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

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Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: Interview in the Evening Standard

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Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman, eds., – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back [interview]

Disclosure: Have not met Khairani Barokka or Daniel Sluman before, I remember Sandra Alland being one of the first performers I saw live in Edinburgh when I moved here in 2008, though I don’t think we met. The following conversation was conducted over email over the course of a month or two, and huge thanks to Okka, Dan and San for their time and energy, and for keeping track of the italics. My copy of Stairs and Whispers was paid for in part with support from my backers on Patreon, and is available in all good bookshops (it’s currently cheapest direct from Nine Arches, if you prefer online stores).

DC: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a poet/artist (whichever sounds right to you!)? What have you been working on before Stairs And Whispers?

Sandra Alland: I’m a writer and interdisciplinary artist. Writing, filming and editing for Stairs and Whispers has been a huge part of my life since late 2014. During that time, I began and finished work on a commission from Disability Arts Online and SICK! to co-curate a playlist of 10 films and co-create five new short documentaries about D/deaf and disabled artists (A Conversation With… and Unapologetic Self-Portraits). I also researched and wrote two short stories as commissioned collaborations for Manchester’s Comma Press (Protest! Stories of Resistance and Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals), and adapted one of them (‘Equivalence’, about the nature of the ‘I’ in story-telling, gender variance, disability and physics) for an accessible multimedia performance commissioned by Anatomy (Summerhall) and Transpose (Barbican). Before Stairs and Whispers I did similar things, though usually not so many at once or because I was asked to! I’ve been really blessed these past few years. Really blessed and really exhausted. But usually I spend my time writing, making low-budget films featuring queer and trans D/deaf and disabled artists, curating arts events, working at crap jobs, and sleeping badly.

Khairani Barokka: I’ve been an independent interdisciplinary artist, writer, and researcher since 2011, after studying new media at NYU Tisch’s ITP, a BA in Sociology/Anthropology (with minors in Russian and African Studies, yet still have not visited Russia or anywhere in Africa), and prior stints in aid work and journalism back in Indonesia. I’m currently doing a PhD at Goldsmiths in the Visual Cultures Department, working on a long-standing project cripping and queering stories of Southeast Asian girls, particularly in art historical archives and contemporary media. My work revolves around the limits of visuality, decolonising theory, and access translation as artistic praxis – which can go in so many incredible directions, particularly with respect to feminisms, and often with humour. Before moving to the UK in 2015, I travelled for work in residencies, trying to survive with inadequate healthcare (that level of nightmarishness is, with any luck, over, but those experiences continue to influence current work), and was an independent writer and arts consultant. I created and co-created projects, workshops, lectures, curriculum analyses, and shows for theatre melding poetry and performance art. Most recently, I designed, wrote and illustrated a long poem called Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis Press 2016), co-edited HEAT: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (Fixi 2016), and have been publishing essays, poems, and fiction, with my first poetry collection Rope out in October from Nine Arches. Before joining the Stairs and Whispers team, just before poem selections were about to be made, I’d been in touch with Sandra through a friend who saw us doing related work, and connected us, and had read with Dan on a Poetry and Mental Health panel at London Book Fair. So I already thought they were ace; little did I know how meaningful it would be to have them as colleagues for Stairs and Whispers.

Daniel Sluman: I’m a writer, editor, and occasional student, and I’ve been writing mainly poetry for the last ten years. I did a BA and MA in the University of Gloucestershire and I stumbled upon disability studies sometime then. In 2012 Nine Arches Press published my debut poetry collection Absence has a weight of its own, and then the terrible in 2015, and since then I’ve been impatiently getting through my own medical stuff and getting ready for a PHD in Disability Poetics at Birmingham City University later this year.

About four years ago, I was involved with an online poetry anthology called Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos. This was a reaction to the Tory cuts and the government’s general position on disability, and it was through co-editing this project and reading Beauty is a Verb (an American collection of poetry and prose from disabled writers) that got me thinking about what would later become Stairs and Whispers.

 

DC: How did Stairs And Whispers come together? What conversations did you have? What did you want to achieve?

Dan: Markie Burnhope and myself started talking to Nine Arches Press publisher Jane Commane about this anthology four years ago. The motivation for the book was partially down to a desire to respond to the Tory welfare cuts and the general way disability was being talked about in the media at the time (not that much has changed), including negative aspects to the narrative put forward around the time of the Paralympics. On a more general level, I guess this anthology has come together out of necessity; there just aren’t enough books out there that talk from or about disabled and D/deaf experience. As the project developed with Okka and San we talked more about intersectionality and the kinds of things we wanted the book to say in terms of moving away from the medical model of disability.

San: When the project got going in October 2014, Markie and Daniel invited me to join their ace selves as editor. We dreamt together about what kind of anthology we wanted to shape – one that showcased disabled and D/deaf poets without pity or supercrip narratives, engaged with intersectional activism and access, and addressed the current political climate in the UK.

Our call-out went into the world in January 2015, and we also invited people to submit. Parallel to the written call-out, I spoke with Jane about including British Sign Language poetry, as some Deaf poets don’t use written English (or don’t use it solely). With the help of Deaf poets Donna Williams and Alison Smith, I created several captioned BSL call-outs for submissions of BSL and other performance-based film-poems. By the final deadlines in the autumn we had amassed a large pile of brilliant poetry.

In early 2016, Nine Arches didn’t receive some hoped-for funding and Markie sadly had to step down because of health issues. Dan and I also decided to take a break to reassess what sort of timeline we could manage. In July, reinvigorated by rest and a grant from Arts Council England, we decided to search for a new third editor. We wooed Khairani Barokka to join the team. We were impressed by her submission to the anthology, the scope and range of her work on the page and stage, and her previous editorial work. And how lucky we were that she said yes!

Together Okka, Daniel and I re-imagined what Stairs and Whispers might be, and created a manageable (and exciting!) plan of action for three disabled and chronically-ill co-editors working with what we hoped would be about 50 poets. In terms of shaping the content and form of the book, we had an overall ‘feel’ that we wanted, but I think we were also guided by the poets themselves.

Okka: Oh, the conversations we had. I almost wish we’d recorded some of them–there were so many nuanced aspects of each poem submitted that we went over in detail, over Skypes and innumerable emails across our three locations. It should be known that Daniel, Sandra and I all have somewhat distinct tastes in terms of poetry, and discovering the similarities and (at times, pleasantly surprising) differences between which poems we gravitated towards and away from was a great journey. We changed our minds at times about certain pieces when placed in context with others, as we also were clear about not wanting to clump poems and poets together by perceived subject matter, definitely not according to any medical model of disability, i.e. “sight-impaired poets”, “autistic poets”. What we tried to and I think managed to achieve was the idea of the book itself being its own poem, and being structured as such: our section titles are “Bodies”, “Rules”, “Maps”, “Dreams”, and “Legends”. We also decided to include excerpts from some cover letters that we found illuminating to the poetry. On a personal level, being a non-Brit, and having some non-Brits in the anthology, it was very gratifying to be able to use my understandings towards widening the scope of inclusion and non-Western perspectives on D/deafness and disability with these two co-editors.

 

DC: ‘The book being its own poem’ sums it up really nicely. It presents critical essays, visual art, the ‘Short Definitions for Complex Ideas’ section, as a vital part of the poems’ domain; it seems to suggest that a reader moving from mainstream, able-bodied or neurotypical poetry will need to do a lot of new learning or unlearning. The shape Stairs and Whispers takes seems very purposeful in that sense, how it provides so many new (to me at least!) tools and perspectives. Was it always your intention to include so much critical work (which I loved, obviously!)?

Okka: Unlearning is a great word, though I personally co-edited the book with the mindset that this wasn’t primarily for abled readers to be introduced into our worlds, but for D/deaf and disabled poets to find each other and be allowed to speak in our own words, without catering to an imaginary “universal” abled reader. Also, it needs noting that this is also about D/deaf and disabled poets learning from and about each other–our lives and bodily experiences differ so greatly, and nobody has full knowledge of “all D/deaf and disabled perspectives”, because that is impossible. There are literally innumerable disability and D/deaf cultures and experiences in the world. We as co-editors learned plenty from these poems as well, and we thought it only apt that these modes of translating experiences were integral to the structure of the book. I see this book also as a compendium of translation, that fills in the huge gaps in how poetry (itself already always a translation of inner worlds) is usually presented sans necessary tools of understanding.

San: Aye, Okka nails it. We very specifically shaped the book for disabled and D/deaf readers, watchers and listeners. The call-out started with a quote that I also used in my essay, from Jim Ferris, about ‘writing with a crip audience in mind’ and letting go of ‘the myth of universality’. There is real value and power in writing *to* your people and not just about them. We did indeed always plan to have the critical work. From the get-go we planned introductory essays from the editors, and to invite at least three others to contribute. The short definitions Okka and I developed much later, as a tool for anyone, including others in the book. As Okka mentions, there is such diversity within our communities, and diversity of opinion and vocabulary, that we always have new things to learn from each other. There’s often an assumption that a disabled person inherently knows about or ‘gets’ access, but that person might only understand their own barriers and not have considered those of others. It’s super-important in disabled, D/deaf, neurodiverse and/or mad communities to consider cross-disability difference, and also intersecting systems of oppression. And to learn the complex reasons why someone might not want to use the same label as you, for example. Importantly, the critical essays in the book place disabled and D/deaf poetics into the realm of ‘studied’ poetry. We are often assumed to be less valid than other poets, or to be writing for therapy and thus without artistic merit. Essays like those of Abi Palmer and Nuala Watt blow those ideas out of the water. They beautifully demonstrate the literary value, unique formal inventiveness, and sheer poetic scope of disabled and D/deaf poetry. Okka and Raymond Antrobus also weave together threads from vital personal and structural viewpoints, as do the interspersed short quotes by contributors including Raisa Kabir, Cathy Bryant and Colin Hambrook.

Okka: Wonderful response, San. I’d also like to add that with regards to your question, I think it’s a fallacy to say someone is “moving away from mainstream/able-bodied poetry” – firstly, I know so, so many writers who would consider themselves disabled in some way who don’t disclose. Is their writing somehow “able-bodied poetry” because of this lack of disclosure? I’d argue no, and that just as queer readings may be interpreted from texts assumed to be heteronormative, there have always been disabled/crip/D/deaf writers and literature that are actually part of the “mainstream”/canons, but haven’t been disclosed as such.

Dan: I definitely share in Okka’s assertion about learning from the editing process. I discovered so much about other disabilities and D/deaf culture especially, and the experience as a whole is something that I think will be fundamental for me going forward within disability studies academically.

In terms of the shape of the book, considering we had such a diverse range of writers submitting work I think we would have missed out on a lot if we didn’t have the critical pieces, visual works, and the audio versions of poems as well. I think the latter is a must for any poetry journal or anthology as it is, but the critical pieces elaborate further on disability as an experience of otherness, and help destabilise assumptions around it as a health issue and not a social one amongst other things. I really feel like we managed to get a balance with this book in making something for us and about us, but also that able-bodied readers can learn so much from the anthology if they want to.

DC: Could you talk a little bit about how Stairs and Whispers has been received by disabled and D/deaf readers and artists? Have you noticed new work or conversations developing since its publication?

Okka: For sure we’ve all seen enthusiasm and support on social media from readers, with varying connections to D/deaf and disabled communities, which means the world. Having taken the book with me to Jakarta and spoken about it there, as well as noticing the interest from the US, I can say that our commitment as co-editors to making the book accessible and multimedia is seen as novel and exciting. Hopefully it will inspire other such efforts. In touring the anthology to London, Birmingham and Ledbury, we’ve been approached by people really enthused about the work who want this ethos of access and inclusion to spread to more poetry events, which is exactly what we were hoping for. And I think on a more intimate, person-to-person level, we’ve seen some increased pride in identifying as disabled as a political statement, sans shame. Which is also spot-on in terms of our objectives.

San: I’m going to embrace that word, Okka: ‘intimate’. This project has intimately changed my life. I couldn’t say I had a poetry community in the UK or Scotland before this, and I’ve been here ten years. I think ableism is so prevalent that many of us just drop out, or step/wheel back from things. And there’s such a focus on live events that some people just can’t be ‘in’ in the first place. Not to mention cis- and hetero-sexism, (trans)misogyny, racism, classism.

Working on Stairs and Whispers over the past three years I suddenly discovered I have this massive, and massively varied, community of ultra-gifted writers and performers. When we finally got into a room together for the launch at Birmingham Uni – the first time I met Daniel, and only the third time I met Okka – and 25 poets from the book showed up (only a few of whom I knew before then), I nearly started weeping. There we were, and we had mandated for an accessible stage and BSL interpreters and captioned films and projected text and audio description and gender-neutral accessible toilets and a room to rest in if we were exhausted or couldn’t deal with people or lights. And we got it all. And we will never settle for less again.

That went straight into my gut, you know? That and the beyond stellar readings and performances.

It’s still early days for Stairs and Whispers, but things have definitely been sparking. I feel like I’ve known these poets forever, and that things just flow so naturally between us and beyond us. Scottish Poetry Library is doing an Edinburgh event. Contributors Raymond Antrobus and Lisa Kelly are editing a Deaf issue of Magma Poetry. Goldsmiths and TCW are featuring a group of our London POC contributors at their upcoming diversity conference. And people are coming out of the woodwork to say, ‘Hey, I’m a crip too.’ There’s something, as Okka suggests, about a critical mass… when marginalised and often-erased cultures are valued, are lauded, something switches on. All the actions of disabled and D/deaf people resisting negative government policies and media depictions seem to be getting through a bit, and we’re finding each other – even when things are dire. Obviously that’s not all due to this book, ha! But this collection of poetry does seem to be resonating with our communities, fuelling the flames as it were – and helping to get others to notice just how hot our poetries are.

Okka: Thank you for making me laugh at “hot poetries”, which is definitely the title of Stairs and Whispers Part Two. Yes, straight in the gut is correct. I unabashedly wept at Stairs and Whispers‘ event at Ledbury Poetry Festival, specifically during Nuala Watts’ and Andra Simons’ performances, if I recall. San and Dan were very kind about my emotional nakedness, as they always are! It was just the culmination of years of trying for these kinds of experiences on the scale we’re now able to do them in, with a bolstering of support from two fellow crip co-editors and newfound poet colleagues. And the trying has been incredibly difficult at times, as I’m sure both of my fellow co-interviewees can attest. It’s a real feeling of poetry as multiple, going beyond inclusivity to something more honest, a sense of not only being “allowed” to be in a space, but to dictate the terms of that space, to create that space ourselves, to write for ourselves, to ask for what we need and demand no less; it’s an opening up and a bursting through.

Dan: I keep an eye on the Goodreads website a lot and I’ve been noticing more and more people from all over add the book to their virtual shelves, and that’s a wonderful feeling. If this book helps develop and increase awareness of writing from and about disability then that’s brilliant. I remember the effect Beauty is a Verb had on me when I first read it and how I suddenly felt aware that I was part of a wider community and with similar experiences and aims. Whether this happens for anyone reading Stairs and Whispers, I have no idea, but it’s that coming together, that moving people closer and feeling less alone that on a base level I really hope we can achieve. Like San has just said about the launches – I felt exactly the same, it was a really emotional definitive moment and if a few others feel it from Stairs and Whispers then that really is something I’m super proud of being a part of.

DC: Harry Giles, Abi Palmer and Andra Simons had an amazing conversation on accessibility and marginalisation on the Lunar Poetry Podcast last December. They discussed accessibility in the physical sense of venue hire/performance spaces alongside access to social/networking spaces, where a lot of the pivotal conversations about projects and funding happen. Can you think of instances in which accessibility has been done well? Or, what would you advise arts organisations to do to make their programmes truly accessible?

Okka: Speaking of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, I just recorded a conversation for them with Sandra, Giles L. Turnbull, and Raymond Antrobus (all in Stairs and Whispers) about access to publishing–I recommend readers have a listen, as it covers a lot of ground in terms of the questions you’re asking. In terms of accessibility being done well, there is never going to be an event that is 100% accessible to all human bodies, as there exists such variation of needs among our species – but while I can continue to cheekily toot our own horn? I think our three events for the anthology so far have been relatively marvellous for access, in no small part due to Sandra’s meticulous organisation of access needs for us as guidelines, needs that Daniel and I have long needed and tried to implement in our own ways. We had people remarking on how natural it felt for us to describe how we and our fellow poets looked for sight-impaired audience members, to have BSL interpretation, to have audio description. A room with a cot for me to lie down and rest on at Ledbury between events was definitely a personal highlight. In summation, it looks likely I will never fall out of love with Stairs and Whispers and what it’s brought to us in terms of both community and pushing the craft of poetry further. Thanks again for your interest in this project, Dave, much appreciated.

San: Yes indeed, thanks Dave, for your dedicated engagement with the book and its ideas! That podcast interviewing Andra and Abi (both also in SAW, we are everywhere mwa ha ha) was indeed brilliant. But disabled and D/deaf people have been saying this stuff forever. When non-disabled and hearing people ignored our predecessors, they went off and provided excellent access in their own artistic practice and communities. I’ve attended countless amazing events with multiple and complex kinds of access; pretty much all of them have been organised by disabled and/or D/deaf people. Birds of Paradise Theatre in Glasgow, Alison Smith’s Disability Meets Digital in Manchester, DaDa Fest in Liverpool, anything Julie McNamara or Jess Thom does. Sins Invalid over in the States.

Sadly, I haven’t yet been to a single poetry community event with good access that I didn’t co-organise, or that didn’t offer basic access because I demanded it as part of my participation. My least favourite thing is when they offer access for me and then never again. There is some improvement, though, and in Scotland some film and cabaret programmers have taken on trying to always offer at least wheelchair access (including stages and toilets!), captioned films and BSL for their events.

That bed Okka mentions in Ledbury was indeed a highlight. But we only got to the place where a lovely human organised a quiet space with a cot for us after a lot of difficult conversations. After having to justify neurodiverse, mobility and chronic pain access to non-disabled people, in painful and monetary terms. It was still our labour that got us there, though it’s such a relief when a good organiser gets it.

I can’t summarise my advice here without both exhausting myself and boring everyone to death! But here’s some pointers. Do an access assessment of your event or magazine, and hire disabled and D/deaf consultants. Ask your audience and community what they need. Remember to think about intersectional things, like financial access, and safety concerns for POC and/or trans people. Don’t exoticise BSL, and don’t think you’re done once you’ve provided it. And do some research; most of this stuff is not that mysterious. The amount of educating and free emotional (and physical) labour we put in can be overwhelming, so maybe pause before asking us for favours.

Okka: Resounding amen. Eternal echo.

 

Stairs and Whispers is available now, £14.99 from Nine Arches Press.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast with Khairani Barokka, Sandra Alland, Raymond Antrobus and Giles L Turnbull.

Lunar Poetry Podcast with Harry Giles, Abi Palmer and Andra Simons.

Stairs and Whispers and Nuala Watt at Proletarian Poetry.

The State of Poetry Criticism – July 2017 Update

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.

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

Rebecca Tamás – Savage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

for example

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

or with a horse

a train to the cold sea’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with The Suburban Review

Tamás’ witchcraft poetry at Minerva

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