Review of ‘Milk Tooth’ by Martha Sprackland (Rough Trade Editions, 2019) by Leaf Arbuthnot

Martha Sprackland’s pamphlet Milk Tooth opens with a tremor of uncertainty. “What do I remember?” the speaker asks; in echo she draws a scatter of recollections of a room in London, “like a lighthouse, very bright, very quiet”. Some medical event has unfolded, an abortion it seems. The speaker glugs buckets of sugared tea in a cotton robe, her tongue ferrous, an ache somewhere in her body. Meanwhile her mother circles the building in a car, possibly stopping off for a pastry: it’s unclear, as the speaker “never asked” how her mother used the time she spent among rows of “little beds”.

Sprackland’s poems are occupied and preoccupied by the female body. “I would like to write a wonderful utopia / for my breasts to live in,” she writes at one point. The strangeness of the image sent me into a spiral of Googling to find a picture of Rene Magritte’s portrait, Le Viol, of a woman’s head whose eyes have been replaced by breasts. The painting, like the poem, generates an uneasy tangling of repulsion and attraction.

Throughout the pamphlet Sprackland is minutely attentive to the ripening and coiling of the feminine form; ovaries that bud “at the finials of their elegant branches”; the “pear-shaped space” they belong to. Death and maternity twine together: as the mother circles the building where her daughter is perhaps preventing herself from becoming a mother, so later, in “Gasoline”, another daughter performs the ultimate betrayal by abandoning her mother to death in a Peruvian jungle. The poem describes Julianne Koepcke, who in 1971 was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon. In Sprackland’s telling of the story, Koepcke walks “for eleven days, pouring gasoline on her skin / to draw the maggots out.” As she saves herself, her mother Maria hangs “strapped to an aeroplane seat in the canopy / for three days before dying.” It is instructive that Sprackland chooses not to mention that Koepcke hunted for her mother unsuccessfully before she was forced to leave her to her fate.

Sprackland's first pamphlet, Glass as Broken Glass, recorded the loss of a relationship, bodies failing or being failed by other bodies. “I caved him in with the heel of my shoe”, she wrote in 'Snail'. You could almost hear the shell cracking. Milk Tooth likewise deals with forms that shatter and buckle. In "Gibbet", the gaiety of “lovely muddy morning” in the countryside – hemlock “jouncing”, cow parsley “shocking and shouldering” – is trashed by the intervention of the luridly human. A red balloon ruins the idyll, its “squeaky fat lip” caught on barbed wire.

There are some problems, however. At times, descriptions feel familiar: a book is “splayed”, a slice of apple has “pale flesh”, a knife carries a “gleam of silver”. A couple of poems melt too quickly on the tongue. In 'Milk' the speaker is “bombed / with knockout drugs” and watches a waitress moving tables from the reach of a bruising sky. It’s a nicely written poem but doesn’t really take you anywhere. Yet such lapses of vigilance occur so seldom they command swift forgiveness.

The stand-out poem of the pamphlet is 'Tooth'. The speaker has toothache. Terrible toothache: the offending molar is “like a ground grey stone lodged / in the fork of a tree”. At night the tooth “wakes up / like an eyeball”, lolls and rubs demonically, keeping her awake. It is no easy task to convey pain in poetry; indeed in medical contexts, people have trouble deciding where to place theirs on a scale of one to 10. This poem captures the specific agony of toothache with such remorseless accuracy I began rubbing my jaw. When the speaker finally cracks, escapes her torture chamber bedroom and finds her way to the “hot harbour” beyond, it feels like alleviation for the reader too.

Outside, she swills “palmfuls of the sea” to soothe the pulsing bezoar in her mouth. Yet nothing can balm a more universal roiling happening around her at scale. From the minutiae of the everyday - pain in someone’s mouth - the poem tacks to the universal. Pain is the drum to which the world beats, pervading “this clot, / this breaking news, this fire, / this prisoner of war”. The world is “sealed” and seethes “like a black egg / incorruptible by amoxicillin / and saline wash”. Relief comes not from the salt water below or drugs to zip the pain but from contact with a person miraculously not barbed by it - a man in the speaker's bed, his “skin like cotton”, who asks her, “Honey, are you still sore?” The speaker cannot answer amid “the ship, the choke, the pliers, / the acorn cracked / and pushing through the floor.”

Review of ‘Significant Other’ by Isabel Galleymore (Carcanet, 2019) by Leaf Arbuthnot

Isabel Galleymore’s debut collection for Carcanet, Significant Other, also visits the Amazon, although not the wreckage of a plane. In 2016 Galleymore was poet-in-residence at a research centre in the rainforest and her work is said to have a David Attenborough-ish feel. The comparison is not as pat as it seems - the best of Attenborough’s programmes capture the charming kookiness of the natural world and Galleymore too has an eye for the eccentricity and good-natured egocentrism of the creatures she writes about. In 'The Starfish', a “pentamerously-legged” fellow creeps "like expired meat” on the sea bed. While the starfish may seem bumbling - it is no more than a fat paw lumbering “fizzy-skinned” in search of a snack - appearances are not what they seem. The creature finds a mussel, cranks it open and turns it mercilessly to broth, leaving behind “a vacant cubicle, a prayer come apart”.

Galleymore sees the natural world through spectacles that seem sharper than those the rest of us use. So a riverbank is a “wig shop of moss” and bees are “bright / as liquorice all sorts”. A robin is “a house built / for coming weather / on stilts”. Cockles “wear their ribs inside out”. Barnacles are a “swamping thatch / of teeth”. A mollusc (Galleymore, it’s safe to say, loves molluscs) is a “tiny fracking rig / clocking in with its drill-tongue”. And in 'Crab' the writer helps us see this most ubiquitous of shellfish anew. It sits “like the lid of a pie”, crimped edges resting upon pincers and legs. Soon the creature outgrows its “bone clothes” and escapes its infrastructure. Newly nude, a lidless pie, it searches “for a hiding place / for the time it will take to scab over”.

Let it not be imagined, however, that Significant Other merely offers trips to the zoo or aquarium. Many of Galleymore’s best poems force moments of vertiginous inversion. In 'The Scrotum Frog', the speaker aspires to kiss her lover in the hope “he’ll turn into a frog”. She dreams of the “stranger with a wordless mouth,” installed wetly “among the reeds and crisp packets”. The lovely poem 'Nuptials' returns to the subject of amphibian love, depicting a frog that marries a drain, seduced by its “steely gills, / its shaggy walls and mind of flies”. The poem 'Worm', too, is joyfully topsy-turvy. The poet grants the “professional, silk-suited” being of its title long-denied power and agency. So a worm pushes “quietly and cleanly” from the soil, stands en pointe and attacks a bird’s yellow beak, jabbing the winged animal so aggressively the predator is “lifted from his feet”. A tussle ensues that the worm easily wins, hoisting its enemy into the sky.

A few poems plant their feet more squarely in the human world and I wish there had been more of these. 'Choosing' begins conventionally as paean to the wonders of nature; the speaker could never pick a favourite from the “eight million differently constructed hearts” that inhabit the planet so instead she chooses “to love them all”. Yet the poem veers into an intensely moving exploration of human loss - “sometimes I’d forget to touch you / and you, and you”, Galleymore writes. A different sort of “natural phenomenon” comes under the microscope: a dwindling, a forgetting, a quiet slinking away of love, until “it seemed you’d just popped out / for a pint of milk and now / nothing’s conjured hearing your name”.  

Throughout the collection, a celebration of nature’s variety and strangeness chafes with an awareness of its precariousness. Man sets nature against nature, as in the gorgeous little poem, 'The Ash', worth quoting in full:

        Like a single branch of ash         
        hones to the handle of an axe         
        and make to take the hand         
        of a woodsman as he throws         
        his body weight to fell         
        all the ash has sown,         
        I turn your words although         
        the line you spoke was simple.

The poem 'Together' similarly shows how an understanding of nature can translate and make sense of human behaviour. The writer depicts the extinguishing of a bond between two lovers who are together so often “it’s hard to see them apart / like the blade in the blade of grass”. They have lost their singular forms, become too “fluently familiar”.

Significant Other can be read as both a love-letter to non-human life and as a eulogy for it, for in many of the poems, the human is caught shouldering the non-human out. In 'A Stranger' the speaker finds herself in an unfamiliar town and asks where to catch a bus. She is told it leaves “from where the elms / once stood before the road was paved” and finds herself hunting for “some past felling”, an “old yawn in the earth”. It’s stirring, not only because the poem captures the relentless dismantling of the natural world to make way for the man-made - a bus stop - but because it suggests there is a human cost to all this replacement and destruction, too. For the stranger, the loss of the elms is a live one: she knows the spot where the elms once stood.

The poem 'Harvest', coming towards the end of the collection, offers at least some consolation and redress. A robin is shown carrying a tree in her stomach as a “handful of seeds”. She wordlessly sows a forest that men turn into “bows and arrows and shields". Thus the bird helps to plant a battle. Meanwhile men blame one another for the bloodshed and attribute their fate to the “planets moving overhead”, forgetting the debt they owe to the natural world that fashioned their tools. But after the hubbub dies down, the birds get their due. A blackbird picks at the fruit the “armies had left”. The poem recalls the excerpt from Donna Haraway’s Companion Species Manifesto that kicks off the collection, which argues that we are “constitutively companion species”. Flesh to flesh, animal to animal, we “make each other up”.

Leaf Arbuthnot is a freelance journalist who writes for the Times, the Spectator and the Guardian. Her poetry criticism has also appeared in the Sunday Times and the Times Literary Supplement. Her first novel, Looking for Eliza, is out in May 2020.