#10: ‘Look at me now.’

I never studied Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife at school, but one of the collection’s most interesting aspects is how self-reflexive it is. In poem after poem, Duffy looks at who owns words, sounds, language, who gets to use their powers to create or destroy. Male poets in particular take a beating – I have a suspicion that as a 17-year-old girl, the book might have made me think twice before having sex with anyone, and at least three times about ever having sex with a male poet. Today’s featured poem, ‘Medusa’, twists tropes of abandonment and ownership into a meditation on artistic control which reaches aggressively into the world beyond the text.

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Medusa
by Carol Ann Duffy

A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes,
as though my thoughts
hissed and spat on my scalp.

My bride’s breath soured, stank
in the grey bags of my lungs.
I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,
yellow fanged.
There are bullet tears in my eyes.
Are you terrified?

Be terrified.
It’s you I love,
perfect man, Greek God, my own;
but I know you’ll go, betray me, stray
from home.
So better by far for me if you were stone.

I glanced at a buzzing bee,
a dull grey pebble fell
to the ground.
I glanced at a singing bird,
a handful of dusty gravel
spattered down.

I looked at a ginger cat,
a housebrick
shattered a bowl of milk.
I looked at a snuffling pig,
a boulder rolled
in a heap of shit.

I stared in the mirror.
Love gone bad
showed me a Gorgon.
I stared at a dragon.
Fire spewed
from the mouth of a mountain.

And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue
and your girls, your girls.
Wasn’t I beautiful?
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?

Look at me now.

*

Duffy’s treatment of the mythical figure she makes her own is both sinuous and sensuous. ‘Why did it have to be snakes?’ is here, as ever, a justifiable question. Duffy’s Medusa keeps some elements of the (malleable) classical tale, but not others. She jettisons some familiar origin stories that see Medusa suffering at the hands of men for a more internal change, ‘Love gone bad’ – a kind of poisoning from the inside out, which suits our modern sense of myth as psychological framework. Over the first two stanzas, Medusa’s ‘souring’ spreads from mind (‘suspicion’, ‘thoughts’), to body (‘scalp’, ‘yellow fanged’). The internal decay is externalised through a series of sensory images – hissing, spitting, stinking breath – that make it to the mind through the nose and the ear. It’s the first use the text makes of what we might call a kind of physical outreach.

In this case, there is something outside the text, and it is us. Duffy’s Medusa is a kind of weaponised Miss Havisham – her fangs turn outward towards the reader, who is cast (against his or her will) as the betraying, abandoning male, associated here with the ‘Greek God’ Perseus in a spin on his traditional role as heroic aggressor. And just before she addresses us directly (‘Are you terrified?’), Duffy jerks the situation three thousand years forward, with the startling apparition of ‘bullet tears’ in her character’s eyes. Throughout the collection, the universal tension of relationships gives Duffy carte blanche to juggle past and present images, an ongoing anachronistic (or timeless) switcheroo. The point might be that a quality shared by any myth which resonates is its inability to stay in the past.

‘Be terrified’ – the poem continues, and later closes, with an imperative which, every time it is read, challenges us in the present moment. That assertive force sustains the next three stanzas, in which the altering power of Medusa’s gaze is explored in such variety that the poem almost becomes a kind of perverse celebration. Yes, Medusa turns everything she sees to stone – but unlike the male gaze (passive, devouring), her vision has an action in the world. Like many poets might wish to do, she changes the properties of the things she observes; she creates pebbles, gravel, mountains. Bees, birds and dragons are perhaps more appealing to begin with, but Duffy grants Medusa a version of her own authorial power – poesis, the making of new things.

After such a firecracker display of the literalised process of metaphor, the arrival of the Perseus figure (the ‘you’ at the ends of the poem) can only be leaden, dull and predictable. Without wading into the early twentieth-century debate about what, if anything, constitutes a ‘feminine style’, it’s worth noting that most of Medusa’s lines curl around the page, following the extent of each thought rather than the strictures of a formal structure. Perseus, by contrast, is announced in four regular two-beat lines; masculinity enters the text with the square-jawed lock-step of a military column.

So where the traditional myth turns on the image of the ossified male victim, here we have a man who is rigid and bound even before his encounter with a female presence whose self-presentation is as supple and flexible as her proverbial reptilian barnet. The ending’s fluidity belies its authority: what seems like a morose reflection on a tragic fall reveals itself to be a gesture of defiant self-assertion. Turn our heads towards this suffering, the voice commands us, and we will be changed.

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#9: ‘Let my last words yield/more answers than questions’

Today I’m looking at a poem by Phil Brown which announces its own affiliation to a long tradition of pre-emptively posthumous writing. In ‘Sir Gawain on the Northern Line’, Brown avails himself of an almost ritualistic code stretching back to the poetic ‘Testaments’ of Francois Villon and Isabella Whitney (only one of which I have read), monologues in which the speaker rehearses and prepares for his own demise. Like the medieval alliterative poem which provides its title and epigraph, Brown’s work sends its subject to meet his maker with a blend of linguistic vigour and quiet dignity – and skilfully tranposes its anonymous author’s themes of inside and out, individuality and community, to a modern urban context.

Sir Gawain on the Northern Line

Phil Brown

“In god fayth”, quoth the goode knight, “Gawan I hatte,
That bede the this buffet, quat-so bifalles after,
And at this tyme twelmonyth take at the another
Wyth what weppen so thou wilt, and with no wyy elles
on lyve.”

and if fate should fling me onto
the electric rail of a tube’s tracks
to be sliced open with steel wheels
let me stay so mangled as to remain
unidentifiable and let the driver lose
no sleep.

Or if my end should be the slow sort
made more moral
with each cigarette I suck to the tip
allow me the time to close my accounts
and make good on old
promises.

Let death deal me the bravery to apologise
for piquant truths and pretty lies
and let my last words yield
more answers than questions
and the humility to acquiesce to
all suggestions.

Let my obituary eat up no more column
inches than those not born into old money
and should I be murdered at alighting
in Burnt Oak amid the fourth concentric
Zone let the artist of my death
escape.

The terms, though not of my choice, were agreed :
and as I course viral underneath this metropolis
I leave my regrets at Embankment, Euston, Camden Town
like a skin shed, baring my raw jelly.
No more words sir, my naked neck is
rightly yours.
The night deliquesces us all
under the looming street lamp necks
to be human altricial
in the city’s warp and weft.

*

We begin in medias res: with a lower-case conjunctive word which throws us instantly into the path of a savage hypothetical. A single sentence (as are all of the first four stanzas) communicates propulsive force, but also self-containment. No one likes to think about their own death, but having done so Brown’s moves immediately onward to the logistics of its aftermath, parcelling up each of these four post-mortem thoughts like the articles of a will. The grammar is somewhere between imperative and apostrophe: ‘let me’ and ‘allow me’, like the terms of many prayers, are both a plea and a command. My favourite 20th century take on this type of writing, Jake Thackray’s ‘Last Will And Testament’, revels in this oddly magnanimous, distributive register: ‘Let best beef be eaten/Fill every empty glass/Let no breast be beaten/Let no tooth be gnashed.’

There’s a nod to Brown’s own name-checked forebear in the structure of almost every line, with at least two alliterating beats – ‘fate/fling’, ‘tube’s tracks’, ‘sliced/steel’ – which is at its height in the opening stanza, calling to mind the original’s detailed tableaux of hunting and butchery. And just as Gawain’s puritanical selflessness is a kind of self-absorption, here the speaker reveals his own at the apparent moment of obliterating his self. Wishing to become ‘unidentifiable’ seems like a gracious surrender to the city, the collective violence of its onward movement – but the identification of an accident victim is part of their loved ones’ grieving process, and the sublation of the individual denies any community which surrounds him the possibility of closure. But this is to humanise the poem too much – with the nameless ‘driver’, anonymous as ‘fate’, we are at least partially in the realm of archetypes; mythology on wheels.

Certainly, ‘the slow sort’ of death invoked in the second stanza shrouds the speaker in a category, a familiar story with a ‘moral’ aspect that transcends, if only through repetition, the gruesomeness of those slicing wheels. Here again, smoking seems to stand for a kind of abstracted narcissism – ‘each cigarette’ brings the speaker closer, in narrative logic, to becoming a stock figure in a modern fable. Three isolated m-words hammer home its instructive quality, the line as short as the burnt-out butt-end it prefixes. Closing accounts, making good – in the vocabulary of finance we might find an undue importance ascribed to temporal things, but in the bob-and-wheel section, where we might anticipate ‘debts’, Brown mentions ‘promises’.

The humility of that choice leads us into the third stanza, which continues (in the best possible sense) to generalise. Big, abstract nouns – ‘bravery’, ‘truths’, ‘lies’, ‘answers’, ‘questions’ – apply equally to all lives, and expand the particular circumstances of the speaker’s projected death to a wider metaphysical statement. ‘Deal’ and ‘yield’ both call to mind the highly-codified cut-and-thrust of chivalric combat, but the final two stanzas ground the very Gawainian process of acquiring humility in the fabric of 21st-century London. No wodwos here – just a Tube network which is dignified, like the killers operating within it, by comparison to a Dantean space.

And as Brown’s speaker disperses himself throughout the city, punctuation comes to his aid for the first time in the text; naming the Underground’s constituent parts allows him to break up among them, to be at once the most exposed – a ‘raw’, ‘naked’ first-person pronoun shedding skin – he has ever been, and the most mingled with the world around him. After an autodestructive final submission, where Brown’s ‘no more words’ segue into those of his predecessor, the poem returns to a fluid plurality; not ‘I’, but ‘us’, and the alliteration which had largely disappeared ties the coda together. But where ‘human and helpless’ might have further enhanced that feeling, Brown uses the synonym ‘altricial’ – a word as alien as many of the Gawain-poet’s own choices, and perhaps a brief glimpse of the poet’s own personality before he lets go of himself completely, absorbed into the urban whole.

*

This is a second selection from The Salt Anthology of Younger Poets. If you enjoyed Brown’s take on the poetic testament, I recommend Thackray’s song in the strongest possible terms, as well as this French masterpiece of the genre by his own great mentor, Georges Brassens.

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#8: ‘This is the last/of the great paper archives.’

It might help, but it certainly isn’t necessary, to read some of Douglas Dunn’s Elegies before looking at ‘This One Particular Page’ by Chrissy Williams – a subtle and surprising poem which appeared in the summer issue of Poetry London and which, like the work it references, contrasts the overmastering rush of feeling to the formulas of control.

This One Particular Page

in Dunn’s notebook starts
with a short story title I’ve forgotten.
Pause. Then comes the first poem
written after his wife’s death.

A moment later we’re shown another,
the first poem printed in his book Elegies:
‘Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s
Bliss and Other Stories’.

It is almost funny, in the poem,
how the flattened fly punctuates
life in a book. This is the last
of the great paper archives.

The scholar carefully passes me
Dunn’s copy of the source book
Bliss. I hold it. An old object.
Do I think it will be funny?

‘Turn to the inside back’ he says,
‘and tell me what you see.’
‘The first draft of the poem,’ I say.
He commands me. ‘Read it.’

Starting slow, squinting in
at the black ink, biro I think,
handwritten loops, the bounce,
twirl, I read them, speeding up:

‘This is crossed out. There
is a circle drawn round that…’
Rawness is struck through,
replaced by structure, form.

Grief is formally rephrased
by a different time. I see
what I did not want to see
and choke on the final stanza.

‘Thank you,’ he says.
I pass the book along.
I cannot wait to run
out of the hall. Tears.

My face runs down the
street and I can only think
how much I want to tell you
this, how much I want

to tell you everything.

*

‘Particular’ – a word in Chrissy Williams’s title serves as an overture for the poem’s contents. We’re being inducted, guided by a deictic hand (‘a word specifying identity, or spatial and temporal location’) into a world of fine details, where what’s at stake is the power of pages to contain linguistic expression. We’re on a particular page, in a book which is a named personal artefact, looking with the speaker at a text fixed exactly in biographical time – ‘the first poem/written after his wife’s death.’

But this is a poem about that poem, and just as Dunn processes and parcels up his grief in formal structures, Williams seems to stand at a further remove of academic distance from that moment of painfully-naked feeling: this is neither the grief, nor the poem about the grief, but ‘the last/of the great paper archives.’ Like Dunn’s poem, it’s in quatrains, though without the ‘formally rephrased’ effect of rhyme (at a ‘different time’ again), and the speaker is a passive recipient of archival knowledge – ‘we’re shown another’, the pages turn, and the plain, declarative language holds back any emotional involvement. Humour seems to be the one exception – the fly in Dunn’s book is ‘almost funny’, a feeling on the verge of breaking out of the ‘old object’ which the ‘scholar carefully passes’ to the speaker. Even life – the fly – has become punctuation. The first four stanzas are practically wearing white gloves.

And yet – even the first isn’t wholly self-contained. It only works as a run-on from the title; the cautious formalism undercut by overspill. There’s a note of human frailty in the second line – the speaker has ‘forgotten’ the story title, and it’s unclear which figure is pausing, or why. By the end of the fourth stanza, there’s self-doubt in the voice, as the reality of the original object threatens to unsettle her perceptions of the poem as a sanitised printed text.

As the archive visitor engages with the manuscript, her account becomes more traditionally poetic – in ‘starting slow’ and ‘speeding up’, the sixth stanza has a pair of formal bookends, and in ‘ink’ and ‘think’ an internal rhyme. Commas reproduce the experience of the textual encounter; we ‘squint’ at the lines divided up into short syntactic units, few of which make full sense by themselves. We follow Williams into the thicket of Dunn’s scribbles and strike-throughs. The deictic terms return – ‘This is crossed out. There/is a circle drawn round that…’ – but there’s a sense in which they’re no longer appropriate, as if on peeking behind the curtain of ‘structure, form’, we too might have seen what we ‘did not want to see.’

In response to the messiness of Dunn’s own exposed process, the individuality of Williams’s speaker begins to emerge in a few concise moments of crisis – ‘Tears’ fill the same space as that possibly-significant ‘Pause’, and a lyric ‘I’ bursts out of the scholarly background to choke, pass, run, think, want and tell, the voice now utterly active. The sense of personal response is so vivid that the ‘I’ is magnified to a running face, then to a single desire. As if from nowhere, an addressee springs into being in the third-last line, and the single-minded urge towards communication explodes through the constraints of the form to deliver a stark, isolated, all-consuming message. The archives – their dryness, their restrained respect for order – inspire an interpersonal urgency which abandons them completely in its wake. Williams runs like a track star for Mineola Prep, and she doesn’t turn around. How could she, after such epiphanies?

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#7: ‘There’s always a point where a routine enquiry/turns into something else entirely.’

Following this post a few weeks ago, I had an interesting chat with the poet Emily Hasler about the way many poems we both enjoy explore the points at which one thing shades, or bleeds, into another; the interstitial zones, the boundaries and frontiers. As Simon Armitage writes in ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘Where does the hand become the wrist?/Where does the neck become the shoulder?’ It isn’t always easy to draw clear lines, to isolate the evidence. ‘An Inspector Calls’, by former New Zealand Poet Laureate Bill Manhire, applies these concerns to the familiar iconography of detective fiction.

An Inspector Calls

by Bill Manhire

We tiptoed into the house.
The neighbourhood was quiet as a mouse.

I felt very on edge. The money
was in the oven, not the fridge.

*

I glanced at the note on the piano.
Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh.

*

There’s always a point at which a routine enquiry
turns into something else entirely.

I had to shoulder my way in.
The bathtub was simply full of the victim.

*

Most crime writing I’m aware of is inherently formalist; a story might contain horrifying acts of eruptive violence, but a mystery exists to be solved and as such, the fear and tension which it generates always resolve into a safe, familiar shape. Manhire’s poem replicates this play of expectation and subversion. We begin with a full rhyme, which in its very traditionalism is something of a challenge to the reader – the presence of clichéd phrases such as ‘quiet as a mouse’ and the poem’s title might alert us to its ironic engagement with a wider set of conventions.

And as in any suburban crime scene, every element is at one familiar and slightly out of place. Having entered with a partner, Manhire’s narrator finds himself inexplicably alone, stopped in his tracks by an early caesura which tips the rhyming words off-balance. ‘The money’, with its definite article, is an expected feature, though if the investigating duo know any more about it than we do, Manhire’s keeping us in the dark. It’s not, however, where it was expected to be found, but the polar opposition drawn between ‘the oven’ and ‘the fridge’ is a line of black-and-yellow tape that cordons off a stranger question: why would it be in either place? Who keeps their money in a fridge? What scene have we entered, and can we even trust our guide?

In spare, clean lines, the poem deftly steers us from room to room, from clue to clue, but as usual the detective understands what’s happening before we do. ‘Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh,’ as well as being a masterful rhyme for ‘piano’, stands in for the tension-cranking music of the TV mystery while allowing the poem to keep its cards close to its chest. Suspense derives from what we don’t see, a trope Manhire fully exploits even as the levity of his language mocks the staginess of discovery.

The poem works as a universal distillation of these tokens because it maintains its anonymity – any marks which would identify the ‘inspector’, ‘the neighbourhood’, or even ‘the victim’ are scrupulously kept from the reader. Even when the case takes a darker turn, it retains its mythic, archetypal quality; routine enquiries are always turning into ‘something else entirely’, carried along by the inexorable momentum of the genre to a queasy tipping point which Manhire’s enjambement captures exactly.

Having widened out into a kind of generic mission statement, the poem’s focus sharply narrows to the individual point of revelation. And that revelation is characteristically blurry; as the last line lurches forward, we know that something awful has happened but we have no sense of quite what, how, or why. The physicality of ‘shoulder my way in’ gives way to something that can’t quite be visualised; the poem places the gruesome facts of the murder before us, but ends before they’re even close to being solved. As such, it breaks one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction, that we should finish the story by learning the killer’s identity. Manhire’s bathtub is ‘simply full’, but his poem, in its refusal to provide the closure any crime fan craves, isn’t simple. These cases seldom are.

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Anyone who was kind enough to come to the reading I gave last night at Foyle’s Bookshop, as part of the launch of Poetry London will have already heard me gesturing vaguely towards a unifying theory about this topic. My views are mostly based on watching shows like Morse/Endeavour, The Killing, and Wallander, but I’m less familiar with detective writing on the page, so any guidance on where to start would be very welcome.

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