'when she unzips her lips pennies
come pouring out. No one will stop
to collect their bad luck.'
'Valuables' p.15, All the Footprints I Left Were Red by Rowena Knight
Since I began studying in University, I have collected quotes. Fragments of thinkers and artists whose words and philosophies expressed emotions I couldn't name. I am not alone in this practice, there are many hoarders of language, they are the writer's barrow-down treasure or the deep lore that aids us in our own magic. Among these, there is a wonderful sentiment from Nick Piombino, in his chapter 'Writing as Reverie' in 'The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book', edited by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein. It goes:
'Writing as play conceived as a manipulation of reminders, an accumulation of fragments, passes through coherence into speculative fantasy' (p.5).
This phrase came to my mind while reading Rowena Knight's intriguing 'All the footprints I left were red', published by Valley Press in 2016. I'm a great believer in small and indie presses, and I have wanted to explore what VP had to offer for some time. I hopped onto the site and decided I wanted something small, delicious, something I could roll over in my head like a dream half-remembered. This poetry pamphlet and it's beautiful description attracted me, but let us not skip over one important feature that any person seeking a book must review - not matter how much they deny the fact! - and that is simply: the cover.
I find poetry books can say a lot about themselves in their cover, especially from small presses where I find there is generally a more considerate approach to encompassing the book's essence in the cover, rather than a constant flirtation with the consumerist gnat of marketing. The cover was put together by Emily Roper (photography) and Rosa Campbell (cover design), so well done ladies your elegant cover caught my eye! The cover depicts a young woman dressed in a shocking red coat, holding matching stilettos she stands in the shallows of a calm sea, with land visible on other side. The shore is black and the brighter colours are ahead of her, perhaps expressing the past and the future. The colour red immediately brings a lot of ideas to mind: blood, roses, menstruation and hearts. Apt images for the poems inside, which explore themes of growing up, being a woman, sexuality and love. She has her back to us, a mix of defiance and fear in her shoulders. She knows she cannot bring frivolous things to the sea, such as the stilettos, so she keeps them in hand for later; preferring to play it naked than continue a performance on slits. This thought-provoking cover is certainly a match for the poetry of Rowena Knight.
Like all good writers should, I did my homework and explored other reviews of Knight's pamphlet. Helen Calcutt of Sabotage Reviews wrote of Knight on March 30 2017 'But what is obscurity? Strangeness, ambiguity, darkness. A concealment of one thing, lifts another to our attention. And it is this act of concealment that is so central to this collection'. I both agree with this poignant interpretation, but also argue the case for exposure. Concealment in terms of abstract and alien imagery, a use of sudden shock-dash fantasy and imagination that mask beautiful painful truths. For example, in 'Angel Beach' (p.22), 'He cracked my eyes awake when I was thirteen/Epiphany hot and sweet as December/sand light as prayers'. This is a gorgeous line dripping with sensuality, it is a truth re-born in an exciting new flesh, a side-angled way of seeing, like a kaleidoscope where the colours have moved and flung off their names. My 'home turf' shall we say is experimental poetry, Knight's poetry reminds me of poets such as INCOGNITUM by Aubrie Marrin (2015, Shearsman Books), Circuits by Jennifer K. Dick (2013, corrupt press) or Astéronymes by Claire Trévien (2016, Penned in the Margins), who - though more experimental in terms of form and sound - radiate similar exciting techniques. It is because of these poets, that I believe Knight could explore her limits with form, which I will discuss later on.
In terms of exposure, there are many references in this book to women's mouths and lips, with many other references to other parts of the body such as the naval ('Learning to Love a Vegetarian', p.25)) and breasts ('Bath Poem' p.31). Focusing on mouths, these lines present an intense intimacy and often a shuddersome quality. 'Soap in the mouths of little girls' (Fictions, p.10), 'cold it slips/down her throat like a slug' (Flotation, p.11), 'when she unzips her lips pennies/come pouring out' (Valuables, p.15), 'a red jewel/in my mouth' (Learning to Love a Vegetarian, p. 25) and other lines lead me to interpret a preoccupation with the body, particularly the most sensual and powerful part of a woman - the mouth. While Knight conceals areas of her poetry in fantastic, surreal imagery, there are other portions that leave the poems exposed, inviting us in like a mouth primed with a kiss. This presents a bold challenge to the reader, it dares them to think intimately of the body. Judging by the amount of times we like to cover up our bodies in sedimentary layers of make-up, hairspray and fashion, this dare holds more weight than ever.
Another noticeable trend in this book is food. In eleven of the seventeen poems, there is a reference to food or the kitchen. Whether it is a small detail such as 'waiting for you like a beach' (Bath Poem, p.31) or the sister food poems 'Learning to Love a Vegetarian' and 'Garlic', there is an exploration of what it means to consume, resemble and play with food. In 'Heaven' (p.18), sweets take on an eerie threatening form with 'post-injection lollipop' and 'I didn't want him to stuff sweets up my sleeves'. Whereas in others it can take on an act of defiance, a good example being 'The Daughters' with 'the chef's daughter eats ketchup with everything/and never apologizes'. I enjoyed this exploration of food experimentation, these themes tie the book together - but perhaps too tightly. I would have preferred to see the poetry move away from the consistent theme, particularly given Knight's wonderful ability to shift focus and re-birth memories in shifting, dreamy quality. The two sister poems might have benefited from not sitting side by side. therefore not attracting my focus to this theme as much as it did. I call 'Learning to Love a Vegetarian' and 'Garlic' sister-poems, not for the simple fact they sit beside each other, but because they are parallels. In the former, the speaker (which we must never automatically assume to be the poet) yearns to overcome a lover's passion for food, whereas in 'Garlic' the speaker explores their own passion for food. They are two sides of a coin: one side seeing food as the enemy, the other as a friend. However, this theme did not damage the book in any way and I believe if these few poems have invited me to interpret this much, then it has achieved a victory.
To conclude, though there is so much more I could say about this pamphlet, I will briefly discuss form. I am a great believer in experimenting with form, of breaking down the barriers set up for us in schools that think poetry stopped with Shakespeare, Hardy and WWII. Knight shifts in form, switching between couplets, quatrains, a modern elegy ('Jonathan', p.23) or a ballad ('The Goblin Queen', p.20), with one potential prose poem in 'Heaven' (p.18). There is also frequent use of alliteration and half-rhyme. I enjoy inconsistency and given the poems mesmeric, moving voice, I think this works in the pamphlet's favor. However, given the potential in Knight, I would enjoy reading more of her work that dares to go that little bit further, break out a little more, show us a wilder poet. Regardless of Knight's future form, I did thoroughly enjoy 'All the footprints I left were red', any poet who can be so potent, powerful and thought-provoking in seventeen poems certainly needs to watched. I hope to read more by Knight and wish her success!
Read Sabotage Review's ideas on Rowena:
Check out Valley Press: www.valleypressuk.com