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Silage by Bethany W Pope review – poetry as salvation

This harrowing collection drawn from a youth spent in an orphanage delights in language as a place of private escape

In modern poetry, let’s face it, not a lot happens, unless you are writing a novel in verse or updating The Iliad. Musing tends to be the order of the day. This collection is different. It begins with the narrator – very obviously the poet herself – seeing “a white / thread running across [her] MRI”: this is “the shape of the worst years of my life / thrown up on a screen in a doctor’s office; / I’d gone in to see if anything could / be done about my terrible snoring.” The rest of the poem (“Neurons”) continues with references to an old social worker, lost records, the remembered smell of wild onion blossoms, the memory of being locked in a cabinet under the stairs. What is going on here? The remaining 34 poems explain, as she dredges up a sequence of memories, what it was like to live in a state-run South Carolina orphanage between the ages of 12 and 15 in (I suspect, from internal evidence) the early to mid-1990s.

You do not expect to come from a poetry collection shattered, but I emerged almost a wreck. You can imagine that a spell in an orphanage isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but here we have something that is straight out of Charles Dickens: a threadbare, institutional poverty, of the spirit as well as of material goods. Such life as there is resides in violence, rape and theft. To our great relief as well as to hers, Pope learns to pick the locked door of the orphanage library, where she can steal books. These are mainly science fiction, although references to sword-carrying mice suggest a Narnia book or two there as well. She also learns – and teaches us – how to make a shiv from a toothbrush and a double-edged razor blade.

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