Secret Dreams, Hidden Rage

What if I told you there was a woman who knew magic? A woman with a restless sea rising inside her, an inner flame so scintillating her bones glow with it, a woman whose words cannot be contained by a book, but ripple through it, up your hand and into your heart, until it trembles and sings with all the turmoil and joy of a newborn sun? That woman exists. Her name is Rachel McCrum, and her magic of choice is poetry.

The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate is a captivating book. Arrestingly brought to life by the vibrant Scottish publisher Stewed Rhubarb Press, the book tells remarkable tales of love and rage, displacement and homecoming. Rachel is an endlessly empathetic writer, blessed with the ability to roam into the most unreachable chambers of our dreams and tell us the wonders and horrors she saw there upon her return.

It is as rewarding as it is emotionally difficult to read her immaculate poetry. It requires the kind of introspective work many of us feel unprepared for in a world where the denial of own feelings, not to mention those of others, is so commonplace.

“In a basement, the hungry man with shattered teeth squats,
frightened, gradually becomes hurricane.
He dreams of sacrificial legs of lamb,
splendid glistening fat, sodden and roasted.
Scrambling out to the night, he gobs
in the street, rips off his fingernails on bin lids,
scrabbles for something to bloat with.”

Rachel holds up a mirror to our secret dreams, our hidden rage. And it’s difficult to carry on as normal once you’ve witnessed the wonders within. She draws us into the deepest mists of ourselves, her words spread like stars above us, constellations of them, showing the way. Some poems incubate in your heart, hatching like hope when you least expect it, and others hit you with a flourish and a flash, demanding more of you, promising the world in return. This is poetry at its best. Poetry which makes you want to be a better person.

“Stop excusing yourself and bite it
hook, line and sinker will pull you up.
Sweat till the devil loses your scent.
Chew, on the bitter leaves of my silence,
the full name of your nemesis.
Hold your nerves like steel

I’ve got the medicine,
the healing spell
Madonna, we love you! Get up!
I, too, have made it through the wilderness.”

In her poem, “Who Wants a Home?”, a merciless authoritarian voice barks a list of commands at a fragile and displaced group of people, who are pleading with it in vain for a place to live.

“Hands up!
Heads Down!
Don’t Look us in the eye!”

The voice commands against a backdrop of the whitest silence.

“Lower your chattering voices. Do not take up so much space.” the voice chants, and later, “Turnaround. We have no room here. Find your own.”

Rachel’s use of space in her poems is always dynamic, and in this poem it serves to add to the sense of isolation felt by those who are pleading with the ones in power. As memories of lives once lived diminish into the distance, to be replaced with a dazzling lack of all things substantial, we feel the urge to cling to the beginnings of things – to times before our plans began to fall apart.

“We thought we’d grow up in houses like this.
We thought we’d grow up.
Where are our paint samples
and our permanence?
Our Trips to buy grout?”

The pain in admitting the chance to live a dream has passed is one we all hope to avoid. The voices in Rachel’s poem can do this no longer. “Is this really our fault?” they ask. “Our squints, our greying hairs / our failing energy, our fear?” The answers are beyond us. So are the solutions. While thousands of people go through this humiliation on a daily basis, their voices would sink into anonymity without words like Rachel’s. Words which make lost people real to us again.

The empathy that overflows from Rachel’s poems makes one thing clear. She writes about such things because she knows she must. Things that many of us know in our bones, but leave unsaid – because we need the energy, because we lack the time, because we feel someone else could do it better. Perhaps they could, and Rachel does it better than you could imagine, but she is not a poet who stands alone, sounding, as she does, a clarion call directly to the soul of every reader. One that will tear the barnacles from your heart, free your unsatisfied self, drag you out of the darkness of your dreams and compel you to stand beside her. To laugh a little louder. To stand a little straighter. To be who you are instead of what society wants. Do not miss the chance to read her title poem, in which she summons up a “monstrous regiment of women” to walk the pavements of the world, unashamed, “before the streets can fall dark and silent and damned”

“Give me caribou women and bone women
bite-back beefy women

not your bird women
least of all your sparrow, crow or wren women

but flamingo women and peacock women
eagle women and pelican women

Give me unnatural women
deranged women

moving, drumming
howling women”

For Rachel, summoning up the voices of women is no vanishing passion. They echo through the pages of her books, march in their hundreds behind her as she speaks. They are women she has conjured. Women she has been. Women she has changed. I am glad to be one of them.


The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate by Rachel McCrum

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