(4Word press, 2021); pbk £5.99
Ruth Aylett’s first solo pamphlet exemplifies just what thematic poetry collections make possible. Pretty in Pink examines facets of girl and womanhood, and the pressures to conform to, internalise and perform ideals of femininity, through different lenses of time, geography, class and culture. The collection itself provides a container for twenty-nine poems, fragments of lives and experiences, which resonate with one another, evoking the entrenched nature of patriarchal oppression but also offering glimpses of resistance and hope for the future. Highly political as well as personal then, these poems are also deftly lyrical and imaginative. ‘Eve’s dazzle job’ describes Eve with her make-up a strident zigzag down the centre of her face, the back of her shaved head ‘janused[…]/with eye-like circles’ as she discards her clothing to stripe her body black and yellow, like ‘things that bite and sting’. Eve’s legs become:
great curved bow waves,
blue with white flecks,
to surf into a future
of taking charge […]
In addition to this re-imagining of Eve, there is a re-telling of the myth of Achilles disguised as a woman, ‘[…]they could not/tell the gender of his heart’; a conversation between Rosa Luxembourg and Marilyn Monroe; and the transposition of a work by 8th-century Chinese poet, Li Po, to a 21st-century British setting (‘Ch’ang-kan comes to Manchester’).
Formal poems – several sonnets and a sestina – provide vessels strong enough to contain the boundless pain of miscarriage, the violence of abuse and its consequences, the exploitation of women’s bodies for profit, the tribulations of non-conformity. ‘Chosen one – sestina for the lost child’ is achingly tender, closing:
At the back of the pale leaves
wind a faraway voice never leaves
off calling the unnamed child into time.
The colour pink runs through the collection – a colour so strongly and unrelentingly associated with ideals of femininity that, from an early age, daughters are desperate for pink princess costumes (‘Primes of Life’). That pink, the colour of cherry blossom, ‘layer upon layer of pink double-petalled blooms/along leafless branches’ (‘Pink’), is the same colour which leads to shallow pink nirvanas of fluffy handcuffs, stilettos, confetti and Barbie.
Aylett brings a scientist’s eye to several of her themes–mathematics to chart life stages from infancy to motherhood (‘Primes of Life’); chemical elements to describe sexual relationships (‘Chemistry’); geology to explore the interior life (‘Finis terre’); and ‘Titration’ to convey gender pressures which start with all those pink goods and culminate in rape and a changed world for the young girl who wanted to be a boy:
A drop at a time from the burette,
known into unknown.
The whole world in a colour change,
titration on a quiet afternoon.
Aylett dedicates the collection to her mother, Pamela, who started her working life as a pharmacy assistant in Boots and became an NHS consultant. In ‘Tales my mother told me’, this career against all odds is:
Your half-brick through the window
of what was expected
from a railway man’s daughter.
The metaphorical half-brick is also hurled in another poem of rebellion and hope, ‘Anti-Trump demonstration’, in which the weary older activist recognises in the young protesters:
What they do know is the fury of hope;
it crackles in the damp night
as their electrical shock hits how it is,
burns off dirt and assumptions,
reveals the shine of how it can be.
Through this collection runs a quiet fury but also that fuse of hope for a future way beyond pink.