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BOOK REVIEW

Marianne Morris reviews

Embrace
by Andrea Brady

Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2005, 57pp

This review is 3,200 words
or about 6 printed pages long

Behind the veil

We tried to invent
a troop the like of which
and with our failure nature goes dumb.
                    — from Frog Lab

Something strange happens to eyes and throats in Embrace. Throats are ‘scabbards’; ‘notches of skin’ appear in them, they are split ‘into curtains.’ An eye is ‘a darkening slice’ with a blister rotating underneath, eyes are ‘empty’, torn, gashed, curled, pink, twitching, ‘soaked in quinine’. They have ‘little holes’. Kidneys are ‘pierced’. Skin sweats glucose, skin is unbuttoned. The body is menacing and violated, sometimes it is only flesh moving. Sometimes the flesh of the body is clearly put to other use: when it has no recourse to solace or love, it becomes, through violence, ‘curtains’, ornamenting a gaudy house. And then the violence loses force, scattering like a burst sac of marbles, and skin ‘fill[s] the East River’ (‘Wind Up’). The poem is a body, stewing in a sack of skin; and water grows its own in ‘A Quick Half in the Skinner’s Arms’.

It’s easy, through the poems’ own osmotic narrative, to see the use of such themes. The body of the Western world, exchanging (true, as opposed to cosmetic) beauty for degraded spectacles, is viewed through the poetic mirror with all the deformities and injuries that the actual body has long outsourced to the places we hear of in newspapers or on TV. The eyes are, appropriately, ‘square,’ from gobbling up too much of ‘that / junk the truth’. And because it is so easy, I won’t dawdle over the point. This book gets a wince at every edge, which is its primary offered pleasure, mauling the beatific into a logbook of neo-Plague symptoms. Nothing that has the potential to be beautiful escapes the attention of violence or escapes intact. Even love gets a hit, ‘swarm[ing...] all over the grid’ in an infestation of power that eats up and overwhelms the ordered lines. 

But shifts into the personal in these poems often act as a lever, shunting the poem into a place separated from its reader, because their sudden appearances cut the work off absolutely from the register of public critique that the poems are wishful for. This shutting off interests me. It leaves the reader fumbling after trails of bloody, curling ribbons, pulled from flesh, sick at heart and feeling lumps of metal under skin. And I am wary of excusing this shutting off as a violence that is done to the reader as a proxy for social violence that is witnessed by its writer.

To write off the unease passed on to the reader through these poems as a mere by-product of a dialectical mirror, distorting outsourced violence through the compassionate eyes of the author, is the easiest route out of the problem of facing these poems head-on. The trapped passion and disgust in these lines asks that we look deeper: the work itself asks (in ‘Table Talk’), ‘How can we be different.’ The sarcasm dripping from the ensuing lines (‘Oh, drying rack? [...] How much is that. How cool.’) is a self-mockery that gives away the integrity of the original question: the desire for an optimism that is not spattered with the sickness of how easily we are too emptied of disregard to be pulled up for our collusion with injustice. How can we be different? The work itself looks for an answer, suffers from its own ruptured pessimism, bleeds out surplus cadences; which is all to say that a way of affirmation has not been discovered by these poems. This was first oddly demonstrated at the Cambridge Poetry Summit in January 2004, when Robin Purves talked about the ending of ‘Post Festen e’, from Vacation of a Lifetime, which goes a little something like this:

                            the old dream of every pioneer
        American was to feel before California
                the swift winds of the prairie
                on his skull, become a conductor
                        of American power.

Purves’ analysis (now corrected in an essay published in the recent Edinburgh Review on American poetry[1]) took the ‘conductor[s] / of American power’ as a string of bodies united in their ability to lead their country into the future, freed from whatever (and how much ever) oppresses them. It transpired later on that Brady’s conductor of power is actually only one thing: electrocuted. So the flag of hope is a flagon of warm blood, and the future a bright spark of certain death.

The question of how affirmation can be ethically present is one for a poet to battle with; the question of how affirmation can be prosodically present is one for a critic. When I mention ‘the personal’ in this work, I am pinned to some vagueness, but I equate what might be a definition with what might be called abstraction. I’ll try to demonstrate. In ‘Child Stars on Trial’, pharmaceutical ‘fields of disparin and cherry’ are chased by ‘the tinkle / of a short lead’, and ‘effusions like lemon curd’; and meanwhile ‘some other she / must be stuck by hobs, thinking / nothing other than the rented video’. The landscapes and contexts move quickly, leaving no trails, as if the poem’s palm has opened, loosing its various items to scatter. But the poem has an erotic quality due to its sole unifying agent — the recurring ‘she’, who by way of her gender permits the presence of various quasi-erotic metaphors, culminating in a love that ‘ate temporarily against a wall of bridles and crops’. The femme fatale of this poem is an easy target for prosodic abuse, the rifts in structure costuming her in abstract fetishes. Her reflexes ‘keep working the sack’; ‘she smoke[s] in the shower’. There are many anonymous female characters in the book, registered namelessly as ‘she’ or ‘her’ — they appear suddenly, and disappear, contributing to the gendered and intense moods in the poems (I think of Anne Carson’s line ‘Her, this word that explodes’[2]). This idea of the poems as a site for gender discussions partly explains why ‘Saw Fit’ is such a raging success, riddled with self-renewing energy that pinpoints the target of Lynndie England, ‘the whip-kitten who lets us watch’ whilst the men in the Pentagon escape a lashing. The poem successfully critiques the political and social mechanisms that turned England into an Abu Ghraib Girl, whilst at the same time slamming her relentlessly (‘She cannot say / “I am a survivor”       oop oop’). The subject of the poem seems to have given the author a direct means of channeling a waiting well of fury about the inequality of women and their own passive collusion with that inequality.[3]

The absence of prosodic affirmation seems urgent in these moments of surplus, private energy. They rip us from their more blatant themes into sudden alien landscapes populated with ‘pink fudges / mountains’ and ‘milk teeth’ (‘To Castellina’), arresting the reader’s synapses before they can get to work. This latter poem contains possibly the best image in the book, ‘My face now a sack / filled with a hot medical syrup,’ in which you can taste the sweet, sickening heat all the way from throat to hair; but elsewhere the language is overly ornamental: ‘gasp caspar / implies another swell ruse of pink onlook / in swallowtail refit, hoarding wishfulness.’ This ornamental looseness, the shutting off of which I speak, is visible intermittently across the board of the book. Why is it there?

I might attempt to answer this question through a consideration of prosody. Prosody is the subconscious of poetry; it glues words, as opposed to images, together, hints at their etymologies and dialogues. It shows the likenesses and anomalies of words against other words in ways that lists of language do not. Prosody harnesses the violence of inspiration and conviction, sharpens it to a point. It is what causes language to be poetry, instead of just language. Prosodic affirmation, then, is what allows the poem to realise and justify its convictions and instincts. The lack of attention to prosody leaves the poet dissatisfied, gives no bones over which to shape the form. In place of this affirmation, a manufactured negativity seeps under the buckling frame. I say it is manufactured because I don’t feel that this particular pessimism is the designated outcome of these poems (poems have wishes). It is a negativity that sprouts as a proxy for more accurate protest — the protest that is so violently and dazzlingly visible in ‘Saw Fit’, and in warped metaphors about violated bodies and sick atmospheres. It is also a negativity that is fetishistic in structure. Tropes of beauty are replaced with fetishised tropes, erotic and violent in tone.

Thus the poems often try to force coherence into their imagery by moving outward into ever deepening exoticisms. The syntax suggests this, and the phenomenon is not totally unfamiliar. There exists, somewhere, the idea that there are things which belong in poems, but this idea ends up being nothing more than a rope to cling to when poetic form buckles and gives way, when the child of the poem rears its fear. It is the rope that is slung ‘onto fields of china rabbits’ in ‘The Ballot Spoilers’. It is the response of a poet who has lost faith in poetry’s ability to have conviction, or in its admittedly slim chance of being something more than a mere demonstration of grievance, or maybe finally in readers of the contemporary “avant-garde” (self-named) poets, who seem ever-dwindling in their care and attention. The review culture amongst avant-garde writers of poetry in the UK has all but screeched to a halt in recent years.

Those most guilty of doing little to dispel this idea, that there are things-which-belong-in-poems, are younger poets writing out of Cambridge who take the practically indecipherable late work of JH Prynne as their cue, creating a poetic effect that is almost sculptural, layering cut images and hints of phrases over one another to create anti-linear and viscous hints of experience, forgetting, perhaps, that the work has earned its bloody abstraction, that there are precise reasons for it, and that late-Prynne is drastically altered in meaning and purpose by early-Prynne, which is resplendent with cold and feral battles for and against narrative, against the utterance of the first-person singular, against any utterance not carefully pre-hewn and re-sewn into its margins of beauty and importance. The influence of late-Prynne is problematic for these reasons and, if nothing else, irritating, because it has frozen the wider reception of new poetry coming out of Cambridge, reducing the whole scene to those two words, usually accompanied by a little wheeze of saliva on the lips from the tongue, ‘Cambridge poetry’, which offers a quick gloss and exit route that ignores the fact that the nuances of individual poets bloom on closer inspection. Almost every poet writing from that context tends to at very least dabble in the possibilities of abstraction, myself included, and I am very much an advocate of the possibilities of its sublime effects. But I’m certain that abstraction in poetry must be balanced with its opposite, and I am no longer convinced that radicalism in poetry begins in syntactical dissonance and grammatical violence.

Although Brady has long been present within this context of poets writing in, from and In Memoriam, Cambridge, her concerns are essentially grounded in the urgency of the social, cultural and political spheres of everyday dissent — they fleet through events in a way murkily redolent of Frank O’Hara’s I-do-this-I-do-that poems, particularly the excerpt published in Embrace of a discarded, longer poem about Iraq (‘Another Noise Band’), as well as the more solidly framed sequences of ‘Arnica Montana’ and ‘Frog Lab’ — and her poems as a result do not suffer under the thumb of that fearful anxiety of influence. And so then the questionless question of ‘Table Talk’ hits me differently, not in pessimism but in the confines of abstraction itself, skewed speech, marked to alter and fit carefully plotted parameters, stifled songs, wires around the scabbards of our throats.

So many excluded in a quick pinch
a little rain of lemon bitters down the back of you
but complex jawing just sets the compression
programme to rerun from its first sector.
How can we be different.

If we feel we must speak in this way, if our voices are strained and constrained, it seems little surprise that our poetry follows the same route. The stilts of the Cambridge-situated self-named avant-garde bend like bamboo scaffold, but break not. I have a strongly positive feeling that Brady’s poetry is the way out of this tricky genre which is so full of ideas and beauty but so calxed by its various self-imposed ties and binds. Her evacuation is made partly through the medium of desire — the element of the book that I am most charmed and bothered by. Desire is demanded of the reader, both through corporeal syntax coiffeured by loving, inanimate objects (see the varied and surprising tendernesses in ‘Hymn On The Nativity’ exacted by ‘packets’ and ‘metal icicles’) — I said that poems have wishes, and I do feel, sometimes a little awkwardly, that these poems wish to be desired. But if influence is a thing to be reckoned with at all, I suppose it may be seduced and beguiled. And the seducer must of course play by a few rules of the seduced, which may account for the surplus objects I have already spoken of — that occasional loosened energy that spills from the poems, and all that this implies for a site of gendered critique. But of course, Brady is a poet who was already rooted in and adept at abstraction before writing in Cambridge. Furthermore, through the successful expansion of Barque Press, run jointly with Keston Sutherland, Brady’s efforts have sustained and energised a community that may otherwise have flagged, or, worse, succumbed entirely to the anti-avant-garde chart-music lyric that occasionally makes it out of Cambridge alive.

Desire also comes into play at a focal point in the book, in the poem ‘All or Nothing’, though it’s my feeling that the poem’s main concern is The Problem With Plain-Speaking, something which sadly has been banished from almost all contemporary poetry that’s worth reading — banished to shelves of Faber & Faber pressings of poems about doing the laundry or playing the piano, tinged with that bawdy, seamless nausea of the tired British bourgeois, limp at his/ her hobby of sentimental recrimination and reflection. ‘All or Nothing’ begins with a question.

What is right? Combinations snag on the drift of Paradise
city farm.

Pressed intimately and immediately into the central nerve we find ourselves — at a great potentiality of risk. The prosody that withholds from us the true nature of Paradise, if only for a split second (its true nature is economic, of course), straddles the complexity dividing the poems into twins. The first twin is comprised of the facts of immediate, urgent, lived experience, and the other of the shadows of the past that push their interpretations pre-emptively upon those acts of living. This doubleness happens often in Brady’s work, and is partly what gives it such richness — we feel that we, as pedestrians of the poems’ pavements, are constantly dogged by something bigger than us — bigger, more pessimistic and more grotesque than gods. Something like history or inevitability. The poem continues.

You there, both, slap your brands
on cows and dogs shitting up this place noiselessly.
Even as you feed them triscuits in neglect
they feel green shade slide past them like a verb:
right this. Then go as the soldiers do, live actors,
driving nails through a little syllable. That you are not yet
right in the head does not mean that you will be killed off.

Again a notion of right creeps in (‘right this’), but I feel it appears as a self-recrimination, stabbed into the thickness of verses that allow their focus to rest outwards, on ‘you there, both’, anonymous faces, guilty of being idle, the crime against the self that makes us all ‘live actors’, a label as bad as ‘soldier’, which for Brady must represent the most heinous collateral damage brokered by inaction and passivity. It starts in Paradise City Farm, today, sure, but it goes everywhere, that little complicity spreading like sick mud, fills the East River with skin, swells up the skin-bag containing your head — & boom, there’s the conclusion of my first paragraph. But this particular poem battles with its own criticisms of inactivity that are so prevalent elsewhere in the collection — simulating battle between the creator of simulacra and the simulacrum itself.[4]  This turns the poem in on itself and ultimately, on the first-person narrator, who for so much of this book has cloaked itself in other pronouns — the hatred directed at the yous and shes and theirs, and especially at her (this word that explodes). The poem invites the first-person to speak.

Speak to us about your dreams.

What will it say? I am on the edge of my seat.

     My gusset
had been ripped out,
though the rest of the legs were just fine,
and as I could say that I remember this I wake
the boy boiled in pig-iron bobs from colon to throat.

And here offers a climax of indolence. The desire I spoke of earlier, you realise, is a play, a veil, and behind it is a terrible image, sexual violence culminated in a stew of entrails, murder and the memory of sex, personification of society’s grot, culture’s glut. A wave of sickness, a stunning loss or potentiality of grief but it’s offered nonchalant, as passive as the branders of cows from a moment before, as passive as the ‘live actors’, violence and fear bursting out every which way from the poem except from the mouth of the ‘I’ that speaks it. There follows a sudden vulnerability, stapled to the repetition of this I as it creeps out with its tongue intact:

Was I right, was I, would otherwise drift
back down an open gullet and trade the rest
for a magic chip pumped with human song.
Like the secret of the human ears
if I gave up my own tongue, I for that matter.

The voice acknowledges and claims its constrictions, has chosen them, is not imposed upon by them. The ‘chip pumped with human song’ is neglected, and in any case there is nothing to sing about. But the poem pauses over the question of this first-person speaker, neither claims nor neglects it. The sonic and lingual test of its repetition becomes gorged with beauty, all of it hiding in the belly at the bottom of the gullet, where secretly it knows its choice.

This too is the place where the reader may locate the reward of this collection of poems, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

[1] Sam Ladkin and Robin Purves, eds. “The Darkness Surrounds Us”: American Poetry, Edinburgh Review #114 (essay pp.177-185)

[2] from ‘VII. But to honour truth which is smooth divine and lives among the gods we must (with Plato) dance lying which lives down below amid mass of men both tragic and rough’, Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband (Random House, 2001).

[3] But also there is a collusion of darker mettle in the poem which troubles me, and which I might express by way of asking what this poem does. It presents Lynndie England, whose grim smile became the poster picture for Abu Ghraib torture back in early 2004 when the story broke. It portrays England in two ways. Firstly, it gives an account of her life’s detail (England grew up in poverty, living in a trailer park, working nights at a chicken factory – disadvantages that the poem could care less about), partly accumulated from what we were told in the papers at the time. Secondly, it berates her viciously. The poem does both of these things in mocking mimicry of the press – this is how it alerts us to the real grievance, the fact that blame and media heat are pressed upon England and not on US leaders who sanction torture in the first place. It points out very clearly, also, that this is a gender debate – it is ‘men’ who ‘leave no paper trail / through the wreckage’, whilst we are left with a blow-by-blow of England’s entire life, more or less. Thus the poem works its dialectical force of argument. But within this argument is a side that seems out of place in a poem that critiques patriarchal society via the classification of this situation as a gender debate. For the poem also sexualizes and abuses England from the confines of a gender debate: it mockingly offers her the title of ‘whip kitten’, it tells us she will prostitute her pregnancy to ‘make it back get more from the birth’. The poem, like the media reports, is content for England to remain a vilified woman, whose punishment is greater because, as a woman, she should have known better. Or something. It is the gender question that allowed the issue’s force in scandal to be tripled in the first place, but the gender issue is the original problem. Why does England attract more attention as a criminal than Charles Grainer, for example? He was sentenced to ten years in prison at the trial, England three. Is it because we are sick and tired of hearing about men abusing people, because male torturers can only lend the situation a sexual kick via anal rape? Maybe we’re glad of the chance for a new perspective? Stereotypes drive this poem from the sidelines – the neat classification of woman as nurturer and man as authority figure. The poem’s failing is its abuse of England-As-Female, coupled with its reverence of an absent female archetype that has been conjured and driven by the structure of patriarchal society. That is to say, to some extent, that the poem is collusive with what it affects to loathe.
    Unlike Miranda in Shakespeare’s Tempest, from which ‘Saw Fit’ takes some of its lines, England is not the only woman on the island. Leilla Matsui, writing on Abu Ghraib at www.dissidentvoice.org, also mockingly sticks England into the category of ‘whip kitten’, but her point is allegorical: “Lynndie England wielding an imaginary rifle butt at her dark skinned conquests has proved to be the most enduring and accurate reflection of the US's real aims in occupying Iraq.” (http://www.dissidentvoice.org/May2004/Matsui0524.htm)

[4] There is a mild reference to Baudrillard here yes – it seems fitting that there should be one somewhere...

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