Review: ‘The House Where Courage lives’ Maggie Sawkins
As we review only collections by poets we admire and whose work we think should be promoted, writing a review, though difficult, is generally easier and always a pleasure to do. But sometimes a collection is so striking that the difficulty is in ensuring that what you say about a poet’s work does it true justice. ‘The House Where Courage Lives’ is such a work. The fifth collection from Maggie Sawkins is (in my opinion) her best, it is certainly a stunning body of work. That the cover endorsements include John Agard says it all. It is a collection of deeply compassionate poems in which the reader is able to experience empathy with the people and situations each poem presents.
The brevity and light hand with which she writes enables Maggie’s poem to detail a situation concisely whilst hitting the core of her topic with ease and sympathy. The result can be breath-taking and many of the poems are tender and personal. As the title implies, exposing your personal trials and griefs is courageous. There are poems about her past, her mother and family where you can feel the pain and longing.
“I guess they loved me, their insular daughter.
My orphaned parents, you’ll never know
how I spent my childhood grieving.”
Maggie has a delicate way of exposing grief and sadness through a carefully chosen metaphor or story. ‘Zebra Finches (for Michael)’ tells of a child taken from a mother through the medium of caged birds and how birds might have featured in the lost child’s growing years. Several of the poems have been influenced by the work she has done with refugees and asylum seekers, prisoners, mental health and well-being. But do not think that these are just worthy causes. Maggie can take the tribulation of others and give it a voice, a cleverly understated voice that avoids proselytising and takes you to gently to the pain and suffering. ‘Striders’, another poem with a dedication, uses the image of someone kneeling on a bankside to drink, you are not told her situation, what the stories are that run through her head or those she has lost or how but it finishes
“There’s a terrible thirst to be found
Like others in the collection, that poem uses references to animals and nature to address issues and situations that would otherwise appear bombastic or heavy-handed. It is that light touch that elevates Maggie’s poems to a level of sympathy, understanding and poetic strength that is matchless. In ‘Albatross’ she re-works a line from Emily Dickinson with a deftness that is startling. ‘A Cage Went in Search of a Bird’ tells a story from the life of Kafka. ‘The Unfortunates’ relates a piece of Portsmouth history, the life of a girl forced into prostitution in the late C19th, “betrothed to sorrow”, the sadder for the way Maggie relates her story without an implication of judgement but from the girl’s naive perspective. Connecting disconnected narratives, images and sadness’s is subtle but powerful. ‘Sheep’ interweaves a story of a woman who finds a sheep she reared in a butcher’s doorway, with the dangers of homelessness and a suicide, related with delicate care, the impact is almost physical.
There are some lovely poems inspired by lockdown, which concentrate on what was to be gained from that drab period we all lived through. There is gentle humour – a story of a Dimplex Buddha, her first job at a local undertaker, and ‘The Basics’ which reimagines a guide to keeping rabbits to humans
“Humans should never be picked up by the scruff of the neck”
These poems are not drear, not heavy going, many are based in human suffering yes, but they are hymns to courage, to endurance and to the sympathy they gently invite you to feel.
Maggie Sawkins was chosen by the Poetry society for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize Tour and won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work. She founded the poetry and music club, Tongues&Grooves and has provided creative writing workshops for MIND, local schools, Erlestoke prison, the D-Day Museum, local theatres, refugees and asylum seekers, Cranstoun Community Drug Action and in Romania.
‘The House Where Courage Lives’ is published by Waterloo Press and supported by Arts Council England. It will be officially launched on October 11th at Groundlings Theatre.