TEXT review

Verse novel neo-noir

review by Linda Weste


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Sarah Corbett
And She Was: A Verse-Novel
Pavilion Poetry Series
Liverpool University Press, Liverpool 2015
ISBN 9781781381793
Pb 78pp GBP9.99


For a slim volume, And She Was has considerable weight. The verse novel boasts a university publisher, and was devised by Welsh-born poet Sarah Corbett as part of a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing at Manchester University. Yet the conviction and substance of And She Was derives, moreover, from the characteristics at the core of its considerable merit: its ‘experiment’ with non-linear narrative, its use of a range of poetic forms and techniques, and its engagement with film neo-noir. I found it vivid and engaging, by turns mysterious, unsettling, surprising and sensuous.

And She Was conveys its central themes of memory, love, loss and identity through two dream-like narratives; first, the relationship between new lovers Esther and Iain, and second, Felix Morning’s search for clues to his former life. In combination, the narratives encourage readers to consider ‘the way we encounter and reconfigure ourselves through trauma, in desire, or as we seek to reassemble ourselves and our past’ (cover).

The recuperation of story is necessarily elusive; the choice of achronological events and neo-noir emphases – shadowy settings, character ambivalence, visual disorientation – evokes a mood of uncertainty and cynicism, perhaps even fatalism.

Corbett’s poetic techniques are similarly flexible and apt to their purpose: there are stanzas of stepped lines to propel the narrative breathlessly forward; shorter lyrics to punctuate that intensity; a heart-shaped poem and locket declaration offering double signification; fluid line breaks and shifting forms to capture labile psychological states – amnesia, psychosis, breakdown, hallucination and emotional extremes; in each instance, the affordances of Corbett’s choices are apparent, with the result that the dual delivery of poetry and narrative is vital and urgent.

The verse novel is organised into three sections, beginning with the beguiling ‘Nocturne in Three Movements’ which comprises the poems E Major, C Major and E Minor, and a further poem, ‘The Train’. These first thirteen pages foreground filmic and lyric influences, while the narrative is episodic, unstable, illusory. This is a different approach to many verse novels which at their outset, signal their plot imperatives, and thus temporally-anchor their story, setting and characters. Taking a phrase from a Talking Heads song lyric, E Major begins the romance with the incantatory line that is also the title of the book.

And she was
               Grist to his mill
And he was
               Grit to her pearl (2)

This patterning of syntax continues over two and a half pages. At first running the risk of appearing trite and obvious, these sometime-idioms employed in the service of poetry work to convey how romantic sentiment can wear thin, as indeed it does in the case of Iain and Esther. The lines go on to develop into highly individualised and often disruptive responses that eschew sentimental or predictable imagery, for instance, ‘A glass blown from the lips of a child’, ‘A grain grinding at his stone’ and ‘In the mouth of shell / An ear with an itch’ (3).

In ‘C Major’, a poem of ten stanzas of eight lines, the phrases ‘And she was’ and ‘And he was’ advance the plot, hence ‘midsummer and they took off north / to the coast’ ... And she was / burnt by the wind and he was stung by a fish / and she was sick after oysters and he was (5). As the verse novel develops, these short phrases persist for various ends: to create rhythm; oftentimes to suspend the narrative in lyric word and sound play; and just as frequently, to wrench the focus back.

and she was mouse to his nook and he was
crumb to her bird and she was nibble to his
neck and was nip to her cat and she was
purr to his roar and he was loop to her needle
and she was knit to his purl and he was
fold to her furl and she was nip to his tuck
and he was to hers. And she was a horse
kicking up the white tips of his ocean (6)

Winter was a spell spoken at solstice
breathed on glass and scratched in ice
when the boiler broke at Christmas. They lit
a fire in the hearth window open for the smoke
that set off alarms and the neighbours.
And they drank whiskey and they smoked dope
and she wore his jumpers and he wore her tights
and just to keep warm they made love all night (6)

While the continuity of the phrase ‘and she was’ throughout the verse novel provides an anchor of syntactical stability, its incantation also offers up the relationship’s mood and tone, from its exciting beginnings through its waning to its decline.

and they ran out of talk and they ran out of money
and she was just a bit on edge and he was
just a bit off-colour and she had an itch
and he had a headache and they had a fight
over nothing and couldn’t resolve it.
And he needed a job and she needed a job
and the banks crashed and there were no jobs.

And he was meat to her trap and she was
noose to his neck and he was cross to her bird
and she was salt to his flay and he was
douse to her flame and she was nick to his
knife and he was pain to her butt and he was
gripe to her gut and she was sick one morning
and she was tired. She was not so sure any more
and he thought maybe he’d dreamed her after-all. (7)

The second section takes up the narrative of Felix Morning. He wakes with no memory in a side street. In his pocket is a membership card for a nightclub called The Bunker. Under his name is the moniker ‘The Runner’. He has no idea what it means. He enlists the help of the beautiful Flick to trace his past. The ensuing series of events are ephemeral, often surreal; as if the protagonist is hallucinating, thus the titles of the individual poems in this section, namely ‘The Café’, ‘Flick’, ‘The Garden’, ‘The Shower’, ‘The Bunker’, ‘The Dance’, ‘The Kiss’, ‘The Fit’, ‘The Key’, and ‘Place of the Lost Things’ are of considerable use to the reader to track this character, settings and story. The first poem in this section ‘The Café’ comprises sixteen stanzas of four lines in a stepped stanza, a form Corbett devised ‘as a way to narrate and at the same time maintain the lyric tension’ (Corbett 2017):

On a side street in the gap before dawn
   a man lies in a puddle of overcoat
              left like a prop from the night’s show,
                           a man thrown from another world. (16)
In a basement window a sign for Café Open buzzes on.
         In neon a spidery giant flapping bat wings,
                            hair spikes, eye pits, mouth cave where fear
                                       is an over-coat on his tongue.  (16)
Booths in red plastic shine under chandeliers
      glittery with grease and bodies of flies.
                           A menu wedged between salt and pepper
                                       says Stan’s in gothic script. (17)
a black plastic card printed: Felix Morning
       below a face he almost remembers
                           before remembering fades. The name
                                       is an adder striking the heart of him. (17)

Stan taps the card with a nicotine talon.
      ‘No worry, Mr Felix, this card pays’.
                           ‘Do you know me?’ Voice an egg
                                        cracking in his throat. ‘We wait (17)

for Felix; ‘The Café’ waits. You are the switch’.
        Chandeliers cast rainbow prisms,
                           he cannot feel the chair beneath him.
                                       This is some weird shit. (17)

He should feed the body with which he has affinity.
       He is empty as a well after a long drought,
                           an echo doubling back on him
                                       so that he is echo’s question. (18)

In the third section, the respective narratives of Iain and Esther, and Felix Morning ‘the Runner’ are presented in tandem; each to continue its recursive obsessions. The poem ‘Pinkie’ raises the narrative stakes even as the verse novel nears its end, with Esther’s propensity to test the boundaries of love reaching dangerous extremes. Corbett’s intention that in places the poetics ‘should be quite woozy to read’ (Corbett 2017) is here darkly brought to the fore.

What actually takes place in And She Was? Though the reader may not be entirely sure, there is nevertheless much to admire in this verse novel’s stylistic richness, its condensed incident and drama, and in the audacity of its experiment.


Works cited



Linda Weste won the 2016 Wesley Michel Wright Prize for excerpts from her historical verse novel Nothing Sacred. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste