Frances Leviston – Disinformation

Full Disclosure: Met Leviston briefly a couple of years ago. Review copy provided by Picador. This is a long essay, but there’s a wee intermission in the middle, if you’d prefer to read it in two bits.

Review: Disinformation begins with two epigraphs: a stanza from Giorgios Seferis’ Mythistorema, and a line from Adrienne Rich’s essay ‘Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying’. It might be labouring the point to say they provide a framework for understanding the collection, but I can’t remember the last time a book’s epigraph game was so on point. Seferis’ long poem is a 24-part updated Odyssey, an investigation of how history and myth bleed into and overshadow the present; the stanza quoted, ‘I woke with this marble head in my hands […]’ comes from a section titled ‘Remember the baths where you were murdered’, Orestes’ prayer for vengeance to, and for, his murdered father, Agamemnon, in the Oresteia, an invocation for continued violence, that ‘Ares will encounter Ares’. Disinformation is explicitly concerned with an ever-encroaching past and shares Seferis’ sense that the marble head is both an inspiration and a burden.

Rich’s essay is a remarkable piece of writing from 1975, critiquing in utterly humane terms the structural restrictions on women’s ability to trust and support one another. Rich examines how gendered ideas about honour and truth-telling allow mere silence to do the same work as overt oppression: it asks how we might listen, how we might make it possible for others to break their silence. Forty years on, we have social media and its huge potential for solidarity, and along with it a whole new vocabulary to diminish those who have only just gained access to an open and engaged audience. Activism online is a powerful response to silence, and the backlash against it would barely have surprised Rich.

Returning to Disinformation, Rich’s essay too seems to provide the framework for the book’s engagement with myth, as well as a couple of its odd and striking images. ‘Octagonal Rug’, for instance, in its recursive, symbolic and interconnected imagery seems to echo Rich’s ‘The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern’. Rich also suggests:

‘We begin out of the void, out of darkness and emptiness. It is part of the cycle understood by the old pagan religions, that materialism denies. Out of death, rebirth; out of nothing, something.’

Leviston’s interest in mythic (or historic) cycles and their double bind (inspiration and burden), again appears to have an echo here. In any case, it’s a great essay, will take you half an hour. Might’ve been written yesterday.

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What I hope that makes clear is that Disinformation is a book that asks you to take your time (trivia fans will note the eight year gap between this and Leviston’s debut Public Dream). The poems’ subtextual threads seem to suggest a great deal of work going on beneath the surface; each of the three sections (‘I’, ‘II’, and ‘III’, though for some reason I can’t quite read them as ‘one’, ‘two’, ‘three’) has ten poems, few enough to be held in focus at once, enough to glance off each other at extremely weird angles. ‘I’ (first-person singular?) features a series of unusually tacky or old-fashioned objects: a matryoshka snowglobe in ‘GPS’, Pyrex, cocktail sausages and balloon animals in ‘Disinformation’, a cocktail umbrella, ‘plasticky-looking’ flowers, a ‘Gothic effect’ portrait from a ‘junk shop’, the recurring colour palette of red, pink, violet, ‘Chambord-pink’, ‘gammon-pink’, ‘any flavour as long as it’s red’. The poems seem to be pushing the reader towards a 1970s aesthetic in a time of GPS, intrauterine devices and Hurricane Katrina. It’s worth noting, however, that in these poems the untasteful poetic object is often a source of strength, either imaginative or emotional.

This focus on the odd and undesirable seems to point towards Elizabeth Bishop (there is a poem in this section called ‘Bishop in Louisiana’, and though its beach-walking, bird-watching narrator shares certain concerns with their poetic namesake, the narrator’s claim that ‘There is little to accomplish here’ in their ‘post in this village’, that ‘I write cheques for the fishermen […] speak to sad newscasters’, seems to point towards the (failed, indolent) ecclesiastical. A red herring? Christ this book). ‘GPS’ is a case in point. The opening line, ‘Like a wet dream this snow-globe was a gift / to myself’, is a real cracker that immediately elevates its object, even more so for its demands to be considered seriously in its comic tone: the snow-globe is connected to the poet’s subconscious, to pleasure and self-reliance. It’s also the first of several lines in the book that got an honest-to-god laugh out of me, a rare enough feat for a book of poems. The matryoshka might indeed be the subconscious made flesh: it

‘wears an inscrutable face:

there’s no telling how many dolls deep she goes
beyond her one red peanut-shell […]

an atmosphere of cerebrospinal fluid
under the smooth glass dome’s museum’

Why, though, would a Russian doll have layers in an inaccessible snow globe? The poem concludes:

‘Her compass boggles. Lie down there in that drift,
little girl, you’re feeling strangely warm,

and something big is about to make sense
if we just keep going in the opposite direction.’

How do you ‘keep going in the opposite direction’? Who is addressing who? My compass boggles. The poem’s title seems undermined by a different kind of positioning system; I can’t help reading a sort of two-fingers to conventional critical exegesis, which is oddly reassuring.

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The flip-side of this might be the three poems featuring luxury hotels, which appear in this section as sanctuaries for the wealthy and unscrupulous, an inversion or exaggeration of the other poems’ homely tastelessness. ‘The Bridge in the Mirror’ reflects on (perhaps) the G8 summit at the five-star Lough Erne resort in Northern Ireland in 2013. The poem packs its images in tightly, blending the protestors kettled ‘against plastic shield-walls tough as double glazing’, the ‘cutesy bottles’ of the committee’s mini-bar ‘rattling in their seats when the choppers pass, / like draft dodgers’. This middle stanza is bookended by two depictions of a woman entering and exiting a bath, with its ‘air-conditioned air’, ‘melon-tinted water’. The closing lines focus on ‘That foot would fit the shoe / in the heritage museum two clicks from here’; a quick google suggests that shoe might have belonged to a woman in the Fermanagh workhouse in Enniskillen Castle, a history and heritage museum. The poem locates the world’s grandees in a historical context of imperialism and exploitation (note the military jargon ‘clicks’), a bringing home of the bishop’s self-satisfaction and concern with media coverage in the previous poem.

For once, the back cover blurb makes sense, describing these poems as ‘proofs’; there is something meticulous and eccentric going on. Is there significance to describing the ‘Iresine’ in such joyfully gaudy language – ‘something that would titivate an antechamber’, ‘whining theremin-ethereal’, ‘flinching clitoral architecture’ – between a poem on IUDs and one called ‘Parma Violet’? There’s the blindingly obvious (but too often overlooked) assertion that these are poems from a woman’s perspective, that their author takes as inspiration other women writers who have managed to forge a career outwith literature’s traditional power structure. In an essay on the Poetry Foundation blog, ‘The Red Squirrels at Coole’, Leviston aligns herself with both Bishop and Rich, as well as the novelist and academic Marina Warner, who resigned her post at the University of Essex in protest against restrictive administration and for-profit academia. Comparisons between squirrel population and political self-determination aside, it’s a valuable insight into Leviston’s practice; Cavafy’s concept of a ‘city of ideas’ is a fascinating one, its suggestion that opposing systemic exploitation requires a border-crossing sodality of the imagination. Perhaps enrolment in this city requires allegiance not to a specific time or place; perhaps that allegiance permits the book’s easy movement between the particular and the mythic. Is that movement as easy as the collection makes it look? Is ‘The Paperweight’, which resembles ‘a skull-cap’, ‘weighing as much as a pint of milk’, and is raised ‘to my forehead’ a version of Seferis’ marble skull? Is the queasy narrator’s ‘apprehension / of a difference also seamless’:

‘like a sentence
you seem to have understood but can’t make sense of,
or something being done for you
without your permission, under the flag of helpfulness,
to which you can raise no legitimate objection’

a warning against ‘helpful’ over- or mis-explication? The poem’s closing image of a hippo yawning, ‘neoprene-impregnable’ and ‘showing teeth’ are noticeably resistant and perhaps (playfully? There’s something comic about a hippo) hostile to further investigation.

Right. We’re about half-way through. Here’s a wee palette-cleanser.

Okay? Okay. Section II (which by the end of the section puts me in mind of greek pillars, a propylaea which features in the poem of the same name) encounters myth and the ancient world as something crumbling and ready to be replaced, as dramatized in ‘Athenaeum’. Here, the story of Athena springing from her father’s head is rendered in terms of financial speculation and exclusive clubs. The poem’s final section, which closes the second part of the book, is a kind of prayer to Minerva, asking that she:

‘guard our sororities that know
no better; shed blessings as we pass

gossiping through the metal-detector doors
on campus’

Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, is associated with hunting, wisdom and the protection of women, here figured in a university setting perhaps pre-empted by ‘sororities’, the metal-detector a reminder of the very real dangers still posed to women in education. The last line, ‘in Edgar’s Field, in Handbridge, in Chester’, brings the mythifying home, to a real-life, 2nd century shrine to Minerva, an unassuming means of access to the ancient. But simply providing access to the classical world is not, I think, the only ambition of this section of the book. On first read, it is somewhat drier, more ostensibly remote than the thoroughly personal and intimate poems elsewhere. After spending some time going over it, I can’t shake the feeling that Leviston here is absolutely engaging with the canon-making processes of british poetry, and finding them thoroughly wanting. Bear with me.

The first poem is ‘The Golden Age’, which Frost fans will see coming, but even then, the particular expression through which Leviston tears apart the gold-tintedness of nostalgia is brutally powerful. In examining a time when ‘we communed with gods’, when all acted in ‘fear of causing offence to a god’:

‘You would say yes. In the golden age,
whatever was offered, you would say yes.’

Turn this over for a while, consider what it implies about personal agency, potential for institutional oppression, even the possibility of consent; when you long for the days of yore, this is what you mean. It’s in this context that the section examines the failures of the canon (if that is what it’s doing. I can’t read it otherwise now though). In the six-part ‘Sulis’ (another goddess associated with Minerva, and also with sacred baths – compare to the sacrilegious bathing in section I), the statues are pictured enduring all, concerned with:

‘nothing beyond the pools of light
their own lamps throw […]

the boys who briefly rest in their shadows
cannot matter much to them,
as much as the veiled
flies on cows’ faces bother the cows.’

Rendering the goddesses as cows is perhaps as playful as their exaggerated self-containment, shades of Mallory Ortberg’s Art History series. But the point, as ever, should be taken seriously, and this image of self-reliance and fortitude may recall the productive (almost-)isolation of Elizabeth Bishop. It’s difficult to read the last section as anything but a direct comment on reading poems:

‘Water’s not particular, but where it passes is;
water like wisdom resists capture,
never complacent, revising itself
according to each new container it closes.’

Not only is this stanza a well-made container, note the weirdness of that last line: how does water ‘close’ its container? Doesn’t the container ‘close’ the water? Again, lending agency to something as traditionally passive as limpid pools is a strange and empowering act, particularly in context of Sulis, who carries a ‘floating parade / of people who laundered her difficult feelings / until she put them aside.’ The feelings, or the people? Either way, Sulis is left in control.

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In fact, the more I get my head around the poems’ taking of the piss out of the achievements of Great Men, the more the section makes sense. ‘Emblem’ takes a bee killing itself ‘in defence of the realm’ as nothing more than ‘A honeybee pinned to my thumb!’; the whole short poem is heavy on mock and light on heroism. The potentially highfalutin ‘Propylaea’ is instantly deflated by a pun on ‘properly’ in the first line. From ‘the highest vantage point for miles’ in ‘Hill Top Fort’, the narrator finds that:

‘For an

hour, what some men take
upon themselves can seem, if not
forgivable, familiar at least.’

This passage comes directly after a close focus on the work of ants, ‘oblivious to their pleasant seat’; what is human achievement, then, but so much drone-work, and for who? This all seems particularly relevant to ‘Reconstuction after ‘The Ruin’’, in whose title that dynamic of decrepitude and revitalisation is enacted. The Ruin is an 8th century poem, of which only fragments remain, which might refer to the city of Bath (aha! another clue), though that’s not necessarily relevant to the poem (oh). What it does feature is ‘reconstruction’ in the Crimewatch sense, as the ‘fabulous blueprints’ are imaginatively rebuilt, only to be torn down once more by ‘many a man of the past, / blazing with wine, blinding in the spoils of war / bounc[ing] his gaze from treasure to treasure’. If satire is a mirror, who are we looking at here?

To take a breather, it’s worth remembering that the poetry here, the actual verbal construction, is itself a pretty fantastic monument; though the above poems find the canon wanting, there’s also an unshakeable sense that, if not a canon exactly, an accessible poetic tradition is a vital and maintainable resource. Leviston might be building new walls over the old ones. Anyway, read back any of the quoted passages: they are light-footed and turn on a sixpence, but carry along with them an intense amount of freight. They don’t open up easily, and yes, they tax the reader, but I hope, if nothing else, that this monster of a review gives you some idea of how much (I really hope) is going on, how much reward there is to engaged and imaginative reading. Course, there’s always the possibility that I’ve walked straight into a critical trap and this is all gimcrack and bunkum.

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I was all ready to say that section III kinda eases up on the deep reading, until resident classics scholar Rachel McCrum pointed out that ‘Kassandra’, as well as being a seaside resort in Greece, is the name of the prophet in the Oresteia, blessed with foresight but cursed to be misunderstood. [Note also that Cassandra foresees Agamemnon’s death in the bath, cf Seferis – what exactly is it about bathing in this book?] If ever there was an apt metaphor for the poetic enterprise. The poem itself is weirdly oblique at times, drifting between images like ‘Moths drag their abdomens through the fluid sand / in eternity symbols’ and the apparently journalistic, the Bishop of ‘At the Fishhouses’:

‘Eagerly the restaurateur by the taxi rank
welcomes us, his only patron, to a blue-painted table
and disposable white paper table-cloth.’

When the poem describes the waitress, who ‘wants to talk’, as ‘from another time, with an open wound’, it could equally refer to the either of the poem’s literary or dramatic layers; knowing the connection to the prophet adds another level of understanding to the ruined town, the tourists’ intrusion on yet another locus of gradual decay.

Elsewhere, ‘Trimmings’ is a beautifully throwaway piece (or maybe not, but Christ knows I just want an easy gig at this point) about the narrator’s love of sweet liqueurs (which the reader could do with after all that heavy lifting DOUBLE-LEVEL MEANING SECURED), which riffs joyfully on the drinks’ flavours as much as the aural qualities of their names. Immediately afterwards is the beautiful ‘Caribou’, which becomes an emblem of continuity, endurance; despite being ‘apologetically small and feminine’, despite being ‘overburdened by antlers that spread like reasonable hands’:

‘Wherever they are going, those resinous eyes, resolutely unsoulful,
don’t blink or flinch. They never change at all.’

I’m giving the final section short shrift, but there’s just as much to admire here as elsewhere in the collection. Disinformation contains a lot of deep criticism of poetry, of the canon, of, yes, the disinformation surrounding a practice that gets a great many free passes because of some misbegotten notion that poetry happens in a safe, lofty space away from earthy concerns like feminism or workers’ rights. It also makes space for immediate, earthly, less exalted poetic moments like watching rabbits for two hours, seeing Doctor Who villains in a dilapidated house, balloon animals and yellow cheese. Leviston, I think, makes a case not only for the possibility of change but its necessity, and does so with a great deal of flair, wit and humanity. Implicit is that true social change (poetry being inextricably part of society) requires more than a superficial exchange of leadership, that ‘straight-talking’ is of limited value. Disinformation’s ‘difficulty’ – and it does take time and effort, and thank you so much for reading this whole thing – comes, I think, from a concerted engagement with difficult questions, a visceral encounter with intractable problems; it is not the literate obscurism that so often passes for profundity. Again, these poems are something like scientific ‘proofs’, the poet’s workings-out. I’ve no doubt that Disinformation will get a great deal of coverage: it really is ‘keenly-anticipated’, Leviston has engaged with big cultural questions before, and the book’s focus on the high-literary provides a great many critical breadcrumbs. If I’m reading it right, where those breadcrumbs ultimately lead the canon should fear to tread.

Tl;dr: This is a weird, unsettling and surprising book, and there is probably a lot that I’ve missed. Read it closely and carefully.

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