Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx

Disclosure: Haven’t met the poet. For a lot of the book’s discussion of Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx’s life I’m relying on the book’s own extensive endnotes. Please note that both the book and this review examine gendered inequality, the language of diminishment and gaslighting, and the language of emotional abuse. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for her editing insight.

‘It won’t help if I tell you this but it might.’ (‘Mask’)

Review: Tara Bergin’s second collection begins with an epigraph from Marianne Moore: ‘What is more precise than precision? Illusion.’ The texture of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is shot through by this Moore-like tension between arch, often stylised dramatic performance and powerful undercurrents of grief, solitude, anger. Speakers in Bergin’s poems correct, interrupt, repeat themselves, leave thoughts unspoken and incomplete, but there’s an inescapable sense that every revision, every ostensible misstep, is purposeful. Though the poems inhabit an impressive range of personae, settings, tones and lyric forms, it gradually becomes clear that not only are they working in concert, but their shared thematic roots run extraordinarily deep. The book is a unity, in the clearest possible sense. Though Marx’s biography, on a first reading, might primarily seem like a useful framing device, the circumstances of her life and death find echoes and touchstones throughout the collection.

As the book’s endnotes relate, Marx committed suicide shortly after discovering that Edward Aveling, her partner of fourteen years, had married his mistress in secret. Though the collection is bookended by episodes from Marx’s life and work, most of the book takes its setting in an indeterminate space between Marx’s contemporary moment and our own. One poem references the war in Afghanistan, another the Victorian rules regarding floral courtship. Bergin’s speakers, as the book’s epigraph indicates, take many guises (one poem is called ‘Mask’, others include ‘Drama Lessons for Young Girls’ and ‘Rehearsing Strindberg’, the book’s final word is ‘rehearsed’), only some of which seem to share qualities with the biographical poet. This indeterminacy is, I think, part of the what makes the book such a deeply discomfiting experience: the reader is not being guided thoughtfully through an imaginative space, the rules change, the guide changes, the handholds are unreliable. This gradually and often passively exhausting environment may well be part of the book’s dramatization of finding one’s means of understanding the world and the people around oneself unreliable.

The book’s first poems – ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx’ and ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’ – perform its first instances of (potentially misleading) self-correction, the first instance of a man checking and inhibiting a woman’s capacity for self-expression:

‘I’m not going to tell you anything
That my psychoanalyst wouldn’t tell you.
He too speaks in riddles.
He too proclaims we are all victims
Of our insurrections.
I will not stand up to him.’

There’s a hell of a lot going on here. The familiar idiom ‘I’m not going to tell you…’ takes on a secondary meaning, ‘I refuse to tell you’ or ‘I am not permitted to tell you’ what has not been officially sanctioned by a male authority figure. Coming back to these lines after reading the whole collection, the psychoanalyst’s proclamation of shared victimhood with Eleanor seems cruelly disingenuous, not least in light of her incapacity to resist his final say. The way this small, claustrophobic poem opens out into a story in ten parts, however, feels paradigmatic in a book that consistently pushes towards greater complication than accepted norms permit, grates against boundaries of perceived respectability. ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’ also picks up a grim, deft comic tone that will continue throughout the book. The violence instigated by Edward Aveling’s cowardice and deference to social niceties, his desire for the markers of decency and rectitude afforded by marriage, is punctured by the wry humour of the narrative voice:

‘Eleanor of the eight-hour day
Gets betrayed by Edward of the two faces.

[…]

‘The Coroner is exasperated with feeble Edward. […]
Coroner: What was her age?
Edward: Forty.

(She was forty-three.)’

The question of how such a brilliant and courageous person could maintain a relationship with such a patently ‘feeble’ and thoughtless one seems to haunt the book. The word ‘cruel’ appears three times, in ‘Joseph’s Palms’, ‘Tamer and Lion’, and the final poem, ‘Bride and Moth’. On each occasion, it refers to a named male figure of romantic or sexual desire, all with predatory or violent connotations:

‘And for a moment
Joseph looked quite cruel,
I smelt the resin and the dust,
and felt a sudden, terrifying
lust.’ (‘Joseph’s Palms’)

‘Thomas, I won’t give up on you,
even though they are all saying that you are cruel and corrupt.’ (‘Tamer and Lion’)

‘What queer songs Green Peter sings –
but of course he is both attractor and deceiver:
I mean, he thinks they are the same thing. […]

What cruel songs Green Peter sings.’ (‘Bride and Moth’)

On the other hand, women are persistently referred to as ‘small’, ‘little’, ‘tiny’, ‘young’, often by themselves; the book again seems to recreate an environment in which the very language of one’s engagement with gender is rigged by design and subsequently internalised by those it harms most. On a technical level, the closing line break and rhyme in ‘Joseph’s Palms’ is stunning. The speaker’s response is not contextualised, excused or explained, and the reader’s response is directed only by our understanding of how this scene interacts with the book’s concerns at large. The rhyme of ‘dust’ and ‘lust’, its clear connection of violence, death and desire, is heartbreaking. The poem’s one-word closing line feels inescapable, despite the speaker’s identification of the threat Joseph poses. The way the poem binds its message with its form is characteristic of a book with an uncommonly keen sensitivity to rhyme. Though rhyme appears throughout the book, it almost never does so within a fixed scheme, more often one-off flourishes, sound-traps that take the reader off-guard. Take section nine of ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’:

‘And in the offices in Maiden Lane,
There is a cupboard with two glass panes.
And there they place her to remain
For years and years.’

The heavy full rhymes make the first couplet seem almost fairytale in their simplicity; the third full rhyme feels jarring, like one harsh note too many, before the scheme and rhythm disintegrate into the fourth, shrugging, sighing line. It’s a minor point, and drawing this much attention is more than it was intended for, but one could analyse a dozen such moments and barely scratch the surface of what Bergin invests in the correspondences between sounds. Here’s ‘Tamer and Hawk’, maybe a companion piece to ‘Tamer and Lion’:

‘The bird is wired with little bells.
It won’t take fright:
it doesn’t want to hear the jingle-jangle,
does it?

No.
The tamer keeps the hood on.
That’s right.’

The skin crawls at the tamer’s odious faux-concern, his intricate means of control, his assumption of the hawk’s wishes, the real violence hidden by the infantilising ‘little bells’ and ‘jingle-jangle’. Like dust/lust in ‘Joseph’s Palms’, the full-rhyme ‘fright’/‘right’ draws an explicit line between fear and control, as well as formally enacting the poem’s drama. The poem’s title directs us back to ‘Tamer and Lion’, in which:

‘You have the ability to do great hurt, Thomas,
but you also carry within you a great hurt.
Don’t you?
I hope you do, Thomas.
I do.’

The asymmetry between ‘Tamer and Hawk’ and ‘Tamer and Lion’ is pointed. Where the hawk is entirely under the tamer’s control, the only thing we know for sure about the lion (or Thomas) is his ability and willingness to commit violence. It’s unclear whether the speaker in ‘Tamer and Lion’ is reiterating her hope that Thomas carries great hurt (and with it some hope that Thomas may be salvageable), or implying that the only hurt is carried within the speaker herself; ‘tamer’ begins to sound closer to ‘one who is more tame’ than ‘one who tames’. Bergin’s staging of these allegorical relationships is finely nuanced (the mind returns to Moore’s ‘precision’), and the proximity of their surface and subtextual meanings creates a highly charged atmosphere. That the poet manages these and several other comparable scenes with a lightness of touch, thematic consistency and imaginative generosity is part of what makes The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx such an affecting experience.

The book just as often depicts narrators who have internalised social cues to self-correction and control; one of the poems’ repeated moves is in lines that almost repeat, but for a small alteration that changes everything:

‘For a young girl to dream –

For a young woman to dream
that she sees a horse in human flesh’ (‘To Dream of Horses’)

‘Violence is such a lovely word.
I think you’ll find I used it first –
I think you’ll find I heard it first.’ (‘Ode to the Microphone’)

These gestures leave the reader with a hazy impression of who these speakers might be, and what they truly want, or mean. Bergin seems to suggest that to obey codes of respectability is to suffer violence, that one’s expression is foreshortened by conventions so pervasive they are almost impossible to name, with only the cold comfort of maintaining an ostensible peace. The speaker in ‘Notes from the Sanatorium’ comes close to the bone when they mention, in passing, ‘I have always had far too much of myself in me.’ The line is close enough to the criticism ‘being full of oneself’ that the altered syntax almost passes unnoticed. This speaker is not full of themselves, but has too much self to be controlled. The sanatorium steps in as an institution for those who are ‘too much’.

Where Bergin’s female speakers self-correct, diminish and disguise their pain, the speaker in ‘The Method’ gives some of the book’s clearest and most direct expressions of personal intent, and the willingness to inflict harm:

‘Everything I do, I do in order to get something.
For example: Jane.
I want Jane, but she doesn’t want me.
Now, everything I do,
I do in order to get past the obstacles to Jane.’

The speaker clearly does not expect to be rebuked or corrected into a state of respectability. In fact, in the market of exchange established in ‘The Giving Away of Emma Bovary by Several Hands’, the speaker already exists within that state. There, Charles Bovary has made his intention to marry Emma Rouault clear to her father; the poem is six versions of the same line, from six translations of Madame Bovary:

‘If he asks me for her I’ll give her to him.
If he asks for her, he shall have her. […]
If he asks me I shall say yes.’

In both poems, it is perfectly acceptable to say in blunt terms that the humanity of the person being transacted is negotiable. In a book that fine-tunes the terms of its social interactions to such a keen degree, the simplicity of the spoken grammar in the poem becomes something almost childish, almost ludicrous in its shamelessness; and yet, as the poems about Marx make plain, extremely real.

If this makes The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx sound heavy, an emotional battle, it absolutely is, and it would be a mistake to overlook or diminish exactly what Bergin is exploring with the book. But I also don’t want to misrepresent a book that is informed by an intensely energetic, creative, lucid sense of humour, a real joy to watch in action. In ‘Talking to Anne-Marie after the American Election’, a mundane office chat becomes a farce of almost parabolic significance, as the eponymous Anne-Marie reveals, ‘My name’s not actually Anne-Marie’:

‘And I said: But we’ve all been calling you Anne-Marie for years.
Everyone calls you Anne-Marie.
I know, she said. But it’s actually Anne. […]
Jesus, Anne-Marie, I said, I can’t see you as an Anne at all.’

The speaker can’t abide as minor an alteration to their sense of order as ‘not Anne-Marie but Anne’; how can they comprehend ‘the catastrophe’ of America’s reinvigorated white supremacy? That the speaker persists in calling their colleague ‘Anne-Marie’ is not only plain ignorance, but a kind of inability to acknowledge Anne’s agency; like so many characters in the book, the determining factor in the exchange is the whim of the interrogator. If the speaker ‘can’t see’ Anne, then Anne will simply not exist. Even in tonally comic pieces, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx doesn’t break its concentration for a second, doesn’t lose sight of the stakes underwriting every interaction.

This has already gone longer than I intended, and in honesty there’s so much left to pore over; the devastating dramatic gestures and rhetorical power of ‘Rehearsing Strindberg’ and ‘Drama Lessons for Young Girls’, the many brief, slight poems that hum with energy. The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx asks extraordinarily difficult questions at an intensity of pitch and concentration that has to be read to be believed.

Further Reading: Interview with Tara Bergin for the Forward Arts Foundation

Paul Batchelor’s review of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx for The New Statesman

Chloe S. Vaughan’s review of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx for The Manchester Review

Nuar Alsadir on Clowning and the uncontrolled self for Granta

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition

Disclosure: Have met Bird a few times now at readings. She’s an excellent human. The book discusses, in part, mental health issues, addiction and rehabilitation, of which I have no experience. Review copy was purchased with help from my supporters on Patreon. With huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing.

Review: The first poem in In These Days of Prohibition is titled ‘A Surreal Joke’, a piece which stands on its own as an introduction to the book’s treatment of mental illness and emotional truth while acting as a small, powerful ars poetica. George Szirtes’ review of Bird’s last collection, The Hat-stand Union, published in the Spring 2014 issue of Poetry London, signs off with: ‘Any poetic voice is perceived as an angle to the world and Caroline Bird’s voice is precisely that. I am perfectly convinced by the angle. It’s just that I don’t want things all angle.’ Though Szirtes’ critique is largely celebratory, there are a lot of assumptions at work in his last point, not least that angle-free poetry is possible or desirable. Bird’s five collections are marked by their operation within a weird, restless, hyperreal and, more often than not, (certainly more often than credited) quietly tragic imaginative space. ‘A Surreal Joke’ ends with the speaker in conversation with their ‘assigned counsellor’ (noting the tone of coercion in ‘assigned’):

‘My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?’

It’s worth bearing in mind that the poet recently discussed her time recovering from addiction in an interview with the Evening Standard, and clearly there is some degree to which the protagonists of In These Days of Prohibition and their creator overlap. What’s just as clear in these lines, however, is that ‘the simple truth’ has little overlap with the poems’ ambitions as art, and the ‘not jokes’ they want to convey; poetry is not autobiography, even when it presents as such. Note also that the speaker here does not directly contradict the counsellor’s suggestions, though the book embodies what his perspective overlooks; the question of whether truth is accessible in the first instance, or truthfully communicable in the second. In ‘A Surreal Joke’, the speaker’s defence against the assumption that surrealism and comedy may be read and positioned as antithetical to ‘truth’ or ‘seriousness’ seems like an assertion that it is possible to write truthfully without granting the reader access to one’s private reality. Or, as Bird herself puts it in the video above, ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’.

The variety of dramatic shapes Bird’s poems take is impressive; with few exceptions, the poems in In These Days of Prohibition wrong-foot the reader, pushing the poem into unexpected places, recontextualising or destabilising everything that went before. ‘Sentinel of Anything’, for example, begins:

‘I am guarding this sofa with my life         my nights
are long                but I do not sleep             Roger    Copy that
Over      4:08 AM a suspicious beep          4:11 AM Beep
has not returned              4:22 AM               think I imagined beep’

The poem drifts between grim comedy and outright anxiety; the first line signals that all is not well, that an unseen other is interfering with the scene, the speaker is unable to confirm their reality. The set-up is silly, the speaker’s determination and sense of duty wildly out of synch with ‘a suspicious beep’ and the bedsit which ‘smells / of lemons    Is this suspect?’ Ordinarily this would play out by leaning into the disproportion, but ‘Sentinel of Anything’ maintains its tension by not quite delivering the big laugh the opening ostensibly promises. Lines like, ‘These items are now under / my protection   I solemnly vow to keep them safe / If needs be I’ll die’, do nothing to dispel the idea that the speaker is not performing, that this is not another ‘surreal joke’. Their unprompted will to self-destruction begins to feel horribly real. The speaker’s various threads of thought become tangled and confused, and the close, ‘what matters is / I am true to my word     over    6:55 was me breathing’ take on a terrible literalness, the speaker not waving, but drowning.

Then, there’s a majestic work of beauty like ‘Beatification’, whose first line runs: ‘My father was a hundred and five years old when he discovered the pleasures of crystal meth’. The poem plays out the way ‘Sentinel of Anything’ does not, pushing the premise toward exaggeration, as the centenarian finally enjoys his body and sexuality without compromise. The only reference to the past is his reminiscence of a youthful courtship: ‘Those days were clogged with woollen tights and shame’; though the book to this point has been doused in a creeping sense of wrongdoing and guilt, this is the first time ‘shame’ has been explicitly articulated, the first of three instances in the book, one in each section. This seems like more than coincidence, and I’d argue that the collection’s three-act structure is built around processing socially-inscribed guilt and making tentative steps toward accepting oneself as worthy of love, both by the self and by others. Of course, this could be over-emphasising one aspect of a collection that is at least as concerned with its boisterous, breathless poem-by-poem action as it is with sustaining a dramatic arc. In any case, ‘Beatification’ is on one hand a beautifully committed scene of sexual comedy, as the speaker’s father describes his new business plan: ‘Bondage. Water Sports. Sadomasochism. People will pay good money to lick the toilet seat of a silver fox’. On the other, the poem is weirdly touching:

‘‘But you’re a hundred and five years old…’ He sunk in his sweater. ‘…Which is all the more reason’, I added, ‘not to waste another minute.’’

The timing is glorious, but if the poem enacts a struggle between humour and pathos, the latter ultimately wins out. As the speaker attempts to bring her father normal pensioner things – ‘the Radio Times and that John le Carre audiobook you asked for’ – he is lost in the embrace of a bodybuilder: ‘He wasn’t coming down again. Not for anyone. He was with the angels now.’ Like ‘Sentinel of Anything’, these lines push the reader just a hair back from the poem’s basic conceit, the closing sentence’s overfamiliarity made strange by its unique surroundings. The poem’s closure is a dramatic opening.

Though the book’s three sections aren’t explicitly tied to any one theme, there are dominant notes in each; where the first seems mostly concerned with mental wellbeing, the second explores romantic intimacy, though guilt and the unreliability of the perceiving self are present in both. ‘To Be Explicit’ and ‘Adultery for Atheists’ face each other on opposing pages, and might well be companion pieces. Both are short-lined, comprised of a relentless single sentence at a high emotional pitch, and where the former seems to outline the speaker’s desire for a fast, intense, but ultimately doomed encounter (‘pocket just one / souvenir feather and / leave you in peace.’), the latter is consumed with guilt, quite possibly from the explicit desires of its partner-poem. It spills from line to line with wry, self-chastising irony and anger:

‘[It’s lucky I] know of no
rational reason to carry these
pellets in my heart absorbing
shame like tampons somehow
expanding inside me’

The poem ends with another characteristically stylish dramatic turn. Where the speech up until this point inhabited the conceptual nowhere of lyric thought, the last few lines bring it back to the abruptly unsettled, physical here and now:

‘[what luck to be so unperturbed by] this
very peculiar black cat sitting
on my bed after midnight just
staring at me calmly.’

One thing I’m noticing by analysing Bird’s poems is how difficult they are to quote in chunks, how they demand to sit in context with the entire piece. For all the pinpoint execution of the conceit, the beautifully disorienting hyperreality and the tonal humour, the poems in this middle section are laced with what feels like self-loathing, barely being held beneath the surface. There is a nightmarish bite to these pieces, and the free reign Bird gives to these self-destructive voices made my heart hurt.

All of which makes the tentatively hopeful notes, the air of calm, in the final act a hard-won pleasure. It’s introduced by an epigraph from James Tate: ‘But we still believe we will come through it! / I signal this news / by lifting a little finger’. Tate’s wry rejection or deflation of uncomplicated belief is an apt tone for a series of poems whose victories are often small, compromised and precarious. The first, ‘Public Resource’, is a brief inquiry into social expectations about survivor narratives:

‘There is a place called The Open
where brave people put things.’

‘Public Resource’ argues, gently and with great humour, that a public impulse (or ‘hunger’, in the poem’s terms) for uplifting stories from brave strangers does not reflect the inner reality experienced by survivors themselves. As Bird puts it:

‘The will be no rising
smoke, after-odour, no bell-ringer […]
no consequence unless
you dive in with it.’

Like Tate’s own muted celebration, the poem seems to recognise that the reward for ‘coming through’ is little more than the opportunity to raise a little finger in acknowledgement and keep going, the endless hunger of The Open be damned. The section is also marked by its several attempts to render something approaching, if not self-love, then self-kindness or acceptance, however hedged it might be. ‘Megan Married Herself’ has no business being as moving and heartfelt as it is, conveying real breath-catching joy through a situation that is patently absurd:

‘She strode down the aisle to ‘At Last’ by Etta James,
faced the celebrant like a keen soldier reporting for duty,
her voice shaky yet sure. I do. I do.’

The jokes are spot-on, beautifully timed and pitched, but the poem creates an inner, emotional space in which Megan’s marriage is worthy of dignity, celebration, delight. The poem knows exactly where the line is between vanity and social-norm-rejecting comfort in one’s own being, and leans heavily into the latter. Given all that’s gone before in In These Days of Prohibition, the guilt and inward-facing castigation that pushes down on much of the collection, ‘Megan Married Herself’ is a remarkable break, a small sunburst.

Though a few poems, particularly in this last section, don’t have the same emotional fizz as the best in the book (several of which I haven’t discussed here; a good half dozen are straight on my dream-anthology longlist), when a poem’s dramatic argument is not quite up to Bird’s usual standard it is still buoyed by dynamic associative play, a serious glee in its weird logical leaps. When everything comes together, as in ‘A Toddler Creates Thunder by Dancing on a Manhole’, it’s a wonder to behold. The poem’s energy is in a league of its own, and embodies everything that makes In These Days of Prohibition the beautiful, essentially optimistic work it is. ‘A Toddler…’ is unusual in the collection for its positioning the poet-figure as a visible observer, neither the poem’s focal point or wholly moved to the sidelines. The speaker exists as a kind of foil to the toddler, who is one of a pair of twins operating as a performer-audience or active-self/critical-self partnership, carrying with them a childlike purity of thought and action (‘Toddlers always dance like marionettes, / their brains still learning the strings’) that clearly leaves a mark on the in-poem poet:

‘the tiny dancer is a celebrity, applauded
by her own mirror image. […] I pick up my phone, type
‘I’m sorry’ then delete it.’

Taken in its own local context, the poem reads very much like a real-life anecdote, but in relation to an entire book in which real-life has been held at arm’s length, the metaphorical potential the poem has, in terms of its discussions of how one encounters one’s self, is deceptively hefty. This, I think, is what Bird does best, presenting difficult and quietly unsettling ideas about surviving in a world hostile to your wellbeing, but in terms which at first glance seem works of entertainment first and foremost. It’s a pretty old-timey word, but I think ‘parable’ is the one that fits best. Bird’s finest work marries the mundane, granular stuff of daily coping strategies with the kind of imaginative situation that stays long in the memory.

Further Reading: Interview in the Evening Standard

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