Cherry Pie: Hollie McNish, Burning Eye Books
Published by Burning Eye under her pen name of Hollie Poetry, and inspired by her grandparents’ advice on newspapers, war, sex and tinned cherries, Cherry Pie is the second collection of poems by Hollie McNish.
Always a sucker for an attractive book cover, I spent a little time admiring the beautiful layout and wonderfully warm colours of the cover art, thinking how simple designs can often be the most profound and open to interpretation. Then I turned the book over to read the back cover blurb and the usual credits, and barked out laughing. Credits are usually the first opportunity for a writer to “show off” their credentials, yes? Well, to give you a taste of Hollie’s, the top two say
“Is it another moany poem?”
“You can read it to me but I might fall asleep”
Just so typical of this modest, unassuming poet.
Now then, let’s get one thing straight from the start. This isn’t “just” a book of poetry. Sure, it has poems. Good poems. Great poems. But it also has … recipes. Proper recipes, and recipes that are poems. It has poems that are comic strips. It has … diminishing text, that fades on the page to make its point, to get the feeling over to the reader. There’s a colouring-in page for Tinkerbell and her new invention, referencing a well-known feminist icon. One page, 68, is even replaced by a print of a page from what appears to be an old history book, with weights, measures, and mathematical information. And on the facing page, a brilliant piece about one of her bugbears (and mine) – racism in the guise of patriotism, with its attendant ignorance of the world’s development. Concrete poetry is used to great effect in ‘Cocoa Butter’, making an interesting and valid point about branding.
I’ve never read a poetry book quite like it. It’s an absolute delight, and I thrilled over the poetic experiments, being a fan of using similar devices myself.
The poem which lends itself to the title is a deeply moving and deceptively simple piece:
when my mum sliced the cherry pie on the table
my grandad ran off and threw up
i’m so sorry dad
i’m so sorry
We are told in a few lines of the gruesome and traumatic wartime experience which leads to this reaction, through a child’s eyes.
‘Cupcakes and Scones’ is a poem I wish I had written, one that I have thought of writing many times in different forms, so it really touches the core of my being. It’s about the infantilisation of women, coupled with the prizing of youth that is endemic in our society; the hypocrisy involved in the wearing of the school uniform as an adult, and how women accept their own infantilisation by submitting to it in order to provide the self with a sense of worth:
the school disco club night
we come in our hoards
get low with a school girl
without breaking laws
so i get chatted up by that dribbling man
who likes looking at me looking like i looked in year ten
i don’t get it
because i like being a woman
i’m not a little girl
and years passing by
are not the end of the world
and my life as a woman is the best that it’s been
and i like being me
i don’t want to be thirteen again
Powerful stuff. But these lines, these had me in tears, such is the truth of the message:
and with each sleep i’m getting older
only death is going to stop that
i can go with it and live
or live life looking back
i can raise my little girl to think
her meaning stops at twenty
dreams of never never land
where ticking clocks
are all the enemy
It’s tough being a woman who won’t accept being forced into a second-class position in society, and it’s even harder raising a daughter to not succumb to the pressure either, surrounded as we are by constant repetition and emphasis on an idealised female model of appearance and behaviour.
Feminist themes are explored in many of Hollie’s poems. Another really powerful piece is entitled ‘Reverse’, which imagines the reversal of the cultural power dynamic between the genders:
for just one day
i’d read the sports pages
and tabloid news reporting
without watching as we gawp
at twenty year old tits
as i worry about our kids growing up
in a place where family newspapers
still parade our girl teenagers’ bodies
and so many deny any current inequality
and tweets threaten rape
for a female face on our money
It ends with a very simple and powerful stanza:
and i might hear people say
maybe you’re not just on your period
maybe you’re not just jealous of her tits
maybe there is more to this
These pieces speak with such poetic panache and cogency that they make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I want to punch the air and thank her, all at the same time.
On a slightly different note, as both a stage and page poet myself, I am always very interested in the division between the two, and whether they can successfully cross over. Sometimes this can work, to the point where they are completely interchangeable, and on other occasions it’s clear that it doesn’t work quite so well. Both ‘Dear London’ and ‘Bungalows and Biscuit Tins’ seemed quite alien to me in their written versions, especially ‘Bungalows’. Hollie has such a distinctive delivery that she really does make the poems come alive on stage. I struggled to reconcile the two, and I only saw the live show a few months ago. This does not for one second make the written version pointless or without meaning, however, I did wonder how I would have reacted if I’d never heard her perform them. Given she almost certainly sells most of her books immediately after gigs, this isn’t really a problem, just something that this reviewer pondered.
There are many different stylistic devices and strong poems in Cherry Pie, and I could honestly write all day about them, but I won’t. I will say, however, that you should do yourself a big favour and get a hold of this book, go and see her live show, and prepare yourself for some hard-hitting home truths and social commentary, for some breathy, delicate though intense love-filled verse, for hysterically funny skits on London-centrism and rap videos, emotional ponderings on varieties of turn-ons, and most beautiful of all – the final blank pages headed with SPACE FOR YOU.
Awesome. And I never use that word lightly.