Hannah Silva – Forms of Protest

Full disclosure: Have seen Silva perform live once. She was pretty great!

Review: Silva’s poems are unlike anything I’ve read. As the video above (and this podcast, absolutely required listening) demonstrate, Silva’s physical voice is central to her aesthetic, removing it a huge risk; the formal aspect of the work is an integral part of the complicated and angry messages that the poems present. Her background in music, theatre and sound poetry inform Forms of Protest from the foundations up, and that the poems’ technical intricacy and often dispassionate removes are transferable to the page at all is a remarkable achievement. That so many successfully convey their political anger and emotional precision is a large part of what makes Forms of Protest a valuable book.

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The poems themselves are remarkable for the relative absence of the poetic ego. Only one poem, a startlingly frank snapshot of adolescent life at a boarding school in ‘School of Music’, has anything that could be reasonably identified as autobiographical, which seems like a forceful statement in itself. Here, Silva connects her first sexual experiences with an early understanding of how performance becomes reality, or constructs versions of the self:

Her sex didn’t speak to me, but it didn’t hurt;
it didn’t give or take but at least it was easy.
Afterwards, I remember thinking –
man or woman, it doesn’t matter, but there has to be love.

Placed alongside the more dynamic analyses of public language, ‘School of Music’ is far more conventional a poem, lyrical-minded and intimately anecdotal. But the poem has a major role to play in the collection’s drama, asserting the poet’s basic faith in the sanctity our most personal relationships. Though this poem’s long lines might feel baggy and a little insubstantial, their casual directness is a concerted departure from the book’s norms; without it, there would be little to suggest that the book’s attacks on political mealy-mouthing or the commodification of women’s bodies was built on an essential hopefulness that it might change for the better. We might fruitfully compare Silva’s approach to teenage sexual awakening to Keston Sutherland’s, another political-minded avant garde poet; Silva’s story is no less about disappointing and unglamorous first encounters, but is far more generous to its actors, less willing to play the scene for shock value. In depicting a young woman taking control of her sexuality, Silva undermines the narratives of domination and exploitation presented in Odes to TL61P.

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The book’s most powerful pieces often come from repurposing oppressive language, illuminating its most harmful aspects without manipulating much of the source matter. In ‘@Prosthetics’ (a powerful sound poem you can hear at around 3.30 on the linked podcast) the line ‘twenty percent of those with prosthetic / limbs will go back into war’ is placed alongside other quotes from a documentary on the subject, like ‘amputation is the first step / in rehabilitation’. The difference between the fragmented and traumatised audio version to the straight-talking text is noticeable, but that the finished product was allowed to go through such a dramatic change and retain its conviction is impressive. Similarly, the following poem, ‘Mannequin’, draws unsettling connections between the ‘breezy’, ‘Oh so perfect!’ register of fashion marketing and the poem’s violent dramatization of achieving its demands, ‘smile s s s split spill slip lip tears tears ears chic cheek’. In the poem’s closing line Silva shows her flair for the blunt force conclusion, for pushing the poem’s subtext back into the source text, ‘Headless mannequins are the ultimate choice for flexibility!’

Similar strategies are in play in ‘Tory Party Sonnet’: ‘There are some women, it is true, small numbers, / bright colours’, and the long sequence ‘Opposition’, which forms a kind of centrepiece in the collection. In it the rhetoric of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech in 2010 is performed in all its echolalic glory:

It’s great to be here in Liverpool
we’re happy about that.
I’ve been in Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool.
We’re happy about Downing Street
it’s great to be here in Liverpool.

The poem is high pastiche and sometimes leans towards the straightforwardly comic (‘My Big Passion / The Biggest Budget Deficit / My Big Idea / The Biggest Past Decade / Big Britains / Big Uglies’), but what keeps its edges sharp is the timely deployment of real, horse’s-mouth rhetoric, not least the iconic and devastating ‘Calm down dear’, which Silva gives its own section and might be the crux of the poem. The patronising remarks the Prime Minister made to MP Angela Eagle, then Shadow Secretary to the Treasury, are condescended to the Big Society at large, while the poem’s conclusion is a stark reminder that objections to this attitude might have no impact at all: ‘Yes, there will be objections / but you know what? / We’re happy about that.’ The smiling face of neoliberalism remains unmoved, an avuncular hair-ruffle to the wholesale hollowing out of democratic accountability.

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Among these are some beautiful elegies to Silva’s literary forebears, which could easily be overshadowed by the bolder-coloured pieces. ‘Le Momo’, for Surrealist Antonin Artaud, a rather beautifully expressed hope for the perfect, inclusive artistic experience tied to the perfect, inclusive death: ‘I wish to die holding my boots / following a session on a block of wood […] my daughters are watching, my friends / join in with an axe’. Please note, if you want to take a shortcut to the soft and squidgy part of my imagination, just write about wanting to hang out and make art with your friends. I’m a sucker for it. And ‘Le Momo’ hits that spot right between the eyes: ‘Over night we make a new language / then at the crossroads we are abandoned / by all possible human feeling.’ In a similar vein is ‘The Riverbank’, written for the feminist experimental poet/playwright Kathy Acker, who might well be one of the book’s patron spirits: ‘She didn’t know what it meant / when she walked through the city of the rich / and no one touched her, except physically.’ Again, the lyric elegy is the governing register, its closing line ‘You will leave behind an immensely human smell’ linking the book’s empathetic spine to its various political nerve clusters; how do you remain positive, particularly sex-positive, in a world that asks ‘What do you do with a slut?’ Much more quietly, but no less clear-sightedly, than other poems in the collection, ‘The Riverbank’ dramatises the narrowing of options for one who refuses to abide by social norms.

Tl; dr: And this is, I think, why I like Forms of Protest so much. It manages to explore its radical core, its steeping in radical theory and sense of technical adventure (though in a few pieces, like ‘Arvo crash’ and ‘Translations’, I struggled to rationalise the effort taken to understand with the relative simplicity of that understanding) while maintaining its lyric sensibility, its emotional receptivity, without which the book’s political anger might lose its force. These poems, too, are immensely human.

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