“Alice” edited by Emer Gillespie, Abegail Morley and Catherine Smith – poetry review

Alice anthology cover image

During the British Library’s ‘150 Years of Alice’ celebration, the idea developed of creating an anthology of poems that responded to both “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice through the Looking Glass.” Here, Alice grows up, appears on Oprah and finds herself either relieved to have left an interrogated childhood behind or baffled to discover herself an adult. Some poems give voice to other characters. Whichever way you read the original Alice, chances are you’ll find a poem to match.

The ‘drink me’ command on the bottle found by Alice was often used as a metaphor for drunkenness, alcohol shrinking the world, e.g. in Helen Ivory’s “Wunderkammer with Escher Stairs and Cheshire Cat”:

“and there’s always a bottle there for her;
its drink me label shrinks the day
and the cat shapes a cave from her sleeping bones.”

Grace Nichols’s “Parallel World” explores the mixed emotions of a mother watching her daughter grow up,

“And arousing an ambivalence, the queen-bee
in the spider’s web. Who knows whether
she’s usurping predator or trapped victim?

On the verge of waking
you find your clubbing late-night daughter
has shrank into a miniature –

A small Alice standing safely
on the palm of your hand.”

Amali Rodrigo remembers the croquet match and has some useful advice in “How to Manage Your Flamingo.”

“To rouse a drowsy flamingo,
.            put a gerund on its head.
If it gets too frisky,
.            by all means
put it on a leash.
.            But never ever try
to squeeze it in your purse,
.            for you shouldn’t have to shrink
to fit another’s world.”

Richard O’Brien investigates the limitations of being a muse in “Alice Bobs Her Hair”

“a turbid sea of Lizzie Siddal curls
pulling her back into the cramped notebook,
hand clutching at her skirt. A child of six

half-flinching from the lens.
A stamp-case and a sidebar in the Mail:
she’s all grown up. Fidget then flapper,
bombshell then gamine: a girl,
A girl who died aged eighty-two.”

Lizzie Siddal was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s muse, trapped by his reluctance to marry her and immortalised in Milton’s painting of Ophelia where she posed in a bathtub. Milton failed to notice the lamps that were supposed to keep the water warm had gone out and, needing the money, she was too frighted of disturbing the image she’d created to tell him. Her resulting pneumonia nearly killed her. Her own art and poems have been constantly overlooked: a muse is not required to speak in order to inspire. Her job is to be the canvas.

The poems within “Alice” engage in a dialogue with the original, as ekphrastic poems should do. They use the original text as a starting point to explore an angle, a character or an aspect of the story and create something new. Even though many of the scenarios will be familiar to readers of “Alice in Wonderland”, the poems in “Alice” offer a new way of looking at the original and reward re-reading.

“Alice” is available via Abegail’s Morley’s The Poetry Shed.

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