The Ophelia Letters by Rebecca Tamas

A review of the poetry collection The Ophelia Letters by Rebecca Tamás.

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The Ophelia Letters by Rebecca Tamás gives hope against anyone saying that modern poetry is dead. It’s also a collection that shows there’s plenty of ground to be explored between the contemporary styles of the kind of minimalism written by Lang Leav, R. H. Sin and Nayyiirah Waheed and very direct poetry, written mainly to be performed at or in the style of poetry slams.

Mercifully, it’s not deliberately obscure either. A good, general rule of thumb for poetry is that if it’s deliberately obscure for the sake of obscurity, it’s a poor reflection on the part of the poet, rather than the reader. By contrast, The Ophelia Letters is very readable whilst maintaining its complexity. It’s not simple in its ideas or form, but it’s also inviting and exciting.

On my first read through of this collection I noticed that there was the feeling of something secret about it, that it defied explanation. The poems seem electric to me; there is something magical about them and the collection as a whole. These qualities can be seen in many sections of the poem ‘The Ophelia Letters’ after which the collection is named, such as when Tamás writes:

I’ll think of the weak, water gorged sun
splitting and dividing itself,
seeds carried down the bloodstream,
not one hard ting
but a blown, melted shift,
a liquid chorus.

This is a very feminine collection, and the idea of femininity and therefore female literature being fluid and resisting concrete definitions as a form of expression and protest is a longstanding discourse in critical thinking, supported by writers such as Hélène Cixous. Tamás’ collection joins this tradition of thinking. The other main themes of this collection are magic and nature, and these three are all entwined. Tamás’ upcoming collection is titled Witch, so one suspects that magic is a running theme for her as a writer, as well as in The Ophelia Letters. By using the theme of magic in her work, Tamás reclaims the idea of being a witch as an empowering thing, rather than as something that can be used against women.

This is a gorgeous collection, and at times the voice of the speaker goes from being the human observer of nature to the voice and consciousness of nature itself, such as in the poem ‘Hare Window,’ in which Tamás writes:

I sat there hotly as others started,
unable to say I couldn’t eat this sprung grace,

couldn’t lick under the warm pelt
and taste my own slick tongue.

In The Ophelia Letters there seems to be a desire to escape the body, the physical, which again ties in with the desire to be inexplicable. Like the hare within the above poem, Tamás’ poetry tries to resist being pinned down, and succeeds.

Within this collection there is also a sub-theme of nature versus the man-made which occasionally emerges, with the man-made often being presented as catastrophic, or already destroyed. This can be seen in a number of the poems within the collection. As well as this, the ghosts of relationships also emerge in these poems and make themselves solid—there seems to be a clear presence of a maternal figure within the pages, as well as that of lovers.

Tamás’ voice is clear and confident, and the poem after which the collection is named is a great example of a successful, long-form poem; it can be read in one sitting, or in the sections in which it’s laid out.

Tamás isn’t afraid to be frank, but she mixes such frankness with subtlety, beauty and skill. I’ve read this collection repeatedly and will refer to it again for inspiration. Good writing feels free and in a bizarre way, easy, and that is how The Ophelia Letters feels.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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