The Girl in the Dog-Tooth Coat is the debut collection of emerging talent Zelda Chappel. This compilation of fifty-nine short free-verse poems confronts themes of loss and longing, grief and regret, anxiety and escapism. Chappel’s voice is delicate yet biting, like a crisp morning frost. She cuts to the core of a distinctly female experience, walking us through the emergence and disintegration of relationships, reminiscences of old friends and family members, and the coldness and isolation brought by feeling locked out of the world.
In the collection’s opening poem, “This can be what you want it to be”, Chappel introduces a recurring wistfulness for greater things, addressing a fractured and irreparable relationship, the growing distance between lovers. The poem laments how the pair have forgotten what it’s like to be wild, how this tryst now lacks intimacy and passion, become dull and sterile instead. The speaker wonders
… how to unzip our caged bird’s chest and find her
tiny heart still beating, how to search
her air-made maps and hold them.
In this stanza, the diction is both tender and grotesque, reminiscent of the feminine gothic writings of Angela Carter. The caged bird is a common symbol of an oppressed songbird without a voice perhaps. Chappel takes this a step further by using the word “unzipped”, invoking the image of a woman undressing. The sexualised language is neutered, however, by suturing the romance of the beating heart to that of the surgical, observing the frailty of the human body in both an emotional and mortal capacity. This juxtaposition of romanticism and horror is woven throughout the collection; many of them deal with the lack or loss of communication, the cutting of ties and the clinical descriptions of flayed skin and death. Even Chappel’s presentation of lust and sensuality comes with a morbid twist, a bed of needles lurking below each surface. In “Choking”, she experiments with death and rebirth, returning to the theme of repressed self-identity; in “Flesh”, the act of kissing is described as a smothering affair. The voice in these poems is passive to the horrors her body is enduring, and there is a numb honesty in the language which tells us of haunting experiences.
Open me and you’ll find my lungs are full of moths
their silvered wings twitching, dying to find the light. When it’s quiet I hear them feasting on the words
that stuck, their dry dust choking them at the source.
Whilst not all of Chappel’s poems are so grim, they are all still laced with sadness. In “On Finding Letters from Auntie F”, as she relives affectionate snapshots of her deceased relative, there is a sense of childlike curiosity giving way to adulthood realisation as aspects of her Aunt’s lifestyle are revealed in stockings and mirrors. “Old Friends” uses an intense, dominating language, rarely seen elsewhere in the collection as the poet paints a vivid portrait of the morning after a night spent with a friend with whom she has lost touch. In “Winter”, she longs for the beach, the snow in the poem symbolising the repression of her desires.
Chappel is an immense talent who blends kitchen sink realism with a dark imaginative perspective that seals each of her poems into their own fairy-tale worlds. Her silvered descriptions of self-decay and lost connections may outwardly be satin soft, yet beware – they contain barbs that prick. The Girl in the Dog Tooth Coat marks a stunning debut. Chappel will lull the reader as hypnotically as a Hamelin piper into the belly of the beast.