Jacqueline Saphra packs a lot into this slender debut collection of poetry (published in 2011). Deceptively domestic and personal, the poems take on a life of their own, dance with absurdity and shimmering wit, and leave an aftertaste of profound inquietude.There are three strands to the work, and they are neatly divided into Parts I, II and III in the volume.
The first describes a fairly typical British childhood in the late 1960s – early 1970s, with plenty of humorous detail: memories of the moon landing, watching news clips about the Vietnam War, half-forgotten family history from the East European shtetls, giggly gossip about sunbathing in the nude with a classmate, struggling to come to grips with the decimal system.
The precocious observations of a child are tinged with a grown-up’s wry remembrance of childhood fears and mistakes. Some are poignant (Target Practice), some nearly surreal and full of wistfulness (about her incompatible parents), while others are just funny and fiery.
The Art of Diplomacy
At three I learned to listen, not to chat.
At eight I counselled friends and sorted spats.
By twelve I was a bloody diplomat.
At forty I began to smell a rat
at last. I said to hell with that.
Hand me that baseball bat.
The second strand is about love and lust, the battle of the sexes and the pang of breaking up. The start of a relationship and these poems are sensuous, sexy, drunk on love, beguiling and ready to be fooled again:
so come on, loosen me
with daquiris, your mouth
against my ear and tell me again
that you and I are composed
of the same elements, that
there’s a sea inside me,
and you, too, are salt and water.
I’ll make up the rest.
But most of the poems in this section are about disappointment and animosity betwen the sexes. Small acts of daily warfare in a couple, as well as more dramatic acts of betrayal. In ‘Penelope’ (a poem inspired by Cavafy’s wonderful poem ‘Ithaka’), Odysseus’ wife hurls the loom against the wall in an act of rebellion and leaves Ithaka to search for her errant husband but realises, upon finding him, that he is no longer her destiny. The poetic imagination hits the wall of prosaic negligence in ‘After a Long Sleep’. Women’s subservience and desire to please are mocked and ultimately undermined in ‘Last Harvest’. This is a poet unafraid to voice righteous anger, confusion, pain – in a way which is all too often described as ‘feminine’, but is in fact universal. A jilted lover muses about her successor:
If she had the eye she would touch my mind, she would read
my scrawls, she would balk at my famished word, circling.
But she doesn’t have the eye. I have the eye and I have the greed
and she has my red wrap and she has caught you inside it.
The third part is about death and making peace with one’s loved ones. I suspect this is at least partly autobiographical, as the poet describes a mother who was once thin and glamorous, fun, but was abandoned for a newer, more demanding sylph-like model and never quite recovered from the shock. Over the years she seeks refuge in a string of boyfriends, which the now grown poet is disposed to think of more kindly at several decades’ removal.
I met these men sometimes. They weren’t unkind.
We’d nod, then part like co-conspirators
in some veiled plot to save her from the truth.
Now a mother herself, the poet shifts between the past and the present, the joys of breastfeeding, the almost overnight transformation from baby to adolescent, the anxiety about one’s child obtaining the driving licence. Her own experience of motherhood has both strengthened and softened her, has made her more understanding and forgiving of her mother. The poem about her mother’s last moments ‘Last Call’ is incredibly poignant: full of tenderness and the guilt of not being there.
The last you knew, you heard her swear
she loved you more than I: who knows?
Perhaps that’s fair enough: it was Death,
not I, who said a prayer,
who dropped the final silence in your ear,
your dark head cradled in her lap, not mine,
her bloodied fingers in your hair.
This is poetry of the interstices – simple, clear words, with so much breathing space between them that the readers can fill in with their own experiences, emotions, unformed words. If this is the poetry of ‘domestic preoccupations’ and ‘everyday life’, then give me more of it, for it touches us all!