(Bloodaxe Books, 2012); £8.95 pbk
Head On is the second collection from Clare Shaw, a poet described by Carol Ann Duffy as “one of the best new readers on the circuit”. Although the description refers to the poet’s performing abilities, the sound of Clare Shaw’s energetic voice can equally be heard coming through the lines on the page.
Shaw’s pen visits the places most of us are reluctant to go to: the graveyard of children murdered during the Iraq war, the cellar where girls are held in captivity and raped, the bright white hospital room where a mother faces marks of violence on her daughter’s body.
The collection starts with reflections on the war in the Middle East. In the poem, “It could have been”, the poet stays close, closer than we feel comfortable with to the perceived feelings of a mother who might have lost a child: “It could have been me inhaling/ your breath straight from sleep” ).
Shaw’s poetry travels through places that have been violated by war, speaks about people who have suffered, and asks: “Where were you?” (“Jude got an HGV licence”), as if expressing the guilt of an affluent Westerner who enjoys a life of safety and peace.
However, poem by poem, line by line, the dividing line becomes illusory and one eventually sees that there is no “them” and “us”, no “there” and “here”. Loss of integrity, feeling that you are no longer the person you used to be can be as painful as war: “There’s a hole where something was / and keeps me awake” (”Cupboard”). War is unfair and dangerous, but life in a “safe” society can also be distressing. A mother is equally devastated at seeing her child as a victim of crime (assuming there is a way to measure such feelings), be it in time of war or of peace:
This isn’t what mothers should do.
They should be home, cooking broth;
washing kids in steamy baths; de-thorning roses; waiting for daughters
who don’t come back
Shaw’s voice throughout the collection sounds unmistakably feminine and motherhood is one of the collection’s strongest themes. Shaw contemplates the possessiveness of mother towards her child in “Ewe in several parts”,
she is not my baby. I meant this:
she grew inside me, I fed her,
I do not own her
of their bonding, “Each day I count my blessings. /My daughter is okay”, and of letting go: “I am her mother. / It is my job to believe”.
Although most of the poems in the collection challenge our minds and often pushes us out of our comfort zones with their approach and subject matter, Head On also contains poems with a slightly lighter tone and these give the collection its delicate finish. Here Shaw speaks about the feelings of alienation that visit every one of us from time to time and also conveys the joy of living the moment with a masterly touch:
If you were to ask it –
was it all worth it,
to have it, to lose it
the wage in my pocket,
the girlfriend, the lover –
I’d tell you a secret
(come closer, come closer):
I’d do it – again
and again – in a minute…
In the course of the collection, Shaw’s attention shifts from universal matters towards the personal. She touches on topics of love and identity, violence and survival, conflict and resolution. The final poem, “You’d start with a page”, covers both personal and universal themes, naming places and covering issues faced in various parts of the world, then encompassing them all with the image of a writer: “Then you’d pick up your pen./ And write.” Shaw believes in the power of writing and Head On is definitely a collection that proves that words can bring about change.