Today I have the pleasure of reviewing the first full collection of my poetry friend, Raine Geoghegan, The Talking Stick: O Pookering Kosh, shortly to be published by Salmon Poetry Press. It contains a unique combination of poems, monologues, haibun and songs which celebrate the culture, traditions and beliefs of her Romany ancestors. Geoghegan uses this mixture of forms to give the texts an engaging directness that make the reader imagine (s)he has been welcomed into that community, to sit around the yog (fire) and share a cup of mesci (tea) or a even spot of tatti-panni (brandy) for an evening of sometimes amusing, sometimes moving but always thought-provoking family anecdotes, reflections and songs, in which the frequent use of dialect adds yet further colour and authenticity.
As we do so, we realise that this was a tight, self-sufficient, resourceful community. Friends, neighbours and family could always be relied upon for support, particularly in emergencies. In under a gooseberry bush the narrator, John Ripley, tells the story of his birth. His mother went into labour in the fields. His aunt told a cousin to ‘get ‘elp from another travelling family. It was touch and go, according to me bein’ the wrong way round but thank the lord there was a rackley who ‘ad delivered a lot of chavvies, she pulled me out and I was borned.’ Significantly the woman is not named. She is described simply as ‘a rackley’ (a woman) and a traveller. Therefore we can assume that she is not well-known to the Ripleys, yet there appears to be no hesitation in coming to their aid to save the life of the child. They did not need to look outside the community, because of its resourcefulness: something that is a constant theme in the collection. For example, Geoghegan also shows it was able to live comfortably off the land, even in war: she writes, ‘We ate well, that we did. We ate better than a lot of gadjes…The men would bring ‘ome the odd pheasant, we’d pick fresh ‘erbs. We put anything we ‘ad in the pot.’ Furthermore, when an income was required, its men, women and children had a range of money-making skills: farm labouring (Hobben Time in the Hop Picking Days); flower selling (Wildflowers); fortune telling (The Gypsy Gift); peg-making and selling (Making the Vardos); singing and dancing (I’m a Travelling Gypsy).
Another characteristic of this community that emerges strongly from this collection is the symbiotic relationship between Romanies and nature. Geoghegan shows the pattern of Romany life to be attuned to the rhythm of the seasons: ‘Jel on, me dad would say./ Pack up yer covels, we’ll be on our way./ …The cuckoo’s callin’ , unti the grai, / up onto the vardo. It’s a kushti day’ (Koring Chirclo II). The arrival of spring was the irresistible prompt to set out on the road again. The imagery Geoghegan deploys to describe her characters reinforces this sense that they were inseparable from the natural world. In A Richooell she describes the tradition of piercing a baby girls’ ears. As the child cried from the pain Geoghegan describes her chest as ‘puffing up then down like a soft breeze.’ Furthermore, in the poem A Memory of Hop Fields the manner in which the mother picked hops is described ‘as quick as a squirrel’. In using such imagery the Romanies are presented as much a part of the countryside as the fields, the woods and the creatures that inhabit them. It is no surprise then that Geoghegan shows them to have an antipathy towards cities and city living. As she writes in Somewhere in Apple Water Country, ‘Louie, she’s a didkai and goes / To school in London. Me dad calls it royal town/ And says ‘e wouldn’t go there, not if yer paid ‘im.’ City living was the antithesis of life on the road: cities were places of rules, not freedoms, where the customs and traditions of the Romany community were not respected: ‘She ‘as to wear a uniform, red and gold, but she/ can’t wear ‘er gold ‘oops, it’s against the rules./ If ever I went to school;, me dad would ‘ave to murder/ If anyone touched me ‘oops or me ears.’
Cities and towns are also shown to be places of hostility towards the Romany community. In ‘dirty little flower girl’ Geoghegan exposes the prejudice characteristic of city dwellers when Romanies and ‘gadjes’ were forced together. She writes, ‘us gypsy chavies ‘ad it ‘ard in the days when we ‘ad to go to school. the gadjes used to call us names, they spat on us, told tales..i’d rather ‘ave been out on the tober, travelling’. One might expect such behaviour from young children who didn’t know any better. However this prejudice was modelled by the child’s teachers and spilled into violence: ‘I ‘eard her say to another teacher. ‘Dirty little flower girl.’ something snapped inside me ‘ead and I said, without thinkin’ ‘I’m not dirty.’ she looked at me, fierce like, her face turning red. She put ‘er vast out, bent down and slapped me legs.’ This same hostility towards the Romany community is shown to be institutionalised. In Keep movin’ Geoghegan describes a police raid on a Romany site in which their animosity towards the travellers is openly expressed: ‘We ‘ad to ‘old the men back as the gavvers (policemen) started to wreck the site. One of ‘em kicked the kittle off the yog. He shouted Pack up and get going, you’re not welcome ‘ere.’
Given the satisfactions of life on the open road and the aggression of town and city communities , the Romanies resisted settled living. However, Geoghegan shows that the traditional way of life was unsustainable in the modern world and that they were forced to change. The poem, Chickens in a Pen, gives us an insight into the difficulties of transition. The poem begins with the line: ‘They drove us off the tober’ and this acts as a refrain throughout the poem. The repetition and the word ‘drove’ convey both the reluctance of the community to give up their traditional way of life and their anger at being compelled to do so. They yearn for freedom, symbolised by the open fire, and for that lost connection with nature: ‘We couldn’t hear the cuckoo sing/ or light the yog at night.’ Living in a house felt like being ‘chickens in a pen’, the simile perfectly conveying the idea of being imprisoned and the sense of unnaturalness of the lifestyle that was forced upon them by ‘politicians’. They might try to hang onto their traditional customs and beliefs but they were gradually eroded and transformed, as they adapted to their new lifestyle. For example, ‘the best/ peg maker in Kent’ who was ‘proud of what he did’ now turned his hand to making miniature gypsy wagons, not to sell, but in an attempt to hang onto his sense of identity. As he says in the last line of the poem Making the Vardos (im Alfie Lane), ‘These little vardos are all we got now, eh Butch?’
In the sombre poem, The Gypsy Camp at Auschwitz, Geoghegan concludes the collection with the lines ‘no longer dead leaves trampled underfoot/ they have become wild breathing flowers/ growing in the dust.’ Though I think she is referring to the living memory of those persecuted Romanies who lost their lives in concentration camps, I think the same lines could serve as a testimony to the achievement of this unique and remarkable collection. In The Talking Stick: O Pookering Kosh she brings to life the Romany community of the past, introduces us to some memorable characters and allows us to share their pleasures and their hardships. If literature allows us to walk in the shoes of others and to understand their perspective, this is a fine example of a text that allows us to do so.
Raine Geoghegan, MA, is of mixed heritage, English – Romany, Welsh and Irish. She is a Performance Poet, Prose Writer, Playwright, Voice Over Artist and Performance Skills Coach. Her poems and prose have appeared in journals, magazines and online. Raine’s work can also be found on YouTube and Sound Cloud. Her work has also been widely anthologised. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize; Forward Prize and Best of the Net, she won the ‘Moon Prize’ for ‘Writing in a Woman’s Voice and her poem The Birth of Rage was Highly Commended in the Winchester Poetry Competition for the ‘Reaching Out’ category. Her three pamphlets, Apple Water: Povel Panni, they lit fires: lenti hatch o yog and The Stone Sleep are published with Hedgehog Poetry Press and Apple Water was chosen as a Poetry Book Society 2019 Selected Pamphlet. The Talking Stick: O Pookering Kosh will shortly be published by Salmon Poetry Press. For further information, visit their website or click here.
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