Sarah Windebank’s slim poetry collection, Memories of a Swedish Grandmother, has been attractively published as part of a small collection by Spotlight. This grouping of six books – three poetry collections and three short stories – is a collaborative project, the aim of which is to ‘discover, guide and support writers whose voices are under-represented.’ Of the Spotlight series in its entirety, Kerry Hudson writes that the ‘dazzling series shows that if the barriers can be vaulted there is true beauty to be found in the lesser-walked streets of literature.’
More specifically, John McCullough calls Windebank’s debut collection ‘evocative and moving’. Robin Haughton believes that in Memories of a Swedish Grandmother, Windebank’s ‘recollections are depicted with Proustian precision; there’s a gorgeous richness to the writing… the collection showcases Windebank’s range and ear for language.’
Windebank grew up in a household ‘where her Swedish mother and grandmother spoke to each other in a foreign language’. Her first collection is filled with ‘feminist, philosophical and linguistically playful’ pieces, and with ‘accent and domestic detail, at once foreign and familiar’.
In the titular poem, Windebank writes about her Mormor: ‘In a Baltic-blue work bib, she held me close / in her horny hands’, and ‘She proved, then plaited weave / into rye bread, learnt from the loom’s warp and weft.’ She goes on to speak of her grandmother’s ‘Norse-inflected pidgin’.
The poems in Memories of a Swedish Grandmother are evocative, detailed, and sensual. I love the imagery which Windebank manages to create with just a handful of words. In ‘A University Library’, for instance, she writes: ‘… dry debris, duly catalogued / by fossilised librarians…’. Her descriptions are delightful, and sharp. Nettles are a ‘spangle of jade fronds’, fox cubs spend time ‘gambolling their short life away’, and polar bears are ‘like icy yeti’.
As a poet, Windebank has such control, as well as a wonderful sense of rhythm and wordplay. Take the final stanza of ‘The Girl on the Allotment’ as an example: ‘Joy hoes clods in her corduroy coat, / buds sup sun in the bullish wind, / and oxeyes spring from the seedy earth.’ Throughout, she uses a range of different poetic forms to great effect, creating an exciting and cohesive collection.
Windebank’s poetry is striking, and she ties together so many different elements – stories from mythology, dedications to Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop, musings on motherhood and childhood… This slim collection contains so much to marvel over. Some of the pictures which Windebank creates will stay with me for a long time. A particularly memorable stanza for me is found in ‘Swedish Santa Lucia Party’, where the poet writes: ‘The winter sun that sets at three / is a marshmallow on fire, / and a dish of heart-shaped cakes is scented / with cyanide / from almonds buttered into the ginger’s heat.’ In ‘Gap Year’, too, Windebank writes: ‘And at odd times, she’d appear as a complex shadow / in the village square, then drift down the river.’
At just under 50 pages, Memories of a Swedish Grandmother is more of a poetry pamphlet than a full collection. However, it showcases a wonderful new voice in poetry, and I very much look forward to reading Windebank’s future publications. She is clearly a poet with a lot to give. I also hope that Spotlight will expand their range of books in this new collection, and that other publishers might follow suit, to allow readers access to more underrepresented voices.