#16: ‘Her French was wasted/in the north.’

First, I’m sorry that the update schedule recently has been less than regular – I’ve been travelling, and until the end of August I might not be able to post as often as usual. With that in mind, here’s a poem which also touches on travel. In Helen Mort’s ‘Miss Heath’, a literal state of being out-of-place sheds light on an emotional journey towards adulthood, refracted through a subject who would surely appreciate the poem’s impeccable poise.

Miss Heath

At seventy, our dance mistress
could still perform
a perfect pas des chats.

Her French was wasted
in the north. We stood in line
repeating parr-durr-shat

or sniggered
as she waited in the wings,
her right hand beating time

against her hip, her eyes
avoiding ours. She never
made the stage.

It took me twenty years
to understand. Alone tonight
and far from home

in shoes that pinch my toes
until they bleed, my back
held ballerina straight,

I wait as she did, too afraid
to walk into a bar
where everyone’s a stranger,

see her glide
across the city night
to meet me, tall and white

and slim. A step behind,
she clicks her fingers. Elegant,
she counts me in.

*

Between Mort’s pamphlet a pint for the ghost, and its forthcoming appearance in her debut book Division Street, ‘Miss Heath’ seems to have lost part of its title. I knew it as ‘a chaser for miss heath’, and that element of tribute, of raising a glass, is no less central to the poem. A chaser is, after all, a follow-up, which alters or complicates an initial flavour. It’s a palate-cleanser for initial bitterness. Similarly, Mort’s comments on Miss Heath’s ‘perfect’ abilities soon shift into a portrait of a sad and lonely figure, isolated from the crowd of younger girls who stand rigidly ‘in line’ before their old-fashioned ‘mistress’, flattening her sophistication into inadvertent scatology, leaving the strong taste which is necessary to set up the poem’s valedictory ending.

Much of the melancholy in these lines stems from their declarative simplicity: the bluntness of ‘or sniggered’ as an unruly rebuff to the time-keeper’s attempts to maintain control, the lesson concluding with a stark awareness that ‘She never/made the stage’. Just as Miss Heath’s eyes avoid her pupils’, the section of the poem set in the ballet class deliberately falls short of elegance – there are no metaphors, no adjectives, just mechanical verbs suggesting the preparations for a performance on which the curtain never goes up.

In fact, the lesson is never called a lesson, perhaps because, as Mort stresses, the learning happened so much later: ‘It took me twenty years/to understand.’ But more than half of the poem is given over to the growing recognition of Miss Heath’s importance, and the more Mort keeps the details vague (‘far from home’, explaining neither where nor why), the more her example takes on a totemic, transferable power. Wherever she is now, Mort’s speaker is the one who is ‘alone’, keeping her distance from a world of strangers. The toe-pinching shoes she wears have nothing to do with dancing; this self-inflicted pain is now an adult choice, not a child’s obligation. There’s no suggestion that this young girl has grown up to make the stage herself (except, perhaps, as a poet), and even the ‘ballerina’ posture she has retained is not itself enough to propel her confidently onward.

The beauty of the last two stanzas is in how the image, or the ghost, of the dance mistress arrives unbidden; twenty years on from their first awkward encounter, the figure who was once exiled to the wings takes on all the grace and fluency her tuition was supposed to represent. Her stately ‘glide’ is mirrored in the language, as the vowel-sounds (‘glide’, ‘night’, ‘white’, ‘behind’) synchronise for the first time in the text. Her physical poise (‘tall and white//and slim’) seems to transcend her age, and her position – ‘A step behind’ – is at once that of an outmoded straggler and an attentive mentor, gently gesturing forward. Within the world of the poem, it’s not too late to recognise her elegance, and Mort ends with a touching suggestion: Miss Heath’s persistence in her stranded situation was once ridiculous, but it has now, however belatedly, given her student the strength to begin.

*

Helen Mort won the Foyle Young Poets of the Year competition a frankly fearsome number of times, and was the youngest ever poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust. She read at the winners’ event in my own first year as an FYP, and her first collection is coming out on Chatto & Windus. I once interviewed her for French radio about her role judging the Foyle’s competition, which you can hear here if you so desire.

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#15: ‘Where’s/the actual carnival?’

Although The Scallop-Shell mostly exists to talk about whole poems, a writer caught my attention this week who has very little short work online. Paul Abbott’s ‘Notting Hill Carnival‘ features in A Tower Miscellany, an anthology of poems by young writers associated with the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize. The playful formalism of this opening extract points towards the concerns of the whole text: it presents both a mass of sensory stimuli, and a mind searching for meaning in them all, with a vivid sense of place which emerges partly from looking in all the wrong ones.

from Notting Hill Carnival

by Paul Abbott

August bank holiday in Notting Hill,
Stuck in a two-thirds empty sushi bar,
I drink the cheapest soup dish on the menu
And discuss tactics: entry points, how far,
To walk or haggle, Who’s Who. Then the bill
Comes, and I pay. Pay cash, says Jimmy, then you
Won’t waste your cash on beer
. We all decide
Vaguely to join the one-way crowd outside,

And it begins, this packed conveyor belt
Of costumes, crowded streets, and creditcards.
Scaffolded billboards boast of low gun-crime,
And the Olympic Games. In strewn frontyards
A hustling local sells canned drinks: a melt
Of watered-down Bacardi, ice, and lime.
Above the press, a greying pigeon skirls
Through the tall air. Indifferent teenage girls

Lounge in the packed heat. We keep walking. Where’s
The actual carnival?
I ask, as out
Of sight, down Portobello Road, a float
Trawls sullenly away through a tired shout
Of casual-clothed spectators. Shrugs and stares
Follow, uselessly. Noise sticks in my throat.
I think the carnival is further down,
Says Jimmy, so we push on further down[…]

*

‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ This line by Yeats (a crucial poet for Tower judge Peter McDonald) seems to hover behind Abbott’s wanderings. The poem’s speaker is a tourist and flaneur, seeking a definitive experience which will transform the ‘packed conveyor belt’ of human lives from a ‘one-way crowd’, an undifferentiated ‘tired shout’, into one singular and tangible event, ‘the actual carnival’. Sticking with the early twentieth century, the plain-spoken, compressed diction (‘strewn frontyards’, ‘casual-clothed spectators’) and conversational enjambments gesture to the lighter side of Auden. But there’s a shade of Eliot in the impulse for this faceless human drift to coalesce into the still point to which all its motion tends, prolonged by the speaker’s own relentless searching: ‘we keep walking.’

From the start, the voice is separate, ‘stuck’ (‘I drink’… ‘I pay’), taking a friend’s advice on proper conduct for an event so novel and enormous it requires the ‘tactics’ and ‘entry points’ of a military campaign. Though technically he’s on the inside looking out (the bar is ‘two-thirds empty’; the crowd is ‘outside’), the sentiment is that of an outsider looking in. When ‘it begins’, a unified event is suggested, but everywhere the speaker goes he encounters plurals: ‘costumes’, ‘girls’, the imprecision of unpalatable noise. There are other ‘spectators’ too, who also shrug and stare (‘uselessly’, though we might ask, to whom?) But even these are ‘out of sight’; the quest appears to be for anyone or anything who stops just looking long enough to be looked at.

Abbott’s early focus on rules and details seems at odds with the emerging desire to blend in, to join a crowd which finds itself reflected in the ‘melt’ of Caribbean punch. Here, too, there’s a tension between general and specific – the ‘hustling local’ is a single figure, but he operates ‘in strewn frontyards’, seemingly everywhere at once. And maybe there’s a comment here on the inherent danger of making an individual an archetype; later Abbott writes: ‘The strangers I ignored/were the whole show.’ And if the strangers are a ‘show’, distinguished partly by their ‘parodies of ethnic food’, then they seem ‘saleable’ as much as the billboards promising the highly-branded Olympic Games. Perhaps the tendency to look for an aesthetic whole is what frustrates the possibility of real connection.

The rarity of end-stopped lines contributes to the feeling of restless exploration – caesuras stop us in mid-line, followed by new sentences which hustle us along, so much that even stanza-breaks aren’t really breaks. The pigeon is the only figure in the poem which manages to exist ‘above the press’, granted the privilege of a comprehensive view – the human characters are always among, between, or just around the corner from the action. Jimmy, with his uncertainty, takes on the attributes of a Virgilian guide, persuading the group to ‘push on further down’, but the identical rhyme declares this change will bring more of the same.

As the poem continues, Abbott moves onwards through a ‘carnival/That isn’t there’ towards a ‘moral’ which is not a moral, followed as it is by the renewed desire to ‘discover something final’. But finality is not the purpose of a carnival; it’s a time of reversal, instability and flux, all things the poem reveals while trying its hardest to avoid them. You can see how it develops here, closing with an image which reminds me of ‘The Whitsun Weddings‘. As in Larkin’s poem, transcendence can’t be sought, and shouldn’t seem hard-won. Its power is in surprise.

*

The Christopher Tower Prize is a themed competition for poets aged 16-18 which since 1999 has offered winners both a palpable sense of achievement and real cash money. They were kind enough, in 2008, to commend one of my own early poems, a slightly gauche collision of Catholicism and oral sex (always good to start as you mean to go on.) This year’s winners, on the theme ‘The Details’, were announced in April. I’m not sure if Paul Abbott was a winner or a Tower summer school participant, and I’m not sure if he’s still writing now, but Clutag Press brought out his debut pamphlet ‘Flood’ in 2008, and I doubt I’m the only person hoping for a second edition.

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#14: ‘You know that escalator leading to/the orb?’

Let it never be said that The Scallop-Shell isn’t interested in the Royal baby: today’s poem, by Kathryn Maris, features some generally-applicable dark meditations on motherhood and responsibility, with a light touch and conversational tone which allow its author to sugar the pill. In an institution whose raison d’être is the long sweep of geological time, Maris considers the mistakes any one of us, parent or otherwise, can make in the present moment.

On Returning a Child to her Mother at the Natural History Museum
Kathryn Maris

Hello, my name is Kathryn and I’ve come
here to return your daughter, Emily.
She told me you’d suggested that she look
around upstairs in ‘Earthquakes and Volcanoes,’
then meet you and her brothers in the shop.
You know that escalator leading to
the orb? It’s very long and only goes
one way, you can’t turn round. She asked me if
I knew the way back down and would we come
with her into the earthquake simulator –
that reproduction of the grocery shop
in Kobe, where you see the customers
get thrown around with Kirin beer and soy
sauce, things like that. She told us stuff about
your family. Apparently you had
a baby yesterday! That can’t be right:
you’re sitting here without one and my God
your stomach’s flat! She also said she’d had
an operation in the hospital
while you were giving birth one floor below.
I know, I know: kids lie and get confused,
mine do that too. She talks a lot. She’s fat.
She may not be an easy child to love.
I liked her, though. I liked her very much,
and having her was great, the only time
all day my daughter hasn’t asked me for
a dog! We got downstairs and funnily
enough we found your middle son. He ran
to us upset and asked us where you were.
But here you are – exactly where you said –
the shop! Don’t worry: I don’t ever judge
a mother. Look at me: my daughter drank
the Calpol I left out when she was two;
I gave my kids Hundreds and Thousands once
for dinner while I lay down on the floor,
a wreck. I know you well! Here’s Emily.

*

Maris’s title and opening ought to put us at ease – after a fashion. The child, after all, is being returned, no longer wandering lost in the corridors of natural history; we are reassured that the danger, such as it was, has been averted, and Maris’s spoken diction (‘Hello’, ‘you know’, ‘don’t worry’) slots neatly into her seamless pentameter rhythms. Everything seems so easy, so contained; but the poem’s real subject emerges from the terror of what could have happened, the disappearance and the frantic search.

Emily has been exploring a world of simulated disasters – cracks which open up in the world, where human beings, accorded no greater syntactic value than ‘Kirin beer and soy/sauce, things like that’, are ‘thrown around’ (like a child’s doll) and teeter on the edge. Far from being scared, she wants to return; like the narrator’s child taking an accidental Calpol overdose, what’s scary is how easily a child left unchecked will make a beeline for catastrophe. This single-minded deathwish is borne out by Maris’s description of the museum escalator:

‘You know that escalator leading to
the orb? It’s very long and only goes
one way, you can’t turn round.’

It has a Biblical quality, with its arduous journey to an elevated sphere from which no traveller returns, and in this context her own involvement takes on a certain Messianic air: ‘I’ve come here/to return your daughter’, neither of which seem out of place in a collection entitled ‘God Loves You’.

But mainly Maris frames the meeting of these two women in the terms of shared experiential knowledge – first ‘You know’ (reaching out), then ‘I know, I know’ (sympathy), and finally ‘I know you well!’, staking a claim for sameness which recalls Baudelaire’s iconic sneer of fellowship: ‘Hypocrite lecteur! Mon semblable! Mon frère!’ It’s these elements of overlap which make the points of divergence so troubling – nothing in the narrator’s experience allows her to fathom Emily’s anecdote about the hospital, and her response, ‘my God/your stomach’s flat!’ is a frenemy compliment which evades a point of genuine confusion.

Whatever’s going on (and the point, surely, is that we’ve no idea), by the end of the poem ‘I could have done the same’ becomes ‘I have’. Two moments of vivid detail present Maris’s speaker as ‘a wreck’ no less comprehensive than ‘the grocery shop/in Kobe’; both feature capitalised brand names, suggesting a peculiar horror inherent in the modern consumer kitchen. And though she claims to never ‘judge/a mother’, her descriptions of the ‘fat’ and dog-like Emily shore up the speaker’s self-acknowledged instability a sense of her own children’s superiority; we get no other sense of them besides their vulnerability. But despite a few moments of apparent certainty (‘kids lie’, ‘that can’t be right’), the poem can’t sustain the upper hand for long. To do so would contradict what makes it so disturbing – the possibility that in any family these faultlines wait to fissure or erupt.

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#13: ‘all things flow out from that source/along their fatal watercourse.’

Auden once compared weather to poetry, in that each makes nothing happen – except the other, as today’s poem attests. My own mixed feelings about the glorious British summer might be apparent from how much of the last week I’ve spent thinking about Don Paterson‘s ‘Rain’; a show-piece for its author’s natural fluidity, turned here to demonstrating literature’s powers of absolution.

Rain
by Don Paterson

I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;

one long thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
or the dress lies ruined on the grass
or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source
along their fatal watercourse.
However bad or overlong
such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through
or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray
its adaptation from the play,

I think to when we opened cold
on a rain-dark gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign,
and I’d read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

*

Paterson’s ‘love’ for an element so physically present, and yet so transient, can be so generous because it is generic. ‘All films’; ‘all things’; ‘all was washed clean’ – the lens is deliberately wide enough that, like the ‘one long thundering downpour’ which soundtracks the poem, it can take in any number of particular works. Indeed, the poem is unwilling to allow us to identify and individualise each filmic reference: ‘the girl’, ‘the dress’, ‘her upturned face’, like many of Auden’s figures, have a definite article but a wholly indeterminate context. We can see this in what Paterson doesn’t write – ‘his Scottish twang’, ‘his Northern twang’, would fit as neatly (for example) with the poem’s chatty rhythms as the ‘native twang’ which actually features. Like the rain itself, the writing works by eroding all specifics.

We could, if we wished, attempt to reconstruct a narrative – not one film, but a type of film. As in Bill Manhire’s ‘An Inspector Calls‘, the figures share a certain iconography. They are mostly female – women and girls with ‘streaming’ faces, ‘ruined’ dresses which ‘darken’ before a ‘fatal’ outcome. Set alongside the references to ‘the act’, ‘the blame’, what seems like a suicidal leap, and ‘the milk, the blood’ as fluids with a history of gendered imagery, we might be looking at a tale of a woman abandoned by her lover, a classic-Hollywood tragedy of sex and violence.

If so, however, the poem keeps the attendant emotions firmly at bay; the baptismal, Biblical purification of the final flood is the ultimate triumph of form over content. What seems most important about such films is that their script and score are ’empty’ – mere shells, forgettable repositories for the weather which precedes and pervades them. With ‘forget the ink’, the poem takes its own step towards emptiness, a gesture at its own erasure.

Its formal devices mimic the subject’s continuous stream: it’s a series of steady quatrains, all but two lines of which (‘dress’/’face’) fall into full-rhymed couplets. The series of four ‘-ing’ words – ‘braiding’ … ‘thundering’ which begin the poem plunge us into a world of uncompleted motion, in which more than half the lines run on over the breaks, connected by the simplest conjunctions (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘so’). Punctuation scarcely allowed to impede the downward flow of text, but the first full stop divides ‘Rain’ into two sentences which are nearly perfectly matched – without the final line, they would form two connected sonnets.

But they don’t. Having started with ‘all films’, the poem concludes that ‘none of this matters’, and the isolation of the final line prolongs it, like its subject, beyond its own closed world. The reader has already gone from ‘I’ to ‘we’, but the obliterating collective power of the ‘flood’ seems to be such that the individual, and the poem, are now subsumed completely. Paterson chooses to place ‘Rain’ last, both in the collection to which it gives its name (published by Faber), and his entire Selected Poems. Whatever you make of the rest of the book, it’s a bold closing gambit.

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#12: ‘Herman Melville.’

On Tuesday this week I had my first experience of teaching creative writing, with a Year 12 class at my former secondary school. I used the following poem by Heather Phillipson as part of a discussion of the relationship between the abstract and the concrete, and today’s post is deeply indebted to those students’ bright and nuanced contributions. The poem thrives on overload, on the idea of an authorial style which gives so much that eventually its only point of reference is itself. From the title onwards, it’s deliberately overwhelming; which doesn’t stop Phillipson having a whale of a time.

When the City Centre’s at a Standstill, It’s Really Quite a Thrill
to Lie in the Road and Read Herman Melville

When the high street is a blackened toenail
at my foot’s stub-end, more bruised and less alive,
where’s the growling sea? The sky filled with harpoons?

Herman Melville is Herman Melville.
Herman Melville is like being in love, unsustainably.
You have to scram to the gutter, cling to Herman Melville.

Herman Melville.
Will my last, solitude-loving synapse be pumiced by loiterers?
Is there no law against junk thought? Is this modernity?

Is the only solution an unarmed cell, a sky-scraping mountain,
a single unfinishable book, no view, a revolution
involving the totally unconsumable, Herman Melville?

*

To answer the poem’s questions with one of my own: what’s more concrete, the high street or a blackened toenail? I would have said the latter, but my students thought otherwise, and it’s true that the high street has a physical presence that precedes its existence as a transferable concept. All high streets are alike, but on reading Phillipson’s first line you see your own local range of generic emporia, gruesomely overlaid with an image of medical trauma – specifically, of the bleak result of stunted circulation. Phillipson counterpoints this wounded, limping stasis (heavy stresses – ‘foot, ‘stub’, ‘alive’ thud unevenly along the line) with two questions that indicate a sense of bristling motion, a dynamic corporeality that goes far beyond this human ‘stub-end’.

In the second stanza, a name is given to this growling, spiky sublime, and that name is Herman Melville. His writing is compared to the fever-pitch of loving ‘unsustainably’ (an interesting choice, bringing a wispy trace of eco-consciousness to a meditation on urban ‘junk’), but before that it is wholly and emphatically compared to itself. The eight students in my group were split – some felt this pure self-identity made Melville the epitome of abstraction, a transcendent symbol that cannot or will not be otherwise expressed. As such, in the poem he possesses the ‘unfinishable’, ‘unconsumable’ quality of an endlessly-extending horizon, far from the commodification of a modern urban space. And in a sense, of course, they’re right.

But then: ‘You have to scram to the gutter, cling to Herman Melville.’ Can you cling to an abstract symbol? Here it’s more like Melville is the absolute essence of physicality; a bulwark against the flood of ‘junk thought’ and ‘loiterers’ which risks destroying the very identity of the ‘solitude-loving’ speaker on a neurological level. Along with being utterly hilarious, the first line of the third stanza gives Melville’s name a bluff monumentality, an indisputable thereness which is somehow totemic.

The esses, ells and questions in the next two lines contribute to the feeling of being ‘pumiced’, scraped into flaky pieces by the jostling presence of others who, in contrast to Melville, possess neither names nor identities outside of a group status pre-defined as criminal. But where ‘modernity’ is a series of choppy, antsy questions, Melville is all commas. We might expect the ‘solution’ Phillipson associates with the American novelist to be fixed and monolithic, but the syntax of the final stanza allows thought after thought to drift by like figures seen from the deck of a ship, strange composite images (‘an unarmed cell’, a stunning mountain followed by ‘no view’) which meld into one ‘unfinishable’ and continuous whole.

At least, the speaker seems to hope they will; the question which rounds off the sentence seems to defer the stamp of approval for this ‘only solution’ to Melville’s authority. Perhaps her own uncertainty only serves to heighten how strong (though fluid) and just how certain the figure she compares herself against is perceived to be.

*

For another playful modern approach to the powerful presence of Moby Dick in the general consciousness, I’d recommend this song by Harvey Danger: ‘Call me freaky, call me childish, call me Ishmael/Just call me back, and I’ll follow you around.’ And don’t forget, if you want to write for The Scallop-Shell, I’m always happy to hear from future contributors on richardtobrien AT gmail DOT com.

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#11: ‘like an anvil/dropped from heaven’

‘Sometimes your sadness is a yacht’, writes Jack Underwood, in his own entry into the Vendée Globe which is the expression of poetic melancholy. And though the poem starts with the thudding impact of immovable misery, Underwood’s lightness of touch charms away its weight, somehow ending on a note of quiet reflection.

Sometimes your sadness is a yacht

huge, white and expensive, like an anvil
dropped from heaven: how will we get onboard,
up there, when it hurts our necks to look?

Other times it is a rock on the lawn, and matter
can never be destroyed. But today we hold it
to the edge of our bed, shutting our eyes

on another opened hour and listening
to our neighbours’ voices having the voices
of their friends around for lunch.

*

At the risk of evoking GOB from Arrested Development, it isn’t easy making a yacht disappear. In presenting the title as an inseparable part of the poem, Underwood gives his addressee’s sadness an intractable quality – the emotional state exists before the metaphor found to express it, and before the writing is even allowed to get out of the starting blocks; or in the case, I suppose, the marina. There’s a sense of implied familiarity: hello sadness, my old friend. But that first word, ‘Sometimes’, allows us some respite; perhaps the sadness described isn’t always so palpable, so heavily present.

The white space between title and first line mirrors the cartoonish dropping anvil, allows a breath which ‘huge’ knocks out of us. Along with the two adjectives that follow, it establishes a semi-comic visual image which works according to the logic of metaphor – by naming an object as the vehicle for a more abstract experience, we give it form and definition, but also in a sense begin to explain it away. For a moment, the sadness and the yacht co-exist, like overlapping slides; by ‘expensive’, the emotion itself is beginning, if only temporarily, to drift out of view.

What yachts and sadness share is a certain persistence, the property of matter which ‘can never be destroyed’. In the first five lines, up to the volta of ‘destroyed’, this pervasiveness alters the language. The standard question ‘How do I get to Heaven?’ is reframed as ‘how will we get onboard?’; even heaven seems to be another melancholic vessel, and what can we take from the fact that heaven seems to be where sadness comes from?

Well, perhaps some comfort. Having found two concrete correlatives for the nebulous state of sorrow, Underwood also gets specific in temporal terms, replacing the hazy (because repeated) categories ‘Sometimes’ and ‘Other times’ with a here-and-now in which the problem can be directly confronted: ‘but today’. The layout lends a hand to the Sisyphean task of rolling away a rock: ‘today we hold it/to the edge of the bed’ sees sadness heaved over the line-break; there is no space for it to re-enter the clipped and mostly monosyllabic line which follows, and in the blink which constitutes the stanza division, it disappears completely.

So what is this poem without sadness? In the place of neck-craning visual stimulus, we have silent listening, and instead of choppy, agitated punctuation, one long, becalmed, unbroken moment. ‘Opened hours’ implies the forcible, recalling the victim in Larkin’s ‘Deceptions’ whose ‘mind/Lay open like a drawer of knives’; but this is precisely what’s being ignored, for the present. All that exist for the speaker and addressee are voices interacting with other voices – words in the air, drifting through the walls. It’s a far cry from the substantiality with which this creative attempt to process the suffering of another person started; and even if it’s only temporary, the almost-equal weighting of the two halves of the poem suggest it’s just about enough.

*

Would you like to write for The Scallop-Shell? Having got the project underway, I’m now welcoming posts from guest contributors, so if you’d like to give your take on a poem – contemporary or classic, it’s your own engagement which is most important – then please get in touch on richardtobrien [AT] gmail [DOT] com, and we can discuss the format and the work you would like to cover for the blog.

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#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.

*

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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