Alternative Beach Sports by Michelle Madsen
-Reviewed by Tom Weir–
Alternative Beach Sports is the first collection by Michelle Madsen, a poet who has already made a name for herself on the performance poetry scene. It is a dense collection, packed full of the energy, urgency and humour people who know her work will be familiar with. It is a striking first collection that speaks with refreshing authority, Madsen doesn’t shy away from tackling ‘big topics’. These are poems scattered with deft touches and written with skill.
In Alternative Beach Sports Madsen invites you in and shows you around like a visiting relative. She takes you to the baker’s, on the underground, on the back of bikes and welcomes you warmly into a world where ‘rain sweats,’ where ‘things move in the gutter outside the pub’ where body parts are ‘constellations,’ love is ‘subatomic’ and the ‘queen’s fat face’ is shoved against her arse. There are far worse places to be than scuttling along behind her, trying to keep up, as she barges commuters out of the way, or waiting in line as she talks to ‘Big John’ the baker in ‘Personal Poem,’ the strongest poem in the collection, about books and recipes, before buying a Bakewell tart for a pound:
I’m wearing Sana Van Dal’s pink scarf which she let me
Borrow years ago and I never gave it
Back. I wore it on the streets of Buenos Aires and it’s still got
A smell of those Jacaranda trees
And the stink of the sidewalks…
I walk through the sudden sunshine and the
People in suits and Liverpool Street Station
And think if I ever work at a bank
I’ll wear a white suit and bark when I’m
Spoken to. I walk hard and make it to
The Barbican and push through the suits that
Wait in lines down Whitecross street and I
Talk to Big John who bakes mean-looking cakes
And occasional scones, and bread if you ask him nicely
Arguably her biggest achievements in this collection are the scenes and people she creates. There is a genuine sense they are alive— you can almost see the characters shuffling back into position each time you open the book. If you read Alternative Beach Sports after dark you imagine ‘Big John’ will be out of cakes, that all the ‘suited commuters’ will have left the station and returned home.
In this collection Madsen manages to be political without chaining her words to a fence, emotive without reaching for a violin. Where many poets rely on the white space to provide some of the music, Madsen’s real strength is in her ability to shift gear mid- poem with her striking imagery. The sparse punctuation also gives the work space to breathe while the density of the poems is where the energy and urgency lie: something very real is at stake here and this makes for a collection infused with excitement and vulnerability:
I breathe alone,
And leave you
With a gift of seven lemons.
Strung up to dry in the August heat,
They have lost their bitterness,
Tanned by the sun
They are almost sweet.
Alternative Beach Sports is not a series of performance poems on paper but a poet transferring her skills onto page and, for the most part, this works to great effect. All of Madsen’s poems have something to say— whether it’s about Mary Berry or spiders or death, or love or, as one suspects, all of the above and while not all of the poems in the collection reach quite the same heights, it is a book well worth reading.