Nominated for the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize in 2011, The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions restores complexity, colour and light to a world which had turned fifty shades of grey. Jacqueline Saphra writes with disarming honesty about sex, control, femininity, gender roles and relationships. Above all, these are intensely personal poems.
The first section on childhood opens with a poem about Saphra’s grandfather, Jankel, which touches on themes of identity, migration and assimilation. There are two voices at work in this poem – the affectionate grand-daughter and the hostile voices at large in 1930s Britain. Saphra has a knack of juxtaposing light with dark so as to convey the sometime strangeness of life, and also the occasional horror. In “Look, No Lines” a child visits her friend, taking “pink pyjamas, favourite doll, and bag of pick’n’mix”. The friend, however, has returned from holiday with new-found interests in raunchy LPs and men – “…when Katie danced I knew something was over” – the memory closes on an even more unsettling note: “grey box, silver catch, man’s crotch/ with real zip, white knickers on a parquet floor, a girl who danced”.
Many of Saphra’s poems are all the more strange and unnerving because their dark themes are packaged in carefully controlled, taut sonnets or jaunty rhythmical forms. “The Pick-Up”, in the second section of the collection builds from its opening lines, “This is the girl/the front seat tramp/with the haversack/and the long cigarette” to its final disturbing stanza which begins, “This is the girl,/with brine for eyes/with floating limbs/and a voice unhinged”.
In the longest poem in the collection, “Penelope” (After Cavafy’s “Ithaka”), Saphra very cleverly re-works Cavafy’s central motif of journeying in her version of Homer’s story. For a start, Odysseus doesn’t really get a look in. Penelope, addressed in the second person, leaves behind motherhood and her son to go after an idealised Odysseus, “Have Faith. Forget his stories/and the way he’s apt to wander,/drink and womanise./Remember how he felt/between your thighs”.
When she finally catches up with her man, having discovered on her long and eventful journey, “The world /is more enticing than you feared”, he’s not at all the man she remembers, ” You pull the hood over your face/Head for the door”. This is a very different “happy ending” from the original.
The final section of the collection concerns motherhood, ageing and death. In the opening poem, “To My Daughter, Naked”, a mother speaks wistfully about childhood, about a golden time before sexual awareness, “I ache to forget/these breasts//to spread my legs/without meaning”. “Lambskin”, which won the Ledbury Poetry Competition, is a tender poem which starts out about life with a newborn son: “Stupidly, I thought there could be nothing worse,/prop-eyed for nights on end, tethered to you,/wakened hourly, at the edge of madness”.
The poem moves, by way of the lambskin comforter, to the wake of the now grown son’s friend, born on the same day, his parents “knowing truly what the worst can be, knee-deep/in sodden earth, distant in rising mist./There were lambs in the next field, brazen//in the innocence of nudge and suckle,/their stupid-eyed, impatient mothers/feeding at the very edge of spring”.
The collection ends with poems about the death of Jacqueline Saphra’s mother, “crazed madonna, spitting fire”, “still longing for her Lucifer”. The strange, fleshy poems of this debut collection reveal not only the lure and rewards of femininity but also the price that so often must be paid for it.