This was another book I read on our Summer family holiday at Kielder Water, alongside West End Final by Hugo Williams, which I’ve reviewed here.
I had no idea what to expect from this book. I’d never heard of Leontia Flynn. The title Profit and Loss, and the unprepossessing cover, silhouettes of flying birds, didn’t help me much.
Well I’m pleased to tell you I thoroughly enjoyed it. I devoured the entire thing within the course of a day.
It in turns bewildered me, wowed me, entertained me and unnerved me. Flynn is clearly a very accomplished poet.
She varies her style quite a bit which I liked. She writes these cold nervy little poems that put you on edge, but also warm, moving depictions of family members (her granny and dad feature prominently), clever and witty conceits (like a poem honouring the floppy disk), and the centrepiece of the book, a long, stream-of-consciousness musing on changes in society called ‘Letter to My Friends.’
One thing I found really interesting is that there are a number of poems that feature ghosts (or ghost-like figures – it’s not always possible to tell whether they’re real or not!). For example, in ‘The Flats’ (my favourite poem in the whole collection ) “something had gone obscenely wrong”:
“Who, furthermore, was the figure beneath that sheet
moaning in anguish? Who watched from the lamp-less chair?”
In ‘The Girl Upstairs,’ a ghost-like figure is revealed to be the narrator herself: “I know her movements, I know when she comes and goes […] I am the girl upstairs.”
Other similar mysterious figures feature in ‘The Doctors,’ ‘The Exorcism,’ and ‘The Dodgy Porch Light,’ and are always expertly handed by Flynn. You can never be quite sure what’s going on. Personally, I felt these ‘gothic’ poems were excellent, the strongest and most original in the whole collection. Flynn uses ghosts to make familiar settings unfamiliar and reveal something about the psyche in the process.
Another interesting motif that recurs in Profit and Loss is the subject of pregnancy or childbirth. The accounts aren’t happy ones.
Flynn’s granny, who bore many children, features in some of these. In ‘Inside the Catedral Nueva’ the suffering of the Catholic martyrs is likened to “my granny who for twenty years or so / was stretched on the rack of her re-product-ions.” In ‘Mellaril’ childbirth takes on a tragic turn as we learn that Flynn’s uncle was crippled during birth:
“On the forceps, she looks, still every moment squeezing
‘too tightly’ as it helps him on his way.”
This forms an unhappy backdrop to Flynn’s own pregnancy. The poem ‘Two Ways of Looking at an Ultrasound Scan’ is really unnerving. It illustrates that an ultrasound is a moment full of anxious hopes and fears and also a helpless moment. The woman is in the hands of the “gowned technician / with the ectoplasm” or “the weather woman / with the magic wand.” For some women the outcome is “nothing at all” while for others it’s confirmation of an alien body inside, something Flynn jarringly likens to feeling like “Iceland”:
“feels the lava shift, feels the whale turn
silent, in the smoky bay.”
When it comes to the birth itself, in “A Room in April,” the anxiety quickens and the looming event is compared, not enrirely tongue in cheek, to the death of Christ: “The hour is at hand.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though.
In fact, family seems to be very important to Flynn. Her father, suffering from Alzheimer’s, features movingly in several poems, including ‘My Father’s Language’:
As though, in the gathering darkness,
made safe by the position of a rug or lamp
he is not being lost to shadows or incoherence.”
There is a lovely poem about Flynn’s mother called ‘There’s Birds in My Story’ and Flynn’s own daughter appears in ‘Letter to my Friends,’ as a symbol of hope:
“- and underneath her blanket with its bear
my baby daughter too now lies at ease;
she’s six months old. The future’s all a guess.
My heap of junk is ready for the fire;
our lives stand waiting, ready for compromise.”
Not every poem in ‘Profit and Loss’ is an unqualified success. I actually found ‘Letter to My Friends,’ the central poem of the collection, rather dull. A few poems just fall flat, such as ‘Magpie,’ ‘A Plane,’ ‘I Once Lived in a Railway Carriage Flat’ and a few others.
But these are quibbles. Most of the poems here are superb and a handful are truly outstanding. They’re not difficult to read, but always complex and uncompromising and usually make you feel very uncomfortable, an admirable quality in my opinion!
Given this is only Flynn’s third collection I’m hoping her best is yet to come and that this could be the future author of a masterpiece. Definitely one to watch.
Five Words that describe this book: uncompromising, unnerving, ghostly, hopeful, masterful.
Stand Out Poems: ‘The Flats;’ ‘There’s Birds in My Story;’ ‘Two Ways of Looking at an Ultrasound Scan;’ ‘The Floppy Disk;’ ‘The Dream House;’ ‘The Bullfight;’ ‘The Girl Upstairs.’
Killer Line: “How young it is to be so obsolete.” (from ‘The Floppy Disk’).
Fran Brearton, in The Guardian, describes the collection as “a witty, often poignant, auditing of the poet’s life and times.” Fran says that “Flynn’s humour, her ability to entertain, and her astute powers of observation are wonderful gifts. She is one of the most original and accomplished poets of her generation.”
JP O’Malley, in Culture Northern Ireland, says that the book is “all about human relationships – those that fail and those that succeed – and the detritus of everyday life left behind as people and places come and go.”
Suzi Feay, in The Independent, spots “a persistent thread of humour” in the poems and “a poet forever oscillating between the misery and joy of life, with an engaged, watchful sensibility.”
Sarah Dawson, in Poetry After Ink, says the poems “never slip past without leaving an impression,” but complains that “her metaphors aren’t nearly as striking.”
If you enjoyed my review of Profit and Loss, you might also enjoy my reviews of West End Final by Hugo Williams, Northlight by Douglas Dunn and The Dark Film by Paul Farley.