Answers on a Postcard: Departures, or Some Accidental British Debuts
By Lytton SmithMay 20, 2013
teaching my mother how to give birth by Warsan Shire
Human Form by Oliver Dixon
Instant-flex 718 by Heather Phillipson
Dear Boy by Emily Berry
SHE LEAVES, then later reflects, “I’ve had to do a lot less explaining myself out here.”
We come across creativity through happy accident, which is a tautology not an oxymoron, a fusing of English’s Germanic and Latinate roots. The happy and the accident are both events, occurrences, what takes place; the inflection is in how we react.
I stumble across a vegan café in the Welsh/English border town of Hereford, en route to see the 14th-century world map that’s housed at the local cathedral. This being Britain, there’s little spectacle to the approach; we happen into a roadside parking spot by some unassuming houses in an impossible matrix of one-way streets. Stone’s throw from one of the world’s wonders, and the streets are asleep. Mid-afternoon, the café’s about to close; we’re its last customers, two Americans and a Brit, although the Americans were once Welsh and the Brit is often mistaken for an American when speaking and what does it mean to be Welsh in a border town where the 700-year-old world map depicts the British Isles nestling at the southwest of the world (southern hemisphere?)?
I hear her voice lifting through our conversation from an old hi-fi by the cutlery and condiments. My CD library is stocked with American singer songwriters, mostly from the playlists of WFUV, the recommendations of friends: Alicia Jo Rabins, Mountain Goats, the Ransome Brothers, the Decemberists. I’ve been switched-off to British airwaves, British voices, and I’m struck by this female singer, her husked hushed tones rising to ring like she’s singing within an empty church: part Ollabelle, part Joni Mitchell, part Anne Briggs.
The familiar lament is that the British don’t talk to one another. In Being Human, one of the many television series the US has had to remake rather than just rebroadcast, George, the resident werewolf, panics as his flatmate Mitchell, vampire and casanova, spontaneously invites their neighbors (all 20 of them) over for tea and cake. “We have to put a stop to this,” George protests. “These people are British. You’re not allowed to talk to your neighbours until you’ve nodded at them for 15 years.”
Yet in small towns — and in poems — the rules are different. We chat to the waitress, find out that the singer is Laura Marling, folk musician from Hampshire, where the New Forest lies, Britain’s answer to the Schwarzwald. We leave with a CD for the road, find our way to the mappa mundi (literally, “cloth of the world”), which reorients us. One of us returns to the US; the CD ends up among the shuffle on the iPod; we move houses five times between the three of us. But we’ve happened onto something nonetheless.
And Laura Marling leaves, emigrates to the US, to Los Angeles — Silver Lake. Out there, where she doesn’t have to explain, she also tells The Guardian, “Americans — they're just a lot more poetic. I don't know whether I've sort of fallen out of love with English charm, the reservedness of it …”
Reserved and diffident, quiet and unassuming, stiff-upper-lipped. You’ll hear it said of British poetry as much as of Brits. “To read much contemporary British verse is — for an American poet — a dreary, disheartening affair,” argues G.C. Waldrep in a wonderful and positive review of three titles published by Shearsman, titles that instance the opposite. His characterization is playfully exaggerated, yet his sense of a preponderance of “careful prosody retailed by the major houses (especially Faber) run[ning] the gamut from the quotidian to the banal by way of the Minor Epiphany” isn’t out of keeping with many American and British readers’ experiences of UK poetry. Maybe Napoleon was right. Can the nation of shopkeepers really also be a poetic place?
“It was a big year for poems,” writes Emily Berry in her poem, “The International Year of the Poem,” published in her debut book of poems, Dear Boy, (Faber Poetry, 2013), “In January the price of poems his $100 per poem for the first time.” In pillaging news media discourse for fragments of language into which she can crowbar the word poem, Berry simultaneously laments the absence of the poem from popular imagination (“No one could deny poems were powerful”) and insists on its centrality (“Poems were going off across the world, in Baghdad, Athens, the Gaza Strip”). Even as we hear “bomb” where Berry places “poem,” we think of the spontaneous poetry readings in Tahrir Square, of poetry readings against the deportation of Lily Mosini, of the posthumous re-granting of Turkish citizenship to Nâzim Hikmet, exiled for his poetry.
Berry’s poems employ the kind of humor that’s grown up on Spaced and The League of Gentlemen, a black comedy that is meant to make a laugh feel inappropriate, painful. In “A Short History of Corseting” the voice is unflinching as it records “We agreed small waists were more attractive; / we were in a loving and supportive relationship.” If there’s any temptation to snigger at the euphemism, we’re appropriately winded by the epigrammatic line “Pain is the spine of life. It holds you up.” Stretching the logics of the world we live in with utter sincerity, Berry’s poems tease us into reconsiderations.
In her words, the contemporary UK becomes that poetic place we might wish for. Confident enough to declare, “I have discovered the meaning of life and it is curatorial” (no comma, no pause, no flinch), Dear Boy assembles the stray accidents of life in order to have us look again at them. Whether it’s a therapist-inspired “list of everything my parents ever gave me, / like 1) A rabbit; 2) Medicine; 3) An interior feeling / of shipwreckedness,” or an elegiac catalogue of “Props,” including “3 shepherd’s crooks / apples for tree / flowers for Paradise” and “megaphone for God,” Berry’s refractive imagination alters the way we see both tangible objects and our social customs. Of Zanzibar she writes “I blame you entirely Your shoreline so suspiciously wantable” and it’s this reaching for the necessary word that offers Dear Boy its edge: “your cunning blend of poverty and palm trees” she continues, daring us to let slip by the conjunction.
When reserve appears in Berry’s book, it’s upended. Of course there’s tea, but it’s in the hands of the “tea-party cats” whose “whiskers neatly reference their bowties,” or takes shape as a “tea-stained horizon,” something lingering. Berry thirsts for stories, for the finding and the telling of them: “Where was I, when you were shovelling chickens / down conveyor belts in Castlemahon?” she wonders in “Other People’s Stories.” At times these poems read like a Karen Russell short-story, restlessly combining the fictions of imagination — “My Perpendicular Daughter // grew taller than they said she would / when I got her” — with the poem’s philosophic contemplations: “today it’s hot water bottle and austerity breakfast and my toast burns in protest,” the concluding poem, “Bad New Government,” sputters. Berry’s not afraid to let our politics come through our domestic arrangements; our revolutions begin with our kitchen appliances. Disarming as often as it is charming, Dear Boy is an epistle to make one feel at once urgently wanted and spun right around upside down. It is, as Berry herself puts it, where “the language showed its seams” — and we are the dazed and fascinated visitors stumbling across its accidence.
If British poetry’s meant to be the land of the quiet (or major) epiphany, Dear Boy is one of a number of books suggesting a shift in direction, a move from observation to being obverse, to putting a spanner in the works. Heather Phillipson’s Instant-flex 718 (Bloodaxe, 2013; distributed in the US by Dufour Editions) revels in aphorisms that reel between the wilfully flippant and the tenderly reassuring. “Ease of communication / has ruined the heart’s eloquence, for the moment” she posits, then proceeds in a series of poems equal parts firework and elbow-grease to demonstrate the kinds of eloquence the contemporary might be leaving us without. Case in point: her realization that “Through windows, the road is an extensive misunderstanding / confirmed by an engine.” Or consider, in its entirety:
National Geographic’s Indian Subcontinent Photo Gallery Where All of Life Is in Appearances, and Just outside of Them
How long, Editor, until my face resembles the bonnet macaque
as the bonnet macaque resembles Samuel Beckett?
Somewhere, everywhere, monkeys show signs of wear.
I should rather be pretty, but I don’t, so there.
The shortest poem in Instant-flex 718, its form is part of its unrepentant refusal to participate in an economy of beauty. Tongue stuck firmly out, this poem’s clicked-shut rhyme is a retort directed both at social conventions and othering images. It hints at the possibility, just for one moment, that “macaque” and “Beckett” might be some form of rhyme, before fizzling into what it is: a final word on the subject.
What leads us to trust and admire Phillipson’s intelligence is not simply her canniness with Beckett, her ability to name-check the German phenomenologists or to exchange words with the American conceptual artists John Baldessari (“We must meet sometime for a chatette in Frisco; or perhaps in wetlands in the Lea Valley”), although her play with the ideas of others is a delight. All this matters not for its allusive intellectuality but because of the logical avenues Phillipson is able to run us down, such as the poem titled “If We Are in Favour of Motherhood, Let Us Not Be against the Great White Man-eating Shark” — and this in a collection with the opening lines “The baby had been guaranteed to reach u and came / with hair and no clothes.” Phillipson’s right, of course; “let us not forget that the Great White Man-eating Shark / brings forth its young alive.” But this is not reductio ad absurdum, for the poem flips us into the kind of phenomenal questions the poet has inherited: “It simply wants to know: what kind of an object are you? / could you love me back?”
If I say that Phillipson’s is a poetry of confrontation, her British readers may gulp a little. The British aren’t made for conflict, which involves making things public. Riffing on that gives the quieter moments of this book their power; to write, in “Unapproachable Regions,” that “What I cannot express, the violin cannot help with” is to articulate the quiet desperation of being shut inside oneself — and if we’re familiar with this more from Dickinson and Thoreau than British poetry, it’s not for want of its soft-voiced presence here.
More often, though, Phillipson’s confrontations are direct, and directly useful, in asking us to reassess the zeitgeist. She defamiliarizes the cinema: “my eyes / became wetter before irregularly spaced images.” She unpicks the quotidian: “In the washing machine’s drum is an odd regatta,” and does so as part of a dare to read books: “Literature is too exciting, enmeshes you in its concerns / and irregular verbs.” Indeed, in taking on the contemporary, she shows herself neither zealot nor Luddite: “You might know we were in the new half / of the twenty-first century, enlarging / a pixel here or there without bursting anything.” Restraint is as liable to be our undoing as it is our salvation. Or, put another way, “I can’t go into the meaning of all this, except to say / it was not clear if we were naked or pretending.”
Berry’s and Phillipson’s debuts indicate the presence of the contemporary American within British poetics: Berry has an “I love New York” poem while Phillipson quips that “The only men it’s safe for me to love are dead — / O’Hara, Stevens, Berryman.” Yet as this ironic couplet suggests (clue: it’s from a poem called “Devoted, Hopelessly”), these poems are British in the way Coupling was: riffing off and rifling through the über-American series Friends, its creators crafted a sitcom about six white professional men and women living in a major capital in a way that was so distinctly British it had to be retranslated for broadcast in the United States, as a show also called Coupling. Reading America, flaneuring its spaces, Berry and Phillipson, and the British poets of their generation who have cut their teeth on the bright marbles of 20th-century American poets as much as British, transform what they take in. When Phillipson writes of the ambition to “drop my robe on the communal stairs / and open the front door onto the commuter hour, / my neighbour, his Labrador, and say nothing,” or Berry offers a “London Love Song” with the wild frenzy of “wind-tanned, river-coloured, we emerged from your alleyways addicted, streaking the white edges of your smarter districts,” we sense a delight in abandon, in casting-off obligations, that is peculiarly British.
Without wanting to overstate an analogy, a culture and poetry that finds its protest in silent disrobing and burnt toast might require a subtler reading of form than we expect when we turn to the American page; put another way, what British poetry learned from “open field,” it sometimes did so without quite the variety of verbal-visual scatter. When Waldrep points out, in his admiring review, that “only a few of the sixteen poets represented in Tarlo’s generous volume seem ‘radical’ in a formal sense — to an attentive American reader” (italics mine), he’s making exactly this point: how we read radical form in British poetry might differ from how we read it in US poetry, although the tendency is to make simple comparisons, to claim that British poetry is “less” radically formal than US poetry, to over-celebrate such moves as Berry’s reorienting a poem 90 degrees or Phillipson’s adoption of a columnar, advert-style form, together with a tone borrowed from museum labels, for her poem “1960s Monochrome Hollywood Paraphernalia ($47, collection only).”
Oliver Dixon’s Human Form (Penned in the Margins, 2013) offers a physicality that has everything to do with the body’s (meta)morphic tendencies, and his subtle workings of poetic form are neat correspondences to the realignments of human form his poems thematically explore (think readjustments to yogic poses more than circus contortionists). These are poems of coming-to-terms with parenthood, of seeing the world through the child’s mind, but they’re also forages into the shape of our lives, questions as to “what a diorama of our lives / might resemble.” Their ultimate assertion may be as much a belief in poetry as in people: “the poem’s in / life, no about it,” Dixon maintains.
“Human Form,” the book’s title poem, reconfigures the child’s appearance in its parents’ bed as “a cubist scrum” within and into which “we struggle into consciousness / like a many-limbed Lakshmi.” This “new / configuration” unfolds in a triplet of sestets whose ragged lines are the unexpected body combinations, the “ruffled, parodic / Trinity” of human forms. Behind the ostensible neatness of British poetic form, just as behind the castle-like British home, we find something rather more difficult to parse.
Such entanglement is marked by separations as much as conjunctions; “Human Form” requires several reads to work out whose bodies are involved, and in what physical relationships. This is the “emergent world” Dixon is trying to put to language. His explorations of lucidity don’t take the redacted form of, say Lyn Hejinian or Jorie Graham exploring awakening, but that’s not to discount their formal measures. In “A to Z” a child’s “Bird, look!” transforms into “an index-page / from a worn out London A to Z,” retaining traces of both possibilities, “animate as any.” What Dixon practices here isn’t simply a rough-edged free verse; his careful tracking of assonance (“loose / elusive paper escaped […] index-page”) trails “this brown flutterer” parent, child, and reader alike watch “looped between” them and sky.
Human Form’s form is not radical in the sense of the untried or untested, but its uses of enjambment offer slippages in meaning as corollaries for uncertainty about bodily shape or psychological identity. “Lament of the Hackney Street Cleaner,” muses that “a man’s identity / may be pilfered now from his / dustbin: is it so nearly / trash?” Our lives are composite productions, Human Form seems to say, and it’s what takes places alongside them, their happenings and redundancies, that gives them shapes, prevents us being “subsumed within the rubbish […] / all of us mouldering, all of us / turning to waste.”
There is a risk that Dixon at times over-relies on the epiphanic in order to unearth resonance within the accidents of observation. “A Type of Ambiguity” twines “a vase taking shape” with a wheeling relationship, “several tumultuous, synchronised / comes.” The knowing nod to William Empson suggests that the poem is less demonstrating his theory of poetry than adding to it, revising it, but nonetheless the murmured “My love / we’ve cracked it” seems over-determined, an attempt to squeeze every last possible double-meaning from the situation, and the poem’s strongest when most ambiguous: “his words veered in three directions: / were vase, code — or their future — still intact?”
Indeed, where Dixon most trusts the happy accident of what his eye comes across, his poems unfold down the page like maps opening up, their images constantly altered by the revelation of what comes further along. “Myth of the Old Master” pictures a painter among the “maculae / of snow that may well be his eyesight / failing.” We’re constantly readjusting our vision based on what we next encounter; here, snow forms within the eye’s perception and on the canvas, too. When Dixon writes, “If nothing else, let him complete / this landscape,” the line falls two ways, at once a tender plea to let the artist matter to his landscape which “replicates some region in himself” and also a hope the creator might persist in the current work, “struggling to hold captive / a moment already gone.”
The vision here is romantic, but it’s a romanticism that is shaped by the particulars of modern life. In the extended, layered sequence “Time and Motion Studies,” Dixon offers a reflection on kinesis, his vignettes open to movement in “the dense clamour / these starlings send up / in mobbing” or the way “leaves swept from wet pavings / print after-blurs of themselves.” The encounter here is again and again between the man-made and the animal/plant, as Dixon wonders, “does gull’s screeched diphthong / creak like an unoiled see-saw / or vice versa?” The division between these worlds is, he suggests, hard to find, and his use of em dashes as bridges and hesitations within his lines (“her head — unbrushable mane / cascading — to glimpse”) nods to this blur. Archive of the fleeting, Human Form is a work of suspended animations whose captures rarely linger enough to seem artificially preserved.
But what, then, is the body, if ‘human form’ lies entangled? In the haunting final poem, ‘Book of the Giant’, the narrator and his son turn their world into a giant’s playground, the stones into “Heavy gray / stone books” to be opened, “but all the words and letters keep scuttling / about; no wonder we giants never learn to read.” Amid the charm of the imagination at work, the way the mind transforms the body, we find ourselves unwittingly within “a faint premonition of what we’re rehearsing, // a shiver of foreknowledge”: no child’s game of landscape-as-book, these “stone-pages” prefigure headstones, and the human body’s gone, or transformed, “part of the humus that replenishes giant-like trees.”
As the title of Warsan Shire’s debut, teaching my mother how to give birth (flipped eye, 2011), indicates, the body isn’t discrete, can be retrospective, someone else’s. “I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together” runs the epigraph-like sentence opening this short, steely book. For Shire, the human form is the product of family histories, and when those family histories also intersect with war-torn regions, with bodily violence — “the first boy to kiss your mother later raped women / when the war broken out” — the results are as unnerving as they are essential to confront. “Kiss,” we realize, may or may not be a euphemism for impregnate, but whether the body’s legacy is biological or memorial is no less unsettling. In addressing herself from outside, the “you” the poem both speaks of and from, the narrator unveils a fault-line between owning our bodies and having them construed by others.
Shire’s poems concern bodily wants and longings, the narrator seeing herself and her friends as “waifs with bird chests clinking like wood, boyish / long skirted figurines waiting to grow / into our hunger.” More, though, than the want for a different form, these gorgeous, gouged poems are about the way human form might be seen: “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies.” The body is receptacle and reliquary, the legacy of all it has been through as well as all that others think it has been through. In “My Foreign Wife is Dying and Does Not Want To Be Touched,” Shire writes, “We stare at the small television in the corner of the room. / I think of all the images she must carry in her body.” Alongside the fear and exhilaration of touch, teaching my mother how to give birth figures memory as an instrument of violence: “the memory hardens into a trauma.”
Despite this, these are memorial poems, committed to remembering, certain that memory can only be rehabilitated from violence where it is revealed, addressed. The series “Fire” weaves snapshot events from a narrator’s past, a “funeral you went to as a little boy, / double burial for a couple who / burned to death in their bedroom.” Act of self-immolation: an adultered wife who “doused herself with lighter fluid,” enticed her husband to the bedroom, “straddled him on their bed, held his face / against her chest and lit a match.” We’re not allowed to recoil from the sight, as the image threads first through the rest of the series—one hotel guest saying to another “Last night in bed I swear I thought / I was on fire”—and then through the book itself, which ends with:
In Love and In War
To my daughter I will say
“When the men come, set yourself on fire.”
As an end, this is absolute, inescapable. What do we do with poetry than can say this, that needs to say this? And that is exactly Shire’s point, I think, in shaping her debut collection this way. Even as we must honor the sincerity of the voice, the set of experiences that produces such a conclusion (“Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate”) we know Shire is challenging us to find another way, something that makes this statement not viable.
In places, teaching my mother how to give birth practices what one poem calls “a tally of surviving.” In “Ugly,” a daughter’s body is read simply as “ugly. She knows loss intimately / carries whole cities in her belly.” Much of the work of the poem seems to repeat the arrogance of the worlds of war and immigration policing, insisting like a mantra that the daughter is “splintered wood and sea water,” that her “face is a small riot,” accusing “what man wants to lie down / and watch the world burn / in his bedroom?” This is how the body carries its past, this is its cost. But, against all this, in the face of it, “Ugly” is a poem that ends in triumph, in defiance, the litany of impositions by which the daughter’s is “a body littered with ugly things” leading to the retort “But God / doesn’t she wear / the world well?” There’s the slightest hint of condescension in the idea of suffering as fashion, but it’s a hint that reveals a larger resistance to the ways the female body is cast by others’ expectations.
teaching my mother to write poems is a deceptively accomplished book, one whose carefully-wrought style is easy to miss alongside the scale of events it depicts. The dizzying movement between pronouns and persons is what’s most admirable here. Shire, recently announced as the winner of the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize, has insisted in an interview that these are not imagined poems: “I either know, or I am every person I have written about, for, or as.” Yet they are involved in imaginative work, taking events, accidents, happenings and shifting (as well as sifting) them for a reader. One minute we are a daughter addressed as “you,” the next we overhear a conversation between two female friends, then suddenly we are a little boy (again). When the narrator tells us “I find a girl the height of a small wail / living in our spare room” we are not simply hearing confessed what the poet has experienced or imagined; we’re part of the “our”: “You notice her in the hallway […] you tell me you want to save her.” Whose mother is being taught here, whose body at stake? We’re only wrong if we assume it’s only someone else’s, that the body can be set aside.
When we talk of someone leaving, we’re naming both their departure and their haunting of the place that’s left behind, the “after-blur,” to use Oliver Dixon’s term. Whether responding to the happy accident or accidental happening, what these four poets have in common is a refusal to simply be reactive. At times the alternative is radioactive — Berry’s fevered imaginings, Phillipson’s insistent logics — and at times its about the imagination as a source of terror or solace — Dixon’s slip from childhood game to fear of death, Shire’s displacement of war-mongering with projections of new possibilities for the body. In all cases, though, it’s poetry beyond mere observation; for these poets, the world is malleable, and must be so. The things that are happening, the accidents we’re seeing, can’t be taken at first sight, are fractals not factual.
I won’t try to translate the American term “happening” — which belongs to the world of Woodstock the way flash mobs belong to the early noughties— to British vernacular. But I think the focus on the accidental, on what happens, in these first books from UK-based authors offers a different sort of happening, a stumbling-upon experience and trying to make something of it. It is autobiographical, and biographical, and found, but all at a glance or aslant. It’s not quite Picasso’s Steinian cubist refraction of event, but it is idiomatic to its immediate cultural geography in the way William Carlos Williams also was to his. If I say this feels like British poetry, rather than just poetry written in Britain, I’m also writing this listening to Laura Marling (“But I never love England / More than when covered in snow”), wherever she may be. A departure, or better yet, a leaving, which makes us realize the importance of the confrontation, quiet or otherwise. As if what British connotes is a comparative act, or should be — just not an arrogant one.
Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University. He is the author of a book of poems, The All-Purpose Magical Tent, and two translated novels from the Icelandic.
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