At first I didn’t really understand why ‘A Talent for Hats’ was the title poem in Fiona Sinclair’s latest collection, given that its main themes seemed to concentrate on firmly on female insecurity and fear related to physical appearance.
But when I read it properly, I understood it was a perfect choice, as it’s a witty and self-deprecating piece in which Sinclair underlines her exceptional talent for observation in the comparisons between her and her mother’s and grandmother’s relationship with hats and physical beauty.
“My mother could not wear hats,
Their beauty somehow at odds with her own,”
she opens, explaining how hats rendered her mother less lovely, reducing her to “the ranks of the ordinary”, whereas
“Grandmother’s prettiness, however, worked
With millinery to mutual benefit,”
she continues in the second stanza, explaining in the third and final stanza,
“I have inherited her talent for hats…
Hatted I am plain-Jane transformed…
I come closer, in red bowler or purple fedora,
to mother and grandmother’s glamour,
proving I can make heads turn too..”
“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.