AK Blakemore’s new collection Fondue (O.R.B.) is a profound and awesome (in both its modern and older senses) study in alienation. It is the simultaneous pulling-to and pushing-away of the reader by a poet in complete control of her message. The imagery draws us in to an almost intimate degree but the language with which it does so holds us at arm’s length with self-referentiality (“This is a poem about my mouth” – ‘Fondue’, “this is a subtle visual reference…” – ‘storyboard for a conceptual horror movie’) and even doles out the odd nip if we start feeling too comfortable (“there is no intellectual pleasure” announces the speaker in ‘Lilith’: I’ll show you want I want to show you, lines like this seems to be saying, but if you think you know me, think again). There is also a fairly derisive bite in the combination of the insect-y imagery of locusts, scorpions, moths, cockroaches and Kafkaesque ‘Gregor’ (all linked to men and maleness) and the “rag doll”s, “spasming doll”s, and “fuckdoll”s which disturbingly and simultaneously evoke girlhood, rape and the dead. Here we find femaleness in reaction to a man-made/male-staring world, resolutely speaking in its own voice, refusing to be defined by the male gaze, although still erotically drawn to the “boy” (never “man” when portrayed sexually – men tend to be more sinister beings such as the Devilish one at the end of ‘mephedrone’ “who carried a metal-tipped cane” recalling Robert De Niro in Angel Heart).
In these poems, Blakemore is radical in the way that Jeanette Winterson was radical in Sexing The Cherry and The Passion – she pushes away accepted (and expected) norms of language and imagery to create her own sense-world. She does not follow the rules because she has rules of her own. There is elegant and subtle rhyming and part rhyming throughout, but always deployed on her own terms at unpredictable points in the poems (“smooth leg and / gold-plated astrological anklet // as we smoked out the skylight / she said” – ‘mephedrone’). If patterns are to be found they are more imagistic and thematic, repetitions of motifs (insects, dolls, various parts of the mouth, dead foxes, drugs, S&M references) much in the way repeated ideas can be discerned in the abstract art of Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly – the latter being name-checked in ‘storyboard for a conceptual horror movie’ where his Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus becomes part of a metaphor within a metaphor within a metaphor, another distancing technique that pushes the reader away while pulling them in with a surprising (again, mouth-related) image: “the elderly dowager / holds a red rose to her mouth.”
The “I”, diminished to “i” as though hiding amongst all the other letters and words, is central to this collection, featuring in all but a handful of the poems. It is tempting to assume that this is an authorial ‘self’ and therefore AK Blakemore’s own voice we are hearing, realistically, believably drawn as it is (young, experimental, forthright, intelligent); but I think that at the centre of these poems what we actually find is a carefully crafted construct: we should not be looking for anything confessional here, I feel, Blakemore is made of stronger, sterner literary stuff. The “i” of Fondue is a tool the poet is using to force the reader into confronting the message she is sending. And what is the message? What surprise is at the centre of all the other surprises this collection almost reluctantly holds before us? This: “Yet though she cannot tell you why, / She can love, and she can die.” The curiously, brilliantly anachronistic epigraph from Richard Crashaw contains Fondue’s central, radical, statement: women (this is a book about women, not a woman – and it goes without saying it’s not about men) are vulnerable to love as they are to death, but that modal ‘can’ (not she loves, and she dies) indicates self-determination, the exercising of an ability – within that vulnerability there is power. That her epigraph is written by a man is an intentional irony which reflects the speaker’s simultaneous need/desire for/fear of/disgust with/detached interest in men.
So, for me, these surreal, dreamlike, spasmodic poems are explorations of the speaker’s power-within-vulnerability, and in exploring these (as far as I know unchartered) waters, Blakemore is in the process of creating a genuinely new artistic world. And it’s an enjoyable place to follow her, whether we are laughing at her unexpected enjambments (“i’m sure time would pass more quickly if i could commit / to a regular pattern of aggressive masturbation.” – ‘The Book of the Dead’) or recognising her irritations (“i was frustrated by / the way he received fellatio” – ‘lovers’ – this last being a lovely example of the way Blakemore gets to the nub of a relationship in just a few words: the speaker looking up at her boyfriend for approval, needing a reaction; he with his arms raised, possibly behind his head as though contentedly sleeping while his girlfriend ‘services’ him).
This is a collection that must be read again and again with many notes taken. As I look back over my own notes, the one that stands out, written underneath two separate poems but something I felt numerous times throughout the collection, reads “Don’t get too close!”
Blakemore’s work being as entirely different to that of contemporaries such as Sophie Collins and Vahni Capildeo as they are to each other, it is only slightly depressing to realise that posterity is likely to bunch these vital, exciting and genuinely important, new(ish)ly-emerging female writers together as the “#MeToo Generation Poets” or some such media-friendly label. They deserve better; but I guess it is at least a given that posterity will not be able to avoid recognising that this generation of women writers changed and revitalised British poetry as much as anyone in the last thirty years.
Fondue is available from Offord Road Books, here.