“What Girls Do in the Dark” Rosie Garland (Nine Arches Press) – book review

“What Girls Do in the Dark” has a dedication to the poet’s father noting his death coincided with Voyager 2 leaving the solar system. This coincidence inspires exploration of space imagery with stars and comets as a celebration of what makes us human. There’s a wry sense of humour that runs through the poems too. The collection opens with “Letter of rejection from a Black Hole”,

Rosie Garland What Girls Do in the Dark front cover

“We’re touched by your desire to join our great work
of dismembering the fabric of time and matter.
We can’t blame you for wanting to hide in nothing,
and note the ways you’ve snapped off pieces of yourself
to prove you’re serious.”

Near the end comes the useful advice,

“You have the right to glow.
It’s not your duty
to light up anyone else’s day.”

In essence it’s a reminder that occasionally individuals need to recalibrate their perspective, especially those who are used to putting others’ needs first, and find a sense of self-worth that is not reliant on how others see or value us. It’s a theme further explored in “Snuffing hearts that burn too bright”, where the narrator can smell her woollen coat has a singed elbow after being forced to sit next to a star on the bus,

…………………The star peers at me, anxious, shaking its head
when I accuse it of scorching my coat. It’ll deny everything.
I’ve read how stars live off lies. So what about their surface
temperature, cores of liquid helium spinning at a thousand
miles per second, how they live for billions of years; haven’t
they got enough space in the sky to show off how glorious
they are? And the eyes. One look and bang, you’re gone. Not
me. I know how to deal with heavenly bodies.”

If you let it, the star will steal your light too. The cure is to set firm boundaries and refuse to be gas-lit; just like dealing with a narcissistic personality. Although it takes a firm sense of self to negotiate with a black hole of a personality who relies on taking advantage of another’s good nature. Someone who wants to do the right thing or is anxious to fit in, is ripe for exploitation.

Rosie Garland she was adopted as a baby and it took thirty years before she saw her original birth certificate which gave her name as Johanna Blight. Growing up with “thumbs that wilt roses” in a family of gardeners in “Palimpsest”,

“Three decades later, I fight for my certificate; a history
kept secret from its rightful owner. It lists a stranger
mother, blank box father, my self unrecognisable, spelled all wrong.

Only the date’s correct. Birthed on a Sunday,
but there’s nothing bonny in Blight, nor good, nor gay.
Whichever way I twist it – Bly, Blythe – the root is rotten.

I have a pair of parent names to choose from:
half Sunday lucky, half Wednesday woeful, neither
the whole picture. A contradiction”

It’s a play on the nursery rhyme where Wednesday’s child is full of woe but a Sunday’s child is bonny and blithe. The father’s name isn’t recorded because her birth parents weren’t married, which leaves a sense of rootlessness. Sometimes a search for answers merely creates more questions and Rosie becomes a flower without roots supported by an adoptive family yet carrying an awareness of not quite being the same. ‘Bonny’ is appropriate though, but given a new twist during a hospital stay where a pirate’s rebelliousness is invoked in “Dancing the plank”,

“red of heart tattoo. You are still Anne Bonney, Mary Read.
You’ve not sailed this far to scrape. Lean

into the swell of your rickety bed: peg-legged,
bilge-breathed, split-masted. Screw your eye
to the horizon and stagger
this day’s plank. Kick up your heels.”

In the title poem, two sisters share a bedroom and the narrator watches her sister climb back through the bedroom window at around 5.30am, “Mum will never believe you, she purrs, reeling in her tail. She takes a deep breath and turns her skin the other way so hair is on the inside and girl is on the outside”. The narrator begs to be let into the secret, but is told to wait.

Meanwhile, “Dark Matter” considers human arrogance (complete poem),

“The night sky over Darfur overwhelms
with stars; so burdened, there are plans to cull
a quarter. A third. More. They will prune back
the constellations to chief brightnesses –
the named, the mapped – burn off the stubble
of the small, the feeble, the unclear.
Torch the unimportant to cinders.

They will dam the Milky Way, divert
its flow to those who appreciate fine light;
leave the star-field uncluttered
for Lords of the Empty Quarter:
Antares, Altair, Arcturus; extending
ashy vacancies between these oases
in the night’s new desert.”

An unnamed ‘they’ classify and assign important to stars, trash those unconsidered unimportant without considering the roles played by the so-called ‘lesser’ stars. It’s works as an analogy to man’s conquering of nature and the triggering of climate change. Or to more recent events where the ‘lesser’ people on lower pay have kept the economy going by caring, stocking shelves and making deliveries.

The final poem, “Bowing out” sees a life in reverse where an unnamed she,

……………………..Unlocks gravity’s shackle,

parts sky with shoulder blades and flees the planet.
The Earth shrinks to a speck she can eclipse with a fingertip.”

Death enables her to unpick her life and find her true self, free from earth’s rules, which is where readers came in as celestial bodies become metaphors to explore what makes and motivates us as humans.

“What Girls Do in the Dark” tackles dark subjects with brio and energy which feels celebratory. A wry, subversive humour entertains while the poems delve into who humans navigate through their world where some only focus on what’s literary in front of them, whereas others are gazing to the stars, probing the darkness for a deeper understanding.

What Girls Do in the Dark” is available from Nine Arches Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch
The Significance of a Dress banner

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