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Zoë Brigley reviews Tishani Doshi, Deborah Alma and Polly Atkin

Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods
Tishani Doshi
Bloodaxe, £9.95

Dirty Laundry
Deborah Alma
Nine Arches, £9.99

Basic Nest Architecture
Polly Atkin
Seren, £9.99

The three collections reviewed here subvert normative cultural narratives, and engage readers with certain kinds of complexity. Tishani Doshi raises questions about the expectation for BAME poets to provide particular kinds of digestible stories. Deborah Alma provides a compelling portrait of the sexuality of middle aged women, and Polly Atkin challenges assumptions about the poet’s speaking voice and biography, especially regarding disabilities.

How can I express my delight then on reading Tishani Doshi’s Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods? It is a tour-de-force, both revealing and elusive, with a gorgeous, inventive use of sensuous description, and a commanding yet amusing speaker.

The girls of the collection’s title are also a call for redress in an age of Tarana Burke’s movement, #metoo:

——-[…] Girls
——-are coming out of the woods
——-with panties tied around their lips,
——-making such a noise, it’s impossible
——-to hear. Is the world speaking too?

The tone of the poems is serious and mournful at times, but it still seeks joy. Its laughter brought to mind Sara Ahmed’s recommendation that we must find joy “in places that are not deemed worthy.” Girls… challenges conventional happiness narratives through the figure of the woman who chooses not to have children. For example, Considering Motherhood While Falling Off a Ladder in Rome begins “with knowledge,/ that every rib of shame/ would smash against the floor,” but ends “in breath,/ tempestuous, forbidden breath.” What a relief that the speaker is not traumatized by her childless state as established scripts demand (even if it might be a complex, difficult decision), but she finds exultation by the end.

Finding joy is a significant aspect of Girls…. The epigraph of the collection quotes R.S. Thomas’s January, where a fox’s blood in the snow becomes something ugly, then decorous: “Soft as excrement, bold as roses.” The phrase is repeated in the book’s dedication to Doshi’s Welsh mother, and it captures the complexity exhibited throughout the book. The voice of the poems, however, is more reminiscent of fifteenth-century Welsh poet Gwerful Mechain: full of laughter, mockery, and self-mockery. So, in To My First White Hairs, the speaker addresses the culprits, the hairs themselves, to speak of human vulnerability.

Alongside poems about individuals’ experiences are poems that seem more collective, where choreographer Chandralekha (with whom Doshi worked for six years) seems relevant. Doshi has spoken in interview about the rigorous discipline in her work with the internationally renowned choreographer, but Chandralekha is also renowned for creating ‘disjunctive relationships’ between various traditions, cultural forms, and modes of dance, and was dedicated to performing critiques of patriarchy and imperialism. Monsoon Poem was especially intriguing in this context, since it invites a Western outsider to view a romantic portrait of India, only to subvert that with descriptions of mud and mosquitoes and “dogs who’ve been fucking on the beach,/ locked in embrace like an elongated Anubis”. Doshi refuses stereotypes, or palatable ideas about what should be included in a poem about India, and concludes by noting how cultural stereotypes have lived repercussions in terms of narrow, normative ideas about race and gender.

Roles and norms are also significant in Deborah Alma’s Dirty Laundry, and what great pleasure there is to be had in these bawdy, sensuous poems. Tackling the complexity of love, ageing and desire, these earthy poems inhabit the space of towns, gardens, chicken coups, churchyards, car parks and sitting rooms, and they present a no-nonsense, defiant and passionate speaker.

Many of the poems are frank about sexuality and the body in a refreshing way. I put a pen in my cunt once defies the sexual policing of women and girls, and reframes the act of writing with a masturbatory image:

——-long hands stroke
——-my words to sour cream
——-this is what it wrote

Another poem, The Head of the Church in Rome, undermines patriarchal power through imagining the popes’ penises pickled in jars. The poem is reminiscent of Sharon Olds’ poem The Pope’s Penis, and Alma has a disarming frankness in common with Olds. Alma’s poems, however, are devoted to British, small-town life. This includes closeness to nature, and to the little deaths of animals, like the chickens in Flock dedicated to the memory of Jo Cox, or the moles in Writing Poems.

Mortality and ageing are significant themes, and Alma rejects narrow roles allotted to women in middle age. This feeling is clear in the platitudes of Fridge Magnet, in a couple’s lackluster encounter in Dirty Laundry, and in a friend’s rebuke for being foolish in love in Like Chocolate. Most moving perhaps though is Nearly Love, where the speaker responds to her family’s demands to continue a passionless relationship.

——-I will not drink from the cup
——-that comes in small tiptoes
——-and black shoes, that sits
——-at the end of the bed, waiting;
——-its mouth an oh of ordinary;
——-comfort and safety and sex;
——-a drug of slowing, of rest, like death
——-already come

Alongside the poems about middle age, there are also poems about “growing up mixed-race”, which describe the child in the mother’s eyes as a “blonde doll,” separate and isolated from other members of the family. Roshan describes the complexity of people assuming one to be white: “a shake of bells at my feet,/ not quite heard, the light not quite seen”. Pink Pyjama Suit considers the awkwardness of a five year old told to “show the children/ my clothes from Pakistan”. The relationship of the child/speaker and the mother is a fraught one, though external forces must work on that relationship too: the mother who will not kneel to dress her daughter in Mustard Cardigan. Most certain on the grounds of sexuality and gender, Alma’s narrators have to fight for their autonomy and, when they do find joy, it is “strong as blackbirds” (In Sex We Sin).

Polly Atkin’s narrators in Basic Nest Architecture are more elusive, devoting themselves to recording specific experiences in the external, natural world, but offering a surprising turn in poems near the end. The poems have a quiet musicality, employing litany, lists, refrains, and interesting shapes and gaps on the page. The opening poem follows Atkin’s own journey from London to Cumbria where she now lives, and seems Darwinian in its description of the city as hive. Titled Colony Collapse Disorder, it conveys a mechanistic, bleak portrait of the metropolis in comparison with wild spaces:

——-Friends visit and tell me that elsewhere is death
——-and the sky cannot feed me. Not indefinitely.
——-Their eyes are blown bulbs. They rattle. I smell
——-honey on their skin and know how it is.

The poems that follow are selfless, devoted to bees, paths, birds, snow, kindling, horses, deer, roadkill, lakes, stars and especially rabbits, and they all teeter against a sense of risk, danger and vulnerability in the wilderness for the creatures that inhabit the land.

Among these poems devoted to nature, a quiet speaking voice begins to make itself heard, first in poems that thrill in the loneliness of wild, uninhabited places. When I Lived Alone is subversive in celebrating solitariness:

——-me and the house, being good together.
——-I slept curled up against the cool
——-stretch of its ribs like a cub. It breathed
——-gently into me. …

In comparison, In the city I was born in struggles with the metropolis, the speaker imagining herself as a spider in the yawning maw of the urban, while Moon Salutation praises a return to the countryside.

The architecture of the collection’s ordering makes a fascinating move at this point, introducing a series of poems where reality is slightly off-kilter, where dreams are spiders (Dreams), horses chink and shatter (Tiny Glass Horses), fox carcasses come back to life (Other People Dream of Foxes), and plastic dolls are babies (Doll Parts). The book gradually closes the gap between the internal life of the speaker and sublime encounters with the external world.

The end of the collection, when Atkin finally allows her narrator to reveal a little more, is remarkable. Poems like Begin, Cannulation, and The Test document – in a slanted manner – the experience of living with chronic illness. The third rabbit poem, Rabbit in hiding, suddenly brings together the skittish, vulnerable rabbit, and the narrator who stumbles on the drive, and can no longer tell what is rock and what is animal. Atkin’s collection is surprising because the structure of the book refuses to confess, but adds to the complexity of the poems by holding back the revelation of a speaker’s personal struggles.

Most interesting in all three collections is how they elude expectations about the stories they are supposed to tell, and assumptions about their specific identities. Critiquing William Logan’s review of Ocean Vuong, Paisley Rekdal (for the Asian American Writers Workshop) recently warned against making assumptions about writers based on their biographies. When Tishani Doshi refuses to write a “monsoon poem,” when Deborah Alma refuses to regurgitate stereotypes of middle-aged women, when Atkin refuses to centre her book on the experience of chronic illness, they are doing work which is valuable not only for poetry but for culture generally in rejecting myths about race, gender, and disability.


Zoë Brigley Thompson is Assistant Professor at the Ohio State University. She has two poetry collections The Secret (2007) and Conquest (2012). Her third collection and her nonfiction essays are forthcoming in 2019.

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