Book of the Month: September 2020
'The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass' by Natalie Ann Holborow and Mari Ellis Dunning
The blurb from the publisher:
In this collaborative poetry pamphlet, Natalie Ann Holborow and Mari Ellis Dunning stir together myth, legend, fairytale, and iconic female characters to cast a book-length spell and bewitch, as well as beguile, the reader. With intelligence and imagination they question stereotypes, delve into archetypes, and dissect what we think we know, transmuting old stories, through gorgeous language and idiosyncratic imagery, into new and startling tales. Marginalised female voices are brought to the fore, their inner worlds expertly and sensitively realised. Unsettling, evocative, and full of surprise, this is a rich and entirely unique undertaking by two of the brightest young voices in poetry today.
Black Bough Review:
'The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass'
'The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass' is a riotous collection of poetry that retells fairytales and myths from the perspectives of female protagonists. The feminist approach in this work is clearly evident, achieved most notably by humour, as fairytales, myths and archetypes are sent up in uproarious fashion through the interior monologues of the characters.
Traditional figures, such as Rapunzel, Mother Gothel, Helen of Troy and the goddess, Hera, are represented as being limited, stilted or silenced in their original stories, which are usually centred on male heroism, framed by patriarchal narratives. Instead, characters are vividly reimagined. Whilst our understanding of these characters, and our sympathy, becomes more developed, there is an anarchic spirit at work. Any over-sentimentality is abruptly stopped - satire, farce and mock heroism encourage us to see these women as individuals, some of them highly idiosyncratic, forcing us to recognise their complexity. We are drawn into their chaos and drama of their lives. Rapunzel is bemoaned as
fishing for nameless heroes,
some fully-grown dumb Casanova
to spin me off into the sunset [...]
sullen princess, drop-dead gorgeous
with nothing to do but swing her hair, stifle the scream
when the roots tear slow from her skull.
Helen of Troy, another 'bored' princess, laments being imprisoned within a myth, as well as being a serial abductee. Amusingly, the archetype of female beauty, is compared to a goose brought home from a hunt.
it’s the second time for me.
Stolen, bagged like a prize goose
and hauled from home, head clunking
against his glowing armour.
Instead, the poem (and others) question the process of stereotyping and idealising women. The goddess Hera has learned to be submissive to Zeus but is secretly resentful:
I pour him a drink, toast his health,
grin through the slats of my teeth.
Cheers, you big godly bastard.
A kind of grotesque realism is at work throughout the poems; women from myths and legends are not just two-dimensional cut-outs, nor are they explicitly drawn as female heroines. They're shown to be the opposite - hyper-real, larger than life: eccentric, chatty characters portrayed with exaggerated characteristics, brought to life through a battering ram of similes, in a world around them that is similarly chaotic: the playfulness of Under Milk Wood and Sexing the Cherry brought up to date for the 21st century.
Arguably, the strength of this work lies in the contrast between Natalie Ann Holborow as a carnivalesque writer, contrasted with Mari Ellis Dunning's starker, more elemental style, although both writer's work shows this contrast.
Reading the book is an intoxicating literary experience, a heady mix of Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Jeanette Winterson. Old tales are given new life here in these irreverent re-tellings of fairytales that will leave you smiling; an invigorating collection of poetry that readers will return to again and again.
By Matthew M. C. Smith
Natalie Ann Holborow
"The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass was created as both of us have very similar poetic inspirations and have styles that we felt would naturally complement each other. We both give voices to marginalised female characters or explore alternative viewpoints from the perspective of women in fairytale and mythology, most of whom are often written by male writers and shaped by patriarchal expectations. The book took us by surprise in a positive way as our voices quite naturally came together and made it such an absolute joy to write. We hope this paves the way for more collaborations in future! It's a process we should be promoting more - it doesn't always work, but if you find the right collaborator it's almost magical to see the poems appear in the most magical of ways."
Natalie Ann Holborow