“Face the Strain” Joolz Sparkes (Against the Grain) – book review

Joolz Sparkes Face the Strain book cover

The strain here is of getting by in a capitalist, patriarchal world both pre- and post-pandemic. The title’s ambiguity could be the stress of coping or a viral strain. Joolz Sparkes documents the lack of care of those in power with grace and a dash of humour. In “Warning: this game does not come with any rules”, this game is

“For ages 0-eternity
Fits together in infinite combinations
Never replace the lid
Keep away from no one
All participants begin on the same level”

The game never ends. The significance of “begin on the same level” indicates that everyone starts from the same place but ends up on different levels, according to a combination of skill, merit and luck. Different outcomes are offered to different people. It echoes the idea that when the pandemic started, we were all in the same storm but weathered it very differently with those able to work from home having a very different experience from those keyworkers who had to go into workplaces or those in need of care or with caring responsibilities who were trying to shield.

“Woman in transit” summarises the all-too-common extra safeguards women take when travelling alone,

“Bargaining with the journey –If I get there
intact, then I’ll relax, promise.
Journey laughs in her face –Girl, you know
there’ll be no sit back, no let up,
there’s only ever vigilance.”

It’s frequently under-estimated how much stress this extra vigilance causes along with the sense of not being safe in public spaces.

The joys of videoconferencing are looked at in “You’re still on mute, Ms Keller”

“The CEO can see your lips moving,
your hand of advocacy stroking the air.
The committee refuses to hear you, Helen.”

Theoretically another space where we all start on the same level, unlike a telephone call where you can’t see facial expressions and body language or an email where the intended tone of a message can be misinterpreted. However for those with hearing or visual disabilities or both – like Helen Keller – it’s another space that can be exclusionary. Participants may be able to unmute themselves but that doesn’t necessarily mean they get heard. Power structures come into play and can reinforce existing imbalances.

The poems are not just able work and daily routines. “Birds”, dated November 2020 during lockdown, has two parts, the first “Blackbird with free delivery” ends with the blackbird singing,

“Then––clap––and though you scare quicker than cat
or squirrel, still you ring out; claim it as your world,
that envious freedom from keeping produce plastic-fresh.

I cut up delivery boxes into recycled cards
for December and peace, hope you’ll come back to me,
if you feel like it, to forgive me for what I’m doing to you.”

The speaker is recycling the cardboard from delivery boxes and trying not to use plastics but is also very aware that her part is a small one and she has little influence over the companies who deliver the goods.

The pandemic also offered an opportunity to start again and do things differently, if we are willing to take it. “O World, who shall we be now?” explores this,

“VIRUS was an acronym for poverty
and the people we threw away were essential.

When we were at our most deadly,
masks were anxious smiles
and everyone was dying for a hug.

When we were at our most stupid,
vehicles were carbon depletions
and everyone was a frequent flyer.

When we were at our most destructive,
life was a continuation of all that went before
and nothing changed for anyone.”

Many keyworkers in healthcare, carers, those who kept warehouses stocked, delivered goods, operated supermarkets, and generally kept things going are also on minimum wage which is a problem when worth is equated to earnings. Fear of viral transmission kept people at a distance, exacerbating problems of loneliness and isolation. Overall, people continued pretty much as they had before and continued towards a path of destruction through the climate emergency.

“Face the Strain” is a lyrical exploration of life under patriarchal capitalism as we emerge from the pandemic. Personal actions become political, although individuals are rendered powerless against large conglomerates and politicians in lobbyists’ pockets. Sparkes pulls no punches. The world is looked at through a critical lens, which particularly examines societal attitudes towards the powerless and vulnerable, and the extra loads of caring, parenting and household management that fall on predominately on women. The tone is spare and direct, making the poems’ intents clear and targeted.

“Face the Strain” is available from Against the Grain.

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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.


One Response to ““Face the Strain” Joolz Sparkes (Against the Grain) – book review”

  1. Poetry Blog Digest 2022, Week 44 – Via Negativa Says:

    […] Emma Lee, “Face the Strain” Joolz Sparkes (Against the Grain) – book review […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: