Punch-up at the Poetry Reading

Joanna Kavenna

  • The Monkey's Mask by Dorothy Porter
    Serpent’s Tail, 264 pp, £9.99, October 1997, ISBN 1 85242 549 0

Sherlock Holmes tugging on his pipe in the fog-drenched London streets, Philip Marlowe swilling whiskey, waiting for the phone to release him from the solitude of his seedy office, Fitz – ‘Cracker’ – barking at imbecile bureaucracy: the detective is perennially cast as a disaffiliated flâneur, wandering the urban sprawl, collecting pay cheques from the highest bidder. He is latently self-destructive, stripped of family, a figure who slides towards pathos and even absurdity (Peter Sellers as moustache-twitching Gallic ingénu). At the beginning of the trail, the central event has already happened; the detective, divested of any power to abort or determine, can only reconstruct, seeking an origin, an ‘answer’. The genre is concerned with what happens when you skewer open the tin can which has been lurking at the back of the cupboard – Walter Benjamin’s ‘slice of pandemonium’. The detective shape-shifts but never quite belongs. The skein he unravels reinforces his isolation, as the bearer of a revelation which is too much for the recipients to stand.

The constant motion of the detective between centrality and exclusion has made the genre ripe for feminist and lesbian reworking. Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Mary Wings and Katherine Forrest have re-created the detective as a single or Sapphic thirty-something woman, brandishing a handgun. The shape-shifting and self-suppression which most women, and especially lesbian women, perform daily have become nifty accessories of crime detection. Femaleness becomes versatility: the lesbian detective can be femme fatale to the male suspect, or, as in Katherine Forrest’s mystery At the Nightwood Bar, can win over an initially diffident lesbian underworld by knowing its procedures. The narrative not only affords a moment of triumph over male cops and male criminals, but deposes an accepted truth. The female or lesbian detective can now be imagined as the historian, or literary critic, reopening old cases and denting accepted histories in the same way as Marlowe’s revelations floor the decadent rich.

The Monkey’s Mask, by the Australian poet Dorothy Porter, takes the transformation of the detective genre a stage further, by writing it in verse. Her detective heroine, Jill Fitzpatrick, is a gay, working-class former cop, who narrates in a hyperactive free-form skitter:

Always this
 I’ll ring you crap
Sure, I say.
Sure
 because I don’t want to hassle
sure
 because she’s married
sure
 because something’s better than nothing

Fitzpatrick’s lexicon is all colloquialism and crime-speak, in which ‘besotted’ alliterates with ‘bitch’ and ‘blond’ with ‘butch’; ‘brain-dead cops’ rhymes with ‘witness box’ and ‘don’t make me sit’ with ‘through this shit’. The reader is unceremoniously ushered from bluesy seduction, ‘my car glides/like a hovercraft/the wheel plays/sweet/in my hands,’ to biological cataloguing: ‘She lets her breasts free/They fall in my hands/her nipples grow/between my lips.’ We are caught up in the thrust and parry of Fitzpatrick’s abrasiveness v. the stumbling of her over-educated foils: ‘My work isn’t trendy’; ‘I read/thrillers myself’; ‘I’m not known for my love of fluffy clouds/fields of daffodils ... Give me a good bottle of wine/a woman with wit and spark.’ The overall impression is of Simon Armitage with turrets or William Carlos Williams with a cracking hangover. The Monkey’s Mask cannot decide if it desires or despises us, but Porter is determined that we won’t be lulled or lightly entertained. This is a work which declares open war on insipid practitioners, ‘fraud poets’ and their cloying academic acolytes.

The book opens with an epigraph from Dorothy Parker: ‘You see these grey hairs?/ Well, making whoopee with the intelligentsia was/The way I earned them.’ It’s common enough to hear academics and literary folk accused of obscurity and self-indulgence, but Porter has them up for sadistic sex-fetishism and murder. Fitzpatrick’s murder victim is an affluent student, Mickey, complacently imagined by her Earl Greysipping parents to be ‘pretty/sweet’, dedicated to poetry, drugs-free. Fitzpatrick discovers that Mickey’s obsession with poetry is rather more visceral than her parents imagine, involving sado-masochistic sex with two male poets (one a rat-haired religious maniac, the other a suave Lothario), and a penchant for writing self-abasing erotic poems. So Fitzpatrick’s trail leads her to the poetry-reading circuit, where she shifts nervously from foot to foot, cracks gum and suppresses the urge to break the bohemians in one gnarled knuckle-punch. The femme fatale is Mickey’s other idol, her English tutor: Diana is beautiful, married to a progressive golden-boy lawyer, but not above a little seduction to throw the detective off the scent. Though Diana emerges as the prime suspect for the murder, Fitzpatrick falls madly in love with her. Meanwhile, she catches the poetry bug, devoting valuable mystery-solving time to composing paeans to her lover’s breasts. Fitzpatrick realises Diana is too deeply implicated in the crime for her to solve it and aborts the case. No one wins: one of the poets is blown up, which seems cruel return for a few dodgy iambs, Mickey’s parents find no culprit, and Fitzpatrick walks off alone, hurling curses on ‘all these fuckers’.

By mixing genres – this is an airport-lounge poem, a free-verse bodice-ripper – Porter poses assorted questions about audience. In the Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, The Monkey’s Mask is to be found alongside prose not poetry – Fitzpatrick rubs shoulders with other crime novel heroines such as V.I. Warshawski and Kay Scarpetta. Yet the poetry industry – as well as poetic form – is crucial to The Monkey’s Mask, as observed by Fitzpatrick, who feels herself irreparably excluded on grounds of class, sexual orientation and lack of knowledge. The detective trail in the poem seems to be in constant danger of disappearing under the increasing vitriol of the attack on the vanities of the ‘intelligentsia’.

Though the battle lines appear to be drawn, Porter remains undecided about the reader she hopes her verse-novel will attract, and what this reader’s response should be. Fitzpatrick’s conspiratorial free-flow incites rebellion against the cloister, but she remains characteristically cynical about possible alternatives. The ‘Seventies trip’ is condemned as ‘ideologically small’, consisting of ‘pub readings/when you were lucky to get a free beer’. Contemporary feminism’s advocate is a poet who re-casts the antiquarian and outmoded in new, gender-sensitive form – ‘her long poem/about a Greek goddess/doing the dishes’. The lesbian community is represented by the predatory Lou, who lambasts Fitzpatrick for trying to ‘get into that bitch’s pants’, and the ‘bitch’ herself, Diana, whose taste for sadistic three-somes including her husband seems, however, to render her Sapphic credentials rather negligible. Though Fitzpatrick at one point cries, ‘Thank God I’m a dyke,’ this is because not to be a dyke is to be Mickey and at threat from the man who ‘told me he loved me/... his big hot hands/around my throat’. Initially she flexes muscles at the reader:

I’ve got ...
        plenty of stomach
       for trouble ...
       deep other-folks trouble
         to spark my engine
            and pay my mortgage

and private trouble
  oh, pretty trouble

to tidal-wave my bed

I’m waiting

I want you trouble,
   on the rocks.

But biology recalls her to the inescapable fact of danger:

The streets coil around me
  when they empty
I’m female
I get scared.

To be a woman is to be afraid, and Fitzpatrick’s camouflage is sinewy cynicism. Never confess, her narrative says, or you will be destroyed. Suppress all weakness and either out-male the male (Fitzpatrick), or collaborate (Diana).

The strain tells, and Fitzpatrick spends most of the narrative undergoing an identity crisis worthy of Auster’s most self-analysing writer-detectives. She falls in love with the academic version of Lucrezia Borgia, who icily discredits her at every turn: ‘You’re a great fuck but you’re a very ordinary detective.’ Self-loathing self-examination continually intervenes in the detective trail. In Mickey’s room, hunting for clues, Fitzpatrick questions her own motives more closely than those of her suspects, and the narrative has many pauses for self-loathing self-examination.

The difference between a Marlovian detective and Fitzpatrick appears to be the difference between an individual who exposes the workings of a club or system in which he could participate if he chose (Marlowe enters the domains of the rich and educated secure in his ability to work them as he pleases, having a college education behind him and retaining an ability to ‘speak English if there’s any demand for it’) and an individual (Havelock Ellis and Krafft Ebing’s self-despising isolates) who imagines entrance is permanently debarred.

And the verse form can’t help but challenge the detective genre. Fitzpatrick, already speaking in poetry, becomes a reluctant poetry-lover, growlingly attending poetry readings, leafing resentfully through the works of Mickey’s two favourite male poets, sniggering at Mickey’s undergraduate musings. The fact that Porter is a published poet, numbering her objections to her milieu in rhyme, suggests that The Monkey’s Mask is anti-art of the Fluxus variety, aiming to banish ‘gut rot grog’ poetry readings at which ‘fifteen minutes can stretch/like an old rubber band,’ and to return poetry to ‘real people’. Academic poets exist in a ‘grabby grotty world’ of ‘patronage ... grants, fellowships/Writers in residence/all that crap’, in which ‘the smart old frauds/and smart young crawlers/split the spoils.’ Male poet number one is an impotent homophobic religious maniac who goes for Fitzpatrick with a knife; male poet number two is pot-bellied and smug, writing ‘miserable poetry’ from a luxurious veranda.

Porter’s anger at the endless self-regeneration of the posing posh is raw and uncontained, and she deserves immediate nomination for poetry prizes the length and breadth of the nation for her coinage of the literary term ‘I’ve-got-a-big-dick epic’. She seems to be trapped in an impossible bind, however. I went to a poetry evening in Covent Garden at which Porter read extracts from The Monkey’s Mask. Her reading was charismatic and open-armed, but her audience seemed to be precisely the consortium of stiffs she declares war against, chuckling indulgendy in the manner of the Restoration fop who relishes the sight of his own living replica stalking across the stage.

A defiant attempt to rewrite the detective plot to incorporate both identity politics and the satire of milieu, The Monkey’s Mask undertakes its projects with energy and originality, but it’s frustrating: we want more power for Fitzpatrick, or more indifference on her part to the legions of the pallidly corrupt. The intelligentsia, Porter means to say, are conniving and psychotic, but they’ll win in the end. Unless, that is, she takes a machine-gun to her next poetry reading.