A book filled with moths, whiskey and full moons; reading Zelda Chappel’s debut collection The Girl in the Dog-Tooth Coat, published with Bare Fiction (2015), forces you to be in the moment with each and every piece. With each turn of the page comes a fresh clarity and precision, yet still connected like water – at times a stream, and at others, a rushing waterfall. It explores grief, and through its dark and sombre tones, there is a glimmer of hope: that this is a tale of survival.
The first poem, ‘Red Sky’ warns the reader that what is to come will contain more rain than sunshine, alluding to the ancient rhyme. If you weather the storm, you are rewarded with beautiful words that heal as well as pain. In ‘Sown’ there is a delicate use of repetition to ‘know’, yet a strength in difficult experiences forming your identity: ‘Know that it’ll / never be the same, that I am glad for that.’
There is both strength and vulnerability, such as in ‘Bathing’, where the speaker is conflicted about a rope swing, ‘too scared to navigate it, though I’ll like the rhythm of its swoop’. These poems show a struggle to let people in, where ‘a boy peels my skin with a butter knife’, yet she ‘cannot feel a thing’ (‘Skinned’). Incredible metaphors force you to pause to take in their magnitude. At other times, the beauty of the language is in the simplicity, such as in ‘Interlude: ‘When I kiss you / all I need to know is that you’re kissing me back.’
Poem titles sometimes blend into the pieces, at other times they are short, factual, knowing (e.g. ‘Dating’) yet ‘on leaving me for the American’ offers a bitter, dry humour. So we are not sure whether the feeling is genuine, forced or ironic when the speaker states ‘I was grateful you left the sky, a glass of water on the side.’ In the next poem, ‘Water’, the reader is left to work out whether the death is metaphorical or literal, where the lover has gone, and who she is addressing. It is not only the first line that is striking, but it captures the essence of the collection: ‘I have no grave to lay cut flowers on so I think of it as sea ebbing.’
In ‘Air Bubble’, Chappel articulates the pain of grief, that it goes beyond such a descriptor as ‘pain’, but rather
‘there are no numbers
no codes for the longing of skin and hair, no scale to measure
the ways we wonder or the depth and volume of our cries.’
When coping with death, some may expect a neat numerical pattern for the stages of grief, and will wonder why it takes so long to move on. They may not understand that there is no right way to grieve, and no set amount of time to recover from loss. Perhaps death is impossible to imagine without having experienced it in this direct way, whether it comes out as a whispered echo of a loved one’s words, or a wail that attempts to reach an afterlife.
In ‘Winter’, various themes return, and again the reader is washes with the ‘foam and salt’ of the sea. It explores memory and contradiction and longing. The repetition of desire increases in intensity, when the speaker expresses: ‘I needed the sting of commuter hours, / to be reminded how it feels to bury my knees in sand.’ There is something about the elements experienced in this collection that soothes.
‘Creaturely’ explores the idea of unnamed colours, where Chappel shows her talent for encapsulating moments, expressing thoughts that unite with the familiar ‘burning of umbers all throughout November.’ In the title poem, ‘Girl in the dog-tooth coat’, we are hit with the loss of a missing person never found: ‘the last of you was seen wandering the hills.’ With loss, we often feel the person all around us, expressed here when ‘breathing / this wind, the song of you is almost audible.’ Yet in ‘Sleep for the insomniac’ it is as if the dead are speaking, telling us ‘I am not a cave to be lost in. / I am the sun / on your back, gentle and warm’. And with this, there is hope, a change in tide.
There is something about the elements experienced in this collection that soothes.
Then again, with grief there is no closure, and like the repeating of ‘Echoes’, thoughts and memories come back to haunt us. This is pin-pointed by the last line: ‘When they switched the machines off I swear you nearly breathed.’ In the closing poem, ‘Numbers’, this idea is reiterated as if we, as readers, have mistaken the collection ‘for answers’.
The Girl in the Dog-Tooth Coat is a personal account, yet it touches on the very essence of the human experience. It is a collection that longs to be read again and again, like the memories of loved ones that we don’t want to fade. You can buy the collection from the Bare Fiction website, where you can also sample some of the poems inside.
Featured image via Rosie Sherwood; Elbow Room