The cover of Better Watch Your Mouth displays a set of lips and teeth pulling the kind of expression you would make after being told such a thing. It suggests an unapologetic rejection of censorship, which is later reflected in the poem ‘Ugh, Men’ with the statement ‘we will not censor ourselves (x3)’.
This is a collection that mixes everyday language with profound metaphor, and beautiful imagery with emotive stories. It begins with the telling of others’ stories and gradually becomes more personal, yet in a way that is also relatable, as time skips back and forth like the mind floating back to memories, some singed with pain and others with nostalgia.
What I love about Jenn Hart’s poetry is that she is not afraid to speak out, and she empowers other women by her ability to do so. It is important that we see and hear and read women like Hart, and to see them accepted into the wider world, refusing to not be accepted. For those who are familiar with Hart’s poetry from stages across the UK, with poems like Let Loose, Lucy, this collection offers something with the same spirit, but with more lines you want to read over, people who you want to work out, metaphors you want to unpack.
Although I wasn’t familiar with ‘Adelaide Adams’, I was captivated by its use of simile and sensory imagery, and the evocation of the past with references to ‘my sweetheart’, the Charleston, when ‘roaring meant whiskey-sick souls, not / the dinnertime war cries’. It has killer lines like ‘my children are hypothetical’ and ‘I smoke in my mother’s chair / and count the cup rings on her table’, which give the poem a timeless feel, with the sad reality that some of the problems women face go unchanged.
In ‘Catawba’, Hart appears to use the symbol of a tree attitudes towards immigrants in Britain, through a series of beautiful descriptions such as ‘moon paprika-red’ and ‘magnolia popcorn’ until its bitter end:
cut so clean
from the stump it left
when the hard-hat said
my bean tree was no native
and slices through its neck.
This poem, followed by For Uncle, give the collection an emotional intensity that connects the past to the present, and weaves personal stories with deal with love and loss, with others that are thematically linked, but with a political edge. Often they are building to the last line, the realisation ‘that this was the last goodbye.’ In a similar vein to ‘Adelaide Adams’, the poem titled ‘Lydia Bennet’s Cottage’ takes an existing character and tells their story through poetry. Again, it is a tale of goodbyes, and uses extended metaphors of flowers, empowering the character through her tragedy:
will not sink her roots into the mattress
like before, on her belly – seedless.
The prose poem ‘04/07/2008’ is deliberately reminiscent of a diary entry, offering circularity in its hitchhiker simile, recounting the details of a meeting with an absent father. At times it is matter-of-fact, and yet the words perfectly chosen to pinpoint the eagerness, the resentment, the hopelessness. It is a poem of double entendre, such as ‘keeping a promise to your youngest sons’, which inevitably provokes thoughts about those that have been broken.
This loss of hope spills into ‘Life at the Manor’, where this is a clear breakdown in communication, where you can almost hear the silence around the ‘sounds on the landing / trying to guess whose feet the thuds belong to.’ Looking closer, the house itself could even be a metaphor, where the room ‘cold and lightless’ could indicate a mental health condition. Hart writes ‘when I moved in and I tried everything / to make it brighter.’ This illustrates how painful it can be when someone is suffering and you are unable to help, to the point where she states ‘it made me sick’, which, though a colloquial expression, could also refer to the fact that there is a higher risk of developing a mental health problem when in a relationship with someone with an existing illness.
It is with ‘Ugh, Men’ that Hart’s punk roots come through, with a tale of friendship and festivals, and an obsession with ‘filling other people’s shoes.’ It presents the idea of change and growth through the refusal to wear shoes, seamlessly addressing issues within Feminism and appearances, with the references to ticking ‘gender boxes’ and a future VICE article that Hart predicts will focus on Feminism, forgetting ‘the parts / that make us people’ as so often is the case when writing about women as Feminists, which is essentially another shoe horned onto us.
‘Wednesday’ gives more of a glimpse on the Feminist as a person rather than an archetype, referencing bands and the ‘quiet joy’ of listening to music when travelling through city streets, where the physical movement of the bus mirrors that of the song playing, with allusions ‘when it falls’ and ‘at its peak’. The following poems seem to evoke the past, but this time a personal one. The relationship described in ‘Poached’ suggests adolescence, filled with the hedonism of ketamine, ‘tricks picked up / in my magazine’ and ultimately, being degraded to a position ‘beneath your feet now.’ Although older, ‘83A Gordon Avenue, Circa 2009’ is reminiscent of university digs where ‘we insist our authenticity with a front door key / and our names stuck above the doorbell.’ This poem is also a great example of Hart’s use of internal rhyme and assonance, which is employed naturally and effectively.
t times it is matter-of-fact, and yet the words perfectly chosen to pinpoint the eagerness, the resentment, the hopelessness.
Again, reminiscing in ‘Mansfield and Woolf: A Letter Never Sent’, Hart repeats questions, echoing a hopeful ‘Remember…?’ There is a sense of melancholy and loss, of questions unanswered, for friendship, but also for a time where you could spend your days reading and writing, and drinking ‘with hearts as empty as wine bottles’. At the end, it acknowledges this privileged time ‘with education and rooms / we didn’t have to fight for.’ In ‘Coral Roads’, Hart expands on this desire to write, to be a ‘warrior’, and the need for a hand ‘to hold to cross the road’, to get through the days where you tell yourself ‘Go back to bed, let TV tell your stories.’
This debut chapbook will have Jenn Hart become one of your favourite writers, and at little over 30 pages, it’s just not enough. For now, we can bend back the pages of this book, see her on stages instead, and eagerly await her full-length collection.
You can buy the book from Burning Eye Books for £6.99.
Featured image via Jenn Hart on Twitter
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