Katrina Naomi, Hooligans, (Rack Press, 2015), £5, 12pp., ISBN 979-0-9927654-7-7
Reviewed by Gram Joel Davies
[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]
Apparently, we are all politically apathetic these days. To which, the chagrined response is: clutch an opinion.
Always, we hear how it is hard to write political poetry. Hooligans barely fits – it is war poetry. Injurious to our apathetic pride, bloody, appalling, right there.
Katrina Naomi, in her signature plain-speak, unlaces mouths who should never have been stopped. This isn’t history, it is happening.
In modern parlance, to be called martyr is almost pejorative, narcissistic. Even the word suffrage seems to have lost its feist and become purely associative. Poor suffragettes, we begin to think… stop. This is going to hurt. These poems will make you cheer.
Writing in ‘The Agonies’, Naomi protracts a metaphor so graphic it leaves me gasping. Many of us know oppression, its wearying weight. But the desperation in her first-person nightmare of body-binding is, although surreal in its extent, so embodied as to have me squirm in empathic rage. This is injustice, the figure crushed until the mind deforms.
Speechless; arms straightjacketed,
wrists swelling in their freedom,
fingers pulling air.
It gets worse, Katrina Naomi’s knack for crisp detail making analogy fearsome. Yet she is not short on humour either, and it is in this spirit that the women of 100 years previous defy our cynicism today. ‘Battle Dress’ opens with the epigraph, “Introducing the ‘dorothy bag’” – with its hidden fistful of stones. “We were never ones to be worshipped / for our curves alone” Naomi writes, as the women wryly secrete their armoured corsets in anticipation of “an officer’s gropes and blows.”
Set against this preparedness to do whatever necessary – twice punch a policeman, hide a pin in your hat – is a raucous inventiveness and joie-de-vivre which Katrina Naomi writes into her heroes until it is possible to forget, momentarily, that theirs are lives bodiced by casual abuse.
Think of how Elspeth McClelland and Daisy Soloman, with threepenny stamps on each hand, are delivered to Mr Asquith with
Words indelibly printed in their mouths,
the way each spoke when angry.
“What a shock for the postie,” indeed. But Naomi often allows the stain of violence to mark her poems, inking a powerful contrast between its usages. The buoyant righteousness of the suffragettes shames the self-righteous patriarchate. Quoting Emmeline Pankhurst, “The smashing of windows is time-honoured… political,” Naomi makes clear that the pebbles bowled into Downing street by Mary Leigh and Edith New are
suffrage’s well-rounded arguments.
If the poetry were the least bit didactic, it would likely fail. In its grossest stereotype, the cause for universal suffrage was smeared as histrionic or nagging. What you do not receive from Naomi is diatribe. The well-rounded arguments remain implicit, the poems, for all their simplicity, personal, and conflicted. Katrina Naomi steps inside her narrative occasionally, drawing the line through her own past back in time to Eliza, her Great Grandmother, who was capable of “snipping / a policeman’s braces” but who also “patched [Great-Grandfather’s] shirts, / kissed him off across the Channel.”
It is possible that the view from our current climate, one of political disillusionment, makes the conviction of the Suffragettes appear naive. “What difference does it make?” we might say. And if recounted only as a dusty fable, it is hard to relate. Hooligans, however, makes no sweeping assertions. The closest thing to an author’s judgement I could find in the sequence lies in ‘The Assault’, a title which makes no bones of what was done to women in the name of good. A hunger strike is that kind of horror, such as is found in the poetry of war, which loses its power as a noun and must be reawakened by the poet directly. Annie Kenney, who prepares for her ordeal with “two whole pots of tea” expects the hallucinatory iced buns but not what comes next. That procedure of force-feeding is so intensely depicted by Naomi it becomes impossible not be infused with outrage. We need this passion now, just as it was always needed, and Naomi gives us more than a recollection from some fusty archive.
It is a passion sustained into Hooligans’s final poem, where Katrina Naomi invokes “the thump of her heart… the horses’ hooves… all that horn and iron…” as ‘The King’s Horse’ rounds Tottenham Corner and, in that moment, it is us who leap to the ultimate sacrifice. Naomi does not shy from violence, but its depiction never reeks of voyeurism, only harsh empathy.
Hooligans is a timely book, hopefully a timeless one. A small collection which distills everyday heroism to a courageous liquor. While today, celebrity speakers chauvinistically urge us to spurn our voting rights, voices raised from the past still mock, argue, insist – and refuse to be quieted. Thanks to Naomi’s work, names which have become museum pieces are made personal again, their dismissal as unconscionable now as ever before.