REVIEW: MORAG ANDERSON’S ‘SIN IS DUE TO OPEN IN A ROOM ABOVE KITTY’S’
Reviewed by Stella Backhouse
The title of Morag Anderson’s new chapbook Sin Is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s is adapted from a report in a Scottish local paper and refers to the “mixed response”, in the town of Kirkcaldy, to the news that it was soon to host its first lap dancing club. Kitty’s turns out to be a nightclub; but from the twee name, I had pictured a tea room or a ladies’ hairdresser with a nice line in blue rinses. The idea of sin setting up shop above a business of such irreproachable respectability would fit perfectly – because this is a collection about the layering of public and private realities, the places where they meet, and the clues to where the one might be glimpsed through the other.
The scene is set by ‘Two Doors Down’, the opening poem whose admiring first stanza celebrates “the daftest dad on our street” and his madcap conjuring tricks. But after the neighbours’ gaze has moved on, a sickeningly different truth is revealed: “when sleep/snuffed his household/he slunk/from stagnant sheets…Choosing to believe/in space created/by the child”. Again in ‘Last Supper with Sarah’, the poet’s imaginary assault on a self-righteous woman who would “rather her daughter dead/than queer” is enacted over the impeccable correctness of a formal meal served on statement tablecloth ornamented with silver candleholders: “I should have forked her livered hand/to the starched white linen,/tightened my fist against/smug religion.”
The theme of the body as a site where conflict is played out is evident in other poems too. In ‘The Heated Kitchen’ for example (which reminded me a little of ‘Survivor’ by Roger McGough), the injured body of a domestic abuse survivor has become a documentary record where a litany of violence can be read. The matter-of-fact description of “The broken doll blink of my eyelid/rasping faint as a distant fog” that was inflicted on what was otherwise “an ordinary day” exposes the reality that lies behind the curtain of brave face, silent suffering and soldiering on.
Elsewhere, the rhythm of inhalation/exhalation and the constant semaphore of a beating pulse are also used to suggest the body as a vessel where external and internal worlds meet and mingle. In ‘In the School of Life Sciences’ the poet contemplates human tongues and lips preserved in formalin, and ponders how their living selves connected and communicated with the world beyond their physical boundaries.
Similarly, a number of very poignant poems on the subject of death focus less on its legacy of loss and bereavement than on the moment the body passes from one state of being to another. In ‘DNR’, the poet blows “upon cooling skin, slack/like a sail’s empty belly./ Life changes tack.” In ‘Kintsugi’, she lies next to her dying loved one, conscious of both their intimate closeness and their unbridgeable separation: “My leg, pressed to hers,/mourns/the transfer of heat”.
There are lighter moments; private truths are not always a source of grief. Sometimes the internal world brings welcome refuge from a difficult external situation. In ‘A Thirst for Rain’ a voice that might belong to a sex worker tells of “fat, white cats/who could buy my time/but never the width of my skies.” In ‘I Was Once a Girl in a Fountain, Splashing a Boy’, a perhaps ageing poet is aware death may steal them away at any time, but is nonetheless determined to assert themselves and remain optimistic: “I disperse old anxieties,/push blue through layers of grey;/insist like thin sun through cloud/or an elbow through timeworn wool”.
Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s is a sensitive and sympathetic exploration of the physical and mental fault lines that run through our lives – how we identify them, how we conceal them, how we try to find a way across them. Boundaries may rearrange themselves and sometimes even seem to disappear – but they never truly do. Or, as Anderson sums it up in the love poem ‘Orkney’: “I press fingertips to flesh,/feel you beat against bone. Love’s undertow sucks you out to sea…/knows to return you to me”.
Sin is Due to Open in a Room Above Kitty’s is due for release on August 20th. You can pre-order the chapbook online now, from Fly on the Wall Press.