Emma Simon reviews The Underlook by Helen Seymour (Smith|Doorstop, 2021) and The Thoughts by Sarah Barnsley (Smith|Doorstop, 2021)
Smith|Doorstop has published two startling new debut collections that take an inventive approach to form and language to explore the terrain of illness, trauma and recovery.
Both The Underlook by Helen Seymour and The Thoughts by Sarah Barnsley create powerful personal narratives that are at times playful, surreal, often unsettling, but always deeply affecting. The poems in both of these collections seem to me to be important poems of witness, giving voice to experiences that aren’t always heard, and inviting us to look again at the body and think more deeply about the mind.
The Underlook by Helen Seymour
Seymour’s The Underlook is a collection which explores illness, disability and medical trauma. It engages with the seriousness of these issues with intelligence and a great deal of wit. Reading this collection I was constantly caught off guard — the poems shift from humour and warmth to frustration and anger as they confront and convey harsh truths and injustices. Many have strangely surreal settings, including a memorable middle sequence, ‘Where’s Hugo?’ about a pig that disappears after being abducted by a vegan. The last part of this sequence is called ‘Fever Dream’ the title of which seems to reflect the experience of reading many of these poems in one long rush.
The poems thread through different institutionalised settings, many of them medical. We are invited into child development centres, hospital wards, therapy rooms and a rather unusual mortuary, where the deadpan narrator-as-mortuary assistant plays the tray memory game with missing body parts.
The personal nature of this work is clear from the outset, although these poems are a long way from traditional first-person confessionals. The first poem ‘Child Development Centre 1996’ is a report on ‘Helen’. This forms part of a broken sequence of prose poems that runs through the book, with each poem purportedly being a report on the speaker from various medical or educational bodies.
One of the real strengths of this collection is how it captures the language of these institutions, not just the medical jargon but the oddities of the ‘officialese’ tone. By framing this perfectly in these short poems Seymour conveys the dehumanising effect this often has, and highlights the inadequacies of such an approach.
Reading this collection I was constantly caught off guard — the poems shift from humour and warmth to frustration and anger as they confront and convey harsh truths and injustices
This opening poem, for example, finishes with the line “strangers have some difficulty understanding her”. What a brilliant place to open up the collection! Of course, we too are strangers looking in, ‘reading’ the patient, but while the exact experiences described may be unfamiliar to many readers (myself included), Seymour’s flair as a poet, her deft choice of word and imagery, and the adept way she manipulates tone, mean we don’t have any difficulty understanding her at all.
I think this collection shows how effective poems are — particularly when they are as inventive and vivid as these — at communicating subjective experience, and how this contrasts with the blank objectivity of a medical history or school report, each full of facts but telling us nothing about what the life being described really feels like.
In another prose poem sequence running through this collection Seymour rearranges the words of newspaper articles, all of which concern disability. The content of these original reports are shocking, for example ‘[Rearranging the Words of] The Ethicist’s Response to ‘Is It Ok To Dump him Because Of His Medical Condition?’. In these poems Seymour dismantles the language of these articles, pulls it apart to highlight the casual, unthinking, ugly able-ism, but also re-builds it into something else that forces us, the reader, to look at it from new perspectives. The anger in these poems is palpable.
It is clear Seymour has a keen eye for detail and a knack for turning a scene around, inviting you to look at it from another, less predictable, angle. This is particularly well realised in the poem ’24 Hours in A&E’ which gives us individual portraits of seven people featured on the reality TV programme. The poems captures and smartly undercuts many of the conventions of this genre. It deploys the matter-of-fact tone of a TV voiceover. One part starts: “The phone is ringing and Fiona is going straight to CT: she is 80 and fell backwards into an empty swimming pool”.
The poem plays with this tone, highlighting it potential ridiculousness and inadequacy when it comes to conveying the distress and pain of these people. But Seymour embellishes what we would see through the TV screen in telling and witty asides. In this particular pen-portrait, for example, she makes the camera cut to a black-and-white shot of the swimming pool when it was first built, “like when you see / a photograph of a serial killer as a child”.
Many of the details she includes seem surreal at times, for example imagining the doctor placing a Parma Violet on the tongue of a patient who has just had a seizure. But they also serve to make the people depicted more real, more human.
Seymour has a keen eye for detail and a knack for turning a scene around, inviting you to look at it from another, less predictable, angle
On one she notes: “A doctor warns another doctor, ‘a horse can cause internal / injuries that you can’t always see’ as though Jenny has / swallowed one.” We smile, at the image created of inadvertently swallowing a horse, but then feel the punch all the more viscerally, more when we start to learn the details of what has happened to Jenny.
Perhaps this switch in focus is done to most devastating effect in the ‘James’ section of this poem. It closes: “When / James’ wife arrives they sit her down in the relatives’ room / to warn her it was a serious accident and seeing him might / be a shock. Her tears leaves a mark. No one ever warns the / patients about how their relatives look.” Here Seymour is again inviting us to take the view of the patient, to look out and experience the world from their position, at least within the frame of the poem, rather than simply view illness or disability as something ‘over there’ that we look down at through a fog of medical notes and diagnostic terms.
There’s a lot of warmth, and charm running throughout this collection. One poem I particularly loved was ‘Silver Shell Girl’. Again this has a sense of playfulness. The poem is, on the surface at least, about a teenage girl trapped in a 14th century suit of armour. It is the exactness of the details that create this strange, but entirely believable world: the “range / of feather options for the helmet” and bumping with a friend to Flo Rida at the school disco where “there was quite / a sexy moment where I rode her / like a horse”. The armour could be many and more than one thing: illness itself, a disability aid, or that horrible awkward self-consciousness we inhabit as teenagers.
Seymour opens up the poem and invites us in to empathise with her narrators and characters, and to see ourselves in them too. There is something utterly compelling about this — it suggests so many ways in which we are all stuck in versions of ourselves that we are once trying to escape from and can also hide away in.
The Thoughts by Sarah Barnsley
Sarah Barnsley’s The Thoughts explores mental rather than physical illness. These astonishing poems look at different manifestations of intrusive thoughts as part of a wider obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The collection itself is split into seven main sections and an additional epilogue, with titles like ‘Ruminations’, ‘Compulsions’, ‘Avoidances’, ‘Magical Thinking’ and ‘Though-Action Formulations’ helping to guide the reader through different aspects of this condition and towards treatment and recovery.
What is so striking about this book is Barnsley’s inventive and completely joyous use of form. Just flicking through it, before reading anything, it doesn’t really seem like a poetry book at all. Questionnaires, draft emails, magazine articles and puzzles all leap out. ‘Poem on Checks’ appears as a black-and-white checkers board, and there are poems that appear as boxed therapist forms, PhD vivas and flow charts. One of my favourites is ‘The Other Side of the Quarter Panel Mirror’ where each section of the poem reflects and runs across the page’s dividing line, while also reflecting in the two sections underneath.
What is so striking about this book is Barnsley’s inventive and completely joyous use of form
There is a lot in this book about structure, the collection itself is highly structured, and the individual poems seem to me at least, to be a way to contain and organise the chaos and wildness of the thoughts within. I think in many ways these various and manifold forms serve as a guide for the reader, a way to make sense of this, so we don’t too find ourselves lost or carried away by the escalating thought-loops that many of these poems create.
I loved the strange and at times surreal territories of these poems, and the range of emotions they provoke, how they balance humour and absurdity with the disturbing realities of the condition.
Again, as with The Underlook, there seems to be a real effort to create and invoke, through the language and particularly form, not just an objective description of a condition, but a real sense of the lived experience. Barnsley also makes use of a lively range of narrators and personas. This can help Barnsley tells it slant. ‘This Horse’, for example, explores avoidance thoughts, with the first-person horse unable to eat apples for fear of choking. The poem co-opts the therapeutic language: “the only thing for the horse / to do was to eat oats and practise / radical acceptance / of apples as something eaten / by other horses.”
There may be something wryly comic about the setting or tone at this point but the imagery builds to an ending full of loss and longing. We get a real sense of the isolation this has caused. We see the horse’s apples locked away in glass cabinets in a museum “with all the other things / the horse’s thoughts had / forced it to give up: / cool pools, / hugs of mud, / low-hedged fields.”
Barnsley seems to be trusting us with information that I’ve rarely seen discussed before, in poems or prose. This felt important to me, and brave
These conceits help give us, the reader, a more visceral sense of what such intrusive thought patterns might feel like. In one the poem the persona takes lunch with a cave, (that’s with a cave, not in a cave) and in another (‘The Fugitive’ a prison falls on their head. The poem ‘The Outsider’ starts with the brilliantly economical image:
I live in a hide,
brain on the binocular hook,
lungs on the fold-down latch,
nerves on a ledge.
At other times the imagery is exuberant, running away with itself, like the tour de force that is ‘Contemporary Policemen in Their Homes’ which embodies a wild energy in both its syntax structure and compounding imagery. At other times there is nothing slant at all and Barnsley tackles head-on the nature of these thoughts, setting them out in stark, unadorned detail and exploring both the guilt and the shame that this condition can evoke.
The poems here are witty and intelligent, engaging deeply with the ideas of the mind and the therapeutic model. For all their splendid inventiveness and different narrators and personas there is also something vulnerable about this collection. The poems are all very moving, particularly in the ordinary and domestic details that run through them. Barnsley seems to be trusting us with information that I’ve rarely seen discussed before, in poems or prose. This felt important to me, and brave.