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Exploring the Cosmos
Keep on Spinning is the debut chapbook from Scottish writer and poet Jen Hughes. Hughes studies at the University of Glasgow where a course entitled ‘Exploring the Cosmos’ provided inspiration. Hughes utilises knowledge gleaned from these studies as an engaging metaphor to explore life’s polarities – love, loneliness, joy and pain.
The collection begins on earth with ‘Waiting at A London Train Station’. We find ourselves in the everyday commuting world, but under Hughes’ skilled hand the everyday is rendered grand. For instance, the poet says of flowers on the platform ‘There are galaxies on these flower petals’. We are nudged to consider them with fresh eyes, perhaps for the first time. We are invited to view existence from the perspective of these plants so we can appreciate the complexities of ourselves:
Hughes is active in the Glasgow writing scene where, pre-Covid, she co-hosted, (with fellow poet Gayle Smith), ‘Words and Music at MILK’ an open-mic night, (they continue to run an online event on the first Monday of every month.) She is also a regular reader of her own work and videos of her honest and endearing readings are on YouTube. Hughes’ experience in front of an audience lends her writing a buoyancy that lifts her words off the page. ‘I’m Like the Sun, Hun’ shows a confident humour, ‘What can I say, I’m hot as hell! / To be this colourful, you need to have some heat’. It is impossible not to hear the poet’s bright voice read this one in your head. The exuberant rhythm and playful rhyme beg to be read aloud, and it is sure to be an audience favourite.
The poet’s humour is again evident in the playful sonnet ‘Midsummer Night’s Reality’. The Wendy Copeian final couplet is sure to cheer even the most curmudgeonly reader:
Between Dark and Light
There is complexity too in the midst of all this verve and humour. Hughes’ writing oscillates deftly between dark and light, happiness and suffering. ‘I’m Like the Sun, Hun’ foreshadows darker themes to come as the speaker’s ‘sense of security’ threatens to cave in. The line ‘Because a solar party won’t stop’ takes on a sense of desperation when read in conjunction with ‘Mercury’.
In ‘Mercury’, the poet expresses the loneliness of no longer being at the centre of things, no longer being ‘the shining light people are drawn to/ But the secondary thing that orbits it.’ The reader is drawn into the moods of the personified planets: of Venus who ‘scalds whoever dares to touch her’, (‘Venus Smirks at Me’); and of Mars, ‘Cold enough to break you’, (‘Red is the Coldest Colour’). We sense in these poems a fear of the darker side of the self.
In the simply named ‘Jupiter’ Hughes employs the planet’s characteristics to great effect in describing the very physical sensations of depression:
Anyone who has inhabited that space will recognise the skill and painful accuracy of Hughes’ description.
Truth in Poetry
There is darkness in ‘Inside the Black Star’ too, where ‘no light can get in or out’, and in the poem ‘Orbital’ where the speaker tells us that misery ‘keeps me exhausted and stuck at home’. There is a shocking honesty as we are exposed to the self-loathing that can accompany depression, where even those closest are pushed away:
These lines carry a lasting power and embed themselves in the mind for a long time after reading, (the latter even feeling like a more natural end to the poem). The somewhat insensitive use of the words ‘fat’ and ‘retarded’ is the only thing that breaks the spell of the poem. It could be argued that the particular inner voice being represented here is one that shows no sympathy to the self, and these may truly be part of the poet’s negative self-talk. However, a poet of Hughes’ ability could perhaps have chosen alternative language to convey the same meaning, while carrying greater sensitivity. Truth in poetry need not always be tethered to fact.
In spite of the darker themes tackled in this book, there is also a sense of hope. For instance, in ‘Tinfoil Moons’ we find a strength and defiance in the face of difficulty. ‘Fuck that’, the poet writes, ‘The past / Turns into dust as it dies. / Tears dry. / We continue to survive’. Furthermore, the title of the chapbook, Keep on Spinning carries this sense of hope and it appears in both ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Tinfoil Moons’. There is also a sense of personal acceptance and positive progress in ‘My Planet is a Sea of Storms’. For example, we learn that the speaker’s ‘moods come in waves’, but she is ‘learning slowly / To surf in them, sail in them’. The reader too finds solace in these lines.
Keep on Spinning is a brave first chapbook. Hughes writes about mental health with a compelling honesty. The poet balances this expertly with an endearing humour and sense of hope. In the acknowledgements the poet writes, “I hope that my words have been helpful or comforting during difficult times”. I have no doubt that this book will indeed be a source of comfort as Hughes reminds us in ‘My Planet is a Sea of Storms’, if we can share our difficulties ‘Things will get brighter’.
Keep on Spinning is available now from Dreich Chapbooks.
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