Katherine Stansfield’s debut collection, Playing House, is quirky and surreal, witty and menacing. Her subject matter includes the auction of John Lennon’s tooth, bleach, jetlag, crisp sandwiches and office politics.
It’s a collection which is refreshingly unthemed and varied in style, form and voice. In “Africa on BBC One”, an East African Shoebill is addressed:
………….. I’m not surprised
when one of your chicks kills the other
while I’m eating my spaghetti bolognaise,
watching. You see me, fork raised, appalled
and your Stanley knife mouthpiece flaps
into close up….
In “Training event”, we share the protagonist’s horror at sitting next to a woman who is too talkative:
The manager gives her a ‘for God’s sake’
look because he’s ready to tell us about
effective communication in the workplace
…………………………………I worry he thinks
I’m talking to her when she’s talking to me.
Stansfield’s skill lies in taking such every day, familiar events and exposing the strangeness or humour in them. “Trevithick” is an homage to her school science teacher:
I wasn’t one
for melting biros into brittle swans
or sparking battery clips with drawing pins.
I wasn’t one for weighing the Greek
of equations and shouting out
Sir, it’s speed, it’s distance, it’s a positive charge
because I saw the pistons working his jaw
and the furnace stoked in his cheeks,
because I knew the Puffing Devil’s
pressure gauge always cracked.
However, to my mind, not all of the poems are as strong as they could be. There are a few in the middle which, though technically and observationally adept, feel a little one dimensional. “How to make a good crisp sandwich”, and, “My dental hygienist and I listen to Radio 2” don’t rise quite enough above their titles to earn their place amongst the other, more successfully layered and complex poems of this collection.
And just occasionally the tone of the poem doesn’t work for me. For example, the opening poem, “O bees of Rhode Island” begins:
You’re bolshie in morning hover, smug humming
zip tours of roses, those puckered-up girls,
while the pool’s unblinking eye gives back
your stateliness, your striped I’m-great-liness.
Hop a jig along, stop –
There’s a lovely energy and exuberance to this and the images of the “puckered-up” roses and the “unblinking” pool are spot-on. Yet, by comparison, I find the Rhode Island bees elude accurate description. Perhaps they move very differently from British bees but hops and jigs just don’t seem like bee moves.
Stansfield is at her best in her narrative poems, which are sketchy enough to leave plenty of room for the reader to fill in the gaps in the story, and in character poems, such as “Ghazal from John”:
Did you know that a leech that eats another leech
will remember all the first leech knew, John asks.
No, the small birds that rootle rock pools by the pier
are in fact striped plovers, John points out.
Drinking during the day is like being born again
after lunch, I think I hear John say.
Dormice don’t actually touch the ground. They leap
from tree to tree, like this, John shows me.
This is a typically understated and witty yet sympathetic portrayal by Stansfield – in these few oblique lines, we recognise all the Johns we have ever come across.
All in all, I enjoyed the originality, playfulness and range of this collection and look forward to reading more from Katherine Stansfield.