Rowena Knight has been making waves both in terms of poetry on the page (including Magma, Cadaverine and The Rialto) and on the stage, being a regular at poetry nights across London, as well as a team member of She Grrrowls. Self-identifying ‘Feminist Killjoy’, the collection deals with becoming a woman and growing up as an immigrant from New Zealand as a teenager.
Women are often defined in relation to others – when reaching to men to care about women’s rights, people regularly propose the scenario: what if that was your daughter/mother/wife/girlfriend? In Knight’s poem ‘The Daughters’, deals with this through a series of fathers defined by their profession. This is done with humour, yet can be cutting from the onset:
‘The escapologist’s daughter is larger than he would like.
He has put her on a diet and locked the cupboard.’
With some, there is a glimmer of rebellion and defiance, as in the chef’s daughter, who ‘eats ketchup with everything / and never apologises.’ Each word that is written is carefully thought out, and each line delivers a punch, with regular “click moments”¹ that will hit most women who recognise this critique of gender politics: ‘when their fathers leave the room they forget who they are.’
In ‘Foreign’, we are given a footnote of words from New Zealand, where Knight explores how language defines us, detailing her move from New Zealand to England. A ‘cure’ for her mother’s homesickness births her own. Raised on Enid Blyton, she outlines the misconceptions this caused, and paints an image of an unhappy teenage girl in a ‘coffin-black’ blazer in a way that is relatable for anyone who didn’t fit in at school. She offers a way to overcome such experience, stating ‘I kept my words. Lollies, togs, gumboots, bach.’ In this way, we may rise above hard times by holding on to what makes us who we are.
What can be irritating, as a poet who also identifies as Feminist, is that you become pigeon-holed into being a poet who writes about women and women’s rights and anything to do with gender and Feminism. However, I’d argue that one of the points about being a Feminist is the desire to be seen as a person rather than to be labelled and put in a box. In this collection, of course and happily, there are poems that are overtly or subtly Feminist in theme, yet there is so much more to Rowena Knight, as there is to all poets who happen to be Feminist women. In this collection you will also find poems about religion, loss, love, fantasy tales, pop culture and being vegetarian.
One of the most heart-wrenching poems is ‘Jonathan’, dealing with the tragedy of terminal illness at a time where most memories are hazy. Yet it is times like this where we are given clarity: ‘the memory of crying on the classroom carpet / as the hometime songs were sung’. At whatever age, it speaks of the denial you feel when someone is dying. Yet, through a child’s eyes ‘there was no place for death, / no colour crayon to draw him with.’ It is these moments that shock you out of the everyday, and memories are made by replaying them over and over again in your head.
a poem filled with metaphor and wordplay, mixing meal preparation with seduction, with a hint of desperation to be loved, to be consumed,
Poems of dark and light are contrasted, and in ‘Learning to Love a Vegetarian’ we find a bittersweet taste. It shows the simplicity and thoughtfulness of buying vegetables, and beginning to prepare a meal. There is both tragedy and comedy in the way Knight laments ‘I probably can’t satisfy you / like a hearty lentil casserole, / or spice your eyes with tears / the way a good onion does’. This a poem filled with metaphor and wordplay, mixing meal preparation with seduction, with a hint of desperation to be loved, to be consumed, ‘set on your artichoke heart’.
Lastly, ‘Red’, the poem with the line that the collection’s title is taken from, is reason enough to buy the book. It reminds me of the dark humour of one of my favourite writers, Dorothy Parker, with a cool rhythm created by the mix of short and long sentences, and half-rhymes. Knight warns ‘that girls like me are focused on our destinations / and can’t pay attention to our feet.’ This is something I relate to, as I’m sure many others will, with its implied mix of determination, and clumsiness.
To find out what other gems are contained in the collection, and to uncover its treasure in full, you’ll have to buy a copy for yourself. You can buy ‘all the footprints I left were red’ from Valley Press here, and follow Rowena Knight on Twitter here.
¹moments in live literature where – in certain circles – you may click your fingers or make noises of agreement. A little bit cringey, but super-cool to hear when on stage.