Two words come immediately to mind, on reading and re-reading these collections, Shaw’s second and third; bravery and love.
There is an immediacy – I’m really tempted to use the word ‘attack’ here, but that wouldn’t be correct, for so many reasons – there is an immediacy, a vibrancy, a daring that it is rare to find from poems on the page. They are in your face, they nag, harass and will not you alone: all of which are good things. They have life. Guts.
I have never cared about formal structures of poems, which is not the same thing as not caring about how they look, how they are presented on the page, and I don’t know if Clare Shaw can write a good villanelle, she probably can, but I don’t care. These poems rest on the story that is laid before us, and they are mainly personal, one suspects painful, perhaps with an element of redemption at times, and on the energy, the passion with which they are told. To be this candid about your own pain, the things you have fucked up and the things others have done to you, deliberately or otherwise, and essentially to still come out swinging, to still come out with a blindingly obvious love of humanity, is inspiring.
With “Flood”, the most recent collection which draws its starting point from the recent sorry history of flooding in Shaw’s home town of Hebden Bridge, it is impossible to avoid all those flood related descriptions – overwhelm, inundate, surge – when thinking about the collection. Which is not to say this rests on cliche, or such laziness, but it is to recognise the convincing job that Shaw has made of this collection: it is of a piece, it is structurally sound and it uses that base brilliantly to branch off into other areas of life (love, mental health) while sustaining the central metaphor.
Some of the titles are wryly brilliant, giving the collection’s overall title, where else would poems that glory in names like the following comfortably sit: “instructions for coping in terrible times”; “Low lying regions inundated. Large objects begin to float”; “Major structures destroyed; terrain significantly altered”; “Catastrophic devastation; damage complete.” And while thinking about titles, the following sit back to back, “My father was no ordinary man” – “…His loins were a river…his hand was a mark/ we will all wear forever” – “My Mother was a verified miracle” – “…my mother was bread/ and my mother was broken…”
“Grabbed” is a quietly horrific account, told spare, of an assault on a young girl who had just been playing out on her bike, noting “…the flowers that she gripped throughout…” the poem that offers up the prayer that “she feels nothing at all/ no touch like murder…” It will not be coincidence that the poem “Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital 1992” follows it.
The gallows humour of “Divorce”. The swoon of the several poems that make up “Lovehearts”; “your kiss was the sentence/ I wanted to speak”; “I have never seen such stars”; new love, Shaw notes, “opens the chest/ like cold air”.
“Head On” opens with one of the great statements of rage in recent poetry. MeToo before that was a hashtag, “I do not believe in silence” is that extraordinary thing: poem as personal and political without being dogmatic or hectoring…and when heard read live, it stands the hairs on end. When reading these collections together it is interesting to compare this with the opener of “Flood”, “What do I know”, which is less sure of itself, as if the anger has mellowed and been reflected on, but still simmers in a world that is necessarily different now, now that she has made her own star.
Amongst other subjects “Head On” tackles motherhood, miscarriage and birth, starting of course with “The Lesbian Guide to Conception.” “The No Baby Poem” rings like an empty bell across the Calder valley, it is heart breaking. But the poem in this group that stopped me cold was “This isn’t”, which continues, reading on from the title,
“what mothers are meant to do. / They’re not meant to stand in the corner/ of a white room/ while their daughters are led, bewildered/ to a white couch covered in paper/”
Before going on to describe the detail of a police forensic examination of the girl, “injuries duly noted”, these mothers “want to be anywhere,/ anywhere but this.” Simple language, harrowing scene.
I could go on and on picking out individual poems in these collections, instead I’ll say buy one, buy both and if you get the opportunity to see Clare Shaw read live, take it. She is one of the few poets currently active that bridge the much debated gap between performance and page poetry: she makes a nonsense of the supposed differences, she is simply a fantastic poet.