Peaches and pigs, softness and hunger, all crop up and are used to explore women’s relationships to their bodies in Cecilia Knapp’s raw and remarkable collection, Peach Pig, writes our contributor Seraphina Edelmann.
Honest, vulnerable, raw and remarkably candid, Peach Pig (Little, Brown) is the debut poetry collection by Cecilia Knapp, the Young People’s Laureate for London and Forward Prize-shortlisted author. An exploration of love and loss, family and grief, sex and shame, and womanhood, this collection is a deep dive into the darkest, most vulnerable parts of oneself yet is compounded with a dry sense of humour and wit. A confluence of emotions, Peach Pig’s violence, anxiety and insecurity is anchored in dreams, hope and persistence.
Knapp’s title echoes throughout the collection, as images of peaches and pigs crop up and are used to openly explore women’s relationships to their bodies. Many of the poems expose the complexities of these relationships, showing how women grapple with sex, shame and guilt, and how these are often intertwined. The self-deprecating language – a rotten peach, a glowing pig – is blunt but propounded in a relatable, darkly humorous way. The poems explore how society dictates images of femininity, as well as how we also inherit notions about our bodies from our mothers. Peaches, therefore, allude to society’s depiction of womanhood as soft, ripe and beautiful, which Knapp contrasts with women feeling like gluttonous pigs, and their desire to shrink down.
Peach Pig speaks to the multiplicities of navigating the world in a woman’s body. It finds the words to express complicated, uncomfortable feelings about the insecurities we can feel in our bodies and the ease with which we use deprecating language to put ourselves down and compare our lot with others. In ‘Tuesday’, Knapp explores how even in the depths of grief these emotions are distorting and disorientating; they take over and become part of our everyday routine, woven into our existence and reinforced by the media. Knapp relates how her speaker ‘grabs a fistful of belly on the toilet’ while reading a supplement about ‘Jenny the exec, from Highbury’, the woman who seemingly has it all (kids, career, a routine which involves waking up at 4.30am). In the witty poem, ‘All My Ex-Boyfriends Are Having a Dinner Party’, Knapp subtly expounds the damage of diet culture: ‘I’m dieting again, sipping low-cal miso on a moving train, burning my hands.’ The poem ends with the lines; ‘I see people eating crisps in public on a Monday like they have no guilt.’ The pervasive rhetoric of what women’s bodies should look like causes physical and emotional damage that is shared through the imagery of ‘burning hands’ and feeling guilty.
The tension between the shame felt towards one’s body and the guilt around feeling that shame is shared in poems about Knapp’s late mother also, specifically the notion of female inheritance and what we grow to learn and tolerate as women about our bodies. In the poem ‘LOROS’ (which is about Knapp’s mother being in a hospice), the most striking lines are ‘when the doctor said she needed to eat more, she laughed, told him she had waited forever to be this thin’. Knapp continually examines and exposes how we struggle with the idea of constantly wanting to be smaller and how this is juxtaposed with the pressure and struggle we face to show gratitude for our bodies as healthy vessels.
Many of the poems’ titles act as the first line of the stanza, like a guttural explosion of emotion, a reflection of the ‘emotional bleeding’ referenced in the poem ‘yoga’. They begin as ruminations and unravel in a myriad of reflective, absorbing memories. The poem, ‘I was grotesque with summer, haloed’, is one example of this outpouring of thoughts and emotions which flows from the title to the first line. It’s a poem that encapsulates everything the collection stands for: hope, love, loss, vulnerability and dry wit about a summer growing up, where, despite the sadness and pain, it felt like ‘it was still a misty joy to be alive…a frivolous time! Magic!’
The collection exposes what it is like to love, lose and leave people and places, and unpacks the grief and guilt Knapp feels concerning these relationships. In the poems, ‘Bust-up Lip’, ‘My Brother Quit Drinking Maybe Five Times’, ‘on good days my brother’ and ‘I’m Shouting I LOVED YOUR DAD at My Brother’s Cat’, Knapp describes the close relationship she had with her brother with tenderness and love as she lays bare the questions, anger, confusion and uncertainty one feels when grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide. She remembers their childhood and recounts tales of growing up together. One memory of her brother dressing up in gold lamé as a child and ‘popping a peachy shoulder’ is particularly poignant in the poem, ‘Portrait of My Brother as Cindy Crawford’. Recounting his compassion and tenderness, echoes of Knapp’s refrain ‘I love you’ ricochet across the pages.
Knapp’s collection is intersected with a series of poems – ‘Daydream’ and ‘Seascape’ – that act as little poetic interludes. The sequence of daydreams is presented as meandering memories, of moments realigned. They are a contrasting compilation of zingers, of humorous intrusive thoughts, impressing others, gorging on guilt free delights, while some are wishful and hopeful of what could have been. The seascapes are reminiscent reinterpretations of growing up in a seaside town. There is a sense of escape, solitude, power, comfort and sadness that can all be found at sea. The depiction of the impact and intersection between grief and memory is thoughtfully woven between the daydreams and seascapes, simultaneously presenting our desire for control and our lack of it.
Cecilia Knapps’ Peach Pig is published by Little, Brown Book Group and is available to order online and in all good bookshops now.
This review was commissioned for our mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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Feature image contains an author photograph by Matthew Thompson.