Poetry Reviews by Gregory Woods: Mute and Handmade Love
By Raymond Luczak
By Julie R. Enszer
Published by A Midsummer Night’s Press
A Midsummer Night’s Press has published several poetry collections in this diminutive but handsome format (roughly six inches by four, in old money). You can fit each volume into a tiny pocket without disrupting the lines of your tailoring. But don't be deceived by this convenience into thinking that because the books are small they are insubstantial. They are full-length collections aiming to pack a punch. Prominent among them is Brane Mozetic’s remarkably vigorous and intelligent collection Banalities, which the press issued at the end of 2008.
Raymond Luczak has had a distinguished career in the USA as an advocate for deaf people’s rights, within both the lesbian and gay subculture and the broader range of communities. I foreground this theme, just as I do his gayness, because he does so himself, both in this book and elsewhere. He has written drama, fiction, poetry and non-fiction for many publications about sexuality, disability and—well—life itself. He is also a film-maker. Each section of this new book of poems has an epigraph about silence, but he does not go very far in exploring this. He keeps mentioning it, to be sure, but that is my point: that is not silence. His prolific verbalism is hardly ever modulated with moments of silence. Everything is about expression—not a bad theme for a poet, but one to be taken with a pinch of salt. Poets learn the limits of language.
His didactic opening poem, ‘How to Fall for a Deaf Man’, presents itself as a manual of courteous flirtation, full of practical advice (‘Do not ask him the sign for FUCK. / He is tired of showing how’), but, over six lively pages, proves more interesting as a cheerful record of the erotic life as lived by the deaf among the hearing. Intercourse (let’s call it) takes place amid a flurry of expressive gestures—as if the natural flexible-wristedness of gay men had been accorded an additional élan by the muffling of voices. Sad to say, I think Luczak spoils this poem with its bathetic closing couplet: ‘Discover how much water and sun love takes / to grow, and how much can sprout in your hands.’ The image is not particularly fresh and appears, here, as a distraction from the poem’s celebration of the social and erotic.
Desire is interlaced, in other poems, with loss and grief in a way that we have come to expect from the gay liberationist generations that survived the worst emergency of AIDS and the wave of homophobia that worsened it. Luczak’s elegies commemorate not only individuals but also the optimism of an era whose hopes were so violently dashed—if, perhaps, to be partially and belatedly fulfilled around the turn of the new century. These moods are part of a general subcultural record.
Restricted hearing and signing are Luczak’s constant themes, but I looked for something more distinctively ‘deaf’ in matters of form and technique. The deafness of a poet is intrinsically no more paradoxical than Beethoven’s or, more recently, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s. The paradox, if any, is more likely to be in my response, as a hearing reader of poetry (even when reading in silence). I find myself wanting there to be a qualitative difference—evidence, perhaps, of an increased sensitivity to the sound of words, or to their appearance on the page—in the way he uses language, or at least in the way he reflects on its use. This may be to place an unreasonable demand on him, but why should that stop me making it? I expect a great deal of the poets whose work I am going to learn to like, and what I expect of them may be contingent on all sorts of external factors. I am not an equal opportunities reader.
Speaking of which, I really cannot pretend to have liked Julie R. Enszer’s book. For a start, a passage from the poem ‘Constantin Brancusi’s The Kiss’ filled me with misgivings: ‘This is what I despise about poems— / the way they isolate / distill life to only the good parts / they never capture this— / harsh words in morning or constipation or warts’. This suggests that the speaker (for let us suppose it is not Enszer herself) has not read much poetry. It is certainly hard to believe that an American poet could say such a thing in earnest. Does she not remember the ‘venereal sores’ in the Preface to the 1855 first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass? That said, I rather liked the poem ‘Further Evidence’, which is witty in both form and mood: a villanelle about a worrying vaginal discharge.
The collection’s title contains a decent Sapphic pun (handmade/handmaid) that promises a much lighter touch of sexually playful language than she delivers. ‘Morning Post’ is little more than the superfluous over-extension of an unoriginal erotic joke. ‘I know what women want to eat in the morning,’ it begins, elaborating on the fry-ups the speaker used to prepare on Sunday mornings for her straight girlfriends after their Saturday-night assignations with men. But she finally met a woman who had, like her, other oral pleasures in mind—to eat not bacon and eggs but pussy (her word). ‘I know what women want to eat in the morning,’ the poem ends, having taken seven quatrains to make a point that a haiku might have made with greater poise. Unless we are meant to read it as signalling that the poem itself is in dire need of a break from the mundane, a line like ‘Sauces can satisfy the need to break from the mundane’ really does not deserve to have survived the drafting process.
More often than not, her verse is prosy—but without the rigorous control of form and precision of lexis that makes its prosiness seem appropriate to anything but prose. Time after time, she drifts off into an essayistic mode that lays claim to an engagement of the emotions without showing any spark of passion in the language: ‘Now, I have more investment in sex as an older person, / becoming one myself, though, I hasten to add, not nearly / as old as you’; ‘Perhaps our innate / biological being compels us to couple, demands / that we find a spiritual, emotional, and sexual mate’; ‘I want to respect your gender identity and not reconsider / my own sexual orientation and erotic predilections’. I am not sure that such sentences are even elegant enough for a didactic essay, let alone a love poem. In ‘Dear Donald’, imagining herself in her sixties, having sex in the afternoon, she says ‘It is deeply pleasurable and erotic’. If a poet cannot convey this dull message by tone alone, let alone by sensuous imagery, she is in trouble. In a poem on the eponymous friends in the sitcom Will and Grace, she says she has ‘No words to describe the unlikely partnership, // but ample support, chaste affection, retained / sexuality’. (Retained?) In one love poem she refers to girly nicknames as ‘diminuitive feminizations’ [sic].
Perhaps her method works out at its best when she really, consciously and ostentatiously, strains the prosaic syntax, as in ‘Making Love After Many Years’, which, after a brief opening statement (‘It isn't easy’) otherwise consists of a single long sentence that sprawls out over two pages. This, at least, looks deliberate. Which is more than can be said for her collection’s shoddy proof-reading. One poem even has a phantom footnote number, but no footnote (presumably, to explain the word ‘hooning’, in case her use of it is too smudgy for the reader to follow). Feeling in need of a tonic—and yearning for radicalism of content strengthened, rather than held in check, by rigorously disciplined technique—I ran off to my bookshelves for a volume of Marilyn Hacker.Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is http://www.gregorywoods.co.uk/
Labels: A Midsummer Night’s Press, Gregory Woods, Julie R. Enszer, Poetry Review, Raymond Luczak
Theatre Review: MUST – The Inside Story
MUST – The Inside Story
By Suzy Willson and Peggy Shaw
Performed by Peggy Shaw
FuelLibrary Theatre Company
, until 26 May 2010
Reviewed by Paul Kane
Shaw’s mesmerizing performance flowed from beginning to end.
She touched upon the body as intimate stranger, our own portion of nature. Her own body and what had happened to it (accident and injury), the manipulation of the bodies of those close to her (her mother’s ECT in the ‘50s, the recent death of her sister), the body of the earth.
In constraining identity and making what or who we are possible, the body is pretty much key. That much is obvious, perhaps too obvious. For it has until fairly recently (I’m thinking in particular of Maxine Steets-Johnstone’s work and the so-called ‘corporeal turn’) been curiously overlooked.
How Shaw worked: a stream of striking poetic images, delivered with panache. Gusto, a vividness of presence, is what she showed in abundance. There was music, also, and a series of archive medical images (of the heart and the microbiology of the blood and diverse innards) and an animation involving skeletons in a cemetery.
It is not often that a play or performance piece can so aptly be described as ‘excoriating’. Let us therefore rejoice in the fact that here the word fits like a glove. And let us also rejoice in the existence of the astounding Peggy Shaw.
MUST – The Inside Story is showing at the Library Theatre in Manchester until 26th May, as part of the Queer Up North festival.
Labels: Queer Up North, Theatre Review
Review: The Silver Hearted by David McConnell
The Silver HeartedDavid McConnell
Published by Alyson
Reviewed by Richard Canning
First, an admission: I know and like David McConnell, and his previous writings. I’m hoping you won’t feel that discounts this review. McConnell’s first novel, The Firebrat (2003), was the one-that-got-away; a masterpiece, published by a tiny American press that shortly afterwards was closed down. McConnell has since had work published variously elsewhere, including two inventive short stories in my own collections Between Men and Between Men 2
. In the first, he told a story of condensed genius about playground regard, affection and longing between two pubescent boys. Typically esoteric too, for my essay collection 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read
, McConnell chose the world’s oldest “novel”, Gilgamesh: not exactly an easy sell, and not self-evidently “gay”. He made it work. Fluent in French, he reveres obvious lodestars like Jean Genet and Marcel Proust. But among McConnell’s favourite books too is Julien Gracq’s The Opposing Shore (originally Le ravage des syrtes), a novel which won its author France’s illustrious Prix Goncourt in 1951 (though Gracq, a self-effacing geography schoolteacher, who died only recently, refused the honour).
Gracq – a cult author in Anglophone circles – is one helpful way to approach McConnell’s dense yet limpid prose in The Silver Hearted. The Opposing Shore, though quite different in many respects, is set along coastlines and features boats and shipping in a historically indeterminate place and time. It has been described as ‘a novel of waiting’: Gracq dares to let nothing happen, but makes it happen with great sensual and symbolic richness. Thus he approaches the texture of our everyday lives more closely than in the plotted literary novel.
McConnell too seems to conduct a dare, allowing his short yet vividly impressionistic novel to meander, advance, retreat and reverse. Expectation is all. At times its plot even threatens to implode. Our protagonist and narrator needs to move a stack of coin around and out of a port city undergoing a revolution. To do so, he can call on few to assist. One ready recourse, however, is a young, somewhat worldly sailor, Topher, whom he not only learns to trust, but comes to be infatuated by. The boy, however, interprets the travails found in the novel as a personal learning curve, and presses the narrator to acknowledge the profound moral implications of what they have done.
To describe The Silver Hearted in terms of story, however, is to do it a disservice. Because of its seafaring setting, it is easy to see why American critics made the comparison with Joseph Conrad. But, though Conrad – like Melville and so many other storytellers using the high seas – had something to say about male-male intimacies onboard (see Conrad’s story ‘The Secret Sharer’, described as ‘a simple tale’ by its protagonist, and with resonances for the reader of The Silver Hearted), he was hardly a writer who embraced the vicissitudes of human desire. In this sense, McConnell proves nothing like the more immediate candidates for inspiration; he is, instead, very much our contemporary, and his narrator emotes, thinks, argues with himself… but above all, he desires. In a sense, he is introduced in a state of desire, and the state never leaves him. The novel ends impressionistically, with him registering on a galleon ship ‘the wonderful expressions of concentration on the handsome faces of the men.’ The title of the novel itself pays a sort of tribute to the dominance of this state of longing.
It is truly a novel of atmosphere, and, in conveying atmosphere, McConnell proves a supreme stylist. Take, for example, the deliberate, sustained imprecision with which his narrator records what he perceives of the ethnic minority of “Mandarins”:It was tricky not to fall into a corrupt “noble savages” way of thinking about these people. Their terracotta faces rarely betrayed anything but stoicism, dignity or laughter, though their uniformly dark eyes were always full of amusement, something confusingly cruel and humane at the same time. Whether they were Parsi or Malay or both, at origin, no one knew. Whatever they were, they weren’t Chinese, certainly not Chinese officials – the term “Mandarin” had been used for convenience by the first Westerners in the country and only described their control over trade and the elaborate formality of their culture. They had no name for themselves at all, not even “the people” like the Inuit. Their population wasn’t large. They were outnumbered many times over by the Karak Indians, who had almost no hand in the country’s affairs.
The principle here is one of ongoing concessions, economically revealed. McConnell’s narrator concedes one thing after another, about the many things that cannot be known, inferred or said about this people. Their essence recedes further inside, as he unpacks one Russian doll after another of presumption, inference and conjecture.
Though peopled with a series of significant characters, The Silver Hearted allows them to come front-of-stage, and then to retreat. Each remains blurry, compared to the figure of Topher, whom the narrator records repeatedly, but if it is also obsessively, he is not about to reveal this. Indeed, his obsession is all the more realized for not idealizing its subject. Our desires, indeed, rarely idealize the object of our desire; rather, we oscillate absurdly between judgment and indulgence, between infatuation and contempt. This contrariness McConnell captures with perfect subtlety, as here:He pretended not to hear, then, like a child, folded his arms on the table and laid his head on them. His fragmenting blue eyes were alert but dissociated from anything in the shadowy room. He was clearly exhausted. In a few days he’d become deeply tanned, which made the down on his jaw stand out like frost. His savaged fingertips rhythmically made dimples in his upper arms. Even slack, the muscles were too massive for his age.
Typically sensual, without being overt, this set of observations indicates how, in McConnell’s fiction, an erotic charge accompanies the everyday. Indeed, it may need the excuse of the everyday in order to thrive.
Another winning moment revels in the narrator’s self-consciousness. Perhaps we have not been given such a self-aware, apparently honest figure in fiction since Ford Madox Ford’s Good Soldier: high praise indeed:
Over the spiked coffee I explained to Topher that I was going to need help with my cargo. I pronounced “help” strangely, since it was hard asking for anything even when money would smooth the way. I couldn’t get “help me” to sound desirable or natural. I made it sound like indenture or something awful. He shrugged and seemed to think the whole conversation unnecessary. He worked for the captain, I was a passenger, of course he’d help me. I took a different tack. I asked him where he came from.
Here, perfectly wrought, is the misery of getting the acquiescence you want, but for the wrong reason. Topher will be his… but it seems that he can never signify for Topher. The commercial aspect of their exchange chokes out what is, to the narrator, plausible: a human connection. Over and over McConnell nails such paradoxical human moments: the vulnerability in our most confident gesture; the boredom that attends an instance of apparently pure triumph; the tenderness with which we inflict brutal punishment.
This is an utterly beautiful novel, simple but ambitious, knowing but never self-conscious, literary without ever proclaiming its own worth. It deserves acclaim, attention, awards and… your attention. Equally, you deserve the experience of reading this repeatedly astonishing book.
Richard Canning’s most recent book is E M Forster: Brief Lives (Hesperus Press. His 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read and Between Men 2 (both 2009), featuring McConnell, are published by Alyson Books.
Labels: Alyson Publications, David McConnell, Review
Theatre Review: Road Movie
Written by Godfrey Hamilton and performed by Mark Pinkosh
Starving ArtistsLibrary Theatre Company
, until 22 May 2010
Reviewed by Paul Kane
The words you remember are 'I want a cure and I want my friends back' and they are spoken by Joel, Mark Pinosh's principal heteronym. Although a monologue, Pinkosh brings to life myriad characters in turn, Joel being the sole abiding presence.
Pinkosh is electric on stage, his face intense and incredibly expressive, his arms animated and urgent, as he brings Joel and Scott's story fully to life. Faux-naif and faux vain, he was. Despairing and then joking, playing the audience for all he was worth.
Those who help us are human too - they have only the same resources we do, no more. One take-home message.
'I want a cure and I want my friends back.' Yes, but if only one wish could be granted, which would you choose?
Road Movie is showing at the Library Theatre in Manchester until 22nd May, as part of the Queer Up North festival
Labels: Queer Up North, Theatre Review
Review: The Rising of the Ashes
The Rising of the Ashes
by Tahar Ben Jelloun
translation by Cullen Goldblatt
Published by City Lights
Reviewed by Colin Herd
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Rising of the Ashes, out this year from City Lights, presents the original French text alongside an English translation by Cullen Goldblatt. The book consists of two long poems and an author’s preface. The first poem, from which the volume takes its title, concerns the first Gulf War and is dated 1991. The second poem is titled ‘Unidentified’ and is a response to the treatment of Palestinians in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories in the 1980s.
As Goldblatt notes in his introduction, The Rising of the Ashes first appeared in 1991 as a bilingual volume with an accompanying Arabic translation. Reading it then must have felt like a very timely, responsive, urgent experience and it is telling (and not-a-little depressing) that the poems feel no less urgent and timely nearly ten years later, in an atmosphere just as sticky with complex violence.
The preface is relatively short but definitely punchy, its stark sentences bristling with political and poetic engagement. Ben Jelloun reveals the urgency with which he felt these poems rise: ‘So poetry rises. Out of necessity. Amidst the disorder where human dignity is trampled, poetry becomes urgent language.’ Ben Jelloun articulates the profound necessity of speaking in the face of violence, when ‘silence could be akin to an offence’. But urgency, of course, is one thing, while agency is a completely different other. Running counter to (but alongside) that feeling of urgency is a strong sensation of the inadequacy and impotence of words and poetry, what Ben Jelloun calls ‘the powerlessness of language in the face of history’s extreme brutality’. Yes, ‘poetry rises’, but it rises like ashes and Ben Jelloun’s urgency is always tempered by the searching, and very healthy question: what can poetry actually do?‘Why is our history littered with defeats?
Is it a failure of language?’
I found it interesting to think of the title-poem alongside a contemporary French text, Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, in which the French philosopher claimed that factors such as television coverage and the war’s gross one-sidedness undermined and unraveled the reality of the violence and suffering that took place. Ben Jelloun’s verse is something like a special T.V. camera, a camera that is able to overcome the symptoms of simulation that Baudrillard describes and present the suffering of war’s aftermath in a manner that is dignified and genuine. One of the most potent indications of the wreckage of war’s aftermath is in the following lines, where even the metaphors Ben Jelloun turns to are rooted in the remnants of destruction:‘This body that was a dream is a wrecked house.
There is neither door nor window
just a lacerated mattress, a cooking pot, a stale loaf
of bread, a coat on a hook, gutted walls, grey dust
and the previous year’s calendar.’
Ben Jelloun is more famous as a novelist, and where he really hits his stride is when he makes use of novelistic techniques in his poetry, techniques like observed detail, deft characterization and even ‘speech’:‘Guests arrived saying: “War is not an excuse!”
But the house is no longer a dwelling
it is absence and silence.
On a section of wall
the portrait of the dictator is intact
flies deposit their droppings upon it.’
I know I just said that’s novelistic and I stick by it, but the use of ‘upon’ instead of ‘on’ in that line, (making ‘deposit’ half-rhyme with ‘upon it’) shows what perfect ‘poet’s ears’ both Ben Jelloun and Goldblatt have.
The long poem ‘Unidentified’ makes up the second half of the book. It reads like a catalogue of dates and names, breathing dignity into the victims of intolerable, unbearable but not Ben Jelloun insists unutterable cruelty. It makes at times very hard-going, harrowing reading. The following quotation is from a section called Fatima Abou Mayyala:‘They came in through the roof
they closed the doors and windows
they stuffed a fistful of sand into her mouth and
Their hands ripped her stomach
they urinated on her face.’
He doesn’t allow us to blink or turn away from the horror, but his next breath reveals Fatima’s dignity:Fatima took the statue’s hand
and walked lightly between the trees and the sleeping children.
She reached the sea
her body raised above death.
In a paper at the Long Poem Conference at Sussex University last year the poet Rachel Blau du Plessis spoke of the long poem in terms of temporality and scale, claiming that long poems ‘concern things that are too large in relation to things that are too small… By too large I mean the universe, the earth, our history and politics, our sense of the past and our more febrile sense of the future’. Her thoughts seem particularly applicable to these two long poems, which address large-scale political history, while drawing attention to its constituent individual tragedies, in a medium that does feel much too small but at the same time the only one available, poetry. The febrile sense of the future suggested in these poems is of course our present, and of that, The Rising of the Ashes is eerily, engagingly and urgently penetrating. Always an interesting writer, this book proves Ben Jelloun to be an exciting, accomplished poet too.Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).
Labels: Poetry Review
Review: Patrick Procktor
Patrick Procktor: Art and Life
By Ian Massey
Published by Unicorn Press
Reviewed by David Plante
It puts me at an odd angle to review a book about someone I knew, a book in which I am in fact quoted. My first reaction is to remember Patrick Procktor as I knew him. My partner, Nikos Stangos, and I used often to invite him to supper at our flat, sometimes with the poet Stephen Spender. The image comes back to me of Patrick wearing a tight translucent shirt and a pale green flimsy feminine scarf tied about his long thin neck. He had a nasal laugh, rather like a snort; he would raise his head in a slight jerk, his sharp chin jutting, and look away, and when he looked back it was as if from on high. I wondered what really he’d laughed at—perhaps at me. He always made me feel I lacked daring in dress, in gestures, in talk, in artistic originality. He was to me all daring.
Yet what most struck me about Patrick was his grounding in deep culture. His appreciation of Baudelaire, in French, was just one of the constant surprises of his serious knowledge of literature. And of course there was his ability to access the Russian writers in Russian. But, as if it were a pretension to be serious about such knowledge, he all too often presented a self that was more pretentious in his dandy-ism. I remember his carrying a book covered with fancy paper, in fact a novel by Dickens; and I thought it was typical of Patrick to disguise his serious interest in literature within decorative paper, as he disguised so much that was serious in him by decoration.
And how to square his socialist vision (I think of the very moving photograph in his memoir of him on a collective farm in Soviet Tashkent in 1956, translating for visiting Lancashire Weavers) with that dandyism? At the opening of the show in 19-- of his Great Leap Forward painting commemorating Chinese Communism, I was impressed when he said he thought someone from the Chinese Embassy might appear, and I thought: really, Patrick knew everyone. That he seemed to know someone at the Chinese Embassy made all his other acquaintances, such as his druggy friend the fashion designer Ossie Clark, ideologically equal. Or it could have been that in the 60s when young people carried Mao’s Little Red Book about, Patrick thought of an acquaintance at the Chinese Embassy as fashionable as knowing Ossie Clark. With Patrick, one never knew.
Procktor's 'First Day of Sun'
Ian Massey in his book, Patrick Procktor, Art and Life, is fully aware of how one never could know Patrick. For the life, he relies largely on reminisces of friends, very much like my reminisces which Massey’s book has inspired. Though I have my own doubts about the work, Massey’s enthusiasm is convincing. ( I see so many of the views Patrick painted in Venice, Egypt, China as obvious as postcards, but Massey argues that it is the deftness of the use of the paint that makes the difference, and so it does.) And the book expands beyond Patrick himself into the world he represented so centrally with his lovers and friends, starting most dramatically in the years of the 1960s when, it seemed suddenly, nothing was taken for granted, everything was to be experimented with and open to discovery, especially in sex and drugs. (My only wish is that Massey had been a little less discreet in exploring the sexual relations of Patrick’s lovers.) The book covers the decades following the 60s during which so many of the promises ended—in the case of Ossie, in his murder, and, in 2003, with the sad death of Patrick, far gone in alcoholism.
The last time Nikos and I saw Patrick was when we were out shopping in Marylebone and came across him, in carpet slippers and walking his dog. He asked us to join him for a drink in a pub, where we sat at a small table on which he leaned an elbow, his hand delicately to his cheek. He was drunk already and seemed to be supporting himself with that poised hand. He pursed his lips, thinking, and I hoped he would finally say something equal to his intelligence, but then he told us that he and his son Christopher were living on grilled sausages, and I had a vision of a grill dripping with grease.
Years before—oh, some thirty five years before he died in 2003-- Patrick had done a watercolour of Nikos and me lying side by side naked on a bed. Someone bought it; I should like to know what happened to it.
Patrick Procktor, Art and Life is more than a biography, it is social history at its best, creating a world seen anew by those who lived it, and wondered at by those for whom it is now seen as daringly original as it really was.
David Plante is author of many books including The Francoeur Trilogy, The Catholic, Difficult Women and The Pure Lover.
Labels: Art, Dance Review
Poetry Reviews by Sophie Mayer: Two Ways to Picture a Life by
The Joshua Tales
By Andra Simons
Published by Treehouse Press
Kendra Ezekiel, the illustrator of The Joshua Tales, calls her work ‘collagraphs.’ It’s an evocative description for Andra Simons’ texts themselves: short blocks whose apparent simplicity – and complicity with the paragraph, the prose poem – is insistently but subtly disrupted. There’s play with the font, kerning, colour, and repetition of words; wide gaps between phrases; a solitary word “rise” on the page at the centre of the poem.
The second poem, ‘Joshua’s Birth,’ is interrupted by an asterisk in the second of its three lines that points to an italicised headnote above the poem, and twice its length. The poem talks about Joshua’s birth, the headnote of colonialism’s. Throughout the book, the tensions between the individual and history will visibly divide the page, yet collide upon it.
That division/collision echoes the narrator’s relationship to Joshua, as described in ‘Joshua has Sex’:Joshua, by my side/myside, watched as I made love to the copper man, mimicking every movement like a third grade ballerina. Joshua’s brown lips kissing the darkened centre of the room.
I, not wanting to teach him that love can only survive in cages, let my lover surrender Joshua. I by his side/hisside watched as he made love to the copper man.
Joshua opened his mouth. Arched. Reached out with his tongue. He Sang. Joshua raised his wrists and soared.
The / cleaves in both its senses. I (all we know about I is that they teach poetry) withdraws, as they do throughout the book, giving over space and sense to Joshua, who meets the President of the United States (in the book’s most deadpan poem: read it for yourselves!), flies a kite and generally enjoys the gifts of presence. After he meets Eve, Joshua sails home to the island of Pocaroja, and Joshua leaves the narrator to ‘train under her palms
What he learns in this final identification between the individual and history is pain: ‘Like her he aborted his babies like her
.’ The next three poems are called ‘Joshua weeps for the first time’, ‘Joshua’s Rape’ and ‘Joshua’s Death.’ Presence, being in the world, has opened Joshua to pain. His rape is hauntingly described much like a self-birth, and it’s this act that brings Joshua and the narrator together.
Joshua meets many people on his travels, including God and Lucifer, but the most crucial is the Jazz Singer, ‘the darkest green sister’
whose singing ‘Bitter and softly’
gives the poem its tone, its musicality (as Joshua ‘Sang’) and its cyclical form. Like the mosaiced, textured, tessellated images, these poems build on each other by degrees and rotations. The final poem, ‘Joshua Here,’ returns cyclically to the words of the first poem, ‘Joshua’, but ends with the affective, elusive affirmation of presence and action (and an echo of marriage as a ceremony of love as union-in-duality): ‘I do
The Silver Rembrandt
By Kate Foley
Published by Shoestring Press
Ekphrasis – the description of a work of visual art within a poem – has been a hallmark of lyric poetry since the Romantics. Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ related poetic truth to visual beauty and even TS Eliot’s cynical reductio ad absurdum (‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo’
) in ‘The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’ couldn’t reduce the desire of poets to use the visual arts to write beyond language.
Kate Foley’s long poem sequence ‘The Silver Rembrandt’ is not Romantic-with-a-capital-r, or even romantic, in the conventional sense. It explicitly eschews the idea of the Genius whose gift surpasses ordinary human concerns, but at the same time searches for a more expansive definition of the self than ‘lover.’ In looking closely at Rembrandt’s painting, and particularly those that contain self-portraits, Lily, the poem’s narrator, searches for a way that is between life and art.
The sequence is formidable both for its narrative clarity, equal to Jackie Kay’s, and its intense release into moments of stilled lyric that offers us the opportunity to find what, in her first sexual experience,Lily has begun to know
that to live in your matchless skin
you must leave simple, good enough bare
to find naked
Finding naked is the book’s work, shaped as specifically female and working class, as it looks for a place in contemporary aesthetic culture that defies John Berger’s astute observation that men in Western art are naked, women nude. What Rembrandt offers Lily is not just – or not so much – the inspiration to pursue her own art, which she comes to realise is mediocre, but what she encounters first in his work, when her teacher sends the class a postcard of ‘Old Woman Reading’. ‘It isn’t her face’
the description begins, ending: ‘what counts / is the glowing gospel of her hand
Through her relationship with Frances, the birth of their autistic son, the dissolution of their relationship and Frances’ death, Lily somehow has within her that ‘glowing’ kernel, but only activates it when she returns to Amsterdam and is adopted by two young squatters. They introduce her to mime artist Wim, who says he ‘will teach her Rembrandt’, and so she ends the poem as the silver Rembrandt of the title, ‘juggl[ing] light’ not on a canvas but with, and in, her body.
This bodiliness, in which the body is – and replaces – art and religion as belief systems, surfaces in the other poems that make up the book: the ‘iron, salt and a hint of honey’ in a lover’s post-running sweat in ‘Running Woman’ or ‘the Buddhas of Bamiyan / made part of our own flesh’ in ‘When the Buddhas of Bamiyan Fell’. So when old age’s ‘tender paradigm shift from words to touch’ is invoked in ‘Thrift’, Foley subverts the tragic narrative of ageing towards something elevated. Not transcendent: the material world that Rembrandt worked so lovingly in light and dark remains the book’s touchstone. In the final poem, ‘Prayer,’ the poet prays ‘to our piano / your hand strokes every day,’ the piano at once word and sound and image, and at the same time a body, a conduit of touch, as these poems are.Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at http://www.sophiemayer.net/
Labels: Poetry Review