The Bad Sex in Fiction Award, the prize set up in 1993 by Auberon Waugh and awarded by Literary Review with the intention of “gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”, was sensibly cancelled in 2020 as people had plenty of bad things to deal with as it was.
Poetry does not have a similar award and perhaps for good reason; a poem may be a more suitable place for writing about sex. This is not necessarily because poets are better lovers with more advanced techniques than novelists, but because poetry tends to be lyrical, and is traditionally associated with romance. The reader almost expects flights of fancy from a poem, be it short and dirty or long and heavy – perhaps it’s poetry, and not the long forgotten Access card, which is our flexible friend.
Debut poetry collection Shine, Darling by Ella Frears was shortlisted for the 2020 T.S. Eliot Prize, and contains at least one remarkable poem with a title that suggests a sexy poem is on its way – “Fucking in Cornwall”. Commended in the 2019 National Poetry Competition, it puts the sexual act into context of lost time in a particular place: hanging around a beach town in thick rain, with “half a rainbow” over the damp beach. There’s a local museum with a “tiny, stuffed dog”, which the poet decides is a fake. With a saucy, holiday-postcard style humour, the poet declares “Kiss me in a pasty shop with all the ovens on” and “Unlace my shoes in that alley and lift me gently onto the bins”. These commands may seem unromantic, but as the poem continues we learn there is depth and sensitivity to the desires:
I want it like that – like water feeling its way over
an edge. Like two bright-red anemones in a rock pool,
tentacles waving ecstatically.
“Fucking In Cornwall” suggests Frears may take some delight in provoking the reader/listener; there is an element of “shock value” to ensure we are paying attention. Shine, Darling also contains often fearless poems in which the poet considers life in a world that is frequently hostile to women. “Walking Home One Night” describes an anxious return home with “my house-keys between my knuckles”; Frears taps in to primordial dread, telling the moon, winking through the trees, that she will be calling on it to testify “that you saw the whole terrible thing through one half-closed eye”. “Magical Thinking (I)” and “Magical Thinking (II)” are plain spoken poems addressing unnecessary shame around menstruation. “Hayle Services (grease impregnated)” takes us through the process of obtaining and taking a pregnancy test with its’ original whisper of “et tu uterus?” The poet, or women more generally, have to frequently endure an unrelentingly predictable male gaze, or worse; in “Premonition”, despite the general background of intolerance, the poet saves reaction for poetry:
On my way to Greenwich Park, a man pulls over,
asks me to suck his cock and I stare blankly ahead;
Frears does not impose any form of moral judgment or outrage in the poems themselves, but lets us draw our own conclusions. The “handsome older man” in Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity is probably a predator, but the poet retains some form of sympathy for him, surrounded by his dead wife’s possessions. There is surreal violence and misery in “Midpoint”, but the poet admits to the onlooker that more than once she herself has “slowed, to take a long drink/of someone else’s collision”, and that “it’s OK to stare”.
In some of the most striking poems of the collection Frears steps out of the poem and addresses the reader. She tells us in “Fleet Services (northbound)” that she knows we want “the grubby details”, and that she has news for us – “not everything breaks my heart”. By bringing us into the action, we are both charmed by the poet and personally engaged in any outcome.
“The (Little) Death of the Author” also directly addresses the reader in a clever, complex poem about our thought processes. She describes, as a teenager, triumphantly making boys think of her in the bath when they text message her to ask her what she is doing, but admits, in a feat of wit and wordplay:
All, of course, existing solely within the text.
There was no way for him to
come over, it was nine p.m. – too
late to have friends round – let alone boys (you blush
at the thought). No – any act was purely subtext.
When he asked to join you, he was asking if you liked
him: he sees your nakedness and raises you
lowering himself into the metaphorical bath.
She then talks to us directly, suggesting that in “your mind it was a luxurious roll-top bath/no doubt”, making the point that she has now made us think of her in the bath, finishing with the ultimate mike-drop:
Nothing more to say than that. And if you like
you can join me. I’m blushing, are you?
Shine, Darling includes poems from Frears’ pamphlet published by Goldsmiths Press, Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity, reproduced in the centre section of the book and detailing an autobiographical near-abduction experience, plus poems from Somebody Loves Us All, a series of poems in, around or about motorway service stations between Cornwall, where Frears grew up, and London, where she lives now. To a new reader, it comes across as a consistent collection, with some re-occurring themes and imagery (particularly the moon). The collection takes on a wide range of subjects, from her experiences weeing in nature (“Everybody Has to Wee”), burying a pork-chop in the garden (“Phases of the Moon/Things I Have Done”), to the human relationship with animals (“Captivity is Justified”). Many of the poems incorporate the natural world, the ground “dirty with dirt” in the “The Overwhelming Urge” and moss being thrown and grown. The poems are possibly at their most compelling when languidly sensual. In “The Flamingo Estate”, a river “splits in two, stretches its lovely long legs towards the sea”, and in “These are my lovers” the poet declares: “If they’re good I let them count the freckles on my arms”.
As well as a poet, Frears is a visual artist; her collaborative installation exhibited at Tate St.Ives, The Six Pillars of Modernism, was a collaboration with artist Ben Sanderson, and allowed her to question how poems might work in a space and how that space can be altered to enhance the reading. Her poetry is certainly visually memorable through its distinctive imagery, and there is a playful sense of modernist experimentation. “On Stringing The Form” owes some debt to modernist T.S. Eliot, with a sense of self “spread thinly/on your morning toast”. Frears also has the necessary technical expertise to push the limits of the prose poem: “AND SAND AND SAND AND SAND” uses short, simple phrasing and repetition to emphasise one man’s obsession (although we’re assured it’s not a fetish).
Shine, Darling shows an ongoing interest in art. “You, a St. Ives Modernist” contemplates an affair “with the Atlantic Ocean…, and a Cornish hedgerow fizzing with cow-parsley””. “You, a Teenager,” recounts am argument about the nature of art with an art teacher, but the teenage girl doesn’t yet have the “linguistic skills” to argue her point. “You, a Poet Researching Naum Gabo,” recalls a comic moment in an archive, and “You, a Section of Colour in a Heron Painting” marvels at the power of art – “no matter how much snow you conjure, you won’t feel cold”. “Sestina for Caroline Bergvall” considers the poet’s reaction to an art installation.
Frears’ poetry may be ambitious and from time to time considers some high-brow subjects, but it’s generally easy to read and appealing due to the poet’s sense of humour. In “These are my lovers”, she admits her lovers are closer to dogs than men, and closer to donkeys than dogs, but “times are hard and gratitude really does it for me”. In “ETA” she sets outs her thoughts on a tedious journey, with an unmistakably British tone:
Radio – dull,
who I love
A poem detailing a dinner party with an absent friend closes Shine, Darling. “I Asked Him to Check the Roof, Then Took the Ladder Away” encapsulates many of the fine qualities of Frears’ poetry; inventive, with its pithy explanation of the poem in the title, witty, due to the character’s enthusiasm about the dinner party without her partner, and rooted in the sensual, with its expression of physical frustration. The unexpected last line is not repeated here (you’ll need to buy the book), but the poem is a fitting conclusion to a great debut from a very talented poet.
Publisher: Offord Road Books
Publication Date: 16 APR 2020