Review: Keshia Starrett – Hysterical

Hysterical, Burning Eye Books, p42, ISBN 9781911570226

Hysterical is the debut pamphlet from Starrett, winner of the Poetry Rivals UK 2016 Slam Competition. Aged twenty-three, we shouldn’t be surprised that the poems within mostly deal with her upbringing and the difficulties encountered. Yet this is more that mere unresolved teen angst. With heavy themes such as family, feminism, identity and mental health, Starrett has created a hard-hitting introduction to her work.

A number of poems skiff around the edges of tragedy, whether of violence, bereavement or bereavement. The implication is that some things are perhaps too painful to address directly, angles of approach sought to make memories more bearable. When The Swelling Goes Down is dedicated to a family member, opening up in the form of the letter, but with the recipient’s name left blank, detailing a letter not written, and a envelope not opened. Mirror, also with a dedication, is an unnerving piece on loss and separation:

+++someone switched off her
+++reflection

+++the family asked to keep it
+++anyway
+++but it reveals
+++nothing.

Hysterical is full of this sense of distance and parting, whether through forced departure, alienation and isolation, or a need for self-protection. An ode to Barcelona morphs into a picture of desperate escapism. Doubting Thomas details personal barriers resistant to penetration. A familial connection is sought on a train journey alongside Binevenagh mountain. Throughout, we witness a person weighing up their years, looking for a form of understanding, even closure. Bloody Sunday tells us that “absolution and erasure are not | synonyms”, and this is not poetry as therapy, but more of confession, and of wanting to draw confession from others.

It is the poet’s job to bring us everyday experiences in unique and startling ways, and Starrett is well capable of doing so. The image of a tear rolling down a cheek is nothing new, but Starrett extends the image on, to an ocean ripple, to “another current turned into | a whirlpool, spinning us like laundry behind the glass door”. There is a knack for spinning originality out of cliche: a disconnected phone is cast as “line-dancing”; a dank pub with boarded up-windows is “about to drop dead | from a vitamin d | deficiency”. However, the old tried and tested stock phrases do still creep in: the false portent of the Reaper tarot card; “the hurricane’s eye” used to suggest calmness. A Current Is A Fickle Thing relies too heavily on the imagery of life rings, strong currents and sinking ships to portray overwhelming illness, never moving past its starting point.

The Baker Is Infertile does a better job, rifting on the idea of baking and someone not fully-formed regressing into constituent ingredients. It clearly originates as a spoken word piece – such are some of the poem in the collection, and is to be perhaps expected from a Slam competition winner – with its refrain of “I’m a bun in the oven”, and reads well, although there is an overstretched metaphor of self-raising flour, bicarbonate soda and yeast, whereas using one of them would have made the same point just as well.

The poems work best where Starrett’s inventiveness and dark humour met, as it Reasons To Rent Instead Of Buying, re-imagining a house as a flawed ex-partner to be gotten over:

+++little house tattooed into my brain
+++I question your structural integrity
+++
+++don’t take this personally
+++but my therapist made me compile
+++a list of your fault

There’s irony in telling an anthropomorphic object not to take something personally, and Starrett excels at these little quirks, such as at the poem’s conclusion, suggestion that arson would be a “kindness”. Similarly, there are hints at a eating disorder here and there, with tragicomic lines such as “she’s been genuflecting | to a toilet bowl”.

Hysterical has captured the dilemmas of a modern early-twenties life, moving away from drunken escapades and odes to debauchery characterised in so many other standard work from others in their early-twenties doing Masters in Creative Writing who believe the most subversive thing you can do in a poem is swear a lot. Starrett has enough vision and originality to move forward with promise, and Hysterical proves to be a steady foot for someone finding her own lexicon and bank of images. If she can remain clear of cliche and avoiding relying on the common language of what has come before, she will be a name to watch out for in the future.

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