Songs Of Steelyard Sue is the second collection to be published by poet JS Watts. You can read a review of her debut Cats And Other Myths here. This latest offering is something with quite a different flavour to it. Songs Of Steelyard Sue is not just a collection of thematically-linked poems, but a set of verses with an overarching narrative of its own.
The book concerns itself with the adventures of the titular character, who is painted as some kind of sentient metal woman who lives in a steelyard and spends her days working on various projects constructed from scrap.
The contents page reminded me a little of a shelf of children’s books. Each title speaks of a different adventure: “Steelyard Sue Doesn’t Learn To Fly” is followed by “Steelyard Sue Builds A Baby” and “Steelyard Sue Plants A Garden”. A few poems stand out straight away by breaking from the “Steelyard Sue Does X” formula.
“The Opening Hymn” is the first of these poems, and also opens the collection. In it we are introduced to Sue with these lines:
“A feisty mechanoid female
From back in a time-lost year,
Whose myth rings out with a torn steel shout
As she squats on life’s frontier.”
More here than anywhere else in the collection the label of “songs” is appropriate. As an opener this particular piece struck me as a little too chipper and cheesy, but this is hardly the case for the collection as a whole. Through the poems that follow we see Sue built up into a lonesome and lonely character who nevertheless always seems terrifically real.
There is a stretch in the middle of the collection where things get a tad repetitive. Steelyard Sue unsuccessfully builds herself a tower so she can learn to fly. Next she tries (and fails) to build herself a man. And then it’s a baby which she cannot quite construct. This run is brought to an end with “Morning Song”, another poem that departs from the formula, with surprising results. For a moment we seem to step back from the steelyard and reflect. When we return with the next poem “Steelyard Sue Plants A Garden” it seems as though Sue has undergone some kind of epiphany, and abandoned her futile efforts to ape humans in favour of something more natural and spiritual.
The end of the collection comes on somewhat suddenly, and didn’t feel entirely credible to me. It seemed as though the ending came about because of the need for an ending, rather than because it was the right and natural thing to happen. Albeit a little rushed it’s sweet and sad, and couldn’t be more of an emotional departure from the slightly corny opening of the collection. Songs Of Steelyard Sue is a glimpse of a fascinating and unusual character. I’m just sad that it was over so quickly.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England.