This changes things by Claire Askew

this changes things by claire askew


I’m a bit scared of reviewing poetry. The people who do it a lot are really very good at it. They seem to know all the secret rules about jumping from small details to the big picture. Sometimes they approach their reviews in an academic way I couldn’t even dream of having a go at. Do their reviews make me want to read the poetry? Yes, but I couldn’t begin to talk about poems like that. All I know to say, to share, is what the poems seem to be about, and how they’re written, and if I like them. Is that enough? I think this review might not be as good as the poems you’ll find in This Changes Things by Claire Askew.

Shelter is the only really necessary thing.
Every creature has its burrow,
bolt hole, cave, its fist of twigs.
Just make it safe, a place
above the flood plain: shake
its sticks and slates to test
it can withstand a storm. That’s all.

Some of these poems make my heart ache, for a start. They’re so full of an understanding of what it is to be a person, and what it’s like to think about other people you’ll only know a bit because you’re not actually them. With some of the poems my heart welled up and there was too much blood in it and I wanted to get the fluids out, like maybe have a cry.

I handed the poems to my friend as she waited for me to try on some jeans in a shop on its opening day (huge crowds, big mistake) and she did cry. She writes poems, my friend, she’s done an MA in it. I said to her, “I think these poems are good. Are they? What are they about?” And she said “they’re brilliant. They’re proper poetry about being alive.”

Claire Askew writes a lot about family. It makes you think about your own family and everyone you’ve ever known. It also makes your brain slide around until you start considering all the people you’ll never know, too. Like the old woman walking her dog every day and the teenager who swore at the person in front of you on the bus. All these people have their own lives; they aren’t just a moment in your own one.

So the way Askew writes about people is very generous, I think, because the way she talks about people she’s known or come across in her own lifetime somehow makes you think about everyone you’ve ever met or seen out of the corner of your eye.

Six of one and half a dozen of the other
Twined as a bag of weasels
Well go to the foot of our stairs
Well our Amy Judith Sarah Christine Claire
What a right bag of washing
You want nowt with that I tell you
You want nowt with that

-From ‘Catalogue of My Grandmother’s Sayings’ in ‘This Changes Things’ by Claire Askew

The poems in This Changes Things are often about key people she’s known, like her grandmother, no longer here. There are moments when she gets into their skin and it’s their voice speaking from the pages. There’s a lot in this book about age, and how it changes things, maybe you inside but also how people see you.

We’ve all had pasts. It seems like many of Askew’s poems try to lift the curtain of the future and see what lies behind it. When she writes about her grandfather and his love of Spitfires, or Frank, retired, 84, it’s like she wants to make a hole in the invisible skin that keeps us all separate from each other and see what’s underneath, to look at those tiny unique details of a life that make us all the same.

Again, I think this book is so generous. It looks at isolation that can come from being marginalised, or different, or old, or uprooting yourself (whether it’s travel or something else). Or the isolation of being uprooted, or not being sure what your loved ones are like when you’re not there. It looks at the connections between people and time and place. It’s all very earthy and grounded, this wonderful poetry, but there are curls of the unknown around the edges – the talk of ghosts, of witches.

A blazing witch now silent as the earth – you are the ghost in every fire I burn

– ‘Anne Askew’s Ashes’ recalls 17th century writer Anne Askew who was branded a witch, tortured and burnt at the stake.

The real life that’s in your face and happening all the time is so very big and mysterious, even when you’re right bang in the middle of it. Even when losing someone you love or going shopping at the supermarket is so big and solid you can taste it.

This, then, is my poetry review:

  1. This book of poems is about being alive. Thanks, Cath. I’ll take that. Sorry I wasted our time over the jeans.
  2. This book contains thoughtful, slightly addictive poems all written simply enough to love and read aloud, deeply enough to read more than once and pick out a new thought each time.
  3. I like it.

This Changes Things by Claire Askew is available from Bloodaxe Books. You can also find out more about the amazing Write Like a Grrrl! creative writing courses she has mentored at.

Read next: “We love each other always now” – a beautiful look at bereavement.