Things I Did While I Was Dead by Rosie Garland (Flapjack Press)
Once there was a vampire lesbian poetess called Rosie Lugosi, who prowled the cellars and subterranean dives of the poetry scene under the discreet but wonderfully protective cover of darkness. Corseted to the point of sublime expiry, she bared her fangs, cracked her whip and, like a fallen angel from one of the better girls' schools of England, lambasted her audiences into quivering submission with her iconoclastic verses. Straight men felt uneasy, and uncomfortably aroused; their women smiled, some in titillation, others to mask their growing sense of having been offended; the gay men approved of the camp spectacle, whilst the Sapphic sisters in the crowd felt all of the above emotions, and more.
Part dominatrix, part refugee from the Rocky Horror Show, Lugosi was also blessed with one of the finest set of lungs in the business, and would break into an operatic outburst which resembled Diamanda Galas morphing into an impish Klaus Nomi. When Rosie again sought the safety of her wooden lid, there walked amongst the merest mortals the fangless but utterly charming Rosie Garland. This Rosie also wrote poetry, but it was always her more bombastic sibling of the soul who gained access to, and recognition from, the printed page. Once Lugosi overslept, died a little, and when her eyes shot open like shutters after winter, "Things I Did While I Was Dead" rested across her folded fingers like a final calling card, a quiet act of literary revenge.
Performance poetry doesn't really allow refined introspection, relying more upon verbal bombast, wit, and vocal dexterity. The poems of Rosie Garland are are conversational, lingering and gentle. She has a neat way of combining distraction with abstraction:
"A smile denoted borrowed time before the hasty morning coffee, a cat's cradle of call-you-laters. I love you equaled Quiet now. Slippery as the syntax I lacked a grip on. The mouth attentive but sandwiching a cold tongue."
In "Being John Doe" she is an astute observer of the sometimes simplistic manners of the male:
"Ask them about shaving, about cars. Dissolve your afternoons in the company of fathers, sons. Observe the way they grip their mugs of tea... Deny yourself softness, questions, the pleasurable quilt of women's conversations."
In Garland's hands the opposite sex is viewed with a sad fascination, but without the usual recourse to rancor that many women writers class as polemic. The poems are witty, tender, and articulate. Themes such as childhood and the need to be loved are contrasted with the dangers of the mundane and the desire to feel alive. In "Serial Monogamy" she moans, "I'm tired of these cries of 'Cut!' interrupting the stumble from one scene of failure to the next." She never offers a soothing line where a realistic one will herald a swifter healing process.
"Love Bites" is a fascinating trip through the fake promises of popular songs, where she turns their sententiousness into statements at odds with their original mawkishness:
"I just don't want the same old line, the same old lies. The doing this because I love you and love will keep us together and love will tear us apart."
There are also moments of astute travelogue. "New York Rude" perfectly encapsulates a tone at tremendous odds with British politeness:
"New York Rude says it loud. And louder. Until everyone is listening. Can't understand why the world swallows words like an apology. What's to be sorry for? Except silence? Speak up, there's someone on the moon can't hear you. What's that you said you wanted? New York Rude can't hear you. New York Rude does not say please. Says thank you when it's earned. New York Rude leans out of its taxi window, gives you the finger, bawls up your asshole New York Rude growls 'butt out lady, stop busting my ass; because you are and you have no idea of its journey from there to here, just how long it took, and what was lost along the way."
Add to that an annoying woman begging on the bus, the sadness of certain marriages, and wonderful memories of her grandmother, and her range is as dizzying in scope, as it is precise in its accuracy. The final poem, "Queer Thanksgiving" (with special thanks to William S. Burroughs) is a true tour de force, a litany of thanks for the hatred minorities -- especially gay people -- still have to contend with. Rarely has intelligent sarcasm been so witheringly employed.
"Thank you for vocabulary; for shirt-lifter, fudge-packer, shit-stabber, lezzie, rug muncher, turd-burglar, bumboy, poufter, willy woufter, pervert, predator, queer; for Too ugly to get a man, what she needs is a real one, unnatural, diesel, man-hater, deviant, paedo. Thank you for giving us two choices; camp queen or butch lezzer's Thank you for It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve For Are you Arthur or Martha? Thank you for the obsession with what we do in bed. For top shelf girl-on-girl action porn... Thank you for the Pink Triangle. thank you for beheading us in Saudi, hanging us in Iran, forcing us into marriages we don't want in Islamabad and Burnley. Thank you for never going away. Thank you for making us strong. Thank you for our history. We are writing our own future. Thank you for keeping us on our toes."
As the book closes to this counter blast, one is left with a sense of respect for all the rage reserved for the final trio of pages. It doesn't eclipse the sentiments of the other remarkable poems, merely signs off with a connecting defiance. It could almost be a Rosie Lugosi poem, but as the two are constructs of a singular mind one shouldn't be surprised that at the end, the circle has been squared. If Rosie Lugosi is the diva of the damned, then Rosie Garland is the observant laureate of the lost. Hand in hand they both make sense of a world in which that sentiment is too often absent.