some of the shorter poems earlier in the book as well. ‘The Man on a Bike’ brings both a child’s and an adult’s understanding of an incident into view at the same time; in ‘Ash’ the adult looks back on the child’s memory with

       O man from the bus garage
       I am so sorry. Although
       I remember the terrible ache
       in your face I couldn’t have done it.
       Not then, not now

The collection covers more ground than this though. Foley lives in Amsterdam; looks around with a stranger’s eye, listens to new words, like the ‘Zin’ of the opening poem, and is quite happy to make you think about words: ‘the wild, metasable state of glass’ (‘In the Frame’). ‘Bare Faced’ darts neatly around the meanings of those two words.

‘Living Below Sea Level’ isn’t about Holland (though there are Dutch friends in this collection, and poems about them are simpler and warm) but turns out to be another metaphor for childhood’s returns. Few in this collection are one-bite poems: there’s always something else going on under the surface.

One of the straightest narratives, ‘Desert Rose’ – about a medium trying to contact a soldier son for a client – is a poem that deals with contemporary events in so striking a way that it won’t date: it’s reference has been widened. That’s what I’ve enjoyed about this book: Foley picks her moments and tries to run with them. Quite some way.

       © Jane Routh 2004