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Rennie Halstead reviews Out of True by Susannah Hart

susannahSusannah Hart – Out of True
Live Cannon Ltd. 2018

After studying languages at university, and working in international business, Susannah Hart became a freelance writer and poet. Out of True is her first collection and is an eclectic mix of poems. Some look at the experience of motherhood, others at the role of women in society. There is a small group about Russia and a new take on some traditional stories. Throughout there is an off-beat, wry look at the everyday that delights and surprises.

I particularly like After the Snow Queen. This sonnet gives the children’s story a new twist. Hart looks at the effects of enchantment on Kai. The first quatrain looks at the physical thawing of Kai, and describes the sensation of the blood starting to flow, the heart struggling back to life. In the second quatrain we move on to the memory being frozen, the after effects on the mind and memory. The sestet picks up the after effects of being frozen by the Snow Queen with images of the Tundra geese and the ice crystals colouring Kai’s retina. The poem closes with ‘a singular boy / on a frozen lake, perfectly empty and quite out of reach.’ This isn’t a comfortable retelling of the children’s story.

Similarly the theme of offbeat childhood is revisited in The Last Giant. Like After the Snow Queen, there is a sadness, an elegiac quality in the poem. Hart looks at the experience of being the last giant left alive. She shows the giant’s childhood in the first seven lines, the ‘galumphing boy’ in ‘seven league boots’ lives in a ‘guzzling playground.’ But now he is on his own. ‘The marrow’s sound of the unlistened to / The only reply is leaf fall.’, and, like the dinosaurs, he is being replaced by ‘tiny efficient species.’ This metaphor of extinction concludes ‘He scatters loneliness as he walks, like drops of perfect rain.’

But there is more to this collection than poems based round children’s stories. When She Was Michael examines the pain of growing up, and looks at a tomboy, ultimately forced to recognise her femininity. As Michael, her tomboy alter-ego, life was an exciting round of chopper bikes and tree climbing, engines and cars, and a suggestion of closeness to her now dead father. But sometimes reality broke in, and Michael had to put up with her ‘coat with the velvet collar’ rather than Michael’s ‘plimsolls…scuffed in the mud.’ Hart shows the sadness when Michael has to accept her gender ‘when her breasts came in,’ though she still believes ‘he can light a fire in the rain.’

Witness of the Hollows takes a hard look at prejudice and isolation through the eyes of a girl la-belled as ‘touched’ living a life where ‘her isolation [is] a song she’d written in a church she’d built around herself.’

In Bad Heart the poet looks at the experience of a boy with chronic heart disease, waiting to grow enough to be able to receive a transplant. She focusses on the life of the boy’s imagination, linking the heart problems to his fluttering imagination, and creates an image of a boy whose ‘heart is back to front and upside down / And so his stories too.’ And later, ‘he loves his bad lopsided heart, erratic / struggling on but all he’s got.’

The hospital theme is picked up again in Night Shift, with a poignant poem about a woman expressing milk for her seriously ill baby, who is not able to take it, and possibly too ill to survive. Hart picks up the pain of parenthood. The child ‘won’t drink / the painful milk I’m drawing from my breasts’ and again, ‘The day was long and full of drugs’ and the poem ends with the sad pouring away of the expressed milk at two o’clock in the morning.

The Left Hand of Anna Roentgen is a delight, examining the different perceptions of man and wife – or perhaps the different perceptions of scientists and non scientists. Anna has dreams ‘of Samarkand, Constantinople / of poetry whispered across the water’ whilst her scientific minded husband’s ‘fantasies were all / of Ruhmkorff coils and cathode rays.’ He gave her ‘a picture of me with the meat off…He showed me my death.’

Counting Magpies gives a grown up take on the children’s rhyme. The magpies become threatening birds, and Hart dissects the emotions they represent. Sorrow become ‘the petrol slick of sad-ness’. Four boys ‘strut and challenge’. Gold is ‘parliamentary privilege spent / by a half dozen argumentative apologists.’ Seven ‘hatches thieves with secret / plans, wings feathered with bad tidings.’ Hart echoes my dislike of magpies, these thieving garden assassins.

Perhaps most memorable for me is the sense of loss in the beautifully constructed Moving In, a well constructed piece taking us through the last rites of passage. This skilful poem leads us to think we are helping an older person, probably a much loved Dad, to move home, with the normal problems of settling in, only to discover we are looking at a death, and the way we feel when we finally say goodbye to a loved one.

There is so much more to this collection. I enjoyed reading it enormously.

Rennie Halstead has been writing since he was eleven. He writes reviews, poetry, flash fiction and short stories.

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