Book Review

Typhoid August by Sarah Fletcher

chapbook review that turns into me recounting my entire relationship with sex

Typhoid August is a new chapbook by Sarah Fletcher (one of the winners of the New Poets Prize 2016/17) and is published by smith|doorstop (part of the confusing publisher The Poetry Business (who I have been confused by before)). This chapbook is just under 30 pages long, and contains quite a lot of short pieces, as well as a few that are longer and a couple that weave in and out throughout the collection like splintered texts.

In such a short collection, however, there is an impressive amount of tonal – and voice – variety, and unlike much of the poetry that I end up reading, there is an implied fictionality to some of the pieces, too. Typhoid August contains an imaginative, rather than a solely expressive, creativity. There are thematic threads and repeated ideas throughout, there are characters who share characteristics, perhaps, but do not share names. This is a set of works, rather than one singular work, and though there were a few pieces I found more complex than I – as an uncomplex man teehee – like poetry to be, there was a lot here that had an emotionality, an immediacy and a physicality to it that I really enjoyed.

Jealousy is a recurring theme, both a fear of seductive “other women” actively taking a helpless male lover, as well as a fear of male desire being actively geared towards others, including – in ‘Psychology’ (which I had previously read in Poetry London) – a fantasy, paedophilic idea of a girl rather than the real life, present, woman who the man in the poem is touching.

There are some great, affecting images throughout, such as “I saw the streetlight / prismed through their kiss”, and there are several real belters, such as the glorious ‘Cordelia’. This is a poem about jealousy that starts straightforwardly with the poetic voice watching a woman attempt to seduce the voice’s boyfriend, but then pivots into a fantasy where the voice imagines a different future where she has a conversation with the seductress about the weird, status-oriented, sex she has had with the man, but in this future the voice and the man are strangers. That sentence is too long. ‘Cordelia’ isn’t.

There’s a poem about 9/11 (‘For Courtney Stodden’) that focuses on the dissociative distance between death and the later pregnancy of a peer who was present with the poetic voice when the attack happened. ‘Christina Crashes The Wedding’ is about a bride at her wedding as she watches the potential seduction of her new husband by Christina. She realised – in a panic – “there are Christinas everywhere”.

‘Worthy’ is a poem that I think is about sex, and if it is then the description of a man as “he lifts / The lid of unhappy cotton” is one of the best evocations of pre-coital undressing I have ever encountered. “The sun lurks, unwelcome, to announce / it’s time to go”, Fletcher writes later in the same poem, and this is imbued, too, with the twist of desire and is a phrase that I loved.

A polyamorous friend sent me a newspaper article earlier today that was about the impossibility of sexually satisfying monogamous relationships (I mean that was what was suggested to me by the first few paragraphs (where I stopped reading), as without doubt I’m the most sexually optimistic I’ve been in my entire life and also monogamous, so don’t want to be evangelically preached to about the fruitlessness and short term nature of my current sex-positivity), but one of its main points that I did understand was a discussion of the falsity of “tiredness” with regards to the crushing of libido. When one is in the new throes of a new lust, one barely sleeps for crazy fucking (it’s true, yo), and this comment on the “lurking” new day, unwelcome light, struck me. Yeah, when you haven’t slept and your bodies are sore but you just can’t stop touching, that’s a good place to be. So, I thought the poem was evocative of that exciting and powerful lustful feelin, even if that word “unhappy” introduced a negative air. Maybe the cotton was unhappy for being stretched by an erection, and was excited to be dropped to the floor.

I haven’t had sex in a month (at time of writing), lol, so I’m getting prurient. I no longer have cripplingly low sexual self esteem, and though I’m glad this has changed while still young enough to sexually function, it does make me regret the many, many opportunities for sex I fearfully turned down when younger. I used to want to fuck, but pretty much every time I had the opportunity, I got scared and ran away. Not only have I never had a one night stand, but I am the only man I know who has rejected more direct offers of sex than he has had lovers. I had the Lust, but I had the Fear. Tbh, had I not had the Fear, I definitely would’ve behaved very, very badly. Maybe the sociological purpose of Catholic guilt is disease prevention?

But now, no longer self-identifying as “post-sex” or “sex-negative” (which I definitely used to do), I have zero interest in wasting that confidence on middling thrusts at a stranger. It’s apt – for my personal narrative – that I have only realised I could mechanically enjoy promiscuity now I no longer fantasise about it. And I used to fantasise about promiscuity all the time. The only reason I didn’t fuck around when younger was that Fear, that catastrophic fear of irrevocable embarrassment and nothing but disastrous sexual encounters. Not having a big enough dick, not being hard enough, coming too soon, coming too late, coming too little, coming too much, coming too many times, having weird balls, being found sexually boring… I felt like my sex drive, any desire I felt, could lead to nothing but laughter, disgust, disapproval and gossip.

I never really had a proper sexual education, be that in school or in bed[s]. I probably watched American Pie at too formative an age, where the path to sex is filled with shame and embarrassment and societal, public, disgrace. I’ve also never intentionally watched pornography and have probably seen less than thirty seconds of porn in my life, and none of those were masturbatory experiences. The only sex I have ever watched from start to finish is myself doing sex in a mirror. Which doesn’t count. The only time I have ever had to stop watching a video of any sort to go elsewhere and masturbate because I was too turned on by it was that 80s film where Sharon Stone ice picks men to death while she’s fucking them (#masochistictendencies), and that happened almost a decade and a half ago, when I was a virginal teen.

I don’t know what I don’t know about sex. But I’m no longer scared of it, I no longer see feeling desire as something that is out of my control, dangerous or disgusting. I have never felt shame after masturbating, but I no longer feel shame after sex either, which is honestly not something I ever thought I’d be able to say.

Sorry, this got off topic, need to wrap up the poetry comments:

Typhoid August has some great, engaging poems about physicality and desire, about jealousy and discomfort. It’s a change, for me, to read poems that don’t seek to exclusively express the self, and I enjoyed it, as a change, but my favourite type of poetry still remains those poems that centre on an individual mind, its feelings and its truth.

This is good, though. Enjoyed.

Buy Typhoid August direct from The Poetry Business here.

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