Review of ‘Ragged Rainbows’ by Julie McNeill

You know you’ve enjoyed a poetry pamphlet when you’re left wanting more. That was certainly my experience when I read debut talent, Julie McNeill’s Ragged Rainbows, for this is a compelling, reflective and ultimately optimistic collection of poems that prompts us to consider the challenges faced by the world around us and to think about our response to the issues she explores.

The world in Ragged Rainbows is precarious. It is beset by climate change, which threatens our existence to such an extent that the most the poet can hope for is to ‘leave,/ a smattering of trees,/ a slither of clean air/ and a tiny pocket-full of hope/ for my children.’ (Raising Environmentalists). It is a place where the cost of independence for women is sexual humiliation by misogynistic men, when the exchange for a few ‘coins’ in a fifteen year old girl’s pocket is ‘a friend of my father’s’ lifting her top over her face ‘so his friends/c could see what a teenager’s/ tits looked like’ (Independence).  It is a place where millions of refugees have no place to go, for as McNeill writes movingly in Rohingya, ‘A sea of forgettable faces, forwards to nowhere’; ‘forgettable’ perhaps because the sight is so painful, the watching public cannot cope and wants to put this human tragedy out of its collective mind, or perhaps because the numbers are so great it makes it impossible to remember each one, or perhaps because it is so common now, it is no longer neither remarkable or memorable. The world in this collection is also the place of the pandemic where normal life has come to a standstill: where normality is frightening (‘she told me that she’s scared. / That really she felt safer/ at home with her new babe.’ Covid 19, The Haircut), where key workers are heroes sent ‘to fight// an invisible foe’ (Time) and where daily life is about seeking a new normal through accommodating ‘new ways to be together/ while we hold our breath and wait’ (The Whistle’).

McNeill’s pamphlet reminds us then of the challenges we face. However, at no time did I feel that the tone was pessimistic, for to counter this harsh reality, her poems celebrate the capacity of humankind to effect change when we act together. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last poem in the collection, Even the rainbows, ends with the line ‘This? This is the time for ‘we’’. Humanity has the capacity to make a difference through united action. The Glass Ceiling makes the point that the changes achieved in women’s lives haven’t come about through revolution: there was no seminal, revolutionary moment, symbolised by the ‘wrecking ball’ and ‘dynamite’. Real change came about through evolution: ‘the change came from below./ Dormant, fossilised, seeds, needing nurture, were quietly growing. Calling, pressure and time to rebuild.’ It was the product of individuals acting collectively over time and not of politicians with their ‘benchmarks or quotas’. In fact McNeill appears to have has no time for politicians as agents of change. In The Palace of Westminster: the establishment as a whole  is portrayed as dishonest, self-serving and misrepresenting the will of the people.  

If we have this capacity to effect change, The Glass Ceiling shows it needs to be ‘nurtured’ to maximise its potential. To be an agent of change requires personal strength and understanding. Parents have a responsibility to develop these qualities in their children, teaching them to be aware of the world around them,  encouraging them to think for themselves and giving them the courage to take stand. In and he raised me like… McNeill describes a father who does just that: he teaches the narrator of the poem to be provocative, to stand up for her values: ‘He raised me to fight.’  Fighting in this context means living according to ones beliefs, as the narrator does in Raising Environmentalists: ‘My mum sold fair trade before it was cool/ and in school, my fifth year talk was on CND./ The panels on my roof suck energy right into our home,/ where we grow enough to keep us sustained.’ This isn’t always easy; it requires as much courage as a physical fight. Later in the same poem she describes the hostility she faced on social media for taking a stand on environmental issues: ‘they choose to attack my face;/…/They repost my profile alongside a Nazi slur.’ The alternative, however,  is to do nothing or to pay lip-service to the cause; an approach which is amusingly satirised in Smile, Greta, in which the speaker in the poem, justifies their minimalist approach to environmentalism ‘Really the kids/ should be in school// the disruption isn’t cool. Nobody likes that kid/ anyway. She wants to take away your holiday,/ swap your car for the bus,/ I really don’t see all the fuss. / You’re doing just enough.’

There is no doubt that Julie McNeill’s challenges any complacency we might personally have about our world. What she has to say I found both relevant and brilliantly compelling. She writes with real conviction and compassion for her fellow human beings. I want to live in a world populated by people like Julie McNeill; it would undoubtedly be a better place. I commend Jack Caradoc at Hybriddreich for giving her this platform and as I said when I began, I want to read more.

Julie is the author of Mission Dyslexia a non-fiction  book for children with Dyslexia, she is Sain Mirren FC poet,  the first female poet in residence at a professional football club and the Makar for the Hampden Collection. She is the secretary for Strathkelvin Writer’s Group in East Dunbartonshire and a champion for the value of writer’s groups and building a writing community. Ragged Rainbows is her debut poetry collection and is available through Dreich Publishers. Click here to purchase a copy. You can follow Julie on Twitter @juliemcneill1 and on Facebook Julie McNeill poetry @thesoulscribbler .

Catch Up with Poets Previously Featured

What’s love got to do with it? Well, love makes the world go round, right? It is the machinery of life. 

Yes, it certainly is and here are 23 poems to help fuel the passion, oil the cogs and pull some levers. 23 poems that show love as chaos and addiction, serious and fun, peaceful, comforting and at times exhilarating. Throw in a few fleeting appearances from Eros and some other stars of Greek mythology, some philosophy and a bit of under the sheets risqué and you have the perfect answer to the question.

The Machinery of Life by Darren J Beaney can be bought here – or here –

The Saboteur Awards 2022

This blog was shortlisted for a Saboteur Award in the category of Reviewer of Literature in both 2021 and 2022. I would like to thank all those poets who have dropped in over the last eighteen months, all our regular readers and all those who took the time to nominate and vote for it. Your support is much appreciated.

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