Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Disclosure: Haven’t met the poet, follow each other on Twitter/FB. The poems in Savage deal particularly with female sexuality and alterity, which are outwith my experiences and for which i am not the target audience. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: Savage is nine poems divided into two sections: three standalone pieces – ‘BDSM’, ‘Volcano’ and ‘Penis Hex’ – and a series of six titled after female Christian mystics. The book centres specifically female bodily experiences while arguing, in the book’s second half particularly, for the spiritual aspect of these physical phenomena. The book is tightly conceptually focused and discusses explicitly its philosophical concerns, but little more than a passing familiarity with the latter section’s protagonists is enough to illuminate the poems’ deeper layers. Suffice to say Savage is a bit of an adventure. A pugnacious, bawdy sense of humour drives the poems, alongside a persistent loyalty to the realm of the physical: food, sex and comfort underpin the book’s larger ideas. Whatever the book’s philosophical ambitions, and i do believe Savage has plenty on its mind, they are located first and foremost in real, tangible, living bodies.

All that said, Savage places as much importance on scenes of softness and stillness as the more ubiquitous ‘hot death’ and ‘acid arousal’ elsewhere. These disarmingly, almost shockingly careful moments recur throughout, even in poems that as a whole tend toward disturbance or disjunction:

‘your soft under the breath singing’ (‘Penis Hex’)

‘She fastens milky attachments to your sleep’ (‘Julian of Norwich’)

‘people talking in the dusk, their quiet speech’ (‘Simone Weil’)

These poems aim for as keenly felt and deftly articulated a sense of care, closeness and vulnerability as they do their brash, chest-thumping extravagances, and it’s extremely rare to see a collection of poems so evidently comfortable in such starkly contrasting moods. The opening poem, ‘BDSM’, toes a fine line between a delightful matter-of-factness and a sober analysis of sexual politics, crediting the reader with the ability to consider both at once:

‘i asked to be hurt
time team was on
there was so much beautiful
potential in both the past
and the future’

This combination of the corporeal, the enigmatic and the banal makes it difficult to say exactly whether the poem is joy laced with anxiety – the poem makes abundantly clear that the socio-economic is absolutely in play in the sexual and vice versa (‘toys can be useful / anything from an eye mask / to a tank’) – or the other way round. The poem seems perfectly comfortable to pitch its key arguments in the midst of this ambiguity:

‘your ‘first time’ does not exist
but is a state of mind

for example

it can happen with a slice of orange
finding your open gap

or with a horse

a train to the cold sea’

Caroline Bird’s aphoristic ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’ feels close to the point here. Attempting to riddle out a logical, prosaic answer to these lines misses the impression they leave as primarily emotional/irrational arguments. Maybe the joy in reading this poetic treatise on joy is in negotiating the particulars for oneself. The poem’s not quite final words are, ‘telling is a careful / dance of pleasures’, and ‘BDSM’ is that rather rare thing, a poem about sex that finds humour in its subject matter without belittling or dismissing its gravity. The poem is that dance, comfortable in its dialogue with complex systems of power and careful of how it offers these systems to the reader.

‘Penis Hex’ continues this joke-but-not-but-actually tone with aplomb. ‘to hex a penis off means taking a laugh out for a walk’, it argues, but it’s a laugh like Patricia Lockwood’s ‘Rape Joke’, a mediatory, bleakly playful step between the violence enacted and its public discussion. The poem has some beautifully cathartic and deftly controlled comic moments, from its opening, earnest argument that ‘the hex for a penis isn’t really about / the penis / the penis is not an issue all fine doing its own thing’ through its several dephalloficatory scenarios. Behind its punchlines and tonal silliness, however, is a hard emotional core, and the poem’s opening lines also function as a reminder that cis men’s bodies and experiences are rather beside the point. With this in mind, the poem appears more like a provision of a space for self-care, and its peaceful moments seem a key element of its strategies:

‘to hex a penis off wrap yourself up
in a warm bed and no one is there […]

hex with a plate of grilled pears
against cream
a glass of just-pink wine […]

hex it by saying nothing
this is a navy zip-up and scarf that says that i understand comfort
and solidarity’

Solidarity here might be the strength to make these jokes, to make light of emotional heaviness, and to share this ludic space with the reader. The poem’s final, ecstatic stanza is blistering, feral, invoking ‘total and utter glory / your huge red hair reaching up and touching the upper echelons’, the ability to take and remove a penis at will, the wind ‘batter[ing] the tall insane skyscrapers’, before concluding that, mysteriously, ‘it’s changing | you see’. As with ‘BDSM’, it may be less than productive to attempt to boil these lines down, but ‘Penis Hex’ certainly seems to take a turn in its final movement, the comedy stepping aside and letting the poem’s violent, prophetic undercurrents take control. It’s a remarkable poem, a bravura performance.

The book’s second half is Mystics, a series titled after, perhaps in the voices of, female Christian writers. The women in question – Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Ávila, Simone Weil, Marguerite Porete and Joan of Arc – were all significant philosophical authorities of their time, and where their intellectual concerns overlap (to be rather reductive) is in articulating a theology that unites the physical and the spiritual, or locates one within the other. It’s a neat fit for the book’s concerns, and noticeable how the ideas from the first half of the book proliferate through the second. The book’s pace calms significantly from the euphoria of ‘Penis Hex’, as the first in the sequence, ‘Julian of Norwich’, seems to start things over in a domestic setting:

‘Come home if you can bear it, the same divine, familiar beds […]
the same glasses smashing, the same food congealing on the hob’

God in this poem is female, an intrusive, somewhat careless, though passionately loving presence, whose own physical form dominates the space:

‘You know the fresh and bloody pith of her,
the damp redness between her legs […]

[she] reads your diary, leaving subtle and deliberate yellow smudges in the margins’

Yet the relationship does not appear antagonistic, indeed seems almost maternal as God ‘cups your head in her hands and sings softly’, displays her ‘love that’s virulent, ugly, nutshell tight, / love that throws out a tender and extravagant brightness’. The poem invites the reader not necessarily to pass judgement on the speaker’s situation, a speaker who seems remarkably passive throughout, subject to a whimful and powerful presence, but to experience it, to buy into the second person narration that places ‘you’ in the poem’s line of sight. When the final line comes, ‘calling you with torn crying into vision’, spiritual enlightenment and physical birth seem blended together, and the ambiguous, affectless mood at this transformation is unsettling. A radical change has taken place, but how we respond to it is not the poem’s concern.

The sequence seems to re-inscribe Christian theology with pagan symbolism, with recurring images of Green Man-like, bestial male sexuality, ‘fat tongue lolling out, penis with rising heat in it, damp hair’ (‘Hildegard’); ‘Some pseudo-Zeus unbuttoning his flies’ (‘Simone Weil’). It’s perhaps significant then that the final poem in the sequence, ‘Joan of Arc’, once again renders God as a gentle, protective, supportive presence. In Anne Carson’s Float, the poet notes how under interrogation, Joan made clear that the attempt to force her to explain her spiritual experiences was hateful to her, dismissing questions with such inspired responses as ‘I knew that well enough once but I forget’, ‘You asked that before. Go look at the record’ and ‘Ask me next Saturday’. Tamás’ Joan is similarly inscrutable, but in the deeply esoteric tone of the first half of Savage, to the point where the narrative voices seem to meet up once again; perhaps the first poems were narrated by Joan herself. ‘Joan of Arc’ begins with:

‘I saw God in a split yolk.
You won’t like that of course,
why would you?’

And later:

‘When the yellow eye looked at me
it didn’t worry about my breasts,
or my words, which ones I ate […]
It worried if I was ok.

This articulation of divinity as on one hand glorious and terrifying, ‘Her head was sun-dipped / gas and flame’ and concerned friend on the other is maybe the most convincing and appealing I’ve read in a poem. Furthermore, when the speaker describes how ‘You could find me sexy when I’m having sex, / when I’m laughing and coming like laying an egg’, that egg has already been touched with a divine presence; this utterly daft formulation of spiritual and bodily ecstasy is utterly beautiful. The poem has, like ‘Penis Hex’, a deft and ephemeral dramatic structure, in which each section is a discrete movement that ties the whole together. The final note of both poem and book is simple and powerful:

‘Still, stay,
human animals.
Stay so I can smell
your familiar
and tender
human foulness.

In the thunder
and night time
it is just me
and god.’

These lines are both precise summation of the book’s idea and a gorgeously provocative closing thought, fully-formed, belligerent and deeply conscious of the sacred and sacrilegious aspects of being alive.

This, I think, is at the core of Savage. It takes widespread and often internalised cultural messages about body shame and the absence of inherent spirituality and turns these tendencies on their heads, in a way that’s playful and purposeful, ferociously warm and studiously researched. Its argument that human life is essentially sacred, and that sanctity includes bodily realities, feels deeply urgent; that this message is delivered with such joy is a real wonder. Savage is a good book.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Edward Doegar’s For Now.

Further Reading: Buy Savage from Clinic Publishing for £5.

Interview with The Suburban Review

Tamás’ witchcraft poetry at Minerva

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

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Edward Doegar – For Now

Disclosure: Have not met the poet. At least one of the poems in For Now discusses racial abuse and structural violence, which are outwith my experiences. Review copy provided by the publisher – in accordance with my policy on Patreon, I’ve also paid for my own copies.

Review: In physical terms, For Now is much narrower than an average A5 pamphlet, almost pocket-sized, matching the poems’ spare, remarkably economical lines that rarely stretch beyond a few words. This is in contrast to the selection of Doegar’s work in the ever-more-iconic Ten: The New Wave, in which all bar one of his poems are long-lined or conversational, a capacious and discursive lyrical voice. The bar one, however, is ‘April’, a version of the Chinese poet Li Po, a tiny, delicate piece about waking up to rainfall in the spring, with deep emotional resonance woven into its opening line, ‘God has forgiven me again’. If the poems of For Now are not always so delicate, they certainly follow ‘April’’s lead aesthetically, their ability to say something which at first appears utterly simple, even flippant, but that opens and opens with closer attention.

One last note before leaving ‘April’ behind: both that poem and this new book capitalise the first word of each line. Perhaps a minor note, but this performs a series of subtle, but important functions: i) it slows the eye, registering each line as its own new sentence or utterance; ii) it encourages the reader to invest additional significance to each capitalised word; iii) it draws attention to the poem’s own formalism, its artificiality, its function as a meaning-generator more than a plain representation of reality; iv) it permits some really lovely enjambment puns. For example, here’s the second poem, ‘High’, in its entirety:

‘Grandiose
And at peace

Patterns
Of solace

Precise
And insignificant

The true
Nutritional

Value
Of a cake

Of soap
Could be

The solution
To something’

It’s a little thing, but a delightful thing, this building and thwarting of expectation in just a few words. I’ve only just now connected that soap, which dissolves in water, is in chemical reaction terms a ‘solution’. My heart. I guess we can add v) allows for some beautiful mock-heroism. What begins airy and satisfied turns to that weird quirk of contemporary middle-class life in which artisan cake and artisan soap are borderline indistinguishable. For Now is full of these minute, quiet observations, but more often than not there is an underlying effort to tie the immediate or anecdotal to larger socio-political systems and mores; this movement, I think, is beautifully abetted by these frugal, enticingly simple lines, their invitation to look more closely, to look again.

This very aesthetic/political impulse comes under scrutiny in ‘Even So’:

‘Even so
The seeming
Sincerity
Of hollow
Sounds
Who listens hears
Profound profound’

Doegar seems to send up his own po-facedness while holding his discursive ground, the poem’s flexible grammar allowing equal weight to the argument and its counterbalance. Again, the deflationary tactic prevents the poem from feeling merely portentous, acknowledges that it’s perfectly natural for a reader to instinctively draw back from the high-flown to the bodily experience, in this case the sense that things are too abstract to remain convincing. Later, ‘seeming / Sincerity’ finds its full rhyme, ‘Austerity’, which ‘Gathers its genitives’ and ‘Can speak […] The inanities / Of forced economy’. In both cases language has been denied its reality-describing capacity, while an actuality of life under late capital comes down to the rather brutal final lines: ‘Artisan bread / Tap water’.

Time and again, the long arm of state violence insinuates itself into what in other books might be plain lyric. ‘A View’ begins with an imagistic mosaic of life in the burbs:

‘The tree opposite
Apposite
Collecting answers

Crows
Ponder the road
The pulsing dose

Of a car’

As an aside, the music of For Now is worth celebrating by itself, not least in the ways Doegar, over the course of a deeply fraught and increasingly agitating book, makes these pleasant chimes (the soft, insistent ‘o’s here) feel unheimlich. With this backdrop comes ‘The noise of people // Cutlery laughter’ and evidence of nightmarish dinner-party-neoliberalism:

‘Iraq is not Vietnam
Thank heaven

For little girls
Pupils
Illegal downloads

Suburban questions
After
The end of history’

The swift and seamless transitions from nice differences in genocidal imperialism to a creepy show tune into an unsettlingly vague connection between young students and internet crime suggest the lightness with which each has been discussed, mere ‘Suburban questions’ for disinterested observers. There’s a bite to the closing line, an ‘end of history’ reserved for the privileged few safe from its effects. For Now excels at these nods and gestures, at highlighting the levels of cultural collusion necessary to produce a society as fundamentally unfeeling and abusive as our own; what’s more, the conclusions we draw from these poems are ultimately – despite the clear, if subtle, intentions of the poet – the reader’s. There’s a major difference between having one’s attention actively drawn towards the point of an argument and arriving there under one’s own steam, and I struggle to think of a book that achieves this more purposefully.

‘Portrayal: A Double Portrait’ ties together these questions of the integrity of the self and oppressive external forces inhibiting the ability to control one’s own selfhood. Which is a long-winded summary of a poem that does incredible work precisely through its lyric economy:

‘Your face is not your face
It is the legend of your mind
Summary and immediate’

‘Legend’ meaning cartography and myth, ‘Summary’ meaning in brief and extrajudicial. The whole poem turns on these deliberate blending of meanings, the extent to which language colludes in the erasure of selfhood, exponentially more so, the poem notes, for people not in the dominant group marked as ‘Empire’. Later, the poem continues:

‘You can’t control your face
The Empire has overreached
Expressions

Have become flags
They serve the dominion
Of expediency and belief’

It’s hard, given the specific political ‘now’ of the book’s title, to argue with this. Again, the punctum is a single word, ‘Expressions’, both verbal and facial: British delusions about Empire have poisoned both our verbal discourse and our ability to ‘read’ faces unlike our own, unless those readings serve the ‘dominion’ (meaning both control over someone and the people/place over which one has control), based on little more than convenience and ‘belief’, as opposed to facts. Before exploring Doegar’s nuanced understanding of national power structures, it’s worth appreciating the linguistic-etymological craft at work here. The poem is, as in ‘Even So’, unsatisfied with a purely abstract argument, and the second half of the poem brings these ideas to bear on what appears to be an intense dialogue between the speaker and ‘you’:

‘You laugh
Without the companionship
Of laughter

You are in no doubt
This is brave
I have no doubts either’

The elusive and multiple nature of the language in ‘Portrayal’ means it’s hard to be sure what precise conclusion the speakers have reached. Earlier lines suggest this is the same ‘you’ who ‘cannot control your face’ and ‘You were saying something / About how it felt / To be subjected to this // To be so vulnerable’. With this in mind the passage above may be about care or solidarity, however compromised, however bitter that laugh. If that is indeed a valid reading, the poem’s closing image feels heartening if you squint a little:

‘I am as unbroken water
Mirror me
Let us be two mirrors

Let no one be left looking
At themselves’

If this is solidarity, it feels like a fragile and disembodied kind. The question of what is being reflected is not resolved, beyond the basic fact, perhaps, of the mutual acknowledgement of suffering. If you hadn’t worked it out, I haven’t worked this poem out. I think it’s incredible though, and it’ll be on my mind for a long time.

For Now does not make things easy for the reader, and deserves praise not just for its principles but for the ability to articulate them in a malleable and challenging aesthetic, a simultaneous theory and critique of theory: ‘Who hears listens / Profound profound’. Its lyrics are expressly opposed to a great many of the prevailing assumptions of our culture, its baseline racism, misogyny and will to exploit the vulnerable; that it achieves this with humour and grace is remarkable. There’s a lot more in this book I haven’t discussed, and I could very happily go through every poem and talk about their dramatic movements, their curiosity about human nature, their clear-sighted opposition to structural inequality and violence. Perhaps the most important thing I could say now, though, is go read it yourself.

Note: This is a double post! If you haven’t already, check out the review of Rebecca Tamás’ Savage.

Further Reading: Edward Doegar on Twitter

Doegar on Liz Berry’s ‘The Silver Birch’ at Prac Crit

Buy For Now at Clinic Publishing for £5

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.