Messages Written on Envelope Backs: Ayelet McKenzie, Dempsey & Windle

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Ayelet McKenzie has lived in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, for 32 years. She has published two pamphlet collections, and two previous full collections, The Patient is Disappointing and Courting the Asylum. Her latest collection, Messages Written on Envelope Backs, explores an alternative to conventional “normality” with original imagery. The collection opens with a fascinating series of pen portraits of the overlooked people the poet has met. They all have a dreamy, unexpected side:


     She smelt of sweat, a faint urine and lilies,

     wore old clothes

     walked everywhere;

     with wild winged eyebrows and knotty hair.



     Battered and trusted

     like an old teddy bear,

     she shambled through life

     in her shabby jeans and T-shirt.

     Crazy as heck,

     with her ring-a-ding-ding ponytail

     and face full of curiosity and good humour.



There are direct references to mental health experiences that expose a lack of empathy in the psychiatric ward:


     I go to see my psychiatrist,

     who is petite and slight

     with wrinkled woollen tights

     and hair down to her waist,

     she looks like a little girl.

     Prescribes tablets that make me fat.


     she thinks I am mad.

                                  (‘The Psychiatrist’)


The poem ‘Psychiatric Inmates’ also implies a ‘dark’ side: sedation. The effects of medication don’t allow for the human need to have some physical contact. Food has a symbolic significance; it is a comfort, it is ‘self-medicating’ and is meant to be savoured in bed, taking your time. This ‘wasting’ of time challenges bustling modern life, and points to an alternative vision. This is expressed in McKenzie’s precise imagery and in the slow rhythm of her short, evolving lines:


     she dropped her purse

     and the coins spilled out;

     scattered – and rolled away

     as if they didn’t matter.


     And he stood there laughing,


     The sun laughed too

     and it was beautiful.



In Messages Written on Envelope Backs there is a ruthless ‘reality’ to acknowledge beneath a surreal or dreamy view “where dry stone walls/cut into land and section it” (‘View’). Nevertheless, the poet keeps on “hoping you will come and track me down” (‘Lost Love’).


Ayelet McKenzie, Messages Written on Envelope Backs, Dempsey & Windle, £8


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