If it is possible for poems to have their way with you, then that is just what this compelling, well-crafted collection has been and done to me. I feel somewhat bruised yet strangely amused and lifted by the wit and sincerity of a ride through a string of relationships with parents, lovers, friends and family, where survival has had its costs and left its mark.
Alma is neat but never tied by form, choosing stanzas not always of equal lines, sometimes couplets, to set out her words and messages like the very items of dirty laundry she shares with us. The writing is rich with metaphor, usually accessible, that is always fresh and deeply affecting.
Opening with a poem dedicated to the late Jo Cox, we immediately know Alma is a political creature, a home-maker who loves to grow things and keep animals. This is evident in poem after poem redolent with the nurturing of a mother and wife. But make no mistake, this care-giver will not settle for the “oh of ordinary” as in Nearly Love, or even the romping, gorgeous sex of Cattle Lorry Lover. Shaped by her mixed-race up-bringing, Alma strives to learn the hard way and to seek out pure pleasures like pressing “bare feet…to the sheep-bitten grass” as in Troll, and the parity of loving a well-matched partner with whom she can have fun as in The Dog Knows its Mistress.
Alma knows her own power as a woman and bravely lets us in on the secrets of her sexual confidence. “Once I could get lids from difficult jars with my thighs” she tells us in Thighs, and in both Getting It and I put a pen in my cunt once, she is fearless in her pleasure seeking. Perhaps it is in The Magic Spell that she admits the limit of her powers and her acceptance of the ageing process, when she appears to pass on her prowess to a young woman on a train, bidding her “Open this envelope. Take what you find there.” The generosity and poignancy of this selfless act shows the maturity of a woman comfortable in her own skin and ready to move to another phase in life.
The poems in this collection offer sad reflections on relationships held together for the sake of children and the priority given to everyone else as in Deep Pockets where there are “four dainty cakes and five of us.” There are frightening glimpses of the horror of an abusive partner such as in Dissociation where the light behind a shouting man’s spittle “would shine through…like tiny pearls strung along a woman’s throat.” In Seeing It Coming, there is deep irony in the woman who wants to avoid approaches from the wrong kind of man by using “rear-view mirrors for walking” in the hope she can “see whatever might come from out of her blind spot.”
The wit and humour that permeates many of the poems is at its most arch in The Head of the Church in Rome where Alma ridicules “the penises of the popes”, some of which are “tiny” or even “missing”. Although her childhood was not always easy Alma, a fair-skinned girl in a house full of darker skinned siblings and mother, wryly describes the swapping of eyeballs with her sister in Everywhere We Looked: “we popped out our eyeballs, slipped them into our mouths to moisten them, before slotting into familial sockets, left with little chance of rejection, each looking into our own eyes.”
For me, the triumph of the collection is summed up in the last poem She describes herself like this, where Alma says, “sometimes I can see beyond” (my) own reflection. Alma admits, “I have had many lovers and I have been many times loved. When I come I cry out, and I am the sound of the wind in the trees and I am the rain on the roof when in love, or falling.”
Dirty Laundry is published Nine Arches Press and is available HERE
Pat Edwards is a writer, teacher and performer from Mid Wales. Her work has appeared more recently in Prole, Ink Sweat & Tears, Magma and Deborah Alma’s #MeToo Anthology. Pat runs Verbatim poetry open mic nights and curates Welshpool Poetry Festival.