Hollie Mcnish's new book Plum is a page turner of a poetry book.
I read it in one sitting today, sitting in the afternoon sun, recovering from a bout of tonsillitis. Poetry is pretty good medicine, especially when it's as funny, moving and warm as this.
McNish is a spoken word artist as well as a published poet and her words beg to be read aloud, flowing, as they do, from the page to the tongue with ease. The deceptively simple rhyming structure and relatable subject matter at the core of her work have broadened the definition of what can be a pretty narrow and exclusive genre and have helped make poetry relevant, even for people who might not ordinarily think they like it.
Using a kind of contemporary ballad style McNish's poems tell personal stories that often follow a clear narrative arc where humour happily rubs alongside pathos enlivening and deepening it rather than negating or neutralizing it.
Plum includes poems and excerpts McNish wrote as a child along with freshly written poems and commentary in her non-pretentious, informal, style. Themes are diverse and include teen relationships, love, sex, modern childhood, family relationships, getting older, death, and gender stereotyping.
As a contemporary of McNish the anecdotes in the first part of her book, describing school discos, slow dances and first kisses jolted me back to the mid nineties with a mix of nostalgia filled with cringe-worthy memories of angst ridden arguments with classmates over Boy bands and Grunge bands.
After describing clumsy school disco kissing techniques the poem Macerena continues:
"now little boys recoil to
line the edges of the room
- a centrifugal dread
the girls - darted to the loos -
eventually sneak back."
The poem Yanking about a mistake made during a first sexual encounter stings with the intensity of the experience in the mind of the adolescent experiencing it while making the most of the comedy value that comes with the advantage of hindsight and perspective. I can still hear the muffled Chinese whispers of such encounters ricochet around the refectory, quads and assembly halls of my old secondary school.
"up and down"
did not mean
like a lever
like a door handle
like a joystick
like a casino slot machine."
McNish's style is well suited to political subject matter too, often building emotive cadence with a clever use of internal rhyme, meter, assonance and the rhythmic punctuation of short lines following long. Layered over these devices are pointed messages that ring with clarity, acerbic wit and authentic outrage at gender stereotyping, marginalization and narrow mindedness.
In the wonderful No Ball Games, McNish confronts the use of "mosquito gadgets" used in urban areas to disperse gangs of youths by sending out painfully high pitched noises that can only be heard by those under the age of 20.
"NO SKATEBOARDING", no wheels, no
bikes all public concrete set with
still headlines cry - obesity!
- computer games! - too much TV!
"KEEP OFF THE GRASS"
"KEEP OFF" KEEP OUT"
"NO BALL GAMES" HERE
no teens allowed."
Likewise Aspiration a poem about when she decided to stop watching the build your dream home show Grand Designs, hits the mark with precision aim.
and i stare at our walls and the
picture-hook holes and the mark
on the carpet i couldn't scrub out and i
imagine fresh paint and wallpaper
patterns and affording thick curtains
that trail to the ground
and tim's sitting down with the
architect now and he wants "bigger
windows to let in more light" and
sarah is showing off heavy silk fabric
that they haggled to five ponds in
bali one night."
The collection also contains the brilliant Language Learning which I remember watching McNish perform on channel four years ago. It was probably my first proper introduction to spoken word. The genre helped me understand how sound could underscore, underwrite and underpin the whole meaning of a poem. Until then I hadn't fully explored or valued meter, rhythm and rhyme which spoken word artists use so adeptly.
One thing McNish does very well is describe a vast range of experiences relevant to contemporary life such as public breastfeeding dilemmas, parenting, body image, and the lack of coherency and meaning in our 24/7 social media recorded lives and whittle them down into beautifully formed anecdotal points that feel both inclusive and deeply intimate.
What more can you ask of a poetry book.
Plum is released on June 15th through Pan Macmillian.