The Nailmakers' Daughters: Offa's Press
The latest offering from Offa’s Press brings together the work of three poets from the West Midlands – Emma Purshouse, Iris Rhodes and Marion Cockin - who share with us their observations and memories of life in the Black Country, a region where nailmaking was once a thriving cottage industry and “female blacksmiths” could be found in many communities.
Emma Purshouse, a freelance writer and performance poet, is also a descendant of a nail-maker. Several poems reveal her irrepressible sense of Black Country humour, some of which make use of dialect, while others explore the region’s industrial past in a variety of poetic formats which are at once appealing and relevant to the subject under scrutiny.
The first half of the sonnet entitled ‘Emmie and Arthur’s Honeymoon, June 7th 1931’ will give readers an insight into her special brand of humour:
The earth really did move for them
in that B&B in Bewdley.
6.1 on the Richter scale,
the bedroom positively rocked.
Elsewhere, chimneys tumbled
and Doctor Crippen’s head fell off
at Madame Tussauds in London.
Her stylistic range is impressive: some, such as the poem about Bilston and Battersea Enamel Seconds, make use of anaphora – the deliberate repetition of a word or a phrase for a specific effect – to highlight the mechanical nature of stultifying work. In another poem, ‘Things I Learned from my Maternal Grandfather’, lists are used to create a cumulative effect of knowledge and discovery that is both serious and diverting.
In ‘Star Taxis – Captain’s Log, 10pm to 6am’, Purshouse uses the name of the taxi firm as an invitation to embroider the poem with space imagery to good effect. In the experimental poem, ‘Only Child’, she gives us a visual image of the trajectory of the tennis ball from the moment it leaves the child’s racket to the moment it hits the house wall by positioning the poem in a long thin line down the centre of the page. The final poem in this section, ‘Then and Now’, offers a pleasing symmetry of ideas and line lengths in the two stanzas that serve to link the past with the present.
Iris Rhodes is the only poet in this grouping who has lived for any length of time outside the West Midlands. After college in London in 1960, she lived and worked in Africa for many years before returning to her native roots. Her work, in the middle of this collection, provides a subtle contrast to that of the other two poets. Her poems are more measured and not so fast-paced as those of the others, but they are skilfully crafted and have that ring of authenticity that informs the work of all three poets included in this volume.
Rhodes looks back through the long perspective of memory to summon up lines of heightened emotion when writing about the first or second world wars. There are a few poems that reflect on her time in Africa but most are set in her native Black Country. Her subjects are about long ago winters of discovery, the beauty of the natural world, bargemen on the Black Country canals, rock pools in Bradley, dances at the Queen’s Ballroom in Wolverhampton and a child’s wonder and imagination inside the conservatory at West Park. She writes in a fluent and accessible style and one of her many strengths is the ability to paint an evocative picture with the minimum of fuss, knowing just how many words it takes to make a poem sing:
Mist rises from canals,
Reveals the fields
Where dreaming horses stand
And a lone walker whistles,
Strides, knee-deep in purple willow-herb,
Past the brown bones, the rusting ribs,
The ghosts of factories.
(‘Black Country Aubade’)
Marion Cockin has been writing poetry since she was a teenager. She qualified as a librarian in 1971 and was an assistant librarian for Wolverhampton City Libraries until her retirement.
With the exception of a handful of poems that are set in Africa, the majority of these poems are close to home. Cockin writes of domestic scenes that make use of unusual subject matter such as wrestling with a broken mangle or the discovery of graffiti after stripping off wallpaper on a bedroom wall, to bring originality to her work.
There are some delightful poems here about a child’s fascination with colours and the surprise and wonder of seeing nasturtiums being transformed from “a forest of green plates” to “orange flowers”. She is at her most lyrical though when she writes about relationships. In ‘George and Cal are Dancing’ she writes poignantly about her father’s death but manages to achieve this without any hint of sentimentality. By subtly combining the themes of death and dancing and recalling the time that one or other of her uncle’s taught her how to waltz, she turns the poem into something that is both positive and life-affirming - a moment of celebration which at the same time is seen as some kind of initiation. In ‘The Times I Think that You Have Died’ Cockin creates a poem that is both personal and universal, flippant and serious. There is a fine line to be drawn between these two extremes and Cockin treads it like a tightrope walker who is confident of striking the right balance because she has everything under control:
While I sit waiting
I look at your absent chair
and ponder over a glass of wine
what to wear at your funeral.
An empty space at tai chi class
when you’ve just popped out to the loo.
We’ve struggled through the form
three times before you return.
And in between the shaky moves,
I’ve remarried twice…
The final poem in this section, ‘I Have Made a Room For Us’, is a beautiful meditation written in the form of an extended lyric, in which the subjects are completely at one with the wonders of the natural world. It is a fitting conclusion to a very fine anthology of work.
Jane Seabourne, who edited the collection, must be credited with having put together the work of three very different poets into a seamless whole. Sensitive artwork by Linda Nevill, and a striking cover design by Nicolle Lovell add to the visual appeal of the book. Highly recommended.