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This report is taken from PN Review 234, Volume 43 Number 4, March - April 2017.

Madwoman: What Compelled You Vahni Capildeo
RED IS THE COLOUR of Madwoman’s cover. It is as if darkness has menstruated on to a cloth of blood or rectangle of glass: a textured black blotch on the shiny red has edges like a clot or stain on laundry or a scientist’s slide. The title word is in a huge font, split into three: MAD WO MAN, like a stepped line, like a set of imperfectly flipped or reflected forms, like a ruination of the quintessential masculine poet Ted Hughes’s title Wodwo, like an Oulipian word-transformation by letter-substitution leading from sanity through grief to gender. The intense shades and shapes of Pamela MacKay’s cover art for Shara McCallum’s 2017 collection from Peepal Tree Press make holding the book feel like drenching one’s hands: staunching a wound, operating on a specimen, sharing in a crime scene. The visual impression is excessive, powerful, patchy, unbalanced, fabricated: adjectives that, like ‘mad’, belong to the vocabulary, mindset and structures that continue to silence or invalidate women, whether the demonised Creole Bertha Rochester of Charlotte Brontë’s fiction and Jean Rhys’s nightmare-as-memoir, or the women whom juries consider unreliable merely because of their culturally inflected body language, as reported and analysed in Helena Kennedy’s polemic about the law, Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice.

Madwoman’s fifty-four poems have titles that speak to each other, like the echo chamber of a ‘mad’ – or remembering – mind. Memory, and medical labels, both make and unmake, and McCallum is deft and insistent in never letting the text rest too long on any one sense; the epigraph, from ...


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