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Poetry review: Hollywood or Home by Kathryn Gray

07 Jul 2024 5 minute read
Hollywood or Home by Kathryn Gray is published by Seren

CJ Wagstaff

I’ll admit it. When this little blue book arrived on my doorstep, my first disobliging thought was, “why Hollywood?” and approaching it blindly, you might be tempted to think it too. Generally as a subject matter it is trite, worn-out and fundamentally unrelatable, and from La La Land to the MCU, many of us are equally weary of consuming it. But traverse a little deeper into 2023’s Hollywood or Home: scrape away the surface of these forty-five poems and denude a work of tactful and unsettling nuance.

Nearly twenty years since her first widely shortlisted collection, Kathryn Gray comes equipped with an evolved poetic dexterity as she presents an opus that is mottled with sharp wit and irony. In this Sunday Times Poetry Book of the Year, the poet tenders a comprehensive study of human truth embedded in allusion to stardom and popular culture.

Protective armour

This collection, produced by leading Welsh publisher Seren, is a thing of binaries: of courage and diffidence, of desolation and humour, of bitter irony and genuine good faith. From the speaker’s guarantee that “even the roses have it coming to them” in ‘Portrait of My Superego as Mommie Dearest’, to finding life’s saccharine justification in ‘Beautiful berries’, each individual piece acknowledges the uncertainty and inconsistency of a layered existence.

Gray, a prolific editor and enabler, writes with a voice which is clear and assured, interspersing brazen narrative stance with moments of intimate personal reflection. In ‘Michael McIntyre is worth 50 million dollars’, the speaker shares, “This is how life tends to happen: you plane at your / soul for the wrong art, and end up with the shavings, unless / you’re Michael McIntyre”. The work is human, playful with its vulnerability, using its familiar cultural touchpoints as a kind of protective armour. Through its frank humour, it denotes the black comedy of an iniquitous world with shrewd linguistic acumen: the lyrical embodiment of “if I don’t laugh, I’ll cry”.

A rallying cry

The poet radiates in her use of persona. In reference-stuffed opener ‘Miramar’, we see her embody a jaded iteration of Top Gun’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, with “I fist-pump the sky as if I were not weary of jets”. In these first lines Gray summons universally relevant themes which recur inexorably throughout these poems. A sophisticated sense of time, transience and aging effect a rallying cry for seizing opportunity.

A world away from the 1986 Tom Cruise cult classic, the poem ‘Lovely Young Men’ sees its speaker, a woman approaching her late forties, weeping at night “for the life unlived” and  experiencing desire for younger men. The multiplicity of voices in this volume speaks to the universality of the experiences it conveys. The speakers’ laments for missing the boat could conceivably be anyone’s: an A-List celebrity or the reader’s own internal monologue.

Telling it slant

This is not a book about Hollywood, though Gray conjures its image like a mirage on a “blistering dust road”. She submerges the reader in its world with co-opted lexis from movies and tabloids, with the mischievous qualification, “according to sources close to me,” in second offering, ‘Hollywood’. In this same piece, the speaker admits that she has “never gone” to the LA neighbourhood before going on to list recurrent industry tropes. The allusions to mainstream entertainment serve as a framework for concretising the book’s anxieties. Through them, Gray finds a way to tell her story ‘slant’ by means of her critique of contemporary cultural artefacts.

With online access and visibility in a state of constant growth, Gray is writing at a time when it’s easier than ever to become an overnight global sensation. But with life’s impossible velocity and with a news cycle which seems sometimes to last seconds, fame and recognition are becoming all the more amorphous and impermanent. In a world where TikTok stars and Youtubers soar and slump in a matter of well-documented moments, these reflections on time and decline are punctual and pertinent appraisals of modern digital life.

Sound and sensation

In Hollywood or Home, the former Literature Wales director draws back the red curtain of the entertainment business to expose a reality that is both bleaker and closer than we think. With stirring and surprising use of language, the writer discloses her guiding credence for these sixty-eight pages: that we all find ourselves under the wheel faster than you can say “Goose is dead”.

But this is no grim acceptance of defeat. In this mature and well-crafted sophomore collection, Kathryn Gray seeks to endure nonetheless, to find meaning and connection in our shared trials and trajectories with a powerfully decisive ear for sound and sensation.

Hollywood or Home by Kathryn Gray is published by Seren and is available from all good bookshops.

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