Kate Fox’s second collection journeys through the after-effects of Covid-19 and neurodivergent identity in a confident, welcoming manner. One of the opening poems, “13th March” starts
“One committed cougher
half way up the auditorium,
a sniveller in the front row
I couldn’t get moved back
because the theatre said
seat reservations were pre-booked”
The poem ends,
“You, constant as a mantel clock,
keeping track of the interval
and my fatigue,
seeing me as a Swiss watch
full of moving parts.
by whatever entered us,
we have both stepped
out of time.”
Any performer is familiar with audiences which include those who kid themselves their infectious cough or cold causes no harm. The red tape encountered by those who want to be moved away, “reservations were pre-booked”, could be forgiven by pre-lockdown ignorance. England went into lockdown later in March. “The Distance 1.” notes,
“I was always clumsy and elliptical,
unsure of the correct orbits
how close was too close,
how far too far.
I fix instead
on another left glove on a branch
singular as a vernal star.”
Even before social distancing, gauging how close you could stand to someone without encroaching on personal space and making a person uncomfortable was tricky. It’s even tricker when it varies from person to person and there’s a struggle to read social and emotional signals that the distance you settled on was not correct. I’m not sure if the glove is a left-handed glove or simply one thrown up into the tree and left behind when it caught on a branch but it’s image as a “vernal star” gives a hope of spring.
Neurodivergence is picked up again in “Skimming”, which ends,
“I had the knack once,
but needed to be re-taught
or un-learn the urge to throw.
My Mother was not patient
about how clear I needed instructions to be,
how much longer than for other people
it takes me to learn by seeing,
or building up muscle memory.
Now I am quick to disguise
the ways in which I am slow.”
Autism is often undiagnosed in girls because girls tend to be taught to more socially aware and so mask their symptoms more successfully. This can come at a cost though. The poem’s narrator remembers being slow to learn by watching and her mother’s impatience and probable assumption her daughter was stupid rather than accepting her daughter needed to be taught differently but could still learn the skill of skimming stones over water. It’s complemented by the image of skimming over a surface rather than plunging into and examining the depths.
There seems to have been a difficult relationship with her mother, in “Things my mother said the last time we met” along with “Your alarm clock was all I kept after you ran away”
“Maybe I gave you too much independence
but it makes you stronger like that song A Boy Named Sue,
you’ve done alright anyway
since we last met was it- sixteen- years ago haven’t you?
The things you said
about your Dad and me going with those men
well, he’s always seen himself as your Dad,
even if finding your birth certificate was a shock,
but you need to move on.
You always did have
a very vivid imagination.”
Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” sees the boy set out to kill his father who left when the boy was young only to discover his name wasn’t a joke but intentionally done to make the boy strong and able to defend himself. Here the mother seems to be justifying her parenting method on the basis her daughter turned out OK. There’s also a hint the daughter found out via her birth certificate rather than her parent that the man she thought was her father wasn’t her biological father but stepfather. Her mother is dismissive of any emotional pain caused with a classic gas-lighting statement “You always did have/ a very vivid imagination”, implying the daughter is taking things out of context and proportion.
Neurodivergency is revisited in “Exile” and discovering that customs,
“they are drilled deep into women
so no one will be able to tell
we are not from here. Now, I don’t belong
in our homeland any more
but fail to fit the new country too.
Your reflection of the gap between here and home
makes me feel close to you
and on my own.”
At surface level it suggests that coming home after a long time away leaves you as a stranger in a place that should be familiar. However, here women are taught that what is customary so well that they behaviour in an expected manner even when it is unfamiliar. The ability to mask comes at the cost of wearing a mask to cover a true self and not being able to reveal who one is so feeling at one remove all the time.
“Both of us return again,
through the emergencies,
the snapped windscreen wiper,
the laboured breaths,
the last breaths,
the torn muscle
while beneath us,
sometimes despite us,
love spreads like a satellite signal,
like sea foam,
like spilt coffee on a counter top,
In “The Oscillations” Kate Fox has a collection that explores neurodivergency and how masking differences comes at a cost and the isolation that can result, although there’s also hope in new connections as a world shifts. The pandemic is a backdrop, something battled and overcome with a journey towards renewal. The poems have a focused, conversational tone which belies their careful structure: the apparent casualness relies on sound echoes and partial rhymes. These poems both skim the surface and explore the depths, which path is taken is up to the reader.
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.