Guest, Charlotte. Soap, Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2017. RRP: $12.95, 58pp, ISBN: 9780648087816.
A couple of years ago I heard Charlotte Guest read at Perth Writers’ Festival. I was struck by the sophistication of her stage presence and the vivid images in her poetry. Charlotte Guest’s debut collection, Soap, delivers both of these qualities.
The cover of the book is a plain dusky pink, with bold silver lettering. It feels as smooth as soap to touch; you can almost imagine a rose perfume. In addition, there is a play on the word ‘soap’ as in soapie. This poet works with humour.
The poems in Soap, Guest tells us in an ‘Afterword’, were written over a six-year period, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-five. They are about selfhood, both feminine and feminist, and chart the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Guest’s aim with the collection is to see things anew.
The Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky described art as ‘thinking in images’, and saw defamiliarisation (ostranenie, making strange) as a crucial technique. I’m not suggesting that Guest is a formalist, or imagist poet, but her way of seeing things anew is akin to defamiliarisation via vivid images.
Early in the collection, ‘Networking Drinks’ (2) witnesses a young woman hold her gaze while a ‘confident boy’ spouts opinions: ‘looking / down his straight nose’. The poem concludes by mocking the conversation. There is an implied conflation of champagne bubbles and the bubbles fish blow underwater: ‘I open my mouth and / push bubbles out’. The poem ends with an image that evokes silence.
We are talking
over our heads, like
dipped witches. (2)
In other poems such as ‘Baskets’ (5), images are dreamlike and surreal. The newly experienced world is full of ‘dreams and uneasy things’ (5). The prose poem ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (7) has a surreal dreamlike morphing of the visual. Corsets into swans.
The transitory space between girlhood and womanhood is often portrayed by Guest as a room or garden. In ‘Hush, Memory’ the image of lodgings reveals complexity and surprise.
The lodgings at the end of girlhood
are not as advertised. I had not expected
these island features, (4).
Elsewhere in the poem, she is bombarded with opinions. ‘Here, the trees speak. Here, the rooms / are as mouths with opinions,’ (4).
Temporal space is at times endured with affectionate humour. In ‘Hey Preacher’ (13), time stretches on ‘like my mother talking’ (13). However, humour becomes playfully macabre in ‘Autobiographical Fragment’ (19). The girls conduct a funeral for a doll, an image that defamiliarises and exaggerates the grief and loss of girlhood.
we held a funeral for her youth. We
buried a doll in a shoebox lined with
Eucalyptus tissues. The doll
stared into middle distance
all the way down. (19)
A couple of poems make intertextual reference to Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’. ‘In ‘Nanna, Kalamunda’, as the grandmother is dying, the speaker tells the grandmother, and thus cautioning herself, that in becoming a woman she should be aware of patriarchy.
Foot out, out the black shoe,
the shoe you think you
went to town in, (28)
In ‘Daddies’ (29), she says ‘Tell me of the first daddy, and the second daddy’. Yet the poem ends with affectionate humour for the father, as for the mother seen earlier.
The final poem in Soap, ‘Notes on the Disappearance of a Friend’ (37), is sparse, one or two lines per page over six pages. The brief lines are surrounded with the silence of mourning, the white page. The very subject matter and silence of this poem folds back not only into the memory of the lost girl in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ but into the very heart of the collection, the loss of girlhood and its subsequent grief. This is sophisticated writing, an interesting and intelligent first collection, and impressive for the way it works, thematically, as a whole.
Carolyn Abbs grew up in the south of England, and now lives in South Fremantle, Western Australia. She has published poems in journals and anthologies such as Westerly, Cordite, Rabbit, Writ Poetry Review, The Best Australian Poems 2014, Australian Poetry Journal; a series of poems, ‘Different Hemispheres’, in Axon: Creative Explorations (2015); and in Australian Book Review, print, online, and a recording, as part of the ‘States of Poetry Project’ (2016). Carolyn was Highly Commended in the Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript (2016). The Tiny Museums is her first collection of poetry, UWA Publishing (2017).