“A Pocketful of Chalk” Claire Booker (Arachne Press) – book review

Claire Booker A Pocketful of Chalk book cover

Claire Booker takes readers on a journey over the Sussex Downs, a range of chalk hills which include 37 sites of special scientific interest that stretch from coastal cliffs to inland grasslands. There are diversions into family life, paintings, motherhood and childhood memories. In “Drone Boys” modern tech meets domesticated sheep,

“A drone revs up. A second joins it, slicing out territory
………over the struts of the burned-out barn.

They circle for a wider curettage, herd space, scythe
……….the air with their waspish under-hangs,

come lower still, until the field erupts in unstoppable bleating,
……….as if the chalk hill has grown lungs.

Every lamb is trying to cry itself back inside the womb.
……….Their mothers stand like boulders – reply in deep baritone

from black mechanical mouths, udders triggered
………..against the raptors’ shrieking blades.”

The drone operators don’t seem to care about the impact their tech is having on the sheep who don’t have any shelter in a burnt out barn. The sheep’s distress doesn’t prompt them to guide their drones away. There seems to be a clear divide between man-made tech and the animals with those using the tech oblivious to the ill-effects of stress on mothers still trying to feed their lambs who have not yet been weened onto grass. The enjambment and sound echoes create a sense of urgency, reflecting the stress created by the drones.

The man in “Long Man Dreaming” is the chalk giant carved into the Sussex Downs known as the Long Man of Wilmington. The poem’s narrator has parked her car in the car park nearby as the giant dreams,

“Fish will inherit the earth booms the giant

as he sluices against currents with his upright poles
transformed into oars. They slap, slap between drowning
steeples tractors floating belly-up corpses

swept along in huddled herds. A mackerel shoots
rainbows across the car bonnet. Lobsters have tethered
themselves to the Pay & Display.

Their bubbles scatter like petulant bullets.
I rummage for my parking coins find flint stones.
Is it too late to buy a ticket?”

It brought to mind Matthew Sweeney’s poem “Fishbones Dreaming”, not for the fish but for the idea of things returning to their source. Here the dreamt sea claims the land, showing nature could overturn man’s grasp, as tractors are rendered useless, buildings are flooded and money is turned to stone. Is the narrator buying a ticket for her car or to gain entry to the dream of man’s dominance being diminished and nature taking back control.

In one of the several digressions from nature, “Anniversary” sees someone bereaved enquire at lost property,

“This morning, I dropped by,
gave them your description:

about so high, slightly bent with age,
wonderfully musical.

They brought out a trombone.”

The instrument can’t replace the person, but it can help recreate or remind of the memories shared with the late person. The lightness of the poem is in direct contrast to a later poem, “News Flash” where,

“hipsters on Segways. The Taliban have beheaded a women’s
youth volleyball player
. Seagulls dive bomb for chips, smash
plates, glasses, wild applause. The Taliban have beheaded
a women’s youth volleyball player.
The beach lies neck
down in pebbles; glint of Sunday kayakers. The Taliban have
beheaded a women’s youth volleyball player.
Girls tumble
in borrowed sand – lit up, laughing, aching with life’s endlessness.
The Taliban have beheaded a women’s youth volleyball player.

The headline haunts the poem’s speaker. The ordinary, everyday details accumulate until the climax of the final two lines where the beach girls’ freedom is brought crashing down by the finality of the headline. The speaker’s struggle to understand the headline is clear from the poem, the words repeat but don’t seem to anchor.

The mood lifts in “Mr McGregor’s Seedlings”,

“He’s dug a small pond by the lean-to where he rests
with his flask in the company of frogs,

reads up about poisoned bees, plundered peat bogs,
pesticides that strip the land of worms.

On weekdays, voices from the infant school hop over,
lively as crickets. Next month he’ll give a talk,

take little pots to plant enthusiasms, unpack a sunflower
to show its eager heart.”

He shares a name with the farmer in Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit”, thought thankfully children aren’t rabbits and he can get on with the important job of teaching them to garden and nurture plants. He’s realistic about his chances, knowing some children will listen because it’s better than maths or English, but he still hopes he can capture one or two and make a difference.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” is firmly rooted in its Sussex Downs location, exploring the landscape’s environs and raising concerns for climate change and what could be lost. There are also very human concerns: motherhood, intergenerational relationships and grief. All approached with the vitality and empathy of a poet wishing to share her concerns and love for the topics covered.

“A Pocketful of Chalk” is available from Arachne 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.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.


One Response to ““A Pocketful of Chalk” Claire Booker (Arachne Press) – book review”

  1. Poetry Blog Digest 2023, Week 1 – Via Negativa Says:

    […] Emma Lee, “A Pocketful of Chalk” Claire Booker (Arachne Press) – book review […]

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