BLOG Eleanor Howe

NWR Issue 119

The Last Polar Bear on Earth

Cover of The Last Polar Bear on Earth by Rhian Elizabeth

Rhian Elizabeth’s The Last Polar Bear on Earth is one fourth of a new poetry quartet published by Parthian this autumn. A lone polar bear graces the cover, rearing up to better regard the star-speckled inky night sky. Nothing to do with the environment, or indeed bears, the collection’s title rather represents loneliness, isolation, desolation. Just some of the feelings that Elizabeth is familiar with in her experiences of love and illness, as she navigates the minefields of dating and Multiple Sclerosis, laying bare about abusive relationships, being a mother and having a debilitating illness. As the blurb succinctly puts it, here we have ‘some poems about being sick and being in love.’ As well as the surprising similarity between these two states, the unexpected humour stands out in this collection, and several poems had me snorting into my cup of tea.

The first poem dives straight to the heart of the two main themes of the collection with ‘Disabled Single Mother’. The poem’s grit—the Tinder reference and the offer of paying for a date with newly acquired benefit money—is undercut and made tender by the plainly spoken but affecting assertion;

i can love you the same
as anyone else
can do.

Like the eponymous figure in her poem, ‘The Neurologist’, who sees intensely private things ‘no neurologist should see’ on the poet’s brain, Elizabeth allows her readers to become similarly privy to some of her life’s startlingly intimate happenings. In opposition to her world-weary wit, she writes about love with sensitivity, and it is easy to warm to her frank appraisal of the absurdity that often arises when two souls come together. The poet is adept at winkling out those rarely spoken-about experiences that anyone who has dated will recognise, as in ‘Hunger Strike’, a poem about trying to retain mystique in the eyes of a new lover:

i didn’t eat in front of you
for the first three months
i wanted you to associate me
with romantic and pretty things
i wasn’t going to be the sound of wet
spaghetti slapping against a cheek

Love adopts a darker hue as the collection progresses, and Elizabeth begins to take her poetry beyond the average person’s experience and into waters where fewer have swam. Two poems about Christmas relate an abusive relationship. In ‘The Best Christmas Ever’, a cosy domestic scene is overturned by a violence that seems to have become chillingly commonplace to the recipient. But, typical of this collection, the bleakest of subject matters finds ways out of the darkness, and in ‘Christmas Presents’ the reader learns that the poet’s strength has won over the pull of the past, and some semblance of peace has returned;

but i was happy knowing
that there would never again be
another christmas
where you’d wrap presents like

Elizabeth uses humour as a salving balm to her darker poems, and this is never more evident than when she is writing about illness. ‘Paraphilic Infantilism’ considers the horror of having to wear adult nappies;

this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen
to someone in their twenties
only old people shit themselves

The poem is transformed from heart-breaking to wickedly funny in its last two lines with the wonderful deployment of the poet’s dry humour that makes this collection so appealing. A similar instance occurs in ‘They say there is always someone worse off than you’. The poet’s understandable and very funny response to this statement will give pause to anyone who has the urge to trot out this tired old saying in the face of another’s misfortune.

The Last Polar Bear on Earth’s final poem is typical of Elizabeth’s talent for transforming that which has gone before. ‘MS’ leaves the reader on an unlikely hopeful note that epitomes these poems. Its bleak moments are crested with a humour and incisiveness that makes this collection—which undoubtedly has its uncomfortable and sorrowful moments—a riotously funny and uplifting read.

Eleanor Howe recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

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previous blog: Serendipitous Intimations of Mortality
next blog: Christmas Days and Winterson at Hay Festival Winter Weekend


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