Poetry Review: Hand & Skull by Zoë Brigley

Book - Hand and Skull by Zoe BrigleyHand & Skull is the latest poetry collection from Zoë Brigley, full of poetry which confronts the reader with a fascination in observation, particularly focusing on traumatic experience, veering from intimacy and beauty to violence and abuse. Many of the poems are inspired by the relationship between the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O’Keeffe, of whom he took numerous photographs, and who became a well-known artist in her own right.    

Stieglitz - 'Georgia O'Keeffe Hands and Horse Skull'

Stieglitz – ‘Georgia O’Keeffe Hands and Horse Skull’

Brigley wrote about these pictures in the New Welsh Reader:

There is so much that is contradictory about the photographs. They are so beautiful, and could be empowering… but there are problems too. Is there something disturbing about how how Stieglitz breaks her body down into parts? Isn’t it objectifying? And who has the power in this relationship?

You can tell that this is a collection concerned with the idea of ‘looking’, as it is split into four sections, each of which begins with an artwork – the Stieglitz photograph ‘Hands and Horse Skull’, followed by three reproductions of work by the artist Victoria Brookland.

The poems vary in style, from more lyrical pieces which are sometimes quite abstract, and other times clearly inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, such as ‘Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe’, to more confessional poems which seem to recount the trauma of personal experience. I like the fact that they are all mixed in together, and the way in which the personal and the abstract are merged with the lives of women from the past, blurring the boundaries between them.

I was particularly struck by ‘Poem on the Edge’, a confessional account of attempting to explain how it feels to have your privacy violated by being photographed without your consent. It begins ‘I was trying / to explain’ and goes on:

You said / Well what about / it?

I said / It’s someone / else in the photograph…

You said / Is that all? It’s such a cliché you know

'Horse' by Victoria Brookland

The second section begins with a reproduction of ‘Horse’ by Victoria Brookland

The forward slashes evoke the sense of dislocation felt by the speaker, giving the poem a stilted feel, full of hesitation and doubt, and it ends with:

I wish I could / have told you but / you would not / have understood how hard / it was looking through / the man with the camera / what beauty he made / of tautness / the fear of / the girl on / the edge / long and waiting

Brigley seems to encapsulate this sense of contradiction – beauty and admiration on the one hand, and violation on the other. These longer poems are interspersed with much shorter, more imagistic pieces, many of which focus on the process of dressing or un-dressing. These short poems provide an interesting contrast, acting almost like photographs, capturing a small moment. Here is ‘Poem with Stockings and Suspenders’ in its entirety:

the legs lengthen in their stockings, grow a shiny

second skin, the long seam at the back as if to say,

I know you’re watching, I know what you can see

‘Poem with Seams’ is similar, just three lines long, but it is more threatening, describing the ‘little grooves pressed from seams onto skin’ and ‘a fingertip against a forehead or chin: its small, insistent presence’.

I was also particularly impressed with ‘Rare’, which takes its opening lines directly from Georgia O’Keeffe:

Men make of me some strange unearthly creature
breathing in clouds for nourishment, but the truth
is that I like beefsteak, and I like it rare at that.

It goes on, taking this idea even further, questioning the perceived and illusive differences between men and women through metaphor:

Some creatures are eaters, others
are eaten, but only a set of sharp teeth will make
me, not a creature, but a human being.

The collection finishes with some poems which focus on motherhood, including the beautiful and heart-breaking ‘Star / Sun / Snow’ about three different experiences of giving birth. I can’t quote from it, as this would ruin the experience of reading it for the first time, but when you do read it, it will make you cry.

I also really enjoyed ‘Tree with Cut Limb’, another poem which quotes from Georgia O’Keeffe, and ‘My Last Beatitude’ which more clearly re-visits the trauma of giving birth when things don’t go as you expect.

These poems interrogate the way we look at ourselves and others, and our connection with our physical bodies – the kind of poetry that you can read again and again, and find something new each time you read it.

You can buy Hand & Skull by Zoë Brigley here.

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

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