Rebecca Tamás – WITCH

Some disclosures: Have met the poet once briefly, spoken a few times on social media. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. I requested and received a text copy of the essay “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult”, published by The White Review, from Tamás in the process of researching this piece. A heads up for those who need it: the book thoughtfully and carefully critiques violence against women, particularly in a political context – Tamás has discussed in an interview her wish to prevent such scenes from becoming ‘spectacles of women’s pain’. Deepest thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

Review: It’s difficult to know where to start in discussing Rebecca Tamás’ first full-length collection, WITCH. The poems incorporate a huge amount of visual and aural information: in terms of discussing recurring themes (physical pleasure, solidarity between women, fluidity of identity, understanding the past to imagine the future, the sanctity of living, and some non-living, things) and images (dirt/silt/mulch, ash, trees, neon, honey, the colour blue), there is simply too much for any single review to cover. Arguably this is the ideal situation for such a many-minded, open-hearted book.

WITCH spends much of its time following its eponymous character, an immortal being witnessing, on a near-geological scale, the warp and weft of human history. The book playfully casts its ideal reader/listener in one of the few mortal characters in the book, the ‘petrol station boy’ who appears in ‘WITCH EUROPE’ and ‘WITCH AFTER’. He seems genuinely enthusiastic to hear what the witch has to say, and ‘shares a cigarette with her / under the no smoking sign which is his way of saying / I don’t know what to be sorry for but I am sorry’: the witch reserves her stories for those willing to do the work of careful listening. WITCH is precise and agile in its tonal and syntactical shifts: there are many occasions in which it feels like a poem is on the verge of hyperbole, of drifting away from its solid emotional core, but re-centres itself immediately with some casual turn of phrase that takes the breath away. For an example, here’s a short passage from ‘WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES’, noting the gear-change into the last line:

‘the witch wonders what happiness could possibly look like
at some point it went wrong and even though she’s very old
she doesn’t know exactly when that point was
but she’s thinking that the most likely is probably Orpheus
when Orpheus was singing it was so marvellous and Eurydice sang too
obviously they were a great couple’

Earlier, the poem locates the forced feeding of the suffragettes in a history of punitive measures against women, like the scold’s bridle. Here, space is made for a moment that almost dismissively punctures the gravity and distance of both history and myth, one which allows that deflation to bring home the poem’s drama. It continues:

‘Orpheus went back to get Eurydice from death as we know
but he wouldn’t let her make her own way out of the rubble seek into the scratch of
each step that is not knowing always not knowing […]
her song is still down there somewhere’

One of the great strengths of WITCH is its instinct for when to be explicit (that is, make an uncomfortable truth unignorable) and when to trust the reader’s engagement. In the myth, Eurydice is a treasure to be won and lost by Orpheus, here she is a person. It’s a simple change, but one that reorients the entire scene: the poem draws out echoes between Orpheus and the prison guards, who both fatally considered their charges incapable of self-determination. The poem explores how political change rarely comes with ‘lots of clear light pouring in gold fantastic gold’, more often with undignified physical suffering, that ‘the smell of freedom is the smell of vomit’. The final image is one of visionary anger, the witch conjuring a scene that sustains her mind when her body is made abject:

‘all the fires coursing up the townhouses […]
were all already there cracking and flailing
and spitting
the pleasure of seeing everyone see it
their white eyes fat with flames
it is all burning it has all been burning us’

 

*             *             *

 

‘WITCH MARS’, ‘WITCH EARTH’ and ‘WITCH VOLCANO’, meanwhile, are characterised by weariness and a wish for escape. Often this manifests formally, as the propulsive lines seen elsewhere waver and halt, becoming structurally simpler than the rest of the collection:

‘mars is just lovely […]
witch says to herself that no one has ever been hurt here […]
no one has corrupted mystics still pure and flashing like neon signs’ (‘WITCH MARS’)

‘what the earth deserves
so much
so much more
than dead bodies […]

the earth likes wolves at least
you can give it wolves
you can give it
that’ (‘WITCH EARTH’)

‘Witch lies on the volcano
amongst creeping language […]

the witch has too many reasons to part from the earth but she won’t part […]
she cannot go home from the world’ (‘WITCH VOLCANO’)

In each of these instances – as in ‘WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES’ – a moment of profound sadness is countered, however forlornly, by imaginative force. In ‘WITCH VOLCANO’, the witch seems to recover her strength, or at least starts moving again, after watching a congregation of ghosts in what feels like a communal ritual of healing:

‘ghosts are pink and blue and gold            agile birds
they are safe when they can change
safe when they can mourn and have voice to mourn
safe when they can hurt                                safe and entirely shattering
all of them crowding up into each other’s skinny arms
transparent clever yearning bodies and eyes […]

the witch watches the charged belonging air
rubs her foot in the salt lava
intimate and hot as god’

The ghosts manifest as an emblem of ideal community: their ghostliness allows them to present their ‘organs pulsing and held out like gifts’ to each other, a surreal enactment of one of the book’s key principles, the relative paucity of hard boundaries between one self and another. (This is grimly echoed in ‘WITCH FIRE’, as the deathless witch’s body disintegrates into many others at the stake.) As Tamás notes in an interview with Alice Hiller, the book celebrates ‘being amorphous, open’, and that ‘The witch doesn’t really believe in gender. […] Witch is male. Witch is female.’

While this mode of thought – disdainful toward taxonomy, faithful to mess – informs much of the book’s communitarianism, anti-facism and socialism, it might be worth hovering around gender a second longer. In her essay in The White Review, “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult”, Tamás talks about Silvia Federici’s landmark study, Caliban and the Witch, which examines how the category ‘witch’ is delineated and propagated by early colonialist European states as a pretext for wiping out generations of women’s social power and shared knowledge in the witch hunts of 1580-1630. Prior to this, the ‘devil’ was a capable, if easily defeated, trickster in most European folklore; during the witch hunts he was co-opted as an inversion of social norms, playing strongly on stories of him offering sexual and social freedoms outwith the authority of husband and state. In WITCH the devil explicitly exhibits genderfluidity through his ability to shapeshift, an embodied freedom from binaries, in a way that harmonises with the book’s opposition to political strictures.

Tamás is an excellent storyteller, WITCH accommodates an impressive amount of emotional and scholarly information, and it is absolutely possible to relish the messy, intimate, glorious relationship the witch and the devil enjoy without considering any of the above. When placed in their literary-historical context, however, as representatives of those excluded and punished in the name of social cohesion, the layers of meaning and possibility that constitute ‘WITCH AND THE DEVIL’ begin to become apparent. There’s too much of it to quote satisfactorily, but here’s a taste:

‘when the witch first met the devil the devil was
a beautiful man and a beautiful woman
the devil had long eyelashes and a body that was hard and soft
at the same time so that you wanted to hold him
and also be held by her […]

the devil liked getting up early which is what the witch liked so they would go out
before anyone else was around and they would act out satanic rituals in the woods […]
and also the light had the green tint of rusted copper and took part in the celebrations […]
the witch didn’t just feel like she was getting what she wanted she felt like everyone
everywhere was getting what they wanted’

The specifics of their relationship are, like much of the witch’s life, marked by hyperreality: one could easily read blood sacrifices as a spooky proxy for long walks on the beach. The early parts of the poem run away with themselves rhythmically, absent of decelerative punctuation, and the descriptions of their sex life – ‘the devil had all the sexual organs you could / want’ – exhibit perhaps the richest blend of earnest joy, comedy by exaggeration, and thematic seriousness in the whole book. A real treasure is the poem’s treatment of the witch and devil’s breakup (if that’s what’s meant by goodbye), a mature and loving conversation:

‘when the witch said goodbye to the devil
they didn’t get overtly emotional but they held onto each other
for a long time until there was a flow of breath back and forth
that was entirely equal in the air passing through their mouths’

I can’t recall many poems that not only explore sexual/romantic relationships as loci of nuanced mutuality and regard the end of said relationship not as failure, but change, but also extrapolate that thread into its broader political thinking. As the devil notes in an intimate moment: ‘you had to make a decision are you prepared to destroy yourself / for freedom even though it will be really awful and maybe worse than not freedom’. The lovers’ sensitivity and, unlike Orpheus, willingness to let go at the right time, informs and is informed by their attitudes to the world at large.

 

*             *             *

 

Alongside the witch poems are twenty-one spells. In Tarot, the twenty-first Major Arcana is The World, associated with the completion of a cycle or fulfilment of what is willed, and often represented by a figure both male and female, heavenly and mundane. This feels like too much of a coincidence not to be intentional. It may be that the spells are intended to be read like tarot cards, a suggestive space for self-reflection that does not require or even encourage a conclusive answer. Though the witch poems often abide by obscure logic, they are identifiably in the process of forming a narrative or argument; the spell poems feel like momentary embodiments of the moods of those poems, their rational scaffolding forgone. ‘spell for joy’ begins:

‘THESUN THESUN THESUN

nothing can be trusted!
raise up your rinsed hands!
terrible fury and becoming!
take off your clothes!’

The poem seems more interested in the visceral effect of reading these words than in their logical force as conjoined thoughts, in this case the idea that ‘joy’ as an experience is also a kind of recklessness, a conscious rejection of security and stability. These could be read as speech acts by the witch herself, a shift from third to first person and an outlet from the boundaries of being narrativized. Although a very different experience to the acts of readerly empathy required in the witch poems, the experience of digesting:

‘I see a shaking which is total and absolute fear

one day yr gonna die!

the hot impossible apple of
your perfection’

is a little unsettling, but has a weird carefulness to it, a camaraderie, and there is unmistakable love in those last lines. I keep hearing ‘one day yr gonna die!’ while going about my business over the past few days, a chipper, ominous earworm.

This positive estrangement is perhaps most powerfully articulated in ‘spell for reality’, a poem that stands out among the spells for its calm and thoughtful pacing, the relatively clear provocation in the first lines, ‘what do you do when the answer to / too much is absolutely nothing?’ The poem carries echoes of MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, which Tamás studies in her White Review essay, in its worrying around the edges of perception, of accepting that the ‘more’ between MacNeice’s ‘snow and huge roses’ might be ultimately unsayable, but no less real for it. ‘spell for reality’ continues:

‘sometimes the ashy body in the ground seems
to have all the answers
ultimate realness             nasty truth as the final only truth
why then             this stupid relentless yearning for snow
why the                honey   and talking’

What Tamás and MacNeice seem to agree upon is that human beings are, finally, as subject to the whims of nature as any other creature. By exploring these fundamental questions about the nature and sanctity of living things, their inscrutable yearnings, the fire and the honey, they also recognise that there is something more to it than meets the eye, and that wondering about what that more might be is a fine way to spend what life we have.

 

*             *             *

 

WITCH feels like the right book at the right time. It’s a book that valorises political literacy, and figures its own feminist and socialist beliefs as inextricable from its aesthetics. What comes across most clearly is that this collection is, at heart, a gift. The witch is constantly mindful of who might need her strength, who might need her understanding, who deserves either or both. Tamás and Sarah Shin’s anthology, Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry, demonstrated the appetite for an approach to ritual, spirituality, and philosophical inquiry. It is clear that ‘witch’ means a great many different things to a great many different people, and WITCH opens those possibilities ever further.

 

Further reading: Rebecca Tamás – “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and Occult Language”, The White Review

Alice Hiller – “I Wanted to Think About the Possibility of a Revolution Based on Female Principles: Interview with Rebecca Tamás”

Rebecca Tamás – “The Enchantment of Disenchantment: Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’ & Ecopoetic Potential”, Wild Court

Patricia Ferguson – “Filth and Glory: Review of WITCH by Rebecca Tamás”, EcoTheo Review

Silvia Federici – Caliban and the Witch: The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia)

Sarah Shin & Rebecca Tamás, eds. – Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry (Ignota Press)

Katie West & Jasmine Elliott, eds. – Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels (Fiction & Feeling)

Fiona Benson – Vertigo & Ghost

Some disclosures: Haven’t met the poet; saw her read at StAnza Poetry Festival a few years ago, she is an incredible performer. A general heads-up that the book depicts and strongly critiques abuses of power, particularly sexual violence, in very direct ways. I wouldn’t recommend reading it all in one sitting, at least not without planning some downtime afterwards. I’m grateful, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this piece.

Review: Vertigo & Ghost (2014) is Fiona Benson’s second collection, after the highly acclaimed Bright Travellers in 2014. Vertigo & Ghost builds on a lot from that first collection, particularly its explorations of the physical and emotional tolls exacted by motherhood, and speakers in both books are saturated by a pervasive feeling of embattled psychological isolation, a lyric self pitted against the world. What was ever-present but manageable in Bright Travellers has intensified here, becoming something remorseless, all-devouring, a corrupted force of nature.

What the few reviews of Vertigo & Ghost to date have focused on and most enthusiastically praised, with good reason, is the book’s opening sequence, ‘Zeus’, with a strong focus on the title character’s charisma, self-involvement and infantile, murderous sociopathy. Positioning Zeus as main character and focal point, however, might run counter to the sequence’s intentions. The sequence feels like a struggle for expression between the halting, affectively flat, painstaking speech of the unnamed narrator (and often what feels like a distinct omniscient narrator who shares similar intonations) and the blithe, trumpeting self-congratulation of the title character; it feels like a true depiction of the unfair power structures within the narrative that Zeus’ name overwrites everything.

It’s worth looking closely at the poem that precedes all of this, ‘Ace of Bass’ (the poem is spelled differently to the 90s pop group), which stands alone both formally and tonally. The poem inhabits in earthy detail a summer in the speaker’s adolescence at boarding school, the retrospective cheesiness and gaudiness that characterised the cultural moment, perhaps epitomised by Ace of Base’s Swede-reggae single ‘The Sign’, which spent the entire summer of 1994 on UK radio. The speaker’s self-image uses the same palette, her ‘teenage heart / [like] a glossy, maraschino cherry’, as ‘hormones poured into me / like an incredible chemical cocktail / into a tall iced glass’. The poem itself is a single, unstoppable sentence, its grammatical and substantial meanings meeting at its conclusion:

‘and we talked about who’d done what with whom
and how it felt, all of us quickening,
and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist;
pushing into our own starved bodies at night
for relief, like the after-calm might last,
like there was a deep well of love on the other side.’

This friction between past naivety and present wisdom make a heartbreaking conditional in the final line, the tension between the imagined continuity of love, pop music and playground solidarity and reality. The double meaning of ‘deep well’, as a plentiful resource when full and a dangerous hazard when empty, encapsulates this turn with terrible precision.

After the fireworks of ‘Ace of Bass’, the first poem in ‘Zeus’ is painfully stark. Its speaker is vulnerable, chastened, and smaller, and the two narrators could be considered as the same character in different moments. Where in ‘Ace of Bass’ there was ‘colour streaming from my iridescent body’, ‘Zeus’ begins:

‘days I talked with Zeus
I ate only ice
felt the blood trouble and burn
under my skin […]

bullet-proof glass
and a speaker-phone between us
and still I wasn’t safe’

The sequence begins with Zeus in custody, and apparently convicted. The poem seems to question how, even from this statistically unlikely starting point, Zeus might be held accountable, or what would constitute justice or even closure under the circumstances. The sequence plays as a gruelling, episodic series of witness statements and evidence records. With their incorporation of supernatural elements, however, the poems are far more unconventional and generically fraught than their popular forerunners. There is no struggle between equally brilliant representatives of good and evil: the sequence’s foundation is the understanding not only the vast differences in power between perpetrator and survivor, but the narrative frames naturally predisposed to his version of events. Among the evidence presented are versions of the Metamorphoses, which locate their depictions of trauma within broader contexts of the women’s families. ‘[transformation: Io]’ and ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ both include the attempts of Io and Callisto’s parents to heal their children, and, as poems, feel like pointed rebuttals to the tradition of Ovidian versions that treat violence and suffering primarily as spectacle, and have no interest in real-world implications for protagonist or reader. ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ concludes, ‘Go ahead, Zeus. Constellate this’, perhaps implicating the tellers of Ovidian stories into the systems of violence as Zeus himself.

As the sequence progresses, the narrative fact of Zeus’ omnipotence becomes an irreconcilable obstacle: he is imprisoned, drugged, thrown in an oubliette (the bleak inverse of the ‘deep well’ in ‘Ace of Bass’), and electrocuted, to no avail. The final poem is removed from the narrative proper, as signalled by its title: ‘[translation from the annals: Ganymede]’, a category which has not appeared to this point, and is the weirdest poem in the book. The sequence has previously depicted the casual presence of the mythical in the mundane; this poem is from another world entirely, in which the speaker (implicitly not the one we have travelled with thus far) is on an interstellar spacecraft with quasi-angelic beings known as the Powers:

‘I had not been in proximity with the Powers before,
and was afraid of their full-skin tattoos and body-jewels
and their ease with weapons. I did not fully understand
their dialect, and between themselves they talked
in an ancient language of the seraphim. […]

Sometimes I’d wake
soaked in sweat and hear the Powers singing
on a scale other than our own, high and screeching,
vibrating in a way that made me heave up yellow bile.’

Nothing in the book prepared me for this blend of biblical, science-fictional and Lovecraftian notes. Perhaps this poem is a grim reflection of the book’s first, the rhetorical energy of ‘Ace of Bass’ converted into this poem’s startling imagination; both feel breathless, high-speed and doomed. The Powers have been tending to Zeus’ dismembered corpse, scattered across the cosmos – a gruesome mirror of Zeus’ own murder of the eponymous prince – its various organs still alive and ‘whistl[ing] to each other’. The mission to extract information from Zeus about the location of Ganymede’s body is a failure, and worse:

‘The pieces would not yield
the boy’s location, though the synapses of the brain
lit up like a firework display when questioned.
The parts whistled to one another
like abusive masters to their kicked-in, wary dogs,
some ‘come-to-heel’, some barely stifled threat
and the cages themselves began to agitate and sing
and I became something beyond afraid.’

Benson’s carefully crafted Zeus is obsessed by the minutiae of his own interests – see his childishly repeated list of things he ‘likes’, their cruel tedium – and interested in nothing but his ability to exercise power. No punishment will change the fact of his godhood, which has corrupted him absolutely: the events of ‘[Ganymede]’, for all their hopelessness, seem to represent a best-case scenario. The haunting closing lines, ‘And still the cables rattled and shook, and still I am afraid’, are a reminder that this poem is not a conclusion to the narrative proper, which ended with ‘[votive]’, a forlorn prayer to Hera to ‘Keep him in the prison of your vigilance’; the sequence’s action comes after ‘[Ganymede]’, the terrible implication that not even this prison will hold forever. ‘Zeus’ is a remarkable work, walking a difficult line between its harsh critique of aestheticized violence and reproducing its effects, a fully realised portrait of abuse and manipulation.

 

*             *             *

 

Vertigo & Ghost’s second half is a very different proposition, more in keeping with the short lyrics that constitute Bright Travellers. A comparative study could be made between the long sequence in Benson’s debut, ‘Love Letter to Vincent’ and ‘Zeus’ here, in particular the depiction of Van Gogh as self-interested, petty and careless, and the intensification embodied by Zeus. In ‘Sunflowers’, the speaker describes how: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn’; this is echoed in how the speaker feels her blood ‘trouble and burn’ in the opening poem of ‘Zeus’. If there are shared roots between the two sequences, a major point of divergence is in the narrator’s affective response, the turn from desire to fury. Though the poems in the second half of Vertigo & Ghost are drawn together thematically rather than dramatically, questions of isolation, escape, familial care and physical autonomy still feel prime in Benson’s thinking. The most obvious connective tissue between the book’s two parts is in the repeated presence of stars and the night sky, everything that seems to represent an otherworld to the poems’ immediate settings. ‘Two Sparrows’, the second poem in the book’s second half, talks about its subjects in spiritual terms – ‘already elect, condemned’, ‘a spirit at play’, ‘his heart’s […] true empyrean’ – and ‘Marcela Sonnets 3 & 4’ set more soul-swallows ‘moving their tents between the constellations’; in ‘Fly’, the speaker draws these ideas into a more human meditation on spiritual escape and self-destruction:

‘I wanted to take myself off like a misshapen jumper,
a badly fitting frock. I wanted
to peel it off and burn it in the garden
with the rubbish […] And what sliver
of my stripped and pelted soul there still remained,
I’d have it gone, smoked out, shunned,
fled not into the Milky Way,
that shining path of souls, but the in-between,
the nothing.’

Though the following lines self-deprecate this passage as ‘so Wagnerian’, it’s hard to miss its dramatic flourishes moving from the everyday of jumpers and frocks into an ecstatic void: the poem feels sad, worn down, but unafraid. This draw toward oblivion, or something like it, animates two more poems in this section:

‘And here is that storm again,

wrenching at your roots,
insisting that you fly now
little horse, little flower,

into the dark,
its million
whistling stars’ (‘Ectopic / Yellow Seahorse’)

‘should the blue heron lift
from the tightening shallows
there will be love, release;
look now at the white stars falling,
the night-sky-blue of heron, rising.’ (‘Blue Heron’)

However compromised a resolution the final poem in ‘Zeus’ offered, it feels significant that it happened among the stars, and that the Powers are one among many flighted creatures in the book, from termites to bats to swans: the book’s thoughts about stargazing and flight, both avian and metaphysical, seem bound up with its meditations on freedom and death. It feels like the poems cannot quite put their faith a place of peace and safety (or freedom from earthly commitments) without rendering it as a no-place where life is untenable, nor do they shy from imagining the voyage there in consistently gentle and wistful terms. Perhaps the Powers are the amalgamation of all these imaginative processes: they viscerally terrify the speaker, their bodies ‘infected / and larval’, but, as wardens of Zeus, they are clearly a force of justice, speakers of angelic tongues, though the book has little time for religious convention, and little surety of ‘benevolence, or God’.

Though not explicitly a sequence, the poems in the second section feel very much in conversation, a long subtextual narrative in which preoccupations flow into and through one another. In ‘Wildebeest’, the metaphysical takes a back seat to the immediately embodied, and the proceeding poems on motherhood are intensely graphic achievements. ‘Wildebeest’ is set during childbirth, and Benson again uses a single, long, syntactically complex sentence to propel a poem in which the body becomes part-object, part-instinctual creature. ‘Wildebeest’ feels eager to immerse itself in its linguistic work:

‘and I was both the flood
and the furious corral
from which you were expelled –
trampled and pressed
and hammered like metal, […]

as if I were giving birth
to some fierce, Taurean star
spoked at the rim,
thorned like the sun’

The poem confronts and foregrounds the physical toll of childbirth and ends with the briefest moment of calm, as the baby is ‘brought from water / now ruddled with blood […] dark-haired like your sister, / incarnate, loved.’, as the astrological once again sneaks into the poem’s thinking. A page later, however, ‘Afterbirth’ takes pains to complicate the relationship between speaker and newborn, again using the blunt reality of the speaker’s body as a focal point, again in a single, multifaceted sentence. The pyrotechnics of ‘Wildebeest’, however, are curtailed and leaden:

‘sweet stink
of torn labia
under warm water […]

its acid sting.
Ragged animal
I stagger back

to my bed –
smell of blood
all over the ward’

Benson’s skill with conveying sense with sound alone is a true wonder. The poems in this section are compelling in how they dramatize the nervous, frantic energy they describe – a fall into a swimming pool, the threat of illness, the joy and exhaustion of chasing after ‘our glorious, stampeding daughters’ –  alongside a deep cognizance of pervasive gendered violence so vividly rendered in ‘Zeus’, which hovers around the margins of these poems every bit as much as the stars and their deathly quietude. A few poems in this passage, as Alexa Winik noted in the most recent Poetry Review, fall short in leaving too little room to explore the details of violence worldwide: the image of ‘the tribesman carrying your husband’s genitals / and a bloody machete’ in ‘Hide and Seek’ may be a stylised nightmare, but it appears beside more plainspoken references to the Holocaust and contemporary human trafficking, and its colonialist overtones are uncomfortable. As Winik argues, ‘That Benson attempts a self-critique here only seems to strengthen the impression of a missed opportunity, namely for a robust acknowledgement of the speaker’s own positionality […] in relation to the pain of others’. Vertigo & Ghost is immensely rich in its capacity to convey difficult interpersonal relationships without judgement, particularly between the speaker and her family, and the relative paucity of nuance in a few poems set far from home is all the more noticeable for it.

Vertigo & Ghost ends strongly with ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’, named after a military jet designed for air-to-ground strikes, of which the Royal Air Force owns 160. The poem does excellent work in figuring many of the book’s recurring thoughts in a deceptively straightforward scene, told with Benson’s characteristic flair for rendering raw, nervous energy through sound and syntax alone. Thinking back to the ‘Zeus’ sequence, the Eurofighter is presented as an unholy, apocalyptic beast, as one of the speaker’s children runs for safety, leaving the baby outside:

‘all this in the odd, dead pause of the lag –
then sound catches up with the plane
and now its grey belly’s right over our house
with a metallic, grinding scream
like the sky’s being chainsawed open
and the baby’s face drops to a square of pure fear’

The poem’s conclusion, in which the poet imaginatively connects the jet overhead to the people killed by it, is more affecting than the example above for remaining grounded in its emotional moment:

‘and it’s all right now I tell her again and again,
but it’s never all right now […]
my daughter in my arms can’t steady me –
always some woman is running to catch up her children,
we dig them out of the rubble in parts like plaster dolls –
Mary Mother of God have mercy, mercy on us all.’

The poem seems to have ‘Zeus’ in mind: the invocation of Mary recalling of Hera in ‘[votive]’, Ganymede’s mother’s search for her son, the image of women running from danger. ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’ might be a coda to the sequence, a reminder that the god’s violence is not merely interpersonal, but part of a system of national and international power whose origins lie uncomfortably close to home. Vertigo & Ghost is a powerfully discomforting book, its poems knotted and uncompromising, all harsh self-critique and virtuosic fury. This review could’ve been twice as long to give space for exceptional poems like ‘Haruspex’ (‘It is true, / I hear voices / and talk to myself. / I am done with shame.’) and ‘Village’ (‘And I felt love for my small and human life down there, / its tenderness’), every bit as impressive as the work of the spectacular first half.

Further Reading: Alexa Winik’s review in Poetry Review 109:1 (Spring 2019, contents page here)

Benson in conversation with Daisy Johnson on the London Review Bookshop podcast

Benson in conversation with Emily Berry on the Poetry Review podcast

Declan Ryan’s review in The White Review

Tristram Fane Saunders’ review in The Telegraph

Kate Kellaway’s review in The Observer

Nat Raha – Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines

Some disclosures: Nat is a friend, and a fellow resident in Edinburgh. Raha’s poetry and criticism are grounded in radical transfeminism and Marxist theory, about which i know relatively little, and reference transphobia, misogyny and racism, of which i have no personal experience. Please note that due to wordpress’ limited formatting options, the quoted poems are not exactly as they appear in the book. Gratitude, as ever, is due to Muireann Crowley for significant edits to this review.

Review: Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines (2018) is an unusual book. It is Raha’s first full collection, but strictly speaking it is an assembly of five of the poet’s zines, pamphlets and one-off projects, each written and published between 2012 and 2017. Through dedications to and epigraphs from Vahni Capildeo, mendoza and Sean Bonney, the book situates itself within its immediate literary contexts, alongside contemporary poets whose work similarly worries at the seams of language and its relationship to cultural and political power. On the page, the poems shift unpredictably through the white space, often leaving words or phrases crossed out or marginalised, marked with non-standard punctuation, or with ambiguous relation to the main text, as in the frequent use of cut-and-pasted newsprint and archive photography. The poems’ typography often seems to deny the reader the opportunity to slow down or decompress by leaving precious little blank space on the page. As a book deeply invested in questioning how political noise often drowns out sincere discourse, it’s a highly effective strategy. (Her publication in the magazine EOAGH shows some of these effects in action: the magazine publishes a jpeg file rather than attempt to reproduce the effects of the typesetting.) It’s worth noting that this is musical as well as visual notation: in the video above, Raha translates the poems’ idiosyncratic punctuation into sound, sometimes as a sharp inhale, deliberate stutter or recorded loop.

It’s worth noting that Boiler House’s beautiful production is not exactly how the original poems appeared, though there are signs that fidelity to the original publications was a high priority: looking between my copy of Raha’s pamphlet, de/compositions, and its reproduction in Of Sirens, precious little has been altered. It feels consistent with the book’s sharp attention to local and historical contexts that a concerted effort has been made to retain the materiality of Raha’s original works; ‘The Marriage of George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith (Epithalamion)’, for example, was originally a flyer distributed during London Pride 2013. The conditions under which these poems were written and published are presented as a core aspect of their meaning and expression, making Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines, alongside its literary strengths, a fascinating historical document.

Examining the book’s structure and themes as a unity, then, is a little more difficult than usual. In recent years, collections by debut or early-career poets are often arranged around a central theme or subject, a single metaphorical domain around which the smaller domains of their individual poems orbit. I’m thinking of language in Harry Josephine Giles’ Tonguit (2015), shame in Sophie Robinson’s Rabbit (2018), or articulating the self in Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), for example; though admittedly broad categories, the extent to which individual poems consistently touch on these central thoughts feels deeply purposeful, as the collection is shaped by rhetorical argument rather than Raha’s chronicles and archives. The five discrete sections of Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines are arranged chronologically, and many poems carry dates, times, and places as part of the text: the book is at pains to locate itself in time and place; the names of companies, Acts of Parliament, activists and writers abound. The book is not the pristine proof of a lyric vision, but a detailed journal of an artist’s evolutions and aesthetic experimentation over the course of several years. The themes and recurring images across these sequences, then, are the consequence of the poet’s sustained engagement with questions of government, culture and citizenship.

 

*             *             *

 

Raha’s rendering of myriad political actions into an aesthetic domain is difficult to articulate prosaically, and near impossible to quote without reproducing the entire piece. The poems are often possessed of alarming velocity, each phrase or image charging or melding into the next, an accumulating residue of meaning that often wrongfoots the reader or removes the grammatical tissue one might expect to logically connect the poem’s ideas. For example, from the book’s first section, here’s the closing passage of ‘the modern legal system is not for saving you’:

‘trans* collective global loss / break
the pillars / amnesiac /
burying the ribbon & its referents
/ deviance struck off the // official
history of civil rights according us freed –
compelled through the prohibitions’

The poem seems to alternate between richly suggestive, if oblique, allusion (‘burying the ribbon & its referents’) and deceptively straightforward, if grammatically off-kilter, statement (‘the sanction / of good / of / socially-necessary incarceration’). The poem’s purpose is clear enough – its subtitle is ‘in absolute solidarity with CeCe McDonald’, a Black trans woman and civil rights activist incarcerated in a men’s prison at the time of the poem’s composition – but its ideas do not unfold neatly; to think of one issue at a time is not an option, and Raha’s poem seems to embody the act of holding many concurrent threads simultaneously, not least the difficulty of the task. The closing lines draw together the social-historical trend of dominant cultures sanitising official histories and ‘compelled through the prohibitions’, an ambiguous statement that feels heavy with frustration. In ‘(shoes, danube)’, the book’s recurring concern with the recording and relating of history – both as social narrative about the past and as personal experience of an event or moment – plays out, specifically in terms of the body and physical space:

‘,, my eyeslide and accumulate /
laid ‘cross generations we are
retelling to days of us, arms as

wrapped quiet / ‘til we
instigate politics

echo out immediate universe

/ its frail coherences. grasped
for preservation / memory ground out

, churning
emotives :: what we can

gain in space & archive / #
amnesiac quotidian & demolition’

On the page, these lines are interpolated with fragments of photocopied words and newsprint, which literally undercut what appears to be the poem’s primary text. The words ‘poverty […] of future wealth / abolition’ are obscured or upside-down, but legible, and their relationship to the poem’s ‘frail coherences’, ‘memory’, or ‘churning / emotives’, and their intended impact on the reader, are open to interpretation. The poem’s generationally long view, made faintly parodic by its archaic abbreviation of ‘across’, is countered by the poem’s awareness of how individual and collective narratives are maintained and destroyed: by things as banal as physical archives and a personal will to forget.

 

*             *             *

 

Throughout the collection, there is a constant awareness of the fragility of Raha’s own place within a national culture, and the means by which queer, trans and BAME people are excluded from who counts as a citizen, either legally or culturally. In ‘(society will execute itself)’, a poem which begins, ‘we have already lost the 2015 general / vows austere realpolitik blessed’, are the following lines, italicised and in the margins:

traumas of hunger
& work
& hetcultures
bleaching the minds
our history
felt
reversed

Meanwhile, in what appears to be the main body of the poem – it’s significant that throughout the book, such categories are largely unfit for purpose – reads ‘the formations of life we have been inventing since / every decade / shackled us closer’. The poem holds in tension this pairing of ideas, between the relationship of the poem’s speaker to ‘het’ culture, and the unspecified ‘our/us’ that the poem returns to. The dramatic movement, as far as one can be unequivocally defined, shifts from the seats of political power, to the personal adaptability necessary for simple survival, to the poem’s imagining of what might be possible in a world free from the dehumanising bottom lines of capitalism, ‘<< our possible beyond / << value’s conceptions and births’. It’s a movement that recurs throughout the book’s sections, across its years of thought: understanding the past is what enables any viable conception of the future.

The poem seems to hold several trains of thought in concert, as Raha’s analysis of late capitalism harmonises with queer theories about the strangeness of the experience of time. In “Queerness and Translation: From Linear Time to Playtime”, an essay in Modern Poetry in Translation (2018:2), Mary Jean Chan describes a very similar process of resisting social norms in favour of a truer experience of reality, in the present, in memory and in imagining the future:

‘I am eager to re-read and re-write my life as an ongoing poem, but no longer in linear time. Linear time suffocates; it forces the now into the future and refuses any meaningful engagement with the past. I want, instead, to inhabit a state of play – a form of playtime – where time dissolves’

What Chan formulates personally, Raha seems to explore socially: if widespread and radical social change is not immediately realisable, then let us be playful; under such conditions the imagination is a powerful tool. Of Sirens’ penultimate section, £/€xctinctions, is aware of its standing at a precipice; its foreword from the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James reads, ‘mankind has obviously reached the end of something. the crisis is absolute.’ The book’s most intense passage of political anxiety and critique works in tandem with its most strident attempts at envisioning a viable future. Where the majority of the poems in this section are densely woven and finely focused, ‘of future’s england / its stratifications’ is a remarkable rhetorical and tonal shift, as waves of data are let loose. Where other poems’ logic is traceable, however obliquely, ‘of future’s england’ momentarily dispenses with the need to connect its vast number of urgent nodes:

‘of future’s england / its stratifications
& the economic,
of the economic &
sarah reed
, of sanctioned benefits & health blackouts
& the economic
of sectioned nerves & muscles & the mental health act 2007
& the economic, of the economic / remedial productivity
& demands on all bodies &

psychologically sanctioned work, of
sectors glowing eviscerate working  &
the economic

of terror’s industry & the safety
of europe from itself’

The poem’s exaggeration of refrain and repetition highlight how much the book employs these tactics more subtly throughout, how despite the unconventional typography and grammar, these poems are designed to be spoken aloud. ‘of future’s england’ seems to enact the speaker’s attempts to remain forewarned and forearmed and retain their sanity, as a list of radical authors and activists occasions:

‘momentary reprieve & laughter & hands &

carnivals & the economic, of love’s purr here &

the economic’

As the poem’s conclusion suggests, even these brief interludes, these recovery periods, cannot quite expel the ‘quotidian terror & the conservative party / & the dismayed capital of the economic’. The crisis is absolute.

 

*             *             *

 

In their original incarnations, each of the sections of Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines stood alone as its own entity, and so it’s not quite a criticism that on my first reading, a sense of fatigue set in toward the end of £/€xctinctions: the imposition of fatigue as a means of social control is a key theme in Raha’s work, and it’s not wild to suggest that my experience may have been sympathetic. In any case, the movement from this atmosphere into the warmer, more careful, but no less impassioned de/compositions would have been far less affecting if not for the grimmer, bleaker poems that went before. The section begins with ‘[strid manig nines]’, dedicated to fellow experimentalist poet mendoza, the first of several pieces foregrounding friendship, love and physical intimacy in a time of nationalist crisis and authoritarian creep. It’s followed by ‘(after Vahni’s reading)’, a poem that stands out in the section for being relatively forthright and strident in its emotional expression:

‘the scope of purity & such myths / your

aggression utterly
entrancing to
-night, –

think the trails of roving & vicious girls
most detested & what we’ve been dreaming for
centuries’

The tonal contrast to £/€xctinctions is fairly stark, even if the subject is familiar. Previously, the work performed by Raha’s poems was in naming and detailing the exact means by which the state and its cultural agents enforced their will; now that there seems to be little good in repeating oneself, it feels as though the poems have license to come much closer to home. ‘(after Vahni’s reading)‘ shifts from social panorama to the intimacy of a poetry reading, a specific, charged emotional experience from which the poem draws its hope and energy. There’s something of a nostalgic tone about many of the poems in the final section, as if its lattermost position within the book has also occasioned a time for taking inventory, to understand its own aesthetic past alongside its other histories. Spotters’ badge, meanwhile, to one of the book’s very few full stops:

‘our softsteel english
shoes / beauty potent in cobble
/ fend off all satistics / a

book of ourselves, in living.’

Even if punctuation is unconventional in Of Sirens, its deployment here feels purposeful, permitting itself to reach toward a note of optimism in a collection in which such notes are few and far between. The collection’s final poem, ‘on the vision of yur futures, ruptured isles…’ ensures the book finishes in a stance of looking into an imagined future, inhabiting a state of possibility, however remote, of radical change. Again, the poem grounds itself first in the here and now, ‘the / gems of our arms & care’, its sine qua non of political thought; the collection repeatedly mentions arms at points of both emotional and political intensity, and it’s no surprise to see the image here. The book closes with a gorgeous coalescence of utopianism and lyricism, and i think it would be a shame to spoil it here, or take it out of its proper context, looking grim-hopefully towards ‘all foreseeable days’.

 

*             *             *

 

The question of how, or even whether, art and poetry should interact directly with political practicalities is unlikely to ever be resolved, but Of Sirens takes up the challenge with all due gravity, and kudos are due to Boiler House for the obvious care and attention that allowed the book to appear as an industry-standard first collection without sacrificing its diy origins. It’s testament to the weight of the work represented by Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines that this review only touches the surface of a variety of topics the poems contend with; ten other readers could write ten other reviews without crossing paths, and that’s before locating Raha’s work within its multiple poetic traditions. As mentioned earlier, the book is an unusual document, but this is also one of its great strengths, a work that strives to preserve what dominant historical narratives overlook, embodying an archive and record all of its own.

 

Further Reading:

Nat Raha – “Radical Transfeminism, Transfeminine Brokenness”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 116:3 (2017)

Nat Raha – “The Limits of Trans Liberalism”, Verso, (September 2015)

Mary Jean Chan – “Queerness as Translation: From Linear Time to Playtime”, Modern Poetry in Translation (2018:2)

Garry Mac – Introduction to We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology (404 Ink)

Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury); see also Eddo-Lodge’s About Race podcast

 

Postscript:

I know a few people are hoping for a follow-up from me regarding my last essay: this is not it, nor will one be forthcoming here. For those seeking related reading, i recommend Jack Belloli’s generous and thoughtful essay, “Owning the Post-Libs: On Toby Martinez de las Rivas”, on his blog, or Helen Charman’s insightful review of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament and Martinez de las Rivas’ Black Sun, “Communality and Consequence” in the most recent Poetry London. Thank you for reading, and death to fascism.

[Data Resource] The State of Poetry and Poetry Criticism in the UK and Ireland, Jan 2012 – Mar 2018

Editorial staff from some of the outlets included in the most recent iteration of this study have requested more detailed data than was analysed in the report published by the Centre for New and International Writing, so I’ve made that available in full here.

For clarity: the data for ‘Poetry Criticism’ concerns reviews of individual books, and not critical essays, cultural criticism, features, interviews or other works of critical prose. I hope to study these in the future under their own category.

NB: The data collected here is accurate up to March 2018; as the data for 2018 is incomplete, it should not be taken as indicative of any ongoing trends. In this iteration, my data for The White Review has significant gaps, due to incomplete archives in the library where I was researching.

The limitations of the terms used in this study have been outlined in previous publications, and still apply here. Clicking on the tables will open a larger version in a separate tab on your browser, or you can download them as .xlsx files using the links below.

Poetry criticism:

Download as Excel Spreadsheet

Poetry:

Download as Excel Spreadsheet

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

Amaan Hyder – At Hajj

Disclosure: Have not met Hyder. The book discusses several aspects of Islam including the eponymous pilgrimage, and the experiences of moving to a hostile new country, of which I have no experience, and many nuances of which I’ve probably missed. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. Huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

The old man has fallen over. He runs over to him and lifts him and the old man holds onto his arm and takes hold of his stick and he tries to sit the old man down but in his position it is more comfortable for him to lean on the cane. It is easier standing up. Sitting down, the man would be dependent on him completely.’ (‘At Hajj’)

Review: At Hajj is Amaan Hyder’s first collection. It’s comprised of a series of narrative scenes from the eponymous pilgrimage to Mecca woven among more traditionally lyric pieces, most, if not all, of which are set in an unspecified British space. The book’s twin threads are not connected explicitly (bar one poem which discusses trans-generational attitudes to religious traditions), and it’s reasonable to believe they may be enacted by different characters, the various scenes at Mecca told from the point of view of at least one man and at least one woman, and all in third person. Certainly the self at the heart of the book’s lyric poems is notable by their relative absence, performing fascinating acts of narrative positioning to keep the poem’s focus on the lives of others; the speaker’s parents, brother, friends, neighbours and neighbourhood:

‘You’re going to look back and

I’m going to look back and
there’s been this van up and down
past the shop really slow.’

The first instalment of the ‘At Hajj’ sequence, meanwhile, introduces a book-long quiet attentiveness to the thoughts and actions of others:

He sees people standing to pray, putting their hands on their knees and drawing up and going down to touch their foreheads to the ground. These are the movements his thoughts make. […] They sit long after the prayers are over and ask what they have to ask for.’

The ‘At Hajj’ poems are all printed in italics, a typographic convention that usually indicates quotation, emphasis, or voices-off. Here, it seems to act as the introduction to a special world, or an alternate form of address, a different frame of mind. The language is plain and spare and methodical. Its painstaking, precise description of the body and its motions feel strange on a first read; it is unusual to be asked to spend so much thought on so ordinary a motion. The passage of time in this scene is key: the ‘he’ doing the watching has clearly been doing so for a substantial span of time, watching the prayers without praying himself. There’s a kind of mirroring between how carefully Hyder has crafted the passage, in its precise ambiguity, and the attention the figure in the poem gives to the worshippers; there is more than one level in ‘the movements his thoughts make’. The last line pushed me gently off-balance too: are they asking for advice on what to ask for, or is this an elegant way of describing the manifold things people request in prayer? Perhaps this careful observation of the everyday, this dedicated, time-consuming attentiveness to the bodies and thoughts of others is the poet’s own act of worship.

The spiritual and the profane are blended and combined throughout the book. In two poems, ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ and ‘Calling Mohammed’ Hyder imagines the prophet as a contemporary, partly filtered through the speaker’s brother of the same name. The former begins:

‘I think Mohammed peace be upon him would have had one of those phones that aren’t big or black like you sometimes get in old TV programmes. […] I feel that he would have written his name on the back of his phone because he was a good man. […] I am certain that he would have kept his phone switched off so that he would not disturb other people.’

As in ‘At Hajj’, the most prominent note in both the poems’ atmosphere and its subject matter is this openness, this willingness to speak simply and invite understanding. The opening lines of ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ enthusiastically inhabit this sincere subjectivity (‘I think…’, ‘I feel…’), lending the speaker a kind of moral certitude  which compliments the casual confidence of their imaginative leaps. The whole poem might well be in a child’s voice, the way children, faced with difficult and alien ideas, attempt to draw them nearer to their own experiences, like asking why there are no dinosaurs in the Bible. The second half of the poem expresses this tone formally, as the prose gives way to ballad meter, with its rumbling, uncomplicated rhythms:

‘My brother’s called Mohammed.
He’s always in our room.
He’s stopped watching TV
and he hates middle school. […]

‘To make my brother happy
we go out on our bikes.
We stay away from others,
eat Bountys in the night.’

The poem’s objects are beautiful in their specificity, ‘The [phone] I mean is the one Faraan my cousin has’, the Bounty bars, their very singularity giving them radiance. The final stanza becomes its own sacred space for the two brothers, safe with the explicit treasure of sweets and the unspoken one of familial solidarity. Where, exactly, the historical-religious figure of Mohammed fits in this scene is hazy, as the poem is definitively rooted in earthly concerns, contemporary consumer society and family politics. The speaker’s imaginative lens provides space for what might be a deeply personal, immediately present interpretation of the prophet, somewhat at odds with the book’s frank, straightforwardly realist presentation of religious acts in its central sequence.

Few of the collection’s lyrics are so readily unpacked, however, and Hyder’s ability to convey meaning tonally and atmospherically is truly remarkable (presuming that I’m picking it up as intended). Many of these short poems create a sensory space for the reader to inhabit, by way of brief snatches of conventional syntax among ostensibly disconnected ideas or images. Here’s the opening section, Alif, from ‘The Clot’:

‘What is a fit?
A holy thing is a fit.
A life is a fit.

I hear fifty machines stitching,
inking a grip.
Someone came to the door.

Someone was listening to us.
When I wake I am told what happened.
I pressed eject, mouths my father.

I pressed enough, mouths my mother.
She leaves in a car that shoots light.’

The drama conveyed in a few dozen words is incredible. The haiku-like opening stanza is a formula one could spend hours exploring, the vital qualities of ‘holy’ and ‘life’ left tantalisingly undefined. The following stanzas’ combination of autonomous machines with human listeners creates a kind of dread that could not have been rationally expressed; the fact that the father and mother cannot physically speak, and communicate only in the low-tech language of magnetic tape, is deeply unsettling. That last line makes my hair stand on end, the passive verb, the supernatural vehicle.

Using similar techniques for near-opposite purposes, the opening lines from ‘Wet Collected’:

‘Dancers stamp
Earth! Earth!

Coy Beau, not gym,
don’t bury him in muscle.

The way of flightless birds.
Emerging first,

a drip diving hairs in a beard.’

Who the dancers are, whether they are vocalising ‘earth’ or whether this is the message their dancing bodies convey, is less important than the atmosphere those lines suggest, their notes of physical action, communal movement, joy in the sensory. Whether ‘Beau’ moves like a flightless bird, is a flightless bird, or the moisture in his beard is redolent of flightless birds is less important than the sensation of thinking all these things (probably more) at once. It’s a unique poem in At Hajj, a dreamy interlude in a book in which sensual pleasures are rare.

Bodies, as noted already, are in focus throughout the collection. ‘Sleeves’ is a gorgeous, playful poem about gift-giving and emotional labour. The poem closes as the speaker and his friend share a secret, intimate moment: ‘I put my hands in the pockets with his and our fingers overlapping go in and press and circle and out like zigzags snug-tight hot and the heat is another layer around us too’. The precision, again, is part of the way the poem expresses love. Even ‘What Were Giraffes?’, with its weird, catastrophically suggestive opening line, ‘Remember horses? They were like horses’, keeps the animal’s body at the centre of its thinking: ‘a tough skin / patterned like baked earth’, ‘They had thick eyelashes, Mohawk mane hair’. ‘What Were Giraffes?’ is partly, I think, an attempt to reconcile an unusual body with the human observer’s impulse to impose on the body the category ‘comic / gold’. The poem defends giraffes’ innate worth in a world where they are gone for good, closing on a note both defiant and accusatory, ‘Those were giraffes.’ However ludic its terms, the poem asks the reader how one considers the living worthy or unworthy of respect and survival, what it is about giraffes’ outlandishness that makes their destruction acceptable.

To return to the book’s central sequence, ‘At Hajj’, it’s remarkable how ordinary it often feels. These passages, as noted above, are at times both highly specific – in terms of the physical movement of bodies, the interpersonal dynamics of the pilgrims, the behaviour of a dog – and notably unfixed – there are at most a handful of proper nouns, and although it is heavily suggested that a multitude of peoples and tongues are present, the text denotes them only as speaking ‘in his/her language’. There is no attempt, in other words, to provide ‘local colour’, the market-friendly mangoes demanded by Western publishers and editors, as critiqued in Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation. Perhaps, then, this is one meaning of the italics; a typographical note that readers such as myself have been provided only conditional access to these scenes by narrators who themselves may be working by interpretation. Body language, as in ‘The old man motions that he will wait and gives him stones and tells him to throw them for him’, seems to operate on an equal footing to the spoken.

The poems also seem reserved, if not somewhat sceptical, about one’s access to the spiritual plane. Among their accounts of pilgrims’ struggles to move safely through a crowd, journeying in the desert with only a dog for company, and campsite politics, there is only one short section that even mentions divine immanence, and that with heavy irony:

Some onlookers believed that such a spirit was in the mall now, guiding the insiders round, giving them the energy. Yes, and some had their servants carry them the whole Hajj. There was no ghost in the mall but corporate spectre.’

What’s more visible in these narratives than spiritual uplift are physical sacrifices made on the behalf of others. Two separate sections note that their protagonists have hurt their shoulders: a man holds back a crowd to let an elderly man safely use the public toilet; a woman guides an elderly woman get through a bottleneck in the crowd. The narrative voice remains neutral throughout, their suffering simply another fact in an accumulation of facts: ‘What she knows very keenly now is the pain in her shoulder.’, ‘He thinks on what he had done. He puts a hand to his shoulder which aches.

Although these italicised passages in Mecca are more obviously disconnected to the lyrics set in the West, they are strongly connected by their characterisation of society as a great, unfeeling and irresistible threat punctuated by moments of kindness, ‘Save announcements / of change, it has made a mockery of / all of us’ (‘Inheritable Landscape’). The pilgrims risk their bodies to help those who need it, a man hides the flaws in his friend’s gift, or, in one of the most remarkable poems in the book, ‘Grain’, the weary repetitions of the pantoum form converts the opening stanza:

‘We will look back on our time
as ruined lives and think doing
good work will bear some reward,
but it gives only false impression.’

into a final, hopeful, if to some degree ironised, assertion:

‘Good work will bear some reward.’

It only takes the faintest gesture toward the great evils at work in the world to remember how important, and radical, a thought this is, how substantial change begins with kindness for the vulnerable and contempt for the powerful, how one’s body may be a tool for fighting oppression. At Hajj is intelligent, kind and resolute in its politics, curious, precise and inventive in its aesthetics. It’s a book worth spending time over, worth keeping in mind.

Further Reading: “Coats” by Amaan Hyder in The Guardian

Review of At Hajj by Jeremy Noel-Tod in The Times

Review of At Hajj by Richie McCaffery in The Poetry School

PS: If you found this useful or informative 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.

The State of Poetry Criticism – July 2017 Update

[NB: These stats will be updated, along with new data for poetry as well as poetry criticism, on May 17, 2018.]

Disclosure: Many thanks to Órla Ní Mhuirí for her advice regarding the ethical questions involved in publishing the data collected here. Thanks to the Association of Internet Researchers for their extremely useful resources, to Muireann Crowley for edits, and to Charles Whalley for advice about data and spreadsheets.

Report: This is a relatively brief update to the data I presented two months ago. As before, this is a purely statistical study, solely of poetry criticism. The data’s limitations, outlined in the previous article, still apply.

In the interests of transparency, I am making the raw data from which these numbers are drawn public. You can view the dataset here, please feel free to share the link.

Some preliminary notes: The names of reviewers have been anonymised. The goal of this project is to illuminate editorial practices, and providing a list of critics’ names felt like a distraction. The problems this project explores are connected to structural matters like editorial practices and the commissioning of critics, not with the individual critics themselves. Although their names are, ultimately, already public, the ethical questions asked by the Association of Internet Researchers advised caution.

The names of poets and their books have been provided, however. As poets are, in theory, a step removed from the editorial process, I felt that they are sufficiently safely removed from the structures under critique in this study. At worst, I think, the data exposes an ongoing fascination with the minor works of Paul Muldoon.

I may have made mistakes, either by accident or ignorance. This is a more or less solo project, and typos, accidental data entries and plain screw-ups are far from impossible. Regarding the gender and race of the poets included here, my resources are contributors’ biographies and search engines. If you notice inaccuracies in the data, please let me know in the comments.

If you would like to use the data collected here, please feel free, just cite the source. If you’re feeling very generous you could link to my Patreon. That would be cool of you.

Updates: The data set now covers eight platforms, adding Modern Poetry in Translation, and expands all records to January 2013. This has more than doubled the size of the data set, and hopefully provides a more robust picture of contemporary mainstream poetry criticism. If you can think of any notable omissions, please let me know in the comments. Criteria for potential additions: the publication must i) regularly publish a significant number of reviews of poetry, ii) either be a poetry-only publication, or have a clearly defined poetry section, iii) have existed since 2013, either online or in print or both. I have so far not included the LRB and TLS, as they are covered by the VIDA Count, but given those numbers are themselves two years old, they are prime candidates.

The project now covers January 2013 – July 2017, covering 110 issues of seven magazines, and four years’ worth of reviews from The Guardian. All told, 1025 articles have been recorded, reviewing a total of 1943 books. It has revealed the following:

  • Only 4.3% of all articles are written by people of colour, a total of 44. Breaking these down by year: 7 articles by critics of colour were published in 2013; 8 in 2014; 5 in 2015; 9 in 2016; 15 so far in 2017. Of those 15 so far this year, 12 have been published in Poetry London 87Poetry Review 107:1 and Poetry Review 107:2. Three issues of two magazines account for a third of all reviews by critics of colour published since January 2013.
  • The proportion of books by poets of colour reviewed drops from 9.6% (47 books) to 8.1% (156 books) in the extended data set. Again, breaking this number down by year: 24 books by poets of colour were reviewed in 2013; 28 in 2014; 31 in 2015; 38 in 2016; 35 so far in 2017.
  • The proportion of female critics also drops significantly in the extended data set, from 44.8% to 41.5%. Poetry Ireland Review (31.3% female critics) and PN Review (25.7%) show the greatest disparity.
  • Likewise, the proportion of books by female poets reviewed falls from 45.9% to 38.6%. In this case, The Guardian (29.9% of books reviewed are by women), PN Review (28.7%) and Modern Poetry in Translation (20.8%) show the greatest disparity.
  • While female critics review men (427 books) and women (475 books) almost evenly, male critics overwhelmingly review other men (660 books to 270 by women).
  • Men review significantly fewer books per article (1.69) than women (2.16), consistent across almost all platforms.
  • Bloodaxe books have been reviewed 217 times, Faber books 178 times, Carcanet 175, Cape 84, Seren 82, Shearsman 80 and Picador 73. 51 of The Guardian‘s 194 reviews (26.2%) were of Faber books.

Adding only two further years’ worth of data makes a marked difference to the data. On one hand, this indicates rapid change between 2015-17, mostly in positive, inclusive directions; on the other, it should remind us of just how homogeneous this community has been, and how recently.

The tables below show these statistics in full. Note that the second table, in which percentages do not add up to 100, does not include data for anthologies or books with multiple authors.

If you found this useful or informative 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.

Inua Ellams – Afterhours

Disclosure: I think I met Inua at a reading in Edinburgh three/four years ago. Have chatted a few times on Twitter. I’m mentioned in this book! One of the diary entries mentions Sean O’Brien’s review of Happiness and my response to it. The book explores, among a great many other things, the experience of a family moving from Nigeria to Ireland, then England, and the effects of structural racism they suffered. I don’t have personal experience of any of this. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for removing glaring generalisations and structural editing.

“The work of being an artist is intimately linked with the work of personal development” – Lebo Mashile, South African poet.

Review: #Afterhours is a project Inua Ellams designed and enacted over the course of a year as writer in residence at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It involved selecting poems by British and Irish poets published from each of the first eighteen years of Ellams’ life, and resetting them (Ellams’ terminology) to accommodate his own experiences. The poems – both the originals and Ellams’ resettings – and explanatory diary entries are included in the book of the same name, published by Nine Arches. It comes with an introduction in which Ellams explains:

‘I hoped the project would show the ways poetry transcends time, borders, history, culture, race and empire, to illustrate cultural differences and similarities.’

It’s a utopian prospect, and, for all my reservations about poetry transcending anything (too often the word is used as a free pass for privileged poets to dismiss the effects of that privilege), an encouraging one; Ellams’ sincerity and his determination to prove his belief in the essential goodness of people is rather contagious. By organising this project as a conversation – ostensibly between himself and other artists, but between himself and the reader as a matter of course – each piece comes with space for decompression, for turning over the implications of what’s been and what’s to come, particularly around poems that touch on matters of death or emotional harm. #Afterhours takes both the wellbeing and the understanding of the reader as a matter of central importance, let literary kudos fall where it may, a radical gesture in a scene that still equates self-protective emotional insensitivity, irony or literary ‘seriousness’ with a mastery of craft. Note that care is not spoon-feeding; at key junctures Ellams leaves certain things unwritten, or, in the case of the four intricate and starkly beautiful sketches that appear in lieu of prose introductions, everything. The goal seems less to infringe upon the potential for creative responses to creative work, but to provide a middle ground between poet and reader, specifically a reader unfamiliar with the cultural realities Ellams inhabits.

The first poem is ‘No Return #After Iain Crichton Smith’. Crichton Smith’s original is about his childhood home on Lewis; it’s a wry, downbeat, often cynical poem about a place ‘indifferent to the rumours and the stories’ that no longer fit the island of the poet’s memory. Lewis is ‘stony, persistent’ after its stories, dances and music ‘have gone away to another country’. Most importantly for Ellams’ poem, perhaps, it mourns the loss of storytellers, a long tradition of creative historians, a literary genre in which #Afterhours absolutely takes its place. It’s no surprise then, that Ellams’ ‘No Return’ reserves so much space and some of its best lines for ‘The griots, the wise ones’: ‘These stories decorate your bloodline like antiques’. Ellams’ poem is a celebration of what endures as much as Crichton Smith’s is an elegy for what does not; both poets recognise, however, their personal estrangement from their originary cultures. The piece is a fine introduction to the project at large, a poem that holds at once the persistence of the poet’s roots and the pain of the poet’s uprooting, the creative possibilities, or responsibilities, of both.

The diary entry to ‘An English Dream #After Douglas Dunn’, discusses ‘sonder’, the vertigo one feels when considering the billions of subjectivities that exist alongside our own. The poem concerns a phone conversation the poet had with a friend, relating all that had passed since his departure from high school in Ireland. Dunn’s original, with its narrator running through a strange forest in a full tweed suit, seems to give Ellams permission to loosen his own narrative reins, to invite some imaginative chaos. The friend, Jack, gives the poet an overload of data, causing a kind of hyperstimulated dissociation:

‘Then I was fighting for my crumbling world and watching
in multiplying fractures the bubble of it burst, the cracks
leading one way, holes down the other and myself peering
from inside its falling walls’

The most impressive poems in #Afterhours, I think, come when this kind of imaginative messiness is given space to combine with Ellams’ flair with more linear narratives. ‘Fury’ and ‘Photograph: Ram Sacrificing’, for example, both establish a defined and comprehensible space for the reader to inhabit, while allowing the poems’ emotional states to become briefly ungoverned, or ungovernable, ‘Here are four men, their knives, a rope, / a gutter with sludge slow-moving through its gut’. These states would not work half as well, of course, without the carefully measured, relaxed rhythms far more common throughout the book; the times when this pattern is broken, as when a literally unreadable sketch replaces a prose introduction, are some of the most surprising and powerful moments in the collection.

Perhaps this is a philosophical tension in Ellams’ work as much as an aesthetic one. In a late diary entry he talks about his faith, how his conception of religion as ‘a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge’. This is explicitly connected to his creative work: ‘I think poetry is impossible without faith. […] faith that meaning will be made, that a vague reason and order will rise from the impulse to write’. There’s a kind of punning going on between the two processes, between spirituality and aesthetics; his formulation of reading a poem, ‘allow[ing] the poem to enter us’, is very similar to the spiritual phenomenon of kenosis, the emptying of self in order to admit divine presence. Given all this, it’s possible that the poems I personally find most engaging are those which manifest a kind of formal disarray, a poetic crisis that pressurises or counterbalances the faith Ellams clearly finds such an empowering, nourishing force. ‘Fury’ imagines the violent dismemberment of cruel and vicious people, is the poem in which a belief in the orderly path is most obviously denied, with its uncharacteristically short, aggressive lines, its lack of explanation. It is a moment in which the subconscious takes over, ‘all the glass- / and-grass-weaved // weaponry I failed / to let taste blood’. Maybe it’s the permission granted to a diversity of responses to injustice (peace, dialogue, violent dismemberment) that makes it chime so harmoniously. Maybe it’s an uncharitable response to a book so full of grace and patience to draw attention to its one moment of (purely imaginative) retribution.

The book’s warmth is most powerfully embodied in ‘Steven’s Lungs #After Pascale Petit’. The poem, written for a friend who committed suicide, has the air of a plotless lucid dream – another departure from the #Afterwords norm – but which makes perfect sense when the source of meaning in the poem is located not in narrative progression but the mood suggested by the movements of Petit’s original, ‘My Father’s Lungs’. Here, Petit notes almost without affect that ‘I’m no longer interested / in whether he loves me or not’, leaving the reader to consider what the poem is otherwise asking of itself. In presenting her father’s body as a neutral, almost inanimate object in which the poet’s subjectivity is undeniably present, however, the poem seems to frame it as an aesthetic alternative space, one marked by ‘an octave of pure silver’, ‘a swirl of starlight’ the poet ‘can fly through, into his chest’. The poem’s closing lines, which speak of ‘my next task: / I am gathering lungmoss for my pillow, / making a bed in his body’ suggest the beginning of something recuperative, domestic, peaceful. Ellams’ version is initially more interested in the real character of the poem’s title, who ‘held my gaze / in fits of soaring laughter’. In a book so focused on sharing stories, this poem draws determinedly back from the explicit, the vocabulary of radio taking the place of direct speech: ‘transmitters / growing in his ribcage’, ‘I’m piercing his white noise’. It’s a piece that recognises a final unknowability, Petit’s line ‘I’m no longer interested…’ ghosting the whole scene, and tries to find peace in that in-between state, both for the speaker and his lost friend. Few male poets achieve this kind of delicacy (perhaps Michael Longley, another poet of anti-masculinist love and metamorphosis), the capacity to present oneself as small and vulnerable and intimate, the quiet work of healing. ‘Steven’s Lungs’ is a poem worth celebrating.

The process of converting an original poem into a new, autonomous artefact is fascinating. As much as Ellams adapts the blueprints of poetic predecessors – it’s significant, I think, that this first poem’s elders are both familial and creative – his work is just as explicitly to find the most suitably Ellamsian poets in the existing canon. The old poems are transformed in the light of the new ones, and an aspect of #Afterhours’ work is arguing that Ellams deserves, indeed demonstrates that he already has, as much a stake in the existing canon as any white British or Irish poet. It seems significant that of all his poet exemplars, only one is of Black, Asian or minority ethnicity, Moniza Alvi, however much this is simply a reflection of the demographics of poets published in these islands from 1984 to 2002. On a recent Lunar Poetry Podcast, Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu discuss how canonically central poets go unmarked, are simply ‘poets’, as distinct from, for example, ‘women poets’ and/or ‘black poets’. Nwachukwu argues:

‘It’s very important to have our own canon, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be a canon for us. I feel our writers, black writers, deserve to be read by everyone else and if that means fighting for it to be part of the mainstream canon, then it definitely should be.’

Ellams seems to be enacting the same idea from a reverse angle. #Afterhours argues – almost entirely subtextually, simply by going about its business – that the British and Irish canon is not the sole property and inheritance of white poets, that the poetic mainstream can be made welcoming to every poet, should one have the will to do so. #Afterhours is built around the argument that Andrew Motion’s, Jo Shapcott’s or Robert Crawford’s poetry, for example, is no more or less defined by their physically, culturally and historically located identities than Ellams’ own; the difference is in the greater value assigned to centralised identities over marginalised ones. Perhaps this is distracting, however, from the book’s desire to be first and foremost a book of poems; as Ellams notes, ‘this isn’t the place for political historical discourse […] This is about poetry.’

I’m currently writing a thesis on Louis MacNeice and Northern Irish poetry, so I’ve been thinking about what poetic influence means in practice. To cut a long story short, it’s messy and weird. Considering influence in pragmatic, case-by-case terms suggested that the currency of literature is most often instinctive and impulsive, sensitive to the incidental, local context of the poem as much as the historical context in which the book finds itself. The most convincing theories of influence acknowledge empowerment on horizontal as well as vertical axes, peers as well as mentors, the fact that art is almost never made in heroic, father-killing solitude (as in the out of date Anxiety of Influence model), or even acting as trustee of our personal literary brand. Cross-generational conversation does not necessarily have to be a top-down, one-way experience either: as Ellams notes in his first introduction, his students’ interpretations of poems often cast new light on his own. The name on the front cover is only the first among many, and it’s heartening to see viable, communitarian models of authorship gaining mainstream publication. A book is no less valuable for being the work of many hands. In his own words: ‘I wanted […] to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced’; Ellams says this specifically about the poets whose work he resets, but it is just as true for the cast of daily, physically present members of a creative community who populate the spaces between his poems.

In recent years, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and, this year, Nuar Alsadir, have opened up new possibilities regarding prose writing and the visual presentation of poetry. These books demonstrate how writing that looks like prose – is poetry such a small thing to be erased by typography? – may have the character and quality of poetry (precise composition, ambiguous or plural meaning, verbal music etc), and contextualise or amplify work more visibly authenticatable as poetry. #Afterhours is a fascinating project, not least in a time in which first collections feel increasingly, unhealthily pivotal to new poets’ careers. The gesture #Afterhours makes, putting communication with the reader first, downplaying the poet’s own authority and authorship, is hugely generous, open-minded, open-hearted, and I simply didn’t know how much I wanted a book like this until I read it.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast 100: Octavia Collective, featuring Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu. Full transcript.

Review by Billie McTernan in Brittle Paper.

Interview with Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles, by What’s On Stage.

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.

The State of Poetry Criticism

Disclosure: These numbers have been presented in earlier forms at a panel at The Business, organised by Sam Riviere at the University of Edinburgh, and at Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000, a symposium at the University of Oxford. All my thanks to Muireann Crowley for being a sounding board and strengthening this article’s argumentative structure; to the Scottish Poetry Library for keeping a well-stocked and accessible magazine archive; to all folks at the symposium for their questions and inquiries about the project.

The figures cover a period of 24 months from April/Spring 2015 to May 2017 – while they do not account for every poetry review published in these islands, it certainly accounts for some of the most prestigious publishers of criticism, over a substantial period of time. Please note that these numbers do not refer to interviews, features, reports or other prose works, only what each magazine refers to in its contents as reviews.

Edit: Regarding the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, I somehow overlooked Tishani Doshi and Daljit Nagra’s wins in 2006 & 2007 respectively. Sincere apologies to Tishani, Daljit and the Forwards for this error.

Click the images below for a larger version of the data collected for this article.

Data:

Essay: In the past few years, it seems like poetry culture in these islands has been making small positive steps towards greater inclusivity – women of colour won both Forward Prizes in 2015 and 2016, and the 2014 anthology of new black, Asian and minority ethnic poets, Ten: The New Wave, edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, has proven a successful springboard for its poets, eight out of ten of whom have since published pamphlets or full collections. Literary journals and magazines have been less encouraging, if not downright antagonistic: Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize win was met with evidence-free claims of nepotism from Private Eye; TS Eliot Prize winner Sarah Howe was described by her Sunday Times interviewer as having ‘sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence’ before admitting he just didn’t understand the work; Oxford professor emeritus Craig Raine accused Claudia Rankine of ‘moral narcissism’ in her Forward Prize-winning book Citizen. Prize culture, at least in the past few years, seems somewhat more advanced in its discourse around work by poets of colour than the critical culture surrounding it.

From this starting point I wanted to investigate a possible disconnect between prize culture and literary review culture. While not all critical responses have been as hostile as those above, the most common response to work by poets of colour has been total silence.

I decided to conduct a basic survey of poetry criticism and prize culture. I identified seven magazines which most regularly print a substantial amount of poetry criticism, and started counting. The questions this research asks are simple: whose poetry is reviewed? and who is commissioned to review it? Those publications are: The Guardian, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Poetry Wales, Poetry Ireland Review and Magma. In each case I studied issues dating from April/Spring 2015 to the present day (May 29 2017).

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. These figures cover gender and racial/ethnic distribution. They do not cover other intersections of cultural exclusion like class, disability, access to education, or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. For instance, unless a poet or critic identified as non-binary gender in their bio, I could not collect that data.

The racial categories I have used are also unsatisfactorily binary: ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’. The decision to assign a particular category to an individual was based on available biographical information and the individual’s self-description. This reductive binary is also a matter of expedience: so few poets and critics of colour are published that by grouping them together the overwhelming whiteness of British and Irish poetry criticism becomes impossible to ignore.

Finally, one additional side note on terminology: ‘articles’ refers to a full piece by a critic, which may criticise more than one book. “Critic Z reviews Poet A, Poet B and Poet C”, for example, is one article by one critic covering three books by three poets. You may also notice that in the final columns some of the percentages don’t add up to a hundred – this was when anthologies were being reviewed.

Let’s start by looking at race. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9% of the total UK population, 5.7% in Ireland. While I do not believe that simply meeting this arbitrary quota will necessarily produce radical change within poetry culture, it is, at the very least, a useful, basic benchmark for what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.

Of all seven magazines, only Poetry London and The Poetry Review meet this most basic figure. In this data set, only twenty articles were written by just twelve critics of colour. For comparison, 18 articles were written by white critics named David, and 39 articles were written by white women named Katherine. It’s worth noting, however, that women aren’t being adequately represented either.

The Guardian: until the past few weeks, in which Kate Kellaway reviewed Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Ben Wilkinson reviewed Daljit Nagra’s British Museum, The Guardian had not published a review of a poet of colour in four hundred and forty six days, when Sandeep Parmar reviewed Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize-winning Measures of Expatriation on February 19 2016. Incidentally, Parmar’s article was also the last time The Guardian published a review by a critic of colour, a run which is currently ongoing at four hundred and sixty-five days. It is also the first time The Guardian has reviewed a poet of colour who has not won a national prize since Kellaway covered Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds on November 23 2014. You’ll remember Woolf as the editor of Ten: The New Wave. For reference, the last time this happened for a white poet was two weeks ago, when Nicholas Lezard reviewed Bethany W Pope.

PN Review’s poor showing of just ten reviews of books by poets of colour is somewhat misleading. Of these ten, five were pamphlets covered in Alison Brackenbury’s round-up articles, in which each book is lucky to receive more than a few sentences of critical attention. Of the five full collections, only one was given its own solo review, Alex Wong’s Poems Without Irony, published by Carcanet, where PN Review editor Michael Schmidt works as Publisher. In two years’ worth of criticism – 138 articles totalling around 140,000 words, at a conservative estimate – PN Review dedicated roughly 2,500 words to poets of colour, about 1.5% of its review space.

The Poetry Review boasts some relatively positive statistics. A major factor in these unusually high numbers is Kayo Chingonyi. Chingonyi is a British-Zambian poet and critic who co-edited the Autumn 2016 issue of The Poetry Review, commissioning 2 of its seven total critics of colour, and 7 of its 23 reviews of poets of colour; in the following issue, Chingonyi himself reviewed two more poets of colour. Across the board, Chingonyi wrote or comissioned 30% of all articles by people of colour in the UK and Ireland in the past two years. This is an unreasonable burden to place on one individual.

Poetry London’s positive statistics are also a result of a temporary change in editorship. The Summer 2017 issue, published last week, was edited by Martha Kapos and Sam Buchan-Watts, and featured five reviews by critics of colour, and reviews of nine books by poets of colour; this single issue accounts for 38% of Poetry London‘s reviews by critics of colour in the past two years, and 36% of its reviews of poets of colour.

It’s also worth noting that the twelve critics of colour who did achieve publication are exceptionally qualified: these writers have a disproportionately high number of literary prizes, lectureships, editorships, academic and artistic residencies behind them for their career stage. Dzifa Benson’s background offers a small variation on this trend: her residencies at Tate Britain, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Institute of Contemporary Arts were for performance theatre, not poetry. Again, she was commissioned by Kayo Chingonyi. It is an observable fact that white editors do not open doors for critics of colour unless they have already been institutionally verified several times over.

This is what I mean when I say just hitting quotas is not enough. A quota will not tell you when poets of colour are included as an afterthought or a token gesture. It will not ensure that the attention given to poets of colour is in any way a sustained, committed endeavour. If people of colour are not included at vital, decision-making positions, the systematic exclusion of people of colour in poetry criticism will not change, not least because white critics and editors are not sharing the burden of responsibility.

On gender, things are relatively encouraging. Aside from the PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review, most publications are approaching a basic level of gender parity, with Poetry Wales, Poetry Review and The Guardian leaning marginally in favour of female critics. All three are edited by women, and the Poetry Review‘s editorial practice has changed markedly since Emily Berry’s tenure began last year. In almost every case, however, female critics review more books per article than their male counterparts, and men disproportionately review other men.

As a poetry critic, being given space to review a single book is a chance to make a significant contribution to a critical conversation. These reviews are overwhelmingly commissioned to men, a total of 157 compared to just 72 by women across all platforms. Even more intriguingly, while women review male and female poets about equally (33 women to 34 men, with 5 anthologies), men almost exclusively review other men, by 128 to 22. Simply put, male critics and poets alike are routinely given more space and prestige than their female colleagues.

This is most starkly illustrated by Alison Brackenbury’s role as resident pamphlet reviewer at PN Review, where she accounts for ten of the thirty-five total articles by women and seventy of the one hundred books reviewed by a female critic. There is a gendered labour gap at work at the magazine which aptly matches its apathy towards poets of colour. PN Review is by white men, for white men.

At the outset of this paper I mentioned how recent victories for poets of colour might be seen as a sign of positive change. It is, however, vital to put these results into historical context. I studied four major poetry prizes: The Forward Prize (established 1992); The TS Eliot Prize (established 1993); The Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize, which has been running a poetry award since 1985); and the Ted Hughes Prize (established 2009). To give an idea of the resources awarded by each: the TS Eliot awards £20,000 to its winner; The Forward Prize £10,000 for Best Collection and £5,000 for Best First Collection; the Costa Prize awards £5,000 with a possible £30,000 if the book also wins Book of the Year; the Ted Hughes Prize awards £5,000.

The questions this data set asked were also very simple: who is shortlisted for these prizes, and who wins them?

Only the newly created Ted Hughes Prize has awarded more women than men, by 6 to 2, and no poet of colour has ever won.

Between 1985 and 2000, the Costa Prize was won only once by a woman, Carol Ann Duffy in 1993. Jane Yeh was the first poet of colour whose work featured on the shortlist in 2005, its twenty-first year. In its thirty-one year history, no poet of colour has ever won the Costa Prize.

In its twenty-four years, the TS Eliot Prize has been won only twice by poets of colour, and only seven times by female poets. Its first eight winners were white men, and Derek Walcott was the first poet of colour to win, in the 18th year of the prize’s operation.

In a similar vein, only three of the first twenty Forward Prize winners were women, and only in 2014, its twenty-third year, was the prize awarded to a poet of colour, Kei Miller. The Forward Prize for Best First Collection is slightly different, in that Kwame Dawes won in 1994. Between 1995 and 2004, the First Collection Prize had all-white shortlists until Jane Yeh was shortlisted in 2005.

It may also be worth noting that of the ten poets of colour to have won one of these five prizes, only three self-define as British: Daljit Nagra, Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe, both of whom won their prizes in 2015.

Since 1985, thirty poets of colour have been shortlisted for awards a total of forty-one times, with ten wins. To put this into context, in the same time period six white male poets – namely, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien, Robin Robertson and David Harsent – account for fifty-three shortlistings and twenty-one wins. Poets of colour were also disproportionately awarded the Forward Best First Collection, twelve out of the total of forty-one shortlistings and five of ten wins.

If encouragement can be taken anywhere, it is in the fact that of these forty-one shortlistings, twenty-two of them came in the past four years; while that does indeed mean that in the twenty-seven years from 1985 to 2012 only nineteen poets of colour were shortlisted for anything, it does suggest things are changing. If we take data from only the years 2013-2016, the percentage of poets of colour shortlisted rises to 18.6, and a remarkable 30% of all winners; likewise, the gender proportion is flipped, with 54.2% of female shortlistees and 55% of winners.

The idea that poetry prizes might be awarded to women is a relatively new one; that people of colour might also be rewarded for their work is newer still, and it is too early to say whether these changes mark a meaningful departure from the dominance of white male poets. Without a concordant commitment to the hiring of critics of colour and the reviewing of poets of colour, these islands lack the diverse critical culture necessary to understand in complex or nuanced terms the work of poets of colour. I fear that after these few positive years we – white critics and scholars – may consider the job done and turn a blind eye to the 100% white editors commissioning 96% white critics to write about 91% white poets. Prizes are a proven, if limited, antidote: of the eighty-five books by poets of colour reviewed in the featured data set, twenty-one were by prizewinners; indeed in The Guardian’s case, this is all but the only guarantee of critical attention.

As Sandeep Parmar notes in her seminal essay ‘Not A British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’: ‘Mechanisms in place systematically reward poets of color who conform to particular modes of self-foreignizing, leaving the white voice of mainstream and avant-garde poetries in the United Kingdom intact and untroubled by the difficult responsibilities attached to both racism and nationalism.’ Kate Kellaway’s review of Ocean Vuong, for example, invokes troubling cultural and racial clichés and stereotypes by introducing the poet as ‘born on a rice farm’ in her first sentence, and indebted to a white male mentor, Ben Lerner, in her second. This impulse to deliberately other poets of colour is precisely why the dire lack of critics of colour is such an urgent issue.

Earlier I mentioned the backlash against poets of colour in the literary press; when white male poet Jacob Polley won the TS Eliot prize this year, not only was there a distinct lack of outrage, The Guardian reviewed his collection, featured ‘Every Creeping Thing’ as Poem of the Day, and commissioned him three times to talk about his life and work, with such softball questions as ‘One review described what Polley does as a calling, “a kind of secular transubstantiation”. Would he agree?’ Where poets of colour like Vuong and Sarah Howe have orientalising narratives imposed upon them, white poets are commissioned to write their own stories on national platforms.

The scholar Sara Ahmed notes in the conclusion of her book On Being Included: ‘When a category allows us to pass into the world, we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped or held up by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us.’ As white poets, critics and scholars, we must acknowledge how centralising and normalising whiteness makes our creative communities exclusive by design. We must demand not just token inclusion of poets and critics of colour but that they be given equal space, resources and agency to direct critical and creative discourses. In short, writers of colour should not be compelled to spend their careers talking about nothing but race.

The work of a poetry book is only partly within its covers; the conversation, argument or statement it proposes is maintained or denied by the attendant critical community. In malicious hands, a book may be mocked or dismissed or simply ignored if that book does not behave itself as the reader demands, if it does not reinforce a given critic’s prejudices. It doesn’t take much searching to find reviews that misread or misrepresent a book’s intentions, intentionally or otherwise, coercing it into a state of palatability, or silence.

Even a preliminary study of British and Irish poetry magazines and prizes shows how ingrained is the culture of structural racism and misogyny. I hope these figures may be useful, and that knowing the true nature of our community is the first step toward changing it. Thank you for reading.

PS: At the time of writing, the figures I am working from are in a somewhat scrappy form; I am working to make this project into a fully searchable database using Google spreadsheets; this process is turning up small discrepancies in the raw data (mostly regarding anthologies and pamphlets), and once I have complete statistics I will update this article. I also plan on keeping these facts regularly updated, and investigating up to five years’ worth of material for a clearer view of poetry criticism’s recent history in these islands, perhaps expanding the number of featured platforms.

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.

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Disclosure: Saw the poet read many years ago, don’t know Bernard personally. The book deals with social aggressions over race and gender, and a character in constant negotiation with their identity, or the identity imposed on their body. These are things I’ve tried to educate myself about, but have very much not experienced. It’s also a riff on a medieval text, which is not my specialism. Huge thanks due to Muireann Crowley for editorial advice.

The Red and Yellow Nothing was published over a year ago, and usually I’d take the loss and pay closer attention to pamphlet releases in future, but in part because of its Ted Hughes Prize shortlisting, and in part because I’ve never read anything like it, I want to spend a short time discussing it now.

Review: The Red and Yellow Nothing is a prequel to Moraien, a Middle Dutch poem about a Moorish knight who comes to Camelot to find his white father, Aglovale, who had abandoned him and his mother to continue his quest for the Grail. Bernard provides a brief but invaluable introduction and commentary on the original text:

‘The question of how a Moor, described as being black from head to toe, came to be the child of a knight of the round table is more about textual history than genealogy […] Morien is not racialised (except through contact with anyone reading this in the last five hundred years)’

I’ve talked on here about how truly radical texts need an uncommon amount of critical scaffolding to transport the (culturally centred) reader from canon-friendly reading practices to a place where those practices may be effectively criticised. Alongside this introduction Bernard has written two blog posts, at Speaking Volumes and The Poetry School, and they both helped me triangulate things in a book that does very little hand-holding. As Bernard argues, this quest is as much a textual as a physical one, and that requires a lot of lateral thinking, creative reading.

The first lines are not words but punctuation:

‘.
:
;
,
,
.’

Morien ‘enters page left on his horse, Young’Un’, and ‘a bard of indeterminate gender’ sings:

‘A silver wind came passing in
the distant land where books begin
where maids are men and hermits siiiiing
in the land before the story-o’

The poem’s action literally happens in a book, or a dramatized literary space, where postmodern ideas of text, contemporary slang and understanding of gender fluidity meet folk song and knightly romance. Wherever or whatever this ‘land’ is, it is a contested and uncertain place, and primes the reader to start making themselves uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s useful to visualise the story playing out onstage: The Red and Yellow Nothing regularly calls attention to its own artificiality and breaks the fourth wall, highlighting its episodic structure and the self-conscious humour of its narrative/stage directions. There’s that elongated ‘siiiiing’ that nudges the reader to imagine its vocalisation, the physical body behind the words. Maybe, again, this is a primer to think of Morien (and his dramatic monologue) as embodied also, both textual artefact and physical form; certainly the text and its players alike read his body like an open book. The narrator argues that ‘maybe we can empathise with the frustration one feels when the local people take one look at you, then hurry away from you before you’ve finished your sentence’. The ‘maybe’ seems pointed: as a middle class white reader I certainly cannot – the only thing that ‘maybe’ hinges on is who’s reading it. Morien, in turn, instrumentalises this fear:

‘Tell me where my dad is, or I’ll kill you. Wanna fight?
I’ll fight you. I’ll take this sword and run you through,
I’ll have a disco inside you.’

Before either poem or reader meet Morien, or see anything of his inner life, we meet his violent response to the world. Whether this is due to a preternaturally hot temper, a perfectly understandable response to prejudice, or a mix of both is finally unknowable. He is, for now, all exterior.

The following episode is taken up by two perhaps competing exteriors, both unreal in their own ways. The section begins with William Dunbar’s hateful poem ‘Of A Black Moor’, describing a white woman in extreme dishygiene and blackface posing as a black woman for the crowd’s entertainment; Morien spots a woman in the crowd, wearing red and yellow, ‘both cheeks shining black like whorls of wood’, ‘shoulders like a proto-stradivarius / lost to the sea’. She disappears and Morien wakes drunk in a field, ‘the dew that / cradles him finds the word: innocence’, a beautifully poised moment that allows Morien his youth and inexperience, and allows the reader empathy for a character who in this moment is completely lost. It’s possible the idealised and vanishing woman appeared in Morien’s imagination in self-defence against the collective ridicule of blackness, but the gloves left in Morien’s hands seem to suggest otherwise, and the section ends:

‘a red and yellow nothing stands with
her back towards him; red lace
yellow silk, and no-one there.’

The Red and Yellow Nothing is full of these doublings and halvings: Morien and his father dream corresponding parts of the same dream, there is a town split down the middle with one half in summer, one in winter, one character sings a song about promising a song, other examples abound. While a recognisable literary trope, and one that feels right in a medieval romance, its sheer abundance adds to the uncanny sense that the usual relationship between story and protagonist (or even reader and story) has broken down, is in transition to something stranger.

The book doesn’t shy away from the ghoulish. Later, a female convict is ‘hog-tied’, ‘hanging from a pole […] writhing like an errant C’. Though that last simile seems to point to the girl’s existence as a leftover trope of misogynist writing, her fate is still extremely gruesome. A figure called ‘The Something’, which might be the ‘red and yellow nothing’s grim counterpart, emerges from the trees and draws the woman bodily into its anus before releasing her for burial. Bernard’s account is visceral and revolting, giving the whole scene the air of an awful ritual or sacrifice. Like Morien, the woman is painted in innocent tones, ‘She is a child’s finger’, ‘crying for god and her mother’, and their connection seems substantialised by a later, crucial episode in which Morien is transformed and processed (‘Morien is currently a turd.’) by sinking to the lowest point in Earth’s sea and being ‘expelled’ ‘from the slippy slide / of time’. Where the woman’s ordeal is socially inscribed and compulsory, Morien’s seems to be the result of some psychological shift that originates in dreams and comes to reorder reality as Morien perceives it.

If it wasn’t clear, The Red and Yellow Nothing is, by any standard in common currency, extremely weird. But there’s something so clear and graspable and purposeful about that weirdness that has kept hold of my imagination weeks after first reading it. Shortly after the horrific scene discussed above, the whole adventure becomes increasingly surreal, increasingly subject to bizarre and arbitrary laws and rules. And yet those rules are almost followable, the story’s progression right on the brink of logical, while the meanings attached to Morien’s body become increasingly nonsensical, or perhaps their inherent nonsense is revealed.

I can’t help feeling that in someone else’s hands the book and its narrative would have felt pretentious, or merely arbitrary, rather than a faithful account of the odd trajectory needed to get from the book’s start to its finish. Throughout, there’s a wry humour (‘in which Darkness herself comes across Morien’s dreaming body and is like woah’) that keeps the story grounded, human, and for all its depictions of suffering and brutality, Morien himself (or themself, for a significant passage) is neither the butt of the joke nor a punching bag. The book clearly cares for him, however much it focuses on the change and uncertainty being visited upon him.

Most of all, I think, this is a story about blackness and how the world responds to it. The white people at the fair and the people in the book’s first episode won’t talk to Morien, and the brutal execution scene is implicitly enacted by white society. Darkness appears as a character, and while she doesn’t interact with Morien either, she is invested in his story and knows he is both closer to and further from Camelot than he thinks. Five African soldiers in Scotland speak the book’s most peaceful and mindful sequence, on ‘the strangeness of the land they’re in’, articulating a complex thought about empathy and mutual respect:

‘Their footsteps of mine.
I want to know what people
to whom I give everything
feel when they think they are me.’

The book’s climactic scene has Morien encounter the figure of Saint Maurice, a character who the writer of the Medieval POC tumblr – which Bernard cites as an originary source for the book – argues might be cognate with Morien himself, given the shared linguistic root of their names and the habitual shuffling of characters’ identities in romances of the period. Given this final muddling, the final passage seems deeply significant:

‘The statue stirs, like it’s about
to speak, then of its own accord, blows away.’

This may be the story’s final doubling, or the final doubling’s reconciliation. The canonised Christian martyr Maurice gives way, of his own volition, to the transformed, multi-identitied, genderqueer Morien, to whom Christianity and its official sanctioning have meant nothing. The next moment, Morien finds Camelot, and Moraien begins.

It’s incredible that so much has been fit into about 24 pages, including the handful of full-page illustrations by the poet, without feeling overburdened. The Red and Yellow Nothing has the feel of a heartfelt and intense investigation into something complex and significant, a true poetic quest, and one that has compromised little, if anything at all. It’s confusing, it’s challenging, it’s deeply satisfying, and it would be a real mistake to let such an exciting piece of work pass by uncelebrated.

The Red and Yellow Nothing is available now from Ink, Sweat and Tears Press.

Further Reading: 

Jay Bernard – Breaking Ground – Speaking Volumes

Jay Bernard – How I did it – Poetry School/Ted Hughes Award

Medieval POC tumblr

Review by Theophilus Kwek – The London Magazine

Review by Fiona Moore – Sabotage Reviews

Review by Emma Lee – London Grip

OPOI by Helena Nelson – Sphinx Review

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.