Wendy Pratt’s new collection, When I Think of my Body as a Horse (Smith-Doorstep, 2021) is not only brave and ambitious in its thematic scope and aesthetic approach, but also achieves an astonishing degree of humanity, coherence and cohesion.
Pratt takes received formats by the scruff of their necks and lifts them out of their expected usages, such as in the case of Two Week Wait. At first sight, it seems a supposed, so-called list poem, beginning with a conventional couplet and starting three of its first six lines with a repeated form (love + verb + and`+ verb), as follows:
Love turned the dial up
and watched us burn.
Love caught us like frogspawn
and cupped us in the light
of a duck egg blue day…
This technique creates the effect of a chant, lulling the reader into a false sense of syntactic security. However, Pratt quickly changes gear as the poems moves forward, piling up irregular line breaks, then two clauses per line, then a foreshortened final line…
…Love was needles and charts
and scans, love was clinic visits
and operations, love riddled us
with drugs, love shook us with hope,
love gave us you, love lost us both,
love lost us all.
Via her subverting of a list poem, Pratt rips away an initial incantation and transforms it into a wail, into a heartrending lament.
The above poem is also an excellent instance of the deft use of repetition that crops up throughout this collection. Sentence and line structures mirror each other up to a pivotal point where they suddenly diverge in meaning, highlighting those contrasts and differences. Here’s one such example from Nesting…
I was giddy with instinct. I wanted
to pull bits of my new wild world
into my bedroom. I wanted
to open the window and jump out,
onto the back of grazing sheep
and pull their wool out. I wanted to use
my own spit to shore up the pebbledash
of our ex-council house…
This extract juxtaposes the natural and the manmade, the human and the animal, all via the afore-mentioned device of twisted repetition, drawing out the tensions and unifying forces between them, just like in the following lines from later on in the same poem…
of my body, my poor body and its need
to nest, my animal body and its unformed hopes…
In this case, layers are placed on top of the initial construction: my body becomes my poor body and then turns into my animal body, implicitly highlighting the crucial importance of the link between animal and body. This is a theme that’s of utmost significance to the poet’s understanding of her own being and of the world it inhabits. Furthermore, by extension, it’s just as fundamental to our reading of the book as a whole.
Pratt’s harnessing of intense imagery and complex sentence structure, all with an ever-present thrust into the core of her inspiration, is one of the joys of When I Think of my Body as a Horse. It enables her to turn what is already an emotionally charged story into art without ever slipping into sentimentality, her skill shining through on every page. In other words, the judges of this year’s major prizes will struggle to find a more human yet exquisitely crafted collection. Here’s hoping that When I Think of my Body as a Horse soon receives the recognition that it so richly deserves.