Sunday, 16 October 2016

Electric coherence, Katrina Naomi's The Way the Crocodile Taught Me

Katrina Naomi’s second full collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me (Seren, 2016), uses scrupulously portrayed character studies as a fulcrum for a compelling narrative drive.

This is especially true of the book’s first section, which revolves around two men and two women; a father and a stepfather, a mother and a grandmother. The two men are implicitly contrasted in separate poems, the initial focus moving from the father’s absence to the stepfather’s arrival, while comparisons between the women often take place within a single poem. In the latter case, “Gin and Ice Cream”, from the sequence “Poems after my Nan”, portrays one of the hardest human experiences: that of an older generation witnessing the demise of their offspring:

“Even after all the gins, all morning,
you still can’t say the c-word.

Over a weekend, I try to discuss your daughter/
my mum, but your soft blue eyes fill…”

The pivotal slash/line break here is, of course, where “your daughter” leads on to “my mum”.

The invocation of multiple roles in family relationships is pivotal to this book’s story and can also be applied to male characters, as in the following extract from “Letter to my Mother”:

“You lie beneath him,
a measure of mud between you.

This was our final argument – his and mine –
your husband/my step-father…”

A key tension clearly lies in the juxtaposition of your husband/my step-father. A statement of fact is charged with tremendous feeling.

The second part of the collection, while packed with well executed set pieces, inevitably cannot match the electric coherence and cohesion of the first part, although it is complemented by an excellent final long poem, titled “Mantra”, that takes reader and poet back to the first part of the book, literary, temporal and geographical journey meshed together, doubt and belief intertwined. The final lines linger long after their reading:

“…Mum stayed,
repeating her mantra to the mountains, for six months, maybe a year,
before the cord unravelled, and then she’d be free.”

Katrina Naomi’s The Way the Crocodile Taught Me shows that she is a compelling poetic storyteller, capable of creating intimacy via distance, layering characters, bringing them alive and generating emotional resonance.

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