Sunday, September 6, 2009

URCHIN BELLE by Jenni Fagan

I opened this book of poems and was immediately put off. The first few lines go...

You are a Celtic Tanaiste,
the first crunch of frost
a whorl of midwinter mist
silently silvering the moss.

You are bracken crackling,
a peaty alchemical gold
a thread of smoke spiralling
a thistle on a pebble shore…

...and I didn't get it. That's because I am a fool who prejudges too easily. Or maybe because I didn't know what a Tanaiste was. I still don't, and I am still a fool. But then I met Jenni for the second time, got so drunk I don't know how I got home, and woke up with the book next to my hotel room bed. I read it beginning to end whilst steaming hung-over, and fell in love. 
I think what had me smitten was the indented text on the back of the thick, heavy, rough paper cover. I won't tell you what it says (buy the book and find out for yourself) but I have to say, it is the best back-cover blurb I have ever read. Also, the poems were good, and got better, and better. 
Jenni can be a prickly person, I imagine. This comes across in the poems. They are about toughness. About a rough life, growing up in ways most can't imagine and about kicking ass, kicking her way out of what WAS into what she is NOW: a very charming, witty, sly, and most un-urbane person. There's something feral in the writing, a derailing of common verse, a story, after story, after story in layers of personal history and actuality that hurt to read at points. I know I am too soft, but hell, this can get brutal and... I love the book for it. 
I'd like to find an appropriate element to compare the poems to, but my lack of knowledge when it comes to the periodic table is lamentable. Imagine something harder than diamonds on the outside with a whisky spiked softness and barbs on the inside. This is how the words come across, a pointed tenderness to their interior with an uncompromisingly stiff lip in their delivery. Nothing is sanguine in this book, nothing trite, just lots of sharp, small bites that, with each read, become more and more comfortable, a pleasurable pain. (now that is trite, but it's my fault, not hers)
It also has to be mentioned, nothing is as nice as holding a hand-made book. How Geraint at Blackheath Books gets the effect he gets (rough brown paper, thick pages, hand-printed type...) is beyond me. The physical presence of the book is lush, forget about the words. But, the words are the point, right?
Few books have guts and even fewer are actually moving. This one is both. 
So buy the damn book and find out what the back says, but hurry, it's almost sold-out. That says volumes right there. 

Opinion: Excellent Read

-reviewed by GJ

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