Sophie Baggott reviews And Suddenly You Find Yourself, a poetry collection by Natalie Ann Holborow which elegantly exposes the truths of human nature.
Moonlight washes across the entire exposed landscape of this poetry collection. The ‘white eye’ orbits from the first page to the last, with a quiet, ancient glint amid the frail unfolding of melancholy lives. Swansea-born writer Natalie Ann Holborow levels the lunar gaze onto a sudden first kiss, violence at a party, memories of past love, wretchedly drunken taxi rides, and a bundle of other tender, inflamed moments. Each is conjured in imagery that aches.
And Suddenly You Find Yourself is somehow both meticulous and raw, as if Holborow has mulled infinitely on how best to describe the act of stripping us to our simplest selves. For an opening epithet she plucks a Sylvia Plath line about the potential opening-up of those who are ‘shut up tight inside themselves’ if one would show them any interest.
Holborow devotes herself to the challenge implicit in this Plathian platitude. She shares with us her unabashed fascination in human nature, laying bare our disappointments in parents, rifts between siblings, mental and physical illnesses, lusts, expired loves, even the heartrending grief of a miscarriage: ‘I hurl these notes / from empty arms, scatter her finite story.’ This closing line from ‘The Lost One’ was not alone among Holborow’s poetry in having brought my eyes to well.
Nature, myth and modernity all crackle in a triumvirate of themes throughout. The sea is a constant, churning presence – inevitably so, perhaps, given Holborow’s roots sown in the coast of South Wales. In ‘Penelope’ Holborow gives a voice to Odysseus’s estranged wife, who for twenty years apprehensively awaits news of the seafaring Homeric hero. Penelope is seen toying with her husband’s clothes, breathing in his shirts, and all the while agonising over his fate:
. . . in the nights, under moon-cracked skies
I can picture him sunk in a seabed,
have him lit like a searchlight.
Then, however, Holborow wrenches this misery into a twist:
I think of him,
my silk skirts screwed in a stranger’s fist.
Time to move on, as they say.
Still mourning, still bewildered, Penelope is locked in a nameless, meaningless tryst when the door clicks shut. Her shaking Odysseus has come home. She doesn’t notice. Holborow reinvigorates the myth, knotting the millennia-old trope of Penelope as the enduringly loyal, patient wife (in marked contrast with her husband’s philandering abroad) into a more real, more complex tale. This sort of pensive, layered writing is omnipresent in the collection; I could hardly put it down.
Other familiar characters crop up, too: Snow White, Achilles and – these are poems o Gymru, after all – Dylan. We meet a Cheshire cat gleaming with ‘one hundred watts of dentistry’ and a black dog whose tail clubs the narrator ‘all shades of violet’. This faithful friend follows everywhere, nuzzling the eyelids and striking her down with his paw. The allusion to depression is subtle but salient. Holborow ekes out the wearying, restive sense of isolation that the condition often summons: ‘I go to bed at odd hours / to watch the small pulse of blue time.’
In another poem, ‘Craig y Nos’, mucus slaps the roof of a mouth and ‘slid salt-green down the ridge’. An eight year old is feverish, scarcely able to pant for dŵr, and in need of loving care. ‘Every day’, writes the poet, some child is ‘hacking his rags of lung into a pillow.’ In only the second poem in the collection, these lines waste no time in exposing human vulnerability. Many poems later the sound of coughing takes an even more harrowing turn, as it fades and mutes:
. . . our mother pushing the vacuum
between our silence. Hacking
clots of broken words . . .
to those hisses, those furious sobs,
heard the weight of them
bending your spine. The vacuum
tumbled to a stop.
Woe betide anyone who comes to this collection without the foresight that we’re not invincible and are indeed very much mortal. You’ll leave, at least, with the (rarer) conviction that nor do we need to pretend we are. It’s an honest, moving panoply of human experience, full of hiccups and loss and confusion and love. Shoot for the moon? Holborow has landed, roamed its face, dipped into the craters, and gathered an armful of stars while up there.
And Suddenly You Find Yourself is published by Parthian Books.