#23: ‘Let us escape these attics’

This post was originally commissioned by the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network. Its subject is a poem from last year’s anthology of winners of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. It’s written for a slightly younger audience than the rest of the content on the blog, and along with the usual analysis, offers a commentary on the process behind the approach I take here.

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When I analyse a poem, one of the first things I do is look for similarities and differences. Firstly, similarities within the poem (a pattern of rhyme, rhythm, repetition); differences between sections, tones of voice and types of language; and especially, similarities between things we might not expect to be similar, and differences between things we might not expect to be different.

This essentially comes down to the relationship between form and content: is the poem visibly, audibly, ordered or disordered? Are the things it speaks about? And is there a tension between the two – a dark, upsetting subject in a neat, clean couplet? Or a happy memory shattered into pieces, scattered across the page? These are the kind of choices that make a poem a poem, rather than the raw material of ideas or emotion from which it springs. The word ‘poet’ literally means ‘one who makes’; a poet is a ‘maker’ as much as a thinker, and that’s why it’s important to attend to form, even if there is no obvious formal structure.

Daughters

by Phoebe Stuckes

Enough of pulling off high heels to run
Or else waiting alone in unclaimed ugliness.

No more crying out for guitar heroes
Or going back to old loves for the safety.

Let us build bonfires of those unanswered prayers
Let us learn how to leave with clean and empty hearts
Let us escape these attics still mad, still drunk, still raving
Let us vacate these badly lit odd little towns
Let us want none of what anchored our mothers
Let us never evolve to be good or beautiful
Let us spit and snarl and rattle the hatches
Let us never be conquered
Let us no longer keep keys in our knuckles
Let us run into the streets hungry, fervent, ablaze.

You
Are a mighty thing
A captive animal, woken with a taste for blood.
Feed it,

You Amazon, you Gloria, you Swiss army knife of a woman.

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It’s never a bad idea to look at first words or last words – where the poem (or each individual line) is coming from, and where it’s going. Looking at Stuckes’s opening, I can see two oppositions, built around the word ‘or’: “Enough… Or else”; “No more… Or”. But in each case the alternative to the first option isn’t preferable either; neither ‘or’ is better that what went before. These undesirable oppositions offer a sense of entrapment, of restricted possibility, which inscribes in grammar what the poem is already saying about the limited roles in which society places women. I picked out words suggesting roles defined by relationships which supply a need for protection (“old loves”, “safety”, “crying”, “heroes”, “run”) and decorative fashion (“high heels”) versus “ugliness” (and isn’t “unclaimed” an unsettling, sinister word to apply to a person rather than say, an Amazon Prime delivery?) Against this sense of initial limitation, Stuckes sets two adverbs – “Enough” and “No more”. I’m interested by the force of those words: utterly certain and totalising, they have a scope and a weight which the options they reject do not.

It’s hard to ignore the series of lines beginning “Let us” in the middle of the poem, and when I checked back-and-forth I realised that the first four lines didn’t have any pronouns at all. As such, they seemed to speak for everyone – not the traditional ‘I’ of the writer (which is never used), the “you” addressed or the community of “us” which Stuckes builds, but somehow arriving from nowhere like a proclamation from on high. By contrast, something about the four ‘You’s at the end of the poem seemed to me like an important shift, particularly as two of them begin a line and one is allowed to stand wholly unaccompanied, with a capital letter, which reminded me of how God is often addressed in Christian texts. One major structural pattern that therefore interested me in the poem was that there was a progression from an impersonal, general way of speaking about female experience, to a direct address, a finger pointing out of the white space, to ‘You’ as a reader.

So how does Stuckes get there? By sheer volume, I decided that the “Let us” section was probably doing something important, and its repetition of the first-person plural “us” was clearly central to its aim. I wanted to work out it what it reminded me of, and having a suspicion based on its length, I counted the lines: as well as all beginning the same way, there were ten of them. Given that their contents serve as advice on how a group of people should live, this struck me as strongly reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. The repeated use of the verb phrase “Let us” also led me to the ‘Let us pray’ of a Church liturgy, and so I started hunting for other elements in the poem that had a religious resonance.

I found a reference to “unanswered prayers”, and wondered if the whole poem might therefore be a different kind of prayer, for an action to be carried out by a group of people taking matters into their own hands rather than requesting answers from a higher power. Having already considered the Commandments, I thought “Let us” had a very different spin to it than ‘Thou shalt not’, and wondered what exactly ‘we’ were being urged to do. Looking at the verbs used in this section, I saw that while some were very directly physical – “spit”, “snarl”, and a use of “run” which seemed far more invested with positivity and ownership than the same word in the first line – many were abstract and intellectual concepts, such as “want” and “learn”. Some suggested things to be done right away – an escape, a bonfire – some referred to longer processes, and some insisted “never”, “none”, with the full force of rejection. I noticed that I didn’t want to pause as I read through the list, and realised that Stuckes had mostly chosen to leave out full stops.

Because the last line of the poem was so striking, I wanted to work out what had led up to it in my experience as a reader. I felt like the sense of drive created by the absence of punctuation, coupled with the diversity of the actions, was central to that experience. Stuckes, in the middle section, seemed to be exploring forms of rebellion in a wide range of areas of life – and for me, the combination of variety and danger seemed to connect to the weaponised, resourceful and multi-faceted femininity suggested by the final image: “you Swiss army knife of a woman”. This single spiky metaphor felt to me like the crystallisation of Stuckes’s ideas and techniques. It also does exactly what some of the best metaphors do, which is to find something very similar in two very different things, and to reshape your idea of each; but its conclusive complexity was unlocked for me by focusing on the many smaller differences and similarities which I noticed along the way.

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#21: ‘like a pistol in her pocket’

Seven years ago, the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award changed my life. It’s no exaggeration to say that this blog probably couldn’t have existed without the encouragement, support and community to which I was given access as a Foyle winner, and I am deeply indebted to the award not only for the continuing role it has played in my own success (whatever that means) as a writer, but also for the attentiveness it allowed me to develop as a reader of the kinds of poetry being written now.

Today, on National Poetry Day, this year’s fifteen winners were announced; fifteen young writers who are about to have a horizon-expanding experience of which I am retrospectively and unreasonably jealous. In tribute to the part that the Foyle competition played in my life, I’m giving this week’s entry over to the winning poem which spoke to me most powerfully – Ian Burnette’s ‘Dutch Baby’, a tense and tender portrait of an abrupt induction into adulthood.

Dutch Baby
by Ian Burnette

In the bakery, my girl
grips a pregnancy test

like a pistol in her pocket.
The baker hands her

the key to the restroom
and leaves. In the back

there’s a small window
where he watches

men and women and
children—I don’t mind,

I’ve learned I can’t
protect anyone by now.

The raspberry danish
in the pastry cabinet

is the baker’s daughter,
I’ve decided—bruised

purple and swaddled
in puff rope. I imagine

the baker coming back
from his window, filling

my empty hands.
Here’s yeast, here’s flour,

fruit and sugar and water—
make more of her.

*

The considerable threat in this poem emerges in part from its sense of normality, present even in its very grammar – its simple, present-tense, often monosyllabic sentences. The bakery, with its restroom and its pastry cabinet, evokes the warm sense of domesticity and community provided by a traditional (family) business, and the gently-possessive description ‘my girl’ points back to a wholesome teen America, reminiscent of romantic comedy. It is this context which the pregnancy test (even before its result is visible) is about to explode, with a volley of popping plosives. Who is this ‘pistol’ pointed at – the father, the lover, or the ‘girl’ herself? Does she ‘grip’ in fear, or tenacious self-defence?

Burnette skilfully controls the levels of knowledge within the poem – it isn’t fully clear if the baker knows what his daughter is doing in the restroom, or if his window-watching habit (‘children’ last, an unsettling afterthought) is as sinister as the speaker seems to assume. He seems too young for apathy, and we don’t know if his failures of ‘protection’ have a significance beyond the sexual. And where is he within the scene – on the other side of the window, looking in, thus little better than the father-voyeur? Or inside, tapping his toes by the pastry cabinet, nervously waiting for his hands to be filled? When it comes to the bruising of an edible commodity (two images of male-on-female violence and control), ‘I’ve decided’ seems an oddly glib choice of verb. As with the victim in Larkin’s ‘Deceptions‘, it’s hard to know how uneasy to feel about the male’s ‘imagine’d agency within, or ownership of, a narrative of female suffering. Here, also, we shift into the past – ‘I’ve learned’… ‘I’ve decided’ – as Burnett takes us away from the restroom and its uncomfortably intimate suspense into a space of distanced reflection which the female character is currently unable to access.

Perhaps the bruising refers less to domestic assault than to the image of a difficult birth; certainly ‘swaddled/in puff rope’ implies the painful reception of a new-born, one who enters into a world of suffocating restriction. Against this vision of a possible future, the speaker’s ’empty hands’ return us to his prior powerlessness; the ‘filling’ also suggests a kind of surrogate pregnancy for which the ‘daughter’ is present only as a sugary embryo, created by two generations of men within a masculine receptacle. ‘Make more of her’ indicates a desire for replacement – implies, even, a fatherly concern that this new daughter should be treated better than the last – but doesn’t answer the question of where the first has got to within the final movement of the poem. There is a tenderness to this moment of reconstruction, even if the end result will be something flimsy and comestible. We don’t know quite what the yeast will rise into, or how the situation in the poem will resolve. ‘Make more of her’, an imperative, reaches outward to us as readers – it is our job now to build up the narrative, to fill in the gaps Burnette leaves open.

*

To read more about the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and read the full list of 2013’s winners please go to http://www.foyleyoungpoets.org.

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#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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