In a week in which, inexplicably, a kerfuffle was kicked up over Ange Mlinko’s not-extravagantly-unreasonable comments about Adrienne Rich in the London Review of Books, the poetry contribution to the same edition of the LRB, Emily Berry’s Paris, seems to have passed more or less without comment. I’m surprised only because Paris is a prose poem and prose poems always seem capable of getting someone’s goat; I would at least have expected someone to take to Twitter with a complaint about how this sort of thing ‘isn’t poetry’. I’m posting about it now not to bemoan the form of Berry’s offering (if interested, see more on the subject in relation to Jeremy Noel-Tod’s prose poetry anthology, here) but to celebrate it as a complexification of literary power dynamics, an exposé of authorial paranoia, and a parody of Proustian psychological observations.
This week is also of course Proust’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversaire, and so it is appropriate that the LRB should mark the occasion, even if it is tucked away in the sub-text of a prose poem. Berry is very witty in shrinking the vastness of Á la recherche du temps perdu to what is (prose/poetry debates notwithstanding) basically a single paragraph. And it is a paragraph repleat with ironic thoughts on that most thoughtless of modern mechanisms for capturing lost time, the selfie. What took Proust thirteen years to write, and most readers months if not years to read, is whittled down to a minute or two for readers of the LRB and a single moment of posing for the protagonist of the poem. Not that we ever find out if the speaker actually takes the selfie, comically wracked with doubts and insecurities as she is (I say ‘she’ but the speaker is not gendered, we know only that the admired poet who Berry’s ‘I’ is visiting is male and famous and therefore in some position of implied authority – which is part of what Berry is dissecting). The sentences have a rather Proustian feel to them too; the first is short and clear, but from the second sentence onwards they are curiously difficult to parse, as the protagonist’s thoughts layer and divide and digress, so the clauses build within lengthening sentences, punctuation causes the reader to double-take slightly, and sense also seems to leap across full-stops sometimes, which sounds perfectly normal when read aloud but requires a little more from the working memory than would usually be asked. The opening of the poem begins to give a flavour of this:
“I went to Paris to visit a writer I admired. Because I was not confident he really wanted me to be there, he promised me that he did and we hugged for a long time but he let go first and I was not completely reassured. In his apartment he had taken my photograph when I had just finished showering and was looking rather dishevelled because I had dressed hurriedly and I asked if he would take another one later, or if maybe we could take a selfie together.”
With seven ‘I’s, six ‘he’s, two ‘me’s, two ‘we’s, a ‘my’ and a ‘his’, the proliferation of personal pronouns in these opening sentences suggests another reason that the reader needs to slow down a little: the things being done in the poem are swamped by the two people doing them; the verbs feel crowded, harried almost, by their subjects. As with selfies themselves, the people involved are paradoxically both foregrounded and stripped of any real identity, while blocking out anything of real interest that might be going on.
We are offered the suggestion (one we can accept or not) that the ‘admiring’ writer is in Paris having an affair with the ‘admired’ writer – it is after all the city where clichés tell us such things are commonplace, and anyway why is the protagonist showering in the other writer’s apartment? And why does the admired writer photograph his admirer in a state of post-shower dishevelment? There is an unexplained level of intimacy here, and we do not have enough information about the couple to disentangle the innocent from the creepy, or the romantic from the manipulative. Is the male writer a symbol of the power an aging literary patriarchy wields over rising millennials?
And if there is no affair going on here, why is the speaker in Paris at all, other than out of this professed admiration? What is in this visit for either of them? Is it simply the professional kudos of proximity to a ‘famous’ and ‘interesting’ writer? To gather that all-important photographic evidence that one literary celebrity has been close to another – with all the intimations of heavy-weight intellectual conversation that brings with it? Are they each other’s trophies? Paris, city of literary as well as romantic clichés, is the right place for such trophy gathering.
This brings us back to the poem’s central theme, the overwhelming and crippling sense of paranoia and insecurity (a word used multiple times, building almost feverishly and comically towards the end of the poem) which the speaker feels both in relation to the other writer and their respective social media ‘audiences’. It is the level of over-thinking that the speaker brings to the more-or-less thoughtless, impulsive activity of selfie-taking, and, for example, the solemn use of the word “collaborate” to describe the two writers posing together for a selfie, that seems to me both amusing and profound in equal measure. We know what research has to say about the effect of selfies and social media on emotional health, and by juxtaposing this with the supposedly High Intellectual world of literary relationships, Berry both pokes fun at such relationships and exposes the dissonance between what we show of ourselves to the world and the turbulent individual emotions laying just below the digitally connected surface.
“I wanted to appear secure and aloof but it seemed to me that what such pictures conveyed was quite the opposite, even though that wasn’t their intention.”
The speaker gets tied up not because she is paranoid that she is not “famous or interesting enough”, although she is paranoid about that, but because she is applying the very observations required to be a good author to her actual relationships, layering psychological insight upon psychological insight, as though she is in a game of chess with herself and finally finds herself in check-mate. Ultimately, the reader leaves Berry’s speaker tangled up in a final sentence that takes a particular effort to unpick:
“He had done almost everything in his power to assure me that I had every reason to feel secure, except by going to such lengths that he himself would feel insecure in the event that I failed to assure him of his security.”
We can pull from this the criticism of the male writer for his hidden, but ever-present and ever-fragile, ego; but this criticism is itself hidden within the speaker’s own insecurities, which clog up the narrative in a way that, for me, brings to mind Sylvia Plath’s descriptions in The Bell Jar of the physicality of words on the page coming between a reader and a text’s meaning, impeding rather than facilitating progress. Is this writer, too, on the brink of a breakdown?
We can only guess, because there we leave our speaker, trapped in the box of a prose poem, a little like Proust sitting in his Paris bedroom not going anywhere but thinking himself into eternity.
Two lonely walkers meet in the usual deep wood, A glade perhaps or a meeting of ways, And as they sense the aura or click of the other, Before even suspicion kicks in, there is terror That this is the end of the world, and they’re right. But nevertheless their paths have been forged By previous travellers in this same dense jungle Which disappears on every side into the night, And so they arrive, in a state of high tension, Before a new and unfamiliar pair of eyes.
What strikes them first is that someone is missing – Or at least someone is there they cannot see – So again, before they even begin, they understand As all living things do, that though they are two They should be three. What then ensues in this wood Could be called the distrustful creation of a third. They negotiate a structure between and above them To compensate for this one great missing thing In the silence, and they do so by building Word upon word upon word upon word Upon word upon word upon word upon word.
In order to allay their fear of each other they want To create a forest of their own, where every leaf And root is of their design and in thrall to them. But the basic matter of their being confuses And causes them (a) to mistake this structure For theirs alone and their opposite pilgrim For a statue or an ants’ nest, or (b) to fail In their fury to notice that all they are doing Is gathering small stones and withering flowers, Constructing a frame of brittle twigs With such care and laughable solemnity. They are making a little castle like children In the soft dirt at the feet of trees.
None of which matters as the two lonely walkers Move on, changed forever, leaving behind nothing But what the deep wood accepts beneath its canopy.
Shash Trevett’s debut pamphlet, From a Borrowed Land (Smith|Doorstop) begins with what feels like a cleansing, or perhaps a renewal. As a recent arrival to the UK as a refugee from the Sri Lankan civil war, in the first line of the opening poem, ‘New Words, New Clothes’, the speaker declares: “I discarded the words first”, immediately evoking not so much a sense of loss as one of self-will . The verb discard is surprising here, it is a deliberate action, not a passive one; we do not get the sense, even in a strange new country, that the “mute silence” she finds herself in is something happening to her, but rather it is being done by her; and I think there is a manifesto of strength in this short opening line. The speaker then begins observing – “I watched and learned like a mynah bird” – and building, as she replaces one language with another, transmogrifies one into another would be closer, as Trevett uses Tamil script (“அ became A”) to emphasise the physical transformation entailed in the process of language learning.
After a while through whispers and croaks
new words emerged
in the borrowed tongue of a borrowed land.
This first poem gives an authentic sense of a new-language user’s building confidence, from the symbol-changes, to the child-like simplicity of Edward Lear’s nonsense alphabet lines, to the “single, stuttering, borrowed syllables”, to the final graceful torrent implicit in “and the new words began to flow”. The new words, like a new set of clothes, have transformed the speaker, made her new again as she has escaped the painful history contained in her own language.
I abandoned two millenia
of poetry, mythology and history.
No Pallavan or Cholan could claim sovereignty
over my tongue, my mouth, my mind.
There may be guilt here; there is certainly irony in the fact that the speaker finds this sense of escape from Imperial repression in the UK, but the succeeding poems show that Trevett, though she may have abandoned her mother tongue, has far from abandoned her mother land or people. English and England remain, after all, a “borrowed tongue” and a “borrowed land” and there remains in that word borrow the suggestion that the day will come when what has been borrowed will have to be returned. Touchingly, at the very end of the pamphlet in the Acknowledgements, she juxtaposes this sense of impermanence with something more abiding when she expresses love to her family, who, she says “have made this borrowed land my home”. But still, there remains the sense, as in much diaspora poetry, that her new home is not entirely hers. The poet’s life in the UK is not the subject of the pamphlet though, which on a basic level is twofold I think: the memory of violence and the role of language in that memory.
The “mute silence” of the first poem stands in comparison to the “fug of silence” which wraps the speaker’s father in the second (‘In Your Old Age’) which “clots” and “strangles”, not only trapping the old man, who is perhaps a victim of aphasia or silent simply from having witnessed too much, as though in a windowless room (“so thick it will not let the light in”) but also severing his memories from his voice, and so from his child, the speaker.
Appa, in your muted world
what do you remember now?
And the sensation of a collapsed, decaying internal world returns at the end of the collection, in ‘My Grandfather’s House’, where the crumbling words of ‘In Your Old Age’ are replaced with the physical, and of course metaphorical, crumbling of a family home back in Sri Lanka.
There is moss growing in the bedrooms
of my grandfather’s house and raindrops
sing a lament on deserted floors.
This neglected, decaying house also sits in silence, apart from the “music” making mosquitos, who are the “inheritors of (its) rooms” and “the sum total / of our dreams”, all sound reduced to a buzz, all traces of everyday human activity to an empty and slowly disappearing space. The poem is a potent symbol of lost language and a lost time – the falling away of memory.
But between these two bookends, Trevett’s pamphlet is an excerise in measured rage. Rage at the supression of the Tamil language, for example, in ‘The Sinhala OnlyAct, 1956’, the second half of which is addressed, wonderfully, to the language itself: “Oru naadillaathe aatkal, in exile, / bearing the beauty of your music, still.” – the ‘people without a country’ and the music, of course, returning at the end of the pamphlet tragically decimated as insects and absence. Rage at international indifference to the juggernaut of endless war, in ‘Things Happen’:
When they shoot blindfolded men in the back
and take souvenirs of mutilated lives
and hopes. When they rape girls and grandmothers
and celebrate the hecatomb of their success –
and the world moves on.
And rage at the betrayal of vulnerable refugees by politicians in ‘Psalm’, which condemns the British MPs who voted against the 2016 Dub Amendment to the Brexit Bill by incorporating their names into an enormous (almost page-sized!) single word: ‘NO’.
But From a Borrowed Land is more than just rage, it is a celebration of the beauty of the Tamil language, and of the culture it represents. Trevett presents two poems by other Tamil writers (Cheran and Vinothini) in their original script, followed by her own translation and then, enlighteningly, a third poem, a response to the original. This tripartate approach to translation is stunning in both concept and execution. The original versions, to a non-Tamil speaker reading from the page, appear like a garden of strange and beautiful flowers, presented as though Trevett is challenging the reader – if you want this, she seems to be saying, you’re going to have to come closer, read more, listen more carefully – and the translation then provides shape and shade, with the response expanding that into a different context and country. ‘Psalm’, mentioned above, is the reponse to the Vinothini poem translated by Trevett as ‘My Songs’, which celebrates a child’s creativity, tenacity and most importantly her future, which is then taken away from her in the most leaden and symbolically violent manner with that single negation of the final response. This is from Trevett’s translation:
Those unwritten songs rest
in the hands of that little girl
who won’t release them, easily.
I could dwell for a long time on a number of other lovely poems, such as ‘Blue Lotus Flowers’ which is written using the classical Tamil Akam form and which contains such a brilliant description of a young lover, that I can’t resist adding it here:
As beautiful as a peacock on the hillside.
As strong as a bull elephant
swaying among the young grass.
Bright as a green parrot
skimming the mango tree
he called to me.
Or ‘The Last Mango Tree’, which stands as a requiem to, and in soldiarity with, “a lost people”.
But I will finish on my personal favourite poem of the pamphlet, ‘I was Na’amah’, in which ‘the wife of Noah’, who “was known by many names and now by none”, wrestles an identity away from the patriarchy using the many alternative names by which she has been known across the world and throughout the ages. This poem seems to me to encapsulate much that is exciting about this pamphlet: the various names for Na’amah burst onto the page like the flowers of Tamil in other poems; the strength is that of the ‘mute’ refugee arrived in the UK in ‘New Words, New Clothes’; the celebration is for those who are repressed yet stay strong nonetheless; and the rage is aimed at the deadening blindness of a subjugating force which is unable to see the beauty and profundity of the lost meanings this character’s old names represent:
I was Emzara, Noyemza. Norea to the Gnostics.
The Babylonians called me Tytea.
I was the sunrise of creation
the moon glow of eternity.
This poem (like the responses to other poets’ work) brings to mind Carol Ann Duffy, and I don’t see any reason why Shash Trevett should not be mentioned in the same breath as poets of that calibre. From a Borrowed Land is a terrific debut pamphlet, and I would fully recommend buying a copy.
You can buy From a Borrowed Land from The Poetry Business, here.
Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s first collection, The Yak Dilemma (Makina Books) provides wonderful evidence that Dhaliwal is a poet who understands instinctively that poems make sense of the world through asking questions which neither provide nor expect answers. The speaker of Dhaliwal’s poems asks question after question; in fact she says herself in the title poem that she stands “in a labyrinth of questions”. Some are rhetorical (“What month do sunflowers die? September”), some genuine (“…was this Indian lady sitting cross-legged in front of me really Jemdanee?), some pointed (“where have I truly come to?”), while others feel like stop-offs on unfinished philosophical journeys (“In a city where desire is sold as livestock, / does it become the currency of lust?”), or ways-in to the internal monologue of an un-made-up mind (“Was it solitude’s better byword / for a happier state of mind? Was it a watchword / for failed solitude, the worst of all our fears?”). Even when questions are not asked directly, expressions of non-comprehension point towards a question just over the horizon (“I never understand the geometry of a mountain – the minute and vast distances between its several folds”), and some of the poems simply seem to stand where a surfeit of questions and dearth of answers has left an empty hole. This last is exemplified best by the first poem in the collection ‘Meet me in the morning on no man’s land’, where, in two prose columns of three stanzas each, facing each other on opposite sides of the page, the speaker proposes a dream-like space where two can come together in all the freshness and hope connoted by ‘morning’, where all the world’s solidity and division disappears into a place “where our heads float and so do our hearts” and where “we will create a daisy chain of ampersands”. Far from coming over as callow or naïve, though, there is a knowing strength at the centre of this beautiful poem – for one thing, the claim that in such a place of unity “we are not white nor brown or black but just the shade of our most loved colour” and that “Everyone will qualify to be a person of colour” strikes me in the current climate as a very brave claim to make, and one which shows great understanding of the enormous leap we as a society need to make to overcome the divisions between us – a poet’s understanding, dare I say? But the solid core of the poem is in its central conceit or wordplay of ‘no man’s land: is this a land that is not owned by men, or one where men are not admitted, or one which, to give it its prosaic Wikipedia definition, is “land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties who leave it unoccupied out of fear or uncertainty”, indeed is the poem referring to man as a gender, or Man as a species? Dhaliwal does not answer these questions, and neither should she – the poem stands in place of the questions and the answers.
The poems take us from “Punjab’s fewer than five rivers” to “the weightlessness of the sea” in Istanbul, to “the seven hills of Edinburgh” to “the correct blue // of the Dublin sky” and the constant jumping between countries causes the reader to sense the disorientation that the poems are negotiating, descriptions like those above adding to this feeling of dislocation, almost to the point where immigration and emigration come closer to transmigration. The speaker is a homeless soul and the “‘bulldozed dreams’”, “rubble” and “peeling paint” of the K-25 area of Hauz Khas in Delhi, the naked men she sees from her apartment window in Antwerp and the “four rented walls” of a hotel in Cairo where she rests “like animals forced in jars of formaldehyde” only accentuate the sensation that the speaker is like a bird looking in vain for somewhere suitable to perch.
So these are poems that work alongside each other to create a steadying sense that the speaker is working towards a new kind of understanding in a globalised world where the idea of ‘home’ has become detached from its moorings. She is feeling her way through the world as a constant outsider, as she points out in ‘Poem in which I am an Interloper in an Art Gallery’, cannily picking up on and adapting Theresa May’s infamous 2016 phrase “if you are a citizen of everywhere, you are a citizen of nowhere; or just foreign”. Even when she returns to northern India – saying, perhaps provocatively, that she is “Dressed in black from head to toe / (to look as white as I could)” to learn more about the Irish actress Norah Richards, she discovers that something indefinable has changed: “I came looking for someone else, for something else // But who is it? What is it? // I have come here as an intruder”. With her sense of home, her sense of identity is slipping away – and it is no coincidence that in the following poem, “Drinking Coffee Together”, the speaker is in the middle of splitting up with her lover; the waning of a love affair having been working concurrently with a building sense of wider psychological loss throughout the first three quarters of the book, it now breaks, with restraint and kindness but decisively (“It matters / what we tell each other. / I do not tell you I do / not love you nor / do you.”). Restraint, in fact, and the thoughtfulness and dignity that go with it, mark the collection from beginning to end, although a sense of frustration builds subtly, only poking through the surface at the very end of the final poem, ‘What Jasmine Said’, where the speaker breaks a toenail while visiting Giza and feels “like a princess who is not a princess // because she is wearing boots / and they are so fucking tight.” The constricting footwear here takes the reader back to earlier poems, particularly ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’ where shoes, old and new, seem to stand for comfort or lack of it within a language (“Words fail me often” she says “and so do shoes”). I’m not sure if there is link I’m missing between the antifascist writer Ginzburg and shoes per se, but it may be the speaker is reading in the original Italian rather than in translation and that her Italian is not as expert as her English so the text highlights to her the way exploring a writer’s work is like exploring a new city and the language(s) you have available to you, like footwear, affect your journey: those we have had longest will help us in our encounters with with subtleties and “little virtues”. It is not a straightforward poem and I’m not sure I am doing it justice with this reading, but Dhaliwal’s fascination with words, translations, and living between languages, is beyond doubt; it is if anything the central question in The Yak Dilemma – yak of course not only being an animal but a synonym for chatting, and so the dilemma here is about what words do to us, and what we do with words.
I don’t want to jump to conclusions but I guess, being from Palampur originally, Dhaliwal’s mother tongue is likely to have been Punjabi, but she probably learned English from a very early age, and her original language began to slip away (or perhaps her parents spoke English and she was raised as a second-generation English speaker?). But anyway, this bifurcation of her language makes its political parallel in the Punjab region almost impossible to avoid, with the India-Pakistan border running right through it, and all the horrific Imperial baggage that comes with it. (The border is treated most directly in the haunting ghazal ‘your bird/my bird’, which also brings a more overtly political dimension to the previously mentioned “no man’s land” of the book’s first poem, and of which “The bulbul on the barbed wire knows nothing”.) The speaker wishes to learn Arabic, we discover in ‘Arabic Lessons’, in order to connect with the Arabic-speaking world, hoping that the Urdu which had surrounded her growing up might be a way in. For all of her good intentions, it does not seem to have been a success, although it does perhaps signify a moving on to somewhere new: “Nothing came more naturally than the phrase / for bidding farewell, our minds ready to depart / wherever we had come from. // Ma-Issalama.”
Dhaliwal’s relationship with languages finds its way into most of the poems in the collection, but nowhere more beautifully and poignantly than in the brilliant villanelle ‘Migrant Words’ where she expresses “a vain hope” that the “buried…words” of her ancestral tongue “will grow / into a dialect of some hybrid descent” and that her Punjabi vowels “will plough / a cadence that my anglophone tongue could not invent”. It could not be a lovelier, sadder poem, which I think could stand as a fine representative of the collection as a whole.
On the evidence of this work, we have in Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal a poet who sees complexity with great clarity, and who does not allow her sadness to turn to rage. She writes with genuine lyrical beauty and while she has surely benefited from the several top-level Irish lyric poet teachers and mentors she lists in the acknowledgements, there is a sure-footed handling of cadence and rhyme, and a fluidity to both the stricter closed forms and the prose poems, which indicates that the heart of a natural poet beats inside her. As with much diasporic poetry (that I have read anyway), the work itself seems to become something not entirely unlike the hoped-for, intangible and perhaps impossible home whose absence drives the lyric – and this prompts me to ask the question (it seems appropriate to end this review on a question): where, I wonder, will this remarkable poet’s journey lead her next?
You can pre-order The Yak Dilemma from Makina Bookshere.
You can hear Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal reading three of her poems, including ‘Meet me in the morning on no man’s land’, at The Lonely Crowd, here.
You can read ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’, at the Irish Times, here.
You can read another poem from The Yak Dilemma, ‘Women who dine alone, dine alone’, at RTE, here.
I’ve looked for #KeatsHate online just to see if it exists – there is hate for everything else after all – but as far as I can discover there is nothing in the modern world but love for this particular JK, love for the poetry and love for the man*. If the haters are there, they’re keeping very quiet. My conclusion is this: those who love poetry love Keats, and those who don’t love poetry don’t care enough about Keats to hate him. Perhaps now, 200 years since his death, is the wrong moment to be looking for criticism of the man and his work, but thinking back I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone express serious reservations – not unless you go right back to the classist snobbery of Yeats. And I’m not about to set a precedent, but I am interested in why his stock remains so high, particularly amongst poets themselves.
It is a paradox, but true I think, that one of the reasons he remains so well remembered and so well loved is exactly because he is so well remembered and so well loved. Even for those whose tastes do not run to the Romantic, Keats represents the kind of poetic longevity every poet hankers after, whether they admit it or not. All literary writing is a bid for immortality, even the ancient Egyptians sensed something along these lines. Keats was intensely aware of this, and the cynic in me is tempted to read his final request of Joseph Severn to have ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ inscribed on his gravestone as one last, slightly duplicitous but nonetheless genius attempt to make such a bid. Like Shakespeare, Keats is living the kind of literary afterlife we all aspire to but which none of us will achieve (and yes, that includes you, 99.99% of published poets). Poets love Keats, in part at least, because they want to be him. They want to be one of the tiny fraction of poets who poets and readers will still be admiring and taking inspiration from in 200 years’ time, and that Keats did it means they can do it too.
It might also be worth noting that the suffering artist who was not properly recognised until after their premature death is a seductive cliché, and one which strikes a deep and resonant chord with poets’ Inner Bohemian. Often the origin of this cliché is located with the Romantics themselves, but I find it tempting to look back 2,000 rather than just 200 years to that other great and noble sufferer, Jesus Christ, whose torment on the cross still inspires more than any other, whose struggles and early death point towards greater, more permanent truths. The poetic ego internalises Christ’s pain and appropriates his immortality, and by extension that of the Christ-like Keats. ‘If I am nothing today’, the poet tells themself, ‘what does it matter when I am to be a God in 200 years?’
Too much? Maybe.
At any rate, unlike Christ, or Shakespeare, the details of Keats’ life are more than hearsay, guesswork and legend. His medical training, his literary friendships, his contemporary reviews, his tragic “family disease”, and more than anything his intense love for Fanny Brawne are well documented by both Keats himself and by those who knew him. FR Leavis thought that Keats the man disappeared entirely from his verse, and this may once have been so, but in this Age of Celebrity I don’t think it is any longer. The facts of his life are like accessories that hang from his poems, decorating and complimenting them. This is where Keats differs from other poets of two centuries ago who are also still remembered, read and valued. There are no others whose lives so perfectly enhance the tone of their poetry – Wordsworth’s move from revolutionary to reactionary, for example, has the opposite effect, as does Byron’s lordly philandering and arrogance.
To modern sensibilities, Keats’ life has the benefit of not being overly-privileged (unlike most of his contemporary poets he was from the lower end of the middle class), of being short (he did not have a chance to grow old and give us cause to dislike him, á la Wordsworth), and of being a gratifying confluence of misfortunes which give his 25 years an attractively readable narrative (the death of his father, then his mother, then his brother; the debts; the hurtful reviews; and finally his own death from tuberculosis). And then there are those letters. Oh… (or perhaps I should say ‘O…’) those letters! The intelligence, the searching curiosity, the pain, the vulnerability, the embarrassment (thank you Christopher Ricks) and the sheer humanity that comes through them like a great highlighter pen emphasising those qualities in his poetry. They are there in the poetry anyway, but how much more do we notice them as a result of knowing his letters? And how many, I wonder, have fallen for the letters first, only subsequently becoming enraptured by his verse?
His poetry too, it goes without saying, is rather good. And I don’t mean to disparage it by saying that like Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson, Keats is extremely ‘readable out-loud’; in terms of a writer’s ability to remain in the public consciousness this is no small thing – Eliot and Homer have the same quality. The luxuriance of its sensuality that plays in the mouth so satisfyingly is its key strength in this respect (and the means by which Keats elevated the Romantic project, then in its second generation, to new heights, pushing it towards the Victorian era that would both consolidate and clog it up). And so we can add to his misfortunes the extraordinary and intense quality of his work – distilled, again satisfyingly, in that one almost impossibly creative year of 1819 – and again it is hard to avoid the religious connotations of an individual being touched by a genius which, if not quite divine, certainly feels almost visited upon his tormented young soul from some mysterious Elsewhere.
But what does Keats have to offer today’s poets in particular? Well, his particular strand of Romantic introspection may speak to the identities-centred worldviews that shape so much public discourse at the moment. The external becomes the internal, and the internal becomes the eternal. Truth, for Keats, is not to be discovered by the scientist ‘unweaving the rainbow’ with their ‘cold philosophy’ but by the poet imagining a silent voice in the designs engraved on a Grecian urn. What is true, then, is mediated through the individual consciousness rather than dictated by the tenets of logic and empiricism. This seems to chime at least with many contemporary perspectives on literature, history, gender and race. If Keats continues to resonate with a new generation of younger poets, could this be part of the reason?
Linked to this might also be the fact that the Romanticism Keats represents is emphatically ‘not Modernism’, which developed as a reaction against it, and whose Big Name Poet practitioners (Pound, Eliot, Stevens) are seen by many as supporters of a conservative and in some cases fascist politics which is anathema to liberal contemporary poets.
This brings me to me to one final possible reason for Keats’ longevity: that his poetry is a looking rather than a finding, a question rather than an answer, it is the journey to a place rather than the arrival at that place. His idea of Negative Capability (that someone might be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) reminds us of a fundamental quality of the human condition, which is easy to forget when almost everything we do is geared around making ourselves feel like we understand what we are and what surrounds us, that is: we don’t understand.
It is deeply consoling, I think, particularly at this point in time, as social media boxes us in, monetises our hopes and fears, and streams us along tracks of entrenched opinion, that John Keats is still there, still making his “awkward bow”, and still looking for truth, of all things, in, of all things, beauty.
*Actually, this is not entirely true, I found one negative assessment of Keats, here, but as sophisticated as it is, I’d be surprised if it’s written by a poet so I’ve decided not to let it interrupt my take.
When Maria Stepanova was fifteen, her mother showed her a small lace purse which had belonged to her grandmother Lyolya and which contained an old, small piece of paper “beginning to tear at the folds”; on the paper was written a single name: Victor Pavlovish Nelidov. The name was a mystery to her mother, and it remained one to Maria despite her searching; and a mystery it remains – as far as the reader of In Memory of Memory knows – to this day. The purse, the folded piece of paper, and the ‘invisible Nelidov’ are a potent symbol of the hopeless yet meaning-rich search which has clearly obsessed Stepanova for years and to which this book is an outstanding testament.
I have had no success, only the feeling of walking into yet another empty green field and realizing once again that the absence of an answer was the answer, and that upset me, I just had to get over it. As soon as I appeared, the past immediately declined to make anything useful of itself, or to weave itself into a narrative of seeking and finding, of breakthroughs and revelations.
This lack of success is localised though. On the wider scale Stepanova’s investigations in this work, which has been described (not completely satisfactorily) as a ‘documentary novel’, do bear fruit and the author’s family becomes, to use the hackneyed phrase, a lens through which we view the past; in this case, early to mid- twentieth century, Russian-European, Jewish history. But it is the sense of reaching out into an eternity of darkness, and the compulsion towards narrative (Graham Swift once offered a definition of the human as ‘a story-telling animal’) which pervade the book. It is not actually about the past at all, in fact, but about how far the past is to be found in the present; in family stories, diaries, photographs, letters, postcards, places (e.g. Pochinky, Odessa, Paris), objects (e.g. the tiny white figurine which Stepanova calls her aleph, and which I shall come back to), and in an ongoing engagement with writers and artists such as Marina Tsvetaeva, W.G. Sebald, Charlotte Salomon and Francesca Woodman, among many others.
There is much to be learned, therefore, in the sense of ‘objects to be found’, but what sense is to be made of the past? Narrative is the search for order, but this proves elusive; instead, Stepanova reaches out for a different kind of sense, one which begins to explain why her prose cannot be completely separated from her poetry (her first full English language collection War of the Beasts and the Animals is forthcoming from Bloodaxe). At one point, Stepanova quotes Karl Krauss, “‘Immer passt alles zu allem’ (‘Everything fits with everything else’)” which she then refines in Tsvetaeva’s words to: “Everything rhymes”. So, we do not find stories in the past, but rhymes in memory.
There is no escaping the Proustian comparisons with aspects of Stepanova’s project, the title itself nods towards them, at least in Sasha Dugdale’s translation of it (Memory as both a ‘search’ and as ‘lost time’), but the ‘invisible Nelidov’ is evidence of how we are denied the satisfaction of a ‘madeleine moment’, and the writer/narrator is denied that easy, sense-triggered slide into clarity and focus. For Stepanova, making sense of memory (perhaps we could call it the search for lost rhyme) is deliberate, difficult, and frustrating. Towards the end of the book, Stepanova visits an overgrown Jewish cemetery in Kherson, one of her family’s ancestral towns, to look for the graves of relatives, and she finds herself fighting through the brambles between the tombstones with increasing fury before giving up.
The past had bitten me, but it was only a warning nip, and it was still prepared to let me go. Slowly, very slowly, step by step and bawling gently at the effort, I made my way back to what once had been the beginning of a path through the cemetery.
There is a layering here: the past is a dangerous place to wander, somewhere the unwary, careless traveller might get lost or worse; but it is also a dangerous animal guarding and protecting those who are dead from those who are living. There is certainly a sense, here and elsewhere, that the dead are in need of such protection because of the need the living feel to take possession of the past for their own purposes. Stepanova notes at one point “This was all about her (Stepanova) and not about them (her ancestors)”, and at another she confesses to being “horrified and offended” at her father for not allowing her to quote from his letters in her book. Her ruminations on her father’s refusal are a good example, not only of Stepanova’s remarkable self-awareness and clarity of thought, but also of her ‘poet’s sense’ for metaphor which runs through and enhances the book. Considering her evolving relationship with her father’s letters, she says
Without being aware of it, I had internalized the logic of ownership. Not in the sense of a tyrant, lording it over his hundreds of enslaved peasants, but perhaps like the tyrant’s enlightened neighbour, with a landscaped park and a theatre in which his serfs acted and sang.
And with this understanding of the power the present has over the past, we also come to realise our ancestors’ inherent vulnerability (“The dead have no rights”), because whether the tyrant is enlightened or not is entirely a question for the living. What comes through Stepanova’s problematising of history and cultural memory most clearly is that they are both open to abuse. So the writer/narrator’s difficult (and ultimately incomplete) attempts to find a path through her own family’s past are a symbol of the enormous job of work which needs to be done at the individual level if the ‘official’ version of history (i.e. at a national, state level) is to be prevented from picking and choosing what is included and excluded from cultural memory for its own political ends. And with the Holocaust at the centre of twentieth century Jewish history, and global politics veering to the right, the stakes could not be higher.
That Stepanova at times finds her search for sense exhausting is clear. On the train to Paris from London to look for clues to her great-grandmother Sarra’s time in 1912 as a student at the Sorbonne, she reflects:
Looking out of the window, I thought how terribly tired I was of family. I couldn’t look away from it, I saw nothing else. Like the wrought iron fence of the Summer Gardens, I couldn’t see beyond the captivating design and into the space within. Every past and present phenomenon had been tied to my indistinct relatives, I had rhymed it all, emphasised the simultaneity between them and me, or the lack of it. I’d had to learn to put off my own relations with the world for later, just as truffle pigs are trained to ensure they don’t eat their precious findings.
It’s worth taking a moment to step back and notice how carefully chosen, and astounding, that word ‘simultaneity’is. It is easy to bunny-hop over individual words in novels – even documentary novels – but Stepanova is a poet, as is her translator Sasha Dugdale, and I feel both have brought their powers of poetic focus to bear throughout In Memory of Memory.
What is so exhausting for Stepanova is the Tsvetaevan ‘rhyming’ of ‘it all’, the emphasising of simultaneity, or its absence, between her ancestors and herself, which at this point has become less clarifying than obscuring of her view on the past. Her almost desperate search is not only for ‘likeness’ or some vague sense of ‘connection’, but for the actual ‘simultaneity’ of bringing together temporally separate lives, through the study of places and objects and language, into concurrent existence – and it is a relativistic impossibility. But her struggle is important, and as an individual person locating meaning in individual objects she ascribes a value to them which is both outside any commodity value and which works in resistance to hegemonic ‘big’ history.
One of the ways that Stepanova find symbolic simultaneity is through her focus on the small china figurines, apparently used for packaging in Germany in the late 1800s, one of which she carries with her and calls “the aleph of (her) story”. By attaching this word, which represents both the first letter of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets among others, and the Hebrew number one, and by attaching it to these tiny, broken (seemingly worthless) figurines, Stepanova is utilising its mystic associations with primoridial oneness – the number which contains all other numbers – and by extension its symbolic bringing together of all things in one point in space and time (as Borges used it in his short story of the same name). It is interesting to note that the the aleph also represents a glottal stop or hiatus in modern Israeli Hebrew speech, thus perhaps also representing a pause, or silence – a rest – for Stepanova in her ongoing search for meaning in her family’s past.
The china alephs are transfigured later in the book as ‘frozen Charlottes’, the small porcelain dolls also originating in Germany but named gruesomely in the US after a supposedly true story of an unfortunate girl who froze to death on the way to a ball. The frozen Charlottes themselves become an echo of Stepanova’s fascinating rumination on the life and work of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who left her entire oeuvre of autobiographical and quite unique art in the hands of her friend, a local doctor in Nice, before being arrested by the Gestapo and murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The vocal hiatus of the aleph perhaps also returns here as a catch in the throat, an inability to speak and a silence that cannot be filled. Everything rhymes.
There is another reason that the little broken dolls are important as objects, and that is in the extent to which, imperfect and injured as they are, they are survivors. Stepanova expands Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory beyond the families of those who lived through the Holocaust, saying
Because twentieth century history spread its cataclysms liberally around the globe, most people alive can consider themselves survivors to some extent, the result of some traumatic shift, its victims and the bearers of its legacy, people with something to remember and to call back to life at the expense of their own today.
And she goes further
Each of us is in fact a witness to and participant of a lasting catastrophe...
As she thinks her way down her chosen route, as so often in this book teasing meaning from her metaphor, we all become not only survivors but refugees, and the past becomes the suitcase we carry with us “in which the dearest items of a life have been lovingly packed away”. The past, then, is not something we are travelling away from, but something we are forever carrying with us, until we ourselves become the past and our descendants carry us.
This idea of carrying a small selection of “the dearest items” is at the centre of Stepanova’s project because it represents the need to make choices. Some objects, some people, are selected, others are not – or as she puts it “those who are fit for retelling, and those who are only fit for oblivion”. Here we see why cemeteries are so important on her journeys; it is not because they bring her closer to the dead, but because they are democratic, and inclusive:
A cemetery doesn’t make that choice: it attempts to remember everyone.
It is mildly frustrating that no family trees and only one photograph accompany this deep dive into a family filled with so many intriguing and striking characters. But it is clear why Stepanova has chosen not to include such visual aids. It comes back to inclusion. Portraits should, she says
…draw together and condense everything that makes you what you are now and will become, your past and future, and to sort all this into a fixed shape that is no longer subject to the laws of time.
There is, again, an echo of the aleph here. But there is always something left out of a portrait, whether endlessly repeated like a selfie, or brilliantly executed with “a disrespect for borders” like a Rembrandt – Stepanova turns to Foucault on this, who, she reports, observes that “a person is imprisoned and limited by the parameters that describe her borders and leave the centre untouched”. The problem is what the portrait cannot reach.
So, can language reach the untouched centre and represent the full lives lived by Galya, Sarra, Lyodik, Lyolya, Misha and all the others? This is what history so often tries to persuade us is possible, that we can know, that we can see and make sense of the past. But Stepanova’s journey into cultural memory tells a different, more complicated story: “Nothing ever comes to an end” she remarks, before finishing (if not ending) on a note of almost Wittgensteinian acceptance, as she ponders once again the flawed, dented frozen Charlottes:
… representatives of the population of survivors; they seem like family to me – and the less I can say about them, the closer they come.
Stepanova has rightly been compared to W.G. Sebald in her quietly serious and unsentimental dealings with memory and history, but the writer who came most often to my mind while reading In Memory of Memory was Olga Tokarczuk, whose Flights is further to the ‘novel’ end of what Stepanova has called the “documentary novel spectrum”, but whose narrator is similarly blurred with the main protagonist, I think, and whose search (which also draws inspiration from objects, or curiosities, though with a more fleshly, corporeal theme) also takes her on a journey around the spatial and temporal worlds. The two writers share another similarity in that there are sections of their narratives which feel almost like they occupy some indefinable ground between the prose paragraph and the prose poem. Many of the effects of their prose in English may be down to skillful translations from the Russian and Polish; but in Stepanova there are lists which almost seem like poems, there is a chapter of numbered descriptions of photographs, and there is a chapter in which each short section is labelled ‘obverse’ or ‘reverse’, as though a coin is spinning though the air in slow motion; and Tokarczuk focuses her writing intensely at some moments to similar effect. But above these resemblances, I mention Tokarczuk by way of finishing this review only really to make the point that as a Nobel Prize winner, she and Maria Stepanova are in the same literary class.
You can buy In Memory of Memory here (from 17th February 2021)
The following questions have escaped the Creative Writing courses which gave them life then left them lying uselessly on the floor, and each one now urgently demands to be answered by everyone everywhere who claims any interest in poetry whatsoever, in no more than five hundred words and no fewer than fifty. Lives depend on this, along with your share of £15.26 prize money. Email answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why do we ask what poetry ‘is’?
Is poetry supposed to help?
Who is poetry for?
What happens to the language of the past?
Is poetry lost?
Does it hurt you to write poetry? If not, why not?
Are you willing to be hurt by the poetry of others? If not, why not?
Can poetry reach outside ideology?
What has poetry in common with archaeology?
What do you know about language and memory?
Can you love a poem that says what you don’t want to hear?
Could you write a poem that says what you would prefer not to say?
Have your (favourite) poems arrived, or are they still on their way?
Is performance about the poem or the poet?
What have your face and name to do with your poem?
When you create something new, what are you doing?
Is the author dead or living?
Can poetry be popular while saying something unpopular?
What relationship do you have with your poetic mistakes?
Do poems change colour in certain lights?
To what extent, precisely, is any poem a woman’s or a man’s?
Is a poet a teacher? If so, by what right?
Is the writer to blame, or the reader?
What happens in your brain when a line scans? Or fails to?
What if poetry is just veneer?
Are you having a conversation when you read or write poetry? If so, with whom?
How privileged is poetry?
Who are poetry’s dependents?
What is poetry’s day job?
Do you fantasise about winning competitions? If so, why? If not, why not?
Does publication terrify you? If so, why? If not, why not?
Is there an argument against metaphor?
How important is a dance?
How liberal is a question?
When is your audience?
What is past poetry, or past a poem?
What are all the arguments in favour of rhyme?
Who could a poem not exist without?
What is the poem you are really writing, time after time?
What do you make of the poem which hangs between the poem and its translation?
How do you speed-read a form that is impossible to skim?
How important is it that a poem has bounce?
Can poetry slow the spin?
How does your (favourite) poetry fit in with poetry trends?
Where does a poem leave you?
How far is a poem a false friend?
Where does your poetic doubt begin, and where does it end?
What else does a poem mean?
Is a poem letting your guard down or building a wall?
What is the difference between a poem and a question?
Do you care, poetry lover, about any of this, at all?
What I like about Rebecca Watts is that she is a poet who just gets on with being a poet. She eschews social media, refusing to join in the 24/7 clamour for attention in which so many let themselves down so regularly; she rarely gives interviews; she chose not to respond (in public anyway) to the many and vitriolic critics of her article, which appeared in PN Review, ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’; and her poetry, most of all, does not go out of its way to draw attention to itself but with consummate wit and skill takes the reader on unexpected and often profound journeys. It’s surprising how much poetry doesn’t do this; but with Watts it was evident in her first collection The Met Office Advises Caution (Carcanet) and in Red Gloves (also Carcanet) she consolidates her style and develops her themes: nature, art, science, and the human intersection of all three.
At the forefront of these themes – or perhaps the theme that runs through them all – is Watts’ expression of feminism as a rejection of the dull and deadening conformities of marriage and child-bearing. The first poem of the collection, ‘Economics’, is an amusing reductionist description-in-numbers of all the rural reasons to turn down the offer of a move “to the city to be with you”: “five swans in formation”, “three horses in maroon jackets”, “a greenfinch and thirty-nine / cows” and so on, with the poem finishing “I’m telling you what I saw; you do the maths”. The Watts ‘speaker’ is fiercely independent; she not only gives husbands short shrift, she also has harsh words for friends (“lame word” – ‘Definitions’) and the irritating children of friends (“In the future…you…won’t recall the past in which I punched your daughter” – ‘Barbecues’) and her Bridget Jonesian dislike of smug newly-weds, young parents, and their offspring is one of many welcome bridges between this new work and The Met Office Advises Caution (as I’ll come back to later).
It is in the title poem that Watts’ unusually individualist-spirited brand of feminism makes itself most overtly felt: “The women are carrying the coffin. Under the fear / of slippage they make small steps. / We cannot say that they advance.” Here the dead weight of the ‘movement’ relies for any actual forward progression on the strength of the individual women carrying it. But these are fallible humans (“How awkward we are.”) who may or may not be up to the challenge, many will “go to ground” themselves, and still more will be “tugged / otherwards. Husbands and Children”, but advancing the cause, or at least holding up even the idea of a cause, is a matter of sheer, dogged, determination: “One [woman] is wearing red woollen gloves. She is pressing them / to the wicker as though without her hands’ small force / the entire construction would fold.” The intensity of the self-belief contained in that “small force” extends well beyond the confines of the poem and infuses much of the rest of the collection, where the speaker/poet finds herself by necessity on the outside of both the social institutions she refuses to accept and the natural and artistic worlds she observes. Watts the poet and/or her speaker must, it seems, be apart and alone – and this requires grim, quiet, determination. It is not necessarily clear that the woman in the “red woollen gloves” is intended to stand for the poet and her approach, but she certainly seems to stand for resolve in strange and unprecedented times (“Today is not a normal day”). And at the poem’s, indeed the collection’s, epicentre are those “red woollen gloves”, which themselves carry a mysterious and weighty symbolic burden in a way that can’t help but recall William Carlos Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow. The ‘red’ motif is a minor strand, but an important one that runs through a collection rich with whites, pinks, blacks, greens and yellows. Bodily red is picked up in the smeared blood of ‘Having Bled on a Library Book’ (“You’ll be inclined / to regret the body”), obliquely in the “breaching of skin” in ‘Admission’, and then as a more obvious sign of lust (albeit fading) in ‘The Desire Path’ (“The river curls / round on itself. Someone // has knotted a scraggy / red ribbon // to a stick.”); and all these references lead, like the red dotted line on a treasure map, to a poem towards the end of the collection (‘That Sort of Note’), where we read: “We need more inner red, my friend said. / Show us your inner red.”. Is this the red of courage? Or of anger? Or is there something more sinister and sexual going on? Either way, the speaker in this poem rather coyly has none of it: “Oh, but / my eyes are a hazel branch snapped in two / and my body’s a hollow the wind blows through / and the blood in my veins is Polar Sea blue”. The full, high-poetic rhyming and its unexpectedly anachronistic tone (is the title playing with an anagram?) leave us a little off-kilter but we are sure that the speaker’s ‘friend’ is wrong in accusing her of being in denial – the Watts speaker, whether it she is intended to be the poet herself or not, sees clearly, is denying nothing, and is in complete control.
The red of the gloves then, for me, remain somewhat mysterious, but perhaps the important thing is that the gloves are being worn at all. Red woollen gloves, at a funeral? How disrespectful! This stubborn pallbearer refuses to observe conventions, and in the end this is what makes her the strongest of the four. Sometimes, the secret to winning the fight is leaving your gloves on.
In many ways, Red Gloves is not a separate collection to The Met Office Advises Caution, but a continuation, a refinement, perhaps to some extent a restatement of the same work. Watts’ eye falls once again on Charles Darwin, but now also on Emily Dickinson (a homage to a hero of hers I suspect, as to Emmeline Pankhurst in the first book). She expands her earlier observations of and mediations on individual objects such as the Wordsworths’ tinder box to much fuller and more ambitious (and wonderfully successful) contemplations of music and faith in ‘Music in Four Parts’ and ‘Worship Not The Object But The Thing It Represents’. And she returns to some of her favourite animals, amongst which, for me, the birds of prey stand out: the Ted Hughes pastiche ‘Hawk-Eye’ of The Met Office’ (“My feet are golden. They catch me / anything”) is replaced by the more distinctly Wattsian ‘Glamour’ here (“Life isn’t glamorous // for the hawk employed to circle landfill”), and elsewhere ‘At the Sanctuary’ gives a nice spiritual twist to the classic Tennyson eagle: (“a Zen / Buddhist on a rock in a high place”). But my favourite ‘bridge’ between the two volumes is the delightful shift in focus and tone as the poet’s admiration in the first collection’s ‘Linda at Swanfield’ of a woman’s hanging portrait (“your framed presence was a welcome reprieve / from the wallpaper’s massive flowers”) turns to frustration with paintings of male grandees in the present volume’s ‘The Drawing Room’ (“Another lovely, dark-green, papered wall…has been spoiled by having to bear / portraits of gilded men.”). Such deliberate and careful contrariness is Watts all over, and it is, I think, unique in contemporary poetry.