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What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

These chapbooks are substantial beyond their size. Both debuts, they consider the  domestic and explore women’s place in it from very different starting-points and with unique voices.

Rehema Njambi is a Kenyan-born, British-raised performance poet who celebrates the Black, mostly African women around her and from whom she is descended. She is acutely aware of home’s patriarchal context:   ‘My mother’s joy is tied to the ground…Our fathers handed belonging to their sons,/gave away their daughters’ (‘A Piece of Land’).

The opening poem, ‘All These Truths You Never Set Free’, speaks to the guilt a  writer/survivor feels towards her female ancestors: ‘I reach for the pen and I remember/that you wanted this for yourself./This selfishness of pen and paper and solitude’.  Yet  poem after poem evokes how precarious a woman’s position has always been at the heart of  home and family: 

        Every haven you have ever found

        was only lent to you.

        Even now you abide in your body

        like a stranger house-sitting for the friend of a friend

                                                                                   ‘A Lending Not a Giving’

Though there is anger and resistance in these poems, and a sense that the ‘I’ must  escape in order to survive (‘I grab what I can and run’, from ‘Our Marriage Dies in a Dream’) there is also great tenderness and  strong religious faith, even if that faith may not be recognisable to her grandmothers, changed as it is through time and   language. The collection ends:

        I pray and search for roots

        and earth, and soil, and tree.

        For truth, for God in all I see.

                                                                            ‘The Language of Grief’

Though it may not be possible to mend the damage caused through betrayal and the imbalance in male/female relationships which can cause ‘home’ to be less than safe for women, Njambi’s work still places faith in the future, and in the continuing struggle: ‘I wrestle and fight for the tongue my mother taught to me’. This is a powerful and moving collection. It will be interesting to follow the trajectory of Njambi’s development in her subsequent books.

 Anne Bailey’s imaginative world is surreal, wry and strange. Outwardly amiable in its quotidian references to such things as ‘Songs of Praise’, ‘polyester,/ chiffon scarves, lipstick, men with shining shoes’  and in the wonderfully-titled ‘Uses and abuses of the tea towel’, still nothing is quite as it seems. A lake appears in the living room. ‘How to get the most out of baking’ begins: ‘Put butter in a baking bowl,/set it in front of the fire, then/call up the dead’. 

I liked this collection very much for the apparently deadpan way it deconstructs domesticity and women’s roles in maintaining it. Houses which ‘should’ be sparkling and perfect are always in danger of decay and spectacular damage: the poems enjoy exploring themes of mould, disintegration, spoilage. The domestic is a dangerous, twilight zone where budgies meet sticky ends under a scalding tap, where ‘letting go’ happens and where ‘Something will have to be done’ (‘A film of dust is how it starts’) – but what? Even darker, a woman are kept psychologically imprisoned by an obsessive man who has taken domesticity to perverse levels: ‘For him it is an act of love’ (in ‘The Curator is married to the rain’).

The poems weigh the sinister and the surreal very carefully together with a lovely sense of the absurd, so that the effect is always unpredictable and engaging. There is loss and grief here, and a range of very dark emotions indeed, but Anne Bailey celebrates the odd and uncanny with relish so her poems fizz with wonderful images : the ‘wooded’ Felicity, ‘her open spaces …full of damp washing’, the ‘tarmacked’ Nigel ‘with a central reservation but no hard shoulder’ (‘The sum of the parts’). Home may throw a long shadow over women’s lives, its rigidity always encroached upon by the wild, the unruly, by wild birds coming inside, becoming trapped –  but the women in Anne Bailey’s poems are more than resilient: they are magical shape-shifters  in ordinary disguises. This book is wise and funny and rewards re-reading.  

Pippa Little 18th September 2022

Trouble by Alison Winch (The Emma Press)

Trouble by Alison Winch (The Emma Press)

Trouble explores intimacy through a range of different relationships, from that of a lover, polymorphous lover, wife, granddaughter, during the breakdown of a relationship, pregnancy, and in moments of fantasy. The poems are played out against a past and present London backdrop filled with betting shops, a horny marriage counsellor, ballrooms, male attraction and power.

The wife narrator pretends to be ‘one woman’ and has in her head ‘a pack of spaniels so dense they are a mind. And they fawn over men.’
Driven to Eastbourne, which is like ‘a day trip to Seven Sisters, without the bookies’, her ambivalence is revealed:

We’re the youngest guests at the Queen’s Hotel
and you’re 52. It’s the summer solstice and we’re breaking up

except we’re making love on the fifth floor
in an evening light as yolky as an afternoon.

The sexy doom of the split
is like falling in love and a stay of execution.

At the collection’s core is the sequence ‘Alisoun’s’, which uses material from the medieval pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome and the figure of Alisoun from Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale to further explore of female sexuality and reproductive power. The spirited ribaldry is counterpointed by material quoted from key medieval texts, by Marbod of Rennes, St. Thomas Acquinas, Galen and others, attacking or denying female lust and disobedience positioned on the right side margin. The sequence has a wonderful wanton sensuality and period feel ‘Of Wykked Wyves’.

Spanking! he bondaged to feel the passiun of muscle my myt without murder – Dirty Dog!

he pelts my mind – Nicholas – as May’s cuckoo spyt pysse-drys to June

below the river’s a pour of mellow wine that cools the caterwaul cockles of my bihynde

There is, as Sarah Howe notes in her introduction, a great deal of tongue in cheek humour mixed with affectionate lyricism. Many of the poems, such as ‘from Expecting The Gourd’, are extracted from larger works. The poem deals with pregnancy in a direct and visceral way:

Note polycystic ovaries and oleander bushes. Remember the ovulation cycle, wonky uterus, the way you circled your tongue around the salt prod of his cock.

You’re puking cabbage-green skies like a drunk without romance
ulcerous anus, swollen tits, a snatch no one wants –

Winch’s language use and metaphorical thrust has an undercurrent of sexual desire and nourishment. The poems dealing with her dying grandmother are counterpointed with life enhancing images of pomegranate, magnolia, potato and hops. There is an overriding sense of female power and voice arising from various states of intimacy, and that chimes in well with other recent works by Dorothy Lehane, Sophie Mayer, and Sarah Howe. I greatly look forward to reading more of Winch’s poetry and warmly recommend this debut collection. The pamphlet has a great cover by Sophie Herxheimer and is beautifully designed by The Emma Press.

David Caddy 13th July 2016

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