‘More Patina than Gleam’, by Jane Aldous

More Patina than Gleam marks Jane Aldous’s seventieth birthday in the form of seventy connected sonnets that make up an alternative history of her early life, a poetic novella of sorts. The book imagines a mother, Linda, fleeing an abusive relationship in England and seeking refuge in the genteel poverty of a large Edinburgh house where she serves as a ‘lady’s companion’. The cast of players presents a very matriarchal menage where men are often fringe characters or suspicious intruders. Aldous’s choice of free verse sonnets is apt because they represent the protagonist Linda’s escape from the ties and constraints of a toxic relationship. Vernon, Linda’s violent husband, rears his ugly head a few times in the course of the book, slowly changing from a fearful bully to a figure of impotence and pity. At first Linda and her daughter Ange are treated like lost possessions, with an ad in the paper: ‘Missing     woman and child     reward offered’. Vernon hunts the pair down but the solidarity of the women sharing the house prevents him from getting very far. In the end, he is left at Waverley Station: 

  Ange sighed     Let’s go home     mother and

daughter said their goodbyes     Ange glanced

back     there he was     a small man     cracking

jokes     a lion tamer     whipping his latest conquest

(from ‘Last Chance Saloon’)

It is interesting to note that as the book goes on Linda’s language begins to become permeated by the odd Scots word, reflecting her assimilation into her adopted home. 

The language of the poems themselves is prosaic and unpunctuated with almost breathless sound pauses making them feel like diary entries written hurriedly and in secret:

now here I am     paid companion     more intimate

than friend     wielding bicarbonate of soda     Vim

black lead and bleach     in a house held together

with more patina than gleam     I think

you have to love a house to clean it

every awkward bit     or else it never is

(from ‘Gleam’)

It is not just Linda’s personal trauma that is explored here, but rather the collective trauma of the legacy of the war and the interweaving narratives of the other people she shares the rambling Edinburgh townhouse with, such as worldly and handy fellow-lodger Rose with whom she shares a budding but strictly clandestine romantic relationship. It’s worth noting that same sex physical relationships remained illegal in Scotland until 1980s, and this book is set in the 1960s:

[…] a door slammed and Rose joined

her     pushed her body next to hers     held

on as if she were a lifebuoy     as if both of

them would drown without the other  

[…] with little money     little privacy     always

feeling out of place     even here     and

something was burning on the stove

(from ‘Something and Nothing’)

Linda is not the only haunted figure in the book with skeletons in her closet. Another major revelation is that Elsie Datlow, Linda’s eccentric host, is involved in a decidedly illicit enterprise, that of forging artworks by famous painters, but she in the end severs all ties with that shady part of her family: ‘she told him she didn’t / want to be part of his business any more’. However, the fake Frida Kahlo self-portrait that hangs in the hallway has a talismanic quality and becomes something of a symbol of Linda’s drive to survive:

then I noticed her face     once she’d have

been a bobby-dazzler     I’ve felt like that

she’s fed up     at a dead loss     her heart’s

broken     her body too     something inside

is keeping her going

(from ‘Looking at Frida Kahlo’)

Ultimately we are left with the image of a colourful house of empowered women who have not let the unfortunate vicissitudes of their past lives wear them down or eat them up. The book does not neatly resolve itself but instead ends on a note of hopeful uncertainty:

[…] yesterday I gave 

Rose a gold ring I’d dug up on Randall’s plot

    she’s wearing it for me     for both of us

and that’s more than enough     maybe one day

we’ll feel like proper people

(from ‘Enough’)

At times this collection, which manages to pack in questions of race, gender, sexism, Jewishness and gayness, can feel a little contrived but regardless, with More Patina than Gleam Jane Aldous has succeeded in producing a compelling period verse-novella. The closing poem is a plea for readerly empathy, social charity and, crucially, belonging, how we all have hidden depths and troubles that are perhaps not immediately, superficially obvious. But we all want to feel accepted somewhere, feel that perhaps we deserve a chance at ‘another life’ when we are denied the sacred right to just be ourselves.

More Patina than Gleam is published by Arachne Press

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