Wedding Underwear for Mermaids, Linda Ann Strang, Honest Publishing, 2011, £9.99 paperback, £2.33 ebook.Posted: March 23, 2013
The sea is rarely itself in Linda Ann Strang’s Wedding Underwear for Mermaids. Though mermaids and the sea do appear in this book, Strang often falls back on the wider metaphoricity of the sea and of the mermaid as sites of shifting transformation, of margins and of marginalisation. Thus, in their liminality, the assaulted bride, the migrating swallow, and the unfortunate supporting actress in a horror B movie all resonate with the mermaid figures on which the book finally comes explicitly to rest.
Strang’s verse is like the sea’s currents in that it jangles together objects from disparate material cultures: tools, fruits, jewels, and body parts are plucked from their homes and rearranged together to form new accreted structures, new margins, new borders. We see, for instance ‘headlands of apple and pear’ forming before our eyes. The result is a poetry book characterised by exciting and unexpected juxtapositions; my favourite is the ‘butter, nutmeg and a spanner’ with which the grandmother of ‘The Grandmother at the Ends of the Earth’ makes an apple pie. There is often a sensuous appositeness to these images; Strang writes perfectly of ‘the fig| and semen flavours of the sea’, for example. At times, she is able to consummately sketch out a character with just a few carefully placed strokes by taking for granted the reader’s awareness of rich veins of fairytale and folklore, customised of course by their own memories and experiences. When she writes ‘I was a princess| under the table; my concern was a handful| of broad beans in a dented soup ladle’, for instance, I can see precisely this little girl in vivid detail.
This uberty of sensuous images might give the cumulative impression that the many characters in Wedding Underwear for Mermaids are comprised only of startlingly juxtaposed objects. This can be a little frustrating: one yearns to get to know the beleaguered, desiring women as stable, distinct subjects in their own right. If only they would stand still for long enough for us to get a good look at them, rather than changing in front of our eyes! ‘I am a hybrid like the swallows, transforming myself as I fly’, one states. And yet this seems to be a deliberate move on Strang’s part. The difficulty we sometimes face in gaining insights into her characters’ deepest thoughts brings home the fact that these women are ignored and consigned to the margins of the relationships in which they find themselves (though they often take ‘centre stage’ as victims). Strang evokes the eroding, eliding effect on her female characters of relations with (almost overwhelmingly male) others in a fantastic pun when she describes being in a relationship as being ‘paired down’. Strang’s speakers often describe themselves as occupying ‘a supporting role’, or as being a peripheral character in ‘someone else’s story’. In ‘Mixed Media’, this theme is attacked head on, as the speaker becomes no more than a bricolage of various flimsy materials, readily assembled and given meaning by other people rather than defining her life for herself. ‘I’ve been assimilated by her argument’ she states, before concluding that ‘the serigraphs and lithographs| will absorb us like somebody else’s life’. In this book, to describe is not to approve, and Strang powerfully describes the figure of the mermaid and of the woman who has come to observe herself as a distant other.
Yet Strang does not shy away from immediacy. See the brutal evocation of the lack of fluffy femininity in motherhood in ‘Unmanned by Mother’s Day’ – ‘blood| and pain, vomit on my breasts, and piss’ – and the mouth-kiss of complete rhyme – ‘track’ and ‘smack’ – in ‘Becoming Scottish’. Her work reaches towards the gloss of violence that shines in other representations of brutal and circus-like performances of female sexuality, such as the prose of Angela Carter (one of her avowed influences) and the poetry of Dorothy Molloy.
Wedding Underwear for Mermaids can be purchased online at Honest Publishing.