Recipe for Being a Woman is a playful and pithy debut collection from a poet whose awareness and grip on language allows her to create a concise and deeply ironic sense of being in the world. Hermione Cameron speaks of, to and for the modern age in 28 poems, in which she shows us the world anew, as if standing on our heads. The collection is published by Ampersand, a newly established independent literary publisher who print their own books from Seven Sisters, North London.
The edition is beautiful, made with care and attention to its contents. The decadent decay of flora on the cover reflects decaying ideals of beauty and femininity that the poems present: they offer something brave and honest.
The collection opens with the title poem, ‘Recipe for Being a Woman.’ It is a prose poem that is pithy in both senses of the word, substantial and fruitful like the pulp of an emollient peach: “Her skin should be clear and peachy, her features should be elegant and refined.” Cameron treats femininity with uncanny, at times potentially abject, consideration: “Measure the organs, skin, form and facial features into a bowl and stir together to form a dough. The dough should be firm yet pliable, once she is fully baked.” The result is a manual of tongue-in-cheek aphorisms that elbow-nudge ideas of ready-made gender moulds:
Fold the dough in half and knead it, making sure that all the beauty is contained. Beauty is a woman’s most powerful asset and must, under no circumstances, be wasted.
The language is formal and antiquated, a pastiche of domestic cookery books, which are, in terms of syntax, instructive and imperative. A woman should be edible. The ideal of beauty is upheld by a multi-billion-dollar cosmetic industry that depends on that image. Women consume industry in order to be consumable themselves. The poet’s irony insists that, rather than being told how to be a woman, we be let alone to figure out how to be own separate selves.
Cameron is playful with poetic form. ‘ID,’ for example, is a concrete poem dealing with Freudian psychoanalysis. It seems to put neuroses on the page, wherein the lines that make up the poem warp and scatter in a cerebral formation. The poem looks like a brain and may visualise chatter in the skull that we endure and struggle to silence: “all I have and all I ever really had / is something I can’t hold in my hands.” It is difficult to read the lines in any coherent order, which is representative of a chaotic mind.
She is also playful with language. Such as in ‘Cliches,’ “gone are the days / When we’d sit praying for it to rain / Cats and dogs / Barking up all the wrong trees / in the hopes we would reach our dreams,” she reissues passé habits of language to speak for a new generation in crisis. She shows that a modern or “millennial” existence is far more troubling and complex than we imagine. These poems suggest, with a subtle spirit, that the future is in the hands of a youth who struggle and strive with being born into an accelerating world:
We never run from the spider
That lures us
Into the World Wide Web
Come let’s see the sites he says
This world he weaves
Words we read
Emoticons over emotions
The collection is political, philosophical and psychological and, at the same time, accessible and relatable. Cameron handles issues of heartache, grief, and self-identification with humour and kindness; in the sense of having things in-kind and an understanding of each other. Her poems are honest and generous with real gumption.
About the Publisher:
Ampersand is an independent literary publishing house based in Seven Sisters, London. Their selection encompasses everything from innovative contemporary fiction, poetry, and criticism, to new editions and translations of literary classics. Ampersand own their own press and their books are handmade using a combination of traditional and contemporary methods.
Review by Kirsty Watling
Kirsty Watling is a writer, bookseller and recent Literature graduate specialising in twentieth century literature, visual culture and critical theory.