Maggie Harris’s latest collection is an associative love-song to the vital living pulse that thrums beneath the seemingly-smooth surface of pop-culture. The poems are largely autobiographical, tracing the life of the poet (and her family) from Guyana to the foreign shores of England and Wales.
Many of the poems are titled for works that influenced the authors life. ‘I Remember You Well in the Chelsea Hotel’ is a playful riff on the gritty realism of Leonard Cohen:
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
No not really, Maidstone car park
sandwiches in the rain
By so suddenly negating the association she raised by quoting the song, and then adding the surprisingly intimate details of the food the lovers shared the poet emphatically underlines the evocative half funny, half sad sensation of loss, ‘CK’s sausage rolls hot / and that time you brought a treat / chicken curry pasty.’ The context might be alien, the emotions are the same. This is the theme of the book.
For me, ‘Homelands’ was the jewel of the collection. The theme of an emotional sympathy (spiritual synchronicity) that remains true through generations of women is symbolized in the joined images of an evolving altar and an unchanging trunk. ‘My mother’s altar has migrated / travelled uncomplainingly in a Maderia trunk’.
The first altar is home-made, defined (as all altars are) by culture and place:
timbers stippled with wood-ants
a crucifix on the wall, Christ nailed:
beside him Good Friday palms,
the yard flowers, his American portrait
Christ Knocking at the Door
In England the religion is subtly different, nature has bled out of it:
screws from Homebase
Apostles, Our Lady’s blue smile, her son’s bleeding heart
postcard of Wells Cathedral
scented candles from the Garden Centre.
The trunk is itself, whatever its location. In Guyana it ‘sits beneath the window/ taking in the breeze’, in Wales it sits, ‘waiting/ for its cracking skin of splintered oak and tin / to be distressed to shabby chic’. Religions subtly shift, context changes, the trunk remains. Its history, their history, is the true altar.
Although the tone is light throughout most of this book, the poet occasionally delves into heart-breaking depths. In ‘She’s Seventy-six But Still Remembers’ the poet captures the spirit of her abused mother, and the callousness of the man who abused her:
She’s seventy-six but still remembers
giggling like a girl
and then despair, he never came to find her
in the West.
The mother is keeping secrets from herself, and the daughter knows it. It is mercy that stills her tongue when she says:
I don’t like to tell her he was doing what
such men did best
conquering brown skinned women
and promising them the world
forgetting it was never theirs to give.
60 Years of Loving was published by Cane Arrow Press. The cost is £9.