Monday, 7 August 2017

‘Dark flies at our back’: the unsettling language in Pippa Little’s Twist (Arc Publications, 2017)

Jennifer Wong reviews a new book by Pippa Little.

Through her nuanced, free-spirited and metaphorical language, Pippa Little’s latest collection, Twist, conveys the intricate interplay between knowledge and imagination, and meditations on the intimacy and bond of sisterhood. Born in Tanzania, raised in Scotland and who now living in Northumberland, Little’s poetry captures glimpses of the human imagination and one’s hidden knowledge about life.

From history, ancient myths, wildlife, to vexed relationships, Little’s poetry is marked by her perceptiveness and unsettling language. In ‘I Think of You When I Think of Skin’, she unravels the impenetrability of human thoughts deftly between contemplation on the ‘late summer of my life’ and her forbidden thoughts being the ‘flawed, outlawed script’ of a lover. In ‘Flower of Maryam’, a poem named after a desert flower used during childbirth, the poet confesses:

It’s hard for an old woman to
keep herself alive: some days are
so twisted-small and brittle. Yet
even with the dying, something

greens in me, delicately strong,
ephemerals in a desert.

By offering the reader two contrasting mythical visions of life—a fertile body in childbirth labour and a dying body waiting for closure—she suggests the many twists and complexities of human experiences. Moreover, in many of her poems, the poet complicates the poetic text with unsettling language and the surreal. For example, in ‘Night Drive’, a very beautiful poem named after Seamus Heaney’s poem with the same title, Little interweaves the real with the surreal, showing us the ordinariness of a night drive punctuated by strange thoughts on the glittering stares of cattle (‘The eyes of cattle, starting open at the night, glitter and flare’) and the ‘momentary leap of the heart’ in dodging a badger that slips under the ditch.

Little’s poems are powerful in questioning the unnameable. In ‘Sister’, she portrays her endearing and at the same time almost stifling closeness with her sister, hinting at the unspoken secrets and anxieties that underlie their relationship (‘Years you talked for me, /coping, coping. //I am sorry for all of it.’). The poet imagines the sister as her other self ‘who I could never be’, filled with other imperfections and new possibilities. ‘Suitcase Baby’ is a dark, powerful poem in which the poet traces her earliest memories and articulates the sense of muted pain when imagining the nameless mother who leaves her baby behind (‘I was born on a black-hearted day / by a railway line and a silver lava road.’)

Altogether, this is a sophisticated and adventurous collection from an assured poet, one that questions one’s everyday beliefs and ways of seeing, while pushing the boundaries of poetic voice, syntax and form.

Born and raised in Hong Kong and currently in the UK, Jennifer Wong is a writer, researcher, and translator. She is soon to complete her critical/creative PhD at Oxford Brookes.

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