The Bone That Sang
by Claire Booker
27 poems, 36 pages
Price: £6.00
ISBN: 978-1912876396
Publisher: Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2020.
To order: Amazon.

Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Herbalist, poet and playwright Claire Booker lives in Brighton on the south coast of England. She has been an Arts Council of England Members’ Poem winner three times, a winner of Poems on the Move 2018 and a recipient of a Kathak International Literary award in 2019. Booker travelled to Bangladesh as a guest poet at Dhaka’s International Writers’ Festival and has been a featured poet at many poetry events across the UK. Her stage plays have been performed in Europe, Australia, America and the UK.

Variety is key in this collection of 27 poems where Booker breaks out of the domesticity of ‘little England’ to embrace subjects on an international scale: a Bengali mother-in-law taking her final spiritual journey, nightfall at Skiathos Harbour, an African woman undergoing a clinical investigation in the presence of students and the discovery by five schoolboys of the ancient caves at Nerja. Some of the poems are dark and unsettling but others are leavened with the type of humour that stretches the bounds of credibility. There is light and dark in equal measure here.

Booker’s building blocks are passion plays and paving slabs, the Empire State Building and the leaning tower of Pisa. Out of these materials, she constructs challenging poems that are fired with surprising imagery and verbal dexterity.

Throughout this collection memorable turns of phrase surprise and delight. In ‘View from the Gibralfaro, Malaga’ ‘burnt ochre crenulations…’steam like washed horses’, in ‘Student Clinic’ Mrs Nkumbo’s hat is ‘a blazing sun / that never sets’ and in ‘Baby Blue’ the name Scarlet O’Hara is ingeniously turned into a verb.

In ‘Abdul Haroun Almost Medals at Dover’ a poem about a Sudanese man who was intercepted while walking through the Channel Tunnel in an attempt to seek asylum in the UK, Booker’s judicious use of many monosyllabic words and some well-placed alliteration helps to build the fast pace of the poem and Haroun’s own sense of urgency until the words ‘No podium for Haroun’ which we are forced to inwardly voice more slowly immediately after we learn that ‘at 28 miles he hits the wall’.

Passing it On’ recasts Genesis Chapter 5 into an entirely feminine affair turning the genealogical tables on gender: the genealogy of patriarchs becomes the genealogy of matriarchs.

My mother received hers
from my grandmother, who received hers
from Mama Eyrole, who received hers
from the Count’s illegitimate daughter, who received hers
from the pretty laundress, who received hers
from the 12 year old wife of a wheelwright, who received hers
from one unbroken relay of mitochondrial DNA,
with a starting block 5,000 generations back
to a line of fleet-footed daughters…

Booker’s subject matter is, at times, unusual. Placing her trust in the patron saint of hopeless causes, ‘Deadline’ must be a first when it comes to making a poem out of a frantic search for end-of-year tax vouchers required for the completion of a tax return. In Booker’s hands, however, the poem takes an unexpected turn so that by the end the title acquires a double meaning and the poem becomes so much more than the sum of its initial subject.

Much the same could be said for Booker’s two poems on paving stones. In the first one, ‘A Paving Stone Fights for Freedom’ the poem can be read as an extended metaphor for revolution: freedom from repression with the belief that people power can act as an agent for change. The second one, ‘Stone Whisperers’ takes as its starting point a newspaper headline ‘Gang Steals Valuable Pavements’ and ends up with the warning that, before we know it, history has been stolen from under our feet.

A good example of Booker’s quirky sense of humour is to be found in ‘Double Bass’ a poem that draws upon the relationship between a musician and his instrument. Here are the opening lines:

They make a strange pair –
he, fine boned, dicky-bow, washed out smile;
she, shellac hard, in-your-face fact,
squeezing him out with her extravagant needs.
She pays the bills, after all.
Each day he must pluck and cajole for hours
(six on concert nights).

The next time I listen to František Pošta playing one of Dittersdorf’s Double Bass Concertos I will think of this.

This review was first published in The Poet (UK) and is reprinted with permission.


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