Rebecca Watts’ ‘Red Gloves’ -Reviewed

Reviewed ByJames Fountain
Rebecca Watts' 'Red Gloves' -Reviewed

‘Red Gloves’ Rebecca Watts

Carcanet 

ISBN: 978 1 784109 55 4

£10.99

Rebecca Watts’ second collection of poems explores early married life and motherhood with sustained irony and sharpness.

She constantly experiments with form to the point of bedazzlement, to reflect the myriad changes taking place in the speaker, who expresses herself through interior narrative. ‘Having Bled on a Library Book’, which is right aligned, begins:

you’ll be inclined

to regret the body: its readiness

to spoil the good

clean

margin with a living stain.

As with each of these poems, there has been a careful weighing of each word. Each has significance: no phrase is spent, no vocabulary wasted. Use of three lines across the phrase ‘good/clean/margin’ hammers out the speaker’s despair in staccato, the extended metaphor that as she cuts her finger, her body is no longer pure, as the bloodied pages of the library book no longer are. Marriage and motherhood are seen as triggers of disintegration, of ensuring the ageing process kicks in:
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[…] a little of your mess

leaks out. You’ll sigh,

acknowledging that the printed word’s

no shield against the givens:

seepage, decay.
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Menstruation is obviously hinted at, and there is something Sylvia Plath-like about the directness and authority. The internal narrative stressed existence is slow decay, and procreation leads women closer to death.

The title poem affirms the central concern of this collection. The speaker is nervously forthright: ‘How awkward we are.’ The pronoun ‘we’ serves to indicate women the world over, compelled to be concerned only for their: ‘Husbands and children./How requiring, how embarrassable we are.’ The only comfort for the speaker is her knowledge that she is not alone in her plight. There is an emphatic repetition of ‘how’. The reader is compelled to feel the epic tragedy of womanhood.

The anti-romance of marriage is further catalogued, in ‘A History of Minor Conflict’,

where the speaker attempts to control her feelings after a row with her partner:

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‘Her aim is to acquire their arguments –

replay each one slowly enough that

she can visualise the words as script

which she will type, print off and file,

documenting the processes of failure

precisely […]’
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Perhaps what is most striking about this collection is its honesty. The speaker lays down her case example upon example, the absurdness and cruelty of daily routine, the psychological techniques humans are forced to use in order to process and accept reality for what it is. The speaker ‘acquires’ arguments ‘replays’ them, absentmindedly admitting she must concede ‘failure’ in order to keep her relationship going. Watts focusses on the struggle of modern life, that it is no cakewalk for any of us. 

‘Admission’ is poignant and direct, as the persona ruminates on an undefined operation: ‘What am I afraid of?/The breaching of skin.’ The use of assonance, a feature of this collection, serves to refocus the reader on common occurrences. This is Watts’ point: everyday life is loaded with violence, pain and fear. There is another Plathian link here. Where, in the famous poem, Plath’s speaker is brought tulips after an operation, Watt’s speaker is brought consolatory roses from her partner: ‘my body/no more special than/that vase in which roses,/little pink fists, bloom.’ The ‘little smiling hooks’, representing the love of the speaker’s children and husband in ‘Tulips’ are transformed to ‘little pink fists’ here – a nod to the great American poet, darkly ironic link between flowers, fists and hooks. Watts also indicates nothing much has changed. There as sense of inevitable sexual inequality, entrapment within pre-set biological boundaries.

‘The Desire Path’ also weaves a threatening natural image with reproduction. The speaker lies in bed, knowing ‘Soon the sleepy adder/will stir/under her quilt.’ The image of the serpent, both phallic and foetal, encapsulates both temptation and danger. Desire is a key source of destruction, as presented in ‘The Book of Genesis’.     

There is a wicked humour behind some of these poems, along with Watts’ abundant wit. ‘Whereas’ is an analysis of the two major categories into which the speaker feels women fall into through their approach to long-term relationships and partners. These are scientifically categorised: ‘(a) Some of us develop the ability to love and be loved without distress’, whereas, the other category of women, ‘(b) […] when grown, feel in relationships somewhat like a walnut, the stubborn/hard shell easily broken to reveal […] a contracted interior.’ This is only a small sample of the definitions, which extend across thirty-two lines, as Watts stretches for truths. And, as is usual in Red Gloves, her coda is devastatingly apt: ‘some of us are destined to fly apart without trace […]/so that it carries us, gregarious, through an objectively charmed life, culminating in a family,/whose members will present, when subjected to analysis, as either (a) or (b)’.

Though the overarching theme is by no means unique, the knowingness contained in these poems is exhilarating, their honesty disarming and mesmerising. Watts delivers her feminist thesis through a deft array of forms, generating a bewildering range of emotional tone. A tour de force.

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James Fountain

     

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