Pick Your Own
by Amanda Bonnick
20 poems, 25 pages
Publisher: Black Pear Press, 2019
To order: www.blackpear.net
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Worcestershire-based actress, director, producer and poet Amanda Bonnick holds a BA degree in Philosophy and Sociology from the University of Warwick, England. As a theatre practitioner, she has produced a number of plays for the Melting Pot Theatre Company and has written street theatre. She is currently writing her first full-length play and has just completed her first children’s novel. She is the inaugural Poet-in-Residence at Worcester Cathedral. During her residency, local poets have been responding to her call for poems inspired by the cathedral. These will appear in the form of an anthology later this year. ‘Pick Your Own’ is her first poetry collection.
This short pamphlet, with its mouth-watering cover photograph, consists of 20 poems that are a personal portrayal of childhood and adolescence lived in the shadow of a father’s death. The pamphlet is dedicated to Bonnick’s father and opens and closes with poems written in his memory.
The title poem reminds me of the hand-painted signs I used to see when my father drove me through the country lanes of Worcestershire in my childhood. He was always in too much of a hurry to reach the cricket ground to stop to pick strawberries but Bonnick relives the experience when she picks fruit with her sister. Together they ‘cram’ the ‘bulging and bursting fruit’ into their mouths’ away from their mother’s gaze. Bonnick’s use of fresh and inventive imagery turns a straightforward experience into something special. Here are the opening lines:
Today I am a bride
up and down the aisles of fruit,
nodding side to side
under the veil of my tatty fringe,
best dress on despite:
‘Fruit is impossible to get out’.
Childhood is explored in a number of poems. Only a child would have the imagination to describe a building in terms of its ‘exciting side’ and its ‘boring side’ as Bonnick does in ‘First’ when she recalls her childhood home. In ‘High Seas’ Bonnick remembers sailing the seas through ‘damp washing’ strung out to dry on the line, describing the way the white sheets billow ‘hooped over circles of taut lines’ until ‘the heat of the day / steaming through ghostly cotton, / starches my game completely.’ The use of the word ‘starches’ is typical of Bonnick’s carefully chosen vocabulary. This is something that comes to the fore again in ‘Sun’ where the words ‘scan,’ ‘radar,’ ‘horizon,’ ‘calculate’ and ‘co-ordinate’ resonate in their own particular groupings. ‘Sun’ is one of those poems that manages to convey a lot in just eighteen lines. The scene is a beach in France and the young girl in the poem, feeling awkward in her bikini, feels those first pangs of envy when she sees older, more sophisticated, girls who seem to be at ease with their bodies, joining in conversation with boys whom she describes as ‘Young Gods’ at the other end of the beach. In the meantime, she burns rather than tans and describes herself as ‘Graceless with Calamine’. This carefully chosen line somehow sums up the whole poem for me. It is so succinct and fits the moment perfectly.
In some respects, this is a pamphlet full of first things. The first poem is called ‘First’ and the first word of that poem is ‘First’. Elsewhere, Bonnick writes about the first time she and her sister saw the sea, the first time she swam a width on her own, the first time she didn’t hear the end of break bell and the first time she rode pillion on a Kawasaki motorcycle.
It is her father’s death, however, which is at the heart of this collection. In ‘Fifty Years Since Sarawak’ she writes about when her father’s plane fell from the sky as she ‘marks a certain turn of years’ during the communist insurgency in one of Malaysia’s Borneo states. In ‘Creature’ she writes:
I waited every night, and prayed
for my father to come home
and save me.
Every night he did
and every morning I woke up
and he was dead again.
The strategic placement of these two stanzas in a poem that is otherwise light-hearted and borders on the humorous, is testimony to the way in which the loss of a loved one never truly leaves us and how grief has a way of suddenly intruding on us unawares.
Not every memory of childhood is rosy. In ‘Extinction’ Bonnick captures the darker side, increasing the tension as the poem progresses in a series of statements that move from the personal to the universal:
Boys were dangerous
cigarettes a possibility.
Children fell off bikes
and drowned in quarries,
disappeared onto moors
and newspapers became
Nothing was said and everything
War was a recent memory
and fear of extinction as hot as summer.
These accessible poems touch our emotions at every turn. They convey the joys of childhood and also the way the loss of a parent can leave a gaping hole that never goes away.
This review was first published in Write Out Loud (UK) and is reprinted with kind permission.