Sophie Collins has created such a layering of selves in Who Is Mary Sue? (Faber) that I found myself wondering if the act of creation had continued outside its pages and into the November 2017 piece she wrote for The White Review and even into her Twitter feed and the recent podcast she has appeared in for Faber. Who is the ‘I’ we are reading and hearing, we might be forgiven for asking, and how far do we dare associate it with the real Sophie Collins? This is an exaggeration, but it is a mark of the book’s power that its creative force seems to leave a jet stream in real-life. It would in fact be a mistake to locate any of the “masks and mirrors” (dust jacket) in this collection within the actual person of Sophie Collins: the text almost-explicitly warns us away from this quite sternly in the title sequence – that women are too often seen as unable to separate their imaginative from their actual selves is one of Collins’ key themes; and yet we are goaded into associating the narrative voice with that of the author herself at various times (most completely and disturbingly in the dream-narrative sequences of ‘The Engine’ and ‘The Engine Continued’); just you fucking dare I can almost hear her whispering to me as I feel the temptation to conflate author and narrator. And yet I read in The White Review that these sequences are autobiographical in the sense that they were written in response to the trauma of a sexual assault. So, there are no easy answers here; complexity is part of the point. What Collins is actually daring us to do (and she does it with flinty-eyed seriousness) is to “narrow” her writing and thereby “denigrate” her experience. Again, this is flagged quite explicitly in the title sequence, which becomes in effect a manifesto for the rest of the collection. I say collection, but Concept Album would be a better description, the whole being more than the sum of the parts. That is not to say that the individual poems do not stand up on their own, ‘Healers’ and ‘Bunny’ are particularly strong on their own terms (some of the sections presented as prose – often the most fascinating – are more difficult to see being extracted from context as individual readings) but more than most poetry collections, Who Is Mary Sue? is a single indivisible entity. As much as anything it made me think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Unconsoled in that it appears to create through layer upon layer of dreamlike images, actions, locations and narrative perspectives an ever-growing portrait of an unspecified psychology or identity. And as with Ishiguro, at the centre of Who Is Mary Sue? we find absence, an ultimately unknowable centre which I take to be the artist’s creative core (in principal male or female I think – though in this case, decidedly, female). Unlike Ishiguro, however, Collins uses direct quote, reportage and even photography to locate her central themes outside any one individual’s psychology. This is the Art of the External rather than the Internal. If the fan fiction concept of a “Mary Sue” is anything, it is certainly not any single individual woman (real or fantasy); rather it is Woman (Created-By-Women) and it is Woman (Read-By-Men) and I guess, though clumsy as a phrase, it is Woman (Created-And-Read-By-Women-Under-A-Patriarchy). Collins accentuates this externality with a deliberately unvarying register throughout, in the poetry as in the prose she speaks in a cool, detached, analytical voice – one which brings to my mind a surgeon describing to a TV camera what they’re doing as they skilfully unpick their patient with a scalpel. She may be wearing different masks and looking into various mirrors, but she is not stepping in and out of characters. She is dissecting the selves encouraged or imposed by (male-dominated) society.
And as disturbing as the absence at the centre of the selves may be, symbolised by the central character “O” in the darkly erotic and literally Sadistic sequence a whistle in the gloom, Collins’ creative core is ultimately a place of self-healing through self-expression, a fact itself given expression in one of the book’s several moments of next-level inspiration: that is her conceit (if I can use that word) of transforming “O” into a personal pronoun, a “Rubenesque alternative to I”, an ‘I’ with an internal space in which to move around, create, be oneself: a room of one’s own, in fact; “…a room to live and breathe in, with some honesty”. This is the real point about the core of the book, that women, through the self-help of artistic endeavour and the “unfreezing” of traumatic experience (The White Review) – a process known as ‘working through’ in the wider experience of social trauma in Holocaust literature – can come to terms with that trauma and live within those multifarious selves.
There are other motifs that twist like “loose threads” around the central absence, and they all appear to have symbolic value, although what that value is may not be immediately clear – to me anyway: Russia (alienation? loneliness?); Christianity (authority? support?); the number seven (which could be so many things!); milk (fecundity? mendacity? the creaminess of the milk, the whiteness of the lie); kitchens (repression?); dogs (men? as opposed to the cats/women of Collins’ The White Review piece), horses (dullness? ignorance?); small white monkeys (shame). The only one I am sure of is the last in the list, “small white monkeys” having been explained by Collins herself in The White Review. But whatever they symbolise precisely these motifs link the poems, characters and moments like wormholes (or “threadworms”) throughout the book; or perhaps more accurately like a binding fabric, the casing in which the eventual “room to live and breathe in” can exist.
This is very much a book of the #MeToo zeitgeist, and it is one which I think contains within its complexities challenges for both women and men. There is dissection and criticism of the treatment of female writers here, but there is also clarity and guidance for those having suffered the trauma of abuse. It is a book to read and return to.
The painting above is Woman at a Window by Edgar Degas at The Courtauld Gallery, London.