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Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks: A Review

(This review was oringally published in The Poet’s Republic, Issue 5)

Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks, Magi Gibson. ISBN9781910745861: Luath Press;

£7.99


Magi Gibson embodies and emboldens real women here, the ‘untouchables’ who live outside the strict codes of expected femininity. Many of the poems in Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks speak to authority over the self, and the gall that accompanies such flagrant, unbecoming autonomy in a woman. Providing a refreshing and revitalising deluge of perspectives from which to appreciate both the complexity and simplicity of the female position, each poem nevertheless comes down to the same fundamental principle: that a woman’s right to represent and speak for her own body is, and should be recognised as, inalienable.

‘Woman Sunbathing in Bridgeton’ is thus fittingly and deliciously self-absorbed, its protagonist triumphantly refusing to even acknowledge the masculine tropes women have been taught to fear since childhood: the white van man, the angry dog, the drunk, the youths, even Death itself as it rolls by. Instead, ‘Serenely she applies/ more lotion.’

We often forget the incredible significance and emblematic nature of the ordinary things in our lives. In Gibson’s hands, lipstick is elevated from spurious indulgence to social marker. In “Barflower”, ‘Her lipstick…/signals more warning than welcome’; in “Gift” it is as quintessential as the ‘toothpaste, tampons,/ shampoo, soap’ slipped into the Refugee Appeal bag. “Lipstick” brings Gibson’s guilty conscience to the fore. Seeing her own make-up ritual as ‘a daily act, a sacrament, a quiet solemnity’, she chides herself for the importance she ascribes to it:

But how can I think of shopping for lipstick

while food banks sprout like bindweed in our towns,

while refugees flee burnt-out homes, while bombs drop

on bathrooms just like this…

only to be reminded of its importance by a refugee on the news:

I’ve lost my home, my family,

She tells the camera.

I will not let them take my femininity.

Then she smiles. a lip-sticked smile.

A smile of scarlet defiance.

This sentiment is hauntingly echoed in ‘Liberation of Belsen’, where the freed women have been gifted lipstick and are seen ‘wandering/ like wraiths…/their lips, smiling, scarlet.’ No longer a frivolous expenditure, lipstick becomes the marker of friendship and danger, pride and despair, survival and political defiance. And above all else? Autonomy and control.

The collection’s eponymous poem is its penultimate one. ‘Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks’ is a message: do not judge what you do not understand. Struggling to survive:

Her mother and her aunts complain she’s saddled

With a man who’s not a man, who fails his wife and son;

The boy sobs hard so sad he is his father does not come.

The speaker is bewildered by the ‘Flame-haired fireball’ who ‘deign(s)/ to wash her absent husband’s socks’. We, as contemporary readers, are called to arms, called to scorn and pity the broken-spirit of this once-fierce ‘virago’. And yet we must be cautious; the actions of others are so often, and so easily prescribed convenient, negative, motivations. Gibson delves deeper into the sentiment behind Valda Grieve’s ‘Send me your dirty linen’, using the poem to explore, not superficial wifely duty, but the intimate physicality and sexuality of a woman separated from her lover, a woman who perhaps:

…stripped

off her clothes, snipped the tangled twine, ripped off

the wrap, breathed in the distant, lonely smell of him…

Somehow this woman is all the women in this collection; suffering, yet suffering for a higher purpose. She does not wash his socks because she is told to, because it is expected of her, as a woman, as a wife. No, ‘She washed his socks for love.’

Underpinning this narrative, several of Gibson’s personal poems reflect the sadness, if not regret, that comes with recognising a disconnect from one’s past. The divide is represented through the shift from the physical labour of her father, and his generation, to the intellectual pursuits of her ‘arty-farty glitterati’, who appear to have lost their grip on reality, ‘Nibbling crumb-sized canapés, not/ From silver trays or porcelain plates,/ But old roof slates’. These poems acknowledge with irreverent finesse a distinct sense of otherness and, through Gibson’s recognition of the ironic construction of her world, the reader gains a fresh, sharp perspective on the flimsy realities in which we are often so desperate to enshroud ourselves.

Magi Gibson’s latest collection is an effusive and vibrant celebration of womanhood. Presented without apology or qualification, its poems are at times joyful, dignified, sorrowful, proud, and ridiculous. Some poems read more as interludes between riveting sequences, but this is a minor point in an otherwise enthralling collection. To be read in the bath, or at the gym, or up a mountain; wherever it is that you are most yourself.

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