Where does the past belong? Where does the poet belong?: I had some very slight concerns by Susannah Dickey

Susannah Dickey, I had some very slight concerns (The Lifeboat Press £6.50)

“I concentrate on finding someone to take home so my bed looks less empty, less like the blank back pages of a photo album: the ones that come when you run out of things worth remembering.” –

from ‘It’s easy to think someone’s beautiful once they are dead’

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The excerpt above is extracted from the first of the seven poem pamphlet by Susannah Dickey, I had some very slight concerns, a lengthy prose poem in two main stanzas. An interesting opener, the poem depicts a “beautiful girl” drifting bars to bar “carrying albums filled with pictures of her dead grandparents…pictures black and jaundiced sepia”.

This nameless female finds the men buying her drinks immaterial, she is only focused on finding people to engage with the past, i.e., the photo albums she lugs about. The following stanza, in a brutally swift line, brushes over the beautiful girl’s death in eighteen words. These poems pulse with tensions of the past and present, the focus of the beautiful girl on her past, and then without a moment to spare, she becomes a part of the past herself. This flares against Dickey’s aching, immanent line I use as epigraph.
The delay of Dickey’s I emerging in the second stanza/paragraph demarcate lines in time as well as the poem “always an anonymous third hand present at her waist, the body of the man cut out like the landscape in a picture of you and a lover you’ve since grown to resent.”

Past unto present, primitiveness unto revolution: this echoing concern of time registers in ‘Milk’, a later poem in the pamphlet. Another prose poem where Dickey “trawls for little scraps”, the minutiae left behind by someone or something. In Xenomelia the speaker is quite literally, if you’ll allow me, bucking the past, ala a “man who is recently deceased”. The dead man’s house: “in the dark on sofas coated in brown velour”, in sepia in everything but the word itself. There is, ostensibly, no bridge between the past and the present in these poems — questions arise, inevitably, (frustratingly, I think) for any poet emerging from this part of the world, is Dickey querying the role of the (Troubled) past in the present? Or more likely a difficulty in empathising? Yet I’m drawn to think in the quite literal, eh, let’s say, marrying of the poetic voice and the deceased man in Xenomelia, maybe Dickey understands the importance of always having, at least a thought, if not an eye, cast to the past of where she comes from, be that historical, poetic or social pasts.

[Coincidentally I read Doty’s ‘Description’ a few days ago, some lines spring to mind:

“But I’m not so sure it’s true,
what I was taught, that through
the particular’s the way

to the universal:

a heady purity distilled

from detail.” (from ‘Description’ by Mark Doty, Atlantis, 1995, HarperCollins)]

“Even a review, written two years later, written by a stranger, seems dented by you,…”

*gulp* My unsolicited review aside, Dickey’s nervy poetic line obsesses over the particular, a needle-point specificity, in the hope, as most poets have, that this sand grain observation will poke up a gleam of something. I wonder, in this brief pamphlet, where a gothy fantasy and reality bump shoulders (poems like ‘Is it selfish to share your problems with people you don’t know?’; ‘Xenomelia’; ‘The purchase of a timeshare is often an emotional and impulsive decision’), can the glimmers of truth Dickey is piecing apart in these poems be applied and understood in a reality without shareable hearts, without moths that cover every known surface? This said, a lot of this poet’s charm, (recall I am basing all these thoughts off seven poems!) is a bit of a humorous refusal to take the dark, takes-itself-too-seriously world as the truth, as the concrete foundation for these poems. I think this is why I found this such an enjoyable, different pamphlet to read.

Much more than these questions of past and present abound and sound throughout this pamphlet. One of the concerns that most pricked my eyes and ears was tangible anxiety (relatable!). Some forms of this:

The place of the ‘young poet’ in poetry: a daunting thing, the contemporary poetry scene. (I feel anxious sometimes even presenting my thoughts on poems such as these…)
I think the poetry world can sometimes seem very insular, a hard nut to crack, a harder nut to find yourself within. In ‘The purchase of a timeshare is often an emotional and impulsive decision’ Dickey, in very long lines, rehearses concerns of her “young person distractions” against the backdrop of an older woman who is “older and sadder”. Dickey’s poetic ‘I’ is incredibly self-conscious in this poem:

“People ask me ‘Isn’t it terribly difficult?’ and I say it’s hard,/
but that it would be wrong of me to ask for more. I take immense comfort/
in my visible selflessness; I wear their perceptions like a blanket…”

Self-consciousness of the literal body: greasy food images are used to describe the speaker’s body throughout this pamphlet – “I feel aware of my skin/ as being like flabby batter on my skeleton./ It feels loose,/ a dusty garment hanging in the costume department/ of an abandoned theatre.” Self-consciousness is obviously a well-worn theme in any poetry, I mean, we’re all a bunch of hyper-sensitive folkies who focus on the specifics, so obviously…but Dickey’s focalisation of this, both in a formally playful, inquisitive manner, and in a linguistically playful one, makes it so striking, for me to read, anyway.

A pertinent note to end on, is Dickey’s conclusion to ‘Milk’:

“The sole-purpose milk I’ve grown up with will seem laughably primitive, which I suppose is similar to how I feel about how I felt before I met you.”

This pamphlet blistered with a, at once youthful playfulness, energy and curiosity, and at another; sprawling, singing, doubtful phrases. The most striking thing, for me, about reading and rereading these poems is the poet’s eye for what can be beautiful (and potentially so horrible in the same brush stroke)…and I think my perception of contemporary poetry emerging from the North was a bit laughably primitive, before I read this…

About the Author:

Susannah Dickey studied for a BA in English with Creative Writing at Queen’s University, Belfast. She was the winner of the inaugural Verve Poetry Festival competition. Her poetry has appeared in Ambit, Poetry Ireland Review, and The Tangerine. @SusannahDickey

This pamphlet is produced, published and retailed by The Lifeboat Press, an independent publishing press based in Belfast. Purchase the pamphlet here:

M x


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