A review of Soap By Charlotte Guest

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Charlotte Guest
Recent Work Press
$12.95, ISBN: 9780648087816, Sept 2017, 58pg

In the book’s afterward, Charlotte Guest called Soap a “constellation of quiet truths”. This is a perfect summation. For quiet, you could read minimalist.  From the soft pink waxy cover, to the stripped back poems the book contains, the work whispers truth in intimations, condensed in a way that conjures Lorine Niedecker. The poems often appear as gentle observations but there is usually an unexpected twist somewhere in the work which changes the focus, the terrain, or the perspective. Soap explores a wide range of topics from growing pains, gender politics and the female body, relationships and grief, particularly with respect to life’s inevitable transitions:

The terms of our arrangement
are revised every three days. You
trace my bones, protruding
through my skin, as we
recap the clauses, their causes,
and intended effects. (“Bivouac”)

These are poems that pivot on a moment: a chance meeting, a sudden change in situation, or a close observation that takes something commonplace such as an afternoon on the back verandah watching fireworks, driving a vehicle, or reading the news and moves in so close it becomes abstract: a synecdoche for something else. In a way that’s Proustian, the imagery gives rise to a memory, or a perception which is emotive and powerful, revealing something subtle about the world:

The sound of blood transit
is oceanic – I am small again,
holding a shell to my ear. (“Blue Days”)

Most of the poems in Soap are intimate, and often begin with what feels like a confession, but suddenly the scene will suddenly disintegrate. This is often quite funny, as in “Baskets” where the groceries begin taking on a life of their own:

I ask my groceries what
they are doing, changing like
that. They roll out my door and
under cars and throw
themselves in bins.

In many of the poems, the reader is placed into the role of voyeur, listening into conversations between angry lovers (“You curse at the state of my electricals”), night club pick ups (“He smiled, and you’ve got the eyes of a preacher.”), or watching people inhabit their work roles, unhappiness clearly visible:

The grocer casts a glance into the river, sinking his thoughts into its silky bosom, and wonders at his run of bad luck. “(From Everything to Air”)

The poems use the white space of the page in deliberate ways, often through condensation, so the poem sits somewhere within the page rather than filling it. A few of the poems are concrete, such as the untitled piece in the shape of a tear drop: “whe/re is your/secret hiding/place?” or the spread out “Notes on the Disappearance of a Friend”, whose structure mimics the slow unfolding of grief as it moves almost luxuriously and lightly across six pages: “Time pushes you along like a celestial wind;”.

The words are carefully chosen and taut, playing with space and placement in visual ways:

slides her weight more fully in my direction, as if to say I sense here the
limits of my life. (“Autobiographical Fragment”)

It would be a mistake though to see these poems as being solely reflective, though they often explore the inner life and have a very solitary feel. Many of the poems explore the politics of relationships, privilege, fear, and the pervasive irrelevance of the literary canon:

As if a good poem is only symmetry, only grace and music, defining itself against the day’s apparel.  As if a seagull would not split a man’s sight of the ship from which he fell.  As if it would wait for the man to go under. As if it would care.  As if the bird cares for poetry that cannot be flown through. (“The Seagull”)

The poetry in Soap charts a familiar terrain, with settings that are often built around the confines of a house: a kitchen, a garden, a bedroom, a living room,  a window looking at at the world (“Here, silence means/the scribbe of lorikeets,/the murmur of bees,”). However, even in the most bucolic of scenes, and most of the work is urban, there is a detachment that is underscored by a sense of loss – the death of a grandmother, a missing friend, a belief that no longer holds, but perhaps more than all of those things is the sense of transience.  Nothing remains the same, especially the present moment, which already over. In each of the poems, what is being revealed is too subtle to say and can only be suggested through other images: “Silver memories—accents on a calm harbor—are too bright to look at.”  Guest handles these accents deftly, and her poetry manages to be both sparse and dense at the same time, illuminating the inner life, and making the ordinary seem as unusual and ephemeral as a dream.