beautifully produced hardback poetry collection, a starting pink with
pictures of naked dolls on the front with their eyes closed, landed on my mat
Usually when I find a new poetry collection I dip into it, and spend the next
days or weeks reading a two or three poems at a time. This is the only
collection I've ever picked up and read cover to cover in one day, reading
the collection chronologically, and not wanting to put the book down.
Angela Readman has written a very compelling second collection of poetry. It
opens with 'Poppies', narrated by
Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.
All our ideas about fairy tales and childhood stories are broken open
as we meet Dorothy as a real girl, one who has blisters, and believes that:
'courage is just another abstract, / like friendship, and all the hearts you
seek / grow on stubbled stalks, clot / their residue onto your sleeve.Ó
Strip is about the real girls
and women behind the images we can see in porn films, strip clubs, pin-ups on
garage walls. Readman explores not the porn industry or the demand for these
images. This is not a collection about men at all, it is about girls and
women - our experiences growing up, becoming aware of bodies and sexuality,
our relationships with women and the images all around us. I include 'us' in
this, because reading these poems, I feel, isn't about characters or
experiences outside of ourselves. The experiences captured in many of these
poems are collective ones, ones that directly relate to each of us.
A sequence of poems called Life of a 'Porn Star' dominates this collection.
This is far from Belle de Jour; we don't get a rundown of all the sexual
encounters the character has, or descriptions of her punters, or what type of
condoms she uses. Readman neither glorifies nor condemns the profession. She
explores the life of the girl who is experiencing a growing awareness of
self, her family relationships, feelings and incidents that are important to
her. In 'Tom and Jerry transaction':
queued up and asked to read
strip under my slip.
half a snickers
so I lifted
This encounter, a familiar story from the playground, is a foreshadowing of
what might come, a moment where innocence shifts a little and the girl
becomes aware that her body can be a commodity.
Other poems in this sequence, explore every day events like hanging the
washing out with her Mom, or making dinner with her dad: 'I press myself into a helper, a
worker, my father's daughter, / branded, by flour on my cheek in the shape of
a thumb.' ('Dinner With No Name'). These are universal poems, which creep inside
the skin of a girl who will later become a star in porn films. It could be any of us.
The sequence creates a narrative that shows how it is a girl might become
involved in the porn industry. It explores first sexual experiences, her
rites of passage. In 'Brace' she
looks in the mirror 'to assess the little girl smile/peeking out from the Penthouse stung lips.' She removes her own brace with nail
clippers, becoming the woman who in subsequent poems learns to pole dance,
strip, be photographed and perform in porn films.
A poem that particularly moved me was 'How a girl could do that'. This is
such an exact, authentic poem: the narrator tells us 'I know this isn't
Kansas anymore'. She states, 'My map of lipstick on his chest shows me where
I really live' and 'I keep my tongue tied making circles, / and when I open
my mouth I do a job'. This is reality, not a fantasy or a projection or
assumption. The girl we have seen grow up in previous poems, is in a place
where 'I lie back and try to find the wonder / of each pearl I made in the
necklace I'm given / again and again, like every day's my sweet sixteen.'
'How to make love like a Porn Star', is another breathtaking poem, exploring
the expectations that it is desirable for a girl to be like a porn star in
bed. In this poem, the narrator dreams of the sex she really wants.
These poems could be full of bitterness, cynicism, anger, but instead they
are measured, explorations of experiences that are more complex than first
imagined. There is exploitation certainly, but these poems are not about direct
blame, they carry the voices of girls/women, and their experiences, hopes,
fears and dreams.
There are further sequences of poems: 'The Porn Star Letters' and 'The Bettie Pages'. The last section 'The Bettie Pages', explores pinups, particularly the fifties pin up
and porn star Bettie Page. These poems question, what it means to be a girl,
a woman growing up with these images around us. How different our lives are
from the image.
'The Porn Star Letters' is a section of letters from a teenage girl to Traci,
a porn star whose picture is on her boyfriend's wall, and in her dad's
garage. The girl explores her thoughts and feelings in letters to this
'fictional' woman who she wants to relate to, sees as a role model, and is
desperate to understand: 'I wanted to see know how you moved, how you talked,
didn't want to at the same time.' These letters capture perfectly the
ambivalence girls can feel about their own bodies and identities as they grow
up. The girl signs off these letters, first Elizabeth, then Lizabeth, Beth,
Lizzi Beth - a sign of her shifting and confused identity.
It must be obvious that I loved this collection of poetry. It is one of the
most exciting collections I have read in recent years. Strip goes straight to the core, very little metaphor,
just very stark images that explore society and the experience of girls and
woman within it. The language and imagery is cutting, beautiful and sad. I
felt as though I was breathing with these narrators, experiencing the small
detail of their lives.
Readman shows no fear or anxiety about tackling difficult subject matter, and
she does this with sensitivity and balance. The reader is allowed to come to
his or her own judgements and conclusions. We're not led into a political
back alley where we are beaten about the head with the writer's views about
prostitution or pornography. We are left to decide for ourselves, and helped
to become more aware of the lives of the girls and women behind such images,
understand that they are just like us, that they could in fact be us.
Annie Clarkson 2007