The Performance v Page Debate is a Red Herring

Redherring

I only made it to two sessions at Poetry in Aldeburgh last weekend, but I was extremely glad to have seen and heard what I did. The ones I saw were ‘The National Poetry Competition at 40’ and ‘A Cambridge Quartet of First Collections’, the first of which featured readings by Dom Bury, Yvonne Reddick, Philip Gross and Liz Berry; and the second Adam Crothers, Rebecca Watts, Alex Wong and Claudine Toutoungi. I was struck by how differently all the poets read their work and how I as a listener got caught up far more in the sound of their voices and the movement of their hands, the expressions on their faces, than on the actual content of their poems.

This is what I wrote up from my notes on the poets:

Dom Bury is of the Poet Voice school of reading, leaning towards the austere and liturgical, there is power in this brand of solemnity – he holds the lectern and often closes his eyes; Yvonne Reddick is expressive in the earnest manner of an amateur dramatist, its effect is cumulative across poems – her hands play out the action of her lines; Philip Gross (my favourite poet bar none) brings something otherworldly to his reading: simultaneously Arial and Caliban flitting then lurching through a wood; Liz Berry clutches at herself emotionally and rides her strong accent as though it’s a creature performing the poems with her – she looks out at the audience, monologuing; Adam Crothers has self-deprecation knitted into the confidence that underlies his word-play and wit – his hands stay in his pockets, awkward but not; Rebecca Watts is deliberately neutral in a way that surrounds and defends her lines – she gets the closest to disappearing; Alex Wong leans forward gently on the lectern, speaks to the page and with reticence stirs pleasing sonority from mumbles; Claudine Toutoungi gives the air a shove with her no-nonsense clarity of diction and awesome comic timing, she wrings each utterance for conversational acuity.

That I could not remember the content of the most of the poets’ poems by the time I headed home from Aldeburgh later that afternoon was, I’m sure, largely due to the fact that by and large I am a ‘reader of’ poetry rather than a ‘listener to’, and I think it is fair to say that there is some skill in listening to poetry. That’s what I’d like to write about a little here, if only to think it through for myself.

There are interesting debates around the dichotomy (a false one according to some) between ‘performance’ and ‘page’ poetry, but they all seem to centre on what the poet-performer does as oppose to the reader-listener. It is not controversial to say that a ‘reader of’ poetry and a ‘listener to’ poetry are doing two different things – one is reading and the other is listening (even though the ‘reader of’ may be reading aloud and so listening to their own voice, it is their voice they are listening to, not someone else’s). So, there is clearly a ‘true’ dichotomy going on in this sense. I was fascinated by Jack Underwood’s Poetry Review article ‘On Poetry and Uncertain Subjects’ and his response to my blog post earlier this year which made me re-visit my understanding of the ever-changing meaning-making relationship between not only the poet and their text but between the reader-listener and the same text. Bearing Jack’s words in mind, though not entirely abandoning my own ideas about ‘linguistic DNA’, it seems reasonable to talk about a tacit meaning-making contract between the originator and the receiver of a text. I feel like this aligns with ideas found in reader-response literary theory, although I find the position of Stanley Fish (whom I have come across since my previous blog on this subject, and who claimed in 1976  to have ‘made the text disappear’ entirely – ‘Is There a Text in this Class?’) hard to follow to its extreme.

In relation to the page-performance question, the idea of a meaning-making contract is a useful one insofar as it relates to the physical transfer of data/signals/symbols or whatever from A (poet-performer) to B (reader-listener), and the skill required of B in gathering these data/signals/symbols before they can go about interpreting them.

1)    For a ‘reader of’ poetry, their side of the contract is very much in their own hands – the ink on the page is the only real vestige of the originator’s side and (although there are different fonts, different paper types, or other written contexts entirely) generally speaking the reader can take their time and does not (ideally) have any major distractions to deal with (not ones that add to the meaning of the text anyway). The reader will go about generating meaning in whatever way they generate meaning, but crucially for my point they only have the ink and paper (or whatever) to go through to do so, and they can do it in a time-frame that is comfortable and natural for them.

2)    But for the ‘listener to’ poetry, the contract is performed in real-time, they have to keep up and maintain their end of the contract at whatever pace is dictated to them by the performer. In my other, non-poetic, life I am an EFL teacher and from this context I know that listening is a skill, and not a simple one, it’s easy to get lost and easy to lose focus. And in addition, ‘listeners to’ have numerous other ‘distractions’ to deal with (as mentioned in my Aldeburgh notes above): the performer’s reading style, accent, pitch, timbre, cadence, lisps, hand gestures, facial movements, use of the dramatic pause, comic timing etc. And that is not to say anything of the other distractions outside the performer themselves (such as all the other people in the auditorium, the lighting, the microphone system – at Aldeburgh there was the occasional hum of mobile phones, and the atmospheric seaside squawk of far-off gulls).

This leads me to my Main Point. For a poet, the idea of a page poem or a performance poem is a false dichotomy, because both are generally created with the way the words sound in mind (there are exceptions, of course); and when we read a poem to ourselves, either out loud or in our heads, we are in effect performing it to ourselves and so the dichotomy between page and performance is also false in that sense. But when we listen to a poem being read by someone else, we are clearly doing something different, and the dichotomy is real. Thus, as with so many things, whether there is a performance-page dichotomy or not comes down to perspective. There both is and isn’t. If we accept that both poet-performer and reader-listener are involved in generating the ever-shifting meaning of the poem then it becomes clearer that any debate around page and performance is actually a red herring. What is really being debated in these cases has nothing to do with poetry – or at least is a priori to it – the arguments are ideological, they are about class, society, education, power, race, identity and probably various other things out of which poetry comes to be sure but which will not be agreed on by debating whatever poetry point is under discussion. Poetry becomes simply a useful cultural battleground in a wider ideological war. You can read the Rebecca Watts/Holly McNish furore, the Toby Martinez de las Rivas palaver and many hundreds of social media horn-locks in the same way.

So, Aldeburgh underlined for me that I am not a particularly good ‘listener to’ poetry because I was focused so much on the poets’ delivery of their work that I was not able to open myself properly to the poems’ meanings – or perhaps I should say I was unable to fulfil my side of the meaning-making contract adequately. But it also occurred to me that (notwithstanding the red herring of my Main Point) we as ‘listeners to’ cannot help but arrive at a performed poem through the performer, and so (for all the reasons mentioned above) a poem’s meaning becomes subordinated to the style of its delivery. Just as it is harder to see something through warped glass – although I accept that just how warped the glass is, is down to the listener (for example, I love Liz Berry’s marked Black Country accent, which may warp the glass one way for me, while another member of the audience may have a hated work colleague with such an accent and this may warp the glass of Berry’s performed poems the other way for them) – the poem’s meaning takes secondary importance to its delivery because the delivery has such a tight grip on that meaning for the audience; it can obscure, distort, even change a line’s meaning entirely.

And as a final thought, we might also say that a poem’s delivery itself adds significantly to the total number of ‘formal units’ of meaning (as I think Fish calls them) with which the ‘listener to’ a poem is faced: in other words, the poem on the page has ‘less to it’ than the performed poem. We could therefore see a performed poem as more complex than and therefore superior to a page poem or as less pure in relation to perceived authorial intention and therefore inferior. Again, we are back to perspective.

Into the Soul of Totalitarianism

 

the illegal age

The Illegal Age by Ellen Hinsey

 The word ‘important’ is over-used in poetry reviews, but in the case of Ellen Hinsey’s The Illegal Age it seems to me the only appropriate adjective to describe a sequence which should be required reading on the National Curriculum. It is not a book we can afford to ignore; and I’m very grateful to the Poetry Book Society as I had heard of neither the book nor the poet before it came through the post as their Autumn Choice.

Like Robert O. Paxton’s 2005 The Anatomy of Fascism, this is a book which approaches its subject with the absolute clarity it requires. Paxton set out his analysis of Fascism as an ‘Anatomy’ almost as though it were a body lying out for dissection, Hinsey uses the structure of legal documentation as the framework which both supports and contains her poetic project. In the same way that the restrictions of a strictly-rhymed sonnet simultaneously create and contain its content, The Illegal Age’s three sections or ‘investigation files’ (Smoke, Ice and Obscurity – themselves divided legalistically into Reports, Evidence, Files, Internal Reports, more Evidence, more Files, and Testimony) allow Hinsey both to build a Kafkaesque edifice (though perhaps ‘scaffold’ would be a more appropriate, sinister word) that confines her language – and by restraining creates its meanings – and becomes a mysteriously self-contained world in which her own investigation can take place: What are these documents? Who is on trial? Who is sitting in judgement? Well, it would seem that autocracy itself is in the dock, indeed being condemned and imprisoned by its own dark strictures, but if that is the case there is no sense that we as readers are in any position of power – perhaps we may think ourselves members of some small resistance group rifling through the documentation of the collection by torchlight.

Paxton pointed out that Fascism is never inevitable because throughout its stages of development there are always (among other factors) people making choices, but Hinsey uses her unfolding imagery, her changes of register, her rhythms and motifs (in other words her poetic ‘choices’) to begin a process of unpacking at a deeper level than is possible in non-fiction prose (or arguably fictional prose) and we as readers are aware that the analysis taking place here is occurring at some point behind or beyond the mere political fact of totalitarianism itself. The barriers of those clouding, opaque section titles hint at the impossibility of the feat the book is attempting (or asking us to attempt) which is an analysis of what Hinsey calls ‘the autocratic experience’, but which could equally be called the soul of totalitarianism.

“Nothing happens quickly:” is the declarative that opens the book, the first of many (most sections take the form of lists of either aphorisms, instructions or Old Testament-style injunctions), and one which sets the tone – it is another expression perhaps of Hannah Arendt’s image in The Origin of Totalitarianism in which the “subterranean streams” of Jewish history lead to the great “coming to the surface” of the Holocaust; “each day weighs upon the next” Hinsey continues, “until the instant comes”. And that is in essence what this sequence goes on to scrutinise – the semi-hidden approach and then the ‘surfacing’ of a moment of total tyranny.

The distillation of this moment comes through most succinctly I think in ‘Elementary Lesson in Division’, a prose poem (or ‘anti-lyric’ to use Hinsey’s chosen phrase) which takes the logic of algebraic equations as a starting point from which to reduce and collapse an individual’s life, and by extension society, as the extreme clarity of mathematical language becomes analogous with the inhumanity of Nazi or Stalinist policy. The beginning and end of the poem run as follows:

     “Start, as  once   instructed, on  the left side of
the equation: there you will  glimpse  the totality
of a simple, well-ordered room…

…all is reduced to one, where
only a fraction of the face is left visible, then only
only a mouth, only a black eye through the bars –
before the prison train jolts.”

And so simple order is ultimately broken down to a single black zero, the hole of a political eternity. Here, with “as once instructed”, it seems to me that Hinsey deliberately echoes Geoffrey Hill’s “As estimated, you died” in his ‘September Song’; and this exemplifies how she writes “in dialogue with” other writers, as Marilyn Hacker puts it in the dust cover blurb. And this is one of the ways in which the book maintains a sense of hope amid the fear and despair. Just as we might think of ourselves as coming across these legal papers during some imagined act of defiance against the regime, there is also a feeling that poets of the past (Trakl, Celan, Szymborzka, and Milosz all more obvious examples than Hill) are being marshalled into a form of resistance which, while it survives, is our defence against the “ascendency” of “the Inconceivable” (‘On the Rise of the Inconceivable’). And part of this resistance is also the plea that the reader listens to other voices from the past, survivors of the Holocaust and other atrocities of autocracy: “Remember: each memory salvaged from tyranny’s flood is an unsteady, but miracle-buoyed raft” (‘Carved Into Bark’).

Although there remains a silence at the very centre of this work (“FINIS MUNDI You can then do what will never be able to be described in language” – ‘Handbook of Smoke’), many sections juxtapose registers that resist one another to create a friction from which the reader senses a voice expressing the individual experience within totalitarianism. The poem which seems to illustrate this best is ‘Terminology Lesson’, which uses eleven phrases that sound as though they may have been taken directly from a Secret Service handbook on torture (‘stress positions’, ‘special positions’, ‘sleep management’ etc.) as subtitles for brief statements and semi-statements which may or may not be biblical paraphrases but which certainly use the high religious-lyricism of the King James Bible (“Like each creature, beneath my tongue I possess a Word, given at birth – a Word that means to be and to praise –”; “And when before thee Lord, we were afraid, and before your justice –”). The horrific banality (recalling Arendt’s use of the word) of the torture-expressions imprisons the poetic beauty of the ‘personal-belief’ phrases leaving us stunned, perhaps numbed, by what the poem implies but cannot quite say.

Torture techniques can be described in all their horrific detail, as can the factual details of what makes a fascist regime, for example, recognisable as such, but what Hinsey achieves in this sequence is a terrifying sense of being within the system, and further than that she stimulates readers to consider the implications of that terror for ourselves at our current, dangerous point in Western history. In ‘The Denunciation’ she elicits a horrific feeling of the personal paranoia and the invasion of private spaces by wider political spaces, not by telling us about it but by burrowing into a couple’s most intimate, spiritual, sexual moment – the moment of their child’s conception, and surrounding it with the language of espionage: video tapes, locked metal drawers and cardboard folders. At what point did the betrayal take place, the speaker asks. The total state has infiltrated and infected the deepest most private connections within the most personal relationships and has thereby achieved its aim. It is hard not to read this and think about the way the internet brings our public and private lives together and how that could and can be used to divide us from one another.

It is worth concluding this review, I think, by inserting the whole of ‘The Denunciation, as its effect is cumulative, and by noting that the phrase in its first line “all was blackly clear” may well be an echo of another voice, this time Holocaust survivor Paul Celan’s, from his famous ‘Death Fugue’: “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown” (Michael Hamburger trans.).

There are many voices in this sequence, both above and below the surface, but all of them ask us to listen, and to remember.

denunciation 1
denunciation 2

The Illegal Age is published by Arc and is available here.

Fishing for Fascists: A Letter to Dave Coates

Dear Dave

You don’t know me as far as I’m aware, although it’s possible you’ve read my poetry review blog. I was going to post this in your comments section, but it’s become quite long* so I’ve decided to make an ‘open-letter’ of it here on my own site, I hope that’s not inappropriate, it feels like the ‘literary’ thing to do anyway.

(*No, I’m being specious, I wanted plenty of people to read it because I think it’s important, and I was worried that it would get hidden away and lost in your comments.)

I’m a genuine admirer of your reviews and essays, which are often both entertaining and instructive, and your website is an important resource. Also, your championing of under-represented groups in contemporary poetry (and impatience with hegemonic elites) was inspiring to me when I made the decision to review more actively.

However, your essay on Toby Martinez de las Rivas concerns me, and this is why:

1)    In reading Black Sun, Terror, Martinez de las Rivas’s writing in PN Review and his interviews online (along with Jack Belloli’s wonderful Black Sun review) the individual I find is a religious conservative with a startlingly powerful vision of the authority of God, a highly sensitized relationship with nature (and the linguistic skill to evoke that relationship for the reader) along with an unfashionable belief in objective truth and the determination to look for that truth at all costs. I also find a political Conservative who would increase rather than decrease central power as an organizing principle, who plays with the mediaeval concept of Body Politic and very possibly even has time for the notion of the Divine Right of Kings (this last is a little speculative but it seems to follow from what he has written). I find a poet utterly at odds with a great deal of the poetry written in Britain today and who associates this with a metropolitan ‘centre’ of which he is quite disdainful on that basis; but also one who lives in the arid south of Spain and finds himself longing for, and therefore making symbolic use of, the green fields and Anglo-Christian architecture – and the snow – of England (this is not in itself a yearning for a mythical bygone world: England is objectively greener than Spain, and Spain’s architecture is clearly more…Spanish). He is a poet looking for meaning where he feels there ultimately is none (truth with no meaning), one who misses his ex-wife, who would like his children to grow up in the England of his childhood (again, the conservative) but feels social media technology (and the tide of, as he sees it, left-wing influence in the cultural sphere) is taking that England away. The overall impression I am left with is of an eccentrically intellectual man on his knees looking up into a dream-sky of birds and a blinding (prophetic?) eclipse – black layered over white (and I see no suggestion of race intended here, more the suggestion of opposition and – mental – conflict as oppose to the harmony of a ying yang approach to duality). All of this is enough to make you loathe and detest his poetry (and possibly my reading of it) – it actually makes it all the more fascinating for me, partly because I find much of it so hard to relate to – but it emphatically does not make him a fascist.

2)    The term ‘fascist’ does not serve you well in this context for a number of reasons: a) although it feels like you are calling a spade a spade, it is actually a blanket word which you pull from Mussolini’s text to cover everything Martinez de las Rivas writes and says, obscuring both the intricacies of his poetic experimentation and the theoretical/critical challenges and problems his work presents; b) it’s an emotive word, used to elicit a quick, strong reaction one way or another rather than a considered response; c) it mistakes Martinez de las Rivas’s use of some of the tropes of fascism and totalitarianism in general (and Fabers’ – i.e. the Nazi-like red, white and black of the Black Sun cover) for the thing itself – in fact I almost get the impression that you have fallen into a trap that was set for you…can poet and publisher really not have seen this coming? I wonder how many people have bought and will buy his book on the back of your essay.

3)    That Martinez de las Rivas’s poetry is so utterly different from anything else on the Forward shortlist surely makes his presence a welcome sign of the Prize’s diversity.

4) When you say “we all know who lives in cities” you are making a speculative leap (okay, I speculated above too, and should probably also be condemned for it) of the type that overlays what Martinez de las Rivas actually says with your own agenda. You are suggesting his dislike of metropolitan poets and cliques can be extended to assume a dislike of the multicultural nature of cities like London; this is evidence of a penchant for racial purity, and his symbolic use of light and dark can easily be added. But all of this can be read in a different way as I indicated in (1): those looking for fascists will find one, perhaps; but those looking for a poet engaged in an honest and personal dissection of his own sense of place and faith in a baffling world are more likely to find such a man.

5) None of this is to say that Martinez de las Rivas is not a fascist. He may be. I don’t know him and if his next collection turns out to be a genuine attempt to further fascist thought amongst the poetry-reading classes I will openly and loudly eat my entire argument and apologize to you personally. But I would still say that, at this point, there is not evidence to support your allegation.

6)    Your timing is also problematic. Posting your essay before the Forward Prize is revealed sends a clear message to the judges that should Martinez de las Rivas win, there will be trouble – from you and from others on Twitter who take an interest. To have an influencing voice appears to have been your motive in posting, and you more or less say as much in your essay (“I write this in haste because Martinez de las Rivas is a tendentious and damaging thinker, his presence on the shortlist is diametrically opposed to the Foundation’s principles, and I fear what he might do with the international platform a victory would provide”). This is not fair on anyone involved. I have seen your comments and opinions on prize shortlists before, but I have not been aware of your actively trying to influence the outcome of a competition. This seems like a very dangerous line to be crossing for a reviewer who has the industry’s ear. The right time to post would have been after the (diverse and capable) judging panel had made their decision, and we were able to see for ourselves which poet had won the money and platform. Your choice of timing smacks of ‘silencing’ those with opposing views. This is itself a feature of tyranny, as you know.

*

You are quite right to be vigilant when it comes to inequality, privilege and tyranny, and you are probably right to look for the beginnings of totalitarianism in the cultural margins – where poetry still lies for all its popularity (certainly the less obvious and more challenging poetry) because, as Ellen Hinsey says in The Illegal Age, “The Inconceivable first emerges along the periphery”, but if we create a climate where artists are afraid to express alternative and difficult viewpoints because doing so will lead to loud and angry denunciations – to  their smothering with blanket-language – if we close down poetry as a place where the unsayable (any unsayable) can be at least investigated, then tyranny is one step closer. imho.

I hope this open-letter does not lead to us being ‘Reviewer Enemies’, although I don’t suppose it’s the best way for me to introduce myself. Perhaps we could both be accused of whitemanspreading over the issue, but I wrote to you, partly at least, because I think open dialogue between interested and engaged people is a sign of a healthy poetry culture. I hope you agree.

My admiration for you as a reviewer remains, but I think you made an error in ‘calling-out’ Toby Martinez de las Rivas, especially when you did.

Best wishes

Chris

The second Jack Belloli blog post referred to in the comments below is here.

Eavan, My Travel Buddy

eavan boland

NB – This is my own tribute to the work of Eavan Boland. I am not a Boland scholar and so what follows is unlikely to contain anything particularly new for those who are already well-read in criticism and analysis of her poetry. If you’re interested in a personal view of her work as a whole, however, you might find it interesting. Only one way to find out…

 For two years I carried the New Collected Poems of Eavan Boland (Carcanet, 2005) around in the glove compartment of my car, taking it out to stave off boredom in traffic jams, car parks, laybys and verges during the daily routine of commuting and ferrying my daughter to and from various evening clubs and activities. During this time, I have taken what I call my ‘Proust Approach’ to the collection, knowing from the beginning that I wasn’t going to rush it, picking it up only when it felt right – and not dangerous traffic-wise – and being happy to read other things in the hiatuses between pages (if you’re interested, I’m currently ten years into my actual Proust Project and only now getting round to The Prisoner). This slow approach has allowed me to see Eavan (it’s a little impertinent to use her first name, I know, but I have travelled with her voice for so long I feel like I know her) as a poetic trajectory rather than a point in time; but it is a trajectory which feels to me like an end in itself, not a development or progression towards some final point of accomplishment. Finally, this week, with the lovely, quiet elegy to Michael Hartnett and perhaps to an older, more natural, musical mode of poetry, ‘Irish Poetry’, I finally bade Eavan farewell. And now, I can look back over her oeuvre (minus Domestic Violence, which came along in 2007) the way a young musician might look through the sheet music of a Mozart symphony, admiring the peaks and troughs, the waves and contours, the shifting forms and patterns. I’m not so young, but such is the way I see my relationship with this dazzling body of work. Eavan has spoken to me through these two years with a quiet, dignified authority I have seldom heard; and at times with such force: a calm, clear anger which she has needed to explain to one like me who does not understand. But she has explained, and I think I have understood. This is how I have come to read her poems, a master explaining an Art to a novice.

To continue the teacher-student metaphor, she began, in her early work, explaining the rules of rhyme and scansion – wonderful, tightly-formed poems like ‘Cyclist with Cut Branches’: “Jasmine and the hyacinth, / The lintel mortar and the plinth / Of spring across his bars, / Like globed grapes at first I thought, / then at last more surely wrought / Like winter’s single stars.”. Then there were her little gems of metaphysics like ‘The Poets’, as well as her great tower of finely-rhymed myth-narrative ‘The Winning of Etain’, both from 1967’s New Territory. Both of these felt like examples of how mastery of form comes before deviation, experimentation and, possibly, freedom. Much later, in In A Time of Violence, I would see how she came to subvert figures of Irish mythology in poems like ‘Story’ where she appears to be ‘saving’ female characters from mythological narratives where they have become almost ‘frozen’ by the epic language of the past: “I am writing/a woman out of legend” she says; and then one poem later, in ‘Time and Violence’ taking on the voices of constellations, mythical women trapped in the sky: “This is what language did to us…” and then a plea “Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in”. Both these poems continue the focus on Suburbia for which Eavan became renown I think and which began way back in the early seventies with The War Horse, the penultimate and antepenultimate poems of which are ‘Suburban Woman’ and ‘Ode to Suburbia’. ‘Suburban Woman’ builds an unconventional portrait of a woman at home from the language of war and sex, and ‘Ode to Suburbia’ juxtaposes a late suburban evening with the imagery of Cinderella, finally metamorphosing the ‘housewife’ not into a princess but first into “The same lion who tore strips / Once off zebras” and then back into a sleeping cat which “may / On a red letter day / Catch a mouse.” The ‘suburban woman’ (a woman of the mid-to-late twentieth century, and an Irish woman, no doubt), her routines and skills and thoughts and creations remains standing (so often standing) in her house, and at the doorway to her house (in the famous image from ‘Anna Liffey’), throughout this collection that she starts to seem like a temple statue of Athena, or perhaps more appropriately, Hestia. She is usually placed inside the home (with all its connotations of being trapped), but her thoughts are more often aimed out – they fly skywards and look down at the hills, rivers and cities – and Irish history/past, as I shall come to. The soul of this particular emblem-woman is projected outwards in advance of a looked-for metamorphosis. It’s this idea of metamorphosis, or perhaps the unrealised potential for it, that appears briefly in The War Horse but returns more emphatically and with an edge of (perhaps exhausted) exasperation in In Her Own Image* and Night Feed (both 1980). Here there is a sense that the statue-woman evoked in earlier collections is now breastfeeding late at night, even as the poet herself is doing so, and so the emblematic figure is becoming intertwined with a ‘real’ woman – the stone of the statue is softening into flesh. But now, with a sudden and visually impactful use of of short-lined poems (thin, drawn perhaps, emaciated from lack of sleep?), and notably those whose titles begin ‘A Woman…’ she introduces a full-on body-change, self-willed and unexpected. Boland (it’s no use, I must use her surname) rejects the homely softness of human flesh – the rosy flesh of the compliant cook in the kitchen, being the flipside of the desirable flesh of the bedroom whore – for more complex shapes and coverings: the fish scales of a sexless aquatic creature in ‘The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish’, the fur of an omega wolf in ‘The Woman in a Fur Shop’, and the festering, stinking bandages of a sense-stripped corpse in the surreal ‘The Woman as Mummy’s Head’. None of these forms are easy to translate, and none of them provide quick answers to questions about identity and gender. They ask rather than answer such questions, and they bring to mind something Boland said of her own work: “The poem is a place – at least for me – where all kinds of certainties stop. All sorts of beliefs, convictions, certainties get left on that threshold. I couldn’t be a feminist poet. Simply because the poem is a place of experience and not a place of convictions…” (quoted in PN Review 220). It is not that the poet rejects this metamorphosed woman, or the un-characteristic note of anger that pervades ‘It’s a Woman’s World’ (“And still no page/scores the low music/of our outrage”) and her various ‘Tirades’ for the Muses, such as ‘Tirade for the Epic Muse’ (“Piston-fisted, engine-headed, blade-faced hag!”), in fact she returns to both in 1987’s The Journey, along with the suburban theme**, but having asked those questions, Boland goes on to ask others: questions of family, belonging, and the blurred line between history and the past. There are surges of close observation in her writing too; moments when she seems driven to look more fixedly at objects – this is most overtly done in the ‘Object Lessons’ sequence from Outside History (1990) with poems such as the sad and beautiful ‘Bright-Cut Irish Silver’ (“this gift for wounding an artery of rock”) – but this is by no means the only time she pauses over the physicality of an item (often of family or historical value or interest) and mines it for significance – and taking a long view, these moments of tight focus feel almost like lyrical contractions which work in opposition to the dilations of other poems that stretch the reader’s view out over a summer, a city, or a situation. This, it seems to me now looking back over New Collected Poems, gives her work viewed over time a sort of rhythm not unlike the in-out of breathing or the up-down of waves. The poems together, as I think is often the case, are more than the sum of their parts, they take on a ‘super-organism’-like life which is independent from the life of each individual poem. The natural place (I suppose with hindsight I can see this) for the developing image of a silent, standing, internal/eternal female figure, and an awareness of the constant and heavy weight of epic myth-narrative to be heading is towards an increasingly distinct dividing line (a threshold) between notions of ‘the past’ and ‘history’. This distinction is present throughout Boland’s work – even in The War Horse, with poems like ‘Child of Our Time’ and ‘The Famine Road’, the one evoking a more personal past (“Yesterday I knew no lullaby”) and the other a colder, more political one (“The Relief / Committee deliberated…”). It is of course, part of the power of ‘Child of Our Time’ that it represents the devastating meeting of the political and the personal. But by the final collection of the New Collected, Code (2001), the relationship between the two has become more complex, more central and more overt. In ‘How We Made a New Art on Old Ground’ there are two different histories, one has a ‘voice’ of sorts: “follow this // silence to its edge and you will hear / the history of air: the crispness of a fern / or the upward cut and turn around of / a fieldfare or thrush written on it.” – this is the personal past of earlier collections. And the other history “is silent: the estuary / is over there. The issue was decided here: / Two kings prepared to give no quarter. / Then one king and one dead tradition.” This language of a personal past – a livingness of the past as oppose to the deadness of history – is tied back to the Irish oral poetic tradition in that lovely final elegy of the collection, where Eavan (my travel buddy, my friend-in-voice, and my esteemed poetry tutor who has guided me on a two-year-long course) remembers an evening with her friend Michael Hartnett when he spoke about “How the sound / of a bird’s wing in a lost language sounded.” And though there is sadness in the death of her friend and in the loss of a poetic tradition, the very poem itself stands for the livingness of the past. A past with a voice we can listen to. “As if to music, as if to peace”.

Although I’ve said goodbye to Eavan as a travel buddy, I cannot quite bring myself to put her back on the shelf. The New Collected Poems, now part of my life, will sit on the table at my bedside (next to Proust) and I will continue my long journey with her. It’s a journey I do not expect to end; and that’s okay with me.

Eavan Boland’s New Collected Poems is available from Carcanet, here.

*I don’t mention it in the body of the text as it would clutter things up, but In Her Own Image contains a moment at the very end which seems to me quite pivotal when it comes to reading Eavan Boland’s approach to mythology and women’s self-reclamation. The final four stanzas of the final poem:

it’s a trick.
Myths
are made by men.
The truth of this

wave-raiding
sea-heaving
made-up
tale

of a face
from the source
of the morning
is my own:

Mine are the rouge pots,
the hot pinks
the fledged
and edgy mix
of light and water
out of which
I dawn.

(Making Up)

**it is interesting that the themes of metamorphosis, anger and suburbia (all present in separate poems in The Journey – in ‘The Woman Takes Revenge on the Moon’, ‘Tirade for the Lyric Muse’ for example – but they also at times appear to mutate and combine themselves, diluting into a new tone and style where the woman and her bourgeois surroundings, the epic and the lyric, the real and the imagined become fused as a single, startling voice, the anger distilled into a sense of loss and regret:

Setting out for a neighbour’s house
in a denim skirt,

a blouse blended in
by the last light,

I am definite
to start with
but the light is lessening,
the hedge losing its detail,
the path its edge.

Look at me says the tree.
I was a woman once like you,
full-skirted, human.

(Suburban Woman: A Detail – III)

Tying the weasels down

weasel

As the back-cover blurb tells us, Did You Put The Weasels Out? (Eyewear) by Niall Bourke is inspired in part by an eighth-century Irish epic (The Tain) and in part by a nineteenth-century Russian romantic verse novel (Eugene Onegin); but it also contains roughly equal measures of James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Spike Milligan. What results from this mix of influences is something rather more than the sum of its parts, and it would be a mistake to write it off as a piece of showy experimentation: this is not romanticism, not modernism, not surrealism or absurdism – not just, anyway – it’s also a contemplation of the modern condition: western spiritual malaise, economic disparity, loss of identity. But like any such contemplation worth its salt, it does not take itself too seriously.
The text invites you to draw comparisons between the silly/funny/mundane story of Mark Setanta’s imagined row with his fiancée Jen, his sloping off from work early to spend the afternoon walking and drinking, and his return home later that night, with the The Tain episode of the Ulster Cycle of myths in which uber-hero Cú Chulainn defends Ulster against Medb and Ailill’s cattle-raiding forces of Connacht. It’s therefore tempting to try and read Did You Put The Weasels Out? in the same way you might approach Ulysses, trying to find mythic equivalence in every character, episode and action; and it is true that both Mark and Jen at different times might be read as Cú Chulainns (Setanta is the Irish hero’s childhood name) and other characters may or may not have their direct equivalents (Mike/Medb? Isy/the Morrigan? Masefield/Fer Diad?) but in general we look in vain for heroic parallels in this tale of modern paranoia (all Mark’s worries are in his mind) and alienation (Mark is an ‘exiled’ Irishman in London) – and this is part of the whole “perverse” point, I think.
Like Flann O’Brien, Bourke makes extensive and eccentric use of footnotes throughout – often the footnotes themselves have footnotes – and he impressively/doggedly sticks to rhyming through most of these (as well as in the contents and acknowledgements!). There is no denying that (as in O’Brien) this interrupts the flow of the narrative to begin with, but as you proceed you become attuned to the style and it adds layers of richness and depth to the poems rather than detracting from them. Bourke takes layering to a whole different level in two poems which are given lives of their own by thinking/speaking verse in cartoon bubbles (again bringing O’Brien to mind in At Swim-Two-Birds where internal characters are given unexpected life in relation to their author, but here it is the Pushkin sonnets themselves which appear to be coming to life, as post-modern an idea as anything I’ve ever read).
Just as Irish mythology gives great significance to the relationship between event and landscape (“landscape as a mnemonic map” as Ciaran Carson calls it in the introduction to his translation of The Tain), Mark (as much a Leopold Bloom as a Cú Chulainn) walks through and observes different parts of London, and while doing so he imbues them with similar significance: the shapes of the City skyscrapers viewed from Hampstead Heath inspire the radical shape of the ‘graph-poem’ (my term for what is as far as I know unique in its form) called ‘Economic Development’, a briefly digressing mini-critique of laissez-faire capitalism; and the winding River Thames itself becomes a metaphor for tamed and emasculated modern life (in ‘River Retirement Blues’).
Mark Setanta’s story is free from the insane violence of the Ulster Cycle until the very end (in the last of the three ‘remscéala’ named after The Tain’s prologues but which Bourke, in typically contrary style, uses as appendices) when Cú Chulainn’s famous ‘battle frenzy’ or ‘warp-spasm’ is replicated by Mark losing his temper hilariously with the ‘serve-yourself’ scanning machine at his local supermarket (I will now never be able to hear these machines say “unexpected item in the bagging area” without smiling!) and subsequently being beaten to death by his fellow shoppers. This episode, like the other ‘remscéala’ are to be read, like a couple of other incidents in the story I think, as things which didn’t happen but could have in another, more directly analogical world perhaps.
Quite apart from the mythological allusions, the Milliganesque absurdity and fun with language (e.g. sausages/assuages) and the use of the Onegin Stanza to carry the narrative on at a good clip (footnotes notwithstanding) both add to the reader’s enjoyment and suggest further layers of meaning (there is possibly something Onegin-like in Mark’s self-absorption and his misinterpretation of Jen’s door-slamming for example, but perhaps we could go too far with this line of thought?).
There are also moving individual poems in here which stand up well on their own, outside of the main sonnet-flow, and which serve to turn Mark into a more fully-rounded character than he would otherwise have been (‘My Father The Forest’ and ‘My Love Is The Weeds’ are my favourite of these) and which also contribute, I would suggest, to the feeling in general that there is some equivalence intended not only between Mark and various fictional characters but also with the poet himself.
As to what the Weasels of the title signify – they appear (along with various types of hats) several times throughout the novel, mentioned by different characters in different situations – they appear to be symbolic of playfulness, memory, gnawing fears, paranoias, and imagination itself (and possibly all – or none! – of these). I can’t pretend that I know what they are intended to signify ultimately, but it is perfectly possible that they have some mythological significance I’m unaware of or that they are intended simply to mean whatever I want them to mean. The biggest compliment I can pay this book is that it makes me want to go back in and look for more. Perhaps on a subsequent reading I will finally be able to tie the weasels down to my satisfaction.

It seems easy to dismiss allusive and formally structured (though experimental) poetry as elitist or ‘show-offy’, but I would offer this intriguing, beguiling book as evidence against that charge. I hadn’t read either The Tain or Eugene Onegin before beginning Did You Put The Weasels Out? but it soon became clear that I would get more out of it if I did. So I picked up the e-books very easily and quickly, read them, enjoyed them and then read and enjoyed this book. We should thank poetry for introducing us to more poetry, I think. But more than that, this “Perverse Novel in Verse” made me want to go off and try writing some Pushkin sonnets and some ‘graph-poetry’ (if that’s what we’re going to call it!) not because I thought I could do a better job than Niall Bourke (I tried, I can’t), but because he clearly had such a good time doing it!

Did You Put The Weasels Out? is published by Eyewear and can be bought here.

Sick Rose

sick rose

The rose in my garden is in a state,
I think it’s dying.
It’s partly my fault, I guess, and partly
the plant’s position
in the wall’s shadow just behind the gate.

It looks like a rose with malnutrition,
spindly and wilting.
Some of the flowers have turned sort of black.
Green, pink and white-ish
aphids, an axis or a coalition,

subject the rose to constant attack;
and it’s giving up –
even though I’ve tried to help it survive
with water and spray,
the rose’s resolve is starting to crack.

But I was out there in the rain today
thinking my dark thoughts,
when I noticed a new unfurling bud
poking its head through
a gnarled peduncle, smiling, in its way;

and I watched it closely. Though I could see
insects and disease
ranged around its fragile, virgin petals,
sucking the life out
of the older flowers, it seemed to me

this bud had been given a moment’s grace.
It wasn’t sickly.
Its skin was entirely without blemish.
It had the calm glow,
beneath the gloom, of a sleeping child’s face.

But I know what my neighbour gardeners’ll say
about my sick rose.
‘Pull her out’, they’ll say – and be right. What kind
of garden is this
to bring a rose into anyway?