HAZEL THOMPSON reviews Hell-P Me, the first book of poems by London-based collective Little Grape Jelly.
In the modern digital age, we face new forms of loneliness and miscommunication as we try to connect effectively with those around us from behind screens. This problematic revolution in how we form and sustain relationships is the central anxiety running through Hell-P Me, a poetry collection by Lily Ashley, Grace Pilkington and James Massiah, who together make up Little Grape Jelly. Their first collection takes the form of a seven-month email thread created by the poets as a place to share their experiences, and consists of ‘conversations between a recovering love addict, a born again nihilist and an emotionally naked feminist’. The voices of the three poets interweave and riff off one another as they offer sensitive perspectives on politics, mental illness, sex and grief, all returning in their own ways to this underlying anxiety surrounding communication.
Lily Ashley writes of heartbreak and loss, and so her personal reflection on the digital age is concerned with the emotional distance embodied by ‘this keyboard and this screen between us’. Though her writing is at times spontaneous and visceral, she ultimately presents the listlessness of a generation, for example through the darkly repetitive ‘Tap tap and re-read/tap tap and re-read’. On the other hand, Grace Pilkington’s poetry is always deeply personal — she speaks of being drawn to anti-depressants, with the haunting ‘I was stifled by darkness/And they were pink and luminous and bright’, yet is playful in her damning vision of today’s politics: ‘Oink, oink oink Leaves our PM/Heavy clouds spell MAY but it’s July’. Ever-versatile, Pilkington goes on to comment on the instant access and subsequent addiction we have to news: ‘The Independent flashes new news every minute,/And I twitch, I’m suddenly an addict to cabinet reshuffling’. At the heart of this is genuine concern about the lies communicated to us through this new media, which offers instant gratification as a seductive substitute for authenticity.
Massiah’s more anecdotal poetry lilts steadily as he leads the reader through his experiences with relationships, drugs and a memorable account of throwing up on the tube. His contribution to Hell-P Me is sentimental, coloured with playful images like that of ‘Busta rhymes projected on a wall/fried chicken on our fingers/rum and ginger beer on our tongues’, and musings that his friends from school and church are now grown up and have children of their own. Ultimately however, Massiah’s poetry in this collection is deeply centred around feelings of sexual disconnect created by the media. He puts into words the blur between reality and the internet’s tantalising fiction in comparing ‘my cyber girlfriend/And all the freaky things we do’ and his ‘actual girlfriend/In the surreal world’, disconnected through a ‘desire to witness violence/from a distance love from a distance sex from a distance’. There is a sense in Massiah’s writing of a need to strip away the barriers we so often inadvertently construct as we fall victim to the unspoken rules of modern communication. All three poets share this need, and therefore the vulnerability implicit in the idyllic image of ‘Finally coming clean/bearing my soul as we lay/on these sex stained sheets’ seems almost universal.
This collection is primarily a revolt against the modern-day restrictions that suffocate human fragility and make us defenceless against the tirade of fake news coming from the media, but the form of the collection also utilises the way in which ideas flow quickly in the media. With its fractured and desperate title, Hell-P Me is presented in the form of the very thing it criticises, creating an uneasy tension between celebration of and anxiety about the way we communicate with each other, and perhaps a sense of the reader’s entrapment within their own isolating digital world.
Featured image courtesy of littlegrapejelly.com.