Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Sleeper by Jo Colley, pub. Smokestack Books 2020

Well, you know me, I have a thing about identity and change/concealment of same, so a collection about spies and others who hide their identity was always going to appeal. This is organised in five sections, moving gradually from the historical to the personal and dealing successively with the Cambridge group that included Philby, Burgess and Maclean, then with the wives of Philby plus some other women in relationships with spies or themselves spying, “Cold War”, in which the title is more metaphorical than historical, next “Sleeping with the Enemy”, in which we have definitely moved into personal territory and how people in relationships hide from each other and seek each other out, and finally “Motherland” in which a mother is both remembered and re-imagined.

I like this concept, and quite a lot of the time it is well executed. I don’t think the three “Redaction” pieces, which are essentially mashed-up quotes from John le Carré novels, really earn their place – I see the rationale, the comparison of the spy fiction of the time with the even more incredible fact, but think it could be more economically done. A lot of research has gone into the early sections and she is good at pinpointing the facts that illuminate, like Aileen Philby’s eerily appropriate job as a store detective. The title poem is an excellent analysis of the strange limbo that is the existence of a “sleeper”: an agent whose job is to assimilate in foreign territory and who may or may not ever be used. Such a person must blend in, be inconspicuous, become part of their new world yet not so much that they cannot sabotage it when called on. It is a recipe not so much for a new identity as for the lack of one:

          Look at my life. Do you look at my life? Can you even see it?

Among the more personal poems, I like the idea in “Motherland” of memorialising someone not only by recalling what they were but by imagining what they might have been, the other lives it was in them to have led. In this sense we are all sleepers, all sailing under colours which, while not false, are not the only ones possible, and a mother who loved the sea could indeed have been the “captain of a Grimsby trawler”.

It might be useful for Colley to rethink her use of the second person pronoun. I used to frame poems in it sometimes myself, but stopped because I became convinced by the argument of Matthew Francis that it made no sense to have a conversation with someone who couldn’t hear (generally because they were dead) and who already knew all the things you were helpfully telling them. This is not always so; in the Motherland section the idea of a daughter having a sort of mental conversation with a dead mother is entirely apposite – indeed I think she could have exploited it further by using it to differentiate the memory poems from the imagined ones, as well as using italics for that purpose. But it’s harder to see a good reason, in “You Weren’t Expecting a Lady”, for addressing Kitty Harris as “you” and telling her all about her affair with Maclean, which presumably wouldn’t be news to her. And in the Aileen sequence it can be confusing when in one poem “you” is Aileen while in the next it is Philby.

There are also a few missed typos: it’s Gore-Tex not Gortex and “full fathom five”, not “fathoms”. But in this section, “Sleeping with the Enemy”, there is also a fine poem, “Gaze”, where a woman’s attempts to retreat from and frustrate a male gaze are captured in some sharp imagery: the tight-shut scallop which the wind tries to prise open; the insistent, controlling mobile phone that

          insinuates a chip an implant
          at the back of her neck

The imagery of cold and whiteness in the “Cold War” section is effective, too; it seems to be a strength of hers. All in all, a sharp, thought-provoking collection.
Tags: book reviews, history, poetry
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