Sally Goldsmith, Are We There Yet? Smith/Doorstop, 60pp, £9.95

I have a confession to make. I’ve worked with Sally. I know some of her poetry from the inside, as it were. She’s a friend of mine, and I’m well disposed towards her poems. So you may reasonably judge me less than impartial in writing this review. I hope and intend my judgement to be objective, but I think what you’ll mainly find here are my enjoyments and pleasures because it’s a collection which gives me a great deal of both. 

It’s her first full collection (following Singer, the pamphlet she produced with Smith/Doorstop as one of their 2008 competition winners) and, as such, contains 47 poems created with care and craft over the last six years or so. The cover is perhaps the most beautiful image I’ve seen on a book of poems, and does not misrepresent the poetry within.

Sally is, first and foremost, in love with language, especially the language of real people in real places – not necessarily dialect, though one poem,  ‘Received Pronunciation’, adeptly traces the poet’s biography through the regional vocabulary of her various lives till she ends up:

In Sheffield now with you, flower,
I look after us tranklements, crozzle
me bacon and modge me pudding,
put t’door on t’sneck, go t’foot
of our stairs, let da into t’entry, talk
clarty at neet, laik and love da till ah dee.

This is both tongue-in-cheek and deliberate, a gentle exploration of real human relations through their everyday language.

In fact, the vocabulary and language use in these poems is wide-ranging and rich. Sally seems particularly fond of grounded, earthy,  physical vocab, especially words that seem to belong in oral tradition or which have a lively, sing-song movement. One might equate these with her strong interest in working life, in the physical business of day to day activity or with her love of musicality. So we have the language of butchery in one poem, of clocks in another, or the vocab of particular peoples or places, used not merely to represent them but also to add life and immediacy,  as in such choices as “arsier”, “hutch up”, “cundy”, “blebs”, “get in a tizz”, “jennels”. 

The core beauty in many of these poems is in their vitality. I think the fat dictionary she uses is a function of wanting lively, moving, naturally rhythmic pieces. Sometimes this is to mimic sound or movement in the poem’s subject, as in the several poems about birds. 'Dipper', for example:

      oh you little switcher swatcher
in your best bib and tucker!

Bessy Ducker,
rock bobber,
intent on the busy brown rush –
     aren’t you dizzy
unravelling the braids with your eye?

Here she's using several mutually reinforcing devices to convey the sharp, agitated movement of the bird: its dialect name, internal rhyme and alliteration, irregular spacing on the page, exclamatory punctuation, and the sense of direct address from poet to bird. This is another feature of many of her poems, the representation of regular speech, with its rhythms, patterns and interruptions.

You can hear in much of Sally’s work the voice, the oral pleasure of the songwriter (which is where Sally began) and the radio dramatist, which she also is – several of the poems work by presenting a version of a dialogue, often quite an intimate one, although it’s a dialogue usually taking place in the poet’s mind and projected onto, or remembered about, a second person. 

This combination of speech rhythm, everyday vocabulary and the sense of a dialogic engagement with other people or with the world could lead to poetry which was simply mundane and ordinary. But Sally’s poetry is far from this. Out of the mundane it creates a sense of familiarity even, at times, intimacy. As good poetry should, it makes the familiar new – and, if not strange, then at least renewed, re-seen and, especially, re-heard. There’s a kind of romance of the ordinary in many of these poems – though that’s not to say they are false or sentimental. In fact, it is often their particular realism, their recording of the specific details of events and situations which has the greatest impact.

These qualities are perhaps most evident in the poems about Sally’s mother. Whilst their intimate detail conveys her mother quite exactly, and the struggle of her final months, it is the relationship between mother and daughter which strikes one most. There’s a tenderness in these poems which gets under the skin of the reader, the sense  of a love and the associated loss which is much more powerful than any poem of rage or raving. Small details carry great weight here. It’s a mark of the poet’s sensitivity, for example, that these poems are grouped in the centre of the book – neither at the beginning (where a more instrumental poet would put them to “make an impact on the reader”) nor at the end (where we might expect the most powerful, the most moving poems might gather to give the volume a climax) but at the centre of Sally’s offering, the heart of her work.

Here’s one example, the poem which names the volume:

and I’m out on the low road, in for the ride, pretending calm

in this hell of a place you’re dying in.    Not long now
didn’t you say that, Mother, in your cherry dress, on our way

to Camber Sands, the suck and draw of waves?
I try to slow, to follow your shallow catch and     huh

until day is midnight and you’re moved
to M.A.U. I moisten your lips and you mouth   thank you

(Are We There Yet?)

So much is going on in these deceptively simple lines – which is pretty much the case for all these poems. We have suppressed panic, the fragmented conversation, the squabble between hope and resignation, the tenderness of a daughter’s love even as each gesture is known to be inadequate, the striking characterisation of Mother in a single memory-image, the psychological veracity of displacing the terror of the moment with a happier memory whose validity is called into question because of the reality of the present moment, the anger of helplessness, a very clear narrative conveyed in the fewest possible words, and underpinning it all, the poet’s compassion.

But that tenderness seems to extend beyond the personal to Sally’s relationship with almost everything she sees around her, especially her empathy for the working woman and man, and for the natural world. Her work reminds me in some ways of John Clare, in that it documents extensively the specifics of an ordinary world and, in doing so, makes it extraordinary. She has the art of noticing: that critical skill which spots, then reproduces, a movement, a gesture, a happening, a tone which makes the reader think “yes, it’s exactly like that” whilst that reader simultaneously acknowledges they’d never , actually, have seen it that way unaided.

the bubbling lips of flickered shoals of fish,
the pops of breath in sacks of bladderwrack.


Of course, tight or inventive detail may feel like a flaw for some readers in some cases. Several of the poems are grounded in local detail, such as Sheffield locales, whose connotations an uninformed reader will probably miss. These references aren’t barriers to understanding, but they do mean that the full import of some poems will only be felt by Sally’s local audience. Possibly some of the vocabulary might be felt the same way: by audiences at some remove from the English working classes, for example. Although the poet is very careful to use only the words which serve her particular purpose, so if you don’t know the meaning of word X, you can often guess it from context and enjoy its apposite sound and rhythm in any case. And it’s hard not to be carried away with her love of the words, the names and rhythms for their own sake:

Black bricked corners croak out the names:
Rushdale, Oak Street, Shirebrook Road.


As a rider to all the above, however, I should add that she always exerts sophisticated and sensitive control. If she needs to move towards more philosophical, abstract, mystical, melancholy, enthusiastic, intellectual or argumentative voices within her poems, or if she wants to test the limits of half-rhyme, or engage with form (as in ‘Hare ghazal’) she is perfectly able to do so. There’s a careful and sensible crafter at work here. I can’t resist characterising this with her own lines, from ‘The Maker’:

 The maker’s knack

to source, weigh, shape flex of line
and turn, she kept. Now face to the wind, 
still takes up her words and places, stacks.

Ostensibly about a wall-builder, this is, to my mind, the perfect image of Sally herself at work.


Noel Williams

long stairs