Anna Kirk reviews
The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions
I was especially pleased to receive a review copy of a new poetry collection when, on opening the jiffy bag, I discovered that it was Jacqueline Saphra’s first full collection, as I had actually attended the launch of this very book. It had been held in a lovely bookshop in Bermondsey, and I headed there on recommendation from another poet, having never come across Saphra’s work myself. The launch had the most delicious canapés I have ever eaten in a bookshop, and Saphra’s collection has an equally delicious title; a title that whets the appetite and makes the reader want to open the book up and see what fancies lie within, then digest them slowly. Not that one should judge a book by its cover, but The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions is sky blue with pink lettering and bears the image of a kitchen unit with its doors open, revealing a woman’s lipsticked open mouth. This image, in various guises, runs throughout the collection. A contraption sounds mechanical, manual, useful and even tricksy. Yet Saphra makes contraptions wholly feminine. In the title poem the contraptions in question are underwear that hang drying in a woman’s kitchen ‘in readiness for ambush’. A hapless man claims to be ‘assaulted’ by the garments as he walks through. Women’s underwear provides a purpose, they are contraptions, but they are also revealing, beautiful things, lovely to look at and ensnaring of men. It is the perfect poem to turn into the title of the collection, as I think this encompasses the main themes and provides a rather fitting comparison; her poems are like the beautiful, feminine, ensnaring garments.
Saphra is unashamed of the feminine aesthetic. In fact, she celebrates and elevates it. She writes a whole poem on the importance of a new dress, and frequently about how clothes and female wiles can provide power: ‘He was breathless, helpless at the pink coal-face/of femininity (‘The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions’). Man is rendered helpless by the strength of woman; pink and fragrant she may be, but there is a hardness and solidity in her making too. Women themselves are contraptions, bodies to be used and minds to be set, the ‘clever machine/of my own flesh’ (‘The Goods’).
The kitchen is historically a female haunt, and Saphra plays on this idea. It is a place of creation and consumption. In the poem ‘Visiting My Father, 1964’, she writes ‘I fashioned a man out of toothpicks/and chocolate’. Even at such a young age, the Saphra in the poem is creating, using domestic items in new, original ways. Just as she explores the kitchen, she explores what it means to her to be a woman, a lover, a wife, a mother: ‘I synchronise my selves,/call them to heel all dressed in lipstick’ (‘The Striking Hour’). It is not only through her own life that she examines female roles, but also through taking on and empathising with figures such as Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and her own mother. ‘Penelope’, which is written after Cavafy’s Ithaka, is the longest poem of the collection, and is addressed to Penelope, urging her to up sticks, take control, become as strong as a warrior, and go and find her husband for herself. ‘Don’t start getting girly-weak’ the voice of the poem orders. Penelope gains this strength and makes the journey, only to find that Odysseus is stooped and small and she does not want him any more; she is now bigger than her man.
Saphra balances the domestic spaces of both kitchen and bedroom, and the appetites that are stirred in each. She writes sensually, often erotically, and of strippers and bondage. But there is always a softness underlying these moments, with more than one aspect of femininity detectable. The LA stripper has origins as a girl she grew up with who dances to records and peels of her clothes only to show off her tan. In ‘Brother of the Gusset’ (which is an old slang term for pimp) the language is violent and urgent: ‘Catch the snatch to feed the man’. Feeding and consuming and mouths crop up continuously, giving a sexual energy and a sensual tone, yet there is always a motherly milk flowing along with all the blood and lust. Her own mother is a recurring character, and the poems in which she appears are among the most moving. Seeing Saphra at events, I have noticed that she chooses these to read aloud more than others. This is understandable, as her mother comes across as an entertaining, unconventional livewire, and an inspiration for much of Saphra’s zest. The closing poem is about her mother’s death, though it is not maudlin or sentimental. She refers to ‘my tiny mother’ but this in physical terms only, though vulnerability is implied. The final lines spark with both humour and heartache:
…You ditched your grubby wings
and swore on the ascent as if you were
some crazed madonna, spitting fire,
halo on the tilt, still longing for her Lucifer.
Her mother is also aligned with the Madonna in the poem ‘Triptych’, with the image on the frescoes ‘forever feeding, bleeding’. Again, the roles of women are multiple, with her mother portrayed as both promiscuous and a Madonna.
‘The myth of easy love’ is a phrase used in the poem ‘Six feet of New Linen’; Saphra weaves tales and investigates myths, and this is a myth she wishes to expose. She recognises that love is not easy, but sonnets litter the collection and she makes the idea of love an appealing one, finding it everywhere. The lines ‘I ache to forget/these breasts//to spread my legs/ without meaning’ (To My Daughter, Naked’) are powerful, but after reading the whole collection I don’t think she wants to forget her femininity, her body, her breasts at all. I think that she wants to change perceptions, for it to be acceptable to celebrate bodies and clothes, for women to be viewed as whole and multi-faceted people, who love and are loved as well as being beautiful contraptions.
Anna Kirk lives and works in London, and is currently studying for an MA in Poetry at Royal Holloway.