Review by Stella Carruthers
The intimacy of letters. Those penned to a sister. Those penned to a friend. This is how Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s debut poetry collection Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean opens and closes.
Through letter-form poems, Wilson’s voice rings out clearly as she creates both worlds of rich imagery, and a relationship not only with her pen pals but also of her self in the world. This presence is reflective and sometimes bitingly honest. She is not afraid to go into the gory facts of being alive yet, equally, her poetry is full of beautiful imagery that only a poet, with a practice of looking for the lovely, could create.
The opening “Dear Sister” is a series of poems that has a lovely feel, closely observing from the vantage-point of what was once a shared world of sisterhood. This intimacy is one marked by an almost secret language. The imagery here is rich and densely detailed. Consider the quotes ‘the sun rose like jewellery’ and how, when writing about birds, Wilson speaks of how they ‘hang like a single feathered lung over our house, inhaling and exhaling’. These phrases from “Dear Sister” make us not only look at the world in a fresh way but that, somehow, the reader is a party to a private conversation, where nature is personified and the very sky can breathe.
The closing long-form poem of the collection, “Pen Pal”, was a personal favourite, speaking of a quiet insistence towards a self-proclaimed importance, not atypical to those in the throes of adolescence. Wilson seems to clearly remember what it was like to experience the teenage drama of feeling like the world was ending. Every day. To reflect this feeling formally, the poems are spaced in short stanzas and are cut off in a visually choppy manner. White space is well-utilised. The poems are almost abrupt. Yet, within these also still clearly lies Wilson’s eye for beautiful imagery. The imagery illuminates the text, despite the sometimes-harsh nature of the poems that describe a young girl grieving. ‘I think I am carrying a grief tree’ was a phrase that stood out to me. It seemed to encapsulate a feeling I’d felt once but for which I hadn’t had the words.
Wilson’s gift is finding words for things that are hard to give a name to. This talent is no better highlighted than through her use of poetic devices. Consider the line ‘Her broken back like an Isosceles triangle’ in the “Pen Pal” series. I know exactly what she means, what this looks like, and the kind of emotional weight this signifies.
However, despite the heavy nature of the grief portrayed in “Pen Pal”, there is still room for a sharp humour. Writing to her pen pal, Wilson states, ‘If you get a boyfriend or Nike shoes, I’ll kill you’. Both are equally significant to teenage Wilson. Both are bad enough to inspire murder. And yet, in this throwaway statement, we all can understand and perhaps identify with what it is to be a girl who wants both for boys to like her and the social status brand-name shoes confer. Both represent the common desires of teenage sisterhood.
Wilson’s collection made this member of the slightly older sisterhood ask more questions than it provided answers, inspiring a spirit of inquiry in me. The delicious phrase ‘a balsamic moon’ in the “Dear Sister” series prompted me to ask what flavour the moon might be. In its unusual description, it made me think about the natural world in a different way.
The phrase ‘A Frankenstein world’ on the back of the book also provoked a different view on the world for me, its literary and cultural allusions hinting at the blacker aspects of Wilson’s work, with darker thoughts and broken hearts stitched together in an ugly way. For her poems are not afraid to look at the less-pretty. Yet through her rich imagery and sensitive handling of big and often untidy emotions, Wilson pulls all the gore together in a way that, while messy, leaves me with hope for a scarred but still functional literary body, one able to say it survived.
Several poems made pleasing conversational references to contemporary popular culture. In “Anne Boleyn”, Wilson compares Henry VIII’s sperm being eaten by reptilian creatures to a ‘A 16th century version of Fear Factor.’ In the poem “Betty as a Boy”, she writes of a personal style like Diane Keaton’s character Annie Hall, in the film of the same name. There is also a poem titled “Home Alone 2 (with you)”, which is both a love poem and an ode to underlying grief.
Wilson’s love poems are not just about lovers, though. Especially notable are her poems about living in the world, penned devotions to a life of crossed cultures, and hopes for other dimensions. Where different languages can break the barriers between superficial knowledge and deeper knowing.
This deeper sense of knowing is no better expressed than in Wilson’s explorations of grief and love: for mothers, for people who live far away, and for our past selves, the people we never had the chance to become.
Wilson is unafraid to get into the mess of being alive, which means her poems aren’t always pretty, but she makes up for it with startlingly real and refreshing imagery, gathered from her observations of life. Through these poems, I see Wilson coming to love the differences within humanity through recognising commonalities (love, sex, death, horses, TV, travel), which help one negotiate a constantly shifting world.