Recent Work Press, 2017
Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Don’t let the clean, wholesome title fool you – Charlotte Guest’s Soaphas a delightfully dirty underbelly, like a dog that has been scrapping in the mud. This grit is evident from the opening poem, “Harvest” (1), which at first blush is a celebration of the birthing rite: “The strongest women on earth farm / the cassava,” we are told, and “They sing / the root from the ground / against empty bellies and the prospect / of rot.” The eternal struggle of women to beget life even as they must sustain their own lives is at the core of this poem, but Guest darkens the piece, warning that what is born is not always nourishing: “when prepared incorrectly, / the root produces cyanide,” she declares, and “We are advised to opt for a different dessert.” Is this a covert warning to the reader? There will be some risk, it seems, in encountering these strange and marvellous poems.
Indeed, these are complex, nuanced poems that deal with diverse subject matter. Several intertwined themes soon become apparent, deftly handled and gilt with gleaming imagery that reads as both inventive and apt, sounding so right as to seem familiar, yet wholly original. These themes include the loss of girlhood and the deceptions of the adult world; disillusionment; the frequently-disappointed quest for physical beauty; and love that never quite measures up to its hype.
“Egg Tempera” (3) will ring true for any young woman who has ever felt unattractive – in other words, any young woman full-stop. A flabby stomach is dissected from the girl who is the subject of the poem as if it were an unwanted encumbrance when Guest refers to it as “those fleshy dunes your mother said / would have been considered beautiful / in the late 1400s.” The lover is similarly removed and remote, not referred to by name but simply as “your lover” or “he,” and in his detachment he “ignores / the tears that tour your face” as you are united in the act of love. Guest acutely observes that, “We girls, / we bleeding, breathless girls, / taking dumb solace in the fact our bodies / have a long history, are politically charged…” Little comfort is to be found in the solidarity of the word “we.” There is something of Sylvia Plath in these poems that tell of both profound isolation and unity in the common struggle of womanhood.
“Hush, Memory” (4) further examines the theme of lost girlhood and the empty promises of burgeoning womanhood. “The lodgings at the end of girlhood / are not as advertised,” Guest announces. Although she has made it there, she observes that others haven’t, and notes that “Here, the rooms / are as mouths with opinions, their beds / loose tongues.” This eloquent image encapsulates the verbal character assassinations that so often besiege the world of young women. In the house at the end of girlhood, “Laughter peels summer air; sometimes / mine, sometimes far-off women.” Indeed, laughter is a motif in these poems, but it does not always denote joy: so often it means the cheek-reddening, heart-stabbing sensation of shame as others – nameless, faceless – mock, ridicule, and deride us. There is a palpable sense of being the victim of judgement, gossip, and condemnation in these poems, from the pompous young man in “Networking Drinks” (2) who looks “down his straight nose at me” to the “nighttime walker” who is a “conduit for remarks” in “Hey Sweetheart, Hey Love” (9).
Once a young woman has achieved a modicum of what the world deems to be success, she may still feel unsatisfied and nurture a yearning for fulfilment. In “Baskets” (5), the speaker observes that “There is / a sense of walking / with dreams and / uneasy things / in my arms, like / groceries purchased / at closing.” In this extended metaphor, the dreams unleash themselves, run away from the girl, slip from her control, and take on an existence of their own: “They roll out my door and / under cars and throw / themselves in bins.” The poem ends with the sound of someone laughing, but we cannot tell if it is another person laughing with scorn, or the subject of the poem laughing hysterically, maniacally, at her own misfortune.
And yet not all is in flux in these poems. There are moments of settled joy. In “Bivouac” (10), two lovers are comfortable in each other’s embrace: “All we want / stitched into / this night, this bed, / these woven fingers.” There are moments of potential, of what could have been, and still there is an urgent desire for fulfilment that is more than fleeting. In “Goodfellas” (12), a young man berates his girlfriend for the dangerous state of the electrics in her house, saying “we could have died young and unfulfilled, stopped, / like the rain stops, / and hearts are still.” There is a lingering impression that it would be worse to die old and unfulfilled, to have never dared to make love in an unsafe environment: the idea that a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.
The collection reaches a crescendo at “Autobiographical Fragment” (19), which again explores notions of the death of the teenage dream, as the speaker watches “nearly-men and nearly-women” arrive at a party at a neighbouring house and is reminded of a friend’s eighteenth birthday, when they “held a funeral for her youth” and “buried a doll in a shoebox lined with / eucalyptus tissues.” The girl whose birthday it was emerged covered in a white sheet; she was older than the others and “schooled in / the secrets of Eros and Thanatos.” The key line in this poem is: “I sense here the / limits of my life.” When does the balance tip and we go from anticipation to regret? When do we cease growing and looking forward to further growth? When do we begin to feel a receding, a loss, a gulf between what we had expected and what actually came to pass?
As Guest rightly observes in “Summer Doors” (26), “change creeps up / – that gradual animal.” Sometimes, all that we can perceive is “the line between date-of-birth / and date-of-death,” as she notes in “Love Poem” (34). Yet there is beauty in brevity, a glorious loveliness in transience, and the images in this collection often celebrate such wonders, as in “Notes on the Disappearance of a Friend” (37-43) which centres this couplet in the middle of a blank page: “Everything is upside down, / like sunlight coming through floorboards.” Here is a rightness even in wrongness, a skewed truth that is overwhelmingly true nonetheless.
Guest’s debut collection is assured and attractive, containing truths that beguile with their beauty and sting with their familiarity. She is a fine poet who has shown herself adept at treating the theme of the loss of youth and whose work promises to deliver much more in the coming years, ripening like a spirit in a barrel.