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red silk slippers by Marilyn Francis

 

review by Sarah James


Poems to be Red and Read!

Normally I wouldn't start a review of a poetry collection by praising the cover and title. I know this risks sounding pretentious but, though I might let these influence my choice of novel in a supermarket, somehow it doesn't seem quite serious enough when it comes to poetry. Instead, I tend to select collections based on knowledge of the poet's other work or personal recommendation.

However, in the case of red silk slippers I chose it for all of these reasons, though I rather suspect the cover and title alone would have been enough to make me pick up the book. Not only is the cover design stunning in itself but, like the collection title, aptly epitomises the contents.

Take the word 'red' and the striking single image of the bright hanging bird from Singapore. These are a taster of the boldness and colour of Francis's poems, which take you from these “red silk slippers from Thailand” of the title poem to thoughts like “yellow jelly seas” ('Alice B Toklas Has Second Thoughts'); and the “oiled rainbow gutters” of 'Evening in Paris'.

silk hints at the sensuousness of sound and description throughout this collection; from the “confusion of bramble” at the kitchen window “scraping the panes with black thorns/tapping witchy-fingered on the glass” ('Dressing Table') to “sound/slicing/like a wire/through the dark” ('Nocturne in St James' Park') and two old ladies, “Brillo hair on seashell skulls” ('Sisters').

slippers symbolises for me the way particular experiences, memories and events are made as familiar in this collection as a pair of slippers. However surreal some of the poems may at first appear, they still strike a chord. And yet, taking the title as a whole, familiar things are also made exotic or unusual, as we see when 'Mme de Chirico goes shopping – a song of love'.

The bird-shadow of the cover can also be interpreted metaphorically. While Francis may employ a light-hearted tone in poems such as 'The Last Fairy In The Pack', 'Pig Philosophy', 'Mona Lisa', 'Bananarama', there is a shadow, or darker side, to many of her poems. Even on second reading, the last stanza of 'Birthday Present' (ostensibly about the gift of a kite which leads a boy to become a bird) made me physically gasp.

One can find with a single author collection that one grows too used to an individual poet's style. But this collection avoids that danger. Francis's variety of rich description and sometimes rather surreal contents – from 'Guerilla Gardening' to 'Unrequited: The Love Song of a 5B' (a pencil!) – keeps one very much engaged. And, while most of the poems are free verse, Francis takes advantage of a range of poem lengths, stanza lengths and line lengths, making particular use of shape in her unusual 'The Jarrow Crusade'.

I could continue; there are so many more poems worthy of mention, from waiting for “the table to shrink/to the optimum size/for a nuclear family” ('Protect and Survive') to the the explosive 'The Machine Aesthetic'. Like Francis's ghosts that “still wait at the platform's edge” ('ghosts'), this is a collection that leaves a presence. The poems linger long after the book is closed.

 

Sarah James, poet and short story writer: website sarah-james.co.uk

red silk slippers

  

Yesterday we celebrated all the Christmases

we’d missed since you left and this morning there’s sunshine

and a light frost and I have red silk slippers from Thailand.

 

Outside, blackbirds peck for worms

on the square of turf where the old cat is buried

and I have bright wooden birds from Singapore to dangle

lifelike from the bare branches of the lilac tree.

 

The heating pipes grumble, wind lullabies

through the chimney and I have a lucky Chinese cat

whose silvered paw waves back and forth

tick-tocking the seconds

between yesterday and tomorrow.

 

This morning there’s sunshine and a light frost

and I have red silk slippers from Thailand.

 

© Marilyn Francis 2009

 

 

 

red silk slippers and yellow tulips

 

Work In Progress

 

Before Janet and John I read the cumbersome

books of upholstery samples whose soft pages

took both hands to turn and feel the textures

the roughs and smooths, the brocades, chintzes

the cut and uncut moquettes.

 

My father spoke through metalled teeth

cache of tin-tacks beneath his tongue

stub of pencil behind his ear.

Supine beside a beached and gutted settee

tip-tapping strips of webbing

Brylcreemed hair flopping

over the lenses of his National Health specs.

 

He worked somewhere behind Marylebone Station,

a lock-up that stank of mildew and sweat

where fibres floated in low-watt light.

He wore a chair-surgeon’s apron, bibbed and cross-tied,

multi-pocketed, bristling with bradawls and bodkins;

needles like pirate’s swords, scissors with crocodile teeth.

 

In time, the revamped ottomans, the Louis Quinze,

the button-backed, bow-legged chairs,

the Chesterfield in blue cretonne,

were restored to the drawing rooms of NW8

where my mother wiped wine rings

off marquetry tables

brushed fag ash

off Persian rugs

dusted the porcelain figures.

Walked the peke in the private Square gardens.

 

© Marilyn Francis 2009

 

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