Stripped


Strip Angela Readman
[70pp 12.99, Salt]


This beautifully produced hardback poetry collection, a starting pink with pictures of naked dolls on the front with their eyes closed, landed on my mat this week.

Usually when I find a new poetry collection I dip into it, and spend the next days or weeks reading a two or three poems at a time. This is the only collection I've ever picked up and read cover to cover in one day, reading the collection chronologically, and not wanting to put the book down.

Angela Readman has written a very compelling second collection of poetry. It opens with 'Poppies', narrated by Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.  All our ideas about fairy tales and childhood stories are broken open as we meet Dorothy as a real girl, one who has blisters, and believes that: 'courage is just another abstract, / like friendship, and all the hearts you seek / grow on stubbled stalks, clot / their residue onto your sleeve.  

Strip is about the real girls and women behind the images we can see in porn films, strip clubs, pin-ups on garage walls. Readman explores not the porn industry or the demand for these images. This is not a collection about men at all, it is about girls and women - our experiences growing up, becoming aware of bodies and sexuality, our relationships with women and the images all around us. I include 'us' in this, because reading these poems, I feel, isn't about characters or experiences outside of ourselves. The experiences captured in many of these poems are collective ones, ones that directly relate to each of us.

A sequence of poems called Life of a 'Porn Star' dominates this collection. This is far from Belle de Jour; we don't get a rundown of all the sexual encounters the character has, or descriptions of her punters, or what type of condoms she uses. Readman neither glorifies nor condemns the profession. She explores the life of the girl who is experiencing a growing awareness of self, her family relationships, feelings and incidents that are important to her. In 'Tom and Jerry transaction': 

     I experienced first popularity
     as boys queued up and asked to read
     the comic strip under my slip.
     One offered half a snickers
     so I lifted my skirt. 

This encounter, a familiar story from the playground, is a foreshadowing of what might come, a moment where innocence shifts a little and the girl becomes aware that her body can be a commodity. 

Other poems in this sequence, explore every day events like hanging the washing out with her Mom, or making dinner with her dad:  'I press myself into a helper, a worker, my father's daughter, / branded, by flour on my cheek in the shape of a thumb.' ('Dinner With No Name'). These are universal poems, which creep inside the skin of a girl who will later become a star in porn films.  It could be any of us.  

The sequence creates a narrative that shows how it is a girl might become involved in the porn industry. It explores first sexual experiences, her rites of passage.  In 'Brace' she looks in the mirror 'to assess the little girl smile/peeking out from the
Penthouse stung lips.' She removes her own brace with nail clippers, becoming the woman who in subsequent poems learns to pole dance, strip, be photographed and perform in porn films. 

A poem that particularly moved me was 'How a girl could do that'. This is such an exact, authentic poem: the narrator tells us 'I know this isn't Kansas anymore'. She states, 'My map of lipstick on his chest shows me where I really live' and 'I keep my tongue tied making circles, / and when I open my mouth I do a job'. This is reality, not a fantasy or a projection or assumption. The girl we have seen grow up in previous poems, is in a place where 'I lie back and try to find the wonder / of each pearl I made in the necklace I'm given / again and again, like every day's my sweet sixteen.'

'How to make love like a Porn Star', is another breathtaking poem, exploring the expectations that it is desirable for a girl to be like a porn star in bed. In this poem, the narrator dreams of the sex she really wants. 

These poems could be full of bitterness, cynicism, anger, but instead they are measured, explorations of experiences that are more complex than first imagined. There is exploitation certainly, but these poems are not about direct blame, they carry the voices of girls/women, and their experiences, hopes, fears and dreams. 
 
There are further sequences of poems: 'The Porn Star Letters
' and 'The Bettie Pages'. The last section 'The Bettie Pages', explores pinups, particularly the fifties pin up and porn star Bettie Page. These poems question, what it means to be a girl, a woman growing up with these images around us. How different our lives are from the image. 

'The Porn Star Letters' is a section of letters from a teenage girl to Traci, a porn star whose picture is on her boyfriend's wall, and in her dad's garage. The girl explores her thoughts and feelings in letters to this 'fictional' woman who she wants to relate to, sees as a role model, and is desperate to understand: 'I wanted to see know how you moved, how you talked, didn't want to at the same time.' These letters capture perfectly the ambivalence girls can feel about their own bodies and identities as they grow up. The girl signs off these letters, first Elizabeth, then Lizabeth, Beth, Lizzi Beth - a sign of her shifting and confused identity.

It must be obvious that I loved this collection of poetry. It is one of the most exciting collections I have read in recent years.
Strip goes straight to the core, very little metaphor, just very stark images that explore society and the experience of girls and woman within it. The language and imagery is cutting, beautiful and sad. I felt as though I was breathing with these narrators, experiencing the small detail of their lives. 

Readman shows no fear or anxiety about tackling difficult subject matter, and she does this with sensitivity and balance. The reader is allowed to come to his or her own judgements and conclusions. We're not led into a political back alley where we are beaten about the head with the writer's views about prostitution or pornography. We are left to decide for ourselves, and helped to become more aware of the lives of the girls and women behind such images, understand that they are just like us, that they could in fact
be us.


           Annie Clarkson 2007