I Left My Hair in San Francisco
by Sallie Durham
39 poems, 52 pages
Price: £9.50
ISBN: 978-1-912876679
Publisher: Indigo Dreams Publishing
To order: www.indigodreamspublishing.com

Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Prize-winning poet and short story writer Sallie Durham lives in Sussex in southern England. She graduated from Sussex University with an Honours degree in English literature and afterwards qualified as an English teacher starting out in post-compulsory / adult education. She now teaches English to speakers of other languages, hosting and teaching students from around the world.

The title of Durham’s debut collection takes its cue from that signature song of the legendary singer Tony Bennett. ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ which was written in Brooklyn, New York, in 1954, was a song that depicted two amateur writers from the West Coast who had moved to New York but were nostalgic for their hometown. The title poem, however, involves a trip to a hairdresser who spoils the narrator’s holiday by taking off too much of her hair, ‘I make you wish you not come in’, leaving her nostalgic for her shorn locks. This rather disturbing poem was highly commended in the Bridport Prize and published in the Bridport Anthology.

Poems such as ‘Other People’s Lives’ have an air of melancholy about them but they also reveal Durham’s acute powers of observation. Family poems, especially the series about the narrator’s father, show great sensitivity and are full of images that are used to powerful effect. Many of her titles consist of a single word and several of the poems themselves are short, helping the reader to focus very clearly on a particular theme without getting distracted with superfluous detail. There is some experimentation with verse forms and the way in which the poem is laid out on the page. ‘Bubbles: On Meeting Our Russian Daughter’ is a visual poem where each stanza is shaped in the form of a bubble. The last line, which departs from everything that has gone before is made all the more emphatic because of it. In ‘A New Wood Pigeon Tries Her Wings’ the lines move out tentatively from a secure place and then retreat again.

The mysterious poem titled ‘Finland’ caught my attention from the first half of the book. Full of beautiful but slightly disturbing imagery, much of its strength lies in the fact that nothing is given away. In other words, the reader is left to fill in the gaps. Imagination, as we all know, is a powerful thing.

During the first, long, summer lockdown, Durham says that she made the decision to reconnect with poetry. She wrote a series of poems inspired by her daily walks in the Sussex countryside and became obsessed with a field of sunflowers. She noticed how the birds seemed bolder and more vociferous and how, with fewer cars on the roads and an absence of aircraft noise, the world seemed suddenly purified. The series of sunflower poems, encompassing some ten poems in all, appear at the end of the collection and are, for me, the jewel in the crown.

In ‘The Psychology of Sunflowers’ Durham gives them a voice with the following opening statement: ‘Because we are born gold / you have made us goddesses’. In ‘A Fever of Sunflowers’ ‘A yellow virus arrives / in the fields of my imagining - / a shot of honey under the skin, / incurable’. The background to these poems is, of course, the pandemic and so it is no surprise that words like ‘fever’, ‘sickness’ and ‘virus’ should run through these lines. Durham does not just write about sunflowers at their height, she also writes about them in October, when they are ‘dressed in their dirty rags’ and wear ‘hollow faces’. The series ends with a meditation on old age and faith in the life cycle of Nature. Here is ‘Optimism’, quoted in full:

Even now, we’re stricken with the east
our shepherd-crook bodies gone to driftwood
our sunflower faces a hook of thistle.
Here’s another winter sunset
unfriendly on our backs.

The evening sky, gold lights and indigo
has stolen our celebrity
and the big oak trees stained ochre;
but tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
we will come back better than we are.

Whether she is writing about landscape, love and loss, her mother’s old cookbook or a teenager on holiday fretting over a French menu, Durham’s finely-wrought poems are right at the centre of things. This is an assured collection from a poet who has already found her voice.


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