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REVIEWERS IN RESIDENCE BOOK REVIEW: Malkin by Camille Ralphs

March 17, 2016 11:00 am

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Reviewed by Louise Essex

malkinMalkin is a rich and earthy collection of monologic poems, bringing us the lost voices of accused women and men from the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials. It is not, of course, the first time the infamous Lancashire trials have been creatively reimagined but Camille Ralphs has offered up something very special with Malkin. It froths with tales of honesty and accusation into which are embedded the harrowing, grainy details of “loppsyded children” and “dropsied glops of blud”. It also manages to draw out of the reader an empathetic closeness with the speakers of these first person accounts. This collection ropes itself around your neck and shakes you into the year 1612 with dizzying ease.

‘Pendle Hill’ is the powerful opening “spel”, as Ralphs terms it, with its arresting call and response structure. The reader’s place here is quickly affirmed, as the poem’s final word compels us to hear out these “hollow voices”. “Listen,” Ralphs demands. Beneath her spell, how could we do otherwise?

Each of the thirteen epitaphic monologues are drenched in their own particular creation of character and scene. While the individual voices come through strongly, the narrative cross-overs tie the collection together neatly. The loose half-rhymes peppered here and there throughout maintain a rhythmic momentum, without taking away from the necessary chaos of these voices together.

The playing with spacing and page formatting is a welcome addition in ‘Anne Whittle’ and ‘Isabel Robey’, both visually pleasing and structurally engaging. Indeed, alongside five of the poems, Emma Wright’s eerily charming illustrations sit perfectly. The presentation of the publication overall (the yellowed paper and black and white scheme, cleverly reminiscent of a medieval pamphlet) also deserve mention.

What is most striking about Ralphs’s work is the evocative and sharp metaphorical imagery – my favourite example being the wonderfully bleak line from ‘Katherine Hewit’: “What is a child discarded but a gapp-tuthed calendar?” The collection continually surprises as it goes on with images you can bite into. The violence of the trials is particularly memorable in ‘Jane Bulcock’, in which “no eyelid [is] left unflippd”.

What is challenging about Malkin is the free spelling, particularly to readers unfamiliar with medieval English. It requires a certain patience and concentration, but once used to it, the spelling thoroughly enriches the poetry and expands its meaning – the onomatopoeia in ‘Anne Whittle’ is particularly beneficial. This is not, indeed, a light read, nor does it pretend to be. What it does do is sew together a wholesome group of poems that make the witch trails strangely accessible. Malkin sends you tumbling down Pendle Hill and only when you have reached the bottom do you realise you have been utterly charmed.

*****

logoLouise Essex is a Reviewer in Residence at InPress Books.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme, which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.

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