Niamh Kelly has recently graduated from Queen’s University Belfast where she was studying English Literature. This is some of her first published work and she is seeking more experience in writing.
On Frankly, Baby: New and Selected Poems by Berni Dwan
Frankly, Baby is a collection full of voices. Its speakers range from a personified, derelict house that laments not being lived in to a young Irish woman taking and rebelling against the phenomenon of typing classes. As a performer of spoken word poetry, it follows that Dwan can command these voices. She crafts confessional, introverted poems . But also paints pans of the modern city that echo those of fellow spoken word poet Stephen James Smith. In addition to this, Dwan’s poems seem to hinge on some concept of time, whether it is a historical reference made by the poet or the nostalgia of personal history explored. There are many references to historical figures, buildings and phenomena but Dwan’s writing is also obsessed with the ageing process. Frankly, Baby investigates its effect on both individuals and the collective society through well-crafted voices.
The theme of lived time (how we understand time through our experience) is introduced at the very beginning of the collection in ‘Baby Clothes’. Extremely evocative of new beginnings, this poem perfectly captures the anticipation and uncertainty of pregnancy. For example, a couple are “transfixed” by prematurely bought baby clothes which act as a mystical item, offering them a glimpse into their future. Thus, ‘Baby Clothes’ achieves the birthing process of Dwan’s collection, bringing our attention to the way in which our experiences shape our temporality and vice versa. The arrival of a child transforms the speaker’s perception:
came with the new year; transformed our
waking time, our sleeping time, our
There is a suggestion here that new life gives a new perspective to age, its creation categorizes time (“waking”, “sleeping”, “idle”). There is the connotation that the speaker’s lived time only begins with this birth, with another individual being brought into their own lived time. All Dwan’s speakers represent lived time perfectly as they only exist in the lived time, the actual experience of reading the poem.
The final poem, ‘Socratic Death’, sees another paradigm shift in the speaker’s temporality. In this poem, the speaker renounces the trend of ‘clean’, healthy eating (which is supposed to “delay the ravages of aging”) and opts instead for the “greasy spoon”. Again, there is a confusion of what constitutes lived time:
….A girl has to start living
some time, you know.
This rebirth harks back to ‘Baby Clothes’, muddling perceptions of time as lived time disorders chronological events. This awareness of death (and consequently life) results in a speaker that is highly aware of existing under time, aware of the timing she can control and that which is unpredictable. There is no certainty that any of the speakers of the collection are the same or are interconnected. However, they, in their very situation as a collection, open an indirect and reactive dialogue with each other. Dwan creates a collage of experiences of lived time, of life events that provide a counterpoint to the linear timeline of ageing and prompt us into questions about our state of temporal being. The best thing about these moments of reflection is that they all spark from the everyday, the fleeting.
As well as these intimate, confessional poems there are also a number in which the speaker becomes the observer, a lens through which the subject matter is filtered. In ‘Old Hand’, the speaker is mythologizing an elderly man on a bus to Dublin. He is mystified by references both foreign (“like a Komodo Dragon”) and specifically Irish (his hands are compared to those of Oscar Wilde). Yet the speaker also assigns him, his age and ill-health to stereotypes and ordinariness, familiar tropes and realities: “The smokes and booze that dulled the pain for forty years / have ravaged your body.”
By constructing this man as simultaneously mysterious and ordinary, Dwan captures the elusive strangeness and separation that exists between people despite their physical proximity. This is the experience of modern society, the within-and-without that showcases itself on public transport. She does an excellent job of showing us the phenomenon of people-watching, the encounter of observing a stranger and how we may mediate on the boundaries between the self and other. The speaker seems to feed on the imaginative landscape created by this man, living vicariously through his imagined experiences. The poem addresses the hand directly: “I saw you on a bus / at the end of a faded giant’s arm” and while the speaker runs away with imaginings for the man, the hand concludes the poem again: “Your hand betrays your past”. The age of this man is important, as part of the speaker’s temporality is being aware that they exist alongside other completely random temporal beings. Dwan describes people the same way in which visitors look at artefacts in museums.
Similarly, in ‘Department Store Restaurant’, the speaker is a people-watcher that is immersed in and judgemental of modern society. This persona is much more critical and satirical of what they survey, creating a scathing overview of today’s working-class consumers. Aspects of modernity are attacked, for example the digital age and social media –
…Lone shop girls
on their break, manically
key thump iPhones – each stab an affirmation
of social acceptance.
While Catholic, unmodern Ireland is mocked in the form of “matrons [huddled], heads / bowed, united in novenas of gossip”. The poem takes on a panorama of society, all-encompassing in its blistering comment. What I find interesting is that it is hard to pinpoint the stance of the speaker. Are they cruel and dismissive of what they see? Or simply indiscriminate and unrestrained in their observations? They seem to incriminate themselves in the final stanza or even doom themselves to be counted among this lot:
…Brave old ladies take afternoon tea
unaccompanied, every move pre-planned, deliberate;
& me, watching, always watching
my past, my present, my future.
The viewer is lumped together with their subject in this blurring of time, complicating the relationship between the individual and collective and further obscuring the speaker’s thoughts on the matter. The poem ranges from the young to the old, tracking a progression which the speaker then places parallel to their own life. There is something about the form, that one long sentence and connective symbol, that tinkers with the space between self and stranger that exists in ‘Old Hand’. Perhaps the speaker identifies a future self in the subject but ultimately the reader is left with an unknown. We do not know much of the present or future of the speaker, only that he/she is “always watching” it unfold. As much as time is our immediate, visceral experience, we still do not understand it.
Another poem in the collection, ‘Hairdressing Salon Weekday Afternoon’, acts as a companion piece to ‘Department Store Restaurant’ in its scathing review. However, this takes place in an ultimately female space with a particular female act – the dying and doing of women’s hair. This speaker hones in on the infirmities and blemishes of the ageing women:
Tired sixty somethings with greying locks and traitorous roots
leave with head of their twenty-year-old selves
but with rings on necks like Jack-in-the-Boxes;
laughter lines beyond a joke,
lips depleted of youthful fulsomeness.
Why would they bother?
Much like in the restaurant, it is not clear where the speaker is – are they too partaking in the act? Or positioned like a fly-on-the-wall? Or even just in the reading of the poem? With this patronizing, belittling tone, the speaker is situated as almost above these women and this practice. And yet is obsessed, utterly captured in this focussed, detailed attack. Is the speaker setting up the beauty standards applied to both young and old as nonsensical but also inescapable in our cosmetic, artificial society? This experience of time, this ageing process, is commodified and gendered. Dwan encourages us to view the ageing process through another lens. To question why we view it as negative or unnatural, the motivations behind our common practices such as hairdressing and colouring and the biological processes and subsequent feeling these processes might be covering up. It reminds me of a stand-up performance by Aisling Bea who hilariously derails common beauty standards that women face daily. Dwan exposes that, in every stage of life, women are subjected to socially constructed ideas of beauty conflated with age. The young woman also gets her hair coloured, as a rite of passage into this commodified ageing:
Her lush shock of brunette waves hardly need the
intervention of a girl in black. But sure why not?
Isn’t it a rite of passage; initiation into late
Frankly, Baby offers on the most basic level a sweep of human life and activity, of the collective and individual, of beginnings and ends. Dwan’s poetry is a playful and potent mimic of the everyday. Her sharp lens and reflective pauses make us think about the aspects of time which result in unpredictable, random events – like who we meet momentarily on the bus or when our body clocks will fizzle out. And also awakens us to how concepts of ageing are constructed and how these demonize and obscure what we all go through and cannot put off. This collection has layers to peel back and peel back, which may be the outcome of reading Dwan’s text as opposed to hearing it. The spoken word creates an ephemeral experience while reading these poems prompt rereading and rethinking.
(Lapwing Publications, 2018)
© 2018 Niamh Kelly