In all honesty, when choosing which Eliot Prize shortlisted collection to review, I decided upon Not in This World simply because Tracey Herd lives in Dundee; I felt a real curiousity about the work of this local poet. Soon, I discovered that Herd’s connections with not only the city but with the University run deep: she was an undergraduate student and subsequent Creative Writing and Royal Literary Fund Fellow. This intrigued me further and I was not to be disappointed.
The cover image of Herd’s third, and most recent Bloodaxe publication, Not in This World, is of Elizabeth Hartman – an American actress most famous for her lead role in the 1965 film, A Patch of Blue. Hartman suffered from clinical depression, committing suicide in 1987 when she was 43. The seemingly carefree façade of the woman in the image (taken from A Patch of Blue, tinted and reproduced in triplicate) is deliberate as Herd explores (at least in part) the mental health of 20th Century starlets such as Vivien Leigh, Norma Shearer, and Joan Fontaine. These women, who may have appeared together on-screen, were unprotected from harsh realities by their stardom:
when you broke the porcelain figurine, I thought it was a portent
of things to come. I thought your fragile mind would shatter.
You were always huddled against the world, all nervous, flitting
gestures. (“Joan Fontaine and Rebecca”)
Her poetic consideration of such individuals is fascinating, allowing Herd to illuminate the dark complexities of mental illness. These women become almost metaphors for the apparently familiar and yet also unfamiliar nature of such issues. We may feel we know how to identify their difficulties, just as we may feel we “know” famous people; yet Herd’s starlets are perfect examples of the naivety of such thoughts when we realise that truly, we don’t know them at all. The collection begins however, with a few poems that seem more personal; in “What I Wanted” and “What I Remember”, the poet tiptoes into her chosen subject matter, then suddenly at the third, heart-breaking poem, pushes the reader in to the deep end with “The Little Sister”:
in a moonlit road accident
when I was ten, blood like rust
running down the paintwork […]
I pray to God for my own salvation.
Traumatic experiences of death, loss and betrayal permeate Not in This World, making it somewhat difficult to read in one sitting. Images are powerful and at times even gory:
You pull out mere fragments that will cut each eager
finger to the bone (“Vessel”)
She is clutching the blade,
not the blunt part, deliberately:
her heart and palm bleed. (“The Imaginary Death of Star”)
Some of the collection’s imagery creates a bridge between the experience of “mental illness” and “normal” experience, thus both displacing and interrogating “normality”. The mirror images in the collection are a perfect example of this: “I suppose the mirror told you / I was alive if you can / call this living”; “I am standing in the grand hall of mirrors / like a chess piece on the tiled floor, / a blind and insignificant player in a game”; “His gallery was a hall of mirrors. I floated its length like a lone black swan”.
Not in This World is a powerful collection, incorporating various difficult aspects of existence, from heartbreak to loss to inner turmoil, offering a beautiful but challenging read. Herd has been courageously open in that she herself has suffered from depression. Her verses explore this, in ways that may be considered confessional and also perhaps through the cipher of these known, yet unknown, starlets. In this harrowing, haunting collection, we contemplate matters we might otherwise prefer to leave in the allegedly safe, locked recesses of our minds. Too long absent from Scottish poetry, this collection rises from that dark time, to welcome Herd back.