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Susan Utting's Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems reviewed by Ruth Sharman in The High Window, Autumn 2017 edition

Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems by Susan Utting. £10. Two Rivers Press. ISBN: 9781909747258
 

Susan Utting's new collection includes some forty new poems plus a selection from her three earlier books. There is so much here to enjoy. Just a glance at the scattering of epigraphs - references to Edward Thomas, Giacometti, Wittgenstein, Shakespeare, Soutine, Gloria Steinem, the MP Jo Cox... - gives a sense of the varied inspiration underlying a collection whose generosity - eighty poems in total - is matched by the breadth and richness of the poet's vision and by the sheer exuberance of her language.

The title poem reflects the bias of the new work, which picks up and develops themes from the earlier collections relating to women's lives. Joining the ranks of striptease artist, florist's assistant, the wonderful 'Bathers of the Ladies' Pond' are the school misfits and anorexics, the scullery maid, the girls killing time at the bus stop, the woman who - rather typically of her kind - feels the need to keep saying sorry. There is a quiet feminism at work here, celebrating that female characteristic of 'managing small things', the ability to make do, to 'thrive on other people's leftovers', to be so much more than the product of men's imaginings, 'sweethearts, dolls... posable, blow-up generous... nice arse, a lovely pair', as 'Half the Human Race' concludes, with an abruptness that emphasises how much more there is to be said: '...Say we're all / of this and none of it and more, and this / is nothing like the end of it. Say'"

Utting is particularly good on feelings of alienation and ennui - being in the wrong place with the wrong person at the wrong time. 'Their Separate Ways, after a painting by Eileen Cooper, concludes:

They both know their nakedness
for what it is: it is a small bird
between them, caught up in the cup
of his right hand, a bird with a sharp
beak, untidy feathers, half-stretched
wings about to, struggling, to fly.

The broken syntax of the last line conveys the physical and emotional dis-ease of the situation, the difficulty of actually breaking away. And this poem is mirrored on the next page by one ("Becoming") in which the bird motif has now become the central metaphor, where the woman-turned-owl, "lulled by the rhythm of window-pane water" (no longer recognised as rain),

... listens, hears, knows
her brothers' song, their call across cold air.
She stretches the wing of her arm, settles, waits
for her tongue's quiver, its shrill reply

- the dropped last line emphasising her startling transition into an alien form.

Utting focuses on the minutiae of our everyday lives, at home among domestic objects and ordinary routines, but capable of imbuing the familiar with a wonderful freshness. The most ordinary events become rich and intriguing thanks to visually precise description - condensation on a windowpane, poignantly linked to her father's propensity for crying, or the experience of having one's hair washed and cut, which she links to the lightness felt at the end of an affair... And, as in 'Becoming', a dreamlike strangeness stalks a number of poems. In 'For the Punters' (from Striptease), another kind of metamorphosis occurs, in which the striptease artist begins again from naked, stripping off skin and flesh, while in 'My Mother's House' (from Houses Without Walls) the poet's mother is losing her grip on reality, a process reflected in the surreal quality of her surroundings, her wardrobe 'full of ball-gowns, / sandwiches and biscuit barrels full of instant coffee' and 'granulated sugar in her dancing shoes'.

As moving as these earlier poems about the vulnerability of an ageing mother or the lovely 'Spoon-Maker's Daughter' (from Striptease) remembering the poet's father with his 'head too full of memories to remember' are poems in the new work dealing with the loss of an unborn child. This is difficult subject matter, which Utting succeeds in addressing in a fresh way, avoiding the least hint of mawkishness. 'Products of Conception' sets up an effective counterpoint between terse medical questions and the poet's frantic searches in odd places for something small mislaid, like loose change, and her efforts to piece back together words torn up by the shredder and now only forming a broken patchwork of painful meanings. In the mirror poem, on the opposite page, 'The Ones that Got Away', the poet expresses sorrow for their loss as much as her own, ending:

You have your reasons, so I'll let you go, quiet
as lambs, not a peep or a whimper, while I stay
here, tight-lipped against the almost of you,
against its sting, sharp as yesterday, as sure.

The American poet Mark Doty commented recently that it is easy to finish a poem too soon rather than running with an idea and seeing where it goes. Utting is never guilty of this, never short on ideas. Take the exuberant 'Self-Portrait as a Ticked Box' in which she thinks of all the colourful ways in which she could describe who she is and where she has come from rather than limiting herself to ticking a single box in a questionnaire. That said, Utting's poems are absolutely considered - down to their very sequencing - and tight as a drum. Her language is both precise and inventive, qualities reflected in a predilection for Larkinesque compounds. 'Look at her flirt in her flash-vivid bolero, / lash-flutter, hair-flick and kiss-me-soft smile' begins 'Picture of My Mother as a Young Woman' (from Fair's Fair), continuing in a giddy rush of such couplings. And the brilliance of Utting's metaphors - that owl-woman in 'Becoming', for example - is matched by the freshness of her similes: the sound of traffic 'like the smudge of downstairs / conversation after lights out', peeping Toms dropping 'like plums' out of the trees by the Ladies' Pond, an inrush of cool air into a room like 'petals fallen on dry earth, their cool / restfulness after all that blowsy flowering'.

A neighbourhood pub, a visit to the hairdresser's, moisture on a windowpane, a bunch of tulips - none of these things remain ordinary in Utting's hands. Thanks to her enthusiasm for language and for life itself, for the very fabric of life, she can be trusted to tackle the most mundane subject matter and wake us up to its importance.

 

Ruth Sharman lives in Bath, where she works as a freelance editor and French translator. Her poems have appeared in various anthologies including Staple First Editions. Her Birth of the Owl Butterflies, her first full-length collection, was published by Picador. The title poem won second prize in the Arvon International Poetry Competition and also appears on one of the International Baccalaureate's English exam papers. Her second collection, Scarlet Tiger, was the winner of Templar Poetry's Straid Collection Award for 2016.

 

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