Attention to detail and recreation of atmosphere in poems such as ‘The Wood Carver’ allow the reader to share the poet’s experiences. We can see “The metallic green of a Mallard’s head” and smell “the burning wood in the workshop.” There is loss and heartbreak, but love and humanity shine through to create an ultimately uplifting debut from a poet with a compelling lyric voice whose observations are beautiful and powerful.
Poet and Editor (Magma Literary Journal)
Lisa Kelly is on the editorial board of Magma Literary journal. She is currently editing a forthcoming edition devoted to poems about hearing and deafness (Lisa is partially deaf herself) in collaboration with Raymond Antrobus. She is also a frequent host of the poetry events on Sundays at the Torriano Meeting House, Kentish Town, London, and teaches a monthly poetry workshop there.
The self in the outfit creates its own excitement and drama, which is a good way of showing how the outer image of the dress affects the inner emotional state:
‘satisfied, her aunt whisks off to paparazzi loiter in the living room’.
Throughout this collection the body and the image it makes is rarely static. The fact that it moves adds to the believability and the theatrics of its situations:
‘Leant arms sweat slew off table as if tipsy’.
There is hyper-awareness of how the persona’s own presented image contrasts with that of other women:
‘Q-tip thin in linen shifts; they cat walk the city’.
Self-confidence is frequently a precarious business. Clothes are a minefield and often can’t be trusted, for example:
‘folds do not camouflage but balloon me to morbidly obese’.
Clothes are always a matter of judgement:
‘Envy prickles as I dig into my chocolate pudding,’
Their emotional value cuts deep.
The description of clothes is exquisite, as in…
‘Collar secured by midnight velvet tie’.
‘Midnight’ also evokes the romance of night life. We all put on clothes to become someone else:
‘peacock strutting over to buy a girl a drink,
them stroking his cony soft shoulder length hair
as he Jagger charmed them’.
Sometimes the person behind the clothes is elusive:
‘full visor slapped down like a knight into battle,’
and reality changes with the fantasy of each outfit. Life is lived in and out of the dressing-up box.
On rare occasions, though, the free verse line endings aren’t firm enough:
‘We line up before loo mirrors like show girls in’.
The dangling ‘in’ would be better on the next line. Yet other lines and their pacing are tremendous,
‘Irena, a language teacher, pins into place
with a lepidopterist’s care her fine hair, dyed russet,
permed to counterfeit volume’.
Despite the darkness of many of these poems, especially ones about the mother and daughter relationship, Sinclair balances their moods with a real wit:
‘She informs us Cosmetic surgery is cheap at home,
on retirement she intends to return from Prague looking rested’.
Make-up too is an act of creation, pure artifice:
‘Setting to work with brushes, colour, her self-portrait begins’.
Items take on characters of their own, sometimes pleasant, other times dangerous:
‘Pet-able fox pelt; big bad wolf skin’.
Associations are very affecting. Though clothes have a relationship to our fantasy life, these poems don’t shy away from the brutality of the real world and its poverty:
‘as for getting a job, she soon found no employer
could imagine Elizabeth Taylor selling sweaters’.
There is no sentimentality here. Clothes create identity and their herstories are narratives that make sense of it all but clothes are also agents of power:
‘despite wincing at each bread knife slash,
she remained adamant that no other woman would enjoy’ [them].
That fashion dates along with people is sad. There is a constant struggle to re-draw the self:
‘whilst you attempt to align Picasso eyes with liner’.
And objects are also far from passive. Some have a quicksand effect:
‘But in Top Shop a rogue looking glass ambushes you’.
A casual walk through a shop is overtaken by the process of managing disappointments.
The minimising of female expectations is another unhappy note:
‘You’d make an excellent sales girl dear
so Top Shop, Miss Selfridge, Snob…
marking time until marriage’.
The role of daughterhood is not an easy fit,
‘No trace yet of mother’s corrective genes,
but my father in drag’.
Being young is being lost.
There are some rhythms that stumble rather than glide, impairing easy reading,
‘disturbs the once white now ghost grey suit’
In contrast there are some wonderful original lines that are very well worked out,
‘but still a glitter-ball glint in his eye
when hand Freudian-slips dial from radio 4 to 2.’
Joy is another recurring emotion. The style of décor is also for dressing up experiences. Sinclair gets a splendid tone of camp just right, in this line:
‘I scoff the sundae’s whipped cream head; ogle pink-lit Liberace shell-encrusted fountain.’
Even eating needs its stage-set.
There is real subtlety:
‘I have gradually given ground to my weight,’
‘ground’ implying gravity, a profound choice of word. The very sound of it spreads out in the line.
Some lines are psychologically astute:
‘so you witness-protected your identity’
about a gay man’s public image contrasting with the private. The ordinariness of life is to be overcome by the putting on of clothes.
‘A Talent For Hats’ is a treat to read, full of glitz, frankness, fun and tragedy, with characters so well-drawn that you feel you have known them for some time. These are vivid poems with real panache. The use of language and its precision has genuine magic. Few other poets would mix these elements to create such a seamless whole.
Christopher Barnes co-edits the poetry magazine Interpoetry ( http://www.interpoetry.com/ ). Mentored by Andy Croft of the Morning Star's 'Well Versed' feature, he has contributed poetry reviews and performances in a number of gay and lesbian forums, broadcasts and art and photography events, including a film called 'A Blank Screen, 60 seconds, 1 shot' for Queerbeats Festival at The Star & Shadow Cinema, Newcastle, art criticism for Peel and Combustus Magazines and the Creative Engagement In Research Programme Research Constellation exhibitions of writing and photography which showed in London (March 13 2012) and Edinburgh (July 4 2013) see http://www.researchconstellation.co.uk/
Osada’s enthusiasm for nature can run away with him at times, with words like “wonderful” and “lovely” occasionally popping up, overlooked intruders in an otherwise-manicured lawn. ‘A Change in the Weather’ comes with an unexpected twist at the end: “We lie and wait for ragged dawn - / Together, but with separate thoughts / Aware, our love, like summer’s gone.”
The second section, ‘At a Time of Unrest’, is a looser collection of poems that is perhaps bound together by reflections on aspects of modern life. ‘About the House’ notes that the former stately home of Nancy Astor, Cliveden, beside the Thames, now attracts “weekend hordes”, when it previously hosted the likes of those who arrived by helicopter or limo. There is no direct mention of the 60s antics of John Profumo, the Russian naval attache, and Christine Keeler there; only “a shadow on the terrace” and “a sudden gust of wind” to suggest those ghosts. You can book a Profumo Affair Break there now, according to the website. Other poems in this section fondly recall Dansette record players, the darning of clothes to make them last, or are amused by tattoos, and people apparently talking to themselves in the street. Smuggled in among these are the more disturbing ‘Secret’, about a haunted childhood, and ‘Truce’, in which the poet searches “in vain for love’s green shoots”.
The final section ‘Keepsake’ covers familiar ground for those of a certain age; discovering new aspects of a parent’s life when clearing their effects, the changes evident in successive visits to care homes. But these are poems that it is still necessary for those involved to write; and Osada has brought freshness to this well-trodden territory. ‘Private History’ finds “photos we’d not seen … a world and places we’ve not been … a family we’ll not know”. It goes on:
And, from the war, escaping through thick snow.
No pictures mark your trip across the sea
But next, in England, working on a plane.
Lots of your squadron – “fighters for the free” –
There are more of his father’s memories of Poland in ‘Beneath Limes’. Osada also finds himself reflecting on a poignant change of roles in ‘The Reading Test’ when his mother, a former headteacher, is examined by an ex-pupil. ‘Easter Moon’ provides the arresting image of a “moon-breast rising on an x-ray screen / With a shadow – a cloud, like an eclipse.” ‘Visiting’ addresses his mother in her care home: “Teaching was your life and all those children / still come to you for lessons … every one, /in cupboards, behind curtains, they are waiting / for visitors to leave this empty room.”
Another poem, ‘Inheritance’, concludes: “You would know we’d clear your house / And buried secrets we’d dig out.” A sense of discoveries as well as things that still need explaining runs as a hidden theme through this collection. Changes is the title that Patrick Osada has chosen for this book – but for me, an alternative could have been Secrets. It is a book that richly deserves re-reading, much more than a second glance.
Greg Freeman is a writer and poet. whose recent collection, 'Train Spotters' has been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing. This article was first published on the Write Out Loud website, where Greg has worked as an editor for several years. He hosts the Write Out Loud Poetry Open Mic at the New Inn in Send, Woking, on the third Monday of each month.
These themes of female self-doubt and unhappiness continue throughout the collection; she explores hidden levels of being, of subcutaneous fear, double lives and emotional deals, where looks trump everything else, and where the writer will never be beautiful because she doesn’t feel beautiful. In these highly emotional pieces, women both use men for gain and are used by them, negotiating affairs, and receiving gifts for services rendered. This last theme is brutally observed in “Eternity…”
“Now as the tightropes between state pensions,
topaz is still dumped on dressing table,
sapphires still abandoned by wash basins,
but the eternity removed only when she showers,
or when the young man who chucks her heart
to the back of his mind comes over to fuck her.”
And in “How to Live with Mirrors” again, she articulates the price women pay emotionally for aging:
“At 56, you know most middle-aged women now
exchange primping before mirrors for
frowning at bulging bellies….
But once a day you face yourself in a mirror,
selected for its benevolence….
Sometimes the glass is gentle you have strayed into mutton,
But most days not bad for an old bird.”
Here, boldly and poignantly written is the understanding that beneath a woman’s outward appearance and smart excuses, there lurks the fear that she is losing her power to attract, that the beauty of her youth inexorably, inevitably fades, taking her power with it. All of us older women who have experienced these feelings will understand what Sinclair is articulating so well here.
In “Staying Alive”, again, youth is remembered, this time from a male perspective:
“Catching disco fever in his 30’s
dance classes to learn the moves,” moves forward
“Easing into his 60’s in chinos and crew neck,
he takes night classes in local history,
but still a glitter-ball glint in his eye…”
Yes, the body still resonates to what it experienced decades before, and what brought it to life then. Again, all of us who look back on youthful sartorial expression and how this has changed as we grow older will relate to this.
Other pieces, like “Greedy Cow” look at the sadness in a relationship when food replaces sex, the death of love, and the fear of being alone. And in “Clothed in Memories” Sinclair shows her talent for exploring memories in a unique way, using the device of 60’s clothing. It is an economically written piece which has some terrific images:
“….Hendrix Hussar jackets,
Bowie spangled stacks, Jagger velvet flares,
Accessorised by hair so long your grandad
Thought he was a girl from the back…”
But this exploration of female value and status comes to a crashing downward halt in “Certificate of Value”, which succeeded in making me cross (although perhaps that was the point of the piece). She starts,
“For years, ignorant that my marital status
had colleagues gossiping Does she have someone?
Or caused speculation over my sexual oritentation
in the Sixth Form common room…”
which goes on to write about friends pronouncing her ‘very independent’ as she spent weekends alone watching DVD’s and ‘squired by G and T’. And then,
“Suddenly at 55 you pitch up,
a knight in slightly tarnished armour”
which leads to engagement and marriage, and the thought expressed in the final three lines
“The marriage certificate, it seems,
trounces mature student A levels, degrees…
as I finally succeed in becoming a wife.”
While the piece is keenly observed, I find the notion this a woman only achieves value and status once she manages to find/secure a husband regardless of what else she has achieved in her life, a really irritating one. Reading these final lines made me want to scream out loud, although I’m aware that Sinclair was doubtless writing with tongue firmly in her cheek.
While I like the collection overall, and feel Sinclair has excellent observational powers, which totally nail a woman’s fears and insecurities, particularly as she grows older, together with the double standards we are all party to, by the time I reached the end of the collection I felt rather overwhelmed by the relentlessness of her central message. Having said that, “A Talent for Hats” is certainly a collection that has a lot to say and says it very well, and is well worth reading.
Agnes Meadows is a poet, editor and performance poetry host of extensive experience, both in the UK where she currently lives, and internationally. She is the host of the women's writers group LOOSE MUSE. You can read more on her website, here.