Miriam Barr’s collection of poetry Bullet Hole Riddle is, on reflection, perhaps one that I wanted to like more than I actually did. I wanted to like it because I admired the bravery of ‘going there’ (and by ‘there’ I mean the violent or traumatic past that this book documents the fall-out from, and which is, for the most part, ignored by serious writers as ‘distasteful’), because I agree with the way the author politicises the personal and refuses to allow damages done to the (female) body to become on the one hand, belittled, and, on the other, the defining feature of a life. As the title suggests, the book enacts a riddle; the teasing out, in three parts, of the scar tissue of a trajectory of violence. In this it becomes almost a concept book, it sticks so closely to its central themes.
The first section, Bullet, uses eight, quite brief, poems to bring the reader into the world of the book. It’s here that you realise that, as a reader, you have become implicated in the actions described. These small poems act as riddles: in the poem ‘Lesson’, the speaker describes how her “legs did not/run me away”, and the poem ‘Observer Effect’ admits “I was dressed towards desire/designed to seek it”, the poem ‘No Craft’ looks at consent and (body) language, AND contains, for me, one of the best lines in the book: “the fire horse in us bucking the entire time/at how we give in”. This section doesn’t pull its punches, these are hefty issues, and the poems used to raise them concede their complications, while at times showing things in stark simplicity.
The second section is much less clear, and probably the most enjoyable, poetically, for me. We move into a confusing world of jungles and rivers, the damaged psyche; this section deals with the desire to move and the failure of the body. The poem ‘Self-soothing’ looks at the ways we attempt to heal ourselves; the line “I am on my knees in the dirt/the earth is in my hands/a secret running down my back” captures, for me, one of this book’s major strengths: the ability to accurately describe physical sensation in a way that points to the emotional. In fact, this physicality, the author’s taking back of her body, writing it down for herself, and documenting its involvement with others is the primary aim of the book I think.
The final section describes the healing of the speaker, but, unfortunately, is the one I enjoyed the least. Not because I’m a terrible person, but because, for me, this is where the writing crosses over from symbolic to clichéd at times. It seems like the book loses its poetry, becoming more prosaic; I stop engaging with the writing, and because I’m satisfied that the speaker is going to ‘be ok’, the plot doesn’t hold my interest either. If this was a simple book of domestic poetry, some of these poems would stand just fine on their own, but as they come at the end of this storyline, they seem a bit wishy-washy. I’m not sure what I actually want for the end of the book instead though, soo….
Overall I felt like some of these pieces were slightly uncomfortable on the page, like they, in their hearts, belonged to the voice, and had been pinned down against their will. Some of their vitality has been lost, I suspect, in the transition from performance to paper. I found it difficult, at times, to balance the confessional tone of the poems with the almost mysterious content. For poems that appear so frank, it can be difficult to pin down exactly what is happening from time to time. Though maybe this is the point. Many of the things this book is doing, though, make it an important one. It’s a feminist book, and it takes its politics seriously, sometimes at the expense of the writing, but most often balancing the two. Anyone who reads this book will find it impossible not to think seriously about gender politics in society and in our intimate dealings with one another. From where I’m standing, that can only be a good thing.
Reviewed by Hannah Mettner
Bullet Hole Riddle
by Miriam Barr
Published by Steele Roberts