2018 was the year I started to read obsessively, hungrily, like a child again. Maybe this was because the internet was giving me nausea; maybe because I turned towards authors whose work not only challenged my intellectual ideas about what poetry and essays are and can do, but also struck me on a physical level. The best texts I read this year made the world porous, let different kinds of light in. Like I’d scrunch my thumbs into my eyes and still see the phosphenes of all those words. Like I could feel the sentences tear slow and steady strips from my everyday worry, and leave something of a glow underneath.
Sophie Collins small white monkeys
I vividly remember the vacant, sleepless day between Christmas and New Year on which I ventured over icy pavements to the Royal Mail depot to pick up the package containing this book. It has since become a great source of comfort and constant reference. Comprising an extended essay on self-expression, self-help, poetry and perceptions of gender and sexual violence, the book takes the small white monkeys of its title as a symbol for shame and its attendant forms of self-surveillance. It was developed from research carried out by Collins in Glasgow Women’s Library’s Archive Collections and Lending Library, and weaves facets of archive materials — newspaper clippings, pasted images, historical moments, screenshots and quotes — around personal and critical reflections. What I love about this book is its sense of curation as healing: the way Collins holds space for the voices of female creators (including Jean Rhys, Selima Hill, Vahni Capildeo and Denise Riley) while exploring tentative through-lines around affect, ‘paralanguage’ and the productive channels women writers might develop in response to misogyny. Collins herself has described small white monkeys as a ‘reader’ of sorts for her debut poetry collection, Who Is Mary Sue?, released earlier this year. Together the texts comprise an incisive, curious and freshly bracing approach to enduring themes of sexual violence, shame and agency within the act of writing itself.
Ariana Reines Mercury
I had the pleasure of seeing Ariana Reines perform at Glasgow’s The Poetry Club this summer, at one of many local poetry events organised by Colin Herd. There was something utterly seductive about the way Reines commanded the space of the room, led us with informal dialogue between poems and astrological musings; the way she fused recent events and cultural hurts with reflections on the work we do as writers just to live, to sustain the energy of ourselves and others. Mercury is a visually satisfying collection of poems that trade in order and chaos, desire and imagination, sex and death. The poems braid names and myth, identity and otherness, everyday lives and those of the saints, substance abuse and the brutalities of the body expressed in language. Reines’ style is darkly surreal, sometimes humorous and viciously crisp, even at the point in which a line turns florid, a blankness decadent. Mercury is charged with a mineral energy. There is a sense of things always occurring, a simultaneity of worlds and times that grows into a sort of celestial weathering — ‘It rained on me in my world’ (‘The Black Earth’). The subject is placed in all these transitions; the verse is free and spacious, sometimes clustered, enjambed and deferred. Sometimes a line just sounds like a song, or a spell. I read this book all the time, to practice a kind of summoning of my elsewhere self.
Chelsea Hodson Tonight I’m Someone Else
I was entranced by the purple cover; I found myself devouring the words, flying through each essay as I walked home after shifts in late summer twilight. I knew I’d be into Chelsea Hodson’s work when I listened to an endearing audio recording from 2004, in which a 17-year-old Hodson listens to Bright Eyes’ song ‘Lua’ for the first time. Whether we conceptualise this collection as autofiction, creative nonfiction or lyric essays, the work of Hodson’s prose is to stage the associative ways in which we mediate the desire, circumstance, encounters and events of our lives.There’s just a specialness to the personal essay: its rendering of perception; the way memory transforms event. A means of untangling the songs that linger in our ears for years, telling again the familiar story. Hodson writes of ill-advised crushes on graffiti artists, the unexpected pleasures and perils of myriad part-time jobs, the nature of happiness, art, writing into or in spite of futurity. The everyday forms of (self) harm or (self) help that govern our wayward, gendered and otherwise striated lives. The way we use play, and then play again by making, relaying, assembling. Hodson’s voice is sometimes warm, intimate, conversational, addressing her former innocence with a wry smile: ‘How lovely to be young enough to not know any better. I fell in love with anyone with a scar on their face’. Few other writers I’ve read so lucidly capture that generational sense of wrestling with precarity, admitting the choices we make in refusing one kind of work for the next, the struggle to earn, the obsessional, prioritised drive of writing itself.