– Reviewed by Jenna Clake –
The Glass of Elisabeth Sennitt Clough’s title appears in many ways throughout her pamphlet: a glass collar, a patio door, contact lenses. From the first poem, however, it is clear that simple reflections on glass aren’t the focus: this is a reflection on the fragility of family, and in fact, parenthood is the pervading theme.
In ‘Sightings’, reflections reveal familial tensions. The speaker’s father has died, and a man has bought the speaker’s mother a peacock, ‘this blue-green bird that fluttered its tail / of eyes’. The tail creates an uneasy sense that the speaker is also being watched, as she watches the peacock ‘each day for weeks’. Despite this, she fails ‘to notice it jab the wire and free itself’, and we become aware that watching is not enough: while preoccupied with the peacock, the ‘man’ of the first line has suddenly become ‘my mother’s new husband’. The new husband captures the peacock, and at this moment the speaker sees her mother’s
thin face reflected
in the patio door, watching the capture
of a hundred-eyed bird, blind to his tactic:
slow, slow, grab.
It is not only the bird who is blind: ‘slow, slow, grab’ suggests that the new husband has been insidiously capturing the family too.
Glass is again discomfiting in ‘A Smallholding in the Fens’. In this poem, the titular glass is transformed into a pond that ‘was never lined’. The speaker begins to recount disturbing details from her childhood; when she thinks of the pond, she doesn’t ‘like to think of the fish, / their gills silvering in the soil.’ Parenthood is called into question when the speaker remembers ‘the boy we called The Milky Bar Kid’ who
peed himself in the corner
after his dad punched his door.
His room smelt of particle board and vinegar.
Some nights his mum gave him cat-food for dinner.
He scraped the jelly off
and said it tasted just like Fray Bentos.
The poem’s epigraph (from Michael Ondaatje) offers insights into how we might read this poem: ‘We began with myths and later included actual events.’ The speaker recounts events from her stepfather’s life: how he once caught a linnet, and although it pecked him, ‘it was the small heartbeat / he felt through the gourd of his palm, / that made him set it free,’; and how he saw a pike ‘so huge, it had to shunt back and forth / at the river’s mouth in order to turn.’
What are the myths and the actual events in the poem? The events involving the stepfather have a mythical quality about them, as they are tied into the natural world, but, then again, the child eating cat food has a sense of playground rumour about it. Sennitt Clough casts doubt over the speaker’s memories.
While parental abuse seems removed from the speaker’s family in ‘A Smallholding in the Fens’, ‘The Glass Collar’ expresses the effects of abuse far more personally. When told to ‘let it out’, the speaker recalls:
in the 4th arrondissement, the glass collars
they wore in the beguinage, each engraved
with the name of their order, how they could speak
only at confession, after superior
loosened the ornate pins secured at their napes.
She turns to an old form of enforced silence to attempt to communicate how impossible it is to describe rape:
I want to shout a whole chapter’s worth
(save for one small line about all the telltale signs
I missed). I want to tell her, a single word
isn’t enough, that it will take a thousand
more than rape. Then I sense the glass
around my throat, the pin’s locking chafe.
Ultimately, the counsellor’s encouragements to ‘let it out’ only exacerbate the speaker’s attempts to talk about what has happened to her, and the only way to express her alienation is by imagining an old religious custom.
Elisabeth Sennitt Clough’s pamphlet takes an unflinching look at a world of darkness, violence and unhappiness. The repeated use of water and glass invites the poems’ speakers to reflect on their past, to recount the cruelty they have experienced in precise and straightforward detail; they loosen the glass collar and find a way to speak.