‘Marks & Spencer, Merry Hill, Midnight’ – by Samantha Roden
Leslie Fairacre was the smallest woman I’ve ever seen
yet the largeness of her words remain.
4ft nowt, cock, and me ‘usband’s 6ft 3
same size lyin’ dowun thow, ay ya?
She says with a wryness borne of 3 decades
of sideward glances and never once the inclination
to give ‘alf a toss.
As she shares her charred wisdom, her piston elbows
pluck, place, and return to the rail
for another jacket.
Why am I only paid £3.76? I venture to ask
after several weeks of blood-blistered fingers,
frayed nails and tutting
from the elders.
Cuz yum slow.
The words sliced deeper than the box opener
slung from my belt-loop on a plastic coil.
Yow learn nowt. Weem paid double cuz
we do double. I bin watchin’ yeh: one rail in arf hour.
The diminutive woman rose,
Filled the vastness of a customerless shop floor,
unravelled my 17 years and balled them up
with the cellophane destined for the compactor at dawn.
Said I treated the minutes of my shift like clay
in one of my Mons Hill art classes. Rolled ‘em
prodded at ‘em, wondered what they’d turn into in the kiln.
But she lived ‘em. Bought a semi-detached house with ‘em.
Stood in the MEB queue and paid the leccy with ‘em.
Yowul strut in ‘ere one day and buy one o’them leather blazers
we’ve put out and sized,
the ones none of us can afford.
She was the kiln, the blast furnace, belched heat;
I was the vase.
‘alf the pay for ‘alf the work
ten times the opportunity.
We took breaks alone.
In the smoking room I sat studying
an aluminium ashtray,
working my way through the chromatic scale
of pencil shades required to render
its dullness under emergency lighting.
The day-staff received hour-long lunches,
were served hot meals by dedicated cooks
but the crepuscular stock assistants,
the semi-shadows cast in low-light
ate plastic sandwiches plucked
from mechanised carousels.
Often, the Perspex flaps failed
but there was no one to tell.
Even a rat receives a pellet at the push of a button.
Samantha Roden is a poet , critic, and educational author who was born in Shard End, Birmingham, but who’s been living in the Black Country for a number of years. Her work includes a co-authored monograph on the Jewish American novelist, Philip Roth, and a widely acclaimed poetry chapbook, Catch Ourselves in Glass (2017). She was included in Eyewear Publishing’s Best New British and Irish Poets, 2017.
Characterised by candour and incisive humour, Sam’s work has drawn comparisons with American confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Charles Bukowski, and such high praise doesn’t feel like an exaggeration. ‘Marks & Spencer, Merry Hill, Midnight,’ explores the kind of culture clash familiar to many of the educated working classes in the region, and demonstrates the author’s flair for dialect and comic characterisation. Sam is delightfully adept at finding powerfully communicative specific details, as she does here with the lovely image of the speaker “sat studying/an aluminium ashtray/working my way through the chromatic scale/of pencil shades required to render/its dullness under emergency lighting.” Such humour never feels overdone in her work, complementing rather than dominating her themes. In this piece it underscores the speaker’s former naivety, whilst at the same time augmenting the force of the poem’s social criticism. Here, as elsewhere, Sam’s unpretentious, powerfully intelligent voice is both compelling and original, marking her as a very exciting new talent.