Book Review: How to take off your clothes, by Hadassah Grace

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_how_to_take_off_your_clothesGrace’s debut collection is a feminist treatise and a raw exploration. It feels like the atmosphere at a first-year university party where everyone pre-gamed Chardon and there’s that one girl with the legs who always gets naked. It’s both self-conscious, testing its own edges, and confident in its skin. It doesn’t need you to like it because it likes itself, but it wants to be seen. It yells.

It is without artifice, but not without intention and finesse.

The opening inscription points out that wide margins were left deliberately, ‘to write down any thoughts these poems might inspire, to plot your revolution, or improve them by writing your own poetry.’

That’s almost sacrilegious (the writing in books, not the plotting, which is entirely justified) and the invite shows an openness, a willingness to be a conversation starter – which this book absolutely will be.

The intersection of sex and poetry was not invented with Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem Keats is dead so fuck me from behind, or Tayi Tibble’s Poukahangatus, but they were certainly part of a rekindling in local literature. Grace’s style is as bawdy for our times as Shakespeare was for his. A uniquely New Zealand text, it traverses sex, the sex industry, relationships, identity, and politics, tripping from Christchurch to Wellington to Auckland and back.

The feminism throughout is explicit and confronting. In the poem Ruin, we find unapologetic sexuality, messiness, hunger. This is the raw side of women, the ‘unladylike’ behaviour condemned or hidden. This is the impact of patriarchy and rape culture and millennia of oppression. This is a poem I would love to see Grace perform. These final stanzas in particular:

we’re the 52% but we’ve been sleeping
too busy counting calories to count on each other
too busy carrying you to notice how strong we’ve grown
but we have grown so very strong

and you? You had your chance
2000 years of chances
now we are everything you’ve always wanted
everything you’ve always feared
and we will ruin
everything

Vulnerability and bravado play off each other throughout the book – the same way they do in many women’s lives. At times soft, at times full of teeth, this is the way we respond to patriarchal pressure, both internalised and otherwise. This uncertainty and distrust manifests in the poem Smoke From Burning Paper Lanterns Stings Your Eyes, with the line ‘Did it hurt when my brother tore the heads off paper dolls?’ and these:

with you, I pulled my own clothes off
slowly, from the ground up
it was weeks
before my neck slipped into view

Possibly the most expressive of this tension and resistance is the poem women>pain, another poem I’d love to hear performed.

you hear the echo of your mother’s voice
“This is just part of being a woman. Take some painkillers. Get on with it.”

this is not a poem
it’s a diagnosis
C-PTSD
which is a doctor’s way of saying
yours will be a life lived underwater

and the line: ‘if you’d only been greater or lesser’

and this stanza:

so now this is not a poem
it’s a hashtag
a raised hand
a spotlight
it’s resistance
it is dignity
it’s f@#k you pay me*
it’s an open letter
a witch hunt
a spell
it’s viral
it’s impeachment
it’s a jail term
it’s a riot
it’s you
this is you

Grace’s voice is raw and confronting and unique, and I expect this book to occupy an equally unique space. Readers will want to plot their own revolution.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

How To Take Off Your Clothes
by Hadassah Grace
Published by Dead Bird Books
ISBN 9780473453176

*NB the actual word is used here, I’ve just changed the letters for the sake of inbox filters!

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