Mat Riches reviews Glut by Ramona Herdman (Nine Arches, 2022)
It took Ramona Herdman a lot of Bottle to write this book. Mind you, it also took a lot of A Warm And Snouting Thing too. What I’m saying is that this first full collection from Herdman contains poems from her two previous pamphlets. 14 poems out of 52 to be exact. Which allows for reasonable representation, but also suggests she hasn’t been resting on her laurels in the three years since A Warm And Snouting Thing came out.
38 new poems is pretty strong showing, and they move Herdman’s themes on. Where Bottle focused, perhaps unsurprisingly, on boozing and the impacts of it on family and individuals, and A Warm And Snouting Thing focused on sex and relationships, Glut takes those themes and builds upon them, expanding and adding to them by looking at the absurdities of modern life, sexism, the impact of Covid 19, and self-belief, among other things.
Both Bottle and A Warm And Snouting Thing have been well reviewed and while I don’t want to spend too long on these two pamphlets, it’s worth looking at how Herdman has gone back and revisited earlier work.
‘Drinking Partner’, originally in Bottle, has been tinkered with. The first stanza previously read:
You would sit in the kitchens drinking alone
every night of my childhood. Cheap whisky. Joints.
You cleared up after yourself. You went to work
before we woke up.
The last two lines now read “You’d clear up after yourself and go to work / before we woke up.” It’s a small and subtle change but it has an impact on the rhythm of the poem, the longer sentences making it less staccato, more of an address and less clipped or accusatory. The poem is all the stronger for the change. This is minor tinkering, but there have also been more major changes. An example of this is ‘Jill Had Two Ponies’ from A Warm And Snouting Thing. While the first two stanzas remain the same, things start looking quite different thereafter. Where stanza three previously read:
The way a life can focus on one
crystal-ball intensity. No need to mention shitting
or the boring businesses of teeth-cleaning, sleeping.
In Glut it becomes:
The way a life can focus on one thing
with crystal-ball intensity. No need to mention
shitting or the boring businesses
of teeth-cleaning, sleeping.
Pretty much all that was there before is still there, but everything has been shifted around and redeployed. Which sort of takes us back to the idea of building on and adding to the themes of these two pamphlets. Almost all of these additional themes (minus the Covid) can be found from the moment the book kicks off with the epic bang of ‘The centre of the fucking universe’. As an aside, for anyone starting out as a poet, please note that this is the way you write a fucking title … and that is how you start a fucking book! Sorry for the language, but it just is.
… the book kicks off with the epic bang of ‘The centre of the fucking universe’. As an aside, for anyone starting out as a poet, please note that this is the way you write a fucking title …
As for the poem itself, it features a familiar Herdmanian trick of wondering aloud. In this case, it’s wondering about what happened to Martin, the Kiwi fiancé of a friend from years ago. Martin gifted Herdman a “sea-smoothed stone, as if I loved him, / as if I’d treasure it in my palm”. The poem goes onto speculate about the “presumptuous gifts” this man may have given to other women across the world. We can assume, perhaps, that the betrothal was broken off, but questions have to be asked as to why. Was it related to the small token? Herdman skilfully makes us wait until the final stanza to reveal, and perhaps revel, in telling us, the world, and probably Martin, that “Of course, you know don’t you / this is all about me, like everything?”
While each stanza starts with a big question or statement, this last one is the one that rules them all, and you have to wonder and admire the self-belief and confidence to say such a thing. To pit yourself against an object that is a “blip from the world’s core”, that has been around for an enormously long time and will outlast us all, but is nothing compared to the power of memory and love, is a big shout.
This self-confidence runs through the collection, but you sense that it is hard won confidence hewn from adversity, of coming out the other side of events – whether that’s the presence of an alcoholic father, as seen in the poems from Bottle, or every day sexism directed, for example, at the teenage girls of ‘Comeuppance’, who:
… have every right to bare their lovely arms,
their ideal shoulders (no matter how cold it is out).
Every right to stretch our credulity as we’re reminded
how glorious an ordinary girl can be,
This is all, as the poem documents, despite the “creepy old men” and “the man who makes an ouch face to himself / watching their departing bottoms”. Please note, there’s a more positive version of this right to bare arms to be seen later in the book in the form of ‘Mes braves’ with its wonderful final line, “You make a mirrorball out of the rain”.
We see sexism again in ‘It’s not me taking the minutes’, where the protagonist has progressed in their career to the point where they are no longer the junior that fills water jugs or cleans glasses before company meetings. For the first stanza the poem could be gender non-specific, but then it shifts:
A man once told me working with women
had taught him to interrupt. It’s a terrible world.
I told him working with men had taught me
to keep on talking, slightly louder.
The poem goes on to reprimand such men, telling them not to talk over young women, and not to attempt to dominate someone who could “take your eye out with her wit”. The poem ends with “The meetings are my meetings now”. This is a powerful counterpoint to the title, and acts both as a statement of empowerment and as a warning.
Ironically for a book titled Glut, it is often the absence of someone that powers the poems in this collection. We’ve seen what the absence of someone like Martin can trigger, and absence is never more powerful a motivation than in a poem like ‘The car after the car’. Much like the opening poem, this one looks back in time, mentions a doomed relationship, an inanimate object – in this case a car, then a series of cars, but has a person’s absence at the heart of it – her now deceased father, lost to cancer.
Herdman starts a poem in one place and travels off to a million more; hers is a mind worth following wherever it chooses to go next
While her father is written throughout the poem, the clearest sense of his impact comes in the final stanza, with his “clear shadow on the driver’s seat”, that shape a lacunae in the insides of a car “coated / in flakes of fag-ash like opals”, the ash “powdering / the genital leatherette folds round the gear stick”. The phrase “clear shadow” is doing a lot of heavy lifting in that poem. Its connotations of both being present and absent, being light and dark, see-through and filled in, is another example of the ways absence seems to permeate these poems.
However, before we bring this to a close and you run out of the door to go and buy a copy of Glut, I’d like to draw your attention the epic poem that is ‘TRIFLE’ . The all caps title is the least ostentatious part of the poem. It is a paean to the epically pleasing foodstuff, but, more importantly, it is a hymn to excess, to not settling down into “the middle of your life” and to not being “unbearably hypothetically sensible”. Oh no, we should:
Burn the house down and go out raging – finding yourself astray in a wood
of branching paths – declaring with a passion incomprehensible
to these people, your allegiance in shipwrecked extremis
to sherry-soaked sponge, glutinous fruits, creamy to inadvisable
heart-stopping lifeboatfull quantities of brain numbing fucking CUSTARD.
We saw earlier how Herdman gave us an example of how to start a poem. ‘TRIFLE’ arguably gives us an emphatic all caps pointer on how to end one as well.
In Glut we have a book that functions as a guide to writing poems, and as a guide to living life. It makes for a constant joy to read. Herdman starts a poem in one place and travels off to a million more; hers is a mind worth following wherever it chooses to go next.
Mat Riches is ITV’s unofficial poet-in-residence. His work’s been in a number of journals and magazines, most recently Wild Court, The High Window and Finished Creatures. He co-runs the Rogue Strands poetry evenings, reviews for Sphinx Review, The High Window and London Grip, and has a pamphlet due out from Red Squirrel Press in 2023. Mat Riches’ blog Wear the Fox Hat is here.