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21ST-CENTURY POETRY Praise-songs for memorable women

Naomi Foyle, Natalie Scott, Carolyn Forche and Rachel Burns have produced some outstanding collections

THE TITLE poem of Adamantine (Pighog Press, £13.95) by Anglo-Canadian writer Naomi Foyle, is about Elisabeth Fritzl, held captive as a sex slave for 24 years by her father:

“I don’t know how you did it,/but Elisabeth, you survived./Didn’t starve yourself to death./Didn’t smash your brains out... you were always/your own lodestone,/a glinting adamant/hidden, growing, drilling/through the walls.”

Adamantine is a strong book about strong women like Fritzl, celebrating the tenacity and brilliance of those who refused to break under extreme pressure.

There are praise songs for Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz, Mohawk poet Tekahionwake, rock singer Nico, Palestinian writer Dareen Tatour — imprisoned by the Israelis for her poetry — and for the mother of Razan al-Najjar, a young Palestinian paramedic shot by an Israeli sniper in Gaza:

“As cameras circle, newsfeeds buzz,/this woman’s grief points like a finger/to a truth beyond proof: its Red Crescent still/just visible, this vest/is mercy’s banner, sunset-stained.”

Con Markievicz also appears in Natalie Scott’s Rare Birds: Voices of Holloway Prison (Valley Press, £12).

Drawing on material from the London Metropolitan Archives, the Women’s Library and National Archives, Scott tells the story of what was once the largest women’s prison in Europe.

There are some great poems here about Holloway’s more famous residents, notably Jean Rhys, Sylvia Pankhurst, Oscar Wilde, Emily Davison and Ruth Ellis. When Suffragette Katie Gliddon was in Holloway she kept a diary in the margins of a copy of Shelley’s Poetical Works and, when the fascist Mosleys were interned in Holloway in 1942, the authorities allocated two prisoners to act as their servants.

Clever, entertaining and inventive, the book has a documentary interest in the grim details of life inside — the rituals of reception, rules, dress, work, food, solitary and chapel.

But the book’s real strength is to give voice to the thousands of women, beggars, prostitutes, petty criminals and pick-pockets who entered through the gates from a life outside of poverty, injustice, hunger and cold, like Emma Mary Bird, the first prisoner through the gates in 1852, in the poem For Want of Sureties or the protagonist of Nameless Prostitute, who’s on the merry-go-round of the justice system:

“doing this job is a bit like riding/the merry-go-round/but it’s them that keep feeding/coins to the man with his hand on the lever... when I think I could be better/they take me to Holloway/and tell me I will never be better/because when I come out/they will have their money ready...”

Like Natalie Scott, Carolyn Forche’s In the Lateness of the World (Bloodaxe, £10.99) seeks to give voice to the speechless poor in a century of endless war and environmental disaster:

“They have cut off the water in the sinking metropolis ... Meanwhile, cisterns on the roofs of the rich send it/singing through the pipes of the better houses ... Security gates/slam shut. It is like night. We are waiting to breathe again.”

It’s a beautifully apocalyptic collection about exile, dangerous crossings, burned bridges and lost cities:

“Aleppo went up in smoke, and Raqqa came under a rain/of leaflets warning everyone to go. Leave, yes, but go where?/To the sea to be eaten, to the shores of Europe to be caged?”

Rachel Burns’s first collection, a girl in a blue dress (Vane Women, £6) is a book of quiet feminist defiance. It is set in the ex-mining villages of County Durham, where she lives among “racing pigeons/and old men smoking cigarettes,/talking about their birds/as if they are kept women.”

There is a great poem about the local DHSS offices, now demolished : “I weep (though I can hardly believe it)/for the loss of the safety net,/for the clippy mat ripped right out/from under our feet.”

Best of all is the image of young girls on the last bus home, “flinging bare arms and legs into the night,/running across the dual carriageway ... drunk on vodka, gin and life.”

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