back toJacket2

February 2004  |  Jacket 25  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |


Meredith Quartermain reviews
Paravane: New and Selected Poems 1996–2003

by Frances Presley
126pp. Salt. 1844710424

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

The new work in this collection comes under the headings “Paravane,” “Uncollect,” and “Private Writings.” Previously published work includes selections from Somerset Letters, Automatic Cross Stitch, and Neither One Nor the Other (a collaboration with Elizabeth James).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a paravane is “an apparatus, fitted with vanes to keep it at a constant depth, designed to be towed at the bows of a vessel in order to clear its path from mines, cut the moorings of submerged mines or destroy hostile submarines.” The Funk and Wagnalls describes it as “a torpedo-shaped underwater device equipped with sharp projecting teeth for cutting the moorings of sunken mines” or “a similar device loaded with explosives for use against submarines.” An aeronautical version is used to intercept guided missiles.

The title poem in the Paravane series concerns the patron saint of architecture who has been imprisoned in a tower for failing to marry a non-Christian chosen by her father “when she noticed that the tower was structurally unsound and might collapse at any moment, so she decided to stop worrying about her marriage and her religion and focus on how the design might have been improved.” The poem continues, “but as she could only see a very small part at the top of the tower she had to extrapolate ..../ downwards.”

In other words, it’s time to stop looking up at abstractions, and start looking down at what we are standing on, something we have very little knowledge of, our cultural infrastructure e.g., which is about to collapse. Presley neatly attacks two of the most powerful ideologies, religion, and ownership of women via paternity and marriage.

Presley’s poems are minesweepers working below the surface to explode the breezy assumptions of Thatcherist consumer capitalism, or to explore what has already caved in. Poems in this series like “Ground Zero” and “11/9” deal explicitly with the attack on the World Trade Towers, while others deal with the bleak world that has emerged post 11/9. In “11/9” Presley writes,

there’s a red curve on my cornea
a strange sickle
from the street’s dust
which allows me to see everything
with my customary myopia

In the second section, the poem states,

no transition without abolition
messages from the

Modernisation Action Board
mo                 mo
mooder        mooder

suggesting the paravane must explode language itself in order to “extrapolate downwards” or consider how the design of our verbal towers might be improved.

In “9/ 2” Presley captures the emptiness of a world where souls are only so many soles on a shelf to be sold:

Capital Wharf
no memorials
no libraries
no books

this free paper:

the bean counters
long summer
banks pet
banks put
to exile of Thatcher
island of lost soles


leaving soles on the sally ledges
peer above the spikes

Her critique of current materialism is interwoven with disturbance of the comfortable surface of commodity language.  “Subject: Re: Semtex/ Posted by FP” discusses Semtex — “stable and shapeable/ eludes sniffers and sensors/ a god send” (the terrorist’s plastic explosive of choice, which has the consistency of silly putty) as though it were a mysterious linguistic fabric. Presley picks up the lingo of the click-on world and loads semantics with terrorist overtones. If semtex is eluding sniffers and sensors, it’s probably trying to get on a verbal plane somewhere near you, so watch out:

(this information is not secure)

semi                                                        text




teme ...

A passage from Neither One Nor the Other similarly hits pay-dirt by pushing the limits of lexical and phrasal boundaries:

We need to approach the pastoral with care and remember that it’s not a convenient utpoa

we need
we need to approach
we need to approach the past
to approach the past we need we need
to approach the pastoral
we need to approach the pastoral in a car
o approach the pastoral with care
we need to poach the pastor
to cart toward aporia
approach the waste and pare the weed to the core
to catch a parsnip
and remember that it’s not
and remember that it’s not a convent
and remember that it’s a con

ut poesia pastoralis

A number of pieces explicitly involve Christianity and make an interesting counterpoint to right-wing fundamentalism. “Othery cope” takes its cue from Revelations 12:1 and asks,

Who’s that a-sewing?
Ann the restorator
What’s she a-sewing?
Ask the restorator
A cope of the (indecipherable) sun

This last line being echoed later as “the (indecipherable) son” as though to say, Where has Christ gone?

She was clothed with the sun
Mary the Virgin, Mary the engine
Origin and trenchant
More guy ses than sh®ines

Presley’s work is aptly described by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, when he examines how language users create trajectories and “partly unreadable paths” across  the “technocratically constructed, written, and functionalized space in which ... consumers move about.” “Although they are composed with the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, supermarkets or museum sequences) .... the trajectories trace out the ruses of other interests and desires.” Presley’s minesweeps cross and recross the functionalized emptiness of modern capitalism, building bivouacs and memorials, cul-de-sacs and piazzas.

Some very powerful journaling work occurs in this collection in “Private Writings,” subtitled “Vermont Journal, September 1996,” and in the pieces from Somerset Letters, which is beautifully illustrated by  Ian Robinson’s line drawings. Many of the pieces in Somerset Letters are poems in prose, but as elsewhere, Presley uses a great range of formal techniques as she traverses, in Cubist fashion from multiple angles, the geographies of gender, a dying parent, workplace politics, wortleberries, and among many other things, mineheads. A different kind of mine this time, but somehow they’re all connected with “east myne” and “west myne” and mind and “mine head/ that makes no sense,” just as “head” is connected to “heed,” “hide” and “hired.” Often incorporating dreams, the pieces raise the question how much of “reality” is dreamt in ready-made packets; how much of this can be countered in rambles on forbidden paths through language?

There’s an element of transgression in Presley’s walks this way and that on the local, for they weave thoughts unauthorized by commercial greed or authoritarian culture.

The root of transgress has to do with walking across, trans gredi, although the argument that follows is not about transgression, but the natural pathway of desire. I hadn’t realised that playing Scrabble has more to do with preventing the other person from using words than with making words of your own..... The landscape architects in Hackney used the term ‘desire pathways’. These were the paths that people actually took, rather than the ones that had been laid out for them by civic architects.... I thought you were writing in a different country, someone else’s, hers in the city. The tall joy pink flowers of the vibernum, and the purple bladder campion above Lynch. Is this just an exercise in naming flowers or else does it reduce to her common pink metaphor? These units of language keep us constantly guessing, like the first steps of desire.

The minesweeper here is a seamstress, stitching together snatches of conversation, spring flowers, directions, admonishments, doubts, queries, recollections, he said, she thought. From deftly selected detail she explodes the linkages of desire, what matters to humanity beyond getting more money. Presley’s work is richly resonant. Her explosions of syntax and semantics are devastating.

February 2004  |  Jacket 25  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400+ book reviews |

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be
stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Meredith Quartermain and Jacket magazine 2004
The Internet address of this page is