This collection should come with a warning. Its word-charms get under your skin and wriggle it loose. Its rhyme-chimes sing you awake. The poet SusanRichardson strides into her third collection by CinnamonPress, abandoning rucksack-baggage, at ease with her own voice. In the opening poem, 'Let my words be bright with animals', she announces her song;
'Let my verbs be studded with Glow Worms.
Let Painted Ladies flit from each vowel I sound.'
Richardson's eco-poetry is as subversive as it is playful. A tiger-woman hunts 'not just for prey but for pungent signs/ that her kind has stopped declining.' I caught the spirit of AngelaCarter lurking in the undergrowth of her reworked fairytales; a daughter-turned-deer in 'The White Doe' is undaunted:
'Though the man I was meant to wed
I will out-wood him.
For an un-life in the unlight
has taught me slinkness …'
At the same time, the bounce and burble of its sound-patterning, the glitter of its word-coining, reminded me of Gerald Manley Hopkins. So her starlings insist on their collective pronoun;
'… though she'll try to un-us
she'll cuss our dizzy-dazzle
us-gloss of flight
… us loves to live thus
The lower-case title skindancing signals the collection's unifying theme. It is a twenty-first century Ovid's Metamorphoses that refuses species/ gender boundaries or lexical standardisation. Throw the dictionary away with your rainproof OS map. Richardson explores the 'Humanimal's cloven nature, our intimacy with and alienation from our animal origins. In 'born wrong-bodied', a mole-human celebrates ' mud's velvet hug' while in 'Chiaro', the pure animal Brown Dog 'sniffs your body-length/ then pisses stars and glitter';
'This is my joyspace! This! This! This!'
Others are more conflicted, like a seal-woman unwillingly changed:
'I had to earn the sea's esteem
spurn the urge to scream
beneath its upturned ceiling.'
('Homophoca Vox Pop')
Richardson's metaphors typically put you right inside the metamorphosis so you experience the sensuous possibility of another skin;
'What my spine believed were prickles of unease
were the birth-hurts of feathers.'
(The Pen is Mightier')
However Richardson also dances her way in and out of the skin of words as much as stories. She is teasing at the edge of language, its whoop-whooping and its gestures towards a physical reality. This poetry swoops from the ancient to the urban, from the lyrical to the colloquial, as easily its creatured humans shape-shift;
'… and i look
down and omigod
my belly's covered
in scales and
wow Sri Lakshmi
what have you
done here? … i'm
with it though ..'
(the full moon)
As in texting, sentence lose their capitals but the polyphony of voices gets ever more fluid. They slip the boundaries of 'man-made' grammars. Word-classes revolt and re-form; neologisms slither into animal language – the 'rrrrrraaaaaw' of the lion, the 'gubfobs shrull glupper' of seal-speak and best of all, the vowelled-sibilance of a merfolk transcript complete with an extended 'translation';
Flosha plisha flof sleeshi
ull sosh hallisha soosh.
Blip floff mosh ussa lasha.'
I haven't even mentioned the wonderful illustrations by Pat Gregory which 'con-verse' with the poems. They match the closely-textured nature poetry and catch the undertow of its mythologising. Richardson is a 'Wales-based' poet and Welsh stories and place-names lace the collection with a distinctive Celtic tang. Gregory captures this in her twining spirals of animal-human forms, in prints that echo the capitals of an illuminated manuscript and a cover as knotted as the 'what-animal?' riddles of the verse. The artwork heightens the pleasure of the word-singing. Gregory also captures the rich vein of humour in the poems, as in the wry illustration to Zoomorphic' where the Insomnia Llama clasps a sleepless woman, clothed in 'zzzzzz' pyjamas, in an unshakeable embrace. But above all, these poems will leave your skin tingling and your synapses firing. You will be itching to slip into a new pelt with a richer musk;
'When I tried it on I suddenly believed
I could speak shrimp and brine.
It made me feel oceanic.
Made me as high as a spring tide.'