mother and doctor father (on different continents), clever blonde stepmother, second cook lawyer stepmother, painter stepfather, second stepfather, final stepmother. Each is summarised by the grown-up daughter in a tiny fantasy; for example, grandfather’s desk has secret compartments where the narrator hides “problematic words”: “At quiet moments, if I put my ear to the ink blotter, I hear the longer ones mount the shorter ones. Weeks or months later, I catch little phrases or cries coming from inside.”
This gives an Alice in Wonderland potion to the reader (and to mother who, understandably, shrinks to the size of a small potted plant). If you drink and shrink, you will enjoy the sweetness and menace of such lines as: “I sat quietly on an ink blotter while mother plaited my hair and father listened to my heart.” The grown-up narrator remembers and interprets, as in the poem about father’s final wife: “She bagged up all my old words, took them to the charity shop in her rusty Honda and redesigned my father’s house around him.” So successful is the transfer of reader into childhood that mature judgements like this jar. For example, there is a very funny poem about the first stepmother, a sexually powerful character. She feels the cold only in her extremities and so wanders the house wearing only gloves and slippers. This is undercut by the trite last line: ‘She was on excellent terms with the postman.’
What works best in this book is the continued contrast between smooth, simple, almost abstract, visual images and typeface, and agonies of separation, cut-off, jagged edges in the drawings and in the text. Quoting lines from it is unusually misleading but here is one of my favourite poems, complete:
My dark-haired mother was a necromancer. She could vanish whole stories by repeating them over and over until they wore out and fell to pieces. This seemed to make her very tired. While she slept, the stories re-formed themselves and sidled back into her open mouth. The order was never the same twice.
Facing this poem is a picture of torn-up body parts surrounding a stout pink heart. This image, taken with the words opposite, make a very adult mixture. If I Lay On My Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women is a fairytale for grown ups.
Ship of the Line, Penny Boxall’s debut collection, is said by its blurbs to be a museum, to be about fragments of history. As such it would be a typical collection of our time. Many poets seem to want to be rescued by, as much as rescue, historical artefacts. Here you will find a three-hundred-year-old shoe in a wall and a penny-farthing bike but by and large Penny Boxall’s collectables speak of our own time even if they are in a museum. ‘Taxidermy Outpost’ is an example of this living encounter with what happens to be the dead:
We drive past the sign at first, swerve, spin back. It’s hung with skin, the crown of some wrecked animal topping it all. They sell scented candles and the recent dead – a baby bear sits on a stool
This poem is about shopping more than history, about looking at things you could own as a way to know them: Outside is the Wild which we only know about because we know too of outposts filled with fur.
Of course, Boxall critiques the idea that inheritance is only a matter of acquisition. She acknowledges frequently that “we’re never sure / what’s going on” (‘On With the Game’). But her poems have a Victorian confidence both in the idea of museum and in what she finds there: “we can watch through gaps, and guess it right” (‘Eadweard Muybridge’). Many of her subjects are Victorian: a pageant, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley. It is a period that we are emulating in some ways and Boxall’s contemporaneity addresses the Victorianism of our own time. ‘Rush’ voices a miner: