It’s not easy to get inside the poems in AK Blakemore’s new pamphlet Shia LaBeouf (Makina Books). Individually they are difficult: surreal, fragmentary, imagistic, and in some cases almost haiku-like in their brevity and the way the images are spliced. Take for example the following (the second in a sequence of poems whose name is a symbol I can’t find on my computer, kind of like a >) transcribed here in its entirety:
single ‘dead swan’
in white medical-grade silicone
Perhaps a found poem, perhaps a found ‘idea’, or maybe a complete figment of Blakemore’s imagination, this juxtaposition over three lines micro-narrates a movement from capitalism to nature to technology, one echoed and united in the progression of line ending sounds -ing, -an, -one from the back to the front of the mouth, and which leaves with the reader a sense of unease and fascination at the idea that you might be able to purchase the plastinated corpse of a swan somewhere (and confusion: is the bird dissected and preserved? Who would want that, and why? Is it Hirstian art? Wouldn’t white silicone obscure it from view? Or is this a symbol of natural beauty being obscured by blank modernity and commercialised? And what about swans and myth, and royalty…) – but the reader is left moving on from the poem with nothing particular to do with this sensation. A later brilliant phrase, “the atrocious swan of love” (“may”), indicates that this image is actually a reflection on a relationship which is either souring or over but which won’t go away; we can never be sure what the poem is about and we never need to be. This doubt and multiplicity is part of Blakemore’s special talent, I think, and something which she develops further in this pamphlet than in previous collections. To understand what it is she is up to, we could do worse than go to the poet herself, in a review piece she wrote for Poetry London in 2018: “the best poetry for me represents an unravelling of the world from the sharp point of an individual consciousness”, she says, going on to describe “(a) flash of ultraviolet, which, rather than reproducing the lived experience in edifying primary colours, brings the stain, the seed, the subcutaneous bruising into sharp relief against darkness or obscurity”. Individually, then, these poems are such “sharp points”, mystifying (but tight, condensed) images evoking the mind behind Blakemore’s speaker’s ‘voice’, they are the psychic stains, seeds and bruises whose meaning only begins to “unravel” when, like the string of pearls on the pamphlet’s cover, they are seen as a whole rather than as individuals. Tellingly, although precious stones and crystal are mentioned a number of times, the only direct mention of pearls is in the following stanza from “Love’s Easy Tears”:
how to hide a cigarette burn
with a string of pearls.
This could refer to self-harm, abuse or an accident, but either way these jewels conceal a wound rather than display it to the world and at the same time offer advice on how to go about such concealment. But here the hiding of a scar itself becomes an act of protest and self-affirmation, and the instruction on how to do so reads as an expression of solidarity; it is a finger held up to the world. For me, as in Fondue (ORB, 2018), this is Blakemore developing some of her central themes – female alienaton, lifting strength out of weakness, agency out of passivity, and voice out of non-voice. As she writes in the next stanza from the same poem:
if given licence
my own frailty
will become voluble –
So there is a subversion of the ‘natural glow’ here which I’m tempted to link back to Blakemore’s “ultraviolet” comment in the Poetry London article as a form of ‘non-standard’ or ‘other’ light, and one which is in direct contrast to the more obvious, everyday sunlight which lands illuminates “a fat bee on a bright brick wall” (“may”). The luminescence the speaker aspires to here is not obvious, and it is not necessarily there for all to see, but it emanates from within these words/pearls/worlds, these “sharp points” within which the speaker’s life appears distilled and contained.
These poems come from a place where intense introspection and creativity meet, and as such Shia LaBeouf is the perfect eponym for the pamphlet (it’s also a good joke, given LaBeouf’s history of plagiarism, that Blakemore is here ‘plagiarising’ – in a manner of speaking – his whole puplic persona for the purposes of her own creative work). She writes in the titular poem:
if you’re reading this, Shia, you’ve an advocate and friend in me
By expressing solidarity with this ‘artistically tormented’, ‘troubled’, ‘edgy’, ‘difficult’ (etc.) character, the speaker is claiming not only creative but temperamental kinship. Here Blakemore might have been open to the charge of basking in LaBeouf’s reflected 21st century beatnik glow (again, the glow) were it not for the fact that destabilizing the white male grip on such identities is at the centre of her project. Although the word beatnik has fallen into archaism, or worse wilted into a sort of bland bohemianism, the related term hipster is very much in vogue as a commodified and middle-class white male signifier. In that respect it remains much as it was when Norman Mailer coined – or comandeered – the term in the late fifties to bolster his (problematic, to say the least) concept of The White Negro; it is just that sixty years of late-stage capitalism has robbed it of any bite it once had. And while the race aspect of the hipster is not Blakemore’s to tackle, the Mailerian masculinity aspect most certainly is. And I can’t help thinking that the woman-shunning, homosocial-hipster Beat Generation writers are not far from some of these poems. Does Blakemore indirectly reference that arch-Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg in ‘the reading’, another three-line poem, which more obviously takes a swipe at William Faulkner (and, I think, at his poem ‘A Poplar’), but whose first line “shivering cock!”, for me, brings to mind Part Two of Howl? “(G)ranite cocks!” blurted Ginsberg as he flailed in a sea of exclamation marks and ‘Molochs’. Blakemore shuns attention-seeking male prolixity in favour of concise ‘it’s-there-if-you-know-how-to-find-it’ female complexity (her line is mysterious/humorous: is the cock shivering because it’s flaccid and cold or erect and hot? And am I the only reader who hears Robin from the 1960s TV Batman in this palm-thumping cry?). Anyway, while LaBeouf himself is a refreshing change in some respects from your standard Hollywood career-icons, he is ultimately just an emulation of the hipster, a 60-year-old subversion. However, in her close psychological dissection of contemporary female isolation and difference, by associating her speaker with Shia LaBeouf (and I should say, by placing him so close to the Faulkner poem reference – I notice his name is also identically stress-patterned with ‘shivering cock’!) Blakemore is subverting the age-worn concept of ‘the hipster’ itself, claiming a once-male preserve and creating a new space from which to express a different experience. While the Beat Gen Men said what they wanted to say about society and masculinity in thousands upon thousands of words, AK Blakemore expresses 21st century alienation, for women, in just a few well-chosen ones.
Shia LaBeouf is available for pre-order now from Makina Books, here.
Disclosure: I asked for and received a pdf review copy of this pamphlet free of charge.