Typhoid August by Sarah Fletcher
Review by Charlie Baylis
Typhoid August is the second pamphlet by the London-based – and former Foyle Young Poet of the Year – Sarah Fletcher. It was picked as a winner of the New Poets Prize by Andrew McMillan, who praised its ‘arresting, often uncomfortable poems which explore the intersections of physicality, violence and disgust’. The violence is primarily psychological; in stand-out poem ‘Cordelia’ the speaker describes an older woman’s attempt to seduce her alarmingly passive boyfriend:
In a stranger’s house she waltzes with my boyfriend
to Mahler and tells me about emotional labour and that I’m so much younger
Her name is so moneyed I could call her Lulu or Allegra and she’d respond When she is tired of waltzing she twists
her arms around Peter who is passing out on the sofa
The poem then vaults to a parallel universe where Cordelia has already slept with Peter. Cordelia is delighted to tease the speaker with lurid details of ‘how she washed the semen from his stomach’. The seduction appears to have been purely for sport, performed to humiliate the speaker. The leap from the real world to the imaginary (‘in another life...’) cleverly mimics the mental leap which takes place in the mind of a jealous lover, where logic is kicked out of the window and the most outlandish suspicions replace reality. The speaker is vulnerable, her boyfriend helpless: it is Cordelia who holds the cards and she plays them with cruelty. Fletcher’s examination of the uneven balance of power is exhilarating, the language fresh and enticing, the pacing perfect. ‘Cordelia’ is a great poem. I hope it becomes as widely read as it deserves.
In ‘Blue & Typhoid Mary (1)’ Fletcher considers a love triangle from an alternate perspective: the unidentified speaker is involved with a married man, Blue, who we hear calling her up from a payphone at ‘war with his velvet pockets to find the change’. Blue is married to Typhoid Mary, an infamous cook, who in early 20th century New York callously infected various people with typhoid fever. Typhoid Mary goes about her domestic duties with thinly veiled contempt:
She is rinsing the hair of their children Stealing their rings
Caring for the hairfall child by boiling dog bones for soup in the iron skillet
(the child will die in two months’ time regardless and at no one’s expense)
Typhoid Mary is an ideal case study for Fletcher as her asymptomatic typhoid lends her a godlike power over those in her care, who she infects while remaining perfectly healthy herself. In the above lines we witness her brutishly boiling ‘dog bones’ for dying children while ‘stealing their rings’. Curiously, Typhoid Mary’s fecklessness doesn’t stop Blue from loving her. Love is not always won by virtue, especially in Fletcher’s world: it seems more likely to be won by vice. Blue undermines the speaker by refusing to choose between the two women. He ‘crawls around the word divorce’, and she ‘can tell he loves Mary with a love that’s no one’s fault’. However, by the end of the poem it seems the speaker has succeeded in gaining the object of her desire: ‘I feel a woman knocking with invalid love It’s time to let her out’. The speaker’s ‘invalid love’ is liberated and Typhoid Mary has been, for the moment, cast aside. Furthermore, that the love is ‘invalid’ confirms the devious nature of the substance picked apart by Fletcher. The poem is a darkly humorous study of the amorality of love, replete with a compelling narrative and great characters. Like ‘Cordelia’, the poem is technically flawless, with gripping dialogue where every word works.
One of the strengths of Typhoid August is that it features these aforementioned characters reappearing in various guises, lending continuity to the pamphlet, so it is much more than sixteen poems randomly tossed together. Typhoid August features three Typhoid Mary poems, plus three untitled, strange and sinister poems in italics. The latter triptych concerns two friends deliberating menacingly over an ex, with a strong undercurrent of violence. A line in the third poem offers a vague hint as to who is speaking: ‘it took only a mouth in our darkness / to bring the tabloid virus to our house.’ Could it be Typhoid Mary, who was splashed across the tabloids of New York in her day, plotting the demise of the rival we met in ‘Blue & Typhoid Mary (1)’? Possibly. Regardless of whether it is Mary speaking or not, the emotional core of the poems is jealousy, a sin Fletcher twists and teases with a charming, slightly disconcerting, expertise throughout the pamphlet. Fletcher investigates relationships, sex and infidelity with such a sharp eye that, as Luke Kennard points out on the back cover, she condenses ‘a novel’s worth of emotional fall-out...into sixteen poems’. It is her exploration of the psychological which elevates Typhoid August from a good pamphlet to a great pamphlet.
The final poem in Typhoid August is the title poem. The speaker, now infected after foolishly accepting breakfast from Typhoid Mary, is quarantined: ‘I am Glitch-Mouthed Girlfriend in the dirt / Lips exiled from speech’. The poem is sprawling, the language loose and ambiguous. It mostly works, though I am not quite convinced by the way the curtain is brought down at the poem’s close:
How inadequate to think
fish / bicycle
The poem requires a powerful ending. This, for me, is not it. Fletcher, over the previous fifteen poems, has pulled a sizeable selection of head-spinning last lines from her sleeves, but at the crucial moment she exits the pamphlet to the anaemic patter of ‘fish / bicycle’ and ‘grief/ / /Grief’. It could be that the speaker is dying so she can’t say more, it could be a stylistic choice in favour of minimalism, but to me it feels more like a shrug of the shoulders when the stage is set for something spectacular. The brilliance which precedes it deserves a much stronger end note.
Despite this minor criticism it would be impossible for me to conclude that Typhoid August is anything other than a triumph. In parallel with Fletcher’s devilish protagonists, it is powerful and provocative, written with a luxurious allure and the occasional, did-I-just-read-that, shock.
Typhoid August by Sarah Fletcher is published by Smith/Doorstep, £5.