Fiona Sinclair reviews Anne Stewart's 'Janus Hour'

Anne Stewart The Janus Hour, Oversteps Books 2010, ISBN 978-1-906856-16-8
   £9

Many of the poems in this collection challenge the moral standpoint of the reader.  We  are invited to understand  the motivations of a series of  violent men from murderers to wife beaters;  the women we encounter are no less provocative,  including  a  serial one night- stander,  and girls who have turned being 'saved by a man' into  a temporary expedient.

One of the most challenging explorations of men and violence comes in Oh, Careless Love a poem that daringly offers a male perspective on an abusive relationship. Stewart's image of the man dragging “the girl off the bus into skew-braked van.” is a powerful vignette that effectively represents the history of the man's violence towards this woman.

The “girl” is deliberately marginalised to divert our attention onto the motivations of the man. However she is allowed two lines of direct speech that brilliantly sum up not only her situation but the rational behind the man’s obsessive behaviour “you can make me afraid but you can't make me love you”

In the poem Grandfather both reader and protagonist are caught up in a quandary. How can the narrator square her version of the man she loved as a child: “To me he was a smiling giant”, with the man the rest of the family knew “their man, his list of cruelties.”   There are no specific examples of his crimes instead Stewart plays to our imagination with the dark hint about a man “at ease it seemed, as long as he wasn't displeased”.

The poem tackles well the turmoil such a contradictory character can leave behind.   The adult narrator clearly feels guilt for being the granddaughter who “did not displease.” This is effectively shown in the repetition of “I was the only one” which suggests a sense of isolation within the family created by her special treatment.

One of the most memorable female characters is the eponymous female in Young Girl Waking. Stewart does well to explain the complex motivations that drive the girl to seek one night stands over a monogamous relationship. Her loneliness is evoked in the single stark line “the careless threat of a man-less night”. The poem's poignancy lies in the truth that just as the girl feels ready to take a chance on a relationship,  “He was the sort of man she might have loved”  it is clear that she chose the wrong man: “he listened, and was never seen again.”

I get a sense in these poems of young women confused about their standing in a post-feminist world.  The freedom to enjoy one night stands is at odds certainly in this poem with an underlying fear of commitment, which in turn conflicts with a fundamental need to be loved.

Stylistically Stewart employs an excellent device here. The poems begin with concrete scenarios then disintegrate into abstract thought as the personae grapple with the dilemmas they face. Consequently, the reader strives to follow the train of thought thereby tasting the confusion the characters are suffering.

One of Stewart's most interesting ideas is an inversion of a woman needing to be 'save'’ by a man.  In Guitar Picking Love Song the female is not a powerless victim unable to help herself; rather she uses the man and his help as a temporary solution to her problems.  The power in this relationship lies with the woman since she is able to capitalise on the man's love that is clearly not reciprocated by her.

These poems are counterbalanced by works dealing with long term relationships. Yet these are by no means conventional love poems. Heart of a Dog is shockingly honest in its evocation of a middle aged woman's feelings for her husband. The women's attitude towards the man is set in the first stanza “and wish I didn't wish my man was you.” 

Stewart makes it clear that the husband is not an intrinsically bad man, the woman is simply listing the differences that over time have become polarising until “In some dreams, I almost leave.” I can think of no poems this candid about the realities of living with one person for many years.

However our faith is restored in monogamy as the narrator comes to the conclusion that “With you, I find my right place… With you, I am able to maintain it. Leave? Leave who?”.

….reviewed by Fiona Sinclair

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