‘Rare Birds Voices From Holloway Prison’ by Natalie Scott
ISBN: 9781912436255 Price £12
This was a substantial book (146 pages) and two Blue Nib reviewers have reviewed it. Lynda Scott Araya focuses on the voices and poems and Daniel Ajayi’s review considers incarceration, not just as a physical confinement but also the mental and emotional states that arise from it.
‘Rare Birds Voices of Holloway Prison’ by Natalie Scott and published by Valley Press (2020) is a masterful poetry anthology in which she weaves together the diverse voices of prisoners incarcerated in the Holloway Prison, which was first opened in 1862. The anthology is Scott’s reimagining of the voices, politics, and sufferings of historical figures such as Lady Constance Lytton, Sylvia Pankhurst, the Mosleys, Jean Rhys and Oscar Wilde along with the observations of prison inspectors, cleaners, and servants.
Many of the poems focus on the prison as a place where different perspectives of crime, womanhood, sexuality, and motherhood were conflated and where, predominantly, women confronted the way in which society and gender expectations made them a spectacle. In a more extreme way than when in the general populace, the women became objects of desire; to be stared at and perhaps feared. They were entertainment and, in one of the first poems, Major Arthur Griffiths, an Inspector at the prison between 1878 and 1896, invites us to ‘roll up, roll up! Come see the petrifying parade of prisoners.’ This metaphor of the prisoners as entertainment is both historical and effective, allowing Scott to explore the dichotomies between the prisoners and their accusers as well as general society. Scott powerfully shows us that the women were aware of the voyeurism and the ways in which they both used and fought against their stereotypes and stigma. In the poem ‘Grace Marcon (a.k.a Frieda Graham),’ for example, Marcon rails against the photographer outside the prison:
‘Do you think of our esteem when you press
the shutter-release without our consent
and transform us into tawdry mugshots?
Perhaps seeing us in such baseness
turns you on? Maybe my hair undone
and all about my shoulders gets you
clicking. Or are you afraid, Mr Predator,
of what a woman in her natural state can do?’
Here, and consistently throughout the anthology, Scott reminds us of the humanity of the prisoners as well as of their suffering. Her emotive language, some of which directly addresses the reader draws us in as well as, paradoxically positing us as observers and eavesdroppers.
The voices of Holloway Prison are powerful, confronting and often accusatory. A prostitute, for instance, describes the legal system and her hand-to-mouth existence as a ‘merry-go-round,’ and like most of the other women, she speaks out against the acute injustices of her life, squarely blaming society for what she has become:
‘because when I come out
they will have their money ready
and I will have my empty belly
and another mouth to feed
So the hand pulls the lever
and the merry-go-round
In the poem ‘Mary Jane Clark,’ the narrator links her incarceration to daring to speak her mind as a woman. She was a threat to social order as she was
‘there, on the front
speaking my mind, taking the brunt
from rowdies and drunks, who see
me as some side-show rarity.’
Furthermore, she is punished by her husband ‘who still holds the deeds to my life/and I have many foot casts over my skin.’ Scott skilfully draws our attention to the unfairness of a woman’s existence during this time as she frequently had to rely on those who were exploiting her. At times, such as with ‘Borstal Girl,’ Scott structures the poem almost as though it is an instruction manual or a recipe which forces us to reflect on our own preconceptions and perhaps prejudices. This poem highlights the ways in which people are denigrated by insults and labels, often as a way of justifying their poor treatment. The prisoner says:
‘Take a girl like me – call me
a runaway, unruly, out of control,
no respect for institutions,
shallow, liar, retarded, anxious, silly
sly, selfish, irresponsible,
Call me that if it’s easier for you.’
Scott’s cataloguing of the insults reminds the readers of the ways in which those perceived to be different or threatening including those with mental illness or who challenge the status quo are still very often silenced by such denigrating labels. Reading this and, the anthology in its entirety, made me question how much has changed since the time of Holloway Prison,
In ‘Dietary Requirements for Females’ and ‘Prisoner Whilst in Cell’ Scott uses listing and repetition to show the monotony of much of the prison life, but also, on occasion, the horrific nature of it, with a careful tallying of insults and of the forced feeding of the suffragettes. The matter-of-fact style of some of these poems reinforces that the treatment of those who presented a threat to the social order was seen as both necessary and normal. As readers, we are confronted with the ease with which different ideas and dissension can be shut down and, perhaps, feel unnerved. The poem ‘Dr Francis Forward,’ for example, prosaically outlines a recipe and method for feeding the suffragettes via a tube to their stomachs and ends:
‘Please note: This procedure will not endanger life
if the inmate refrains from mental excitement
before, during and after each feed.’
Scott’s prisoners are political, and they are powerful and some of the poems remind us of the ease with which we could slip into their world. In ‘Cutpurse’ we are challenged:
‘Look into my eyes
and tell me you don’t
feel your darkest desires
swelling inside of you.
It only takes an instant.’
They are aware of their weaknesses, their strengths and achievements and are brutally honest. The warder, peeping at Oscar Wilde, ‘his pale, restless face, his mouth/shaping poetry, silvered by moonlight,’ wonders if perhaps Wilde’s sexuality is to be feared after all, while in ‘Pickpocket 10 years old 1855,’ the reader senses the same frisson of excitement as the little boy who, when he learned to write his name ‘[f]elt like I’d finally arrived.’
Altogether then, the poems in ‘Rare Birds Voices from Holloway Prison’ position the reader as both a voyeur and as someone who can easily identify with the thoughts, emotions and ambitions of the prisoners, all of whom are presented as people with a strong sense of self, many of whom are able to manipulate their incarceration to their advantage.
Lynda Scott Araya
I have always loved the way poems share thoughts from itself telling a story out of another. I have watched so many tales unravel from the reading of both. The simplicity, and the language usage which is an evidence in the fluidity of certain poems. ‘Voices of Holloway Prison’ inscribe a reminder on memories, but these are no regular tales seen in past or taken from the ordinary. These are tales subjected to pluralized objects on a theme quite infamous but known. It is an embodiment of place, an urgent knowledge of scrutiny that lingers with the fill of emotions encouraging distinctive purview. The surrounding themes are in her own depth and width. When you hear a prison you think of confinement, a wall that shapes to be someone’s world which inject a lack of freedom. You feel hell. This anthology does make one realize for those who haven’t spent time in prison the grave of the undoing found there.
It is a place that makes you the same way it breaks you, you don’t realize until it takes you off your feet and from place after place you see a distant between who you are and what you are. I count it along with a treatment as harsh as a weather condition with a tormenting spirit in human form. But the question is, is this just a place or beyond? An anthology like this is justifiable. Despite the injustice there is a hope written down, there were those whose spirit ignited. This ignition isn’t because of a comfortable embrace but because peace flows like a river just within one body another will call it a self apology. The poems in this anthology are lucent yet graven to sing the blues. Louise Garrett Anderson gives a contrasting view in an introductory quote,
‘Two women looked out from prison bars,
One saw fog and the other stars.’
There is disjunction where irony is fair with a world of choice. I am with the logic that past is decided by the way we see ourselves, we listen to know what it tells us. Louise brought to the table a thought-provoking poem, you look at it and see lines after lines with great precision delving into the past and the choice made.
Poems set in the space of the prison give a hint of restriction for dreamers. Some poems capture the dreams of women who were proud of what they did not become: one a conscientious objector and another a Nazi refugee imprisoned as an ‘enemy alien’. It is against the beliefs and norms and when dreams come to become a reality at a time forgetting that real you, an exhibit, that portrays a great influence in the poems. The singularity in each poem from a time frame that is subject to an individual’s complexity in the prison be it the executer, inspector, the guard, the woman, the child, the mother and the mentally disabled. Most of the poems create a hybrid thoughtfulness instigating a sense of emotional rage.
In ‘John Weatherhead’, a Second Governor of Holloway in 1863 describes sensing ‘a rot in a room./ A festering wound that won’t heal/ no matter the layers of the bandage’. The use of metaphor is striking. Why is there a bandage that can’t cover the wounds? The governor claims he is sensitive to his prisoners’ needs yet describes drenching them in cold water if they pretend to be ill.
‘Prisoner whilst in Cell’ (1855) is what I immediately interpret as prisoner who feels displaced. The poem is an inventory where the prisoner compares three shelves to ‘a tiered wedding cake’ and calls herself a ‘misplaced bride’.
How does a young lad tell you his/her escapade? A poem shows you more than the words you could consume instantly. ‘’Pickpocket’ gives voice to a ten-year-old who is illiterate but proud of learning how to chalk his name while serving his sentence.
I felt the theme surrounding religion to be mystic. I thought this, not for prisoners but the society. Religion brings symbols of sins and forgiveness, of reflections and restitution: but all is a guide in disguise which is disheartening with a religious base. In regards, the creative sense attached in a certain poem is an applicable insight on the use of the time as at then. Some poems explore what it means to be a mother separated from children or an expectant mother.
In later poems in the collection, execution is considered both by prisoners sentenced to death, the executioner and some of those left behind, such as Ruth Ellis’s mother. The blood, the stain is yet to leave a body of unjust judgment, how do one live in comfort with an unconformable mind.
A conversational poem ‘Two Prisoners’ talk opposing views of freedom as time served comes to an end,
‘Prisoner 1: I am leaving this place a changed woman. You?
Prisoner 2: I don’t see ‘ow I can e’er change. Why?’
Freedom gives one a sense of a new air and the other a foul smell.
‘Rare Birds’ centers issues around prison and what it becomes: grief, lost, injustice enabled and freedom at some point which offers some a new start and others more of the same. The experiences in the poems look at the nature of solitude. Is solitude just punishment for a sin? I see a place in each poem refined without moral judgement.
Here prison here is not a search tool where you get to know how it feels. In ‘Rare Birds’, Holloway is prison both as a physical, mental and emotional confinement. Nobody experiences the prison better than prisoners and these prisoners are contained and live with that burden, the gleaming of dark night flies. I further mean to say the fantasy and the reality intertwined where brokenness is a relief. A physical confinement creates a space and a disorder of the unconsciousness, a disturb to an open corridor, where memories can be a loss but a strong individual can triumph above mental implications like harm, defeat and lost of the belonging. These poems reveal the essence of all aspects of imprisonment.