If your favourite thing about the stories handed down to us from the past is a bit of bestiality and inter-species romance, you’re likely to enjoy the witty and erotic Myrtle, a collection of poetry by East London writer Ruth Wiggins.
Sensuous verses place the reader into the mind of an amorous Pan in ‘On Making Love to a Nanny Goat’, as Wiggins imagines a four-legged lover ‘eating out of your palm’ as you ‘bring her dainty hooves up to your chest’. Frank sexual desire dominates the verses of ‘Reynard’ as the narrator lusts after the ‘big old dog fox’ of European legend, a virile symbol imagined as ‘heavy with health, / With cock’, and whose pelt on her shoulders brings out rough, doggish desires. The animal pieces in this collection stand out; Wiggins is in tune with the eroticism and inherited meaning of the bestial scenarios, yet never loses sight of the absurdity of the fantasy.
The poet continues to raise her wry eyebrow at the often passive role of women in these masculine sex and power fantasies, the absurd ‘cosmologies of gods and rapists, / eagles, husbands, goats and showers’ they exist in. The unlikely silence of women under duress is toyed with as the poet wonders what vengeful fantasies might be brewing in the mind of a character spun from elements of Greek myth’s Leda and Elisa from Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Wild Swans’:
And did she imagine him later
in a coffin of rye paste sealed
with butter? Or picture herself
green and blistered […]
casting off a shirt of nettle leaf
come morning, her bitter jerkin
prickling his neck?
These ladies’ suffering at the hands of swans (and the odd wicked stepmother) is enough to make me look askance at the nearest duck pond and appreciate Wiggins’s solid square of a poem as an uncompromising backdrop to revenge dreams of swan pie.
The Myrtle of the title foreshadows another of the collection’s obsessions: herbs and plants rich in symbolism, scent and sensuality. In the hands of the goddess of pleasure and procreation, Venus, myrtle is central to snatching sex and power back from the gods, rapists, eagles, husbands and so on of manly mythology. ‘Venus at the Potter’s Wheel’ tells us ‘Screw your Judeo-Christian god’:
I could just as easily throw pots
with my thighs, shape your keen red clay
into an urgent vase.
Finish you off with a flourish
of myrtle – oh then you’d know
the meaning of fucked.
Wiggins’s rewriting of these cosmologies into an ominous female psychosexual playground is brooding, funny and very enjoyable.
The less sexually overt flower poems allowed me to indulge other senses. ‘I’ve been Crumbling Anti-Histamines Into Your Food All Week’ sees a woman come home to a house thick with flowers: ‘Traps of blossom spool across her feet, / the stairwell of their two-up-two-down newly solid / with three dimensions of pink’, filling my mind with colour and texture. ‘Modern Herbal’ fixates on a frying spring of rosemary, ‘Aromatic needles in a hot butter fizz; a festive, / baubled skid’, and brought the warm scent of the herb to my nose. Wiggins’s collection, even as she writes about goddesses and myths, triumphs in successfully evoking visceral pleasures and awakening the reader’s senses.
Myrtle is Ruth Wiggins’s debut pamphlet of poetry, and she is extraordinarily accomplished already, keeping tight control of her imaginative verse and varying her formal and thematic approach throughout. Equally importantly, Wiggins’s poems are a joy to read and it is a pleasure for the reader to spend time in the sly, sensual and smutty world she creates.
Myrtle by Ruth Wiggins, The Emma Press, Paperback, ISBN 978-1-910139-05-9, £6.50