No 8 - Autumn 2005
How Were These Poems Moved Together?
Review of Frances Presley
Frances Presley: Paravane: New and Selected Poems 1996-2003.
Cambridge: Salt, 2004. 126 pp. ISBN 1 84471 042 4, £9.95 pb.
If the dominant mode of British poetry, as represented by the poetry magazines and small press lists, suggests that a poem should proceed by means of normal syntax, in a single voice; narrating, describing or making comment from a single point of view, then Frances Presley’s work must be seen as transgressive. In this new volume we find prose intermingled with poetry (within a sequence, even within a single piece); sentences fractured into phrases; individual words broken up into syllables and scattered around; punctuation marks used as a visual device. There are seemingly hand-written scrawls across lines of print and groups of lines printed upside down; quotations torn out of their context and phrases that are just beyond the range of the familiar (misquotations, maybe); a multiplicity of voices, none of which speak at sufficient length to fix them as “characters”; and an almost total absence of the firstperson pronoun which, on the rare occasions it is sighted, nevertheless refuses to establish a continuous subjective presence. As readers of her earlier work will know, her writing belongs to that divergent stream which is designed for the eye as well as the (inner) ear; which conveys meaning through allusion, rather than statement; and which requires of the reader a holding back of the urge to impose form or precipitate closure. The virtues of such writing are variety, richness and intellectual satisfaction; the danger may be a risk of emotional and spiritual emptiness. In this collection, however, I find much of the first and none of the second; it is also ambitious, original and timely.
The “selected” element of this New and Selected Poems is made up of four distinct sets or sequences of work (in their entirety or near entirety). With the exception of the very short “Private Writings”(1) each of these stems, to some extent, from collaborative projects with other artists. “Neither the One nor the Other”(2) is a poem written with Elizabeth James by means of an e-mail exchange. Printed complete, it is impossible to separate out the individual contribution of either and no attempt is made to attribute them. “Automatic Cross Stitch”(3) arose out of an investigation into the North London garment industry, undertaken with the visual artist Irma Irsara; some of the poems have been presented in performance alongside Irsara’s paintings and constructions. The title “Somerset Letters”4, for a sequence of (mostly) prose poems that engage with “the social realities of life in the country”(5), (as well as the geography and geology of Somerset, its industrial history, its literary landmarks, and issues of representation in art and language), is not merely metaphorical; these poems form part of an actual correspondence with the poet Elaine Randell. This openness to the work of other artists, including those working in different media, is characteristic of Presley’s approach.
The “new” element consists of a sequence of eighteen poems, “Paravane”, which addresses no less than the major public event of its period; the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York. Presley describes the starting point of this as an exchange of ideas with American women writers very soon after 11 September 2001(6): although the first poems were written in collaboration with a musician, Mary Herivel, the sequence was continued as an individual project which extended over the following two years. It is on this ambitious undertaking that I will focus in this review (although “Somerset Letters” and other sections of the book are equally worthy of detailed discussion). By a close (but necessarily, personal and partial) reading of the poems in “Paravane”(7) I hope to show how Presley’s “non-narrative” and highly flexible poetic method has enabled her to open out the perspective in which we might view the events of September 11th; creating a document which is both moving and thought-provoking.
Presley’s poetry has long engaged with social and political issues; the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s regime, for instance, as experienced at the level of the inner city street, runs as a thread through her earlier collection Hula Hoop(8). It might, however, be suggested that “9/11” was of a different order of magnitude than the introduction of the Poll Tax or the bomb in the Grand Hotel at Brighton; certainly it was presented in the press as being of a different order. For most of the world population, it was, of course, a wholly mediated event; news which arrived annealed into a symbolic matrix which it was hard, if not impossible, to escape; exploited by the media both as “sensation” (on the model of other violent crimes) and (drawing on apocalyptic fears already generated by political and media rhetoric) as unique and cataclysmic. This presented a particular challenge to writers; some desiring urgently to participate in the communal response; some reluctant to engage on – what seemed to be – the only terms available(9). The event was also heavily “masculinized”; politicians particularly pressing into service the Hollywood stereotypes of “Sheriff and Outlaws”, “good guys and bad guys”. In the political arena, at least, no room was allowed for a “soft” (“feminine”) reaction: a further challenge for a woman writer and one whose work has consistently explored issues of gender.
“Paravane” starts with a Christian saint: St Barbara, “the patron saint of architects”, is described in a prose note as having been distracted from her dilemma of conscience (whether to secure release from the tower in which her father had imprisoned her by giving up her religion, or to keep her Christian faith and remain incarcerated), by the realization that the structure surrounding her was unstable(10) She began to try and work out an improvement to the design, although her position enabled her to see only a part of it. In this epigrammatic story, apparently so unconnected with the September attack, we are introduced to a number of the themes that weave in and out of the succeeding poems; the female, in the form of the exceptional woman; also (and perhaps thereby) the deviant woman; the containment of women by architecture; the female body/mind as architecture; buildings, particularly high buildings; instability, precarity, the danger of falling; constructions, construction and construing; the limitations imposed on each. Perhaps we are not, in fact, so far from “9/11”, after all.
The first poem, “Paravane day”(11), proceeds by a chain of associations. Presley has said that in the poems written closest to September 11th “I tried to empty my mind, and allow the words and their space to take shape, …”(12). So the poem records, perhaps not so much a train of thought, as of images, the links between them being associative; similarities of colour or sound, or conceptual parallels. It starts with a phrase as if from nowhere – “gather into the chariot bearing” – which nevertheless brings with it strong echoes of the Christian Old Testament – “gather”, “chariot”, “bearing” – words with a Biblical tang, which evoke metaphors for death (harvesting, gathering in) and apotheosis (the chariot in which the prophet was taken up to heaven); the ideas of being carried (like children by a parent) and of having to carry (“burden bearing”, suffering). The Biblical metaphor morphs into a derivative of the well-known Spiritual – “sing low sweet” – and the thought follows the curve of something swung through air to the phrase “parabola in time”; a non-sense (a parabola being a geometric concept) which nevertheless suggests a movement that is arrested – here, at the physical point of “high emptied windows” – inevitably bringing to mind the World Trade Center windows from which people jumped or fell, and the eviscerated structures of the towers that were left. “Parabola” also carries the overtone of its semantic relative “parable” – a meaningful tale – a simile – and, with it, the question, for what is this a simile? What meaning can be made of it? And so the poem continues, associating from “go” to “go home”, to travelling (literal and metaphorical), via the urban planner’s slide presentation clicking from one image to another, to stills from the CCTV catching Mohammed Attar at the check-in gate, to a line from Chaucer – “leeve mooder, mooder leet me in” – which we may recognise as the plea of the old man in the “Pardoner’s Tale” begging the earth (“his mother”) to let him in (metaphorically, begging for death). A line space enables us to register the power of this juxtaposition. Then the poem moves on from this message with no reply, to other one-sided messages; answer-phones, the pause before the bleep when you have to speak, the absence of a message (recalling the final mobile phone messages of the passengers in the planes); then from hearing to sight, the perfect sight needed perhaps, for a perfect aim; flashing lights (like spots before the eyes) which is how air traffic control sees the position of planes on the screen, “coming to light” (“coming to land”?) “under your fingers” (perhaps as words come to light under the writer’s fingers on computer keys); “at the western most edge” (like something about to fall over the edge of the world). The penultimate line takes us back to music, religious music, the music of mourning, an act of commemoration led by a designated singer – “coral cantor in a minor key” – (but “coral” rather than “choral”). The last line grounds us with the homely sign-off “love, mum”.
In the second poem, “Ground O”13, Presley points out the mediated nature of the event, while acknowledging the power of the mediated images. Ahead of the light apparently dancing over the shattered glass of the ruins, “Enters Fuji”: we see these shards by virtue of the Japanese camera firm, the name of which is also the name of a sacred mountain. Here again, the chain of allusions is solemn, funereal, but the “Bell” seems to have taken over from the (last) trumpet, the call to
Blow your horn
Fit the battle of
is tinged with wistfulness by the subsequent image of abandoned children’s toys and the fading of the poem into
a sense of the silence after devastation.
With “Underwriters”(14) and “9/2”(15) we move from immediate response to reflection on the event. Presley implicitly undercuts the claim for its uniqueness by putting it in the context of European experience, specifically the several attacks to which London was subjected in the 1980s and 1990s; she set out to examine “The impact of the IRA bombing in the last twenty years”(16). Her visits to the sites of IRA bomb blasts in London’s financial centre, the City, reveal unexpected memorials to the military/financial combines of earlier centuries among the new building. Overlaying the architecture, language is colonised in the service of global marketing; we recognise the slogans the poem reproduces: “FORGET THE REST / CLICK ON TO THE BEST”. This section of the work is presented under the patronage of a second female saint; Ethelberga, patron saint of scaffolders, and founder of the first religious house for women in England; a woman, the poet tells us, “taller than average”, whose skeleton, placed in a specially built reliquary, itself calls up the image of the steel frame of a skyscraper; one of various points in the poems where the image of the deviant female (the woman who organises, leads, writes) is elided with that of the tall building.
Here the danger of tripping “over bollards and pipes” is added to the hazards of falling, as the writer searches among hoardings and scaffolding for St Ethelberga’s chapel, destroyed by a bomb in April 1993 but being rebuilt as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. Another church damaged in the same explosion is found to have a new stained glass window donated by the Worshipful Company of Longbows, whose original members fought at “Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt” (and therefore, ironically, were themselves no strangers to the use of violence for political ends). The poet toys with the verbal and visual possibilities of replacing the figurative design of this window with an abstract representation of the bow (“drawn” in the arrangement of the words on the page)(17). In Canary Wharf (which a parapraxis turns into “Capital Wharf”18), perhaps London’s nearest equivalent, structurally and symbolically, to the Twin Towers, the poet encounters an almost complete elimination of the written record:
memory and speech, it seems, having been bloodlessly eliminated and replaced by “SHOUTING” – the copywriters’ term for the exclusive use of capitals and underlining.
With the next two poems, “Stonenest Street”(19) and “11/9”(20) the focus of the sequence is shifted, from the old money of the City and the new money of Capital Wharf, to the inner city borough where the writer lives; a move not merely from affluence to deprivation but from unaccountable power to near powerlessness. In this location there are slower and more insidious destructive processes at work than spectacular attacks by bomb or plane; the poem evokes the possibility of falling victim to a new virus, a chemical accident, or biological warfare;
what would we do if half the people in this street
died of a mysterious illness?
but also draws attention to the actual and deliberate destruction of social institutions such as the Community Health Council for which the writer works, “we are in the process of being abolished” the Orwellian sounding “Modernisation Action Board” finishing off what was begun by Margaret Thatcher’s notorious diktat: “no such thing as society”. Fragments of speech and glimpses of apparently irrational action build up a sense of panic as one reads:
They stop me in the street
They say, Betty, Betty,
This isn’t right
He must come and speak to us
We no more know who is stopped in the street than who is speaking or what exactly is happening, but the unease is infectious. The reader has a sense of breaking down, as the poem, by stages, breaks down the word “modernisation” into the primitive cry for help, “mooder mooder” (mother) subtly linking us back to an earlier poem.
Everything now is becoming slippery (“Fluid Canvas”)(21); a dance by Merce Cunningham calls to mind the dangerously shifting lights of the air controller’s screen and also the slippery fragility of the human body. An e-mail exchange, conducted with apparent coolness and detachment, draws out the semantic and phonic associations of the word for the IRA’s explosive of choice (“Subject: Re: Semtex”)(22).
Now, half-way through the sequence, however, we are taken out of the urban environment and a new element is introduced. In “Garrigill ”(23) and “Black burn”(24) it is birds, rather than planes, that occupy the air; even the “stonenest” of the London street name, appears – in a dream – occupied by birds (albeit “stonechats”)(25). Although the mood is still wary and threatening, with an actual fall and broken bones, and there is miscommunication and mis-reading, at least we are in the open air: the oppressiveness of the city poems begins to lift. Presley again here makes telling use of the visual potential of the print on the page: “Stonenest Street” (the second poem of that name)(26) has some of the type scrawled over with a line to indicate an editing decision; in “Black burn” lines of uneven length are centred on the page to create the feeling, as you read, of the lenses of binoculars being wound together, apart, and together again in an attempt to focus them. The glasses elide “the bird / and the shadow of the bird” but, significantly, the important struggle here is to
the male and the female
This reintroduction of “the female” brings us to the real turning point of the sequence; a prose poem, “Tertia at St Mary Magdalene.”(27) derived, like “Fluid Canvas”, from a performance; this time by a woman artist in a chapel (we note the building’s dedication to the deviant among the three Biblical Mary’s). Through the absence of male noun or pronoun, one gets the impression that no men are present; we are momentarily, or prototypically, in a City of Women (to anticipate the poem that follows). The performance involves turning the chairs, and hence the audience, to face the back of the chapel. This inversion of the normal orientation brings up issues of comfort (literal and metaphorical), “there is not much comfort in these cushions,” but also transforms the woman performer:
we can see that the great rear window has no stained glass, and
therefore is all light, so that she is almost all light.
The questions that are now posed with regard to her script –
Which chapter and verse is it? Should she be reading from this book?
How were these pages moved together?
– are elaborated into the whole question of women’s inhabiting of language; of the possibility of re-finding a female mode of expression, perhaps, rather than needing to invent one;
trying to turn around the same words. […] a dialect so disused that we
need to approach it again.
It feels now as if we are being moved away from oppression and threat, towards a re-engagement with existence, but on different, albeit tentative and exploratory, terms. We are given a sketch of the possible in the (literally) splendid “Othery cope”(28) where the poet uses the jazz mode of an “exploded blues” to create two shining and complementary female images. First, a mediaeval garment under the hands of its female restorer becomes “the woman clothed with the sun” of the “Book of Revelations”, here identified with
Mary the Virgin, Mary the engine
Origin and trenchant
– an extraordinary transformation of the stereotypical “suffering mother of God” into the powerful and active originator of the universe, almost bursting with her own (intentional) fecundity. Then the image of the Virgin as (she might be) envisaged by Christine de Pizan (mediaeval author of The Book of the City of Ladies); woman as both author and book, where the book itself seems source of, rather than substitute for, procreativity:
She is clothed with a book
folding on her belly
dancing on her navel
tasted with her seeds
pages gripped prehensile
letters on her (indecipherable)
The sequence perhaps might end here. The final poems, “Julian of Norwich”(29) and “first flame”(30) are quieter in mood. Both derive from visits to the chapel of the Norwich mystic, author of a book of spiritual visions and famous for her pronouncement that, in spite of appearances, “all shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well”(31). From the lights dancing over the shattered remains in “Ground O” we have come to a
which seems mysteriously charged with life.
The challenge of “September 11th” was not merely to avoid rhetoric or clichÃ?Â© (difficult though that proved to be for many writers) but to engage on one’s own authentic terms. In “Paravane” the events of that day are considered within the stream of preoccupations that preceded them and persist beyond them; questions of how the language available to us determines our apprehension of the world; of how language is gendered; of what potential there may be for change in both the world and individual consciousness; of how such issues can be opened up by opening up the form of the poem. To adapt a demand Presley herself has made of writing (in another context), in this sequence of poems:
“There [is] nothing simplistic or reductive, and the text … use[s] the
units of language to make us think.”(32)
It seems to me a remarkable achievement.
(1) Frances Presley, Paravane: New and Selected Poems 1996-2003 (Cambridge: Salt, 2004), p. 111.
(2) Ibid, p. 93-110.
(3) Ibid, p. 73.
(4) Ibid, p. 47-71.
(5) Ibid, p. 71.
(6) Frances Presley, “September 11: A View from London”, How2 1.7 (Spring 2002). Recommended reading for its detailed discussion of the sources of the poem and the issues of language and symbolism involved.
(7) F. Presley, Paravane, p. 1-34. The title is a word Presley assumed she had made up, but discovered on checking that it was (not inappropriately) the name of a machine for clearing and cutting the cables of, submarine mines.
(8) Frances Presley, Hula Hoop (London: The Other Press, 1993).
(9) See, for instance, the letters by Caroline Carver, John Lucas, Alexis Lykiard and Anna Adams in “Poems of Peace and War: Poets’ responses to September 11th, 2001”, Acumen 42 (January 2002), pp. 40-41, and those by John Cotton, Alex Smith and Kornel Kossuth in Acumen 43 (May 2002), pp. 54-57.
(10) Frances Presley, Paravan, p. 1.
(11) Ibid, p. 3.
(12) Frances Presley, “September 11: A View from London”.
(13) Frances Presley, Paravane, pp. 4-5.
(14) Ibid, pp. 6-8.
(15) Ibid, pp. 9-11.
(16) Frances Presley, “September 11: A View from London”.
(17) Frances Presley, Paravane, p. 8.
(18) Ibid, p. 10.
(19) Ibid, p. 12.
(20) Ibid, pp. 13-14.
(21) Ibid, pp. 15-16.
(22) Ibid, pp. 17-18.
(23) Ibid, p. 22; p. 24.
(24) Ibid, p. 25.
(25) Ibid, p. 23.
(26) Ibid, p. 23.
(27) Ibid, pp. 26-27.
(28) Ibid, pp. 28-29.
(29) Ibid, p. 30.
(30) Ibid, pp. 32-33.
(31) Julian of Norwich, trans. Julia Bolton Holloway, Showing of Love (London: Darton-Longman & Todd, 2003), p. 37.
(32) “There can be nothing simplistic or reductive, and the text needs to keep debate open, to use the units of language to make us think.” Frances Presley, “Common Pink Metaphor: From the Landscape Room to Somerset Letters”, Crowded Spaces: British Perspectives on Environmentalism, Literature and Culture, ed. R. Kerridge and H. Tarlo (forthcoming, UP of Virginia).
The Sex of Art (Twickenham: North and South, 1988).
Hula Hoop (London: The Other Press, 1993).
Linocut (London: Oasis Books, 1997).
Neither the One nor the Other, with Elizabeth James (London: Form Books, 1999).
Automatic Cross Stitch, with Irma Irsara (London: The Other Press, 2000).
Somerset Letters (London: Oasis Books, 2002).
“September 11: A View from London”, part of “Poetry Post 9/11: Witnessing Dissent”, How2 1.7 (Spring 2002).
“Neither the One nor the Other: Aspects of Performance within a Feminist Collaboration” in Additional Apparitions: Poetry, Performance & Site Specificity, ed. David Kennedy & Keith Tuma (Sheffield: The Cherry on the Top Press, 2002), pp, 172-180.
“Common Pink Metaphor: From the Landscape Room to Somerset Letters”, in Crowded Spaces: British Perspectives on Environmentalism, Literature and Culture, ed. R. Kerridge and H. Tarlo (forthcoming, UP of Virginia).
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