Poetry review: 15/05/20
by Laura Kestrel
An exploration of the political through a paradigm of the intensely personal.
Turn-Stiles And Turn-Around Smiles, Laura Kestrel’s second poetry collection, is an exploration of the political through a paradigm of the intensely personal. Split into three sections - Stiles, Spiles and Smiles, with a substantial epilogue - it leads the reader first through the obstacles one might encounter in family life and relationships, then through the philosophising these obstacles may necessitate (a spile, it turns out, is a peg used to wedge shut a cask), then through to smiles, her concluding thoughts. In each section there are some unifying themes and concerns - identity, interplay between the sexes, obsessive intrusive thoughts, and in particular, how these issues resonate within the body. This is a visceral, fleshly collection, rooted firmly in the corporeal, making repeated reference to tendons, ligaments, heads, guts.
Increasingly, poetry is being produced and consumed as an experience to be enjoyed at festivals and in bars, rather than as a written product, and Laura Kestrel finds herself firmly within the centre of this metamorphosis. I have seen Laura perform, and she can certainly command a stage and a crowd. This collection makes use of the internal rhymes, complex rhythms, puns that are not quite jokes, reminiscent of rap, so prevalent in the spoken word scene. The resurgence in spoken word has seen many young people, particularly women, identifying themselves as poetry fans, with sales of poetry books up by almost 50% since 2014, two-thirds of buyers younger than 34, and it is to them, I suspect, this collection must be pitched, for much of it, on first reading, made me feel ancient and jaded. In 'My Body, My Hair', she traces her relationship with her body hair, dark and pronounced thanks to her Italian heritage, setting her apart as an outsider at school, a feeling intensified by the “pristine plastic of playthings, and the/unrealistic expectations of dolls”. A first boyfriend means hours in the bathroom:
Gazing awkwardly upwards at my pubic bone.
Trying to remove all trace that its offensive hair ever existed,
As if trying to simultaneously
Embrace both adulthood and pre-puberty.
Until the realisation, brought on by an unexpected sleepover and forgotten razor, that:
“I love you, and no amount of body hair changes that”.
It was really empowering
To know that we could (and did) have sex Wherever and whenever we chose
Because our body hair didn’t define us.
For a middle-aged woman the idea that sexual encounters aren’t invariably predicated on preparatory flesh-defluffing isn’t exactly revelatory. But nonetheless I enjoyed the way this tiny, trivial moment was used to explore identity, race, gender equality, relationships, all through the poet’s eager, newly opened eyes.
Explorations of race resonate throughout this work - Laura describes her heritage as akin to an “artist’s palette” in 'I’m English-Italian', and revels in “The wonderful genetic tapestry/That flows throughout my body” - the struggles and divergent fortunes of her grandparents, now stamped on her own hair and skin. As much as this collection is rooted firmly in the present, there are plenty of nods to the history that created her present self - consider Rich, in the epilogue, a snappy, energetic paean to her father, which cries out to be heard rather than read:
Now, let me tell you a story
Of how a young country boy got rich quick
With slick-thinking and coffee-drinking luck.
Laura explores many different forms throughout this work. I enjoyed her shopping list, where intrusive obsessive thoughts, apparently entirely unrelated to her purchases, kept interfering with the mundane, her need to get busy: it provided a neat insight into the obsessive mindset. We also see her make use of diary entries, prose, haikus, and, most intriguingly, a “Choose your own adventure poem” in the epilogue, which exhorts the reader to choose either love or fear and make their own poem - increasingly it becomes apparent there is very little distinction between love and fear, as the verses blend and echo one another in rhythms, themes and rhyme schemes. It’s a clever, subtle way of exploring an age old concern, and an interesting use of form. In 'The Mind Taken', she imagines dementia addressing one of its victims, taking delight in its capacity for destruction, likening it to the parasite finding the perfect host:
I hold the trident which tarnishes clear-cut images of days gone by
Change is my weapon of choice
And I use it ruthlessly, without mercy.
Repeatedly Laura turns to the notion that we are all reborn, remade, our skins shed every nine months or so; that we should welcome arrivals at airports with the same fervour and excitement for the future’s promise as we welcome newborn babies. It’s a touching idea, intriguingly expressed. Why, indeed, does this jubilation at new life: “Come rather at the start, than during the middle/ part, when all hearts are all in it, and no-one’s/ ever despondent./A momentary, customary period of pure, cruel kindness.”
She returns to this theme in 'Leg-work', in which she admonishes those who tell her to choose between head and heart:
After all, there are much too many changeable factors
To be given a choice of only two options….
No matter if you’re old or young
Aren’t we all just ‘matter’, who matter to someone?
Her fresh, simple naivety challenges us to see the special in the ordinary. Many of her best pieces are pastoral in tone, and often find her rueing the move from nature to technology, the way humans have chosen to colonise and destroy huge swathes of the planet, as well as other species, for their own convenience:
You see, the bovine male is just for veal
Just made to be packaged, not creatures who feel
Baby deer the most succulent venison
And dear humans responsible for inhumane manslaughter
Hardly a romanticised poem by Yeats or Tennyson.
The word poetry derives from the Greek “to make”, and increasingly making poetry has become an act of creating communities, as much as the words around which they gather. Innovative, quick-witted, a pleasure to watch and to hear, I don’t doubt the words of Laura Kestrel will inspire a community to gather about her, and watch her grow in stature.
Review: Melissa Todd
Laura Kestrel – TURN-STILES AND TURN-AROUND SMILES
ISBN 978 169 279 7935