Answers on a Postcard: Deryn Rees-Jones’s Poetry

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Deryn Rees-Jones

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Burying the Wren




Answers on a Postcard: Deryn Rees-Jones’s Poetry by Lytton Smith

A letter from London, on the lyric.

January 24th, 2013 reset - +

FEDERICO GARCÍA LORCA'S THEORY of the duende — that “mysterious power,” the “fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art” — places “struggle” rather than “thought” at the epicenter of poetry. Duende, the energy Lorca felt animates real art, “is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood.” Duende inheres; it cannot be attained.

“In all the world, only Mexico can take my country’s hand”: duende is a distinctly Spanish affair, but it is also a question of, and for, lyric. Lorca quotes from Cancionero Musical del Palacio, a Renaissance songbook: “Dentro del vergel / moriré” (“In the garden / I will die”). Whatever else it is or does, lyric stages an encounter between a speaking voice and a listening other, directly addressed (the apostrophe “you”) or implicit, overhearing.

Art, Lorca insists, comes not from the muse, and not from the angel, but from the “black sounds” of the duende which inhabit the writer’s body and, through her, the written poem. “Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead”: this duende, death-born, upsets all our apple carts. What, then, happens to lyric, to the lyric “I,” to lyric address — especially on the “other shore” of this increasingly rainy island, where the cold East winds sweep in on us?

Yet perhaps the UK has no duende, for “the duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.” The duende’s chosen art form is the Spanish bullfight, “where death is a national spectacle” — but in Britain, death happens in the wings, off-stage. Britain’s heroes, polar explorer Captain Lawrence Oates at their head, demurely wander away, leaving muttered, euphemistic quips: “I may be some time.”

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That this is a fallacy, that wings have their shadows and within those shadows the shades of death are not lamented alone, but the creativity that comes from a fight with the “remotest mansions of the blood”: all this we see in Burying the Wren, the fourth collection of poems by Deryn Rees-Jones, a finalist for this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize.

Rees-Jones’s excellent collection is a meditation on the self’s attempt to remain sure of itself, a problem suggested by her depiction of a childhood game of catch: “the body’s coordinates not quite set // this object, moving in an arc towards you / somehow created you.” Watching on, we witness more than mawkish adolescence; we see identity as fragile, depending on others’ vectors. In her critical study of women’s poetry, Consorting With Angels: Essays on Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005), Rees-Jones argues “the [dramatic] monologue seeks to embody the speaker while also saying that the presence of this body is not the poet’s.” Her new poems complicate this astute position: in them, the speaker’s body, offered and disavowed, also risks dissipating, remaining not (yet) created.

Thus, in the unnerving “Dogwoman” sequence, Rees-Jones reimagines the self in canine guise: “I’m crouched between my own thighs // with my dog heart and my dog soul. For now I’m a woman / brought up by dogs.” Elsewhere, she hears “a voice announcing / that you’re dead”; at another point “words like bandages were slowly unravelling…” Amid these burial poems, “The Box”:

I’d asked for calico to line the box
and though you’d passed

so far from self, and I
still wandered, something was at rest.

On the funeral day, I came again:
your lips were cold, your eyelid stitched.

And later it was Pam, not I,

who laid the turf from Mayo at your feet,
the lilacs on your chest.

“The Box” casts grief as a double displacement. The dead have “passed / so far from self” and leave the bereaved itinerant: “and I / still wandered.” “So far from self, and I”: the bereaved shares a line with the deceased lover, and shares, too, his loss of self. Fragile, the self is broken across the line break, caught in an oxymoron — “still wandered” — and struggling to reach the peace “something […] at rest” knows. Rees-Jones’s title, Burying the Wren, refers to an old Irish tradition in which Wren Boys would go house to house with a dead wren, asking for money for its burial. The wages of death are paid by those who remain, and the levy is communal, not individual. In “The Box,” the “I” expected to perform the ritual requires a substitute. Even earth, “the turf from Mayo,” is transplanted by and for death.

Burying the Wren might be read within the context of grief literature, a study of bereavement that offers solace because it will not be tidy, will not obey social mores — hence the feral “Dogwoman” poems, an ekphrastic take on Paula Rego’s ferocious, muscular paintings. Plaintive expressions like “this might be my hardest weather” and poignant depictions of the departed’s corpse as “the longboat of your body / where words and worlds collide” allow us to honor death’s sombre hues even as we rail against it.

Yet death, Lorca tells us, and Rees-Jones shows here, is not a descent into stasis or finality; it is an encounter that might in fact animate. Beyond elegy, Burying the Wren attempts resurrection. The poem “Hallucigenia” elides memory, imagination, and a species of extinct (fossilized) arthropod in an effort to breathe life into what has passed away: “we’re in that room I’ve brought you to, / our stanza out of time.”

The magic or mechanism by which such resurrection happens, if it can happen, is language:

let words, which like the fossils
make a house for us in lexical delight,
open the world to reimagine us.

At the moment of absence, language is sought as a shelter, something almost physical, close to fossil evidence. It is as though sharing language might offer bodily sustenance. Indeed, one of the collection’s repeated motifs is the speaking mouth surrendered to the presence of another: “my mouth now, line by line, / is emptied into yours.” The sequence “from The Love Songs of Elisabeth So,” purportedly excerpting a book authored by someone else, cannot find speech within the self alone: “my mouth is yours — if only you’d answer, / to prove the darkness and the silence wrong.” Tipping a hat to lyric’s musical roots, this sequence undermines notions of a stable lyric speaker, suggesting we speak through someone else while others speak through us — a poetic ventriloquism.

Burying the Wren is an exploration of how death unravels and reanimates the self: “I had started to think of the skin ego, / of Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, / the lost books, fluttering, opening their wings like veins…” The version of lyric we find here does not offer comfort through another’s finely wrought experiences, as the epigraph to “Ellipsis,” Wallace Stevens’s line “and there I found myself, more truly and more strange,” indicates. Death, and burial, confront the self with “other’s vectors,” rendering it palimpsest and projection, “the red stain of the past / on my improbably stretched-out hands.”

That idea is also present in the first of two epigraphs to Burying the Wren, where Rees-Jones quotes Theodore Roethke’s lines, “I meet my shadow in the deepening shade / I hear my echo in the echoing wood.” The “I” encounters the inverse of itself, the part of the self which promises a subjectivity but knows it is only a reflection emanating from elsewhere. Roethke has often been invoked for an alternative conception of lyric, one which values the intense experiences a poem can find in ephemera, what the book jacket to Burying the Wren terms “the Roethkean ‘small things’ of the universe — truffles, slugs, trilobites.” Yet Rees-Jones draws on a very different Roethke, a shadow-Roethke.

She does, admittedly, engage with such oddments, and she does accord them greater significance than the passing eye would usually grant. When, in “Slugs,” she mock-grandly asks, “Of their psychobiographies will I ever be sure?” she both is and isn’t writing of how “each night the slugs have found a way of getting in.” Yet that inventive “psychobiographies” suggests Rees-Jones is after something different from lyric, something unusual and interesting she’s found in Roethke: moments of uncertainty in which we aren’t sure who we are because we’ve found ourselves out there, beyond our limits.

Even Salvador Dalí wrote an autobiography, but he did so not to reliably transmit his lived life but to call into question what we can know of ourselves. Rees-Jones finds within Roethke the possibility of the surreal, and she uses that to mould distorted worldly experiences like “The Fetch,” which leads into the funeral of “The Box.” It ends:

She carried in the velvet pockets of her coat
bittercress, dogviolets,
and, like the memory of the shape of a book,
                a solitary duck egg,
blown,
its melancholy blue.

These objects might seem accidental, their sedimentation into emotion a trick by which lyric intensity is smuggled into the poem. That the duck egg is “blown” in the artistic sense of an egg cleared of contents for ornamental decoration is a grim prelude to a funeral.

Yet the surreal quality of the ending to “The Fetch” — an elliptical shape becoming a cuboid one, a book’s shape rather than its contents as memorable — creates a composite picture that’s reminiscent of Magritte’s “Reckless Dreamer” more than a conventional self-portrait. “Blown,” adrift on the page, comments on artistic process, the force sweeping through these poems, distressing them. Things, including ourselves, are not as they seem. We’re reading a collection of poems that glosses “simple” as “the way outside turns inner.” This is not the lyric we’re used to from British poetry.

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That Rees-Jones was nominated for the T.S. Eliot Prize this year was not just because she has written one of those collections of poetry you want to press into the hands of strangers: it is because she is doing something different within contemporary UK poetry. Burying the Wren is the latest instalment in an ongoing attempt to move British lyric beyond anecdotal self-expression. Drawing on American influences, altering rather than simply following them, her project is neatly summed up in Esther Bick’s post-Freudian notion of the “skin ego.” For Bick, skin works as a “containing object” for the baby; Rees-Jones’s poems explore the skin as a part of the self, membranous enough to admit others and cede oneself.

Too often lyric is assumed to be emotionally significant because it offers biographical revelation. The lyric poet, in this argument, writes about events they have experienced, uses them to uncover larger meaning. Burying the Wren does draw on biographical material; this collection was written following the untimely death of Rees-Jones’s husband, poet-critic Michael Murphy. Yet to read the collection for its biographical dimension obscures the two contending interpretations of lyric within its pages, the way it ultimately shakes (like a mental wind) the stable identity the biographical presupposes.

The roots of such a project can be found in Rees-Jones’s insightful critical work. As well as arguing that dramatic monologue has been overlooked within the writing of modern women poets, Consorting with Angels points out that confessional poetry “is often performative in its promise of immediate revelation of the embodied self.” That is, the confessional, far from being the locus of the stable self, proffers a theatrical or staged identity where we expect the "real," "true," "biographical" subject. In addition, Rees-Jones makes a persuasive case for the importance of the surreal, “an intertextual and performative strategy,” within 20th century women’s poetic writing from Sylvia Plath to Denise Riley.

The self — our sense of who we are — emerges from Rees-Jones’s critical work reinvigorated because it has been called into question, made to make its case, a process rather than a product. Across four books of poetry, she has traced the coastline of such theories. In The Memory Tray (Seren, 1994), the speaker of the semi-reverent "Iconographies" both comes and goes, “Empty as a seashell, I give myself to you entirely / lost in the curve of my own fantastic echo.” The attempted surrender of the self is a game — “I am X. The unknown quality” — which quickly takes on graver consequences: “I am Augustine. / I am Louise. At night I dream rape and fire.” While The Memory Tray is in some ways a conventionally early 1990s British collection, complete with poems about education (“Letters to the Greeks”), family (“Grandma in the Garden”) and dubious sisterhood (“The Ladies” who “rearrange ourselves / in mirrors”), such anecdotes are filtered through Wittgenstein’s notion that “The language game ‘I am afraid’ already contains the object.” My mouth is yours; to find oneself may not be to become more integrated but to encounter the schism of the doppelganger.

If what we’re afraid of is ourselves, it is because the self has frayed edges, tries to come into existence but scarcely gets there. “William and Georgie, 1917” posits transmission as a source for self-knowledge, imagining Yeats’s new wife Georgie Hyde-Lees receiving messages through automatic writing. Poetry, in this guise, is a bodily act: “Like an itch, slowly and deliberately / She scratches the page with her pen.” Elsewhere, an otherwise straightforward poem about calling the wrong number disintegrates the self across a telephone line: “I’ve dialled wrong, but she will talk. / My voice is her event, hers mine.” “Meeting the Queen,” a poem voice by a debutante, distances us from our physical being: “Your body / sent you messages your mother’d not forgive.“ We’re not fully in control of ourselves, The Memory Tray suggests.

The fascination with the containing limits of the physical form continues in Signs Round a Dead Body (Seren, 1998), which begins when “you find the body of a man.” In this meeting with death, though, poetry’s task is not to report: “Remember, then, that it’s your duty to remember.” The framing repetition hints that the poem must both splice and recall, perform a discovery or detection, something Rees-Jones explores further in her book-length murder mystery, Quiver (Seren, 2004). Such detection, though, involves a creative act that’s a linguistic surrender, giving oneself up to the game of language. A love affair involves “mingling the startled syntax of our clothes”; in a relationship “the bed becomes a page, the white sheets / where we leave ourselves.” To create — sexually, poetically — divests oneself of something, a process “Calcium” roots in our biology:

I’ll tell you of the seven years

by which the skeleton renews itself,
so that we have the chance to be
a person, now and then, who’s

something other than ourselves;
and how the body, if deficient,
will bleed the calcium it needs —

We’re predestined, Signs Round a Dead Body says, to be different from whom we are. We experience such difference not only on a psychological level but also in our fumbling towards each other, “Your mouth as my own / As I lean into you.” And if the words that mediate our world, the longboats of our bodies, at times come from the supernatural ether, they also come from pop culture, from talk-show hosts, from, in one case, Star Trek: “Who is there to tell how sorrow puts a name to sorrow — / With language or the body? T.V., the radio, / The little gods of noise?” Such little sounds we’re made of; they’re so often someone else’s. “Your soft mouth says my name, / makes me unfamiliar, makes me look at myself / from a distance again.”

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Is it time, then, to rethink British lyric? “Let’s start with the premise that the lyric is inherently social,” suggests American critic and poet Elizabeth Willis in her essay “Lyric Dissent.” What follows?

Lyric has been associated with song — the accompanying lyre which morphed into the poem’s melody — since before Aristotle. We find the connection in courtly poetries across cultural traditions: the Cancionero Musical del Palacio, like much Spanish Renaissance music, reveals Moroccan and Ottoman musical influence rather than a “pure” Spanish strain of lyric (whatever that might be).

Song, though, is not singular: at the moment poetry supposes itself to be a song it also supposes itself to be social. Consider, from Signs Round a Dead Body, “Song for the Absence of Her Lover’s Voice,” “Song in Praise of the Art of Flight,” the extended sequence “Songs of Despair” (precursor to “from The Songs of Elisabeth So”). These are songs in the sense that Whitman — who provides the epigraph for that book — offers us song; they dissipate the self in a wider community such that we discover who we are only once we’ve offered ourselves up to someone — or someones — else, “the question-mark of your loving body / rousing me at last to speech.”

What Rees-Jones offers us are moments the lyric “I” has more to do with the communal “we” — divided, centerless — than with stable subjecthood. Or, as Denise Riley puts it in “Lyric,” a poem Rees-Jones includes in her anthology Modern Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 2005), a companion to Consorting With Angels:

Take up a pleat in this awful
process and then fold me flat
inside it so that I don’t see
where I was already knotted in

Lyric allows the “I” to turn in on itself, outside becoming inner; lyric is predicated on there being someone else there, someone we can implore or command to “take up” the process too. Within Burying the Wren we’re constantly aware that death not only means the loss of the lover who’s shaped the speaker’s sense of self: it risks the loss of lyric identity, and with it the possibility of sociability. The concluding gesture of Burying the Wren attempts to dissever from the departed without retreating into solitude:

                               Yet love
you’ve been with me enough,

so I must let you be, remove myself from the
cool earth

This is the wager with death that Lorca posits is the emergence of duende; it is the fight to remain animate, which is to remain articulate. Rees-Jones’s importance as a poet lies in her ability to reach outwards rather than to disappear into interiority.

That Rees-Jones styles her struggle with death as “my hardest weather” offers a half-joke about the national hobby here (we become British, it’s said, in discussing the weather). Yet Rees-Jones transcends this insularity, reaching British poetry beyond itself in such a way that Elizabeth Willis and Federico García Lorca are her work’s consorts. Book jacket blurbs often offer enthusiasm rather than precision, so when Ian Duhig praises Burying the Wren as “a major event and achievement in the poetry of these islands,” we’re left to wonder what, exactly, he thinks has been accomplished. I’d venture that Rees-Jones offers a new direction for British lyric, if we let it, one that’s in dialogue with 20th century American poetry but not subject to it. If British lyricism post-Larkin too often seeks to find grandeur in the smallest of things, the resonance of “high windows,” a trick few but Larkin can pull off, Rees-Jones finds that small things — thrown object, blown egg, bone marrow — intrude upon our sense of self, erode the skin ego. Her work foregrounds investigation — hence, in part, her move to poetic murder-mystery in Quiver — as a kind of social creativity, the lyric as a sonic means to plumb the faultline of a self formed through others. Lyric as a place where we find ourselves more truly, because more strange.

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