Sophie Baggot reviews Elizabeth Parker‘s debut poetry collection, In Her Shambles, which explores an array of strong female characters.
In Her Shambles is a misnomer. Virtually nothing of a shambolic nature is to be gleaned from the women occupying Elizabeth Parker’s debut poetry collection. On the contrary, we encounter female beacons of self-control, confidence, woman-to-woman solidarity. Women are integral, propping up the book’s spine with poise and the occasional on-point put-down of a ghostly “him”. For me, this book felt like an ode to women’s togetherness in every sense.
More than once, Parker actively seeks to embolden established literary female figures. First, she prises Shakespeare’s Lavinia from the canon’s clutches. Lavinia, who in Titus Andronicus suffers the mutilation of her hands and tongue by her rapists, features in two poems; the first of which infuriated me until I reached the latter. In ‘Following Lavinia – IV. Their Names’, Parker renders useless the means of communication that the playwright had afforded her: writing with a stump held in her mouth. Yet in Parker’s first Lavinia poem, nature works against her:
The sea was too strong
her words little caves water curled up in
blunting their edges.
The poem ends:
The sea was proud with storm
… a nonsense of weed
silenced the sand.
Thirteen pages later, Lavinia makes a surprise comeback, and finally ‘Writes’. The first-person narrator in this poem scrawls sentences ‘bright, long’ over chairs, walls, and floors; she tears at the “stitcheries”; she watches a “plughole suck pink water” – an image that saunters back in the very last lines of the book. Though repeatedly sewn back up, Lavinia concludes, triumphant: “I tear more, free more / until I am fluent.”
In this poem and many others, Parker plucks various images and words planted elsewhere in the collection. Three words, “breach the dam”, appear in both ‘Lavinia Writes’ and the poem that follows, ‘Dry’. The first refers to an unleashing of words; the second to the throes of a love affair. The pages of In Her Shambles form a slick assembly line of continuously recycled items. As mentioned, the plughole resurfaces as a tool in the final poem, ‘Writing Him Out’. Here, it “glugged” down the remains of one of Parker’s vague males. A mudlark would find a whole host of treasures swept in recurrently: bladderwrack, garlic, fallow deer, cutlery, shadows on walls, clay, to name a few.
A pattern among my favourite pieces in Parker’s collection is a dual framing technique, flitting from stanza to stanza between two connected lenses. One such poem, ‘Manus’, gravitates back and forth from an article about an executioner in The Observer on the poet’s lap to her partner playing the piano across the room. The mirroring aspect lies in the use of their hands (manus) in their endeavours. For me, the collection’s pièce de résistance is ‘Lizzie’, a poem that draws parallels between Rossetti’s exhumation of his muse (by which he reshapes her according to his desires) and the writer digging out old emails, texts and call logs from an ex-partner. Both Rossetti and Parker are recalling lost loves ones through Pre-Raphaelite “lyric” and “metaphor”, the other through SIM cards and Times New Roman.
To close, back to the beginning – the cover image, by Maria Rivans, is a beautiful collage of animals, flowers, people, vehicles spiralling out of Audrey Hepburn’s head. This, while bordering on a little cluttered perhaps, again doesn’t resemble the abject disorder we might expect from the title – it is vibrant, thriving. And Parker’s poem ‘Blooms’ gives weight in words to the positive impression cast by the cover: “While he stayed shut, her throat bloomed / long-stemmed flowers”.
So, a shambles this collection is not. To me, this book elevates, celebrates women – Parker almost does it an injustice by ‘shambolising’ in its naming. This is a confident, measured debut; and while I wasn’t wowed by every page, the star poems of In Her Shambles dazzle enough for the collection to emit an exceedingly warm glow.
Elizabeth Parker’s In Her Shambles is available now from Seren.
Sophie Baggott is a regular writer for Wales Arts Review.