Review of ‘Dualities’ by Sharon Larkin

You know that you’ve enjoyed reading a collection when you repeatedly wish you’d written the poem you’ve just read. That was the case for me with Sharon Larkin’s, Dualities (Hedgehog Poetry press, 2020). I was left envying the achievement of this collection for she writes the sort of poetry that I enjoy reading and aspire to write.

Larkin’s collection has the perfect title, Dualities, for in this collection so many of the poems examine the two, often conflicting, aspects of the subjects about which she writes. This is particularly true of her poems about relationships which capture their complexity, revealing how positive behaviours can turn out to have negative outcomes. For example, in Mismatch she writes about a woman trapped in a controlling relationship in which she is treated as a child, forced to do things she doesn’t want to: ‘I didn’t want to, but you enticed me out,/found me waterproofs with a hood,/wellingtons only one size too big’. Although the partner seems well-intentioned (‘You even warmed me an oversize cardigan’), she asserts at the end of the poem that no matter what their motive his actions make her feel uncomfortable: ‘I did not want that, turned away/from your kind, proprietorial act.’ His kindness proves to be oppressive.

In Fowl for dinner we see something similar. The woman’s partner has cooked her lunch. As one might expect in an era of women’s equality, the husband is sharing the domestic chores. Yet he undermines the act by insisting that her preference for ‘Pinot Grigio’ to accompany the meal is inappropriate and decides that they will have ‘Merlot’ instead. What seems at first to be a generous act becomes an exercise of dominance. As Larkin so wittily puts it in the opening line: ‘Her goose is cooked’. He has ruined the occasion and possibly undermined the foundation of their relationship. This is one of a number of poems that deal with dysfunctional male-female relationships.  Other examples, include the surreal and amusing Skulduggery, in which Larkin draws a picture of a woman’s growing resentment at her partner’s obsessive  hobby of collecting skulls;  the villanelle, Dreaming, in which she shows a woman escaping the ennui of her life with a husband who is inured to her boredom; and Observation in which we feel the hurt of betrayal as a husband embarks on an adulterous relationship.

As one might expect in a collection themed on the notion of ‘duality’, Larkin does not focus exclusively upon failed relationships: she is also adept at conveying love’s  more life-enhancing aspects, such as the all- consuming nature of passion. In Mister Mesmer Larkin writes about infatuation. Significantly her picture of love is not a simplistic, idealised one: as one learns to expect in this collection all is not what it seems. Whilst the lovers might like to think of their date as one of elegance and sophistication, a ‘soirée‘ they have ‘orchestrated’, the woman’s feelings for her ‘Mister Mesmer’ ‘liberates banalities’ and she becomes ‘a pea-brained extrovert.’ There is a tenderness here but it makes her act like a fool. Larkin is showing us again the two sides of the same coin and in doing so prevents such poems descending in sentimentality, an approach which we find in other fine poems such as Autumn Colour and Therianthrope.

Though many of the poems in the collection focus on relationships, the notion of duality is applied to other subjects too. Two Christmases explores different responses to Christmas on one’s own. In the first stanza Larkin shows a man trying in vain to create the traditional Christmas. Yet he can only escape his misery through an excess of wine. In the second he creates a new routine. Rather than stay at home alone he makes contact with his ex-wife and pops in to the drop-in centre to serve the homeless dinners and sing them carols with the result that he didn’t need to escape his loneliness: he ‘forgot about the wine’. Another example is Two Old Sticks in which Larkin, through the symbol of inherited walking sticks, explores a mother and a father’s different approaches to life and parenting. The father was reliable (‘sturdy’), protective, caring and a guide to his child (‘shepherd’). The mother, on the other hand, was outwardly less reliable and undemonstrative, but inwardly strong and loving. The daughter reflects upon the strengths of both and realises that this duality is not a choice, in one’s own life one can combine the strengths of the two: ‘I view these/walking aids my parents used, want/to dispose of the one less leaned upon, /retain the stick that will serve me best in years to come, fear I must keep both.

This is a fine collection. Circumstances had meant that Dualities had been sitting on my bookshelf since its publication last year, waiting to be read. If you’re in the same position pick it up and read it now. If you don’t own a copy, buy one!  Larkin is a talented and thoughtful writer with a sharp eye for significant detail and with a distinctive, engaging take on life. You won’t be disappointed!

Sharon Larkin’s ‘Interned at the Food Factory’ was published by Indigo Dreams in 2019 and ‘Dualities’ came out late last year from Hedgehog Poetry. Sharon is Gloucestershire’s Stanza Rep and runs a small poetry press (Eithon Bridge) and the Good Dadhood on-line poetry project. She is passionate about Wales, photography and the natural world.  Her poems draw on these but often wrestle with challenging relationships and unsettling backstories. To find out more and to buy a copy of Dualities, click here.

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