Hitherto, charity shops were simply places to bag bargains but, of late, I have discovered their knack for landing painful blows of nostalgia. On a frowsy shelf down Norwich’s Magdalen Street, I spied a Donald Duck Scrooge money box just like one my granny’s. Two of these severe looking Scrooges—one dressed in blue, the other in red—perched like gargoyles on her top shelf, guarding her awards from the Royal British Legion for her tireless efforts selling poppies. My brother and I knew that we ‘owned’ one each, although they were never taken down for us to handle. In these boxes she saved for us and, in my final year at uni, her lifetime of scrimping on my behalf got me out of a tight spot with the rent. Looking at one of those cheap little money boxes—once magical, precious symbols of a rare trip across country to visit a loved one—in their new context amidst junk shop jetsam was a twist of the knife. Claire Booker’s A Pocketful of Chalk is many things—not least a hymn to the Sussex Downs, to Brighton, and to the natural world. However, it is her grasp of details—and their changing contexts—that sunk its hooks into me.
The collection opens with the powerful, transformative ‘Looking Towards Smock Mill.’ Smock Mills lour over Brighton like sentinels and there’s a bewitching quality to Booker’s liminal landscape where ‘Evening shadows make monsters of sheep. / Even a crow has its life stretched.’ That ‘stretching’ is torturous and grotesque and the sunset heralds a topsy-turvy world in which the humble sheep—synonymous with harmless innocent stupidity—turns from hunted to hunter. In this landscape, everything is transformed—even the speaker—as ‘The sun raises me up like a beanstalk.’ These are precious, powerful moments. I remember watching the sun setting at Sennen Cove a few years back, my shadow thrown across a cliff hundreds of metres away like a titan. That ‘beanstalk’ ends the opening stanza on a magical note. It’s more positive too, as we’re thinking about green growth now, not just about making monsters. As the poem progresses, we’re shown ‘My sister the smock mill,’ looking out to sea. Light and shadow has levelled human and smock mill. The mill atop Beacon Hill, Rottingdean, is a designated seamark—its importance, its permanence, has transformed it into a navigational aid. The speaker imagines her shadowy self as ‘Stilt Woman,’ with the scale and permanence of The Long Man of Wilmington—our first nod to the collection’s title and of a self shaped by the chalk landscape of the Sussex Downs.
‘Remembering Chocolate’ packs a punch. Like ‘Looking Towards Smock Hill,’ the poem wears its power lightly and deftly evokes time and place with the economy and power of D.H. Lawrence (think ‘Piano’). Booker opens ‘I meet the glaze in my father’s eyes.’ It reads like a Freudian slip. Gazes meet in a shared moment, surely? But the poem opens in residential care, and that gaze has been glazed by dementia. ‘Are you the new nurse? he hazards, one hand adrift / behind the pillow. It seems easiest to nod – / swallow my name under a starched smile.’ It’s the integrity of that sibilant ‘starched smile’ which impresses. When a gaze cannot be met, both parties retreat to defensive positions and ‘starched’ is the perfect matronly mask, evoking the professional primness of the NHS in the ’50s and ’60s. The speaker has brought her father a chocolate rabbit: ‘Happy Easter, I say, wishing him dead.’ Booker writes with an excoriating honesty. First time around, I speculated about his past sins, and of decades of tension or conflict… but it was Easter Sunday yesterday and, in our household, my mother was wailing on the sofa as I prepared lunch for three generations of the family. She wanted her parents. After lunch she curled into the sofa, overwhelmed by the occasion and of course there’s a part of me that wishes her dead. Booker gets it. The gloves are off and she writes with more nuance than we can comfortably bear. And then… the chocolate: ‘I watch his mouth smear with joy. // That face tips me back into the plush velvet / of The Adelphi. On stage, a tiny speck of light is dying, / but I can’t bring myself to lie. I turn / to find my father evangelical in his clapping. Yes, I believe / in fairies. Don’t let Tinkerbell die!’
Buy A Pocketful of Chalk from Arachne Press
Read more of Claire Booker’s poems on The Poetry Society website
Claire Booker said:
John, thank you so much for such a thoughtful review of my collection. It’s always moving to see how the world of a poem can connect with other people’s experiences. We are all connected in some way.