In Bryony Littlefair’s poetic exploration of the everyday, the dreaded dinner party or 9-5 grind are brilliantly subverted to an absurd extreme exposing the anxieties and struggles experienced by all in a capitalistic, corporately ruled society.
Escape Room (Seren Books) is Bryony Littlefair’s debut poetry collection, following her success with her pamphlet Giraffe(Seren Books) which won the Mslexia Pamphlet Prize in 2017. Escape Room expands on similar themes as those explored in Giraffe and sees Littlefair tackling mental health, employment and the mundane aspects of everyday life by subverting them with absurdity and humour. The fifty-five poem collection is separated into five parts.
At the centre of this collection is the question: can we truly escape from society to freely construct our own identities? In a world where many of us find ourselves burnt out by the work-week grind, it can be difficult to try and find who you are, let alone what it all means. By taking the small moments of life – a short conversation, making a cup of tea, the dreaded dinner party – these poems give us relatable moments in suburban aesthetics that subvert our notions of reality. In many ways, Escape Room asks us to question the ways we have built society, and to consider what we are really doing when we work, socialise and interact with the world.
There is a tenderness to Escape Room that is drawn out by a normative path through life. We start at the point where the protagonist has her first job making cupcakes, which reflects Littlefair’s own life experience, before traveling through a series of different jobs. We experience the shelf-stacker at Boots, bored and reading a magazine at the till; the office worker whose middle management seem completely off the wall, and the office politics of tupperware. The tupperware episode is especially poignant: ‘The moment stretched out like the moments when a train is boarded, all the commuters kept alive by a single thought: I am not like these people. Whose pasta is this? My heart’s deflating like the tired balloon it is at the thought of saying Mine, it’s mine.’ There is apathy and dread shown in these small moments that are so integral to the workplace. This section has precise boundaries around work life, exploring our initial foray into the world of work and the subsequent build towards job dissatisfaction. It considers the true purpose of these roles, if there is any, and what it ultimately contributes to: is it something for us or is it part of the machinations of capitalism alone?
The collection then reflects on friendships and characters who drop in and out of the protagonist’s life. Most of us can relate to Littlefair’s portrayals of high school and the characters she builds, or even the friend who barrels in like a hurricane with the next big plan. At this point, ‘say when’ deconstructs a brief moment we have all shared when making cups of tea for friends and the conversations that can be had in that space. In Littlefair’s characteristically playful style – saying ‘when’ doesn’t necessarily stop the milk being poured – this is a forensic look at ourselves and the people around us. The characters brought out by this collection can be larger than life, but others just make us think of someone close to us.
In the final, very self-aware parts of Escape Room, religion and the afterlife are considered. This is seen in ‘heaven doesn’t have skirting boards’, when the protagonist mourns ‘and I miss them. Hoover bags too.’ The poet combines poignancy and a sort of absurd humour where religious seriousness is lightened by the humour of the mundane. We are drawn to think more deeply about what it means to have a perfect world and whether the material realities we have constructed really do reflect our ideals.
Elsewhere in the collection there are nods to mental health. In ‘Men’s therapy group’ and ‘Some therapists’, Littlefair explores the struggles that all these parts of life ultimately have on us and how we attempt to cope. Yet she combats these existential questions with blunt, dead-pan humour and bizarre surrealism. Both elements are used as a coping mechanism for anxiety and mental health. Comedy is a difficult element to portray on the page at the best of times, but across Littlefair’s collection you certainly find sparks of laughter. The balance works extremely well to tackle the heavy themes throughout these poems and offers a breathing space in the collection. We see this again in the opening set of poems ‘the other kitchen’, which encapsulates Littlefair’s use of humour when describing the first day at a new job: after talking about the task our protagonist is employed to do (sorting coloured pens), her colleague ‘simon nods sagely before he gets on all fours and begins to meow. ben reminds him that we only meow as a group and that this week’s session is on Thursday from 3 til 3.30.’ What kind of wild job has the protagonist signed up for? Is Simon ok? Similarly, other types of humour are employed elsewhere. In ‘Clop Clop’, the final lines are the height of absurdity in the poem and are delivered in a punch-line format: ‘Then you look down at my hand/ and it is a little hoof.’ These scenes drag out the true absurdity of the post-capitalist world we live in by taking them to the realm of extreme ridiculousness.
Escape Room is therefore twofold: clearly there is a more serious meaning to be had from these poems that can be drawn from the absurdity and humour. These elements look like they distract from more sombre themes, or even conflict with them in what they are trying to achieve, but ultimately end up underpinning the exploration of difficult topics. Paired with these elements is ultimately a reflection of reality and the mental health struggles and anxieties that come alongside it.
Escape Room by Bryony Littlefair is published by Seren Books and is available to order online and in all good bookshops now.