Review published on August 5, 2015.
Hallelujah for 50ft Women goes straight in as one of my favourite poetry anthologies. As the subtitle outlines, the anthology gathers together ‘poems about women’s relationships to their bodies’ and in over 140 poems, every inch of the female body is explored, from the hands to the feet, the hair to the skin, as is a range of ‘body politics’. Indeed, the poetry is impressive in its breadth, with verse on illness, age, weight, prostitution, anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, menstruation, miscarriage and breastfeeding, amongst other topics.
However, what is striking, and poignant, about the collection is the predominantly negative relationships shown between women and their bodies – that women continue to feel defined by, trapped in and victims of their bodies, as Patricia Ace declares in the opening line of her sparky poem ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’, ‘Women, beware, for the war is not won’.
Yet this is an important aspect of the anthology, in highlighting the struggles women still face and endure and the need to be liberated from these age-old burdens. The poetry reveals the myriad ways in which women suffer with their bodies, not only physically, but emotionally, mentally, politically, and it makes for a really eye-opening and affecting experience to read through the collection. Impressive too is that every page has something important, valuable and vital to say, there are no freeloaders or nearly-rans in here, but wall-to-wall powerful poetry. That’s not to say I loved every poem, and of course individual readers will experience and respond to each poem in different ways – and a brief caveat at this point to say that a number of the poems are visceral, candid or plain coarse in their language and content and won’t appeal to everyone’s sensibilities, but this is part of the anthology’s purpose: to be able to speak about the female body without guilt, fear or trepidation – but nearly every poem in the anthology connected with me on some level, and many of them in a very significant way, and that in itself is an astonishing feat, as it’s often the case that in anthologies, there will be an equal mix of poems you love, poems you’re indifferent about and poems you hate.
But without a doubt, I enjoyed the majority of those poems and I can count on one hand the poems I didn’t connect with. Let me count off then a rather liberal selection of some of my favourites:
• ‘The Mermaid in the Dime Museum’ by Alex Toms
• ‘Armour’ by Ana Blandiana
• ‘He Sees Me’ by Deborah Alma
• ‘Pomegranates’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
• ‘Churched’ by Siobhan Mac Mahon
• ‘The only body I have’ by Eloise Williams
• ‘Does My Bum Look Big in This?’ by Patricia Ace
• ‘Busy Dying’ by Rosaleen Glennon
• ‘Nuptial Song’ by Susana Thenon
• ‘Madame’s Menu’ by Gemma Howell
• ‘Rape Joke’ by Patricia Lockwood
• ‘Infertility’ by Zoe Brigley.
And amongst the most affecting
• Leanne O’Sullivan’s exploration of bulimia (‘Bulimic’)
• Jean Gill’s exploration of anorexia (‘Refined to Bone’)
• Claire Askew’s indictment on the body politics of teen girls (‘High School’) and
• Hollie McNish’s compelling treatise on breastfeeding (‘Embarrassed’).
This notable sample reiterates the variety and breadth of subject matters but also showcases an impressive range of voices. I’ll truthfully admit that of all the poets listed above, I was not familiar with one of them – either by name or by their work. And whilst there were other poets – Helen Dunmore, Selima Hill, Grace Nichols – who are perhaps more widely known, I was delighted by the editors’ selections and in finding such a great stock of fresh poetic talent to discover further. Again it’s testament to the quality and achievement of this anthology. If I had any criticisms, it would be that I would have liked to see even more poems, especially on the darker subjects, as well as more on pregnancy and positive body images. And there is a case for ordering the anthology more formally by topic. But these are, admittedly, trivial quibbles of personal preference. Forgive me an impertinence on which to end though, in asking for a follow-up anthology, more of the same please editors, or perhaps down the line we may even get to have that celebratory anthology of female body politics, once all women have been able to get to a point where they can say:
‘I felt good with myself/ and myself as well/ felt good with me’.
Hallelujah for 50ft Women, an anthology
Bloodaxe Books Ltd (23 April 2015) pbk
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