Askew means 'not in a straight or level position' or 'wrong, awry'. It's synonymous with 'skew' or 'skewed' meaning 'to turn aside' or 'swerve' or 'to squint'. Some name for a poet. For perhaps the requirement for being a poet, if there are any other than simply a mouth and a pen, it might be that need to 'squint' at the world, not follow the straight line, to turn things aside, upside down, and not be afraid of the results. Claire Askew, squints her eyes at experience - in curiosity in concentration - and takes her slant on the page with control and clarity. Allow me to squint with my short-sighted eyes at the poetry of Lady Askew:
'Fable of The Mermaid and The Drunks' is the title of a poem by Pablo Neruda. The title of Claire Askews début pamphlet: 'The Mermaid & The Sailors' is a re-imagining of that title. I'm not sure Askew is deliberately alluding to it or whether the connection is a happy accident, I happened to note. Either way both poems bare some mining, but before that, the poem features here in its entirety, go swim with it:
The Mermaid and the Sailors
I seem to draw them to me.
They come swirling towards me
in the dusk – every tread unsteady.
They set their course
across the bar-room floor.
Some have life stories they need
to share. One recalled a fatal night
in the Navy: falling off the back
of a warship headed for Shanghai.
He said he stood for three days
on a reef, and prayed – and afterwards,
he clung to me
like a drowning man.
Often they're older, and the more
drunk they get, the taller
their tales. I've been told
of ten-year sentences
in Brazilian jails – of smuggling
and supplying – and so many times,
of the hundreds of starry rivets
soldered by scarred hands
into Her Majesty's hulls.
They're hooked by my red hair,
swarming like fish
to a bright fly. Half-scared,
they slide over with a Scotch
and a story, maybe a sharp line
they thought up outside
in the streetlit cigarette haze.
They dive right in, as if through ice,
and they come up sparkling,
wheezing, waiting to be saved.
Nerudas poems features a 'mythical' and 'mute' mermaid who after emerging from a river goes into a bar bustling with drunken men, who relentlessly abuse her. On the other hand, Askew asserts a powerful Mermaid in the poem, unsullied by the flattery and exaggerated tales she is told of manhood and mariner adventure, by a host of desperate drunken sailors. Her Mermaid is not abused, this Mermaid seduces the sailors: she 'draws them to me,' one 'clung to me like a drowning man' or they are are 'hooked by my red hair'. Askew creates a kind of self-mythologising, Mermaid seductress - she is the protagonist that other men seek to charm. She is not helpless, like Nerudas Mermaid, to whom 'insults flowed' and 'obscenities drown' these sailors are 'blackening her with 'burnt corks' and 'cigarette stubs'. Askews Mermaid draws 'drunken and lost sailors' who are 'waiting to be saved'. She is the empowered woman, toying with eager men. It is a strong poem - it can lift a weight or two in the mind - youthful and exuberant in its defiance and playfulness. It was selected to appear in the Scottish Poetry Library's Anthology The Best Scottish Poems of 2009.
The Mermaid & The Sailors contains many notable poems, (out of a collection of 21) particularly 'Books' which is the opener; a simple, pro-pook prose-poem (it pairs nicely with 'Ode to my typewriter). Almost a love poem, describing the seductive and bewitching quality of books and reading. It's an adoration to the written word. Lines like: 'I like to bend them to my will' 'crack their skin til it's crazed and veined' 'pages coming out in chunks like teeth' – see? Clean lines that come through. Wholesome as a loaf, I feel. The book is fundamentally interested in human lives and human foibles. Not least, it features poems about the authors family, touching, insightful, for example, the character of her beloved, and strong-willed Grandmother ('I'm sorry I'm still in love with my grandmother') makes for a genuinely heart and artery warming poem, ending on this melancholic note (memorialising her cremation? or is she part of the fire in the sky of stars?):
'In love with my Grandmother
is a strange place to be, with a slew of soil
between us now, and only her smoke –
from that final, brilliant fire – in the sky overhead.
'The Mermaid and & The Sailors' is quality. It contains a villanelle 'Death at New Year' and whether you think it accomplished or not, it's good to read some form, all too often the tyranny of free verse dominates the pagescape this century. I'm prejudiced but we should share the prejudice of our experience. So I will. In this collection there is a Mermaid, one or two drunks, some toasty warm and touching poems dedicated to Grandmothers and Grandfathers. Poems dedicated to the old Northern Mining Community, in particular the greatly observed 'Moloch' were 'men up at dawn, crawl...into the lit up earth like colourful bugs' . Youthful poems themed on absent lovers, ideal suitors, and charming geeks of Star Trek adoration feature loud and clear too. It's a clear and composed book. Sculpted with due care and consideration. There is an ear for the uncommon or unexpected word too - 'skiffle' or 'gnarl of milk' or 'foolscap'. It'spromising. Not only promising. It delivers a strength of purpose in each poem. Never vague or meandering. Not verbose or over the top, but poised, aimed and fired.
Despite all this gushing praise, there are faults (as there should be) so let it be said that the worst thing about The Mermaid & The Sailors that it is too bloody short. Some of my particular favourites don't even feature. One or two or three poems don't have the strength that many others do ('The Ufologists/'My Daughter Speaking'/Fell/When the heart speaks...) . But, all in all, I'm prejudiced towards Claire because she's got calibre, style, and is wordswoman strength. She reads well too, if you get the chance to catch reading live, composed yet quietly seething. She is accomplished and will go on to greater pages.
Claire is a powerhouse of activity: strong, independent. She runs One Night Stanza blog, dedicated to independent writing and spotlight for creativity and creative procrastination. Also runs as poetic gift shop and micropress called Read This. She is a lecturer in literature and communication at Edinburgh's Telford College. Most recently she ran a Allen Ginsberg Birthday celebration, producing a pamphlet of poetry 'Starry Rhymes 85 years of Allen Ginsberg'. All in all, she's one of the lost encourager’s - a highly productive and extremely efficient in delivery. Worshipper her as a diety or read her with a cup of tea. Seek her out.
'The Mermaid & The Sailors' is published by Red Squirrel Press.