Sue Burge reviews ‘Bottle’ by Ramona Herdman




This beautifully judged pamphlet explores the complexities of a personal relationship with British drinking culture and those who inhabit it.  The subject of alcohol for poets is not a new one, and the influence of alcohol on poets has been well-documented, but this slim volume does something refreshingly original with its subject matter.  Herdman introduces us to a cast of diverse characters to explore the ups and downs of alcohol, including the idea that its attraction might run in families.  Her carefully chosen words are non-judgemental.  Empathy, affection and humour bubble under the surface of every poem.

There are so many standout poems it’s tricky to select just a few.  There’s much to enjoy in Yes which contains both sly humour and sexiness, a trademark of Herdman’s poetry.  An off-licence employee is described as ‘not beautiful’, but a tempter all the same with his cheap bottle of pink fizz, ‘so yes, I will run away with you/at least as far/as the bins round the back/with the rest of the bottle.’

She’s not herself is a delicate portrait of an intriguing woman, ‘take her hand and see stars/gather round her head like midges’ exhorts Herdman.  It is lines like this which show Herdman at her most insightful, skilfully drawing us into a more complete understanding of a world full of spontaneity and the crippling highs and lows of dependency.

At the heart of the work are poems which evoke the narrator’s relationship with her alcohol-dependent father, now deceased.  In Drinking Partner, a poignant meditation on loss and absence, a glass of Bells is left out ‘like kids,/I hope, still do for Father Christmas. It makes/the morning smell of you.  This image is so apposite, it still brings a lump to the throat even after many re-readings.  In My Father’s Cough, age brings increased empathy as a bout of bronchitis makes the narrator want to ‘cough my heart up.  I want to get to the bit where I find him/on the garden bench,/tea steaming in weak sun,/the first fag of the day settling his chest.’

 A particularly striking poem is Mes Braves.  Who hasn’t cringed at the sight of groups of young girls heading off clubbing in skimpy clothes on freezing nights?  Herdman turns these thoughts on their head with a praise poem, ‘It’s freezing wet and for you it’s June./You make a mirrorball out of the rain.’

Herdman’s language is clear, striking and effective.  Each word is carefully chosen for maximum impact.  Images are used sparingly, thus packing a stronger punch.  Each line-break is carefully considered to draw the reader through an expertly controlled flow of language.  The varied poetic forms and attention to pacing are a masterclass in how a pamphlet should be put together.  I urge you to read this, to learn more about temptation, love, chance and familial affection and, above all, to join this cast of finely drawn drinkers, albeit temporarily, perhaps even soberly, in their colourful and wholly engaging world.



Order your copy of Bottle (Happenstance) by Ramona Herdman here:

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