Prayer to Imperfection: Lucy English, Burning Eye
Burning Eye Books specialise in publishing performance poetry. Most publishers won’t touch performance poets with a big stick, so my curiosity was instantly piqued. Prayer to Imperfection is Lucy English’s first poetry collection, although she has three novels already under her belt. Born in Sri Lanka, which she references as Ceylon in her poetry, she grew up in London, and although best known as a performance poet she has also been heavily involved with production and organisation of various poetry events.
The first poem could not be better positioned to open a collection of performance poems. ‘This Is A Performance Poem’ cleverly hooks the reader in, and is funny and observant, from the opening lines of:
This is a performance poem
and it starts with a statement,
sometimes political but usually factual,
such as, “Today my cat died,
to the closing lines of:
I will sometimes use repetition.
I will sometimes use repetition,
and then you will know
and then you will know.
That the poem has finished.
The poem documents exactly the structure, content and process of a certain type of performance poem, and as a fellow performance poet, it had me chuckling in recognition and identification.
The title of the collection mirrors much of the sentiment of the contents. There is a scorching honesty running through the poems, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. ‘The Last Days of the Old Year’ drips with pathos, hangs heavy like wet wool, and left me with an ache inside:
I’ve never seen anybody cry as much as you.
Crying for the baby we never had
and the relationship draining around us
‘The Telephone Box Up Ashley Hill’, with its varied memories of times past, of a little boy whose future or longevity we suspect did not happen or was tragically cut short, had the same effect.
The wordplay is impressive and hilarious, as you might expect from a collection of performance pieces. A take on the “You say tomato” lyric wittily references Swinburne and John Cooper Clarke, and the poems are accessible, whilst remaining complex in many cases. The collection is liberally sprinkled with contemporary cultural references, Ikea being a particular favourite. Geography also matters in this book. The poet’s localities are picked out repeatedly, with many references to areas in and around Bristol. This helps to ground the writing, and gives a taste of concrete urban reality.
Alliteration and assonance are evident in abundance, though it has to be said that many of the poems would be classed by this writer as “page” poems, so it would be very interesting to hear them being performed. There is a sympathetic though brutally honest showing of all aspects of human relationships within the pages, with no quarter being given to those who are chosen to appear under the microscope. This applies to the (presumably) autobiographical poetry, too. No rose-tinted spectacles here – the reader feels the discomfort of being party to some of the secrets and fears exposed in the text, together with some of the more sexually explicit lines.
There is a hilarious spoof of a popular song in the poem ‘Dontcha’, and an homage to support knickers of all things in ‘Full Support’. With titles such as ‘My Life As A Porn Movie’ you may assume that we are in a no-holds-barred situation - but in fact the Porn Movie poem ends on a rather surprising note.
Never assume anything in this collection. It is full of surprises – some wistful, some poignant, some cruel, but always true, and always honest. I felt that I could trust Lucy English by the end of the book; that I’d been privileged to have shared these experiences with her, that she’d shown such vulnerability to a stranger. And, after all, isn’t that what we do best as poets? Expose our own vulnerabilities in the knowledge that we are not alone in our experiences, and so that others may feel less isolated.