‘WTF is normal anyway?’, by Jo Gilbert

Offering snapshots of her life and the world in her native north-east tongue, Jo Gilbert’s debut poetry collection is, among many things, a testimony to the range and versatility of Doric, a language that Gilbert has championed over the years as a spoken word artist. WTF is normal anyway? races with energy and vigour, and offers an attitude to life and poetry that is bold, engaging, and profound. 

The titular sequence of eight poems urges the reader to consider what it is meant by ‘normal’, with Gilbert inviting us to cast the term off as a shackle on our life. The sequence opens with Gilbert’s typical tongue-in-cheek style working in full effect:

‘WTF is normal anyway
#1’

Nae me
accordin tae ma faimly

The sequence swells into the manifesto-esque ‘#8’, which opens with the life-affirming lines: ‘Good vibes, haein tribes / in wildly different pairts o life’. The collection moves effortlessly between the playful and the profound, emphasising the range of topics to which Gilbert can turn a skilful hand. In ‘The Rubber Shop, George Street, Aiberdeen, 1985’, the myriad joys of being a bairn and getting sweeties from your father is evoked through lines teeming with child-like energy:

a safe bet they’ll hae summin for aabody
blooter oor haul in a flutter
o reckless, gypit excitement
celebration, like we’d nivver win again.

Humour and play run throughout this collection, a welcome reminder to never take life too seriously, as demonstrated in ‘Where the wild socks are’:

We are the socks. 
The ones who escaped
the tyranny of honking feet
kept on for days
and during sex
for fuck’s sake.

WTF is normal anyway? is packed with humour, which in turn makes the profound moments scattered often and throughout the collection ever more striking. In the poem ‘The headline reads “Scientists discover that trees have a heartbeat”’, Gilbert derides the news article quoted in the title to emphasise the disconnect between humankind and nature in the contemporary world through short, urgent lines:

as if iss is news
summin we didnae aariddy ken,
as if we’re nae connectit
an blaik herts need nae bleed
tae keep beatin

Arguably, one of Gilbert’s great strengths as a poet is her ability to distill deep and complex emotional events into a few short lines of great impact. Whether exploring the extent of labour that faithers face to keep houses (‘Nae skivin’), the liminal lines between living and dying (‘In a side room, off the ward’) or in the simple, missed moments of two lives that pass each other by (‘Emergin fae the hairdresser on a Wednesday necht’), Gilbert’s poems showcase her seemingly effortless ability to fluctuate between the highs and lows of life. 

Arguably, it is in Gilbert’s deft handling of heartfelt, heartrending moments that her work leaps into new heights of power and feeling, as presented in one simple line from ‘Velveteen Beings’: ‘Denial is easier to hug’. One of Gilbert’s gentlest touches is found in the poem ‘Stanley’, which opens with the speaker of the poem recalling a moment from childhood, playing with a Stanley knife and accidentally cutting their hand open: ‘Sae sharp it wisnae sare / til bleed startit runnin’. The domestic interplay between the speaker and the older family members who react to the injury in the first four stanzas is suddenly turned on its head in the final lines, which move back into the present and find the speaker grappling with self-harm as a mode for survival: 

Stanley’s a tool fir copin
ma best pal for openin
ma skin
tae see if aa still bleed
sae aa ken am alive
an nae deid

The linguistic dexterity and emotive storytelling evidenced throughout this debut collection show a poet brimming with promise. Gilbert is bold and unapologetic when facing the highs and lows of life, encouraging her reader to interrogate the world around them – and, of course, the very concept of normality – and find the light in the darkness. A confident and exciting voice – this is a poet to look out for in the future.

WTF is normal anyway? is published by Seahorse Publications

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