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Half the Human Race: A Review

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Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems, Susan Uttings.

Two Rivers Press 112 pp; £9.99 ISBN: 978-1909747258

Susan Uttings touches on what it is to be all the women a woman is expected to be in Half the Human Race: New and Selected Poems The experiences of daughters, school girls, mothers, spinsters, widows and old crones step, leap, and charge their way from the page, retaliating against the matrix of social challenges, expectations, and disappointments that women are too often expected to meet with a demure mixture of acceptance, acquiescence, and, most importantly, silence.

Tangible earnestness and tacit sincerity characterize many of the new poems.  From regaining a sense of hearing to reclaiming a sense of self, Uttings moves easily between diverse themes and ideas, joining them with confident and beautiful imagery. Silent loss is prevalent here, and Uttings’ careful poetic structures do justice to the strictures of dignified, unspoken grief:

You have your reasons, so I’ll let you go, quiet

as lambs, not a peep or a whimper, while I stay

here, tight-lipped against the almost of you

The poems taken from Striptease tantalisingly pivot around the naked female form.  An object of the male gaze in ‘Striptease’ and ‘For the Punters’, the ogling audience are far more naked in their intent and depravity then the women at which they gaze so lasciviously, while ‘The Bathers of the Ladies’ Pond’ fiercely protect their naked bodies from determined, unwelcomed eyes:

Each day before they slip their frocks and stockings off

and naked slide like knives through satin water,

one by one they shake the chestnut tree and wait

for any peeping Tom or Dick to drop like plums

These poems are followed by a triptych of female speakers enjoying their own bodies, be it the self-aware sensuality of ‘Hinged Copper Poem Dress’, wherein:

The ifs and buts of it are sharp against my shoulder blades,

at first its run-on lines strike cold against my belly,

buttocks, nipples – all the skin parts that it touches,

then the heat of circulating blood begins the chain reaction

or the reclamation of pleasure in ‘Lolita Paints Her Toenails’:

                        turning nails to pearls,

to my oyster satin pink instead of his red

or the reaffirmation of self in ‘The Artist’s Model Daydreams’:

My head is a spoon that dips and scoops

fine sugar from a china bowl, remembers

These poems remind us how often, in the fight to avoid the male gaze, women forget to gaze upon themselves, to experience the wonder that is their own body.

Houses Without Walls focuses more on the place of a woman either or out of a relationship, both statuses prey to harsh social scrutiny. The closing down of curiosity in ‘Catechism’ comments on how we treat little girls, fussing over their appearance and manners, while stifling their appetite for knowledge:

whose name was then chosen by men,

who taught her to lower her eyes, press

her lips, narrow her throat, swallow words

down; who taught me the power of hush, hush, hush.

‘For herself’ stands in marked contrast to this enforced passiveness, and highlights the ultimately oppressive performance that is buying flowers:

today she’ll celebrate

the lack of shilly- shally buying tulips

for herself, the absence of he-loves-me-


It is telling that such a simple act is worthy of comment, that it is still considered something of a defiance, a revolution, a cause for celebration.

The final section, taken from Fair’s Fair, returns to the thematic diversity that opens the collection. These poems slip between having and wanting, trading and bargaining, gaining and losing. They are reflective and intimate. ‘Naked’ beautifully illustrates the raw anguish and vulnerability caused by loss, and is complemented in this by ‘Wanting the Moon’:

The sky is as wide as a sleepless night

and I miss the moon. I want it out

while the hope of ‘Fair’s Fair’ is counteracted by the despair in ‘The Things’:

For want of some rhythm, muscle,

blood, for want of a voice, the things

stilled themselves, quietened, fell apart.

Read this collections for its imagery and its voices: defiant, determined, intimate, and fierce with life.

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