Here is my review of a new book by my friend and disability activist Helen Sims. Called “Taking Steps”, it’s a collection of her poetry, short stories and “musings”.
The term “brutally honest” is a well-worn phrase, used by politicians, journalists and PR gurus often without the slightest inclination of the gravity of the sentiment. It’s frequently just a rhetorical soundbite; invariably cynical and more often than not, hyperbole.
In the context of Helen Sims’ book, “Taking Steps”, none of those adjectives are appropriate. The author is brutally honest so far as to say she, and her story, are devastating – yet poignantly hopeful.
In what is an extremely smart, well-constructed and pertinent collection of her poetry and short stories, Sims takes us through the full spectrum of her own emotional, well-worn path in life. The results are joyous.
Opening with a foreword that gives us some backstory to where the author and campaigner has come from, with expansion this could become a standalone piece in itself. An epitaph to all those who have monumentally struggled, as Sims openly has, but who have been shaped by this struggle and come out the other side. Intact.
There’s a passage which particularly stands out – that encapsulates the writer and what drives her. Sims’ talks about being at a “mainstream” primary school:
“Eventually though, things settled down a bit and I found my niche. I was ‘skipping rope holder’ at play time. Part of me felt wonderful; so pleased and relieved that they wanted me to play with them. But it hurt too. I wanted to be the one skipping or playing hopscotch, and I hated being left out of ‘kiss chase’. However, I understood that it was just the way things had to be. There was, there is, no choice.”
“There was, there is, no choice” is, for me, one of the most profound statements in the prologue, and one which is crucial to understanding the rest of Sims’ work. It’s that resolution the author has come to, that acceptance, that drives her. She is, while not always content with life, unyielding in her self-awareness and determination to be more than her disability – Sims lives with cerebral palsy.
The bulk of her work is lyric poetry or ballad in style, honing in on subject matter personal to her; often reflective on past events, the author appears to tread a fine line between writing as catharsis and in some way prompting the reader to stop, think and reflect themselves.
This is apparent in several pieces, where she discusses homelessness, societal and governmental attitudes to the disabled and even pop culture (note her acerbic takedown of social media in “Faceless Book”).
There is no standardised form to Sims’ writing – she merrily skips between quatrains, quintains and even septains. Much of her work utilises the iambic pentameter, but she doesn’t stick to any particular format, dancing from “ABBA”, to “ABCBC” via “ABAB” and even utilises a Vers libre format extremely potently in many pieces.
Orthodox poetry this is not – so if you were looking for a collection that banally confines itself to set forms and techniques, then look elsewhere.
A pertinent example of this is “Write Again”.
As a journalist who lives with addiction and mental health issues, it’s a piece that touched a nerve personally with me. Sims encapsulates perfectly the struggle to emotionally garner the capacity to put words and thoughts down, after a period of abstinence from writing (in this case what would appear to be, for her, due to depression).
The author skips from the omniscient third to the first persons in stanzas, and it’s utilised to good effect:
And she is feeling fine,
She just needed
A little time,
We’re relieved that she can write again.
And I told them all is well,
But they don’t know
How far I fell,
I wish that I could write again.”
But two of the most devastating pieces in this collection are “Dead” and “Baby, unfinished”. In them Sims openly talks about suffering a miscarriage, and the effect it had on her and her relationship with her husband. Gut-wrenchingly honest and brutal, she cares not for dressing the pieces up; merely, she hits the reader with the moving, stark and tragic reality of the event:
“I really don’t know why I’m writing to you now,
I guess the private me needs to come out
I’m sorry baby that you could not stay,
And because I flushed you away.”
However, the masterfulness of Sims’ work is the way she manipulates the reader, by interspersing the harrowing with extremely light, often laugh-out-loud pieces – which also presents her as an astute social commentator. There’s something of the Ayckbourn about her in “While you’re at the shops”:
“While you’re down there,
Put the lottery on,
This time don’t get the numbers wrong!
Get some polish for Cindy’s shoes,
Find a cure for Andy’s flu.
Don’t forget her gin,
Or plastic bags for the kitchen bin.”
Sims also musters some of this unembellished grit in to the second and third parts of her book, which are a collection of short stories and “musings”, if you like.
She shows a precocious talent for storytelling, especially that aimed at a younger audience. There are some delicious tales surrounding Christmas, which could easily be extended into books in their own right.
But Sims also burns glaringly bright with the ability to talk to her audience about subjects they may not understand, or have experienced.
In “Depression: The Hand Around Your Ankle”, she says “It isn’t simple, and maybe I over simplify things a bit here”, as if almost questioning the clarity of her prose and her argument. I feel she misses the point herself – the very fact she does oversimplify things, is what makes it so commanding.
The various “musings” she has written also demonstrate she has a deft hand at social commentary, especially surrounding disability. Many a Guardian columnist could learn a lesson, or two.
Overall, “Taking Steps” is not the work of a poet and writer who has learned their craft through the educational system, without actually living.
What “Taking Steps” is, is a glorious collection of work spanning a writer’s lifetime, that transcends the conventions of academia-led verse into a full-blown, gutsy miscellany of reflections on an individual’s world. It is the work of a writer who has “lived”.
Sims is a writer with an impishly rebellious streak, that shines through every piece in her collection. While not transgressive, it is modern, raw and unrefined. The way all the best writing should be.
Open your mind, withdraw from convention, and take some steps yourself into Helen Sims’ world. You won’t be disappointed.
“Taking Steps” is available to purchase here: