Author: Catherine Edmunds
Publisher: Erbacce Press
Reviewer: Mandy Pannett
How to Win at Kings Cross by Catherine Edmunds is a stunningly rich poetry collection. Among the qualities that most impress me are its variety of themes and styles, an originality of approach and, most of all, an exuberance and freshness of voice in every one of the pages.
The first poem in the book shares the title of the collection. Here we have many of the characteristics found elsewhere. An immediate sense of urgency and pace is induced by the use of repetition – a technique which this poet excels at. ‘The trick is to enter at Granary Square’ is the opening and repeated line. Already we are in a modern, fast moving, urban setting where trickery counts in a game the narrator is reluctant to play.
Unusual details catch the reader’s attention. Swans and cygnets on Regent’s Canal swim ‘at half the speed of gossip’ while the narrator aches ‘like Salcedo’s crack in the floor of the Tate’. Striking images fill the poems – the person who speaks in How to Make Tea When He’s Not At Home feels as if her heart ‘is a hot, wet rat’ while in Wounded Women we find ‘Daffodils grow in lovely gardens as well as in shit,/and the chicken may well bear a beak/as fierce as that of any raptor.’
Frequently the imagery is surreal and totally unexpected. In Red Kite we meet astronauts who have come to ‘plant trees on pit heaps’ – a situation echoed in Cmtillery where we encounter a strange character who ‘Months after returning from space … still lets go/of objects in mid-air, fully expecting them to float./But he’s just twelve years old, it’s 1857.’
Humour blends effortlessly with surrealism in Anatomy for the Artist where a bored lawn ‘mowed itself’ and a kettle leaves a note on the table saying ‘Sorry about the toaster’.
This is lovely quirky writing that appeals to me. Another quality I admire in this very readable collection is the way Catherine Edmunds introduces sudden twists and turns. How to Make Tea When He’s Not At Home develops a sense of unease in a scenario in which the narrator tries to take her mind off things by making a cup of tea after a lover has returned to Hull ‘after a brilliant few hours in Beverly.’ Gradually the details become staccato in tone and more and more repetitive as she instructs herself to ‘Squidge the bag back down,/Keep it there. Squeeze. Repeat./Throw the bag at the bin. Miss.’ In the last line we discover the reason for these obsessive acts: ‘Wonder who she is.’ The setting in Anatomy for the Artist is even more disturbing as descriptions of the narrator as artist juxtapose with weird events in the house in which something seems to be ‘dying’, books talk quietly to each other and chairs move themselves around ‘having nothing better to do’. I won’t give away the ending but an explanation and a whole back story is revealed in the skilful last few lines.
Different forms and layouts are used in How to Win at Kings Cross, each with a purpose. In Erosion the purpose is to convey humour through different line lengths. A weathered and disintegrating statue of a king or a saint shows his features drooping and ‘his beard rippling like molten cheese.’ This image leads into the following lines:
comes to life,
perks up when thinking
of cheese. His left eye blinks open
for a nano second: Mon dieu, mon dieu – ah! Fromage!’
At the end of the poem the character returns to his niche in Rouen Cathedral where he can sleep the sleep ‘of a ripe runny Brie.’ A delightful pen-portrait.
Sometimes the tone is ironic. In Jeans, but so fucking what the members of a committee spend a long time ‘talking about/the insane use of plastics/as if they intend to do anything about it’. The landscape here is one of broken trees with conversation at the level of Tupperware. There are undercurrents of menace in many poems. In Courage ‘The man arrives in a big car, dark windows’ as ‘pigs squeal’ and the narrator leads the children to safety ‘along the lane, claggy and stinking with cow’s piss.’ Juxtaposed with strong and striking narratives there is pain and despair. The title poem begins with an emphasis on ‘hurt’, ‘ache’, ’cracks’. In Time to Abandon Monogamy one faces a future of ‘life after sunset’.
Bleak words intersperse with humour, lightness of touch and tenderness as well. I find the poignancy in The Obstinacy of Owls almost unbearable. Here the owl and the pussycat have grown apart, their ‘pea-green boat has been confiscated, turns out to be nothing but ‘a dream, a hope.’
As I said at the start of this review, How to Win at Kings Cross is a stunning collection. These are poems with a difference, poems for today. I’ll end with a final passage from Jeans, but so fucking what which I feel illustrates the uniqueness of Catherine Edmunds’ work. The poem ends with a bang as the narrator hurls a tea tray at the window but before this happens we are given these lines:
‘Every evening we used to go for a walk
along the beach and throw pebbles into the sea.
You tasted of salt and seaweed.
We lit a fire and turned into smoke,
we drifted. We had sex in the sand
and the grit and it hurt
and I would give anything to have sex in the sand
once again with you.’
Later, as someone picks up the empty cups, there is a single, almost throw-away line: ‘Why did you die.’ SLQ