Dave Russell on

Wendy Young – The Dream of Somewhere Else
Survivors’ Poetry, 2016

Wendy Young is ever the champion of the marginalised and oppressed; witness her opening slogan: ‘To those who stuck with me (there aren’t many) and looked past the nutter, the loser,/ the drinker, the idiot, the child’. Or ‘To all the abused, the bullied, the kids who are now adults and hope you find a voice too – eat, drink, shit, talk, write!’.

This feels to me like an echo of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Chimes of Freedom’, with an added retrospective of childhood sufferings contributing to adult traumas.

‘A Bird in the Dark’ depicts a creature (probably a wren) which is both extremely fragile and extremely resilient – ‘strong enough to drown hospital trolleys’. It seems to cry out for a mother, echoing the poet’s sadness at her mother’s deafness and loss of kindred.

‘Been There, Seen That, Forgot It . . .’: submerged nostalgia – ‘I remember when my memory’s jogged’. Wendy has been to many music events, which have been important to her; she didn’t buy programmes, but did keep ticket stubs, which are good memory jogs. This was my first introduction to the Archaos ‘alternative’ circus. I see they are radically innovative. Perhaps a footnote would have been ‘reader-friendly’ (as with the Mark Twain poem).

‘Cockleshell Heroine’ – brilliant imagery here of the duality of crowns of gold – both tiaras and tooth fillings; also the ‘phoenix effect’ turning disaster (of fillings dropping out) into euphoria: ‘. . . As if a weld/turned them into a mace/headed by pearliest cockleshells/Waiting for Fortune/It’s right here in my hands.’

Dear Jenny is an epic eulogy of a deceased mother, written 20 years after her departure. What an intensely moving story! Mother was intensely heroic, suffering enormously from battery and rape. Young: “The point about my mother is what a Trojan woman she was and never got the recognition or empathy she should have had – also, how domestic abuse went on and still goes on.”

In 1947, when she was expecting Young’s brother, mother valiantly undertook a four mile walk to the hospital, with waters breaking. This was in 1947 when (as I later discovered) the midwives were on strike – so she gave birth in a nursing home. Basically, her strength was continually being put to the test, and wasted. Mother refused the imposition of Thalidomide anaesthetic – a heroic gesture which subsequently protected Young from being a Thalidomide victim. Young: “I was the youngest and born at a time when Thalidomide was being doled out.”

Twenty years later, Young's brother died on the same road – killed by a drunken driver. In 1951, Young's mother lost an unborn child: her husband kicked her when she was 7 months pregnant –Young: “My father caused the death; I had wanted a poem called 'Bonny Cattle' in there which tells it a bit more – basically it was murder!” She makes a wry comment about dismissive ‘care workers’ – “abusers don’t really mean it.”

‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’ – people in search of counselling about abuse must have painfully conflicting feelings. Her mother made a startling declaration-Young: “I didn’t tell anyone; I thought they’d take you away.” What an eye-opener to the arbitrary callousness of the system. And what a response! 'To my shame, and her dismay,/I said ‘I wish they had’'.

The advantage of open reporting would have far outweighed any drawbacks. Young desperately misses her mother, who suffered so much from deafness and other ailments, and had her own emotional conflicts –Young: “Wanting mates but putting up barriers to keep out love.” Some indictment of sometimes futile consultants: “Get a crystal ball while I struggle with puzzles.”

‘Lion of the North’ explores the confluence of disability and sadism – someone who lost an arm in a mining accident, and then turned nasty in his own right. Ne’er the twain shall meet relates to Young’s struggle to save Kensal Green Library; part of her activist side.

‘One of Them’ concerns a kid who is moving between worlds e.g. the old world – of Grandma and naiveté – and the new one, with powerful peers who make fun of her, trying to cope with both. The poem celebrates rugged individualism in the context of a deprived childhood –Young: “If I was told I wasn’t pulling the line I would try even harder.”

‘In Shocks Away’, Young shows her grasp of cosmic/scientific imagery: the benign cataclysm ‘. . . blew my mind into space, and particles of me/my brain/my psyche hover over black holes . . . Like a hundred little me’s went tramping out telescopically and played into the universe – now I’m picking them out of black holes, over a million trails of brain cells, left for dust.’ There follows an attack on the conspiracy of silence about domestic abuse: ‘Would he have hit you if you hadn’t let him?’/Woman can be woman’s worst enemy.’

‘Now I am Grown – You Groan’ – the abuser is not now dealing with the same meek, compliant partner he started with: ‘I kept my mouth shut, now it’s open’. The wheel has come full circle: ‘When I unleash all the years within, let the tears begin. Not for me this time/I could have flooded Sudan/Now it’s your turn.’

Young is a great lover of London – ‘I remember how you saved me/For my sanity, for my life, for giving me a new start.’ This is followed by a brief homage to cinema escapism ‘before the gloom of the last bus characters/Taking us away from our dream of somewhere else’. There’s one comic poem suggesting a bi-curious threesome. ‘The Wind Cries Auntie Mary’: in Young’s words “Its title is a play on the Jimi Hendrix's song ‘Wind Cries Mary’, and also about quality and memory.” Some nostalgia about revisiting the North; some reference to her sibling situation: “I was the youngest but felt I’d lived the longest – acted like the oldest. The image of a lion suggests an allusion to her father.

The Afterword proffers an illuminating perspective on the creative process: ‘Somehow those dispersed brain cells honed in my brain, and the memories are proving to be cathartic in my journey of writing and expression . . . I continue to insert words that come into my head (and stop me sleeping) into my mobile calendar, and then get processed into verse.’ Long may she persevere!

Dave Russell © 2016