Changing my mind about Fothermather

 

In the most recent edition of the poetry magazine, Acumen, Patricia Oxley comments in her editorial on the nature of the submissions she had been receiving since the outbreak of Covid-19. She contrasts “‘clever-clever’ poems which needed the cryptic brain of The Times crossword solver” and “poems of warmth and contact”.  Although this is a very blunt distinction, we know instinctively what she means, and we can shuffle much of contemporary poetry into one pack or the other. Reducing the categorisation to an even more basic level, we could describe this as the difference between poets who prioritise form and those who prioritise content.  At this point, the distinction reveals itself as false, since, in Robert Creeley’s adage, ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ Creeley modified this statement in a radio interview in 2003:

What I meant, whatever that means, is that what’s coming to be said — it’s like William Carlos Williams’ wonderful insistence, “How to get said what must be said…” — that need, that impulse, that demand, is what I would call the content’s finding a form for its own realization, recognition, substantiation.[1]

 

For some contemporary writers, form or language have themselves become content because they have recognised that neither language nor the form in which it is organised can be transparent windows on content.  However, sometimes the preoccupation with language will have an alienating effect if the reader is unable to perceive a shared experience. A number of very successful contemporary poets have pursued their interest to language to a point where, although neither their intelligence nor their skills are in doubt, their audiences may lose patience, feeling they are being asked merely to solve riddles rather than engage with a perception of the world.

 

This long preamble is an attempt to express my own contradictory feelings about the poetry I read and how I feel poetry should be written.  I have been drawn to experimental and avant-garde writing and endorse the exploration of new ways of saying. However, sometimes it seems that poems become so concerned with the mechanisms of language as to become almost totally self-reflexive and therefore impenetrable. The concepts may be interesting but often the poems are not. Nevertheless, I find this kind of formalism more interesting than another contemporary trend which is the production of poems in traditional European, more exotic or even invented forms where success is often measured in obedience to strict rules.  The first time I read a specular poem, which was Julia Copus’ ‘Miss Jenkins’,[2] I thought it ingenious and intriguing.  Now, I simply find these poems irritating. And why, I ask myself, except as an exercise, would anyone want to write a sestina? The very best of these contemporary efforts disguise their form or offer variations of it, as Paul Muldoon has, over a poetic lifetime, offered variations on the sonnet.

 

While I may be frustrated by my failure to grasp or appreciate some of the more linguistically experimental poets, the poems of  warmth and contact’ are often worthy but dull, exploring relationships with humans and often with nature but in language which is unironically clichéd. The best, or at least the most interesting, poets continue to push formal and linguistic boundaries but at the same time they do have something to say.

 

Perhaps you need to have time on your hands to give difficult poetry the attention it deserves. Since I retired, I have revisited the work of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian, reading them with much more enjoyment and appreciation. Muldoon’s poetry, in particular, has been a revelation as I have gone from considering him an irritating clever-clogs to a deeply serious poet who uses his huge range of reference and idiosyncratic sense of humour to present poems which are (often, not always) intellectually and emotionally profound.

 

I was intrigued, therefore, when I read a brief notice of Fothermather, a pamphlet-length poem, by Gail McConnell.(Ink Sweat and Tears, 2019)  It seemed that this was a poet who, like Muldoon and McGuckian, had something to say but who was choosing new ways of saying it.  When I read the blurb on the back of the book, I became slightly apprehensive. There was the endorsement from Vahni Capildeo, currently the darling of the poetry establishment and herself highly experimental[3]. There were the references to concrete forms and erasure which warned that this was not going to be straightforward to read.

My first reaction to the work was disappointment. It seemed too elitist, too self-indulgent, too based on the writer’s own range of reference devoid of explication. However, when I picked up the book again, I felt I had been wrong. Certainly, there is much in it which eludes me; at the same time, I became aware of strength of feeling and a refusal to compromise on the difficult, either emotionally or intellectually.

 

McConnell experiments with form in the struggle to discover or create her identity in relation to her son of whom she is neither the biological father or mother through a series of reflections on his gestation and birth. At times she resorts to traditional forms such as the sonnet and the villanelle, both of which she executes with great skill. Here, the difficulty of the formal task is matched by the difficulty of what is trying to be said, so that the poems go far beyond mere technical fireworks. Her sonnet “Shell Notes’ derives from a poem by Francis Ponge, a recurrent presence in the sequence, but the poem is self-sufficient and does not require knowledge of the French poet.[4] In it, McConnell explores ideas about form and substance in the context of her own efforts to reimagine forms and create names for new relationships. She takes the image of a skull ‘at sea’ which recalls Shakespeare’s ‘Full fathom five’ and another idea of the father; the skull adapts to become a shell, or shelter for a ‘not-too-social mollusk’, thus becoming a mother rather than a father. Shell as womb occurs in other poems.  The fluidity of form signalled in the octave gives rise to ‘uneasiness’, so the sestet proceeds to demonstrate how all form is taken or adapted from somewhere else: ‘Adjustment is true/genius. Less man from ape, than boy from body.’ The final line is an image of physical childbirth, but it is also a linguistic parturition which may reflect the poet’s ambition to establish a non-biological way of parenting her son which grows out of language and through this sequence of poems.

The Freud erasure poem is also extremely successful, partly because it is so very much a willed and authored piece.  Some erasure poems employ randomising rules for how the rubber is used, but in this one McConnell is clearly challenging a statement by Freud that she finds troubling and problematic: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’ The poem appears in two versions on facing pages; in the first, erasure is employed to explore a relationship with a missing father, and it is relevant to know that McConnell’s own father was murdered in front of her when she was three years old.  The erasures are skilfully chosen to create a moving sense of loss which manages to subvert itself:

 

I                       a                                                                                  father

need

 

da

da

 

 

Sigmund Freud

 

The double meaning of dada is unlikely to be coincidental.[5] The poem continues, on the second page, to offer an entirely different version of gender, based on the curious example of the male seahorse who gestates his partner’s eggs.  The seahorse, which is the image on the front cover, is an emblem of range in gender roles and in parenting. This section of the poem begins and ends with a series of bubbles or non-verbal ‘o’s in upper and lower case which are visually extremely effective.

 

The aim of McConnell’s sequence is to celebrate the arrival of her son, ‘Finn, the brilliantist’ and to discover or establish a way of being towards that son which adapts, reshapes and challenges received ideas about parenthood. It is not, however, a propaganda poem for same sex parents, but the deeply felt quest of an individual to work out her relationship with the child of whom she is neither father nor mother in any traditional sense, yet with whom she clearly feels a very strong bond, to an extent where I felt slightly sorry for the partner and biological mother who is barely addressed and almost excluded. The poet creates linguistic links based on poems, on etymological explorations of words, including the child’s name, ‘Finn’, which imitate the absent DNA inheritance.

 

The poem convinces because it is not propaganda and because it deals with the difficult and in so dealing it pushes the limits of traditional and more avant-garde poetic conventions. The poet wants to bring into words something that has not yet been said and my own initial reaction was most probably a defensive one. McConnell has made me confront ideas that I find difficult and unsettling and along the way she has forced me to find out more about a lot of things, from Ponge to the sex life of cuttlefish. (I already knew Captain Calamari!)

 

[1] https://jacket2.org/commentary/robert-creeley-conversation-leonard-schwartz

[2] The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus, Faber, 2012

[3] Capildeo is also a poet who definitely has things to say, but whose work may have encouraged a shoal of poetasters who do not.

[4] Incidentally, Ponge also appears in Still Life, the valedictory collection by Ciaran Carson, a more senior Belfast poet and colleague of McConnell. Still Life is a wonderful book, which I recommend without qualification.

[5] The lineation is difficult to reproduce accurately.

In the shadow of Brexit:’Wretched Strangers’ edited byAgnes Lehoczky and J.T.Welsch

wretched strangers

When I went to a launch reading of the anthology, Wretched Strangers, I was a little puzzled by the title. This is a collection, mainly of poetry, of work, mainly in English, by people who have been displaced or who live away from their countries of origin. However, when I looked at the readers, all very estimable poets, I saw people who were far from wretched, mostly with established or budding academic careers, winners of awards, fellowships, university posts. As one of the editors, J.T. Welsch, explained, and I read later in the introduction, the title comes from a speech, apparently by Shakespeare, in which Thomas More makes a plea on behalf of immigrants persecuted by xenophobic Londoners who felt the foreigners threatened their jobs.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise


Hath chid down all the majesty of England;


Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,


Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,


Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,


And that you sit as kings in your desires,


Authority quite silent by your brawl,

And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;


What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught


How insolence and strong hand should prevail,


How order should be quelled; and by this pattern


Not one of you should live an aged man,


For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,


With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,


Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes


Would feed on one another….

http://theshakespeareblog.com/2015/09/shakespeare-sir-thomas-more-and-the-immigrants/

 

The opportune relevance of this speech is irresistible and if you follow the link you will see that Sir Ian McKellan has not resisted it. Nevertheless, I still feel that it misrepresents the nature and quality of this anthology. Although many of the poems draw attention to the plight of those forced to flee their own countries, the overall effect of the collection is to open a window to the world, particularly necessary in these isolationist Brexit days. The book was not originally intended as a reaction to Brexit, but it is impossible to read it now except in that shadow. This writing, which includes contributions from established poets such as Sujata Bhatt, Mimi Khalvati and George Szirtes as well as rising stars like Mary Jean Chan and many others I have never encountered before, ranges from fairly traditional forms to experimental avant-garde work veering between boundary breaking and self-indulgence. Some of the poems are slight, some are unreadable; yet they force the reader to engage with a literary and political reality which fizzes with life and which represents the fluidity and uncertainty of a world beyond national borders.

Borders, in fact, are a recurrent image in the anthology, whether as barriers or in the process of breaking down. For example, Draft 112: Verge by Rachel Blau Duplessis explores the concept and effects of border in a poem which references the borders dividing Cyprus and Palestine but can be recognised as relevant to anywhere such lines have been drawn:

 

Everyone, it seemed, had realigned,

criss-crossed

double-crossed.

Maps had scratches, ridges, edges

that they never before,

it seemed, had.

 

In the right –hand margin of the poem there is a column of significant single words in italics. Close to this extract appear the words borders, atrocities, crossed.

 

Astrid Alben also explores the idea of border in a dream poem where the imagery of flight and migration becomes perhaps the transition between life and death:

 

Across the border one foot easily

Forgets the other but that’s neither here nor there.

It isn’t one thing or the other.

 

Remember

B says

The border is just a line.

 

The notion that borders are a paper-based colonial imposition emerges also in Seni Seneviratne’s poem:

Some maps

            tell us nothing about the lies

of the land or how straight lines

 

came to be drawn in places where

once, contours marked out borders

 

so that the land and its people curved

into each other like sleeping lovers.

 

The challenge of crossing a border carries with it the theme of transition, of moving from one place to the other. This anthology opens our minds to the possibility of transition, of being between places, ‘in transit’ as a mode of being. This is explored wittily in the (I think) slightly tongue-in-cheek essay, The Right to be transplace by Lisa Samuels. She criticises the commonly held assumption that everyone must be from somewhere, and argues that ‘transplace’ people should be thought of as ‘being from movement’: ‘transplace as movement states that when movement happens between one body/place and another, the movement itself is a real condition of being.’ Thus it resists, among other things, nation-state identification. This idea of being ‘transplace’ which must be recognisable to many of the writers in this book, is the very opposite of Theresa May’s assertion that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere.   Moreover, the anthology reveals how this ‘transplace’ identity has become increasingly common. Sometimes, a person may have such a mixed heritage that none seems particularly theirs; sometimes, a person may have travelled around so much in childhood and/ or adulthood that nowhere ever seems to be ‘home’, the place of origin; sometimes, people may have been driven out of their place of origin with no hope of ever returning but with no particular feeling of belonging to the place where they have ended up. These writers are showing us identity in flux, but it is not a flux which should terrify us, or which we should regard as some kind of tabula rasa on which we must impose ‘British values’, as the Government has tried to do in its education and citizenship policies. To be ‘from movement’, ‘transplace’, is a 21st century reality and an enriching reality which is the antithesis of Brexit. However, the recognition of such a ‘transplace’ identity should not be considered to undermine the value of local culture and sense of place, but rather to combat the destructive force of nationalism.

 

Moreover, many of the pieces in the anthology reflect loss of place, the impossibility of return. One of the most horrific contributions comes from Zimbabwean writer, Ethel Maqeda. In a prose piece she describes how a young woman attempts to return home:

I had wanted her [her mother] to say ‘I’m glad you came, my child’ and to erase the last ten years into nothing and make it 1997 again. Instead, she just wrenched the small bag I was carrying, almost ripping my shoulder out of its socket, turned away and marched back into the hut. ‘You have to leave tomorrow, first thing,’ she said, not looking at me.

 

Not only does this demonstrate the Heraclitean impossibility of return, the story goes on to show how reality can become too unbearable to inhabit as it recounts the protagonist’s experience of rape by guerrilla militia men:

They roughly pull me back on the ground. One pulls my legs. The other holds my arms. There is more cheering and clapping. I hear roars of laughter. I hear the screams.

 

This time I am going to do something about it. I decide and start to walk away. I have a sudden urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother. I will pick nhedzi, tsuketsuke and even the rare, sweet chikunguwo. I have the time to search for it despite the thickening fog and the approaching darkness. I hear whimpering after they leave to bring the next woman but I keep walking. The urge to pick wild mushrooms for my mother grows stronger still.

 

In other poems, ‘being from movement’ seems to bring about an existence which is hallucinatory and unstable. This is Ana Seferovic:

this city is everywhere

its borders fading into

endless now

A City is a Persistent Desire for a Another City

 

and here is Ariadne Radi Cor, somewhere between London and Venice:

 

‘Don’t fear my love”

Should I get shot on Oxford Street, I wouldn’t die

Because this isn’t my life.

 

I’m still living in a Burano glass globe

I twirl and the snow falls.

L’italie L’ondon

 

This condition of betweenness is often represented through language, as in this title and in Mary Jean Chan’s poem Hybridity which, if you don’t know Chinese, reads like a Cloze exercise where the blanks are filled by Chinese characters. As I have no idea how to type Chinese characters, I have used blanks where they would appear. This poem is overtly post-colonial political, hardly surprising considering the history of Britain and Hong Kong:

 

Did you

 

Think it was by chance that I learnt

your ____ _____ for decades, until I knew

 

it better than the ____ ___ I dream in?

 

The use of direct address as well as the veiled accusation of cultural spoliation draws attention to the role of colonialism in bringing ‘trans-place’ people into existence. Other poems are also overtly political in how they present ‘betweenness’. Luna Montenegro’s poem this country is/is not your home is an imaginative representation of a confrontation between a xenophobe/racist and a child on a 355 bus. This poem comes with reading instructions and is clearly intended for performance like another overtly political poem, David Herd’s Prologue. In fact, Herd’s piece declares repeatedly that it is not a poem:

This prologue is not a poem

It is an act of welcome

 

It was written as an introduction to Refugee Tales, a project in which the writer was co-organiser. The first two lines declare it to be performative, as if it were a counter weight to the type of behaviour shown in Luna Montenegro’s poem. Herd weaves in many quotations from Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as he details the experiences of refugees arriving in the UK. The ambition of this poem is to create an atmosphere of openness and welcome:

And why we walk is

To make a spectacle of welcome

This political carnival

Across the weald of Kent

People circulating

Making music

Listening to stories

People urgently need said.

 

The reference to The Canterbury Tales serves to remind us that people have always been in motion for whatever reason, that the English of Chaucer was created from a multiplicity of languages and that Chaucer, himself a traveller, was influenced by the literatures and culture of the rest of Europe. Agnes Lehoczky suggests, with many qualifications, that language can become a kind of home, polis or place to belong:

I suspect that perhaps bringing together perspectives, bodies of poetries, and encounters to name, document or take notes of our own collective emotion, triggered by such quests for a home or polis (collective inasmuch as it is a place or a country we have never been before, with country signifying less a specific ‘place’ than a zone of time, thought, desire or experience) does ease one’s misery inasmuch it is a collective misery.

 

Her essay or notes, Endnotes: On Paper Citizens, Disobedient Poetries and Other Agoras is illuminating but very academic. It reminds me of the image of a locked door which I used to find at the end of Andrew Laing Fairy Books which was intended to discourage child readers from looking at the scholarly notes. There is a slight whiff of academic cleverness from the whole collection which can become another boundary that needs to be breached. Other things which bothered me slightly, especially at the beginning, were the number of contributions and the decision to order the collection alphabetically rather than thematically. The size of the collection is quite daunting especially when the print is fairly small. There are also a number of proof-reading errors which become significant in the context of so many different linguistic backgrounds and the experimental nature of much of the writing. We need to know that the inclusion or omission of punctuation or transgressions of conventional English grammar are deliberate. I did, however, change my mind about the order feeling that the decision to go with the random and egalitarian alphabetic listing was the most satisfying. I remember The Rattle Bag:

 

We hope that our decision to impose an arbitrary alphabetical order allows the contents to discover themselves as we ourselves gradually discovered them –each poem full of its singular appeal, transmitting its own signals, taking its chances in a big, voluble world.[1]

 

There is much in this anthology that I don’t understand and quite a lot that I don’t particularly like, but it is doing what poetry needs to do –dragging me out of my comfort zone. It is exciting, challenging, politically relevant and against the current. It should be read.

 

 

 

           

 

 

[1] From the Introduction to The Rattle Bag edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, 1982.