don’t get too close

Sexy_Mouth

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.

 

An Elegy to the English Music Hall

1867_NationalStandardTheatre

This is a quietly-spoken collection which feels as though it could have playing behind it as you read the fading sound of an audience’s laughter or the floating echo of their dying applause. With Troupers (smith|doorstop), Keith Hutson has written a lovely, reserved but confident, and also witty, pamphlet of poems which pay tribute to a world which can now be fairly said no longer to exist. The collection could itself be labelled in memoriam (as are the majority of the poems in it): the English Music Hall Tradition 1803 – 2016. The first date is the birth of Harris ‘Wonder Horse’ Fitzpatrick, “born to play the front end” of a pantomime horse, and the second the death of Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street (for which Hutson has written in the past) and, while not a music hall performer himself, a symbol of the working-class culture that the music hall came out of and helped shape.

Many of the poems in this collection are synopses of and brief meditations on the lives of characters (such as Sid Field and Ronnie Ronalde) who are already forgotten by all but those who, like Hutson, choose to keep them alive because of the by-gone era they represent. The poet writes, in a voice I take to be his own, at the end of the first poem, ‘Revival’, “…it’s only right/to raise another smile, to bring them back”; but if that were all the poems did they would probably run the risk of being rather weepy, treacly affairs. Actually, the strength of this collection is that it does not simply memorialise or lament, and neither does it turn hagiography; rather it uses the characters as sketched examples of human foibles, strengths, prides, and conceits. So, although the tone remains elegiac throughout, there is never a sense of easy wistful nostalgia or inverted snobbery.

The elegies are interspersed with and leavened by poems which are not dedicated to an individual but to a type, like the ‘Straight Man’ or to a caricature like Geoffrey in ‘Hostess Trolley’ or to a place – perhaps the spirit within a place – like ‘Glasgow Empire’ and ‘Civic Theatre’. These poems are often the funniest; sometimes in such an obvious way as to be reminiscent of slapstick comedy (“Essential to the town’s supply of ham” – ‘Civic Theatre’), sometimes appropriately farcical (“where he went, it went” – ‘Hostess Trolley) and sometimes much subtler (“Be subliminal lit by a bank of lights” – ‘Straight Man’). And it is worth noting that there is a more structural comedy at work throughout the collection, which comes through in line breaks, as in “A Funny Thing Happened…”: “Triumphs? Frankie Howerd Meets the Bee Gees/wasn’t one.”, and in the use of the repetitive villanelle structure of “Civic Theatre” to extend and emphasise the main joke – in these examples and others Hutson shows his great skill for comic timing.

But the comedy is more than offset by tragedy, and while the pamphlet as a whole focuses on the death of a very English culture, the individual poems themselves are often preoccupied with the actual deaths of the characters who represent that culture. Whether by suicide or natural causes, the demise of these performers is generally dealt with in abrupt, perfunctory terms: “he…blew his brains out in a Glasgow park” (‘Tiddly Om Pom Pom’), “and then she died, demented, // utterly alone – unmourned / by impresarios and sisterhoods alike” (‘Hylda’). The effect of this rather cold, almost unfeeling representation of death is to emphasise the tragedy over the actuality, in other words it fronts the poetic ‘shock’ effect and reduces the potentially soupy note of ‘loss’ that can ruin elegies. The individual deaths become less significant than the loss to English culture of the music hall tradition.

The first person is most often used to create characters, as an actor might put on a costume; but in a few poems (‘The Call of the Wild’, ‘Brass Band’, and ‘Lament’) it appears to be a genuine authorial voice that we are hearing as the poet recalls listening to Percy Edwards’s animal impressions, his love of brass band music and the theme tune to Radio Two’s ‘Sing Something Simple’. It is in these poems that Hutson gets most perilously close to becoming misty-eyed, but in a pamphlet of thirty-six poems they are a small minority and their effect on the collection as a whole is to soften the hard tone mentioned above; what remains is a thoughtful, entertaining, and sometimes moving little collection which may well send you to Google to find out more about the characters of a music hall culture which spanned the 19th and 20th centuries; but which now, in the age of the internet and 24-hour entertainment, seems long gone.

You can buy Troupers from smith|doorstop, here.

The NHS

NHS70-National-Logo

The NHS

It’s not a machine,
this great grass ball of warrens

rolling through the nation’s head.

People are machines, yes
companies, yes, departments, yes –

silvery-skinned and sleek
and flawless, virgin from the Vac Pac

then dusty with rust,

jammed and leaking battery acid,
shrinking to a stain on a bed –

but the grass ball of warrens is rolling
and unlikely, vulnerable

to this tilting terrain,

the game of maze and balance
we hold in history’s hands.

We Sentence Things

 

Capildeo-218x348

The Greek myths are never far from Vahni Capildeo’s collection Venus as a Bear (Carcanet). Although only directly mentioned once or twice, they sit behind the poems just out of sight, particularly the Ovid myths, because as the title suggests, this is a book of metamorphoses. Objects, animals, places and people become ‘other’ through language; but the ‘other’ they become is both entirely unexpected and not always easy to see.
More than in any collection I’ve read, this is one whose language is a tool for transformation, a means by which things are revealed in unhooking them from their traditional physical or metaphorical descriptions: we are shown things clearly and newly because Capildeo’s language works to bring them out of themselves. For example, we might find the complex shapes and light effects of eighteenth century cut glass in thirteen lines of Chomskyanly unlikely sentences, or the human body dissected in nine poems which border on concrete poetry and yet are not complete representations – there is a piece of a hip here, a suggested belly-button there, a clavicle perhaps?
There are certainly demands made of the reader who wants to find the clarity on offer. We should not expect meanings to be dangled in front of us for the picking; rather, and in the spirit of the book, meaning here is for the unpicking, the taking-apart, the un-piecing – and this is where the metamorphoses takes place because it is in the un-piecing of one thing that an accompanying piecing-together of another happens. We might need a dictionary or an encyclopaedia now and then, but what results is something new, and also something that was in the original all along, unseen.
The body is central to this collection, or rather bodies, because it is bodies’ proximity to one another and the flux between them that concerns Capildeo. Language is, as I say, a tool for transformation, but it is also the ‘matter’ or ‘material’ through which the flux occurs both between the bodies represented in the poems and between the poet and the reader (as is our nature: “we sentence things” says the speaker in “Moss, For Maya”, transforming an existing verb and verbing an existing noun). Throughout the collection, this exchange and interchange is reflected in part-rhymes (“impose/roses/clothes”), rhythmic echoes (“confusable with barnacles”) and almost-anagrams (“my enteared heart/my enearthed heart”). The words’ play with each other, their transfer of symbol, their passing-across of meaning and connotation creates a surreal and sometimes abstract imagery that could inspire multiple understandings, and which require not only imagination but also a willingness to engage from the reader.
Capildeo makes engagement easier for us in one way, and that is through the humour that is present throughout the collection. This is most often a low-key humour that suggests the tender bond between human and animal (“aesthetic chest-sitter”, “oink-oink-kiss”, “funny fuzzy     valuable wedges”), it sometimes comes through neologisms (“petcitement”), sometimes through punning (“my gods have changed their storey”) and occasionally in anger (“A great bull is shitting on my street. Let him have quiet enjoyment”).
The poet’s journey through Iceland, Britain and the Caribbean, where these poems were written, is another aspect of the movement, transfer, migration of meaning across and though bodies: land is a physical body, countries are political bodies perhaps, and the sea is a body of water.
Readers will have their own favourite poems of course, the ones which ‘work’ best for them (and the ones they ‘work’ best for) – my own is “Seastairway”, which is an evocation of rolling, tempestuous northern seas, whose relentlessness is expressed with the constant repetition of “sea” in various existing and invented compound nouns, and whose turbulence comes through in the indenting of lines and stanzas and the positioning of lines next to one another, as though inviting two voices so that their senses overlap the way waves overlap and overlay one another. But the poem is simultaneously a portrait (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) of the poet’s emotions, caught in a relationship with which she must “put up and shut up” i.e. put up with and shut up about. The corruption of the clichéd idiom denotes perhaps a clichéd or over-common situation, but also hints at a sense of threat and/or violence from the other half of the relationship (I assume male, but I may be wrong. ‘Put up or shut up’ is a phrase I associate with John Major, which brings in a masculine and political dimension that may or may not be intended). The speaker finds safety finally in the “seaport” of herself – or perhaps a lover: “I found/me, lady, right at your side”. The wanderer has arrived on land, a new body. She has either found someone new or become something new; whichever may be the case, there is, as throughout the collection, metamorphosis. Even the source of inspiration, the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer” slips into and out of another one, “The Seafarer”, while the chosen epigraph, “ofer waþema gebind”, can be translated (according to the online versions I found) in at least two different ways: “over the frozen waves” or “over the binding of the waves”. Is the speaker frozen, or bound? Or both, as they are related, but with very different connotations? The poem’s meaning is not fixed but what is to be found here will greatly reward the reader who spends time with it.

The book is bursting with ideas, every line bringing something new to puzzle, excite, amuse and delight. Even the titles themselves often look like mini-poems (“They (May Forget (Their Names (If Let Out)))”, “Leaves/Feuillles/Falls”). And this brings me back to the title of the collection, which is as multi-layered as everything else in the book, Venus as a Bear being inspired by both a visit to the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich and, it seems, the song “Venus as a Boy” by Bjork. “He believes in a beauty” sang Bjork about her aphrodisiacal/Keatsian muse: “For they believed in duty” echoes the speaker here, about the mysteriously fanatical and well-spoken “cabin boys”. And as I look at the title, I find the final two letters of the two nouns are an anagram of URSA…so the language, as ever, is moulding and melding with the subject. Am I getting carried away, or is Capildeo, already in the title, “sentencing” Venus and Bjork’s Boy to ‘Beariness’ and all that goes with it? And I cannot resist finishing with one further question (because they keep on coming!): is Capildeo’s Venus a hairy goddess or a bald bear? This is not flippant. We know the speaker of at least one of the poems states amusingly “I choose to sing to the hairless”, which to me makes it seem unlikely that the feminine hairlessness of Venus would be transmogrified into beary-hairiness. So, what do we make of a bear divested of its fur? And where does The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” come into it, if at all? I’ll leave that one with you. Suffice to say that this is poetry to make you re-examine the way you read poetry, and there is little in poetry more exciting than that.

American Breakdown

american road

American Breakdown

(A Love Song)

It’s all about the road. That’s what they told

themselves: they said

                        one, where you are right now

is never enough, and two, a mystery’s a hell-

uva lot more attractive than a fact;

                                                                but it’s not

about the road at all (collection, please it’s not

all about the road)

and now we’re stuck out here in a yep a prison

of a Cadillac, and cicada interference is battling

with the night, and the country-music-station

drawl is slung low by our knees like a sleeping

rattlesnake, and our own faces are peering back

in at us – ours but different, distorted –

from three closed blocks of window (yez’m)

the nightmares of history are coming to get’em

and they’re scared of the cop-lights,

a girl and a boy and someone else back-seat

it’s not personal, (Number One) Sonny

we’re all in here now and I’m funny        how?

bursting but locked in to one fatal narrative

where a vast orange dawn with a yellow fringe

sets it all on fire,
a quien no sabe sun,

the concrete wall of a dead engine

The Dream…

                  pecked leather in the mornin

shatters into a black night of stars

stripped of all                                meanin

like,        Oh (say)          My (can)               God (you)

these honored dead                            Dances

With Ten Bears               (smiley face)

the good days of hunting are over

                                                         after all

tomorrow is           and           (smiley face)

                                                 I have            I have a

 

 

Why aren’t we happy that poetry is popular?

Capture

A couple of interesting and thoughtful blogs I’ve come across recently (via Matthew Stewart’s useful hub for all things poetry at Rogue Strands) have expressed some disquiet about the current state of the ‘poetry world’. These concerns are reasonable if not exactly new (as the blog writers acknowledge). Is poetry today too competition-focused? Is it too dictated by a central establishment? Is it too driven by the cult of personality and the desire for renown?
At the The Cat Flap, Richie McCaffery asks whether poetry is becoming essentially undemocratic, with those who play the festival-networking/self-promotion game rising to the top and as a result much good poetry going unnoticed. Helena Nelson at Happenstance points out that competitions look for ‘winners’ as opposed to good poems. Writing a poem for a competition encourages us to write the kind of poem that we think will get noticed by the judge rather than the kind we might naturally want to write (one that has “space to be its own good self” in Nelson’s lovely phrase).

In relation to this last point, it’s worth saying that every time we write a poem with a view to getting it published we are trying to write ‘the kind of poem’ we think a certain editor will look favourably on; in fact, magazines and publishers explicitly advise us to buy from them to see what sort of poetry is most likely to stand a chance of publication. This is, perhaps, an offer to see if there happens to be a lucky match, but it is also a statement to the effect of: “if you want to be published in this magazine, you will need to change your writing style to fit in with what we publish”.
There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it is also no surprise that as a result a lot of writers attempt to write in a way that will get them published in magazines, just as they will change their style to win competitions.
Poetry competitions and festivals and magazines and books exist as part of the system of commerce we all live by. Poetry is, like it or not, about winners and losers: if you win the competition it means someone else does not; if you get published in a magazine it means someone else does not (Nelson herself makes the same point in her blog). This can pretty much be said of all art at all times, at least since art was first commodified. Michelangelo would never have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel if he had not won the contract, etc. It is just an extension of the basic producer-consumer agreement: I like what you have produced so I’ll look for more of it and even pay for it if necessary, I don’t like what s/he has produced so I’ll give their work a wide berth.
The poetry industry is…wait for it…an industry.

But having said that, it is also true that poetry (all art) can and does also exist within ‘the system’. Pockets of it are able to survive, thrive even, protected sometimes by their smallness and lack of popularity, sometimes perhaps by their lack of quality. Just as up and down the country amateur artists produce huge numbers of unsung sketches, water-colours and even full-scale paintings, so amateur poets scribble in their notebooks, save on their c:drives and post on their unread blog pages. Of course, any that are noticed and deemed good enough may well end up as part of ‘the system’ but not all. Are we a nation of poets desperate for recognition and stifled by jealousy of those chosen few whose talents are recognised by a central London coterie? We’ll probably never know, because all those poets who are inclined to get on with it quietly are doing just that. The ones who enter the competitions and struggle for publication are the ones who crave glory (and I count myself slightly sheepishly amongst them), but we don’t know much about the others. There may be an army of unambitious, uncompetitive poets out there. The next Emily Dickinson may be somewhere quietly among them (and she may not, ours will not be the generation to decide).

You don’t have to look far before you find these little pockets of poetry “hiding inside the system”. Take for example Kevin Bateman, a surrealist poet from Dublin I came across recently, who organises small scale performances in various areas of natural beauty. He invites seven or eight poets to read with him and he broadcasts on Periscope and then publishes on YouTube. These are joyful and joyfully amateurish performances – in fact their very strength is their unrehearsed quality and the fact that they locate the poems amongst trees, on cliff tops and halfway up hills rather than in the more sterile but supposedly intellectual atmosphere of a bookshop or with the self-consciously arty-trendy backdrop of a cellar stage. Kevin and the poets who perform with him exist happily and creatively nestled within the whirling chaos of competitions and networking that surrounds them. The space they and others like them are creating is artistically and culturally important precisely because it avoids (however much the poets themselves may want to get published ultimately) the rush and the push for central establishment acceptance.
This feels very democratic to me.
Very different, but also democratic by its nature, is the website footballpoets.org, which is an enormous repository of verse written for the sole purpose of expressing delight in football. The poetry here is written by anyone who chooses to submit, with (as far as I can tell) no vetting for quality at all. Judging the quality of the work in poetic terms would be missing the point; football comes first, and the language is put to its service, not the other way round. There is nothing here that would win a poetry competition, but also nothing that would particularly want to. On the other hand, if any of these poems were to be adopted and chanted by fans on the terraces, or quoted by a football manager after a game, I imagine that would be a prize worth winning. It is one of the few places I have come across poetry genuinely moving away from its middle-class home.
In Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky makes a point of distinguishing between poetry as an art form (as which he says it will always be important to the individual) and poetry as a form of entertainment (as which it will always be at best marginal). I agree with Richie McCaffery that the distinction between print and performance poetry is largely a false one (although poetry in performance is clearly different to poetry read in the head) and Pinsky’s antithesis seems similarly dubious. This perception of duality forms the basis of the vague but common illusion that one set of poets (the performers) are democrats, jobbing entertainers who somehow represent the proletariat, while the others (the silent readers) are the snobbish elite gobbing poetic pearls from their ivory tower. I like to think poets can be all these things at once. But Pinsky’s wider point is that poetry itself is essentially democratic because it allows the inner world of the individual to link with the outer world of the landscape through the primal sounds of grunt and echo, and through metaphor link the psychological with the political. I can’t find anything to disagree with in this, and it might actually help to explain why so many people seem to feel aggrieved and concerned when poetry shows the outward signs of becoming popular: something we consider sacred to our inner selves is being profaned; something which on one level is deeply ‘ours’ is, on another, being manhandled by someone else.

It occurs to me that there are two ways of approaching the poetry industry and its associated battles for individual recognition and popularity: a) enjoy them, or (b) ignore them. Poetry, like so many things, is something we do to make us feel special; but it can do this in many ways, getting published or winning a competition are just two. One of the reasons I like poets like David Jones is not because I claim to understand The Anathemata any better than anyone else, but because I know it’s never going to be very popular and so reading it gives me that tingle of doing something just a little bit different from the crowd; and so, I briefly can allow myself to believe that I am different. This is part of what attracted me to poetry in the first place, and probably why, despite the thrust of my argument above, I am one of the many who, while yearning for recognition, feel the same awkwardness with the idea of competitions and festivals and national poetry days: they feel a little herd-like. When I got into this I thought it was just me and Auden; where did all these people come from?
Better just get used to it I suppose.

Clarity & Obscurity in Now We Can Talk Openly about Men 

downing_street_1921 (2)

The characters Martina Evans has created in her 74-poem-long sequence of dramatic monologues Now We Can Talk Openly about Men (Carcanet) (actually two sequences of 39 and 35 poems), feel so real that it comes as a bit of a surprise not to be able to google Kitty and Flora Donovan, Babe Cronin and Eileen Murphy and find out more about them on Irish history websites. Although based around the factual killing of a British sergeant at Mallow Barracks, County Cork, in 1920 and subsequent military reprisals, the story/stories are entirely fictional. But somehow Evans has turned these short poems (only a couple cross over onto a second page) into what feel like primary sources of data about the characters and their time; Bernard O’Donoghue calls the book a “remarkable document” in the blurb on the back cover for a good reason, the poems have the feeling of authenticity and legitimacy that the word suggests). Her ability to replicate on the page colloquial Irish rhythms and phrasing has been commented on before (John McAuliffe has called the style “talky, jumpy, gothic”), and it draws the reader in from the beginning of the first poem:

I was in a weakness. I couldn’t stand up,
leant back against the wall like a drunkard.
Was that Himself I’d seen on the back
of a Crossley tender on Main Street?

Here it is not just the use of the sobriquet ‘Himself’ with all its connotations of indignant but ingrained respect for ‘the man of the house’, but also the second line, which is a participle clause to the second-half of the first, using the spondee leant back to evoke strongly not only an Irish cadence, but a female Irish cadence of the middle-twentieth century (I don’t claim to be an authority on female Irish cadences of the middle-twentieth century so I stand ready to be corrected, but this is how it sounds to me). Such careful attention to the narrating characters’ voices is maintained throughout.

It is in part the very believability of the authentic-sounding voices of Mallow seamstress Kitty Donovan in the first sequence and former stenographer from Dublin Babe Cronin in the second that creates a sort of ‘narrative veil’ over the real central characters of the story: Kitty’s strong-willed daughter Flora Donovan and, even more so, the rebellious and impetuous Eileen Murphy (who is also the link between the two sequences). Rather than reading poems about women in the Irish War for Independence, we feel we are witnessing the period of the war through them. But the veil is also generational because we are in effect looking at the younger characters through the eyes of the older – Kitty is Flora’s mother who has an increasing addiction to laudanum, and Babe (also with an increasing dependence, on whiskey), is an older resident of a Dublin hotel who is in love with – or at least infatuated by – the younger Eileen. The older women’s addictions are another gauze between the reader and the younger characters and the action of the piece.

Each poem is, in a sense, akin to a chapter of a novel, and there is narrative drive both within the poems and between them, but as they are poems, i.e. stand-alone entities and in this sense equally analogous to paintings, they serve as much as windows onto moments, thoughts, memories and feelings as narrative blocks. As the chronology of events progresses, each poem, each line, builds on our impression of Kitty’s and Babe’s mental states (or their memory of their mental states), so we emerge with the two older women’s psychologies fore-fronted and emphasised (the extravagant use of colour in the first sequence and monochromatic second add significantly to the difference between the two women here) and all the actual events are filtered through this. In short, cultural history and folk memory are the currency of these ‘documents’, as opposed to the history of statistics and other written records.

All this goes to making the already enigmatic title, Now We Can Talk Openly about Men, even more abstruse: these poems are not, primarily, about men; and very little in them is talked about openly; even what is discussed in direct terms is hidden behind this ‘narrative veil’. In fact, the men who are directly involved with the action are almost always either not actually there (Himself), masked (the Tans who attack Eileen), or dressed in a disguise (Donnacha); alternatively, they are (like Mr Bloom and Captain Galway) only briefly sketched in character. Little open talking here. Is the title ironic then? In part it is, I think; but there is more going on that that. Occasionally men are seen clearly and almost demonically (Himself’s “red eyes” in that first poem; the Tan as Eileen rips off his mask and shouts “I’ll identify you in court!”) and these moments are often marked by direct speech, also something which seems to pull them clear of the above-mentioned obscuring veil. In the final poem, and dying in bed from consumption, Eileen says “Mrs Donovan taught/me darning & fancy darning. I could/do the Peacock’s Eye but all I darned was/men’s socks & they were always on the run.” At the end of her life Eileen seems to find a melancholy clarity within her half-delirium (conjured by that blurred and dreamy repetition of “darning & fancy darning”) as she recognises her relative importance to the men and women in her life, and the difference in how capable they thought her – how much they valued her. She is, at last, speaking openly about men – and in doing so it is disappointment she is expressing.

The title was apparently a phrase used by Evans’ mother after the poet’s difficult divorce, and thereafter it served as a ten-syllable phrase to get this extraordinary work of art (mostly decasyllabic, or thereabouts) underway. So it is, on top of everything else, a practical departure point for a work that will I imagine be discussed and written about for a long time to come.

After writing the above, I discover that Eileen Murphy was the name of Evans’ cat who featured in a well-known (although not by me until now) earlier poem “The Day my Cat Spoke to Me”. On my original reading I had not considered the surreal, psychological angle of the poem as an exploration of Evans’ own inner-world. Having recently read and written about, Sophie Collins’ criticism of male critics’ inability to allow women credit for creating art free of their own autobiography in Who Is Mary Sue? I resist this reading. But I will enjoy returning to Evans’ book to think more about it.

Now We Can Talk Openly about Men is published by Carcanet, and is available here.