Sophie Baggott reviews Better Houses by Susie Wild, a collection of poems which are exuberant and smart, though at times fail to fit together cohesively.
Susie Wild’s debut collection Better Houses is a terrace of metamorphoses, scattered across which are some eye-catching lines, but ultimately built on unstable foundations. Several of the doorways to these houses feel impenetrable as the collection’s ever-flitting flux of moods, themes and styles veers towards exhausting the reader. Forever on the move, as if eternally striving for ‘better’-ness ideals, the poet seems unwilling to pause and pull together strings that might help lead the reader through this labyrinth.
Though it can be a struggle to engage with this collection as a whole, individual poems are wonderfully entertaining. ‘Baby Shower’ (shaped as a protruding stomach) documents women “a-sag in Asda” seeking helium-filled decorations, and is a comical, accessible glimpse of an ordinary outing. “Lucy’s asking for gas a few months too early”, the poet quips. This is one of many moments in which Wild’s buoyant personality bubbles to the surface.
A balloon motif likewise pops into the titular poem ‘Better Houses’, which ends with Wild’s narrator observing: “I watch myself float | away. Watch myself burst. | Watch myself stay.” Though the collection often edges towards this confessional nature, it is blurred by the back cover’s admission that the poetry resembles “a half-remembered, half-invented life”. There are no walls distinguishing fact from fiction, and this seesawing can leave a reader a little dizzied. “Nomadic” is how the blurb describes Wild, but skeltering might be a more apt fit.
At times the poetry retreats into darker territory. Wild slips some exquisite lines into ‘Sylvia’, one of the earlier poems set in the scene of a gathering on the coast. The tone is jovial, introducing a “3am damson-wine | laugh, ruby with gossip”, yet just a few stanzas later she drops the line, “my mother, telegramming death | in a roomful of strangers”. The images are stark, rich and wedged between is a plethora of kaleidoscopic details. This is typical of Better Houses. On the previous page, in the poem ‘The Lash Museum’, Wild hints at a bleaker side to the wit and boisterousness of her poetry when she has a head injury that requires stitches: “I asked to keep | them, the start of an obsession | to display the things | that pained | me.”
Boisterous the poetry may be, but occasionally the wordplay falls a little short. “I never had you down for sorcery | just sauce | (brown)” is not quite the “word-magic” promised by an endorsement on the front cover. Nevertheless the odd crack does not justify a mean verdict on what is a fun debut. Better Houses may not entirely work as a coherent collection, but the poems are certainly exuberant and smart – even if erratically knocked together. Half-remembered, half-invented, but wholly charismatic.
Better Houses is available now from Parthian Books.