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Giraffe

Bryony Littlefair
ISBN-13: 
9781781724620
Publication Date: 
Monday, December 4, 2017
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Poems need head, heart, and soul but this particular Mslexia Poetry Prize-winning pamphlet has an extra ingredient – a feminist kick. Bryony Littlefair is acutely aware of women’s lives and gives us mothers, daughters, grandmothers, friends and colleagues whose adventures or misadventures we become increasingly eager to follow.

Giraffe starts unobtrusively, with ‘Tara Miller’, a memory from childhood about the strange attraction of a ‘bad girl’ friend, then soon moves on to one of our favourite first lines: ‘I’m wondering if my Grandmother has ever said the word ‘fuck’’. We also meet the mother who hides her piano playing like a shameful secret. We overhear workmates, like the woman who, trying to concentrate in a meeting, quietly wonders to herself: ‘Is there a place/ the time goes that women have been/ listening to men? All those hours irrecoverable…’ But the politics here are mostly implicit in the stories told, only occasionally bursting through like an urgent message.

There is a good deal of wit on display, but also a wonderful humanity. There is a beautiful poem where a ‘healthcare assistant’ displays a quiet everyday heroism in treating a nervous patient. There is the meeting between the author and her ‘future self’ where she is warned that ‘it will get harder before it gets easier.’ There is the banal yet sinister viewing of a gift shop, where we feel trapped like the protagonist, looking at odd candles. There are also other novelistic qualities: clarity of language and the use of realism, a feeling for plot and incident, an eye and ear for character. There is a wonderfully off-kilter amusing list of ‘types of poems’ that begins: ‘poem as conspiracy theory/ poem as patchwork quilt’.
Also noted here are the subtle ways that the author indicates character and relationships. Heartbreak can be summarised by one glance at the ‘Lido’. Love can be inferred by the tender description of someone from the back, as they are walking away.

Giraffe, the title and a euphemism for happiness, is a beguiling, beautiful and entertaining debut pamphlet of poems by Bryony Littlefair.

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Martyn Crucefix

Monday, May 14, 2018

Giraffe, despite its weird title – which becomes clear only at the end of the collection – opens in familiar territory with a speedy, no-nonsense contemporary feel, using the title as part of the opening line: “‘Tara Miller’ // doesn’t have Facebook”. Her neglect of social media is one of Tara’s admired, unconventional aspects as the narrator recounts her (not so long past) school-days encounters with this girl. The narrator’s mother clearly feels Tara is not quite ‘our sort’ and in free verse lines of short, breathless colloquial phrases, the narrator paints a picture of the girl as a bit of a bully, as well as a little bit Byronic, being unpredictable and darkly “interesting”. Without really being aware of what her feelings are, the narrator is drawn to Tara, her “wavy, almost black” hair, her defiance in the face of boys, “her warm, / Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit breath on my neck”. This is a great double-portrait poem and sets up one of Littlefair’s recurrent themes, the tension between venture and routine.

Another young female narrator deliberately stays at home while her parents (conventionally) go to church on Sundays. She’s a teenage rebel without a cause as “The truth is I’m not sure what I did / those mornings”. The poem is built from a list (one of Littlefair’s favourite forms) of what she did and did not do. Littlefair is almost always good with her figurative language and here the girl is variously an undone shoelace, an open rucksack, a blunt knife. The urge to non-conformity outruns her imagination as to how she might spend her growing independence and there is an interesting tension at the last as her parents return, “whole” having “sung their hallelujahs” while the young girl is still restlessly revising her choice of nail polish, as yet unable to find what she’s after.

The third poem in this very impressive opening to Giraffe is ‘Hallway’. Despite declaring at the outset “I can’t imagine how it must have been”, the young female narrator on this occasion does manage to achieve an insight into something ‘other’ than herself. What she can’t imagine at first is the impact of herself as a new-born on her young mother: “The constant interruptions, / the mess, the uncontrollable outpour of love / like a reflex, a weeping wound”. There follows a curious moment and a great simile. Imagining the years fast-forwarding, the world is compared to “scenery in a video game, pulling itself together / in front of me as I moved through it”. There’s an odd shift here, like a crashed synchromesh, in the switch from the mother’s point of view to the daughter’s but it does prepare for the second half of the poem which indeed is from the daughter’s perspective. The centrifugal, self-absorption of the child is broken at last on returning home from school early and finding her mother at the piano, “small / in her cardigan, eyes closed, somewhere else”. I’m not sure Littlefair’s image – comparing the child at this moment to a “just-plucked violin string” –is original enough for the circumstance, but the poem survives and the child’s expanded imaginative life is signalled as she stands “washed up in the hallway, wondering at her [mother’s] life”.

Another poem similarly explores a girl’s view of her Grandmother, wondering, in yet another list form, whether the older woman has had any sort of a life beyond the routines of socks and carrots and not gazing into mirrors. The solipsism of the young is a good subject and one Littlefair does well, but she’s as much interested in the other side of the coin: trying to imagine the lives of others. ‘Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant’ does this, though the imaginative grain is a bit coarse perhaps. The Assistant’s life – beyond the present moment – is imagined as a mix of poor pay, weary commuting, casual racism and cheese and lettuce sandwiches. This is contrasted to her attention to her patients where she is steady, fierce, calls people sweetheart and is “magnificent”. The sentiment or feeling is right (not something anyone might disagree with) but the poem is sailing very close to caricature.

I think I find this with some other poems too, though it’s partly because Littlefair is admirably intent on presenting the working world, the world of labour, as routine in contrast to the allure of a more adventurous life. ‘Assignment brief’ presents itself as an old familiar’s introduction to a new girl’s routine office job; the lists and proffered options are funny but they slowly run out of steam. Likewise, the promisingly titled ‘Usually, I’m a different person at this party’ flags latterly. I’m imagining this as narrated by an older version of the girl who half fell in love with Tara Miller. Here, she shadow-boxes the risks of conventionality by over-insisting on her own sweeping and glamorous life, in the process claiming all sorts of ‘interesting’ aspects of herself: “I only ever have large and sweeping illnesses. / My lymph nodes swell glamorously. I never snuffle”. But the contrasts here are again rather roughly hewn and, in the end, close to cartoonish.

A far more original poem is ‘Maybe this is why women get to live longer’ in which a man-splaining man dominates a watched conversation, the woman “holding her face in different positions / to signify reaction: empathy, humour, gentle and agreeable surprise”. This is acutely observed and the point is well made in the serious-surreal twist of the rhetorical question, “Is there a place / the time goes that women have been / listening to men?” Even better is the imaginative act of the details of the woman now left alone, returned to the “cool clean shirt / of herself”. A really effective line break there, followed by the naturalistic details of her leaving the bathroom door open “as she wees”, then the more disturbing one of her pinching “the skin on her forearm – lightly, / and then harder”. I guess she’s pinching herself awake after the soporific conversational style of the man, but more disturbingly she may be harming herself as a symptom of deeper psychological troubles.

The latter view is more than a possibility given that Littlefair’s poems also boldly explore the self’s relation with itself. The encounter between self and future self is plainly and humorously told in ‘Visitations from future self’ and it finds the present self in trouble, pleading “I can’t go on / like this, my life a tap that won’t / switch on”. Here, the present self’s cliched and optimistic hopes for a “rain-before-the-rainbow thing” are denigrated and stared down by the future self. ‘Sertraline’ echoes Plath’s The Bell Jar in its evocation of a summer spent on an anti-depressive drug. And ‘Giraffe’ itself is a prose poem (there are 3 prose pieces in the whole book) in which a voice is offering reassurances to someone hoping to “feel better”. In a final list, images of a return to ‘health’ are offered. Particularly good is the idea that suffering will remain a fact but “your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy, have handlebars”. And lastly, “When you feel better, you will not always be happy, but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.”

The designation ‘a young poet to watch’ is over-used but on this occasion it needs to be said loudly. Giraffe contains a number of fresh, intriguing and fully-achieved poems. It’s well worth seeking out. I well remember reading and being very impressed by Liz Berry’s 2010 Tall Lighthouse debut chapbook, the patron saint of schoolgirls, and this selection from Bryony Littlefair’s early work runs it close. My review of Liz Berry’s subsequent, prize-winning full collection, Black Country, can be read here.

Review by Flavia, Mslexia

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

These nineteen poems make for an exceptionally innovative and refreshing read. I am besotted with Littlefair’s quirky world and imagery (and ability to come up with the best titles). The driving thrust of the poems in this pamphlet is a search for happiness, that glorious giraffe! Littlefair intermingles themes of loneliness, sadness and joy within the everyday humdrum of life in order to produce these zany, clever and perfectly worded/loaded poems. The humour is particularly startling and unexpected; a backflip in ‘The meaning of employable’, that brilliantly eccentric list in ‘Types of Poems’ are examples. Her poems and imagery are deeply entrenched in place (particularly ‘The town we went to’ and ‘The sadness of giftshops’) but it is her empathy with people, her need to provide voices to the women she observes (including the female ‘I’ persona in the poems) that dominate this pamphlet. The poet portrays the edginess and coplexity of the secret interior lives of a mother, grandmother (“I’m wondering if my Gran has ever said the word fuck/ let the hot little kiss of it escape from her lips/ like a papercut, a slammed door?”), a bullying but passionately affectionate friend, a healthcare assistant and a woman she sees in a bar. Her empathy and sensibility to the people around her portray a poet that is fully awake and aware of the world around her; this is also evident in the depth of her observational skills and her extremely specific (and hilarious) descriptions of these ‘silent’ people (“you look like a telephone/ I've just put down, one of the Old-fashioned ones/ you must set on the receiver with a clunk”; “Like tou’re off to do something tiny but luminous, winning an egg-and-spoon race, maybe”). Her poems are compact little epiphanies; the style conversational like a set of interior monologues. The originality of this collection lies in the details and fantastically bizarre similes (“like an undone shoelace”, “I was like a blunt knife”) which breathe life into Littlefair’s poems and seduce you into seeing the world from her point of view.

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