Eternal Feminine

Ian Gregson

  • Landlocked by Mark Ford
    Chatto, 51 pp, £5.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3750 9
  • The English Earthquake by Eva Salzman
    Bloodaxe, 64 pp, £5.95, May 1992, ISBN 1 85224 177 2
  • Bleeding Heart Yard by William Scammell
    Peterloo, 63 pp, £6.95, May 1992, ISBN 1 871471 28 1
  • The Game: Tennis Poems by William Scammell
    Peterloo, 48 pp, £6.00, June 1992, ISBN 1 871471 27 3
  • Marconi’s Cottage by Medbh McGuckian
    Bloodaxe, 110 pp, £6.95, May 1992, ISBN 1 85224 197 7

The excitable, exuberant surface of Mark Ford’s poems makes them instantly attractive. They speak with a bewildered urgency:

See, no hands! she cried
Sailing down the turnpike,
And flapped her arms like a pigeon,
And from the backseat Solomon, her spaniel, answered her
By woofing ever more madly at each passing car!

Here, in the title poem, the crucial analogy with travel is at its most explicit; there’s the sense in both cases of simultaneous thrill and disorientation; the imagery of these poems unsettles and excites through unfamiliar angles of perception and exotic juxtapositions. In particular, it is the road-movie which is being referred to here, its bumpy emotions and its sense of being at the end of a tether:

Such awful doubts assailed her in the prairie states –
For days she chewed her favourite gum on the hard shoulder
And whispered her difficult secrets to the wheat
Where game Solomon yelped, and, true to form,
The unmiraculous wheat only rustled through its rosary once more.

The most obvious influence on Ford is Frank O’Hara, with whom he shares a tendency to exclaim (‘What a life!’, ‘Hurrah!’, ‘What a thought!’, ‘Hush!’, ‘Hark!’), a desire to register the vertiginous rush of the present moment – for which driving with no hands is a vivid hyperbolic analogy, and which entails the use of a head-over-heels free verse – and a tendency to sound blasé or deadpan when the imagery becomes surreal. They also share a slightly camp mistrust of ‘angst’, so that where that wheat is unlike, as it were, road-movie wheat is where it’s used to mock a frustrated desire for transcendence.

Where Ford differs from O’Hara is in his view of language. O’Hara’s manifesto ‘Personism’ insisted on the poet’s ability to speak directly to the reader, as though he were phoning him up. Or the poem would move between poet and reader like ‘lucky Pierre’ – the human cheese in the troilist sandwich. It would be as natural and organic, or rather as alive and sexy, as someone sharing your bed. But while Ford employs many of O’Hara’s tricks to make the poem breathe and bustle, he keeps calling into question its ability to speak authentically or immediately.

Ford doesn’t necessarily like what recent theory says on this subject:

Language is life (God help us)
it’s more like a vinegar eye-bath to me.

But his poems nonetheless insist on their own constructedness, and draw attention to the difficult question of who is speaking them, in a way that distinguishes them from those of O’Hara, who wanted to evoke his own body moving through New York at a specific time, enact his own patterns of breath, project the sound of his own voice. Particularities like these are all in question in Ford’s work. It never seems to be precisely the poet who is speaking, the kind and extent of subjectivity involved is uncertain, and the setting is riddled with doubt by Ford’s tendency to mingle English and American idioms and cultural references. Ford’s cosmopolitan background – he was born in Kenya, attended both Oxford and Harvard, taught at University College London, and is currently a visiting lecturer at Kyoto University – may be partly responsible for these instabilities of setting.

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