Instagram poet cooks up broth of dizzying emotion
Memoir: The Terrible, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Penguin, paperback, 208 pages, €12.99
Yrsa Daley-Ward is no stranger to grit and guts. Her beguiling collection of poetry, Bone, was a breathtaking exercise in brevity, often landing emotional gut punches with fewer than a dozen words.
More recently, Daley-Ward has been labelled the 'model poet of Instagram', one of a growing cohort of writers like Hera Lindsay Bird, Kate Tempest, Warsan Shire and Rupi Kaur. Certainly, on the social media platform that often venerates vapid narcissism and aspiration, Daley-Ward's account - where she originally posted poems to assimilate her troubled, wayward life - immediately stood out a mile.
And in The Terrible, Daley-Ward's taste for visceral, raw verse shows no sign of letting up. If anything, her singular style has been honed since 2014's Bone. She appears to have found even more of an emotional grasp of her life's chaotic journey.
And what a journey it has been. Born in England to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian academic (who went back to Africa and to another family before she was born), the young Yrsa was shuttled to live with her highly religious grandparents at seven (her little brother joined them later).
"The swellings of my little breasts are showing through my clothes, growing into small protruding points… so very fast, says mum, getting nervous," writes Daley-Ward. Her mother, Marcia, a nurse, worked the night shift constantly in order to care for Yrsa and her younger brother, Little Roo (an older brother, Samson, leaves to fight in the army after falling out with one of Marcia's boyfriends).
In her grandparent's house, Coca Cola is "DRUGS" while pork is seen as an unclean meat. Church happens all day, every Sunday. They do not adorn themselves with jewellery and the like, on account of the sin of pride, although a wig or perm is allowed under the banner of Acceptable Pride. At 11, Yrsa and Little Roo move back in with her mother, into a chaotic and messy house where a string of men - some who cheat, some who steal - come and go as though in a revolving door.
The Terrible is the account of an uncertain and disordered childhood, but also reveals the dark secrets that Daley-Ward has kept down the years. After experiencing depression as a pre-teen, there was a journey to come to terms with her sexuality, practising kissing with a very best friend. At this point, she starts to become aware of her Jamaican and African heritage ("Granddad says that the world hates black people").
Yet in tandem to this grim and unsettling awakening, the young Yrsa is also aware of the power she exudes to the adult men around her. She takes two showers after she spontaneously sleeps with a visiting window cleaner, and as a schoolgirl encounters many married men in thrall to her young, yet still adult, body. She discovers drugs, and travels with her own 'drugs survival kit' (Bonjela and chocolate).
Later, as she attempts to find work as a model, there is a spell working in the sex industry as a lapdancer and escort. There are clients in big houses; clients with weird sexual predilections; clients with daughters the same age as her; clients who ask her how her mum would feel about her doing sex work.
"These men like blondes first, brunettes second and then maybe us," she writes. "The air around us is tight and desperate. Angela is dabbing perfume under her arms to mask it. I like to let them catch the smell."
Daley-Ward manages to capture the dreary humdrum of suburban life, the bleakness of her teens and twenties, and the menace of drugs and depression with sparse verse. Though she writes poetry and prose with precision, The Terrible is rarely sterile or clinical. Rather, Daley-Ward has cooked a broth of dizzying emotions and touching moments down to a nuanced and taut account.
Even more impressively, she moves seamlessly from style to style, recalling some scenes from her life in the form of a play, others as six-line poems. In the hands of a lesser writer, the overall effect could border on the grating, or even the gimmicky. Still, there are so many flourishes of imagination and pathos here, that it's impossible not to get caught up in the torrential pace of the narrative.
One suspects that Daley-Ward could write about even the most banal or pedestrian moments of her day and make it sound exhilarating. Add in an extraordinary life like hers, and a life examined from all sides at that, and the result is one of the year's genuine must-reads.