Clay by Mandy Coe. Shoestring Press

     Clay is Mandy Coe’s third collection for adults. What I loved most about it was – to borrow a phrase from one of Coe’s own poems – how “sharp with life” it is. One thing this means is putting the body at the centre of her writing, which she does with wonderfully uninhibited gusto:

Light shakes out sheets
in billows, a lover’s breasts and hips,
ripples of flesh on a smacked arse.

Using simple, precisely targeted syntax and diction, Coe flashes vivid images in front of our eyes, crams them into our hands, and makes us see and feel particular things in ways we’ve never seen or felt them before. One poem starts


is loud. Here they are!
Barely dressed in tiny frills
as hollow stalks thrust them
whooping into the sky.

The whole poem (twelve short lines) effortlessly discharges a multitude of impressions and imaginary scenarios on the sunflowers’ reckless arc from wild young sex to age and death, fusing the human and vegetal worlds, taking in the visionary madness and creativity of Van Gogh on the way. You could write pages on it.

Oddity is part of the pleasure of reading Coe. Any good poet presents things from unusual angles but Coe does so with extraordinary glee. Some poems are completely fantastical, like the monologues of the ants in “Ants in Zero Gravity” or a ghost in “Sometimes It Occurs to Me That I Am Dead”; the story of fossils coming to life in the brilliant “Birth of the Fossils” or the description of how people reacted “When we found flowers could speak” (another of my favourites in the volume). Others take up and pretend to take literally the travellers’ tale of the lamb plants of the steppes, or the eighteenth century hoax by a woman who successfully convinced surgeons that she had given birth to rabbits.

Yet this is an intensely grounded poetry. Coe loves the every day, and even her most fantastical poems are not ways of escaping reality but of re-entering it with fresh eyes. “When Mary Tofts Gave Birth to Rabbits”, for example, imagines that Mary’s giving birth to a litter of rabbits was not a hoax. The poem is spoken by their stunned father. The bizarre circumstances throw into relief the ordinariness of his response. There’s poker-faced humour in the situation but it reminds one what an earth shaking shock it is to hold a newborn child in one’s arms for the first time, to feel how utterly one’s world has changed and how irrelevant words and even one’s feelings are in that moment.

Though the book is full of energy and delight, Coe’s embrace of life is shot through with the awareness of pain. Several poems involve a child’s ambiguous feelings about living with and losing a loved and terrifying father. Coe has a stunning image for the child’s fear that also expresses the father’s power and charisma:

most of the time I ran from your voice
as it flooded rooms like a searchlight.

(This is from a review I wrote for Acumen 66 and I am grateful for the opportunity to repost it here.)

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