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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Unmodern Verse

John Wilkinson reviews

Versary, by Kate Lilley

Salt Publishing 2002, pp98

This piece is 1,300 words or about three printed pages long

The adjective ‘camp’ has come to be applied most often in one of two ways: first, as shorthand for taste expressive of a gay sensibility, eliding a number of scarcely reconcilable stereotypes; and secondly to connote the superior appreciation of what the connoisseur considers to have been contrived to serve abased and vulgar taste.

Cover of Versary Kate Lilley’s poems might be termed camp in both of these meanings, but their wit and skill display a refinement of camp definable as the application of precise moral and aesthetic discrimination to and through the products of commercial culture, in a way Augustan in its severity and precision. Such a proceeding is advertised formally, not through new-formalistic and writing-school aptitudes with inherited stanzaic forms and metres, but through the poise and clarity of verse movement and a particular attention to line  characteristically end-stopped.

This latter feature has the odd effect, given Lilley’s minimal punctuation, of making continuous syntax and argument seem paratactical, as though otherwise overwhelming emotion and/or carcerally-complete argument were forever breaking up into one-liners, thereby both becoming manageable affectively and permitting a degree of semantic freedom, but threatening to fragment the feeling subject and the fullness of conception. The following short poem both demonstrates and to some extent describes the effect:

     Formes Frustes

The two halves of a face should stay together
crying like doing the washing constantly
eventually they’ll tire of the story of lithium
and give up on the miracles of science

there’s every size and style of milk in the fridge
a rapid heartbeat is fear or might as well be
I’m three drinks behind my demented twin
and three ahead of the tab sorry and then some

Like an Anne Sexton poem rewritten by Ted Berrigan, ‘Formes Frustes’ works simultaneously as an objective unity, as a set of fragments, and as the expression of a subject. The reader pieces it together like a puzzle, feels it fall apart, and knows the continuing pain – a special kind of facetiousness whereby the seemingly resolved becomes eternally irresolute, pain on the brink of resolution sustained as heartache in a highly sophisticated analogue to the country-&-western or soul hurtin’ song.

The end-stopped, one-liner style is both an enormous strength when handled as brilliantly as this, and presents a constant technical problem in overcoming its inherent limitations. Kate Lilley’s lines are independent of support from predecessors, successors, rhyme-partners, serial offspring etc. but ask to be judged just as they stand – and offering to be judged as they would judge seems to me their definitely Augustan point. Therefore to encounter a Kate Lilley poem in a magazine representing the almost-institutional derivatives of modernism (as first I did) is to be disturbed pleasurably by a register distinct from everything about it and to be brought up short by so strange a sensibility.

A problem though is that the end-stopped witty line can become relentless with a collection; indeed, so decidedly unmodern is this poet that her poems are best read outside a collection for they do not, it seems to me, require the learning of their own new idiom so much as stand clearly in a critical relationship with modernist poetry. Her verse then needs to be anthologised rather than collected. Nonetheless in tackling the problem of collection Kate Lilley deploys a number of strategies, seeking to aggregate up towards more extended structures and to introduce enough variation in time-signatures to stave off exhaustion. The most ambitious of these timing variations comes with the demented pantoum employed in ‘Mint in Box: A Pantoum Set’. (The pantoum is a Malay verse form consisting of an indefinite number of quatrains with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the following one). Each of these ten longer poems sustains the falling- apart- and- snapping- together virtues of ‘Formes Frustes’ with frenetic bravura and is triumphant on its own warped terms, even if there is no apparent necessity for their presentation as a set other than a similar use of repetition and variation, and perhaps (a mere inference) the ghostly history of a relationship enticing into the open a lesbian identity. Such inference however is difficult to sustain through reference to cross-structures, echoes between the separate poems or other resorts of close reading.

Another strategy is adopted in Versary’s closing sequence of ‘Sapphics’, a title punning between lesbian contents and sapphic fragments. Here the page becomes the damaged and much-erased papyrus, but each separate page achieves a unity more stable than ‘Formes Frustes’ or any of the ‘Mint in Box’ poems – whether a unity of distraction, of enigma or the almost unbearable unity of pain on the page (p93) beginning ‘Leaves that used to slip past/ stick in my hair like thorns’ and ending with the devastating phrase ‘decommissioned stock’. I find it hard to think of a recent poem which communicates desolation more directly and beautifully than this, but for all its modern-looking disposition on the page it is as fin-de-siècle (nineteenth century, that is) as the early poems of Ezra Pound in sensibility and very nearly as much so in form should the white spaces dividing the couplets be closed up. The affective power of this poem then, is irresistible, but I admire more the contrivances which hold in sustained tension unity and incoherence, the flip and the serious:

     As Is

Lonely stairway not so long ago
a raincoat’s floral lining

local girls trying seconds and samples
no exchange or refund

chiasmus of symptom and side effect
flooding chemical debris

strophe and antistrophe in the garment district

Neither the mock formalism of ‘strophe and antistrophe’ and the Escher-like, Möbius strip play of inner and outer locking together, nor the briskness of referring to memory traces as ‘chemical debris’ can undo the tonal signature of the opening ‘lonely stairway’. That tone governs the affective payload of ‘no exchange or refund’ for instance, while the witty and  formal locking of highly disparate elements – terms of rhetoric and of garment manufacture – wards off a near-collapse into unity, the flooding of pain here subject to a continuing, just-distancing discrimination between symptom and side effect.

‘As Is’ has none of the camp references to soaps and to country-&-western of earlier poems in Versary but shares their wit in the expression of deep feeling. The density of popular cultural references may suggest at first glance that her writing has postmodern affinities, but in its orderliness and discriminations actually it is antithetical to the postmodern. Her continual exercise of choice makes it possible to point to Kate Lilley’s taste for 1950s artefacts and her love of country and western music as representative of a yearning for a world of certitudes epitomised in monogamy; these preferences are also orientations (to adopt her own distinction) bound for loss and disappointment but to abjure which through irony would be to extinguish the only candle worth the game.

I think Kate Lilley believes the hard luck story of the country-&-western singer and absolutely refuses to patronise its audience. Her poems are enormously likeable for such unembarrassed responsiveness, for their lack of interest in being cool, for their eschewal of intellectual showiness (given the true scholar she is) but constant sharp intelligence withal, for their mixture of tears and jest. Their unmodern quality has something in common with a little-appreciated history of women’s and gay men’s unmodern poetry in which I would include on a quick surmise the work of Edna St Vincent Millay, John Wheelwright, John Wieners, Veronica Forrest-Thomson (in her later poems), and Denise Riley. As the ego-driven follies of Pound and Olson look more anachronistic with each passing year, a new consideration of the unmodern (which implies such writing’s dialectical relationship with modernism) would seem promising. Although both the asperities and the agonies of Versary would sound strange within conceivable anthologies of contemporary poetry, they may not long continue so if their evident power can be conjoined with a revision of the categories which dominate and distort understanding of the anglophone poetry of the past century.

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