A Poetry Review by Sam Bartle
I began writing poems in earnest at the tail-end of the pandemic restrictions in the UK, around April 2021, admittedly without having previously taken much of an interest in poetry nor really engaged with the genre, other than what I had absorbed through a limited exposure in my school education; which led to vague memories of First World War poets and familiarity with names such as Ted Hughes, George Bernard Shaw, Phillip Larkin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (though to my shame, without much recollection of their work).
The line, “Dulce est decorum est, pro patria mori” (roughly translated as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”) has always stuck in my mind from school English lessons in poetry, as a piece of poignant First World War literature, but even then I mistakenly attributed it to Edward Thomas, when in fact it was by Wilfred Owen (my thanks to the mighty ‘Google’, and sincere apologies to both poets!).
So, with my new-found interest in writing poetry, coupled with an embarrassingly scant knowledge of poetic works, I wanted to learn more about the genre and actually read the work of some actual poets.
My first foray into this endeavour has been to purchase ‘How To Be A Dressing Gown’ , the debut chapbook by Charlotte Oliver (published by Dreich Chapbooks).
Given that this is the first book of poetry that I have read cover-to-cover, you may consider me under-qualified to review the work, however, I believe that anyone has the right to be moved or engaged by a poem, whether they’re a connoisseur who can recite Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, or have never read a poem before in their life. So, I approached Charlotte’s debut work from my fresh-eyed perspective, hungry to absorb her creative statements and learn more about poetry.
I chose ‘How To Be A Dressing Gown’ because I had been researching poets in my region of Yorkshire, and Charlotte Oliver’s name was prolific as being a well-reputed local poet, both in print and as a performer, in particular at South Cliff Gardens in Scarborough, and as a ‘Saturday Poet Laureate’ for BBC Radio York on Harry Whitaker’s show.
I had also found her to be very gracious in sharing some of my own work on social media when I nonchalantly (and perhaps, arrogantly) tagged her in some of my tweets! This spoke to me that here was not only a very talented and gifted writer, but a warm and kind person, very open to encouraging the creativity of others as well as her own. I think this warmth and kindness radiates through her book, and in part forms the essence of the collection. Adding to this was the receipt of a personalised handwritten note from the author herself, thanking me for my purchase. When a reader receives such a gesture, it is immediately clear that the work has been crafted with love and sincerity.
For me, ‘How To Be A Dressing Gown’ feels like an invitation into the writer’s family home, to be given a window into her thoughts and an intimation of the warmth and love that surrounds her in that place. As a result, the poems are interwoven with references to everyday objects or occurrences, maintaining that connection with the ‘household’ and associating the mundane with something deeper and more symbolic. The title itself is an indication of this, tugging at the reader’s curiosity and begging the query of what is meant by a ‘Dressing Gown’ in this context, and inviting us to find out.
With its first poem, ‘My People’, the book makes the important assertion of where Charlotte is coming from as a writer, her proud and traditional family upbringing, where perhaps her poetic creativity could be seen as breaking the mould:
“I come from people who
do not say,
who assume you know,
who are afraid of words.”‘My People’ by Charlotte Oliver
As a reader, this helped set the context for me of the various references to family that follow throughout the rest of the collection, and gave me an idea of the kind of ‘home’ I was being invited into. Charlotte’s warm and endearing homage to her grandmother, ‘Song Of My Granny’ is perhaps one of the best examples of her reflections on family life in the book and it exudes warmth and affection for all the happy times spent in her company. It draws heavily on references to furniture and food to skilfully create a vivid image of being at home with granny, re-living those moments and seeing it all again through a child’s eyes, such as the remark about her false teeth as:
“…your dazzling set of pink-gummed fish
freed to swim each night.”‘Song Of My Granny’ by Charlotte Oliver
This presents a wonderful image of a child’s view of her grandmother, and one that many of us can relate to. We all generally have fond recollections of our grandparents, and the writer appeals to that sentimentality with her own unique and almost playful interpretation:
“Oh granny, your lap was paradise!
You small and wrinkled angel haloed by delightful tales…”‘Song Of My Granny’ by Charlotte Oliver
The poems ‘Yorkshire Puddings’ and ‘Mum Gets Ready’ also exploit that technique to great effect, but it would be categorically wrong of me, however, to suggest that this book is simply a charming reflection about family; it is more than that. There is much depth to this collection, and some of the poems appear to contain a vague wistfulness, even sorrow, of the kind that might invade ones thoughts while sitting in an empty house, or during the solitude of an afternoon walk. The poem, ‘Her Secret’, which I feel could be self-referential, hints at a buried sadness and anxiety:
“…she stared hard and let the tears dry up
before they began their hot trickle…
…It took a while to realise that the tooth-grinding
was probably part of all this…”‘Her Secret’ by Charlotte Oliver
This melancholy is resolved beautifully at the end by alluding to the discovery of writing and poetry as the catharsis to those feelings. It could be said that this is true of all those poems in the collection that deal with difficult or emotional subjects, with the writer tempering any wistfulness by adding notes of hope.
Indeed, this is exactly what the collection itself tends towards with one of the final poems being entitled ‘Hope’. In this work Charlotte articulates the loss of ‘hope’ itself but, by animating and illustrating its quality she also demonstrates that it is not altogether gone:
“I don’t remember what it used to be like,
just the clatter of freedom like waves on a pebbled shore,
and eternity’s breath on my bare neck…”‘Hope’ by Charlotte Oliver
I should say that, in my own work, I write in rhyming verse, perhaps as a result of that early exposure at school to First World War poetry (which someone once suggested I may have absorbed by osmosis!). Whatever the reason, this seems to be my current tendency as a writer, so I found reading ‘How To Be A Dressing Gown’ doubly fascinating because it gave me an introduction to imagistic poetry and the way that writers can use words to conjure beautiful images in the mind. I would even go a step further and suggest that Charlotte’s work succeeds in transcending this by articulating other senses; I could almost smell those Yorkshire Puddings in her poem of the same name, and taste the comfort of a sponge pudding and many other foods that she refers to throughout the book!
There can be no doubt of this collection’s intimacy and the author’s invitation with open arms for the reader to delve into her mind and world. This is perhaps most evident in the poem ‘Afterwards’, which is written so deftly that it was not until halfway through that I suddenly felt quite abashed on realising that, as a reader, I had been transported to the bed chambers of the writer’s home where, if I have interpreted correctly, I was now in the aftermath of some intimate moments having been shared between the writer and her husband! By spacing the words far apart on the page, Charlotte adds emphasis to the quiet and stillness of the moment, a brief time of breathless reflection that followed the intimacy:
________________in that moment
feet warm at last.”‘Afterwards’ by Charlotte Oliver
The poem is a beautiful articulation of the writer’s thoughts and feelings immediately after being intimate with her partner and again reinforces the theme of warmth, love and contentment in the family home that runs through the book. I think this may be why the collection adopts ‘How To Be A Dressing Gown’ as its title, because which household item holds better synergy with that sentiment of homely warmth and comfort than a ‘dressing gown’?! It is fair to say that in the poem of the same name, Charlotte creates some really vivid description of how it feels to be in your dressing gown, equating it to a ‘hug’, and you can almost feel yourself reaching out for your own dressing gown and wanting to wrap it around you!
“You have the power of an unexpected sponge pudding
with custard…”‘How To Be A Dressing Gown’ by Charlotte Oliver
It is as though the poem is a set of instructions to the dressing gown itself, elevating and personifying it as a sentient member of the home, with its own part to play in permitting some downtime for the wearer, and if this is the meaning of the poem, then perhaps the collection as a whole could be interpreted as a form of self-help guide, or perhaps it is simply the signature poem that defines the essence of the collection. I suppose it is for the reader to make up their own mind but, either way, Charlotte Oliver has boldly announced herself to the poetry community by writing with an openness and affection for those close to her, that should be the envy of many a poet.
Charlotte Oliver’s debut chapbook, ‘How To Be A Dressing Gown’ is published by Dreich Chapbooks and available to buy at: https://hybriddreich.co.uk/product/charlotte-oliver-how-to-be-a-dressing-gown .
More information about the poet can be found at www.charlotteoliver.com and she tweets @CharlotteOlivr.
By Sam Bartle