Book review: In Public/In Private, by Leyla Josephine

This is Leyla Josephine’s first collection of poems written for the page rather than the stage, but her words still jump out as if keen to be proclaimed, writes Fiona Shepherd

Poet and theatre-maker Leyla Josephine has been a bright light on the Scottish arts scene for a number of years. To date, she has written almost exclusively for performance, but her debut poetry collection has been written (through lockdown) for the page not the stage.

Aside from some simple flourishes with layout, her words still jump out as if keen to be proclaimed. The collection’s title alludes to what to declare and what not to declare, and to Josephine’s gleeful propensity to let it all hang out. Even before the reader reaches “Tell Me About Your Vagina” (three poems in), it is already clear that Josephine will be good, straight-talking company.

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Her subjects are wide-ranging, from teenage piercings to end-of-life care, from the sensory clubbing chronicle “Sub Club” to “The Morning After”, a no regrets celebration of a rambunctious night in with a good friend during the pandemic, from the self-explanatory “Questions I Have For Birds” (example: “how do you know what song to sing?”) to a meditation on the double life of Prestwick Airport.

Leyla Josephine
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Her cultural references are often curveballs. She lists the components of John Cooper Clarke’s rider and addresses an art critic as an agony uncle on “Dear John Berger”, an extended, humorous plea for validation (“I am only helpful to other writers so I can get into the acknowledgment sections of their books.”)

“Being Scottish” is her funny, sad, quirky expansion on Renton’s “it’s s***e being Scottish” soliloquy from Trainspotting, while “Good With Our Hands” takes an ambivalent view of Scotland’s manufacturing history. There’s often a bleakly comical twist in the tale, but other poems are about as funny as a death in the family. Josephine captures the chaos of mourning in “Funeral”, the ultimate performance. Grief haunts a number of poems on death and abortion but Josephine is far more direct in addressing diverse abuse and assaults on women, from the reporting of violent crime (be it via official media or community transmission) on “A Woman Is Found Dead Mauled By Wildlife” to queasy drunken encounters and controlling relationships.

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“An Interaction with a First Minister” – subtitled “for the nine women who cannot be named” – won’t take much decoding, and is a grim but crucial read. “What Do Women Want?”, inspired by a poem of the same name by her mentor Kim Addonzio, makes a good companion piece in its interrogation of femme fatale clichés.

But best of all is the longer form “Elizabeth and her house”, a dark, droll fable of a descent into isolation and declining mental health, which takes a surreal David Cronenberg-like turn when the protagonist “objectifies her objects”.

In Public / In Private, by Leyla Josephine

In Public/In Private by Leyla Josephine, Burning Eye Books, £9.99. There is a launch event at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow, 26 November, see www.leylajosephine.co.uk