Fairies and Poems I: A Cinnamon Retrospective
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
A short time ago I recovered a large portion of my book collection, bringing the many tomes I’ve collected together after half a decade. A part of the books I got back included many copies of Cinnamon Press poetry. Before I moved to London from Wales, I had been reading these systematically, and reunited, resumed that project. I began again (this time alphabetically) with works from Gail Ashton, including an anthology she edited with Susan Richardson. And then, skipped ahead to Richardson’s other Cinnamon works. Four collections, two by each author, and the anthology, fitted together. Below is a retrospective in two parts of these works, which share common themes: reinterpreting myth, the limits of the human world, the necessity of story. I begin with In the Telling.
At first light she pinches our arms, crooning
my little sweetmeats …sugar tong crone.
(Rachel Bentham, ‘Gretel Takes Control’)
At 9 a. m. every morning in my room, I watch the windows
become skulls with the sun in their eyes. They are the
multiple personalities of God.
(Kristine Ong Muslim, ‘O is for Olga’)
On the blurb of their co-edited anthology, Richardson and Ashton find inspiration for In the Telling in a ‘certainty that between us and the rest of the world is only stories.’ Stories are key to not only this book, but the four others I will explore. Humour is also important, and the deep ties between the human capacity to find echoes between their lives and stories. Perhaps the best example here is Jane McLaughlin’s ‘The Arachnophobe’, which updates Little Miss Muffet so that it is found (amongst other anachronisms) that ‘a tuffet/ (a three-legged stool)/ did not conform/ to safety regulations/ and she must replace it/ immediately with a properly designed/ ergonomic chair/ with adjustable seat/ and choice of back positions.’ Mixed with mirth are moments of poignant insight, such as that in Charles P. Ries ‘In this movement of air’ which opens: ‘We stand in twilight/ knowing meaning will/ come as it always does.’ A good anthology unifies such disparate tones, and in that this book more than succeeds.
As with McLaughlin’s piece (and much of the material from later collections), many of the works are concerned with the resonances of the oldest tales. Barbara Dordi’s ‘Sleep, Beauty’, for example; the last stanza of which goes, ‘Spell cast, you left no documents/ to furnish sea-dog tales; just/ the jetty, ghostly silhouette now,/ creek silt-sinking under Progress,/ and five decades before the kiss.’ Many of the other examples of these fairy tale poems share such a similar focus on femininity as encountered in fables; just in the first half Rosie Garland’s ‘Lilith’, Gabriel Griffin’s ‘Medusa’s Garden’, Claudia Van Gerven’s ‘Grandma Cries Wolf’ and Heather Harrison’s ‘Seal Wife’. They all cleverly impose twists on the original material. ‘Me Daedalus, You Daughter’ by Lisa K Buchanan is an especially wry example.
The visceral and macabre aspects of myth are often apparent in this verse too. Elizabeth Speller’s ‘The Gloucestershire Argonauts’ gives the reader the textured impression of ‘moulds clustering in the flutes of curtains, sport-bursts/ smudged across a wall’ and in another poem by Van Gerven, ‘Flaming Sue’, we read how ‘Pain proclaimed the exactitude of nerves,/ expressed acutely/ the repetitions of innards.’ The selection shows an interest in the uncomfortable and how stories navigate even outright horror, from life’s degradations to wild, unfathomable forces. Nature, including that of our own bodies, is a particular through line. And again, will be so throughout all of these books.
Mine is the impress of a whole head on your shoulder,
the breathing over and over at your delicate ear.
My name is scratched here on your heart
inside the hollow of your chest.
Many of the poems in Ashton’s Ghost Songs are about holding on to those we lose, the importance and impossibility of that singular end. This can even be apparent at the level of titles such as ‘On this day in history’. What is hauntingly lost forever is recaptured powerfully in ‘Your face’ where from ‘that moment/ when I guessed you wouldn’t live/ I counted/ your freckles to keep/ the promise of your face/ down the years.’ The futility of grief, however, is also exposed with an acute pathos: ‘You’re arrested now/ only in family snapshots,/ fossilised, not memorised.’ Loss and hope are thus pitted in an intensely human, internal struggle.
In ‘Skin talk’ (the opening poem) touch becomes a means to transpose some portion of a person to another, something more permanent but also kept below the surface: ‘all you buried deep,/ the syntax of your life,/ now mine.’. One poem even takes this notion of grief as its refrain ‘I have a propensity for loss’; the elliptically suggestive title of which is ‘not taken’. This theme is apparent in the titular poem, which is also the final one (and is appropriately in communication with the first poem of the book in returning to this central idea):
mummy can’t you
of echo and valley
This poem with a repeating ABAB chorus, is also notably nursery rhythm-esque, while disconcertingly violent and mythic. Like the anthology Ashton edited with Richardson, there’s a taste for fairy tale subjects, replete again with subversions. Sleeping beauty as a chic but damaged school idol in ‘addictive’; the titular ‘Cinderella’ nihilistically diverts from convention; ‘Snow White, I’ voices a jealous loss; ‘Story of Griselda’, which, a note at the end explains, is from a ‘tale popular in a number of medieval stories and in folk lore’ whereby Griselda is cruelly tested by her husband, and ‘Rapunzel’ bold from chemo and dying. These are clustered together, and form a sort of unacknowledged series. They also reinforce the dominant note of being haunted, lost, torn—they are about women coping (or not) with trauma and bereavement.
And every ordinary penguin
felt a tingle in its wings,
a thawing of primordial memories,
till they soared,
like born-again angels.
The poet Ann Drysdale’s forward to Richardson’s Creatures of the Intertidal Zone stresses that this is a free verse collection and that its qualities (its sounds and rhythms) demand to be read aloud. During October of 2008 I had the pleasure of hearing the poet do just that, and concur with Drysdale’s assessment; it is a collection that demands voice. Another side Drysdale stresses is that this is a collection about journeys. Aptly, it commences with a sequence that charts the travels of ‘Gudrid the Rare’ and moves quickly to another such sequence, ‘The Longest Flight’ (both of which can be heard, in the poet’s voice, online).
A third sequence, ‘Freydis the Unafraid’ takes up the point of view of Gudrid’s sister; we encounter her left behind by her sibling, eager to prove herself. She dismisses the Abrahamic God recently introduced to her society and repeats the refrain ‘I’m daughter of Eirik the Red.’ In the course of events, she shows courage and lives up to an ideal that is outside the gender role imposed on her, but affirms a different conservativism that culminates in a massacre. And later in the book are more sequences, a form Richardson has powerfully mastered; one favourite is ‘So long as all you want is a penguin’s egg’. It features a concrete poem, ‘3. No Place Like’, which is formatted in the shape of the egg in question.
There’s humour and playfulness here too. In ‘Bookshop Blues’, we find a poem narrated by Penguin Publisher’s avatar, ‘Let’s have “No Logo” says Naomi Klein./ Let’s leave a gap where right now I belong./ I wish I could leave this book’s orange spine./ It’s time someone thought up a new design.’ (Penguins are something of a motif for Richardson.) My favourite of the penguin poems is also more shocking. ‘Metamorphosis’, which recalls to me Jo Shapcott splendidly Ovidesque shape-changing poem ‘Goat’, depicts a visceral, fleshy alteration; ‘Breasts blend with belly, waist, hips./ I’m lugging a two-fifty-litre rucksack/ in an outsize black wetsuit and wellies./ My tears taste of fish.’ It’s at once enrapturing and painful. As metamorphosis (the key theme of the second part of this review) ought to be.
In the titular poem we encounter a very different creature, a monstrous one belying beings that in truth ‘specialise in disguise, defy categorisation’ and, for all those reasons, are reviled by a humanity that too easily passes over stranger wonders. Wryly, this entity has its own designs, to ‘always endeavour to fight, bite back, sting/ those rude rock poolers who poke, provoke grimace// but can’t even say my name.’ The monstrous, especially the embodiedness of the monstrous, often features. In ‘Baggage Claim’, for example, even an airport becomes creaturely: ‘At the airport’s large-intestinal tract,/ we wait for what we packed yesterday’. Travel is something that often happens in this book, but it is additionally used to explore the otherness of the world, and in particular the awe of a world so ripe with life, unplumbed, sometimes threatening, but always enchanting. The poetic, pantheistic vision in ‘Thought for the Day’, a wry reference to a BBC theology radio show, directly relates to us this conception of our situatedness in a verdant but often hostile universe:
God’s the chick which will die, if it leaves
its parent’s pouch, in under a minute.
God’s the blubber that keeps this parent alive:
god can swim in seas of forty degrees Fahrenheit