Guest Review: Ward On Sylvia Is Missing

Sylvia is Missing
Flarestack Poets, 2012
Reviewed by Christian Ward

Sylvia is Missing is an anthology featuring poems from Flarestack Poets’ 2012 pamphlet competition. The slender volume looks and feels like one of Flarestack Poets’ pamphlets, boasting a bright pink cover and a large, simple font. If you passed it in a bookstore, you would notice it immediately. There are no quotes from poets on the back cover, just a blurb that boldly says it contains “Poetry that dares outside current trends, even against the grain...collections that aren’t bus queues, from poets forging their own linguistic connections with the root-ball of experience.”

I’m always wary when presented with statements like these, particularly if the poetry doesn’t always fall in line with their description. If you’re going to use such hyperbolic language to try and win me over as a reader, then it has to deliver - even more so when the pseudo-academic babble of ‘forging their own linguistic connections with the root-ball of experience.’ is included. Add to this a questionable choice of anthology title (referring to Plath, obviously, but does anyone really write like her nowadays?) and the lack of information concerning selection (why was one favoured over the other? what were the editors looking for?), and you create even more weariness.

Luckily, Sylvia is Missing is an anthology worth reading. It opens with my first pick, Siofra McSherry’s intriguing ‘No Nemo’ – a poem concerned with investigating how the process of questioning (in this case, whether something will continue or not) works. A mysterious fish “observes, moves through water, / shines light, remains strange.” This is contrasted against a polar landscape filled with machines, representing logic and processes that have the “smell of hot machines”and“cables wrapped in rubber thick / as thumbs.

Claire Dyer’s ‘Strawberries’ is my next choice. Dyer has an eye for memorable images and the poem opens with the simple yet wonderful “It’s March: a caramel-soft day and there’s/ a man on the bus eating strawberries.” What follows is an exploration between two worlds that almost seem to be superimposed on each other – the bus observation with the odd man who turns out to be the speaker’s friend and another version of himself; darkness outside, summer inside. Each strawberry is symbolic of an experience by the speaker and the piece ends with the man on the bus/friend choosing another and putting “the stalks in the pocket of his coat” where they will both literally and figuratively decompose. 

I liked the oddness of Michael Conley’s ‘Auction’ which opens with the funny “I have a green meteor next to my name: / nobody has complained about me.” The tender acts of buying a Bart Simpson watch for someone (one assumes a young relative) is contrasted with the speaker smashing it “three times with a hammer”. It lands at the bottom of the recipients postbox with the “hushed jangle/ of settling stardust.” Conley makes the reader wonder why he did the act – was it because no-one complained about him? Some ulterior motive? I like poems that make the reader ass questions, especially when the answers aren’t immediately obvious, so kudos to Conley.

My other choices are Peter Daniels’ ‘Being Cute’, which is a nice little riff on how being “cute” can have a downside and Gina Wilson’s ‘For the she-ass, Lise’. The opening image of “the donkey’s two-foot pizzle/ dangles like liquorice” had me hooked. The poem has a charming kind of bitchiness that is also suprisingly tender.

Sylvia is Missing is an intriguing anthology with more than a few poems that are worth reading. Poetry competition anthologies can be a little hit and miss – a bit like those action films I remember watching growing up in the 80s. You get some big explosions, bad guys go flying and the rest is just filler. This one is a bit better. Go read.

Christian Ward has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London, and was a runner up for the 2011 Bridpoet Prize.  His poems have appeared in Magma, Poetry Review and Poetry Wales, among others.