I am unbelievably chuffed to see Fiona Sinclair‘s fulsome review of Six-Count Jive in the latest edition of The Lake magazine. Sinclair’s understanding of mental health issues is razor-sharp and her words have brought me to tears, that my words about PTSD are so understood and appreciated.
It’s been a long haul through ten years of PTSD, and counting, but of course the years that did the damage were worse. Every day is brighter now and I wish everyone with similar struggles the best of physical health (sleep, if you can, gentle walks and healthy eating), loving company and the strength to see each day as a fresh start.
Another happy day. Let’s bless
golden gift: survival.
(From Bittersweet Seventeens, Lapwing, 2014)
Sinclair’s review is in full here:
There are many ways of writing about mental trauma. Some writers choose an explicit series of revelations. Yet sometimes this can prove rather overwhelming for both poet and reader. Rosie Johnston has chosen a subtler and indeed I think, a more sophisticated way of dealing with traumatic events and their emotional aftermath. This is largely down to her skill as a poet. In her Six-Count Jive anthology, the narrative arc does indeed move from trauma to recovery. The poems are comprised of 17 syllable stanzas. They may be small but indeed pack a punch. I feel this self-imposed syllabic discipline is a strategic way of distilling emotions and ensures that events are revealed piecemeal. The result is a sublime exercise in less-is-more, where traumatic events are often inferred. On one level this works as means of self- protection for the writer ensuring that she reveals only as much as she wishes to share with the reader. Moreover, beneath their brevity there is a wealth of meaning. Johnston in this way gets her readers to mine the verses for details and piece together the wealth of meaning that is subtly layered. Consequently, the poems bear frequent re-reading.
The poet chooses to use a third person narration. This works well in terms of giving the work distance for the poet and allows the subject matter to become universal. Inevitably there will be recognition for some readers as they move through the anthology. In the first poems the causation of the trauma that drives the work is darkly hinted at, “Spills tears like a glass knocked flat”. The ‘He’ and ‘She’ characters are presented with a lexis of violence that suggests a toxic relationship particularly evoked with the line “That week-old bruise.” Here economy of words and indeed judicious selection of vocabulary is excellently deployed. Yet in lines such as ‘‘She decided out walking to die” horror is presented in an unsentimental way, but its effect is powerful in its understatement. Whilst the narrative implies violence and trauma that leads to a court case, the economy of words shows there is no place for self-pity here but instead great courage in the female protagonist.
This lexis of violence is strategically tempered by more graceful and gentle language “Lie soft, gentle winged creature, roped and dazed;’’ as if the female character is determined to survive this trauma not just physically but also mentally. As the narrative progresses and the female protagonist is physically freed, a struggle begins to address the PTSD that is the lasting mark left by the trauma. Here again Johnston’s skill is to define in a few simple words how,
Trauma throbs its savage
wreckage in that small-hours bed.
The poet is adept at using punctuation and within the confines of the 17 syllables it often does the job of words, for example:
Up she flowed-a dove high above
watched her own body slumped, splayed.
Here the hyphens suggest the grim events left unsaid that perhaps are too traumatic for the narrator to be fully articulated. Again, the reader is invited to mine for meaning.
Metaphor and simile are used throughout to infer the horror and pain the sufferer of PTSD goes through. They are original and hit the mark each time. One particularly effective metaphor used to describe the isolation of mental illness, that is often self- imposed as a means of self- protection, comes in the simple line. “She lives in a glacier”. This sentence is isolated on the page reinforcing the sense of being separate from the world. Again, the poet is deploying her skill here by using structure to reinforce meaning.
The search for recovered mental health leads to an actual physical movement to the seaside. Initially the lexis reveals the protagonist’s need to feel safe, to lock herself away from the outside world. This reinforces a need to feel safe. Thus, we have words that suggests a new home that is a “seven- locked keep,’’ Yet as with the rest of the collection there is always a combination of grim phraseology mixed with beauty that suggests a character who despite the horrors of events hints at hope and gives this collection a sense that even at its worst, life can be repaired.
After the move to the sea there is a distinct change in vocabulary as the protagonist ‘‘plaits thick skeins of seclusion and calm’’. Here the uglier phrases are replaced by beautiful imagery of nature and the sea, that reflects the healing within the woman. Although recovery is not linear, and there are of course setbacks, nevertheless we see the protagonist find her way back to better mental health.
The final poem is the antidote to the first. The narrative reveals that although not perfect, with some way to go still, the woman’s mental health is much improved. For the imagery in this final poem is glorious, and reveals a renewed lust for life where:
Laughter waltzes with garlic prawns,
Jives with olives,
Pirouettes with wine.
Here the language of dancing and music nods to the title of the collection and playfully references a return to enjoying life. The final stanza allows emotions to be set free. ‘Love.’ previously kept under lock and key is a possibility again, it is:
On the doorstep. Kissing its
warm till she lifts the latch.
The stanza is beautifully lyrical with a charming use of personification.
This is a superbly crafted piece of work whose language is at times sublime. The narrative is gripping because it takes us through the protagonist’s process back to happiness. In its deliberate brevity it invites us to mine for layers of meaning and rewards constant re-reading. Its back story and message of survival are life affirming but significantly, this is not an exercise in therapy, instead, Six-Count Jive is a superb piece of art.