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The Way the Crocodile Taught Me

Katrina Naomi
ISBN-13: 
9781781723319
Publication Date: 
Thursday, April 14, 2016
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‘Remarkable and rewarding’ – Artemis

‘This is a stunning collection.’ – Write Out Loud

‘Katrina Naomi’s The Way the Crocodile Taught Me shows that she is a compelling poetic storyteller, capable of creating intimacy via distance, layering characters, bringing them alive and generating emotional resonance.​’
– Rogue Strands

 

Katrina Naomi’s new poetry collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, is a heartfelt and tragi-comic portrayal of a fraught childhood and adolescence. Central to the book are two sequences: one about an awful stepfather, and the other about a kindly but also comically old-fashioned grandmother. A mother appears, distant, glamorous as a film star. An absent father is also a dream: “After my father left, I grew/ a battery of hearts,/ felt each of them beat,/ like doves in a casket/”. These family poems are both heartbreaking and often hilarious, sometimes both at once as in ‘Portrait of my Stepfather as a Xmas Tree’.

The grandmother is a redemptive presence, rescuing the child from indifferent parenting, but also ruthlessly old-school, rebuking the college student, excited by her first year at University: “You’ve got ideas above your station.” The stepfather is a 17-stone brute, “mostly in a temper” who lolls about the front room where “we were all hemmed-in by the giant sofa.”  The author discovers a virulent energy, and maybe even her vocation to write, in her interactions with her family, in her rage to survive.  The Crocodile of the title is this dark energy brought to life as an ultimately redemptive and positive creative force.    

The tone of the work is as much tender as turbulent, reflecting the protagonist’s travails. The short narratives of the second section of the book are informed by the events of the first half: and these new scenes are rarely comfortable, as in the sinister ‘Breakfast at the New Hampshire Motel’ or the frightening ‘Wolf on a Hillside’. ‘The Bicycle’ imagines a victim suffering the numbness of denial after an attempted rape. ‘Concrete Overcoat’ portrays the sadistic relish of the Kray twins as they encase a victim in concrete.

But interspersed with the awful there are moments of humour, of contemplation, redemption, realisation: ‘Fledgling’ admires someone with the courage to “perch on the ledge”: ‘Comfort Me with Apples’ is a short lyric, reminiscent of an Elizabethan song.  These pointed, lively and always entertaining poems are sure to win Katrina Naomi new readers as well as delighting her many followers.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Jay Moran, Foyles

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Naomi's second collection deals with her own fraught childhood, which included violence, death and severe isolation. Yet as you can probably tell from the bizarre cover, it's not a collection that leaves you emotionally bludgeoned. In fact there's a lot of light in these poems. A lot of love, wry smiles and dark humour, so that we as readers never lose hope. Naomi captures the pains and ecstasies of childhood and growing up immaculately here, without ever giving way under sentimentality or bleakness. My favourite poem is probably 'Another Planet', simply because I find the experience of reading it overwhelmingly beautiful and acutely painful.

Review by Alison Brackenbury, Artemis

Monday, May 1, 2017

Katrina Naomi’s second collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, is remarkable and rewarding. In ‘Memory, (Margate, 1969)’, both the poem’s lines and its subjects are haunted by gaps, between the photographer father and his children, high on cliffs, then between the children, the younger ‘so far below me’. Yet there is a final assertion of kindness. The speaker, who, the cover suggests, is Naomi herself, takes ‘my sister’s small mitten in mine’.

The very next poem, The Romantic, opens simply: ‘After my father left’. It ends with the threat of explosion: ‘a child’s heart, / no larger than a grenade’. But the book maintains a bleak clarity, terse as the closing of lips. Naomi keeps exceptional control over exceptionally distressing material. Her family poems work through considered force of content, rather than seductive sound or irresistible rhythm. She refuses to find harmonious words for discordant life. ‘My Parents’ Poem’ ‘certainly won’t rhyme’.

Life delivers a brutal, cross-dressing stepfather, hated even in the grave: ‘his 17 stones / pressing down on you, crushing / the soil between you’ (‘Letter to my Mother’). In ‘Poems after my Nan’, a beloved grandmother dies hard: ‘They’ve taken my teeth; I can still spit / and scratch’. This is violent simplicity with power in its verbs; the active poetry of people who never stop resisting. Some of the varied speakers in the collection’s central section prove horrific. ‘The History Teacher’, who longs to work in an abattoir, sees his class as ‘dumb animals’.

But the poems also speak out. In ‘Yellow Dahlias’ the abused mother is imagined in her honeymoon swimming cap ‘as I’d never seen her before. / Her head, a belisha beacon of hope’. The throb of alliteration is a device Naomi permits herself. Her careful phrases reveal her deep respect for her subjects. Her grandmother’s funeral arrangements are described, in ‘Full Strength’, as ‘all possibly what she’d have wanted’. With bitter wit, in ‘What Nan Said’, Naomi tells ‘Nan’, who thought her ‘above your station’, ‘I'm still the same girl, la même’.

‘Mantra’, the final brave and absorbing poem of Naomi’s collection, is an account of tying a garland, for her mother, to prayer flags on a mountain. The poem’s energetic physical descriptions hint at rebirth. Its long pulsing lines are a release of feeling after the book’s long control: ‘It was safe to cry then’. Naomi is no longer the child of “Memory’, trapped on the cliff top. She descends:

                                                                to sweet gineger tea. Mum stayed,
repeating her mantra to the mountains, for six months, maybe a year,
before the cord unravelled, and then she’d be free.

 

 

 

Review by Josephine Corcoran, Poetry Wales

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Katrina Naomi’s second full collection The Way the Crocodile Taught Me (Seren, 2016) is divided into three parts. Poems in the first section deal with the poet’s early life in Margate and her immediate family. The second section travels further afield, to the Berlin Wall and the Fife Coastal Path, among other places, and introduces a wide range of characters that include an alcoholic Bearskin Guard and someone who knew the Kray Twins. The final section of the book contains one two-page poem ‘Mantra’ which describes the poet participating in a Buddhist ceremonial
blessing in the Annapurna mountains, not long after the death of her mother.
Naomi does interesting things with white space on the page. In ‘My Parents’ Poem,’ a poem about a failed relationship, lines are arranged like a couple keeping to their
own sides of a double bed:

My Parents’ Poem

won’t be set in couplets,
                                            certainly won’t
rhyme.

In several poems, Naomi uses irregular spacing to suggest gaps in memory, most notably in ‘The Bicycle’ which has been Highly Commended in the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. In ‘Poems after my Step-Father’, a sequence of seven poems in the first section, the poet demonstrates her wit and technical prowess by employing a variety of imaginative forms. In ‘Step-father Graph,’ a step graph is used to illustrate affection diminishing over time.
I particularly enjoyed Naomi’s representation of working class lives in this collection. The poet takes her reader inside claustrophobic houses reeking of fried egg sandwiches, where the TV is always on, and graduates who speak French and talk about politics live alongside people who left school as young teenagers and read The Sport and The People. Such tensions are further explored in ‘Poems after my Nan’ a sequence of nine poems about the relationship between two women of different generations and world experiences, connected in one instance by a shared talent for home-spun dentistry.
Another time, the two women deal with the cancer of ‘your daughter/my Mum’ my eating ice cream and drinking gin, the granddaughter accepting that the older woman cannot say ‘the c-word’ but instead hugs her adult daughter so tight ‘the air stills.’
Womens’ lives are given full attention and respect in Naomi’s poems that deal with female relationships across time, marriage, domestic abuse, illness and death. In the book’s closing poem, the poet accepts a Buddhist blessing on behalf of her dead, Catholic mother, knowing she would have appreciated the incense and the ritual, if not the Lama’s unwashed robes. Although she knows her mother’s physical body is buried beneath a man they had both grown to hate because of his cruel and bullying behaviour, she has a feeling that her mother is with her in essence, at the highest place she’ll ever walk, and here Katrina Naomi conveys a sense of the vastness of the human spirit even when a person has lived what appears to have been a small life.

Review by Judy Gordon, Write Out Loud

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Crikey pepper as my grandad used to say (a child-friendly version of Christ Almighty, I believe) – what a story. Katrina Naomi tells us about her fraught childhood and adolescence in a tumble of brilliant poems using different styles, rhythms and structures.

It’s her second collection after the admired The Girl with the Cactus Handshake and the award -winning writer and teacher has used her unusual background as the inspiration for a poetic biography encompassing family fissures and psychological stresses.

There are unfamiliar personal references along with others that jolt our own memories – Kouros aftershave, Youth Dew perfume, her nan having all her teeth removed as a 21st birthday gift (as did my own grandma), fake fur, popsocks. Her memories of her mum, her dad, her 17-stone cross-dressing stepdad with a love of fried-egg sarnies, the heartbreak of a shared grave, her nan’s tough but sensible advice.

These are hard poems to quote from selectively but I was especially moved by ‘The Bicycle’ (about the aftermath of a sexual assault), ‘Bearskin’ (a soldier missing his former life and his estranged children), ‘Concrete Overcoat’ (a horrible riff on the Krays), the astonishing ‘The History Teacher’ and  the chilling ‘Wolf on a Hillside’. I will quote one in its entirety:

 

     ‘The Woman Who Walks Naked’

 

     sweeps her hair into a bun, soon she’ll lop it off, anything to feel

     that burn on her neck – the sun’s gentle strangle.

 

     She crosses the yard, her shadow tight, clangs the roasting gate,

     forces her legs through the soup of midday – the heat glad

     to get hold of her shoulders, feel the greasy sway of her breasts.

 

     Nobody’s in the field, the land, the square. She scoops an armful

     from the fountain over her back for the sun to sting dry.

     Village dogs scoot towards her, sniffing her shins.

     It’s when she passes the café that the shout goes up.

 

 

This is a stunning collection.

Review by Matthew Stewart, Rogue Strands

Monday, October 17, 2016

Katrina Naomi’s second full collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me (Seren, 2016), uses scrupulously portrayed character studies as a fulcrum for a compelling narrative drive.

This is especially true of the book’s first section, which revolves around two men and two women; a father and a stepfather, a mother and a grandmother. The two men are implicitly contrasted in separate poems, the initial focus moving from the father’s absence to the stepfather’s arrival, while comparisons between the women often take place within a single poem. In the latter case, “Gin and Ice Cream”, from the sequence “Poems after my Nan”, portrays one of the hardest human experiences: that of an older generation witnessing the demise of their offspring:

“Even after all the gins, all morning,
you still can’t say the c-word.

Over a weekend, I try to discuss your daughter/
my mum, but your soft blue eyes fill…”

The pivotal slash/line break here is, of course, where “your daughter” leads on to “my mum”.

The invocation of multiple roles in family relationships is pivotal to this book’s story and can also be applied to male characters, as in the following extract from “Letter to my Mother”:

“You lie beneath him,
a measure of mud between you.

This was our final argument – his and mine –
your husband/my step-father…”

A key tension clearly lies in the juxtaposition of your husband/my step-father. A statement of fact is charged with tremendous feeling.

The second part of the collection, while packed with well executed set pieces, inevitably cannot match the electric coherence and cohesion of the first part, although it is complemented by an excellent final long poem, titled “Mantra”, that takes reader and poet back to the first part of the book, literary, temporal and geographical journey meshed together, doubt and belief intertwined. The final lines linger long after their reading:

“…Mum stayed,
repeating her mantra to the mountains, for six months, maybe a year,
before the cord unravelled, and then she’d be free.”

Katrina Naomi’s The Way the Crocodile Taught Me shows that she is a compelling poetic storyteller, capable of creating intimacy via distance, layering characters, bringing them alive and generating emotional resonance.

Review by Richie McCaffery, The Compass

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Way the Crocodile Taught Me by Katrina Naomi, Spacecraft by John Mcculloch and Chan by Hannah Lowe

Review by Richie McCaffery

 

All three of these collections happen to be the follow-up books to widely critically lauded first collections, which puts them all also in a dangerous territory. Will each poet cement the reputation they gained with the first book, develop their voice in new ways or perhaps produce something that is secondary to that first collection?

On first reading, I was most drawn towards Katrina Naomi’s style. It feels to me the most accessible here – there is a condensed lyrical intensity to these poems and they are unafraid to make big dramatic disclosures to the reader. The problem step-father looms oppressively over the collection – we’re reminded on multiple occasions of his weight (‘17 stones’) and how he beat the speaker’s mother. The whole book reads in an elegiac light – an elegy for the speaker’s mother foremost, but also the speaker’s nan – and there’s an element of truth and reconciliation to the poems – that an anger has given way to a forgiveness of sorts:

… I can’t talk to you,
knowing he’s also there, listening,

All these years, his 17 stone
pressing down on you, crushing
the soil between you.
… I forgive you,
as I always have. I forgive you
for marrying him.

(from ‘Letter to my Mother’)

 

Though it’s less noticeable than in Lowe’s collection, there’s a clear narrative arc to these poems and the way they’re ordered. We begin with a few poems that hint at something foreboding, but are largely domestic vignettes of a sort of early happiness. For instance, in ‘2 Edinburgh Walk’ the young speaker is given the promise of a swing but we’re also made aware of the ‘jilted art’ (wonderful phrase!) of previous tenants in the form of burn marks from an iron on the kitchen floor. In ‘Memory, (Margate 1969)’ we’re given the most fleeting glimpse of nostalgia, but it’s also undercut with the threat of death. The speaker’s real father is taking a picture at the seaside and the family are posing, on the cusp of things about to fall apart:

Finally I understand     we are to smile
I stretch the muscles of my cheeks     they touch the fur
I don’t know if my sister smiles     she is so far below me
He jokes about stepping back     I know I would die
I stay where I am     take my sister’s small mitten in mine.

 

After that, things do fall apart, the father leaves and in come a succession of inept and often cruel step-fathers ending with the ‘17 stone’ tyrant. We hear how the speaker, after her father left, had to grow ‘a battery of hearts’ and that:

… the barbs of the heart that loved my father jut
as if from a pike’s lower lip,

a child’s heart
                        no larger than a grenade.

(from ‘The Romantic’)

 

Thereafter the speaker seeks solace and understanding in her nan and this gives rise to a long sequence of memories and elegies for her. However, even this is not simply wistful recollection – the poems unflinchingly chart her own decline in often searing and upsetting ways. And it’s here we are given the briefest hint that the speaker’s mother is dying of cancer. Thereafter, in the later sections the poems seem to lose focus somewhat and I don’t mean this as a criticism – the poet seems dramatically displaced and at a loss, looking around at the world for some sort of meaning. It’s easy to see how this fragmentation could happen, in harrowing poems like ‘The Bicycle’ where we are only given snippets of contexts but enough traumatic information to understand that a rape has taken place and the victim must pick themselves up and try to get back home on a bike they are too shaken and injured to ride. In ‘The History Teacher’ we learn of a butcher working as a history teacher who must censor the bloody parts from history for the sake of his class. This makes us as, readers of this frank and revealing collection, feel privileged. The book comes back to the theme of forgiveness in the long closing poem ‘Mantra’ where the speaker undertakes a spiritual odyssey, although the speaker’s belief in the hereafter is clearly absent.

Review by Ashley Owen, New Welsh Review

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Way the Crocodile Taught Me opens on an image of the marks careless people leave behind. In ‘2 Edinburgh Walk’, these are on kitchen tiles scorched by previous tenants. The narrator’s mother scrubs at them while redirecting the reader’s attention out of a window to a blank garden where one day, she promises, there will be a swing. The poem ends, and the swing never materialises; we are left only with the unfulfilled promise of that moment. Images like this dominate the first section of the book. The narrator’s voice is like that of someone trying to recall a memory by staring at a photograph: the depicted moments are clear, but also false. They do not always reflect her own recollections. In ‘Yellow Dahlias’, a photograph of the narrator’s mother emerging from a pool shows her a woman she both remembers and doesn’t recognise, and in ‘Memory, (Margate 1969)’, the narrator’s perspective turns a winter holiday scene into something more sinister. There is always a gap between the mood of the captured images and the emotional response evoked in the narrator – and in reading, I often found myself wishing Naomi would push further into that space and offer a more subtle exploration of the scenes presented, rather than the straightforward narrations she tends toward.

There are also gaps between memory and reality, most palpably felt in ‘The Fight Before my Sister’s Wedding’. The poem recounts a violent fight which, according to the narrator’s family, never happened – and this isn’t the first instance of their disbelief. One feels for the narrator’s isolation here, but there are other moments when her own subjectivity could be better explored. The narrator accepts that her parents filled different roles for different people, as mother and father, husband and wife, son and daughter, but never addresses these other perspectives, so different from but just as valid as her own. Her point of view remains largely uncomplicated. There are moments, however, that do push through this. After expressing so much anger at her grandmother’s harsh advice in ‘Her Advice After my Partner’s Breakdown’, the final line’s ‘And I never thanked you’ is a sucker punch, a painful admission that someone else could know her grief and confusion. ‘Full Strength’ deals with the grandmother’s passing, and describes an elaborate funeral ritual – ‘all possibly what she would have wanted.’ This ambiguity houses all the narrator’s grief at loving so fiercely someone who has slipped away from her, and acknowledges the subjectivity of perspective.

The second section continues in a similar vein, but loses the familial connection in favour of relating moments and observations that belong solely to the narrator. Its strongest moments echo the strengths of the first section: the dizzy, post-assault narration of ‘The Bicycle’ recalls ‘The Fight Before my Sister’s Wedding’ in both form and intensity; ‘Bestial’ offers another demonstration of Naomi’s ability to turn a poem on a dime with a single word, and ‘September’ is a quiet, bittersweet acknowledgement of loss.

The collection’s final section consists of a single long poem, ‘Mantra’, that follows the narrator into the Himalayas in search of a way to say goodbye. Here we see a culmination of all the collection’s central themes: isolation and loss, the burden of other people’s tragedies and the search for personal freedom. The poem’s final moments offer one of the most poignant images contained in the collection – poignant in part because of the implied ambiguity of the narrator’s future beyond the end of the page. She has released into death another family member, another voice that shaped her; where does she go, and who will she be from here? The Way the Crocodile Taught Me is a personal excavation, the unpacking of an attic trunk. By the end of the journey, the narrator is unburdened, but I find myself still wondering what she has learned.

Ashley Owen is a PhD candidate at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing. 

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