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Review: Autumn Royal's She Woke & Rose

She’s a poet with a grape varietal as a namesake. In her debut poetry collection from Cordite Books, Autumn Royal uses this personal metaphor to full effect, even commenting on it baldly in her poem ‘viticulture’. Here she tells the pharmacist about her name meaning, with more than a little sarcasm. In the poem, she likens her sensitivity to the grape, with a ‘relatively thin skin’. The idea of skins is explored in many forms throughout the works.

In 2008, Erikah Badu casually changed ‘awake’ to ‘woke’ in relation to racial equality in her song, Master Teacher, a call to confront racial injustice. The Black Lives Matter movement has run with the term ever since. It has evolved to mean being aware and awake to social inequality or injustice (in any form). On the cover of this collection, it is no coincidence we can read the title as ‘She who is woke and a rose’ by the layout of the text. In other words, in this day and age of 21st century feminism, there exists a tension between experiencing the at-times real fragility of womanhood, while at the same time being ‘woke’ to the inequalities and daily micro aggressions that exist for women. Of course, there are the obvious thematic links to blossoming womanhood and the problem of objectification, but Autumn’s fresh poetic voice and blunt anecdotes seem to breathe new life into the conversation.

The two themes permeate the book. Recurring images of broken glass, tissue paper and the vase, highlight a fragility, offset with the woke narratives of dealing with casual misogyny, infantilising and even sexual aggression, as a woman. At times she dives right into discussions of gender inequality and female desire, such as in the poem, My Pleasure. In the poem, she describes a painful and awkward sexual encounter. During this poem and others, there is a dissociation during sex, shown in small anecdotal lines, such as ‘Adjusting my thighs to ease boredom’ (Mirror Stage). In a time where women are seemingly liberated sexually, it is sad to think how many women would identify with just such one-sided sexual experiences. Autumn doesn’t pull any punches with the imagery, describing an ejaculation as wearing a tiara. It’s a sobering image. With porn consumption on the rise, this is a comment on casual violence. The degradation that many women experience, but hardly ever talk about in polite company.

In A.J. Carruther’s review for the Lifted Brow, we are reminded of the confessional oeuvre, where Autumn’s poetry might sit, the aforementioned poem, a product of the over-sharing, Lena Dunham generation. But out of the seven personas mentioned in her poem, ‘The Wreck and the Raft’, Maria Takolander points out that it is the optimist who wins out in the end of these poems. The one who gets out of bed and faces that horizon line, even if there is seemingly no end in sight. From the point of view of the ‘Observer’ there is a recognition of having to ‘share water’ with these other personas, seemingly in tension. Autumn comments in the poem that this can lead to a feeling of rawness, of feeling exposed and laid bare.

In her concluding piece (the title poem), we end on the words, ‘she knows, she knows, she woke and rose.’ ‘Although there may be wilt, at least there isn’t stagnation…’. This is a woman who is awake (woke) to the fact that, as she says ‘not all meaning is drained...or even soaked and rinsed.’ She knows her life (and body) will still carry meaning, even after traditional beauty has faded and she is no longer objectified by the skin she embodies. ‘...poetry will help her receive her chosen body.’ With that, Autumn acknowledges the power of words and poetry to help her make sense of the embodied experience of woman. To re-write the definitions.

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