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NAWE member qualified teacher SfEP-trained proofreader active member of Albert Poets, Pennine Poets friend of Beehive Poets agency-trained copywriter


Unnerving Truths

When poetry was last popular in the sixties, you could count the female poets anyone had heard of on one hand - and half of them were dead. Now it's back in fashion and women writers are getting more attention. 51% of it? Well, not quite.

Liz Lochhead is one of the best, showcased with American Sharon Olds and someone called Roger McGough in the new series of Penguin Modern Poets 4 (5). She evokes places powerfully, from her native Glasgow to schizoid, post-wall Berlin, and has a Hockney-esque eye for depicting water. Aquarium 1 reminds us how "louvred shoals flicker open shut off on/are gone" and What the Pool Said gives the time-worn subject of a cooling dip a shimmering new allure. Lochhead conveys the sharpest insights but is never patronising or showy: you could quote her in the pub without embarrassment. Even if you miss all the allusions - to the Bible, Shakespeare and others - it still works.

Sharon Olds writes intensely physical, intimate poetry, exposing some unnerving truths beneath such domestic subjects as groups of small boys at a party, or her sleeping daughter "with her/ face like the face of a snake who has swallowed a deer." More disturbingly in What if God, the Almighty Father himself colludes in abuse as a young girl feels her mother "weep, into/my hair, and slip my soul from between my/ ribs like a tiny hotel soap" to wash away untold griefs. If this takes the smile off your face, Sex Without Love and The Connoisseuse of Slugs should put it back.

For the last word on Roger McGough see Polly Heyes in The West in her Eye (Ed. Rachel, Lever, Pyramid Press, 9.50). She's one of 320 writers published here, many for the first time, from The Hen House women's retreat/writing workshop. Carmen Walton's It's Only Natural, Anne Born's Only Once and Marion Boddy-Evans' Lying to a Market Researcher are typical of dozens for their honesty, poise and wit respectively, while Naomi Hutchings' Feminist Phobia is worth memorising for those occasions when all feminists (we do, don't we?) momentarily lose sight of our objectives. As Liz Lochhead says in her introduction, the selection summons "the sharpness and precision of memory rather than the washed blur of nostalgia." It's also balanced. There is "a disinclination to blame, an often rueful acknowledgement of complicity which is very moving."

What is frustrating is the presentation of the poems themselves. The prestigious exterior, titles and illustrations make the word processing within look amateurish. For 9.50 you want to feel you've bought a book, not a parish magazine. The small extra cost of page numbers and decent type throughout are courtesies to reader and writer which would soon have been covered by extra sales.

Welsh publishers Seren know this: their editions are consistently stylish. The cover illustration of Deryn Rees-Jones' debut collection The Memory Tray (5.95) aptly complements her ironic wit, which here focuses on individuals and their eccentricities. Largo for instance recalls an elderly piano teacher, her boa draped around her "like a mutilated treble clef", before lamenting "all the sad percussions of her life." Good poetry, like yoga, should stop before it hurts: Rees-Jones knows just how far she can pleasurably stretch her readers.

She tries her tongue, her silence softly breaks (M Nourbese Philip, The Women's Press, 6.99) is more demanding and ambitious, but worth the effort. It's a sequence of poems looking at the inappropriateness of English as an Afro-Caribbean tongue. To prevent revolt, slave owners separated speakers of the same African languages and sometimes literally cut out their tongue if they used them - a cultural wound almost too painful to speak of even now.

The poems mix English with what she calls demotic Caribbean, where adjectives become nouns and vice versa ("the as-if of yesterday") and subject pronouns become objects ("I must find she"). One section explores universal grammar - the theory that since many languages have similar structures and young children learn them so fast, we must share some innate language abilities. Philip examines word order and meaning, shows how the speech of the oppressor can contain sounds of pain for the hearer and - look, it would be quicker for you to read this.

The technique of taking language apart isn't new (it's used by other poets and Shakespearean actors) but is obviously suited to making this point. It succeeds, especially if you can work through the concluding essay, which takes a sixth of the book. A cohesive work to be followed through rather than dipped into, She tries her tongue may well become a linguistics set text and enrich our understanding of all oppressed cultures - but don't look for it just yet in Tesco.

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Julia Deakin is a member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.