I suppose it’s something of a responsibility to be selected as a new poetry press’ first pamphlet, particularly in today’s unhelpful economic climate. Though Flight of the Dragonfly Press had published a magazine earlier in 2022, it selected Niki Strange as the author of their debut pamphlet. I’m pleased to be able to say that this turned out to be an excellent decision. Body Talk (Flight of the Dragonfly Press, 2022)is a fine debut, featuring authentic poems of courage, resilience, and optimism, which test the boundaries of form in imaginative and appropriate ways.
The pamphlet begins with the profoundly moving prose poem, Float. It is written in the first-person, making it close and personal, as if we are inside the narrator’s head. The syntax is fragmented, the rhythm broken, erratic, capturing the life-changing effect of cancer diagnosis and treatment: ‘Bedtime stories. Swings and roundabouts, And sandpits. Go again. Two lines. Oh yes. Oh gone. Holiday or running away. Stage 1 melanoma. I see the robin every day as I lie in bed. Skin grafted from thigh to shin.’ Strange refers to daily domestic tasks, such as caring for her child, driving the car, arranging flowers, baking bread. Yet the account of each routine activity is never developed or sustained; it is punctuated by specific moments in the treatment of her illness. The effect is to convey the shattering nature of this potentially fatal disease. It wrecks normality, disables concentration, fills every waking hour. No wonder the poem ends with the lines, ‘Run. Run across the sh-sh-shingle into the amniotic waves. And float.’ This is so heart-rending and human: there’s an overwhelming desire to escape from this reality and to be a child again (‘the amniotic waves’), perhaps to start her life over, because she recognises how precious life is with the threat of death hanging over her, or perhaps to avoid the mistakes she has made that have led to her illness (‘Club fucking Tropicana – we didn’t know about UV damage’), or perhaps because she wants someone else to deal with the situation for her, because she feels she doesn’t have the resources to face it alone. This is inventive, powerful, layered writing.
In many ways Float shapes how we respond to what comes later in the pamphlet. For example, when reading Venus, a poem that describes the poet as a young girl preparing for a night out at a disco, I found myself thinking back to this first poem. The reference to the ‘scarlet shoulders/ bearing their bikini ghost’ prompted recall of the reference to UV damage in the earlier poem. The girl is carefree, enjoying the ritual of getting ready (‘tonged hair,/ glossed lips butterflies’). Nothing else matters to her than enjoying the moment and the anticipation of the night out. The presence of the earlier poem, however, overshadows this occasion, making the girl seem naive, careless, foolish even. At the same time, I felt a sadness, a consequence of my knowledge of the future awaiting this young girl.
Body Talk does deal with some pretty sombre subjects, for as well as cancer, there are poems about miscarriage and rape. Nevertheless, the reader is left, above all, with a sense of resilience and optimism, because we are shown how Strange finds a way through such difficulties. She highlights particularly the importance of others, how strength can be drawn from the support of one’s community. In First one gone, which explores the overwhelming grief at a miscarriage, the poem shows the need to turn to others for help. The parents’ response to their loss is symbolised by a car stuck in the snow. All the couple’s own attempts to extricate themselves prove ‘futile…Fruitless’. It is not until passer-by with ‘Their shoulders pressed/ to the cold metal as if/ armoured for the battle’ that they are able to get on the road again. The poem ends with the realisation in the repeated line: ‘This takes more than the two of us.’
Another source of strength that Strange explores is the writing process itself. In Art is for everyone, the pleasure poetry brings the poet is made explicit. She writes: ‘Through the bedroom door you’ve lately heard/ strange incantations/ not Wham! Lyrics. Verse-play urgent/ and experimental as French kisses.’ The reference to French kisses suggests the sensual pleasure that verse brings the young girl and the image of ‘strange incantations’ conveys its transformative effect, preparing us for the final poem in the collection, I can write myself. Many of the images in this concluding poem suggest the escapist quality of writing: she tells us that she can write herself into ‘an open top car/ careering on corniche roads/ in the Cote d’Azure’s brulee noon’, a fantasy in which ‘the facts of my melanoma/ are of little consequence’. It allows her to suspend reality. Yet it does not stop there, writing does more than this: she tells us it restores her ‘balance’, it gives her a sense of perspective, and above all, using the image of tempering steel, she writes it makes her ‘stronger’. Significantly the last word in the collection.
There’s no doubt that Flight of the Dragonfly Press have spotted a burgeoning talent in Niki Strange. It’s true the subject matter has a darkness to it and it is harrowing at times, but it is never bleak and there is a playfulness in the writing, a willingness to experiment with form, as in Easter Hunt and Sea Fret. She clearly has a bright writing future ahead of her, and with publications from writers such as S. Reeson, Andy Breckenridge and Mark Coverdale, the same can be said of FOD Press. I look forward to both their futures with eager anticipation.
Niki rediscovered poetry when undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 2019 and is passionate about poetry’s power to support health and wellbeing. She won Arts Council funding in 2020 to create work as poet in residence at Macmillan’s Horizon Centre in Brighton, also devising and delivering 16 poetry workshops for people affected by cancer. She’s since read at Sussex Poetry Festival (alongside Hollie McNish and Cecilia Knapp), Dragonflies, Second Light and Cheltenham, won a couple of second prizes (Sussex 2019 and Second Light 2021, the latter judged by Costa Prize 2021 winner, Hannah Lowe) and been published Artemis, Flights and Lighthouse journals and the Take Flight and Coasters Anthologies. Niki won a micro pamphlet competition in 2021 with Hedgehog Poetry Press and her Stickleback XXXI is available here: www.nikistrange.co.uk. She published her first pamphlet, Body Talk (Flight of the Dragonfly Press) in 2022.She lives in Brighton.
Body Talk can be purchased from https://flightofthedragonfly.com/shop/
25th March sees the launch of my latest pamphlet, Benchwarmers (Hedgehog Poetry Press, 2023. This pamphlet was joint winner of Hedgehog Poetry Press’ the ‘Wee Collection Challenge’ in 2022. Here’s a fellow poet’s view of it.
Kent’s poems in this collection, skillfully sketch out the lives of the dispossessed; those who ‘…lost life’s toss the moment they were born.’ His poetry vividly captures the feelings of loss and exclusion experienced by the disenfranchised child, and offers us a sobering insight into how our society fails many young people for so many reasons. In his prose poem, Cut, Nigel Kent sets the sharpest rebuke: portraying the brutalizing effects of ostracism in the psyche of young minds, ‘I’ve left my mark carved my initials in entitlement’s bark with the blade they made.’ A chilling yet haunting pamphlet of poems. Josephine Lay, author of ‘A Quietus’
Cost £8.99 + £3.00 p&p.
To pre-order contact me via the Contact Page or email me at ‘email@example.com’.
2 thoughts on “Review of ‘Body Talk’ by Niki Strange”
Reblogged this on The Wombwell Rainbow.
That is a wonderful review Nigel! I have ordered a copy and look forward to reading the poems,
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