There’s poetry that’s so anchored to the land it came from, it’d be easy to call it poetry of place. And some poetry draws so revealingly on the poet’s raw roots that, were it not utterly unsentimental, one might be tempted to consider it confessional. Then there’s poetry that so deftly balances light and dark, beauty and cruelty, you’d be hard pushed not to think of fairy tale and folklore – if it weren’t so fearlessly real. Sennitt Clough’s ‘Glass’ embodies all of this.
My feeling as I move through ‘Glass’ is of being lured by siren song. I’m being drawn into a shadowy place of no return but the call’s so delicately alluring that I can’t not keep moving, both blindly and knowingly, towards it.
The opening poem, ‘Sightings’, sets the tone. “After my father died, a man bought my mother / a peacock.” The peacock flutters its “tail of eyes” and though the family “watched it each day for weeks” they “failed to notice it jab the wire and free itself.” But the bird’s freedom is short-lived as, “drawn to a glint of patio glass,” it exhausts itself attacking its own reflection. Meanwhile, the man who has now become “my mother’s new husband” creeps behind the weakened creature and the poet sees her mother’s “thin face reflected / in the patio door, watching the capture / of a hundred-eyed bird, blind to his tactic: / slow, slow, grab.”
Such is the effect that I almost turn my head to check if anyone’s behind me.
Sennitt Clough’s language and form are masterfully precise and the spell of the sensuous is everywhere, from a mother’s iron that “glides with the grace / of a mechanical heart pumping steam,” to tasting the air’s “vinegar sharpness / from fruit ripening on briars”. Her abundant imagery succeeds in being visceral and controlled, rich and restrained.
The result is an irresistible dramatic tension that doesn’t let up. These are poems that’ll stay with me, and a poet whose further work I’ll actively seek out.
In this inaugural individual pamphlet from Paper Swans Press, editor Ellie Dank states that it was “love at first read” and it is, indeed, a love you will want to repeat again and again. I could not stop reading and re-reading this astonishing pamphlet which explores a landscape I thought I knew well until Elisabeth Sennitt Clough opened my eyes, revealing a world full of mystique, both familiar and uncomfortably other at the same time
This landscape is a neglected one, deprived and ignored, a place where Fen winds blow /chests puffed out like bossy toddlers/. Sennitt Clough transforms this flat, open, light-filled landscape into a folkloric world as deep and dark as a German forest. It is a land of juxtapositions. In the opening poem, “Sightings”, the peacock, a gift to the Mother, fluttered its tail/of eyes, kohled their rims in black fen soil.
Sennitt Clough’s engaging first-person narrator speaks of mothers and fathers in a voice which, at times, echoes that of Charles Simic. The characters step straight from a new mythology, steeped in the land and its idiosyncracies and unexpected magic; here, there’s a stepfather in place of stepmother, at times benign, at others deeply unsettling. In Green Eyed Sennitt Clough subtly enforces this feeling of otherness, taking further the idea that the Fens and the lands of Eastern Europe are somehow inextricably woven together through shared storytelling and migration. But these poems are also grounded in the everyday, the grind of life in the Fens and the adults and children who try to find their way in a hostile world. In “Potato Season”, a tale of migrant desperation, the narrator sums up power and class relations with the succinct I knew we were on the wrong side/of Christmas and Mum was on the wrong side/of the desk.
Sennitt Clough has a masterful command of form, tight couplets and tercets expertly contain words chosen with aptness and precision. This is very much in evidence in “The Yard at Waterside” where dereliction and nostalgia combine to produce a haunting elegy. –The skeletons of old farm machinery/will be veiled in clusters of nettles,/a pox of rust eating through their limbs./
The fears and terrains of children and adolescents are wonderfully evoked through Sennitt Clough’s powerful imagery. I will never forget the boy in “A Smallholding in the Fens” His room smelt of particle board and vinegar. Some nights his mum gave him cat-food for dinner./He scraped the jelly off/and said it tasted just like Fray Bentos.
This pamphlet, Sennitt Clough’s first to date, does not put a foot wrong. Definitely a voice to watch out for; it surely cannot be too long before a full collection of her work comes out. In the meantime, reading this left me feeling like Oliver Twist, holding my hands out and demanding “Please Miss, I want some more!”
–Sue Burge, Poet and Creative Writing Tutor
The glass of Elisabeth Sennitt Clough’s title appears in many ways throughout her pamphlet: a glass collar, a patio door, contact lenses. From the first poem, however, it is clear that simple reflections on glass aren’t the focus: this is a reflection on the fragility of family, and in fact, parenthood is the pervading theme.
In ‘Sightings’, reflections reveal familial tensions. The speaker’s father has died, and a man has bought the speaker’s mother a peacock, ‘this blue-green bird that fluttered its tail / of eyes’. The tail creates an uneasy sense that the speaker is also being watched, as she watches the peacock ‘each day for weeks’. Despite this, she fails ‘to notice it jab the wire and free itself’, and we become aware that watching is not enough: while preoccupied with the peacock, the ‘man’ of the first line has suddenly become ‘my mother’s new husband’. The new husband captures the peacock, and at this moment the speaker sees her mother’s
thin face reflected
in the patio door, watching the capture
of a hundred-eyed bird, blind to his tactic:
slow, slow, grab.
It is not only the bird who is blind: ‘slow, slow, grab’ suggests that the new husband has been insidiously capturing the family too.
Glass is again discomfiting in ‘A Smallholding in the Fens’. In this poem, the titular glass is transformed into a pond that ‘was never lined’. The speaker begins to recount disturbing details from her childhood; when she thinks of the pond, she doesn’t ‘like to think of the fish, / their gills silvering in the soil.’ Parenthood is called into question when the speaker remembers ‘the boy we called The Milky Bar Kid’ who
peed himself in the corner
after his dad punched his door.
His room smelt of particle board and vinegar.
Some nights his mum gave him cat-food for dinner.
He scraped the jelly off
and said it tasted just like Fray Bentos.
The poem’s epigraph (from Michael Ondaatje) offers insights into how we might read this poem: ‘We began with myths and later included actual events.’ The speaker recounts events from her stepfather’s life: how he once caught a linnet, and although it pecked him, ‘it was the small heartbeat / he felt through the gourd of his palm, / that made him set it free,’; and how he saw a pike ‘so huge, it had to shunt back and forth / at the river’s mouth in order to turn.’
What are the myths and the actual events in the poem? The events involving the stepfather have a mythical quality about them, as they are tied into the natural world, but, then again, the child eating cat food has a sense of playground rumour about it. Sennitt Clough casts doubt over the speaker’s memories.
While parental abuse seems removed from the speaker’s family in ‘A Smallholding in the Fens’, ‘The Glass Collar’ expresses the effects of abuse far more personally. When told to ‘let it out’, the speaker recalls:
in the 4th arrondissement, the glass collars
they wore in the beguinage, each engraved
with the name of their order, how they could speak
only at confession, after superior
loosened the ornate pins secured at their napes.
She turns to an old form of enforced silence to attempt to communicate how impossible it is to describe rape:
I want to shout a whole chapter’s worth
(save for one small line about all the telltale signs
I missed). I want to tell her, a single word
isn’t enough, that it will take a thousand
more than rape. Then I sense the glass
around my throat, the pin’s locking chafe.
Ultimately, the counsellor’s encouragements to ‘let it out’ only exacerbate the speaker’s attempts to talk about what has happened to her, and the only way to express her alienation is by imagining an old religious custom.
Elisabeth Sennitt Clough’s pamphlet takes an unflinching look at a world of darkness, violence and unhappiness. The repeated use of water and glass invites the poems’ speakers to reflect on their past, to recount the cruelty they have experienced in precise and straightforward detail; they loosen the glass collar and find a way to speak.
Glass is Elisabeth Sennitt Clough’s first collection and she immediately draws us into a bleak, desolate world, with open skies, dark earth, shame and secrets.
She is a new voice rising from the Fens, from a desolate murky landscape, she shines with the sharp glint of steel and glass. Sennitt Clough’s skill is to keep holding you down into her poems as you read them. Her skill displays the nature of the fen. The soil of the poetry goes deeper then you dare, takes you insistently downward and it’s effect is mesmerising, uncomfortable and powerful.
Her first poem Sightings is full with rich colours, internal rhyme and we understand this is the “rarest of gifts”, a totem of the poet, a peacock, a strange bird inside a family, trying to understand it’s own distorted reflection and escape. Be we can’t flee the horror of the “slow slow grab”. She tells us “our home was full of hooks”.
It is satisfying that Sennitt Clough keeps us located and rooted to a place. A recurrent theme in her collection is machinery. In The Yard at Waterside we find “vinegar sharpness” and a “pox of rust” and we walk with her into the machinery of the past. As we travel through sharp images, we sense we are colluding, sometimes knowingly. She has us questioning what is myth and truth. Her use of couplets is interesting – she uses them to control the flood of emotions and typically loosens them towards the end of her poems where they merge with a bigger chaos – or is it freedom?
Another theme recurrent in Glass is curiosity and how this is controlled. Green-Eyed is a great example of both the control and wildness in her poetry. She gives us lenses with a “mutation in her eyes”. One of the most moving poems of this collection (and there are many) is My Father’s Coat, where the daughter dresses in the magic of her father into a woven legend of strangeness.
The Collection is in three parts, each with a layer of distortion and revelation. She shows us the murk of the fens, the truth behind the fairy tales. In the excellent Codes of Behaviour in a Canbridgeshire Village the sagging and oozing takes on it’s own personality, you want to stop looking, stop reading – but you can’t. Her S sounds in the poem are like a hissing, this poem hurts.
She gives us motifs of water spilling into earth, machinery that tries to control by brutalising, the need to look deeper are all engineered to remarkable effect in this collection. She manages with skill to use long lines in poems such as Potato Season to echo the big Norfolk skies.
In Fidget words like “wrist flicks” have a great effect showing us anger and loss of control and the confessional Glass Collar where the poet writes that revelation can be it’s own prison.
This collection stays with you, seeps into you with all the bleakness of the Fens. It also cries out to the reader, holds us in it’s looking glass. It does what poetry is meant to do – makes you clutch it to your chest and cry while not knowing why because the poet is unsentimental, brutal, sharp and full of wild colours.