cw: trauma, sexual assault
You, reader, may recognise the name Sophie Collins as the writer of the excellent and widely acclaimed (even here!) 2018 poetry collection, Who Is Mary Sue?
This book, published in a new and expanded form in 2022 (remember then?) was first published in 2017, so predates Collins’s Faber hit.
I didn’t realise this when I started the book and, honestly, it came as a surprise, because – tho tbf to me and my cultural-critical memory I read Who Is Mary Sue? fuccen years ago – this reads like a later, wiser and much more serious text, tho thinking about this for a second afterwards this sense may be because (all of? some of?) the content of this text was written after (or alongside?) the content of Who Is Mary Sue?, as the internal processes at Faber probably take a lot longer than those at an indie press, soooooo what seems to be the earliest book-length articulation of the ideas of the poet may well not be, rendering my immediate response – that small white monkeys does not feel like the earliest book-length articulation of the ideas of a poet – perhaps correct?
What am I talking about?
Correct correct correct
(I don’t really have thoughts any more. Or feelings. Or ideas. Whoops.)
small white monkeys was published in 2017 by Book Works (check ’em out here) in association with Glasgow Women’s Library.
In an intriguing (and almost restructuring/recontextualising) afterword, Collins discusses the extensive residency she undertook at that library and in its large archive of both previously published and unpublished books, writing, artifacts and testimonies about the lived experiences of women.
Collins discusses compiling oral histories of sexual assault, writing, editing and collating like Svetlana Alexievich (she says that, that’s not me just talking about Alexievich unprompted again), before taking that text and using it as a springboard for a both more personal and more expansive text.
Collins writes about the jolt of a return to the memory of trauma – a sexual assault; a physical injury causes her to focus again, years later, on that experience, and it becomes something her mind demands to be thought about, unrelentingly.
The book explores the writing of a long form poem – ‘the engine’ – which directly deals with that experience and its aftermath and repercussions, and tho that poem does not appear in this book (there are excerpts on the cover and in the chapters (which are mostly, but not entirely, prose)), its echoes are there in form, so too are its themes and its images, especially the eponymous small white monkeys.
This text becomes, then, a mediation on shame and the unfairness of feeling shame as a victim (please note that that word “unfairness” is mine and I apologise if it sounds dismissive, that’s not what I mean at all at all at all at all at all), it is about the necessity of community and openness and healing and honesty and the dangers – both to the self and to society as a whole – of repressing emotions and realities.
Using some poetry (sometimes riffing on excerpts from the testimonials of survivors of sexual violence, sometimes expanding from affirmations taken from literature and philosophy) alongside the prose, Collins considers support networks and mutual aid, the significant literary canon of writers who discuss personal experiences of violence (with lots in particular about Jean Rhys, someone whose work I should really read more of), a brief history of “self-help” publishing, as well as the creative process and the importance of self expression.
I could have read this book at four or five or six times the length – something I very rarely say as brevity is (often) a virtue absent from literature.
This is an excellent book: serious, emotive, engaging, explorative, personal, articulate, smart. It’s also a beautiful object, which – and let’s not pretend it doesn’t – matters.
Order direct from Book Works via this link.
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