Life Interrupted: Review of 'Sightings' by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough
Sightings, with its stark opening line of the title poem, informs us that we’re entering a narrative of loss, ‘After my father died...’, but a menacing threat is established too, and these powerful messages, the aftermath of the loss of a father and menace, are to be played out through scenes of contradiction, ‘...its song, a call / to summer from a November morning.’; an ‘...active hope / and hopelessness,’; ‘...Rarest of Gifts was lost,’.
From this powerful beginning, trepidation about the man who replaces the dead father is established.
Sennitt Clough reveals terror as a consequence of menace, ‘...I bolt like a spooked horse / to the jackhammer of my father’s fists.’ (This Little House), and highlights menace through another image of a creature in ‘Portrait Of My Mother And Stepfather As Moths’. Creatures and nature are revisited to reveal how untamed forces are uncontrollable,
Even the river / puts on a sleek display
like a muscled creature / running dark
as a conscience / ...
The poems take the reader through the poet-narrators terrifying experiences which she faces, bears and overcomes and are uncompromising in exposing the brutality which is part of the men’s lives. From the first poem when ‘my mother’s new husband crept behind / with a cloth bag… slow, slow, grab.’ (Sightings), violence and abuse recur frequently,
...his knife dimpling
her throat, saying I’ll kill you and kill your
bastard of a girl.
This violence crushes dreams and hopes,
Well-trodden lines on her palms lead me
down the grey, ruined streets of her previous lives,
and she looks out
of the window, dreams of places
she’s never been.
It is clear in the poems that for the mother and the daughter, dreams are distant and unfulfilled.
Sennitt Clough lifts the lid on hidden child abuse which children have to cope with (‘Germolene’, ‘And The Moon Up Above’), but must remain silent about, ‘...That I sense the glass / around my throat, the pin’s locking chafe.’ (The Glass Collar).
Perhaps what is most tragic and most brutal is that the violence exploits the passion and longings in the young women, ‘Something flashed in your eyes, as you lower / yourself on me; attracts me like bait.’ (Bait).
The men are also ruined by their violence, with the lonely and wretched end of the bus driver alluded to in ‘its body is covered in patches of rust.’ (The Bus Driver), or committing suicide ‘And The Moon Up Above’, as well as the descent into alcoholism recurring throughout the poems.
Even the brutal stepfather had humanity in him, once. When he caught a linnet and was about to crush it,
‘but it was the small heartbeat
he felt through the gourd of his palm,
that made him set it free.’
‘A Smallholding In The Fens’
Sadly, this spark of humanity is extinguished, and as a result, the mother and daughter live desperate lives at his hands. This uncompromising set of poems can’t help but arouse anger, even hatred, at the dark forces they lift the lid on, as well as the bleak desperation which traps the women in the cycle of abuse. And yet, for all that it is an uncomfortable read, it is important. It takes an accomplished poet to take the reader into this area and for them to leave disturbed, but certainly not depressed. Sennitt Clough does this, and more with her startling collection.
I touch his sleeve
and it comes to life,
like it’s full of swallows,
nesting in its folds –
I said everything I could before you stopped me,
sifted skin through hourglass after hourglass –
The Skin Diary as a collection provides insight. It's a journal of survival despite loss, and closes with a charm-like poem,
‘…I plant for you / agapanthus, dahlia, harebell,’. Raw reality is contained between the imaginative, magical first and last poems. Throughout thoughts are raised about the power of the imagination, and of spell-like charms to help to elevate us above loss and longing.