Review of Hazel Frew's Minim

Tuesday 17 February 2015

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Hazel Frew
(Rack Press, 2014); pbk: price £5

Born in 1968 in Broughty Ferry, Hazel Frew is now Glasgow-based. She has published in various magazines, including Orbis, The Rialto, Poetry Scotland, Fras and New Writing Scotland. Minim is her second poetry selection to be published by the Rack Press, the first being Clockwork Scorpion in 2007. Her first full-length collection, Seahorses, was published by Shearsman Books.

The front cover of Minim is truly minimal, with only the poet’s name, title and publisher in black type on a plain buff background. That simple presentation fits well with the poet’s pared back and deceptively unassuming style.

In musical notation a minim is a single note with a value of half of a beat. Frew’s pamphlet is a series of short poems split into two sections, “Oliver” and “Verity”, suggestive of two halves, or more subtly, perhaps of a heartbeat. This is apt, given that the poems in each section refer to her experiences of pregnancy and childbirth with her son and daughter respectively.

The entire poem cycle describes a woman’s profound bodily experience of conception, the growth of the foetus, birth itself and the subsequent emotional and spiritual feelings triggered by each of these phases. However, she also includes her husband in the emotional narrative, to illustrate their shared desire for parenthood – another union of two halves, in keeping with the title.

In the “Oliver” section, the pamphlet’s eponymous poem develops the musical notation metaphor, with the relationship of the woman and her partner imagined as a musical stave, with the unborn child described as “the unknown clef”.

A quiet scale
our love.

Later in the pregnancy, “Baby Grape”,relates her reaction to seeing the foetus in a scan:

cried with joy
at the sight of you

living deep
inside my dark

however far away
you seem

closer to me now
than my own self…

Other poems in the “Oliver” cycle deal with very physical and seemingly mundane aspects of pregnancy, such as “Pang”, which describes those maternal cravings for unusual foods. The series culminates with a poem about her experience of birth by Caesarean section.

The “Verity” cycle commences with a powerful evocation of conception, “Endometrium”, in which Frew uses metaphors of the sun (in Taoism, the force of the Creative), an arrow and a “scythe in my stomach” to describe the sensations.

“Isosceles” also charts the experience of having a scan – the one which will reveal the sex of the foetus, describing the “insatiability” of that need to find out, despite avowed intentions not to do so. Other images from the scan are drawn with great precision, such as

bits of you looming
like portside in fog
a crown, a kidney
nose tip and spine trail…

The final poem, “Curve”, relates the bodily sensations of final weeks of her term. The physically exhausted poet looks down at her pregnant stomach, “only glimpsing my feet”, and senses that she is “nearing the summit, the sum of it all”.

The structure of each of the poems is broadly similar; lines tend to be short, with the minimum of grammatical division. Rather, the flow of the poems is controlled by their innate rhythm and tight line-breaks. She employs a subtle rhyme scheme, which is not often obvious until the poem is read aloud, a technique similar to Paul Muldoon’s rhyme strategies.

Frew’s work is remarkably honest. She is unafraid to deal with pregnancy in an unsentimental way and this lack of sentiment clears the way for an almost phenomenological account of the experience. If this is confessional poetry, then its light touch refuses self-indulgence. Every poem here speaks with an authentic voice, inviting real empathy with the poet’s contemplation.

Jenny Gorrod

Hazel Frew will be reading at StAnza on Friday 6th March