Poetry Review: Jacqueline Saphra – The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions

SaphraJacqueline 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.

jacqueline.saphra.net
jacqueline.saphra.net

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!

 

 

 

Personal Reading Challenge for December

The year of reading womenIt’s very simple: for December, I’ve resolved to read only books by women authors. This did not start out as an intentional challenge. In fact, the first book I finished in December (which I had started on the last weekend of November) was written by a man. It was Mark Edwards’ stalker thriller ‘Because She Loves Me’.

However, all of the books I had borrowed from the library or that were waiting patiently from me on my Netgalley shelf seemed to be by women writers – or at least the ones that were calling out to me: ‘Read me next! Me!’

So here are the books I have read, am reading and will be reading for this month.

Nina Stibbe: Man at the Helm – I opened this instead of another book and could not stop reading

Françoize Boucher: Le livre qui fait aimer les livres (The Book that Will Make You Love Books: Even If You Hate Reading)

BelCantoAnn Patchett: Bel Canto – because I love her writing and I couldn’t resist the hook: ‘kidnappers storm an international gathering of opera lovers at the Vice President’s residence in a poor Latin American country’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – because, given my cross-cultural experience and profession, everyone is surprised that I haven’t read it yet (and it does sound like the sort of thing I would enjoy)

Jacqueline Saphra: The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions – when I first started writing poetry again, the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye said that my (very modest) efforts reminded her of Saphra’s work, so I’ve been reading her work ever since and finally bought the whole first collection

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters – because Lauren is a life-force, unpredictable and irrepressible, and boy, can she write!

icecreammanKatri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man – because it’s a Finnish author, although the action takes place largely in Czechoslovakia of the 1940s/50s.

Alison Mercer: After I Left You – because it’s been on my Netgalley shelf for far too long and Cleo recommends it

Lily King: Euphoria – because it’s about anthropologists in the field caught up in a pernicious love triangle (based on Margaret Mead, who is one of the main reasons I studied anthropology)

Look how many varied and wonderful women writers there are just in this small sample!

Am I being a little over-ambitious? Am I not making any allowances for spontaneity? Well, we shall have to wait and see whether the home-made plans bear any semblance to the end result. But I do know that I have plenty more women writers to choose from…