Claire Askew – This changes things

Full Disclosure: Claire is a close pal. We were in the same creative writing masters at Edinburgh University in 08/09, and have supported each other’s work since then: e.g. I contribute to Claire’s Patreon and wrote a short thing a couple years ago for the Edwin Morgan Prize. I also wrote the back cover blurb for this collection, for which I was paid £50 plus a contributor’s copy. [Edit: this caused some confusion. I wrote the unattributed back cover blurb, not the named endorsements from Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn, taken from their Edwin Morgan Prize statements. Those were written by Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn.]

Review: Appearing immediately before section I, ‘Dukkha’ is a kind of cold open. The word is a Buddhist term wikipedia defines as ‘suffering, anxiety or unsatisfactoriness’; it refers to the pain of aging and death, the essentially mutable, transitory or hollow nature of all forms of life, and how understanding these things is essential to bringing suffering to an end. It’s worth keeping this concept in mind – if This changes things seems uncommonly preoccupied with death and old age, grim fantasies of destruction and bitterness, it may come from a will to intimately understand them.

‘Dukkha’ feels like a parable, standing a little outside the book’s action. It begins:

‘Shelter is the only really necessary thing.
Every creature has its burrow,
bolt hole, cave, its fist of twigs.
Just make it safe, a place
above the flood plain: shake
its sticks and slates to test
it can withstand a storm. That’s all.’

Over the next six stanzas, these basic needs – noticeably at peace with storms and floods, the wilfulness of nature – turn into the will to impose oneself:

‘But then, your square of soil might spoil
its seeds. You’ll need blades, some kind
of beast […] You’ll need to feed it
from your grain: this changes things.’

Tools and weapons are needed, employees and markets, fuel and fences. It’s a bit of a disservice to the poem’s fluid and logical and most of all reasonable escalations to list them in summary. The final stanza turns the first on its head, the storm-safe becoming a fully realised polity:

‘The shelter must be strong,
the water pure. The soil must nurture
tall, true wheat, the hands work
till the yield is in. The lamp must strike,
the gun must kill its target cleanly.
This is all you want.
This is all that anyone wants.’

Security, both physical and ideological (‘pure’ is far from innocent), gives ‘you’ shelter and survival, but takes it from your ‘target’. The ‘anyone’ in the last line is a wee bit devastating, the only point in the poem where a not-you human’s needs are mentioned. The poem’s politics are more subtle than I’m making out here, and land a real hammer-blow – the book’s other narratives, essays and lyrics are predicated on this poem’s philosophy, its self-implication: there is a place where security kills, and we (the white, middle-class, educated readers of poetry) live there.

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After that intro, This changes things keeps a deeply intimate, localised focus. While the narrative voice often shifts – ghosts, a gothic minister, old women with notable frequency – it is always indentifiable and unfractured. The book wants to communicate and be heard clearly; it’s noticeable how many poems direct their dramatic currents with direct cues to the reader – ‘outside’, ‘upstairs’, ‘here’, ‘now’. An early success is ‘Big heat’, a narrative in which Askew appears in the background, a tourist lost on an island in the middle of the night, and desperate for water. The narrator is a woman who lives there, dragged into the poem’s drama:

‘Because I am the one who speaks English,
they call me outside.
In the street, in an elbow of weak light
thrown by our porch, two tourists’

She sees the tourist as a ‘fat white grub’, for whom ‘crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford’. The poem’s conceit could be easily mishandled – the poet is looking at herself through the eyes of a woman she does not know and cannot communicate with, and who explicitly lives with much greater hardship; the poem risks ventriloquy and re-enacting the tourist’s pre-eminence over the local. Though a lyric voice might just peek through in the lines: ‘Things that thrive here: mules / and stones, crickets loud as fire alarms, / the harder vines’, the poem’s internal drama holds together. The moment in which the freewheeling tourist must rely on someone bound to the physical place, an instance of an economic power imbalance being briefly overturned, becomes a kind of psychic disturbance for the narrator:

‘All night […] I think about the girl’s chapped throat,
the boy she lies beside,
their mouths. None of us sleeps.’

In all senses the poet’s avatar is figured as an intrusion, almost parasitic; ‘grub’ seems a pointed choice of word.

The first section of This changes things is deeply aware of the poet’s own roots. There are poems about growing up in Wakefield (‘Hometown’ – ‘locals lie / that no one needs to lock their doors’; ‘High school’ – ‘What you learned best / was the fact of your disgustingness’), about her family and ancestors – Anne Askew, the 16th century poet tortured and executed for heresy, is a touchstone for the collection, and appears in ‘Two Deaths’, an excellent piece in the current issue of Banshee. If Askew seems keen to push away from these origins, however, she also relishes their grisly details. In ‘Hometown’ there is a real gusto to her relaying of urban myths (‘Last week a horse drowned in the Junction Pool’) and evidence of a town cannibalising itself (‘on the Cobby path the summer nettles / swallow trolleys whole’). ‘High school’ likewise investigates the crude lessons in self-image and social hierarchy that trail the poet into adulthood:

‘They thought that life would always hold
the door for them […] and you’d always be
some chubby joke. You believed it too.
The softest part of you believes it now.’

These sharp self-critical turns are at the heart of Askew’s best poems, an ability to remain self-aware in a poem that seems to shape towards a more prosaic observation.

This impulse shapes the handful of poems which deal with social or political ideas directly, ‘Privilege 101’, ‘The picture in your mind when you speak of whores’ and the closing piece, ‘Hydra’. Arguably the danger for explicitly political poems is that their message moves from the subliminal to the conscious – that the reader is faced with the raw idea, and not the underlying principles that make the idea a logical conclusion. This, of course, is dependent on a great deal of trust – that the reader will be able to identify the code as code, and spend time actively unspooling it – and a readership ready to accept perhaps uncomfortable, perhaps self-incriminating truths. Another strategy is to bypass the whole palaver, and actively confront the reader’s assumptions. Askew’s ‘Privilege 101’ tends towards the latter, deploying a second person that envelops poet and reader, beginning in an obviously well-to-do world of ‘cufflinks and silverware’, before moving to a very writerly scene:

‘It’s sitting in the window of a coffee shop, the sun
painting bars across the wooden floor, the plain steel
flip-top teapots shining, writing down ideas that are all yours […]
and choosing which of those ideas you share with whom’

The intention is simple, but effective – the act of writing in public, having access to a (implicitly expensive) space designed for comfort, is put in its social context, only a short distance from fine dining and easy money, and all dependent on ‘hair’s-breadth tricks of fortune, birth and place’. The poem demands the reader (again, bearing the social attributes noted earlier) acknowledge their own position in a violent hierarchy.

3 JP

The two poems that close the book’s two sections, ‘Fire comes’ and ‘Hydra’, seem to be opposite sides of a similar coin; both permit a kind of momentary lyric freedom, pushing away from the more rational processes in the book’s narrative poems. ‘Fire comes’ gives personality and agency to a house fire, which ‘slides its tongue into the house’s ear’, ‘pulls / the walls down around its shoulders like a cape of dark’, ‘tak[es] bites out of the white / tiered staircase like it’s cake’. In the middle of it all is the house’s occupant:

‘All she can think of, crouching down for air the way she learned
in school, is all those times she filled out mental lists of things she’d save from Fire […]

And then the street’s a discotheque of blue and red, the neighbours on their front steps
in their dressing gowns, the kids agape behind the nets.
And she wants none of it.
And Fire takes it all.’

The poem’s uncontextualised wish for annihilation left me heartsick. The poem has a momentum unlike many of the other pieces in the book, the long, run-on lines and sensuousness of detail (‘the engines’ gorgeous, strobing cry’) allowed to dominate the poem’s action; the fire which elsewhere connects the poet to grandmothers and ancestors becomes a death-wish. Other poems’ discussion of death operates primarily through empathy: ‘Spitfires’ gives Askew’s grandfather an afterlife of mending ‘those beautiful death machines’ as he did as a teenager; ‘Going next’ frames her father, the oldest surviving member of his family, as a child himself; both pieces attempt to console and understand. ‘Fire comes’ permits neither. Its power seems drawn from an unwillingness to trust in the poet’s ability to comprehend what seems wholly irrational.

‘Hydra’, which closes section II and the collection, seems a kind of counterweight. It begins:

‘Everywhere you look is light
so exquisite it hurts. Light
off the taffeta sea, the brief white
rips of wake and surf; light
frosting the bleached houses’ sides’

before reaching something like a state of beatific bliss:

‘Ancient, many-headed light
that warms the kilns of myth: clay red, bright
pink, streaked ochre fingering the cloth of sky’

Again, the rational narrative mode is set aside, a celebration of what exists and the ability to perceive it, for a moment relieved of responsibility to the world. Where ‘Fire comes’ leaves the poem in this disturbing uncertainty, ‘Hydra’ peaks on a note equally disturbing in its frankness:

‘insomniac in unfamiliar heat, I’ll write
under the moth-bothered kitchen light,
this is the life. Mine is the lightest, easiest life.’

Any lyric celebration of the life of the mind is tempered by an awareness of the inaccessibility of such a life.

3 DRJ

As in a great many first collections, the quality of This changes things does vary, and for its many successes (the lovely flash-fiction-esque ‘Thing about death’ and ‘Poltergeistrix’) there are pieces which struggle to reach beyond their immediate occasion (‘Greyhound’ or ‘Valentine’) or to shake off a feeling of exercise-yness (‘The western night’), and it’s possible that the poem ‘To Wakefield’ strikes a little unkindly at the kind of people whose lives ‘Privilege 101’ aims to bear in mind. That said, This changes things is contains some deeply moving ruminations on death and loss, a number of significant political lyrics, and a handful of truly reader-altering moments; it’s these pieces that stay longest in the memory, an uncommon achievement.

Tl;dr: This changes things is a heartfelt collection, self-aware and aspiring towards a better way of understanding a complicated and often violent world. Well worth a read.

Further reading: Review by Magda Knight at MookyChick

Review by Russell Jones

Claire Askew at Write Like A Grrrl Edinburgh

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

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