Maggie Mackay reviews 20 by Holly Magill (Drunk Muse Press, 2023)
Holly Magill’s twenty autobiographical poems follow the trials and tribulations of a twenty-year-old as she steps from her teenage years into adulthood and reflects on the dying days of the twentieth century. The pamphlet has the flavour of an edgy kitchen sink drama, but the grittiness is leavened by quirky and astute observations. Magill reflects on her loneliness, her separated parents, her difficult workplace relationships, her weight, and her life, which she describes as “factually, too dull for words”.
The prose poem ‘It’s about self-respect, apparently’ reads as a diary entry. It records the narrator’s experience in a call centre – the staff are unkind, nobody understands her visual impairment, and she feels invisible. The awful January weather and “rubbish” storage heaters in her rented flat don’t help. Everyone else her age lives “with their mum and dad, cherished cuddly toys on well-loved duvet sets”. Her distant father “phones from his authentically-restored cottage in rural Herefordshire”. He has no sympathy, reminding her that “honest hard work is its own reward, the dignity of not relying on handouts”. We fully inhabit the space with this young woman. It’s a hard and lonely life, in which the one saving grace is the start of a friendship with Tracey, a work colleague, who shares her packed lunches with her.
It’s a momentous election day in ‘2nd May, 1997 – Randwick Drive, 8:50am’. At the polling station the narrator feels judged, “my paint -splattered jeans and tee, / glasses speckled with sugar soap”. She’s working hard to spruce up her flat, fed up with the filthy pavements outside and unnerved by a story of death at her front door. Her body aches, her hands “reek of bleach”. As a reader, I root for her, wish things would improve; perhaps they will now there’s a new “Britpop-endorsed” Prime Minister at Number 10. The poem, however, ends with Paranoid Android wailing “greyly” on Radio 1.
The pamphlet has the flavour of an edgy kitchen sink drama, but the grittiness is leavened by quirky and astute observations on life
In ‘I’m a fish out of water (but can’t swim in it either)’ the narrator is invited to Tracey’s house for tea – Chicago Town mini pizzas and Coke. Magill’s use of cultural referents situates the pamphlet firmly in the 1990s – Radio Rentals, Blockbuster, Pizza Hut. The girls watch Sky TV on a leatherette sofa – American shows: Sabrina, Moesha, Roseanne – and drink lager shandy. Her reaction to this fizzy drink causes a violent reaction in Tracey’s wee sister, who roars “You pig! Piggy-piggy-piglet!” The narrator is embarrassed and upset. The following day Tracey mocks her for the way in which she addressed her (Tracey’s) parents. She ends the poem with conflicting emotions: “I want to die. I want to move in and be adopted.”
‘Other’ centres around an odd workplace relationship between an older woman Kristen, and a younger man, Rupert. Kristen mothers Rupert, Rupert fancies Tracey. Tracey plays hard to get. Rupert gives the narrator lifts home after work and confesses he’s in love with Tracey. For me, the most powerful lines in this poem express Kristen’s reaction to being spurned:
Kristen works on a new project;
It involves intensive use of the guillotine.
At the end of the poem Tracey and Rupert are an item, and there are no more lifts home for the narrator. I like the detailed muddle and mash up in this poem, particularly the line “Sunset over Sky dishes and missing rooftiles”. Magill packs in so much detail, so much cinematic imagery.
Magill packs in so much detail, so much cinematic imagery
‘The shrinking of Tracey’ is a lengthy sequenced poem exploring coercive control. Tracey’s unnamed boyfriend (Rupert, perhaps?) wants her to change. The narrator watches as Tracey loses her voice, is shamed about her weight, is denied perfume. Her clothing and hairstyle choices are controlled. No one can help her to see what’s happening. The narrator catalogues the events of her own friendship with Tracey: their intimacy, combing and plaiting each other’s hair, playing at being members of the Spice Girls. It is litany of loss; snort-laughs, Saturday night star jumps on the Sabrina bridge, sharing battered sausage and chips, ice creams, and the last bus home. These are protracted episodes of grief laid out in detailed stanzas. The behaviour of the boyfriend is described as he devalues and exploits Tracey; his chest puffs at her stutter, he smiles at her nervousness. The poem ends:
A very different girl –
Now he’s got her, made her become.
He’d wanted her so badly for so long, yet…
this miniscule, quivering thing dressed like his mum
is nothing like. She’s nothing.
This piece is the most successful piece in the pamphlet. It is harrowing.
Also difficult to read is ‘things I will experience in 5 years’ time’, which describes an attempted suicide. “i’m / explained to them as a teaching aid. 25, paracetamol, alcohol, history of / depression, second attempt”. The world overflows with horror, shame, emotional chaos and “stupid, useless rage at a body that won’t give up on me”. The poem ‘lack of evidence’ ends the sequence, and here the theme of invisibility resurfaces. The language is straightforward, unsentimental:
no sunburnt holiday snaps – no holiday.
no selfies, no phone camera – they don’t exist.
no silly-faced photobooth squeezes with friends,
boyfriends puckered up
– they don’t exist either.
i am not certain i do.
I find Magill’s honest, concise style appealing. The poems flow naturally, telling a story, albeit a heartbreaking one. The events described are hard to hear, but throughout the pamphlet Magill brings a witty twist to much of her work and even an ability to laugh at herself.
Maggie Mackay‘s poetry has been published in many publications and anthologies. Her pamphlet The Heart of the Run was published by Picaroon Poetry in 2018 and her collection A West Coast Psalter by Kelsay Books in 2021. The Poetry Archive WordView 2020 awarded her poem ‘How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt’ a place in the permanent collection. Her second collection, The Babel of Human Travel, was published in December 2022 by Impspired Press. She enjoys a whisky, a good jazz band, and daydreaming with her gorgeous rescue greyhound.