Friday, 16 January 2015

Review of 'All That Lives: The Poetry of Sex, Death and Pathology' by Valerie Laws

Valerie Laws is a wonderful and multi-talented writer.
Valerie Laws

The first book I read by her was Lydia Bennet's Blog: The Real Story of Pride and Prejudice. I expected to be amused - and I was. It made me laugh out loud a lot. But it was much more than a light amusement - I finished the book full of admiration not only for Ms Laws' wit, but for the skill of her inventive plotting and her deep understanding, not only of the book she parodied, but the social politics of its time.
Lydia Bennet's Blog by Valerie Laws
But don't let me put you off with this serious stuff - it's very, very funny, and the narrator, Lydia, is immensely likeable.

Next, I read the crime stories, The Rotting Spot and The Operator. (Also available in paperback.) They are set in the North-East of Britain, but here thrills mix with the sharp observation and wit. The setting is vivid, the characters varied and lively, the dialogue cracking. The tightly controlled heroine, Erica - a diet-watching runner, a bit of a control-freak - is off-set to great effect by her side-kick, an over-weight, uneducated, coarse but very canny Geordie lass with an eye to the main chance.

Now I come to Valerie Laws poetry, in her book 'All That Lives: The Poetry of Sex, Death and Pathology.' And I am so impressed. I am filled with admiration all over again.

'All That Lives', of course, must die. And the book opens with a dedication:
With love to my mother Sheila, who died of Alzheimer's Disease, April 2005, and to my father Lindsay, who died suddenly of an Aortic Aneurysm, March 2006.

Witnessing their deaths drove me to discover the science of dying down to cellular level, to celebrate the terrible beauty of the process and tell the story of the body's final journey.
'All That Lives' by Valerie Laws

Throughout, the examination of death is mixed with continuing life - as death always is. When reflecting on how her mother's Alzheimer's made her convinced that another man was living with her and her husband, Laws says, 'She has gained an extra husband, While the one I had is gone...'

The next poem, The Incredible Shrinking Brain is one of the most moving. It is repeated seven times. Each repetition has words removed, imitating the holes in Laws's mother's brain and memory, until the seventh repetition is reduced to one word - 'gone.' I didn't know whether to cry at its emotional punch, or applaud its cleverness.

This is followed by The Groucho Marx Guide To Dating (I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member,) which sets a completely different mood, with its jaunty, bouncing rhythms and insistent rhymes. In it Laws is astonished and disbelieving that a younger man 'fit as a lop' apparently wants to date her.
...He's flaky,
A psycho, a stalker, he's after my daughter,
Or after my money. No, on your bike honey...
All That Lives must die - but in the midst of death we are with life, and life goes on.

This up-beat poem is soon followed by the heart-breaking Senior Last Moments, which details the progression of Alzheimer's...
Your brainstem's on auto, the dinosaur relic
That keeps your heart beating, your lungs breathing air
And where now are you, do you hear, are you in there,
Do you know they are crying and holding your hands? 

But right after this comes the erotic Flirting At The Funeral. That fit as a lop younger man is still around, life still goes on...
I said to my mother's heart, stop
Please stop.

The first line of the next poem, Telling My Mother's Heart To Stop revolves around the fact that 'death is a process, not an event.' This is a poem recording and observing some of the most painful emotions we will ever feel. It took me back to the bedsides of my dying parents: and there was some comfort in the proof this poem offers that the pain is universal.

And then, He Runs Ten Miles To My House - another erotic delight. The narrator is being well-behaved at a hot summer garden party when her lover texts her to ask if she's in, because he's going to run to her house.  'I tap out the code/ that sets him in motion/ And sit tight a spell, knowing... he is running, running/ To me, and it's me that's sweating...'

I could go on and on quoting poems from this book. I haven't even touched on the poems about Laws' father's death, or the moving poems about the pathology specimens, the malformed foetuses, suicides - grim subjects, perhaps, but wonderful poetry.

The other amazing thing about this book is its price. It's only 99p as an e-book, or £6.26 as a paperback, which must be close to the cost of production. These are give-away prices - for all that thought, observation, and work.

Highly recommended

All That Lives