Where Zebras Go

By Sue Hardy-Dawson

I doubt if you could have zebras, foxes, the end of the world, penguins, dinosaurs and people out of fairy tale all together if it wasn’t in a book of poetry. Even short stories would struggle to fit the breadth of content into as few pages as this volume does. Add in home life, school life and, er, football, and you really do have a diverse selection of subjects. All have caught the eye of our author ever since she started her career – some of these poems date back a decade – and now she is going to try her damnedest, with some brilliant design, to make sure they all catch the eye of you.

Which encapsulates my response to this book in one go – that I’m mentioning the design over and above the actual words. If you need a recap, concrete poetry is verse where the actual layout and design is a part of the whole effect, as well as perhaps the subject. So here, with the judicious use of multiple shades of text, we get a poem about elephants’ passing in the shape of an elephant, a fox form wraps up a verse about foxes, etc. This is brilliant – and any school child anywhere near the proclaimed target age range of ‘seven and up’ would find it fun, fresh and original, even if the format is of course decades old by now. Not only these but others here you could see blown up, pasted on the classroom wall and loved for many years.

What these poems can do, however, is hide the verse form – some have the strongest meters and rhymes you could wish for, but of course it’s hidden within the animal torso somewhere. You have to read them out – preferably aloud, of course – to find the bounce, thrust and purpose of the verse. But a lot of my issue with this book is that a lot of the pieces had little in the way of bounce, or thrust, or rhyme – I won’t say they lacked purpose, as that’s both old-fashioned and quite silly of me, but boy I sometimes struggled to find something that Old School John could latch on to as ‘proper poetry’.

I know the whole world of poetry has moved on since my day (heck, it had moved on before my day) but I do think that if you’re pitching works at a junior audience they need more of a hook, an ‘in’ to each piece. To the credit the designs are definitely working in that fashion, not just when it’s concrete poetry, but a case in point is one where the real meaning of the poem only comes across in the illustration. There are some great pages of poetry here – really wonderful experiences for the young reader – but I found them scattered among blank verse, ones where the meter didn’t gel, and too many where the teacher would have to be on hand to ‘enthuse’ over the works, and – tsk, tsk – ‘explain’ them. That may be alright for some, but I know from experience that for simple minds like mine that’s the wrong way to go.