Reviews for Seal Wife
One of the UK’s most exciting voices
– Barry Fentiman-Hall
…by the second poem her changelings were creeping under my skin. A quiet horror permeates the collection: ‘If only I knew where you / had misplaced your heart…’ Osiris. And just when I expected her to slip again into the supernatural she held my heart with the pained longing of Widow. The more I read of these legends and lore revisited the more I came by the impression that I could have just as easily been reading Carol Ann Duffy, because Kitty Coles too has that enviable talent of seeming to lull one with the predictable and then nudging one awake.
– The Journal
This month we have been mostly reading Seal Wife by Kitty Coles (Indigo Dreams Press). This book is full of bones and skin, owls, maggots, skulls and flesh. A slightly surreal invitation to inhabit the body of the poet. Most of the poems are addressed to someone directly…maybe a lover, a husband, a child, and you get a sense of eavesdropping on something very intimate. The language is rich, the images from myths and folk tales unsettling, and the overall effect is captivating. It certainly made a huge impression on me and I can see why it won the Indigo Dreams pamphlet competition… (Kitty’s) debut book should be considered for your Christmas list.
– Algebra of Owls
There are echoes of Freud, Kafka and Bettelheim in Kitty Coles’ remarkable debut collection, which won the Indigo Dreams Pamphlet Prize 2016. The imagery is frequently startling, the undercurrents frequently dark and unsettling. A memorable and impressive debut.
– The Frogmore Papers
…I must also pay tribute to the qualities of Kitty Coles, a younger poet whose name pops up very often in poetry magazines… Her gothic, unsettling poems using stories and characters taken from fairtytales and myths create a particular world. Her style is cool and controlled, even if the subject matter is the darkness on the edge of town. They are poems that are outside the comfort zone; that is their point…We will be hearing more from her, and about her…
– Write Out Loud
…This is a wonderful collection which is full of surprises…
– Reach Poetry
…These are indeed sure-footed poems, exploring ideas of transformation, loss and longing, and they work together as a particularly unified pamphlet…
Seal Wife, the debut pamphlet from Kitty Coles, like much that emerges from Indigo Dreams, is steeped in mythology, folklore and fairy tale. But there is nothing twee or fey here: there is a grounding juxtaposition between the Grand Guignol and the everyday, as when the vampire in ‘Life Undead’ complains that supernatural longevity forces you to ‘fudge your CV,’ and Coles writes with a highly original voice and vision.
Metamorphosis and the conflicting claims of two worlds are at the heart of this collection, as when the selkie in the title poem attempts to resist the call of her suppressed nature:
in the chill that presses
itself under the door,
an insinuating ghost.
Sometimes the focus is on the severing of the umbilical cord, from the mournful parents of ‘The Doe-Girl’, who catch only occasional ‘glimpses’ of her since she metamorphosed into a deer, to the overtly sexual ‘The Seeds Of The Pomegranate’, where Persephone tells Hades:
My mother scours the city
as we lie here. I am lost to her light.
My mouth is full of your gift.
Unhealthy, possessive, coercive relationships put in plenty of appearances, from Isis in ‘Osiris’, frustrated that she cannot possess her husband’s heart (‘That little red thing has hopped off / with a mind of its own’) to Bluebeard describing his ability to ‘differentiate from other paleness / the paleness that wants to be darkened’ and ‘the paleness that wants to be darkened’ of willingly blind victims who collude in their own abuse becomes a recurrent motif.
The eponymous heroine of ‘Snow White’ owns, ‘I have feared the body, its unmanageable reds’ and those fearsome, ‘unmanageable reds’ are ever present in this collection. Kisses ‘scald and mark’, The Butcher’s Wife tells of how her husband’s hands on her body ‘smell like blood, a rusty vehemence / infecting the heat of the bedroom,’ and, yet, ultimately, the terrifying riskiness of carnality is shown as being what makes us truly alive: in ‘Peter, The Wild Boy’, the men who have ‘never heard their own blood / ticking, ticking’ are ‘ignorant / men like children’.
Coles is a doyenne of the oxymoron and uses them to great effect to present desire and disgust, eroticism and danger, love and abuse, as inextricably entwined: a pomegranate (and, by extension, a woman’s vagina) is a ‘grisly mass of jewels’; Persephone thinks of the ‘cysts beading’ her body; the self-deluded third wife of Bluebeard boasts of ‘bruises the colour of doves, / the size of petals’.
On first reading, it was Coles’s quirky, Gothic imagination that had me, but on subsequent reads the subtlety of her crafting and the high standard of her technical control increasingly impressed. Never formulaic or metronomic, these poems are nonetheless written with expert understanding of traditional formal structures and the decision to deviate from them is always a clearly thought through artistic choice, not the lazy ineptness of someone who unthinkingly reaches for free verse as a default. The regularity of the pentameter quatrains which she chooses for ‘Morrigan’ creates an appropriately claustrophobic sense of intensity, in combination with heavy use of consonance and syntactic parallelism, while the erratic line lengths and jerky rhythm of ‘The Doe-Girl’ convey the subject’s nervy skittishness. The rhythmic structure of ‘Black Annis’ is eccentric and complex, but each stanza follows the same non-conventional pattern, as befits a dramatic monologue from the viewpoint of a mythical bogeywoman whose monstrous lifestyle has its own internal rationale.
Sound patternings create distinctive texturing, as in the guttural, Norse-heavy diction of ‘Homunculus’:
Your words are scraped from gutters, dregs of bottles.
You strut like a cock on a muckheap, crow and cackle.
You’re red of wattle, feet scabby as a pigeon’s.
This tension between the maverick, crackpot originality of Coles’s subject matter and the rigorous discipline of her crafting is what gives this chapbook its driving nervous energy.
– The High Window
Kitty Coles is a Surrey based poet and joint winner of the 2016 Indigo Dreams Poetry Pamphlet Competition. Coles’ success brought her debut pamphlet Seal Wife into being, a pamphlet with much to admire. From the start, I was enthralled by the haunting presence of the occult. The opening poem ‘Forest’ features ‘vampires, witches, wolves and ghouls’, beginning:
Either you donʹt go into the dark forest
or you go
and go unarmed.
The poem has something of the darkness and adventure of early Ted Hughes…On a simpler level ‘Forest’ is a good opening poem, it guides the reader gently into the underlying darkness of the pamphlet.
One notable feature of Coles’ poetry is her sense of rhythm. ‘Ceridwen’ is sprung with springs:
Skin pricking sore with sprouting of sleek fur,
the flesh recedes; the ribs uncase themselves.
I unleash, arrow‐like, a hound in pursuit of a hare.
In the first line the combination of hard sk, p and sp sounds parachute down on the soft f of fur, the softness intensified by fur being soft both sonically and physically (i.e. fur is soft to the touch). The f sound is picked up again by flesh in the second line before Coles moves the dance to different beats. To say Coles has a good sense of rhythm is an an understatement, Seal Wife is throbbing with examples of elaborate rhythms which demonstrate the tip tap of her metrical feet.
Another notable feature of Coles’ poetry is present in the opening of ‘Peter, The Wild Boy’:
I have no words but words are not everything.
There are stones. There is water.
These must mean something.
Even in a house
there are stones and water.
The ordering and positioning of words on the page creates pace, and Coles’ use of stones and water is skilful. ‘There are stones. There is water’ gives an image of stones dropping into water. Coles then repeats stones and water three lines below their first occurrence, so that the page resembles stones sinking into water. Coles, once again, has found a way to marry the physical properties of objects to the form of her poem. At times Coles’ technical skill recalls wonderfully accomplished poets like Emily Dickinson, W.B. Yeats and Ted Hughes’ early work.
Perhaps all of the features I’ve mentioned so far (the haunting occult theme, the rhythm, the pacing) collide most successfully in the opening stanza of ‘Morrigan’:
The white death ray of the moon has nothing on you,
your blood‐black, berry‐black eyes, your lunar curves.
You are serpentine in velvet, in silk, in wool.
Your sleek lips sip at their wrists and throats like sickness.
Seal Wife is a remarkable debut pamphlet. Coles’ poetry is clear, confident and her style fully formed. I can completely understand why her pamphlet did so well in the Indigo Dreams competition. I hope Kitty Coles makes it out of the aforementioned dark forest with her fingers full of poems and her eyes set on the infinite.
– Sabotage Reviews
‘Kitty Coles submerges herself in the world of myth, fairy tale and legend to meld together personal, natural and supernatural worlds. Teeming with dramatic imagery, these poems reflect a remarkable, and at times, macabre imagination. An exciting first collection that will, like the persona in ‘The Doe-Girl’, ‘leave tracks, like tidy hearts, behind.’
– Maggie Sawkins
‘This is a confident poetry, dextrous in its unforced appropriation of allegorical and mythic tropes for the purposes of finding contemporary resonance in material which, simultaneously, works hard to feel ancient and beyond the everyday. Not unlike Ian Duhig’s ‘The Lammas Hireling’, ‘Seal Wife’ achieves a powerful lift-off into the strange, the occult and the preternatural. Never less than convincing, this is an impressive debut highly worthy of our attention.’
– Martin Malone