Khadija Rouf reviews Antonyms for Burial by Ellora Sutton (Fourteen Poems, 2022)
Ellora Sutton’s poems are rich with symbolism, and contain treasures to be unearthed; reading this pamphlet felt like stepping into a sumptuous baroque painting freighted with the coded meanings of colour, mythology and nature. Her poetry bursts with startling imagery. She writes with a fluidity that allows her to journey through history, and appears to step in and out of characters, moving between the past and the present to unbury, bring to life, and make visible people erased from history for their sex, or their sexuality, or for non-conformity to gender stereotypes. She writes of the sea, the moon, and yearning for love, and her work is filled with the duality of life and death.
Sutton describes her main poetic themes as including queerness, mental health, art, nature and history. She has a clutch of prize winning poems and commendations, and was poet in residence at Petersfield Museum. Her pamphlet is published by Fourteen Poems, who showcase talented LGBTQ+ poets.
Her pamphlet is filled with inter-looping rings rich with colour, emotion and meaning, starting with ‘Mood Ring’ and ending with ‘Underglaze Blue’. Red features heavily, with its colliding associations with sex, love, blood and death. It shows up as garnet, menstrual blood, lips and bloodroot. Yellow, from citrus lemon to gold, symbolises triumph and imminent victory. Artemisia Gentileschi’s yellow-clad women appear, exacting biblical vengeance on men. Gentileschi’s unflinching brutality was often directed against characters bearing a striking resemblance to her real life tutor, who sexually abused her.
Reading this pamphlet felt like stepping into a sumptuous baroque painting
There are other understories. ‘All of This is True’, aptly in contrapuntal form, is about Mary Ann Talbot who was born a woman but lived as a man. Talbot became Taylor and served as a soldier and sailor in the 1700s. The poem can be read separately as two columns, or as a whole to make a third, embodying Talbot’s life. Elsewhere, Anne Sharp, the close friend of Jane Austen, receives posthumous gifts such as a lock of her hair. The pre-Raphaelite painter, Simeon Solomon’s painting of lesbian love, ‘Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene’, is given voice. As a gay man, Solomon was marginalised by his contemporaries.
Sutton’s collection brims with arresting images. Even the way these free verse poems are laid out on the page is visually artistic. Her words work hard – birds fly out of her poems; flowers tumble from them capturing the headiness of love. Yet again, amidst sweetness, there is a darker undertone. Eroticism edges towards cannablism and death. The poem ‘Starmix’ refers to eating:
of connective tissue
between our teeth
and in ‘Fragments Against Erinna’s Cheek’ the narrator says “In every deera feast”. Thus objects of love become prey. In ‘Diana, or The Huntress’, there is the sense of the headiness and fragility of love and sex:
I understand how the heart, small mammal,
can only be fully opened by a mouth.
The close proximity of love and death also echoes through references to the Titanic (both the ship itself and and the film romance), as well as the Titanic’s surviving sister ship, Olympic. Sutton conjures rich images of life, but there is always a sense of impermanence, of memento mori.
Against this artistic and classical backdrop, Sutton paints another canvas of an ordinary seaside town and present day love. There is the arcade, the shops selling seaside souvenirs. She moves between wit, beauty, yearning and darkness. This is a place where seagulls can snatch up pets. The startle of love is found in the act of eating Starmix, or in spilling chow mein and staining her dress with sticky red sauce (in ‘Moonshot’). There are also symbols of distress and disturbance; the narrator twice describes her mouth as ‘canopic’, (presumably a reference to the Canopic jars which ancient Egyptians used to store and preserve mummified organs), and white as being the colour of citalopram, an anti-depressant. There is the darkness of a bus stop, a shadowy figure, a moon as a witness. There is also a sense of lunar feminine energy; something witchy and full of vengeance and healing.
Against this artistic and classical backdrop, Sutton paints another canvas of an ordinary seaside town and present day love
Her final poem, ‘Underglaze Blue’, begins, “My body is not a house / it is a broken-necked alley / leading down / to the quay.” The poem speaks of the sea, and conveys a sense of things dis-assembling. At the end the water calls back to her; it says “palace palace“. We could be at the edge of drowning, being seduced to take to the water, or this could be an expression of hope for survival, love and connection.
Antonyms for Burial is an intriguing and, at times, mysterious collection. Even after several readings, it is so laden with themes that there is much to decipher. Sutton is clearly an accomplished poet and I trust her skill. I’m sure that I will return to these delicious, delicate, gothic poems and find new meanings new each time.
Dr Khadija Rouf is a clinical psychologist and writer working in the NHS. She has an MA in Poetry from MMU. Her poetry has been published in Orbis, Six Seasons Review, and Sarasvati, and included in the NHS poetry anthology, These Are The Hands (2020). Her poem ‘Tacet’ recently won joint second prize in the health professional’s category of The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, and her debut pamphlet House Work is available from Fair Acre Press. Khadija is also a member of The Whole Kahani and her short stories have been published in Tongues and Bellies (Linen Press).