Poetry Review: And Suddenly You Find Yourself by Natalie Ann Holborow

Poetry book Natalie Ann HolborowNatalie Ann Holborow’s debut poetry collection presents us with a raw, emotional journey of self-analysis, exploring family estrangement, broken relationships and the vulnerability of human experience. Holborow turns life, love and myth into stark reality, with unnerving language and compelling imagery. This is poetry grounded in the physical, from the “silvered, reeking bass” consumed in a restaurant, to “the housefly buzzing, hysterical, / butting its skull to get out”.   

Beginning with the “ridiculous five-petalled birth” of a moonflower – a transformation which involves “smeared chlorophyll” and “stalky limbs”, these poems grab your attention with a tangibility that is almost sickening. In ‘Craig Y Nos’ Holborow presents us with the trauma of a young child in a sanatorium:

where day after day
mucus slapped the roof of your mouth,
slid salt-green down the ridge
where your tongue was huge
and parched for weeks

Sickness (both mental and physical) is a strong theme in many of these poems. We see Achilles in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, and the “diamond-mining” search for the “perfect cure” in ‘Pharmacy’. The poem ‘Black Dog’ is both tender and disconcerting:

his dumb tongue a dripping slab
searching my hand like a rodent.
When milk won’t do, he loves the sting of salt.
He nuzzles the lid of my eye.

Natalie Ann Holborow reading

Natalie Ann Holborow reading at the Cardiff launch of her collection

There is intense pain in poems such as ‘The Lost One’ and ‘Jackdaws’, which deal unashamedly with grief and loss. Holborow has a talent for juxtaposing unlikely words, producing some unsettling images. But she also creates poems which have their own subtle rhythmic pattern, with half-rhymes and unexpected connections, such as “jackdaws” and “slack-jawed”:

Crushed like a nettle, this bulk of a man
who’d fought in wars, shouldered a gun;
ducked and dropped in the trenches
looked at me with drowsy eyes,
tube wriggling up one black nostril,
slack-jawed and dribbling with drugs.

The most moving poems in the collection are those which focus on the anguish of broken family relationships, particularly that of the poet and her sister. These are poems rooted in the physical world, where simple objects, from towels to stained carpets, take on new significance:

Down on my hands and knees,
I snuffled you out like a pig.
Mascara stained the carpet
as though someone had tripped
in a pair of dirty stilettos,

The title poem, ‘And Suddenly You Find Yourself’ lies at the heart of the collection, packed full of disturbing images that twist familiar objects into a surreal setting for self-realisation:

in your black lace knickers and your
early twenties, feet cold and bald
in a house nothing like
your childhood home.
Lipstick and mould.
Your teenage years dead on the rug.

The refrain “and suddenly you find yourself” is powerful in its simplicity, producing a sense of hope and a desire for change, mixed up with the continued monotony of life, and a sense of detachment from normality.

The moon sheds its eerie light over this collection, appearing in various guises as a kind of totem, revealing humanity as broken and tainted, from Penelope who comforts herself with the love of strangers “under moon-cracked-skies”, to the man who confronts his own reality in ‘Red Light’:

You wake in the shrinking bedroom
of your mid-life, eat toast
in a stained bed.

Yet there is hope here too; a kind of transcendence from the physical, and a journeying towards home: a place of both alienation and companionship, love and absence. It is this theme of family discordance which holds the collection together, along with a courageous use of langauge to reveal the messiness of life, death and everything in between.

And Suddenly You Find Yourself by Natalie Ann Holborow is published by Parthian Books.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.