All the footprints I left were red by Rowena Knight

-Reviewed by Helen Calcutt

One word springs to mind when reading Knight’s first pamphlet All the footprints I left were red – obscurity. Though not in the negative sense. A great number of poems in this collection are ‘obscure’, or present the reader with unusual imagery. But what is obscurity? Strangeness, ambiguity, darkness. A concealment of one thing, lifts another to our attention. And it is this act of concealment that is so central to this collection.

This is not a polished book of poems by any means. But quite frankly, I’m bored of polished. I want poems that live and breathe – that are still working on the page. Indeed, working to quicken a world that captivates our observations; to remind us that there is always a new way of looking at things. ‘How not to save a drowning spider’ is probably the finest poem in the book. Though some of the images and phrasing are perhaps a little clumsy on their own, strummed together they make a perfect chord. But it’s the sentiment more than the language, that I admire in Knight’s work. Here, and throughout the book, her concept of heightening the focus of one thing through the distraction of another, is executed beautifully. Half-light, half-shadow, half-truths. If there’s any poet who’s mastered the ‘show don’t tell’ technique of writing, it’s Knight. Nearly every poem holds something back, almost deliberates whether it should give you the final word. Most of the time it doesn’t. And this is extremely satisfying.

There’s a certain boldness to Knight’s work, to the extent that some of the poems run the risk of being unsuccessful. The closing images of ‘Learning to Love a Vegetarian’

So I steal a can of your beloved kidney beans
take a wet,
forbidden fistful
and leave a trail from the kitchen,
up the stairs,
into your bedroom.
Sprawl naked on the bed,
red jewel,
in my mouth,
my navel.

This in itself is startling, connected to the rest of the poem it feels terribly detached from its full physical make up. But this doesn’t mean the poet isn’t moving in the right direction. Knight’s work is consistently surprising, and acutely aware of its constant development into genuine, new literary ground. The line never ‘finishes’ the way you might expect; the poem never takes you where you were expecting to go. Knight’s work does more than give the reader the ‘happy poetry reading experience’. Rather, it challenges you to enter new thematic territory, and asks ‘do you dare?’

The poem ‘Earlobes’ by its intent, is in complete contrast with any other new poem (by a ‘new’ poet) I’ve read to date. I love its drama – the way it directly addresses the reader. I love the very idea of asking us to focus on something as inflammatory and mundane as earlobes. A great number of poems in the book do this, and again, this returns us to the notion of obscurity, except on this occasion there’s a psychic reaching out, from writer to reader. Here, the poet asks us to remove anything personal or engaging from thought, and focus our inner worlds on the earlobe. And as readers, we comply. As a construct, the poem doesn’t quite work for me, but it’s this peculiar drive (the sheer audacity of it) that makes it enjoyable.

Kate Potts praises Knight’s steps towards a ‘deeper myth’:

In myth and folklore, the footprints we leave might lead us back out of the maze of the dark woods, or serve as a trail so others can find their way. The trail of these poems maps childhood, migration, dislocation and the complexities of love and belonging.

Knight’s poetry is unflinchingly focused on her inner journey, and fundamentally connected to her personal mythic world. The poem ‘Red’ which encompasses the title of the pamphlet, is the first step towards Knight’s legitimate subject:

Today I stepped on a heart….
They tell me it isn’t my fault.
People shouldn’t leave their hearts
out in the open like that, they should know
that girls like me are focused on our destinations
and can’t pay attention to our feet.

The brilliance of this poem is that it poses the question ‘why?’ Knight lifts the focus of this colour, and the flow of it, from someone else’s wounding to her own. From the beginning, our attention is squeezed into a single moment – what she’s done, and what she’s left behind. But ‘all the footprints’ leads us to obsess over the root-cause. Pain is passed down, actions through generations are repeated. There are other moments in the book that bring you to this conclusion, and as a reader, you start to inch your way closer to a very peculiar feeling. By the end you realise, it’s grief.

Knight is someone whose career I want to watch closely. She’s young and there’s the potential for her to be pushed too high, too fast. Knight has a rare poetic voice, one that needs to be nurtured by challenge. Complacency for her work, and lazy trust in her ability is not the way to bring out the best in her. She is already working against the grain – openly searching for her subject, for the single ‘theme’ that binds her poetic vision. This also makes her work vulnerable, and as Paulo Coelho claimed, the strongest form of art and ‘love’ is that which can ‘demonstrate its fragility’.

If handled with care, and supported creatively, Knight will go from strength to strength. I hope further publication and success doesn’t drum the truly different out of her. I really will be reading her next collection.