In Rosie Garland’s enchanting new collection of poetry, What Girls Do In The Dark, we’re invited to take a leap into the unknown, embrace darkness in all its forms, and encounter girls who morph and burn brightly.
Rosie Garland has a history of powerful writing, of subverting the ‘normal’, of writing truth with a slant in both poetry and prose. Rooted in the mythic and the gothic, her work is unsettling and uncanny. In her new collection, What Girls Do In The Dark, Garland takes her reader by the hand, asking them to trust her when leaping away from this world and into the unknown. Here, girls in the dark are foxes, cats, comets, and stars. They burn and they fade away. They inhabit places of being and nonbeing that push the edges of space, and – if we want them to – show what might lie beyond. Seductive, enchanting, and yet strangely grounded, these are poems that ask us to “Permit darkness. Find light.”
What Girls Do In The Dark is a multi-layered journey, not just into the outer reaches of our solar system and outer space, but into the dark confines of our own minds and bodies. With a delicate and humorous touch, the opening poem probes the depths of a black hole, subtly linking it with the blackness of low self-esteem and asking the reader to consider ‘the difference between obliteration of the cosmos and the spirit’. Girls in the dark ‘have the right to glow.’ From there, the collection spirals out into an exploration of different types of darkness. There is the darkness of a body that doesn’t work as it should, of a mind that turns in on itself: ‘You, your body, everything you want to transform into nothing’. Hospital wards and waiting rooms are given a surreal makeover in poems like ‘Personal aphelion’ and ‘Dancing the plank’, where ‘men in white coats point out / crab constellations on the x-ray’s sky’ and the narrator is ‘dry-docked: mapped with poison / from wrist to elbow: blue anchors of old bruises, / red of heart tattoo.’ Other poems take on other physical landscapes. A forehead scar becomes a ‘Crack in the window / of the skull.’ A body wracked with eczema becomes ‘Limbs littered with a dot-to- / dot that crusts knuckles, elbows, / all the fractures of the body / with scabbed lava. She is a fault zone…’ These frail bodies might not work as convention says they should, but the girls who inhabit them are still fiery, still powerful.
There are other forms of darkness too. In a poetic prose sequence entitled ‘The correct hanging of game birds’, women as birds are slowly forced into submission by society, by men, by anyone who asks them to be less. ‘Hook and hang them long enough to conquer disobedience’, until the task is accomplished, ‘All resistance drained from them.’ This is a theme throughout the collection, sometimes just a delicate touch within a poem but present nonetheless. In ‘the topiary garden’, a man takes a picture of a woman: ‘He will post it / like a card of wish you were what you aren’t’. Women and girls are constantly fighting battles of expectation, of judgment, of never being good enough, of always being too much. In these poems, their voices are celebrated.
Another celebration in these dark spaces is of queerness. It could perhaps be argued that the whole collection is a ‘queer’ one, as it shifts and questions conventions and ideals of what girls and women are (or, to link it back to the title, what girls and women really do in the dark). Some poems, though, bring it deftly to the forefront. Long exposure takes us back in time, to when Miss Jensell and Miss Nellie Meeks were ‘Kissing through the years of hiding / in long grass, behind bushes, in closets, in plain sight’, waiting patiently until ‘everything that twists fear into law unwinds’ – a reminder that women’s subjugation, in particular, so often came from men’s unease. And in the longer poem, ‘Perihelion is the closest a comet gets to the fire before managing to escape’, Halley’s comet is the catalyst for an exploration of needs, wants, desires, and coming out in a blaze of courage. The choice is a powerful one: to ‘keep shredding myself / with repetition / of what I don’t want, / don’t need; or accept / I’m erratic, / path spiced with deviation.’ It’s also a challenge. What would happen if we all chose the path of what we want, rather than what we feel we should do? What if we all chose to shine?
Death itself is also explored, as an inescapable darkness that we all have to face. Even here, though, light emerges. The act of dying is portrayed as a transformation back into stardust, where ‘cells are climbing the spine’s rope trick…to release your dashing flutter of energies / as you unravel / shoot across the universe in lovely disorganisation…’. ‘Post mortem’ brings a tenderness to the exploration of a body after death: ‘You were brought into this world with touch. It is also your farewell.’ There is a very human element to these poems: an acknowledgement that dying is frightening, and yet at the same time asking us to consider that it might not be the end.
The language of these poems is surprisingly grounded. Surreal though the subjects are, there is a sensibility and simplicity to the words that makes the collection a joy to read. In ‘Yorkshire lights’, the aurora is given the typical Northern treatment: ‘These are slow lights, sure lights; built for the long haul. Banked fires / of bronze peat to outlast winter…A flag steeped in bloody-mindedness. The opposite of surrender.’ Flashes of humour abound; in ‘The correct digging of latrines’, intestinal threadworms and short-drop toilets become a source of hilarity underneath a Sudanese night sky, laughter lit up by the kerosene lamps. Girls, it turns out, have fun in the dark too.