Review: Susan Utting’s “Fair’s Fair” in The North 49

Extracts from David Cooke’s review of Susan Utting’s in The North 49 http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/815/489/north-49

Fair’s Fair is dedicated to the memory of ‘Sue and Ron of the Blue Ball Inn’… In ‘Lament for Susie Green’, the poet has composed a litany in which we get an endearingly down to earth portrait of a character who might have stepped from one of Beryl Cook’s canvases:

No more the wicked tongue, the lizard skin shoes,
the cerise and black, no more the oyster and blue;

no more the filthy look, the thruppeny bits, no silver
or bronze, no more sixpence suspenders, no lash glitter.

No more the cochineal bottle, no bitters, no sauce, no
salt-pinch, no ice-chink, no backchat and no maraschino;

In ‘Under the Blue Ball’, the winner of the 2007 Peterloo Poetry Prize, it is the legendary inn itself which is memorialised:

Here’s where curmudgeons guard seats by the fire,
the inglenook regulars tapping their pipes out
where roll-ups and full strength have kippered the walls,

where bluebottles buzz in with stable lads steaming
like horses; where bets are laid, arrows thud, dominoes clatter
and cribbage gets rowdy with one-for-his-nob of a Friday.

Like a genre painting in the manner of Cook – or Breughel – this is a poem in which the words themselves clatter and buzz.

Fair’s Fair is obsessed with the notion of time. In ‘Giving Up Mirrors’, its opening poem, Utting hints also at the possibility of ‘giving up time’, as if by taking off a watch or refusing to wind a clock it might be possible to stop time passing. However, in ‘October’ the progress of the seasons is poignantly evoked: ‘Each morning a fresh windfall to gather/and light growing precious, shifting/in time with the clocks.’  Moreover, the classical simplicity of its concluding stanza is in marked contrast with the more exuberant pieces:

                          Here are promises, too:
the thrill that will come at the end of a year
turning itself to the now of a memory, warm
in the house of the heart, quick in the blood,
close as the touch of an old love.

Elsewhere the poet changes perspective, although she is often at pains not to define too closely the details of each relationship. In ‘The Line’ a mother and daughter ‘are small enough to slip inside/each other’s shoes’ and ‘are stitched together at the heels by a long thread ’, while in ‘Drinking with Sarah’ we catch glimpses of intimate moments and learn that ‘what matters is inconsequential talk’. In ‘Learning to Read’, we observe a child on ‘the top deck of a bus’ when suddenly something clicks and she starts reading everything in sight: ‘Soon they were everywhere,/easy as peasy, shapes for the taking…’. This is a poem in which language itself and its ‘flibbertigibbets of mouth music’ take centre stage.

Finally, mentions should be made of some beautifully rendered, yet quietly ambiguous poems such as ‘The Sisterhood’, ‘Needlework’ and ‘The Rules of Fire which evoke and subtly challenge our notions of home and domesticity: ‘I come from a line of clever-fingered women, proud/make-do-and-menders…’. Fair’s Fair is a meticulously ordered collection in which the individual poems reflect and reinforce each other. It is also an accessible and highly memorable celebration of life and language in which Utting strikes an impressive balance between exuberance and control.