Author: Hollie McNish
Publication date: 15th June 2017
Read: 19th May – 9th June
*Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*
‘Remember that not everyone gets to have grey hairs. Ever. It’s a privilege you should not be moaning about. Dye it if you fancy. Just don’t moan.’
Witty, humorous, and relatable, Hollie McNish’s new collection Plum is a punchy exploration of adolescence, social expectations, friendship, and womanhood.
The anthology contains poems written by McNish when she was a child, teenager, and an adult, covering a wide variety of themes. At the beginning of nearly every poem, the poet notes how old she was when she wrote it and, as a result, the collection has a semblance of chronology, beginning with those written when she was young and ending with those written as an adult. This progression is also reflected in the topics of the poems, which range from young thoughts about the environment and nature, to teenage musings on sex and periods, and finally to a mother’s perceptions of her daughter.
Each poem is named after a significant time in the poet’s life, and these nuances really give us more understanding of her personality and growth as a woman. Her unashamed discussion of periods in extract from PMT is enjoyably frank:
‘You can skip and wear pink and say ‘ooh’ as your twirl
What a f***ing great laugh it is being a girl
Each month without fail you get spotty and swollen
And you worry all day that a red blotch is showing’
Although this poem delivers significant clout, I felt it could have gone into more depth about sex education and teenage periods, and because we’re only given a small extract, the full impact is lost. This is the same with other extracts, whose brevity hampers the complete meaning from being delivered.
The second half of the anthology is where its power lies. The style, words, and ideas all flow better in the poems McNish wrote when she was older. There’s more cohesion and, cumulatively, the writing has a greater impact on the reader, delivering messages with punchy vivacity. Take, for example, NO BALL GAMES, which emphatically depicts the restrictions on teenage freedom:
‘NO BALL GAMES’ signs stuck up in their hordes
in parks, these signs all laugh the same,
‘NO OVER 14s’ – please go away!
no roundabouts, no swings, no slides,
you’ll drink, you’ll shag, you’ll sit outside!
where teens ride roads, now metal poles
pop up in formal demon drones
‘NO SKATEBOARDING’, no wheels, no bikes
all public concrete set with spikes
still headlines cry – obesity!
– computer games! – too much TV!
A simple but deceptively potent truth lies in McNish’s words, that teens aren’t welcome in parks and public spaces in the UK, because they’re seen as a threat.
Another poem that rings with truth is Beautiful:
As my friends sit once again chatting about how beautiful Victoria Beckham is
I wonder if they’ve ever stepped outside and looked at a flower
Or wiped the hatred from their own faces and looked in the mirror
At their own beautiful reflections
Poems such as these two are so powerful, that others fall flat in comparison. Mr Kent is mildly funny but bland, Teammates feels like half a story, missing key elements, and Politicians is dull. The form and rhyme schemes within each poem are often inconsistent (many are in free verse so the rhymes come and go), meaning a poem will start out rhythmically and lose pace half way through, stumbling to a close.
This collection is very much a tale of two halves; half the poems are written when the poet was younger, half when she was older, and half are poignant and striking, while the other half have potential but fail to deliver the same tour de force. Although it’s mainly the poems written later that provide the forceful messages we’re here to read, these two elements do not always intersect. Some of the early poems are as impressive as the later ones, but in different (less worldly, more gentle) ways.
Plum is a thought-provoking anthology, and one that I want to thrust at men and say ‘Read this; it’ll be insightful for you’. But I do think I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read it so soon after Kate Tempest’s Hold Your Own. Tempest’s poetry is so mind-blowingly dynamic and eloquent that any anthology I read after was (perhaps) always going to pale in comparison.