Rib by Sharon Black

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey-

Rib, Sharon Black’s third publication, is published by Wayleave Press (and beautifully printed by Andrew’s of Bentham). Having seen her work in various journals, and aware that she has received accolades for her first two collections, I was looking forward to reading Rib

In this pamphlet, the narrative of personal experience is brought into intriguing relation with other themes via the single word of the title and all its associations. Assembling poems that use the rib as a motif, she evokes the medical world, the underworld, the natural world, prison, and examines the role of the rib as a key element holding up the whole. She also looks at the implications when the scaffolding is undermined. In each poem, details are layered and set against a subtle background atmosphere of stoicism, pain, fear, anger or bitter humour. Take the opening couplets of ‘Medical’: 

A common side-effect
up to fifteen years after treatment:

ribs that fracture
as a case is lifted from a train

The last two stanzas read: 

My doctor advises
rest, it’s no big deal – 

a common side-effect
of being a doctor every day.

The word I would use to describe Black’s writing style is stripped. Imagine a rib that is scraped clean, held to the light and examined from every perspective. Her poems are tight, her images wrought, the purity so divine, you almost want less control of the poetic line. But I do love the subtle, dark undercurrents. Take ‘Architect’:

And even when the ribs 
begin to show, she wants more –

more shadow, more marbled white,
more air, more light:

her appetite is huge. 

Poised and assured, these poems tantalise with those extra layers of meaning. 

Un-showy but clear in technique, several of the instructional poems could be read as an Ars Poetica, or a further amplification of the poet’s process. They also work as a way of revealing a sense of identity, or selfhood, through the body. There is an underlying tension, sometimes a grim literalism, conveying a mordant wit: ‘Pixee has three pairs of ribs removed / for a 16-inch waist. /…./ When she moves, she squeaks.’

This interplay of meaning lends itself to widening the aperture in terms of material, while still holding to a core theme. Sometimes the comparisons are brazenly overt, as in ‘Definitions’:

a Rigid Inflatable Boat
or to tease good-naturedly

The poems in this pamphlet indicate the way Black may be working towards a poetics (and a tone) capable of evoking something as various and fractured as our whole planet. 

I found the collection engaging and compelling for many reasons, but mostly for the implicit vulnerability exposed beneath the shield of controlled writing, much as a heart can be felt through the bars of the ribs after a long hard run. Overall, this is an intelligent, various collection, particularly when Black confronts the risk of mortality, and her poems take on a power that elevates them to the memorable. 

Afric McGlinchey’s most recent book, Tied to the Wind, is published by Broken Sleep Books: https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/afric-mcglinchey-tied-to-the-wind