C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor review – punchy tales of lesbian life

The winner of the TS Eliot prize offers a rallying cry for gay unity amid prejudice and death

Joelle Taylor, the 54-year-old Lancastrian and poetry slam champion, is a fighter on the page. C+nto, the bold, combative and moving winner of the TS Eliot prize, is a passionate reconjuring of 1980s-90s butch lesbian counterculture in London (there used to be dozens of lesbian bars in the city; now there is only one). This is a dramatic narrative that does not reflect any improvement in attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ society; its context is turbulence. In her preface, she declares: “There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world” and reminds us that 72 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships and that there are “11 jurisdictions that support the death penalty for lesbians”. She believes the loss of face-to-face encounters in clubs and the divisive nature of the internet have unravelled gay unity and her poetry is a rallying cry to put that right.

Once you have heard Taylor recite on YouTube, looking sharp in her tweed suits, her poems on the page seem unattended without her. There is swank, swagger and firecracker protest in her writing and the ideal is to hear her perform. The book’s title is from the now obsolete Italian literary verb cuntare (to recount) and much of it is divided into “rounds” as though in a boxing ring. But the past is also envisaged as a series of vitrines, their stillness in contrast to Taylor’s pounding blood. Nostalgia’s first cousin, it turns out, is rage.

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