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September 21, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

Sleeping On Horseback [Review]

I love it when a new poet publishes their first collection and it scatters itself all over the place. Some might say this is the mark of an immature poet, but I disagree.

Frances Samuel is an adventurous poet. Almost all her poems exist in this weird and colourful in-between space between reality and unreality. ‘Routine Magic’, a title of one poem, is an apt way to put it.

Some of the poems transport us to strange but slightly familiar places. Like recognisable dreamscapes. Some are exercises in time travel. And some poems prefer not to take us somewhere new, but stand perfectly still.

The quotes at the back of the book characterise it as a book of journeys. This is only half the story, but it’s a good place to start. The first poem ‘Sleeping on Horseback’ blends mythology with the everyday. The narrator has the kind of voice that you remember and want to keep following: vulnerable but plucky, quiet but perceptive.

The collection is divided into four sections, which helps you get your head around all the journeys being taken and all the objects being found along the way. In ‘City of Red’, we’re riding an elephant painted vermilion and blue. In ‘Vending machine’, a girl floats on a walnut boat down a riverbed of lights, plucking letters of the alphabet from the sky to make a starry haiku. In ‘The forest of things’, a bushfire burns through dangling objects left by people wanting to forget them. The writing is brightly lit and cinematic.

But the poems that pack the most punch don’t start appearing until over halfway through. These are the ones that don’t try to negotiate wide-open spaces or fantasy worlds. They’re in the same book, but offer something completely different. ‘Anorexia’ is so good I had to instagram it. Just five words long:

electric doors
don’t sense her

It hits you like a ton of bricks. Samuel can do so much with so little, just as she can write poems that sprawl. I wish this sheer force of language would come through more often. That said, there’s such variety that everyone will find a poem they like. Samuel has an uncanny grip of what scares us and what amazes us. Each step of the way, she collects up forgotten objects along the path and spins them into something slightly magical.

Some of the poems don’t move with such sure footing. The collection could have been shorter and more punchy. But the ones that don’t fit anywhere are also my favourite. This debut collection is the beginning of something big, but doesn’t try to overstep itself. The last few lines of the poem ‘A memoir’ have a lovely new rhythm that isn’t found anywhere else. I wish this one were the very last poem, because it offers up a perfect ending for the whole book:

I reached upwards and found myself
elbow deep in flowers.
Annabel, I said, Annabel
but the windows became wind
blew the petals away, stalks
hanging from the ceiling.
Five minutes have passed since then
I have no idea about my next move.


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