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.

More important, though, is his technique of moving between one perspective or voice and another. Free indirect speech is a key method in this context, and in their use of it Ford’s poems have affinities with those of Glyn Maxwell and Simon Armitage. The habit all three poets have of paraphrasing rather than quoting the speech of their characters tends to upset stable perspectives by mingling the voices of author and character and so raising the question of whose point of view is influencing whose. So ‘Snowfall’ starts with what looks like a direct statement:

You must be snug in there
you and your seventh TV wife
with a cat and a fire, I swear
I’m so glad you ended up with that.

This looks at first like the poet’s own sarcastic speech but the effect is turned around in the second quatrain:

He writes! How wonderful. And
bloodies his own nails and nose
for sensation. He has a firm hand-
shake, why I’m glad of their liaison.

Now it looks as though the first stanza was something written by one character about another, or perhaps about himself with a kind of masochism echoed in the imagery. The third stanza takes the distorting perspectives even further with a reference to the couple sketching each other. In Ford, then, instead of O’Hara’s attempt to project the self into the poem, there’s a multiplying of self-reflexivities.

Eva Salzman, like Ford, has a background that combines American and British influences – though in her case the American experiences came first. She was a dancer and choreographer in Brooklyn and now runs an out-of-print book service in Brighton. However, her sense of place is much more stable than Ford’s, so that Englishness and Americanness define each other by contrast in her work. She’s very good at a kind of energetic social observation that suggests rueful involvement. ‘Taste’, for example, evokes the early days of a marriage in Martha’s Vineyard, as observed by a wife whose work takes her to ‘the marquee of the host Importers’ – ‘Chilled and waiting/fat corks aching to pop’ and ‘sweetbreads, frog’s legs, snake’. The phallic imagery imparts a queasiness which is confirmed by her hypersensitivity to her interior decoration, perhaps linked to the beginnings of pregnancy: ‘some hang-dog beige, or worse, a brief dream/ of institutional green, guaranteed to make her sick’.

Most of Salzman’s poems, however, are written in a first person who is usually more or less the poet herself. This contributes to making her poems more stable than Ford’s, and much of the pleasure of The English Earthquake comes from the way it builds a picture of a coherent, but entertainingly changeable personality – scathing, imaginative, dismissive, moved and baffled by desire, aggressive, as in ‘Forcing Flowers’:

We are naming hybrids. The next one’s
Bastard. It’s still possible to make
these new strains up.

This poem treats with contempt the idea that a pair of lovers create a third thing, a hybrid which is both of them, by suggesting that this third thing travesties the original two: ‘You too would like to break me/into what I’m not.’ The most memorable thing in the book is its forthright mistrust of sexual desire, especially the poet’s own – the seemingly gratuitous or whimsical way it threatens her sense of herself. ‘I’d had a mind to ask a stranger back,/but it was someone else’s mind put on by mistake,’ she says, or ‘a man on the train has eyes/for me, I for him’:

For a lark,
we indulge in a love affair
from Fourteenth
Street to Forty-Second
where one of us finally calls it off,
disembarks.

And ‘Sin’ describes a brief encounter in a ‘dump of a hotel on Forty-Eighth’ that happens through drunkenness and ‘some freak of hormonal wiring’.

The combination of robustness and sensitivity is profoundly sympathetic. It also rebukes the complacent view of women expressed in William Scammell’s ‘Stare at the Moon’, where he refers to ‘that holy source, the breast’, which possesses:

those qualities we’re loth to praise
since theorists mended our ways.
Put to the question, what poor male
would pass the test, with his belief
that woman has a higher brief,
the word made flesh, and flesh made whole,
an ever-loving spring of tact,
while men froth up with ‘truth’ and ‘fact’?

No one’s going to be fooled by the way that ‘froth’ pretends to make light of masculine gravitas; the way it associates the most important political values with semen draws upon the crudest kind of gendered assumptions. Even worse is that reference to ‘a higher brief’ – not twisted knickers but mystical motherhood. One glance at Salzman is enough to blow this tedious nonsense away – take, for example, her ferociously unmaternal ‘Belial’, which imagines a couple who have ‘given birth to a monster’. When they go out:

sorrowfully and lovingly, they fasten his furry handcuffs
and wrap him in his terry-cloth straitjacket
which is blue for boys. He bites his mother goodbye.

Clearly on this issue Scammell’s ways have not been mended by theorists in the least. He’s irritably nostalgic and yet convinced that ‘timeless’ values persist:

‘Post-modern’ now, post-everything
that set a golden bird to sing
or Pushkin blazing in the dark.
But underneath we’re just the same
whatever sort of fancy name –
Le Néant, Anger, Alienation –
upholsters our old desperation.

‘Same’ and that blimpish ‘fancy name’ are rhymed with a provocative blandness. Paradoxically, though, this hints at something more sophisticated going on, and the way that ‘name’ is qualified in the lines that follow suggests that Scammell has absorbed some of the lessons of the theorists, to the extent of being able to use them for his own ends. The idea of Le Néant as upholstery is wittily dismissive in a way reminiscent of how Nothing is treated in Rochester’s ode on that subject. More broadly, though, the equation of a ‘name’ with furniture stuffing alludes to the whole question of the ‘material’ nature of language.

There’s a sense in which textuality is the main subject of Bleeding Heart Yard: repeatedly it worries about the extent to which, as Ford puts it, ‘Language is life’. The title poem, for example, is a reflection on the way that blank paper issues ‘invitations/to spill the beans, take lines for walks,/or post a statement to the nation’. So, too, the closing image of ‘Inventions’, an elegy for Norman Nicholson, refers to June grass as ‘yellowish’: ‘that shade old Faber covers/fade to, when a book was a real book’. That last phrase works like ‘fancy name’: ‘real’ looks crudely reactionary at first, but in the context of grass and death (and therefore flesh) contributes to a series of associations which combine abstract concerns like the relationship of literature and life, language and reality, with a sense of nostalgia and loss.

Scammell’s manner seems designed to cover up these anxious complexities: he’s suave and urbane and employs tight forms with a self-conscious deftness, as though it would be bad form, and unEnglish, to question form too earnestly. Curiously, though, his sense of formal etiquette and his knowing wit are combined at times with alarming lapses of taste. This is especially evident in The Game, his book of poems about tennis, which contains some jaunty and entertaining descriptions of players past and present, including some effective descriptions of their techniques – for example of Borg’s topspin, without which his ‘groundstrokes would have landed/in Kensington’ and which he struck as ‘stepmothers/once brushed their daughter’s hair’. Alongside this, though, there are references to Virginia Wade as ‘a stale old currant bun’ and, much worse, to Boris Becker as wanting ‘to replay World War One, or Two, and stash/the enemies’ foreskins up like so much trash’.

This kind of sensibility is profoundly alien to the relentless scepticism and endless discriminations which are associated with recent theory. He’d perhaps prefer all these linguistic problems to go away – so his book ends with a reference to walking back down ‘that hill/of happy endings, into life’,

whose ragged textuality
speaks volumes as I turn the key,
the rhyme, the page, the door, the knife,
brush words aside, stare at the moon.

The moon is a feminine symbol and performs a similar function here to that which Scammell imagines for women in the passage I quoted earlier – a kind of mystical healing of the breach. The ‘masculine’ values of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ represent division: women, on the other hand, represent ‘the word made flesh, and flesh made whole’.

And to read Medbh McGuckian you’d think he was right. This is écriture feminine with a vengeance. The trouble is that it confirms what men most complacently think about women: that they’re dreamy, irrational, mystical, maternal, domestic, garrulous, a bit exasperating – but also mysterious and beautiful, as when she refers to ‘the experience’:

When the sky becomes a womb,
And a vision of rivers slanting
Across the doubly opened page
Of the moon turns her into a verb.

That last idea is characteristic of how McGuckian surreally displaces the way words are familiarly used so that they appear in unexpected and baffling syntactical places. So nouns – especially ones that refer to the seasons, weather, colours, flowers, and especially to houses and rooms – surface in her poems either where another category of noun would be expected (an abstraction like love or sadness, a state like pregnancy) or another part of speech. Sometimes this effect resembles that of a condensed symbolism close to that of Mallarmé, with the difference that many of the symbols appear to have a private meaning and can only be understood, if at all, by reference to the context of other McGuckian poems. The best way to understand her is by reference to what Gaston Bachelard calls the ‘phenomenology of the imagination’. His Poetics of Space is an investigation into the poetic meaning, for example, of cellars and attics, drawers, chests and wardrobes. His exploration of the association between motherhood and the protective embrace of houses and rooms is an important clue to the way these become each other’s equivalents in McGuckian’s poems. Moreover, nothing has been said about her language that is more relevant than this: ‘Words are little houses. Common-sense lives on the ground floor ... To go upstairs in the word house, is to withdraw, step by step; while to go down to the cellar is to dream, it is losing oneself in the distant corridors of an obscure etymology, looking for treasures that cannot be found in words.’

What distinguishes McGuckian’s work is that she uses words and images in a phenomenological way – missing out their ground-floor, common-sense meaning altogether. The sky becomes a womb almost before it’s had a chance to be the sky. The moon has a ‘doubly opened page’ before it looks like the moon. Locally, this produces passages of genuine power, and it could even be said that she has found a way of speaking about certain states of mind that couldn’t be spoken about in any other way. A sense, too, in which these states are specifically feminine: to turn the moon into a verb is, as it were, to turn femininity into an activity; the moon’s ‘page’ refers to the way ‘she’ has been used in a masculine poetic tradition, but her being ‘doubly opened’ suggests a newly dynamic conflation of childbirth and poetry.

But McGuckian’s effects are alarmingly hit and miss. Moreover, there’s something disturbingly essentialist about the terms in which her poems claim to speak on behalf of women – the constant implication that there’s a feminine sensibility more or less determined by the possession of a womb. This plays into the ultimately patronising hands of William Scammell and his like. It also involves her in a feminine separatism different from, but analogous to, that on which Adrienne Rich’s recent work is premised, and which has made the American poet’s latest poems hermetic and etiolated.