I first knew of Caroline Hagood as a journalist and blogger, who came up with some rather interesting angles on metrosexuality. I enjoyed her non-fiction prose, and especially her blog, aptly entitled (but sadly no longer with us) ‘Culture Sandwich’. I featured her work on my blog and admired from afar her seemingly effortless mixing of styles, genres and forms (she is also an enthusiastic photographer).
But whatever she was creating, a poetic stream always ran through her work. Individual examples of her poetry have been published in various places, but I am delighted that she has now brought out a whole collection of poems. Lunatic Speaks is a very confident, and vibrant debut, from what is obviously a talented poet.
The book begins with a kind of poem ‘foreword’ . ‘Rewriting Red’ is an incantation, a poet’s manifesto, that lays down Hagood’s ‘Lunatic’ gauntlet.
‘Red is that place beneath my skin that knows
What I really am, the anger I stuffed in a shoebox
Under my bed’
As all poets – and some wannabe poets like me – know, it is madness to reveal the inner workings of your mind and heart to strangers. But we do it anyway. ’Rewriting Red’ also reminds us of the crazy way poets treat language, as it runs through a list of things and words that have nothing in common but their colour, and the images they conjur up in our minds. The stop sign, bar room fights, ‘the rouged faces of alpha mandrills’, Chinese wedding dresses, raw hamburger meat, overcooked lobsters.
So as we read through the four sections of the book, we can’t say we weren’t advised of their contents. And yet, I still found myself surprised by some of the poems. As I read them in a rather unpoetic PDF format on my laptop on the train home from work, I am sure the other passengers noticed a lunatic chuckling and smiling and gasping alone to herself in their carriage.
There are some broad themes which reappear throughout Hagood’s work. And her poetry is no exception. One reason I am drawn to her writing must be her interest in gender, and the impossibility of us ever living up to its laws. Her poem ‘Becoming A Woman’ echoes some of my experiences and feelings about growing up into one ‘gender role’ whilst always furtively looking over my shoulder to another. Hagood didn’t become a woman she says, when she got her first period, or kissed a boy for the first time, those expected rites of passage into femininity, no
It was when you saw yourself
In a steam-cleared mirror and knew
You had a bit of danger in you.
And the young Hagood didn’t just look to her mother for tips on being the woman she now is, of course she also watched her father, shaving and doing ‘man’ things:
It wasn’t only boys
Who wanted a little shaver all their own
To understand their fathers through the removal
Of stubborn pieces of themselves they didn’t yet have.
This poem reminds me of ‘The Boy’ by Marilyn Hacker, another beautiful gender bending treatise on childhood.
Other poems dealing with gender in an unusual and arresting way include ‘What Lolita Wishes She Could Say’, ‘On Duty and Motherhood’, ‘Gender Studies’ and ‘All About My Mother’.
As ‘Rewriting Red’ hints at from the start, one aspect of Hagood’s ‘lunacy’ is her attraction to the surreal and the ridiculous. Whether she is channelling ‘Andy Warhol With A Ukelele’ or writing her ‘Inner David Lynch Movie’ the poet is always playing with language, mining her subconscious and, whether it is deliberate or not, making the reader laugh. And yet even at her silliest she manages to make some quite profound philosophical points. Take ‘A Poem About Poop’ for example, where Hagood asks
Why do we always talk weather?
I want to talk bowel movements,
Walk straight up to the next well-bred woman I see,
Ask her if she’s been regular lately,
Whether she works very hard for the lone pellet
This is what really unites us.
Could that be the human condition summed up? However I found some of the ‘straight’, serious poems about love, lust and relationships the most moving, and devoid of the cynicism that creeps into many poems on this thorny topic. But I will leave you to discover ‘Word Pornography’ and ‘The Truth About Marriage’ for yourselves.
An aspect of good poetry that I am always drawn to is ‘dissonance’. A sense of unease as you realise that things aren’t always what they seem, and that contradictions are what makes life interesting. A key element of ‘dissonance’ in Hagood’s poetry, I think, is her honest portrayal of a woman who on one hand seems pretty ‘together’ and stable, but who has another, more chaotic, disturbing side to her. She is married, but she thinks about poop, she does jury service like a good citizen, but is kept awake at night by the demons in her mind. She writes quite controlled, structured verse, but splices it with crazy metaphors and dadaist jokes. I probably identify with this dissonance myself.
In looking at the process of writing, though, Hagood reveals something that separates her from me, and possibly a ‘dissonance’ in most writers. For she sees herself as a writer ‘Failing At Fiction’ : ‘my mind’s motor/runs only in miniature’. Whereas I am very much failing at poetry these days, but have managed to write and finish some works of fiction. This feeling of ‘failure’ and inability to express ourselves fully is probably what spurs many of us ‘lunatic’ writers on.
But ‘failure’ is not something that Hagood needs to worry about as a poet at least. Lunatic Speaks is a (warning?) sign of much more spectacular lunacy to come. Going back to ‘Rewriting Red’, that poem encapsulates the strongest message I took away from Hagood’s book:
Do not turn away
When the shucked mess gapes at you
Ask for its skin back. Speak.