Fabulous Beast by Patricia Ace
This reviewer has no doubt that at least one of his lazy, older, white male colleagues will attempt to ghettoise Ace’s wonderful debut collection as “wimmen’s poetry”, but that would do grave injustice to a moving, enjoyable book that resonates with a universal humanity: covering themes of birth, ageing, love, lust, discord, fear, separation, death and renewal.
What the hell is women’s poetry anyway? One imagines the vicar’s widow, pondering a chintzy ten minutes of Radio 4, clutching a Jaffa Cake and a cuppa whilst awaiting the next hot flush… There is nothing mimsy or mumsy about Ace, who is one of the freshest new voices in UK poetry. Yes, here and there are a few poems containing stretchmarks, knickers, breastfeeding and young motherhood but they are written with such engaging vitality that the reader cannot help but be carried along in the current of image and wordplay. Any old tropes are neatly trimmed and while the voice is unapologetically a woman’s voice, its gender is secondary to its artistry.
If anything this is family poetry, for if there is one central theme that runs through Ace’s work in this collection, it is kin. The poems are about lovers, mothers, husbands, fathers, and particularly daughters – of whom she is clearly perplexed but proud, as in ‘The women’: “Nudged awake from the slumber of nurture, / I find the women living in my house. /…/ bragging that their breasts are bigger than mine,” and ‘Ruby turning Thirteen’: “She comes home from school smelling of rubbers / and Tippex and, faintly, of sweat /…/ She’s in a play about the seven deadly sins”
The poet is not one to avoid difficult topics such as dementia ‘The Birches’, paedophilia ‘The Woods’, marital strife‘Storm Damage’ the senescence and death of parents ‘Diary in Old Age’ and its companion poems. At the desk of lesser poet, a treatment of these subjects might be cloying, heavyhanded and trite. Not so with Ace, her plainspoken approach is matter-of-fact, deft and effectively unsettling.
Amongst these ‘domestic’ poems, secreted like hot coals in the sand, are more mythic, feisty and pleasingly abstruse ones like ‘spring / everyday I wake to the massacre of birds’, ‘Lions of Guia’, ‘Little Octopus’, ‘Dido’s Marriage’ and the title poem. There is also a third strand, this time of landscape/ nature poetry, and it is in these that Ace shows her gifts for innovation in rhyme and form, as in ‘Skye Lines’ (Trotternish was just crying out to be in a poem…) and ‘Settlement’. Again, this is subject matter (the Clearances) visited many times by other Scottish poets, and again Ace manages to be fresh and spare in her treatment of it, something she achieves by economy of language and the occasional startling intervention by a talking deer: “O there is something greater”.
The only possible quibble with this book is a minor one – given the three diverse thematic strands already mentioned, it did at points feel that three slimmer collections had been made into one volume. But that may say more about the economics of poetry publishing than anything else, and the wideranging selection means that it contains something for most tastes.
Ace is a poet with talent in spades. Her wit and sense of life’s absurdity are never far below the surface, but if any premise unites this collection it is the unflagging determination of the human spirit and of Mother Nature in the face of worldly trials. An indefatigable chimera of a book, it is aptly a Fabulous Beast.
Freight Books, rrp £8•99, 70pp