Susan Utting Susan Utting 


London Grip
Review by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

Fair's Fair
by Susan Utting

Susan Utting’s new collection Fair’s Fair (Two Rivers, 2012) shows off her talents to good advantage. One feature of the book that must strike the reader sooner rather than later is its coherence. Although divided into three sections, the poems in each part are cleverly linked by ideas and images that keep drawing us further into Utting’s poetic vision. Sometimes this linking involves adjoining poems sharing a concrete object – a restarted heart, a pan of water brought to a rolling boil.

In fact, Utting often includes familiar domestic objects in her poems; and – like Berry – she is quite prepared to play tricks with them. In ‘The Things’ she writes

For want of a foot, the shoe wept
like a babe in the crook of the wrong
woman’s arm …

and later in the same poem we find For want of a fist, the glove snivelled… This is dark fairy-tale stuff, indeed; but nevertheless it seems to stay a little closer to tangible reality than Berry’s more extreme flights of fancy.

Glass appears in a variety of guises throughout the book. Early on, Utting contemplates ‘Giving up Mirrors’ and imagines eyes that have forgotten old reflected / selves, that see the world for all it is…; and then, towards the end of the book, in an anxious villanelle ‘Before the Storm’ she admits that superstition means I’m covering mirror , hiding knives again. Elsewhere we meet glass in red-shuttered Amsterdam windows or as the transparent barrier imprisoning a museum exhibit or as a dangerous splinter in the skin which threatens seven years bad luck.

Time is another of Utting’s preoccupations. She contrasts clocks and our power to adjust them – at the altering of clocks / we reach the safe time – with the way that time itself goes by entirely outside our control . The distancing and de-personalising effect of elapsing time is effectively captured in the wonderfully laconic ‘Postcard Home’ which begins There’s weather here but so far no one’s / mentioned it.

Utting is a poet who enjoys language and celebrates her enjoyment. In ‘Learning to Read’ she connects such enjoyment with a childhood memory of interpreting a Barber Shop sign as baa baa sheep. She allows herself to string together wonderful descriptive chains such as

Look at her flirt in her flash-vivid bolero
lash-flutter, hair-flick and kiss-me-soft smile

(‘Picture of my Mother as a Young Woman’)

Utting is very fond of such hyphenated compounds; but she rarely overdoes it and usually avoids anything predictable – e.g. choosing kiss-me-soft instead of the cliché kiss-me-quick.

Yet, remarkably for a poet who is so exuberant in her use of language, Utting also handles vulnerability very well. In ‘Naked’, the boy in the bathroom’s eyes, is described as being more naked than Adam / after the apple. And a few pages on we meet

a child who climbs on a roof,
clings to the stack of the chimney
and weeps till her tears loosen the mortar.

These lines come from ‘Wanting the Moon’, which is inspired by an Edward Thomas poem. Elsewhere, Utting gives her book greater depth by drawing on sources as diverse as Virgil, Charlotte Mew and Andy Warhol to augment her own personal vision and experience.

I’d like to close by revisiting Utting’s dexterity with language. Besides her freely-scattered and lively compound adjectives, there are many other verbal felicities to be found throughout the book. A frisbee is a light hearted discus; a woman talking while she smokes a cigarette experiences the thrill / of words burning, becoming caterpillars // of long ash; in a neighbourhood pub, smokers with their roll ups and full strength have kippered the walls. In the poem ‘Breathing’ – which concentrates a lifetime into four short stanzas – she tells us Age thickens us with air that’s heavy, toxic / with the teem and yowl of industry. Such quotations give a foretaste of the many pleasures and surprises that await the reader of this thoughtful and varied collection.


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