REVIEW by Suzannah V Evans

NWR Issue r19

Rebel Sun

by Sophie McKeand

Sophie McKeand’s Rebel Sun may be rooted in the landscape and nature of north Wales, but it is a poetry collection that is as otherworldly as it is bound by place, and as political as it is lyrical. The writing is lit by McKeand’s fierce and funny imagination, reflected in the poems’ typography as well as in their imagery and ideas, and the collection as a whole is great fun to read.

McKeand’s descriptions often tend towards the magical, and many poems feature unusual protagonists and strange goings-on. Her lively imagination is evident in one of the early poems in the collection, ‘how they exist’, which features a meeting between a ‘blind giant’ and a ‘tiny woman’:

The eyes of a tiny woman who dreamed of trees
were wrenched open by madness,
these images caused her to shrink from people so that
some days she could not bear to exist
and hid inside a nut.

The last line of this prose poem’s passage is particularly enjoyable, its brevity in comparison to the preceding lines imitating the idea of shrinking, and its iambic rhythm and short words forming a contrast to the rolling sounds of the next line, which describes the ‘mountainous shoulders’ of the giant. Later, the pair travel together ‘as tectonic plates or thunderstorms’, suggesting the power that can arise from uniting the strengths of people who otherwise seem very different.

The title poem is also extremely inventive, as are the other prose poems scattered through the collection. ‘Rebel Sun’ has three sections, examining the protagonist’s working day, weekend, and finally a hospital stay when the constraints of life in a workaholic capitalist society become too much. ‘Your alarm rings beetles’, the poem begins, alarmingly, and McKeand’s creativity is showcased in her choice of verbs in the proceeding lines: ‘you waterfall out of bed’, ‘Your car is a tortoise and you grovel to work together’, ‘another afternoon whales by’. Other lines also exhibit a strikingly original way of thinking. ‘Thousands of bricks defend workers from an insurgent army of brilliant light demonstrating across courtyards’, the speaker observes. Not only is the work environment a haven from natural light, it is also a place of rigid anonymity:

You try to sign off with your name but cannot remember. The letters are ants marching determinedly in circles. You brush this diversion aside and type yours sincerely desk 391. They will know who you are.

Humans, as well as letters, are depicted in relation to insects. ‘You are a caterpillar deliberately gnawing through another day,’; ‘You are a plague of locusts devouring the contents of the fridge’, the speaker notes, intimating uniformity and perhaps worker zeal. Work, on the other hand, is characterised in terms of the marine. A computer screen ‘lights a fishbowl around your face as you yank seaweed across the window and submerge;’ an important document ‘arrives as a pulsating jellyfish’. Work – oceanic, tidal, unrelenting – may well have the capacity to drown its workers, just as red wine ‘engulfs the tiny boat in which you are trying to ascend’ during social meetings with friends. Other strange moments pulsate through the poem, so that a chair, in a Kafkaesque twist, becomes a cockroach, and a laptop ‘is chiming butterflies; your phone rings hedgehogs.’ Finally, in hospital, the speaker muses:

Day after day as the Rebel Sun graffities propaganda across fractured limbs you hold fast to what you know: the sun’s malice has caused this depression; you were born to work – to be productive, to give everything to the job, to climb, to improve, to be the best, to be unique, irreplaceable.

The poem is a valuable critique of our society’s neoliberal dedication to productivity, seen through the lens of our relationship to other living beings in the world. Other poems also challenge the status quo. ‘Expectation’ satorises the language of politicians, exposing how meaningless phrases often disguise meaningless promises, while ‘Silver Fish’, like ‘Rebel Sun’ is a poem that further mixes politics with the aquatic, featuring Donald Trump ‘spatter[ing] fish as he spoke’. ‘Paper News’ turns its focus to the way that news is reported, using repetition and list forming to build a sense of disquiet.

While McKeand writes subtly about political concerns, she is also attuned to the personal, and poems such as ‘Declutter’, ‘Minimalist Living’, and ‘Cosmic Sat Nav’ embrace holding on to what is essential in life, and discarding the rest. ‘Declutter’ and ‘Minimalist Living’ are placed side by side in the book, so that the spacing and sculptural form of the latter poem plays off the dense text and small font of the former. ‘Declutter’ is the more enjoyable poem of the two, featuring flashes of feminism that has the speaker inquire:

seven bras with underwire and padding I’ve stopped wearing when did I believe the lie that my breasts are so horribly deformed I should only subject the general public to them when they’re lifted with wire and hidden behind a layer of moulded foam

The poem, while challenging due to its lack of punctuation, rewards the reader with its astute observations and humour. ‘Cosmic Sat Nav’ also recounts the speaker’s decision to downsize, this time into a ‘2940mm x 1193mm x 7340mm’ space. While this necessitates fewer material possessions, a couple ‘repattern our lives to unwind across the land like ivy’ and joyously ‘run barefoot in the language of unfamiliar forests.’

McKeand’s writing, then, is both fun and earnest, embracing the surreal and the mundane. Her typography, spacing, and elaborate punctuation is also interesting, functioning more successfully in some poems than in others (in ‘InsOmina’, for example, the repetitions and visual stutterings work well in communicating a sense of linguistic breakdown, but grow tiresome towards the end of the poem; elsewhere, the excessive ampersands and exclamation marks will appeal to some readers more than others.) While the visual presentation of her poems suggests playfulness, however, it is worth noting that Sophie McKeand is a serious, as well as a seriously playful, poet.

Suzannah V Evans is a poet, editor, and critic. She was born in London and studied at the universities of St Andrews and York. Her writing has appeared in the TLS, Eborakon, the London Magazine, the ScoresTime PresentTears in the Fence, and elsewhere.

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