Review: New Poetry Collections by Clare E. Potter and Rhian Elizabeth

Healing the Pack and girls etcIt’s been a while since I last posted a book review… so here are two new poetry collections by two local South Wales poets, both of which I highly recommend: Healing the Pack by clare e potter is published by Verve Poetry Press, and Rhian Elizabeth’s collection girls etc is published by Broken Sleep Books.

I’ve been looking forward to reading clare e potter’s second collection since first hearing her perform at an event several years ago, and this new book is just as evocative and melodic as I had hoped. The poems trace the pathways of what makes us who we are, rooted in family relationships, in working class origins, and in the wild landscapes that we inhabit. Many of these poems evoke a restless creativity that is passed down through the generations, from those long gone (who exist, still, in the shadows), through to the poet’s own experience of motherhood, raising two young children to appreciate their creative legacy in a way that resurrects the voices of the past.

It is the seven-year-old child, in ‘Poams’, who must encourage her mother to keep on writing, to not give up:

You laid your blue down, deliberate,
shifted the tone in your voice so you became
my mother that time, potato in palm,
peeler pointing at me, sorting those tears out.

Well, you can’t give up. You been doin them poams
since you was little, and now look, you got me
doin them too; and I’m brilliant!

This powerful sense of female strength and perseverance is evoked in many of the poems. In ‘Organic Matter’ the speaker recalls the pot they made in school which ‘looked too earthy with its swollen / ridges and rims and opening’. But the pot becomes a talisman for creativity, linking mind and body together:

She began as coils thick as intestine
that I wound and moulded, squashed and rubbed—
my fingers slipping between what was inside
and what was out. Before firing,
I etched my name
at the base
so when I put my ear to the pot
her echo told all the secrets I could not.

The title poem, ‘Healing the Pack’, presents us with a lost self who must be coaxed into embracing her own wildness. It ends with the invitation to ‘Hunt down the poet you’ll become / bite out her tongue, / teach her what it is to howl’. And there is a violence to this transformation, that emerges in many of the other poems, as nature echoes the savage beauty of human life.

In the four ‘Bird Prayer’ poems, spaced throughout the collection, this uneasy divide between nature and humanity begins to blur, as (in ‘Bird Prayer IV: Boncath’) the buzzard becomes part of the experience of birth, and girlhood:

Contracting in the bedroom, no panic set in;
I rolled my pregnant self in increasing
circles, mandala-making, remembering
the patterns I’d seen her show in flight.
And at the hour of the new lungs’ pulling
the roof of our house split with buzzard call.

I’ve not heard her. I’ve not seen her since—
except when my little girl sings, or, like now
she’s jumping on the trampoline as snow falls

and there’s a moment in the gap between
going up and coming down . . .

.                                   there,

.                                                      in that gap she soars.

And so we move from one poetic tale of female strength and motherhood, to another. Rhian Elizabeth’s latest collection girls etc presents us with poems that are fresh, funny and sensual, ranging from topics of lesbian love, and the lure of swimming in ice-cold Swedish lakes, to the everyday drama of living with a teenage daughter.

The collection opens with a short but poignant depiction of birth, as both a momentous beginning and an ever-extending metaphor, with the final stanza pinned to the right hand side of the page:

and now, all these years later,
that cord has been cut,
you still have the lungs of a lion,
and we are both still screaming.

The poem ‘mother & daughter ripping’ perfectly evokes the ongoing battle of love and frustration that comes with rebellious teenage years. It begins with the melodrama of a mother storming outside to begin ‘ripping petals & turning them into / pieces of golden confetti’ while the daughter is inside ‘ripping clothes out of drawers / & ripping posters off walls’ and ends with the reconciliation of shared mess, and forgiveness: ‘her clothes are everywhere i am sweating & covered in dirt / & neither of us says a word until she asks me // what’s for tea?’.

Later in the book, the poem ‘if we could just go back i’d push you higher’, ends with a poignant playground memory that spins with the never-ending confluence of love and guilt:

you ride the seasaw solo
adamant that it’s a unicorn

up the steps and down the slide      up the steps and down the slide

until you summon me over to the swings
where i push you half-heartedly

chubby toes wriggling in your sandals
clumps of pink varnish spread haphazardly across the nails

as if you’ve been colouring outside the lines
but you insisted on doing it all by yourself

or maybe i was too busy?

this poem is a memory

19 years old and playing at being a mother
the way you played with your dolls

The author’s focus on small case letters seems to keep us focused on the small things – the seemingly everyday moments that encapsulate what is important in life. They also demonstrate a sense of rebellion against convention, and the most ironic and playful poem is ‘the daughters of eden’, which re-imagines the traditional creation story from a lesbian perspective:

but what if god didn’t create adam?
what if, instead, he first made eve and then plucked
from her rib another eve?                   no cain and abel to follow
because he knew it, even then, that women make terrible mothers.

These are poems that seek to reinvent. To paint over the past, while holding it close and relishing its simplest moments: from the ‘slices of salmon’ at a midsummer feast, to the ‘mint sauce / that drips / like green paint’ in ‘my daughter eats a roast dinner on skype’. But they also let go of the painful and broken moments, focusing on ‘the flea market of feelings’ where ‘trinkets and ornaments are leaking from supermarket / carrier bags like brass and gold and china innards’.

Although girls etc is more playful and sensual, while Healing the Pack evokes a more intense and intriguing exploration of the relations between family members of different generations and the natural world in which they live, each of these collections use poetry to trace a path of letting go and of finding a way through the pleasures and pains of family life, of love, and the natural world.

Healing the Pack by clare e potter is published by Verve Poetry Press

girls etc by Rhian Elizabeth is published by Broken Sleep Books

Declaration: I received a free copy of girls etc from the author

Subscribe to Blog via Email

If you enjoyed reading this post, why not subscribe to my blog and get regular features and book reviews sent to your inbox?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *