To live on a narrowboat is to live in a world of either slack or taut ropes. In the downpour, as the river’s level spikes, I looked out the window at the mooring ropes straining against the pontoon, wondering when to slacken off, when to let the boat lurch like a dog on a string. No sooner had the river swollen but it shrank again, the boat wafted in the stream on enough rope to hang itself.
In Katy Evans-Bush’s The Raft of the Medusa, houseboats provide the semblance of security. ‘A hundred miles away your boat / still bobbed all night as if you slept, / cradled like the other sleepers / up and down the canal moorings; lapped at bed level, always moving / but always in the same place in the morning’. The ‘you’ is not sleeping there, is not cradled like the other sleepers, the gentle and warm vocabulary perhaps masking the emptiness at the heart of the illusion. The boat is an eloquent metaphor for the poem’s central relationship: ‘The hardest part was not overbalancing. / You were the one who said it: what…? / Across the road the library’s flag / went smack on its pole, then painfully billowed’. Look again at the detail from Géricault‘s painting. Is the central figure being held from the maelstrom, or rolled in?
The poems of Me and the Dead vividly evoke the details of the here and now. In The Bog of Despair, with memorable turn of phrase, Evans-Bush presents two women walking on the heath, ‘up a foresty path, / past a rubber hung like a thief on a tree, / full of swag’. This is audacious, iconoclastic writing, swinging from the sublimity of the Old Masters to the cheeky swag bag. In a poem like East Ten, Evans-Bush also demonstrates an ear for the spoken word, as her slice of Walthamstow street life sparkles with sovereign rings and swear words. The confrontational nature of the speaker is abrasive but, as her boyfriend hits her, the poem turns on her reflex response. ‘No way am I takin’ that crap. / So I slap ‘im back, and I guess me ring / caught his earring’. Some may scorn ladette culture but we should applaud the spunk presented here. Evans-Bush’s nod to Catullus reminds us that things never change and invites us to adopt a broader perspective.
In ‘To My Next Lover’ we are presented with the singleton’s busy, empty life: ‘I cleaned the kitchen, changed my bed, / lay in the bath with a book, eyed up a waiter, / tried new perfume on, I thought about you – ‘. Her control of the line is pitch-perfect and they’re deliciously undermined by comic asides: ‘running my hands over lace, undoing clasps / (but only to put on the old ones and wash the windows)’. Across the collection, Katy Evans-Bush presents women as confident, strong and materialistic. Yet, in The Bog of Despair, ‘the jeweller’s-window view / of London had ceased to be amusing’ and the cold hand of death takes the shine off the shop window. She wears her scholarship lightly, as her title references John Bunyan‘s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which an Everyman figure struggles to overcome his worldliness and to attain a set of higher values. Yet again: people don’t change.
To return to the narrowboat, I never had much luck keeping the river out of mine and books were the main casualties. Binning a warped, wrecked copy of Cakes and Custard, a collection of cautionary rhymes that belonged to my mother, broke my heart. Evans-Bush reminds us in The Only Reader that the book’s spine will crack and its glue will dry, ‘Its leaves falling brown and acidic on someone’s floor, / Lines scattered randomly and perhaps thrown on a fire’. Her tone is lyrical and elegiac. Yet my Thames-doused copy of Plath, buckled and funny smelling, is still readable and to do so is to reanimate it: ‘a lightning bolt like a rag on a kite-tail / So high on the hill that not even time can reach it’.
Me and the Dead, Katy Evans-Bush’s debut collection, is stunning. The rhythms of London beat on the page and she presents the city in all its sublime foolishness.