Maggie Mackay reviews Didicoy by Karen Downs-Barton (Smith|Doorstop Books, 2023)
While I was thinking about the themes in Didicoy the Diane Abbott letter debacle exploded, bringing issues around race, antisemitism and prejudice to the fore. Karen Downs-Barton’s work is a perfectly timed contribution to the experience of ethnic minorities, in this case Romani, multi-racial and travelling people.
I took a while to write this review. The pamphlet is riveting and I was compelled to read the poems many times over. They are fresh and inventive, and diverse in form – there are free verse poems, prose poems, an erasure poem, some long three-part poems, some found text, and a crown sonnet. The language matches the content, sometimes lyrical, sometimes hard headed and unflinching. It is one of the four winners of the 2022 Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Competition.
Didicoy speaks of an excluded and marginalised minority, wilfully misunderstood and disrespected, and joins a number of recent works raising awareness of the ancient Romani traditions; Sarah Wimbush’s Bloodlines, Raine Geoghegan’s Apple Water : Povel Panni and David Morley’s Fury. The poems record the author’s testimony of her peripatetic childhood and life in the state childcare system. It’s an elegant pamphlet of high production values which complements the clarity of writing within. The poems pack an emotional punch in their sequencing – each one earns its place in the unravelling of events which become more harrowing as we move through the pages. I feel moved and angry, compassionate and frustrated by humankind. They are politically charged, challenging our sense of fairness and social justice. The whole is a revelation.
The poems record the author’s testimony of her peripatetic childhood and life in the state childcare system
Downs-Barton’s writing possesses magnetic charm and textured nuance. There’s a lovely play with Romani language, revealing its beauty. Two poems strike me as particularly compelling in their originality of voice. One is ‘Hamine: My Mixed Language is My Mixed Identity’, the other ‘A Confluence of Reds and Silks.’ ‘Hamine’ uses couplets to intertwine two thought processes about the definition of a foreigner. Standard English is counterpointed with “my Romani tongue, a wayside patrin of twigs and leaves”. ‘Confluence’ possesses a wonderful musicality and use of white space in five short sections which develop themes of red and silk. The delicate movement of the mother’s appearance “as she teeters lighting candles round his coffin” is very moving. Downs-Barton manages to weave giving birth with a ghost father, a sister, the sense of explosion and undulating waves.
In other poems she sets a gritty and highly personal tone in her exploration of a complex family structure, and poverty. Her relationship with her sister Faye looms large. Related in the first person voice of a young girl rendered invisible, there’s a kitchen sink drama feel about ‘Framed by Wood Grain’, but it’s much more than that. The storytelling across the three sections displays an unflinching laser focus. The poems unravel as a relentless treadmill of chaos and loss. Adults, both in the blended family and in institutional life, act as if they know what’s best for the narrator. Her language and her identity are debased. I feel deeply about the injustice. She celebrates the Romani way of life, but the Romani malevolent spirit or ‘duppy’ is always in the background.
The lines are packed with sensory shots of childhood experiences of trauma, of feeling like “a rag doll”, the mother like a “cloth doll” rendered invisible. There’s a surreal out-of-body sense to finding herself in the room with a dead male body. The invasion of various relatives creates mayhem: “the head that laid there still haunts button eyes”. A confusion about “married wife” and “the other family” comes out of nowhere: “You feel the pain of being stitched back together.”
The poems pack an emotional punch in their sequencing – each one earns its place in the unravelling of events which become more harrowing as we move through the pages
The poem ‘A Love of Flesh’ relates the experience of hunger. The mother does what she has to do to put food on the table. Here she provides a ritual treat, presenting it as mouth-watering and tantalising. Prawns are prepared while the children watch: ‘tuck their naked bodies into the beds of our waiting rolls: saline, sweet and yielding’. It’s a homage to a caring mother doing her best to survive along with her daughters in a complex and isolating world
There are three poems, free verse and prose, called ‘Dear Faye’, addressed to the younger sister, a pivotal figure in the writing. We read of hunger reducing the girls to eating dog biscuits under a dining table, of sexism , of loss of mothering and child abuse in a children’s home. Two sisters share what no one else can know, sharing beds with five cousins and an aunt and uncle in name only. Front and centre throughout is the mother in distress, doing her best. I found them affecting, dreamlike remembrances. Attempts to hold fast together, to keep the bond strong.
Downs-Barton raises the pressures placed upon this mother. ‘My Mother’s Professional Rituals’ and ‘Of the Men who Came as Shadows in the Night’ with its nightmare quality, men force narratives which powerfully express the child’s perspective as she discover the nature of the work, how children are protected from what the adults do at night. Tight three-line stanza screenshots reveal behaviours, sinister noises, secrets and interlopers.’ my wooden toybox / dragged across the living room door like an outsized bolt.’ Finally, the mother utter profanities at what she has done, at what men have done to her. Misogyny is rife throughout the writing. There’s an urgent anger which exposes the pressures and vicissitudes of being Romani, alienated and lost.
The pamphlet is a searing read
The narrator confides in Faye about the violent father, her ’near abduction’, the constant moving on, ending the one positive reassuring thing that mattered:
but I told you
that you were wanted
that’s the thing
you should remember
And when she said, ‘Not in front of my girls.’ I knew
we’d be moving again. We were always
running away from
The pamphlet is a searing read. The voices of the protagonists are impactful. This writing, economic and accessible, is a potent tool in raising awareness of injustice and the struggle for identity. Downs-Barton is courageous and an advocate to be reckoned with. I’m glad to know her work.
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.