Shoshana Kessler reviews Helen Charman

Support, Support published by Offord Road Books (2018)

Astute without being esoteric, Helen Charman’s gift in her debut pamphlet Support, support is to adopt simple sentences to reframe complex issues: the poetic obsession with the self, or—perhaps—the newfound character of ‘poet’, which is both at odds with itself and with overarching societal structures. Exploring class-structures and patriarchal constructions of femininity, the pamphlet takes an actively interrogative, if not particularly measured investigation into a societal framework when a life undergoes a paradigm shift. 

The poems encompass a set time and place. It’s a period not necessarily specified (aside from 2006, there are no specific dates mentioned throughout the pamphlet), but it is undeniably present: a summer, a movement, a journey. The work is both deeply personal and deeply guarded: ‘relatable content’ meeting a wall of language tricks and games, allusions, codes, secrets. Property and its tenants – stability, security, oppression, normativity – become an open metaphor for personal experience: “I think of him as a house and as an ordeal” in ‘The tenancy l.1’, and simultaneously remain a social coder: easy movement, easy power. Note the ending of ‘Solstice Bug’: “I’ll have no more / books where the blonde girl carries away /the happiness! Buck up your ideas child, / you make a home for yourself in narrative”. The message: build homes in words, not in people. 

Charman’s use of grammar and frequent nods to internet-culture and social media give lift to the pamphlet.  Exclamation marks, line breaks, slashes, an absence of full stops all engender a sense of typographical play, resulting in a flurry of reading universalised by texting, twitter, and so on. “How many bathrooms have you / cried in? At parties or at home? / Even my search engine doesn’t / understand me still” (Prosody daddy l.8-11).

The majority of the poems are interspersed with humour working to give levity to the more emotive and raw elements at work. It’s an affective ploy, both diversion and game for the reader: “Jesus Helen you’re everywhere I wish / I weren’t” (Borrow it, l1-2). This invocation of the vulnerability of expression, and particularly female expression, is an apt example of the tone and ambition of the pamphlet. The precariousness that stems from having a ‘voice’ is made visually accessible through a shift in type: cursor to non-cursor, and the tenderness of the thought, “I wish / I weren’t” is lightened by the simplicity of the dialogue. Whether the cursive is an external or internal voice is beside the point, the informality of the speaker serves to capture a universally understood insecurity. The humour found in its normality as a ‘throwaway’ comment, an off the cuff remark, highlights the multifaceted nature of writing the private for public consumption. And, particularly, for the female poet or writer. The muting/muffling of the female voice through well-worn tropes of loudness, hysteria, ambition, what it means to be “too present” is deftly tackled throughout the entire pamphlet: how to do it, how not to do it too much, how to do it enough, how not to care.

Shoshana Kessler is printer and publisher at Hurst Street Press, an independent publishing house based in London and Oxford.

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