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Review: Reading at Winchester Muse; 8 April 2024

On Monday 8th April, we gathered in person and over Zoom to welcome our guest poet for the month, Alwyn Marriage.

Aptly for a poetry group that centres women and women’s writing, Marriage’s newest collection, Possibly a Pomegranate, is subtitled ‘Celebrating Womankind’. However, for us, she started with a poem from the almost novel-like Pandora’s Pandemic. As the name suggests, this collection charts the course of the Covid pandemic from Marriage’s personal perspective (she caught the illness early on, and her brother died from it) while also looking at how, like Pandora and her ill-fated box, it changed society. If Marriage’s analogies with World War Two are unsurprising (“You ask if it was like the war….”), her acknowledgment that learning “to look no further than today” sometimes has benefits has a startling truth to it.

In fact, each of Marriage’s poems rings with truth, whether this is her own or that of – usually – another female. For instance, in ‘Nancy’s Star Turn’, we’re plunged into Marriage’s own lived experience and we meet her five-year-old self, currently enraptured by the exotic Nancy. Although Nancy is another five-year-old, she is the daughter of a GI and has a confidence and exuberance that inform classmates that “there were worlds wider than our own of which we could only dream”.

Using her words to conjure up these “wider worlds” is the adult Marriage’s own special skill. She takes her reader (or listener) back to the South London of her teenage years (and, briefly but no less impressively, into the mind of her mother, waiting for her daughter to return home after a night out) as easily as she lets us see her older self reach accommodation with a body that no longer suits its two decade old “pacific blue” bikini. Later, she allows us to feel “the measure of a long marriage” – her own? – both in respect of the speed of its passing (“50 years of faithfulness have flown”) and the beautiful permanence of the meshing of two lives (“She a bird in his branches / He the wine in her cup”).

However, Marriage also looks beyond her own life experiences to explore the lives and, sometimes, the imagined lives of other women. Some of these are well-known historical figures (Jane Austen, Cleopatra and Sappho among others). Another, the nameless woman in “Risk and Refuge” is perhaps more accurately described as an amalgamation of countless unfortunate others. Marriage prefaced her reading of this poem with an acknowledgement that some people might suggest she had not had the right to write it. Nonetheless, she was sufficiently confident to offer it up anyway in, as she said, “the hope that [those nameless others] will be safe” and sufficiently sensitive to empathise with experiences no one wants to have as their own (“the horror when I became a number not a name”).

Straddling the line between real and imagined lives, Marriage gave us the instantly relatable “GPS” lady, whose always calm tones provide the commentary and punctuation to so many car journeys. We laughed when Marriage told us that her husband fails to see the appeal of the poem and even less fails to see why largely female audiences love it so much – but how could they not when given lines such as “That other woman in your car always makes it clear that she knows best”! However, if poems can sometimes be said to have punchlines, this poem’s arrives when the poet narrator brings in her husband: “You clearly trust a distant satellite more than you trust your wife”.

As far as trust goes, Alwyn Marriage is a poet her reader can trust to travel to many different places and into many different lives. Moreover, she does so with a lightness of touch and an unpretentiousness that never shies away from the difficult or the disturbing.

Louise Taylor, April 2024