(This first appeared in Issue 12 of Under the Radar.)
‘what kind of place the heart is’
Polly Atkin’s Shadow Dispatches; Chrissy Williams’ Flying Into The Bear
Polly Atkin’s pamphlet, Shadow Dispatches, is, the cover tells us, winner of the 2012 Mslexia poetry pamphlet competition; the blurb fastidiously lists all the competitions she has won, placed, been commended or shortlisted in over the last five years; the Acknowledgements page shows that almost half the pamphlet’s poems achieved one of these accolades. In many ways, it is clear to see the reasons behind her success. Shadow Dispatches is a set of well-honed poems, delicately-weighted performances within a familiar – which I don’t mean as a term of disparagement – lyric mode, written by a poet of clear technical facility. For instance, ‘sky, falling’ (which, we are told, won the 2011 Kent Sussex Poetry Society Prize) is the sort of poem that could be used for a teaching exercise, a bold, accelerating tumble of sound patterns, such as in:
It grows, a rose window. Blooming, it makes
this up-turned ship of a room, a cathedral.
It widens like an eye to the sky. It cries
build your telescope now and be ready.
Atkin displays her skill with sound alongside a mastery of metaphor that is both beguiling and rewarding, with (sometimes explicitly) dream-like imagery that provides the requisite unsettling strangeness. ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (winner of the 2008 Troubadour Coffee House Poetry Prize), for example, explores the conceit of the move from city to country as a bee leaving a hive, taking its title from the phenomenon which, since appearing in 2007, meant everyone since seems to have written poems about bees:
Friends visit and tell me that elsewhere is death
and the sky cannot feed me. Not indefinitely.
Their eyes are blown bulbs. They rattle. I smell
honey on their skin and know how it is.
When they move I hear humming like a swarm at a distance.
For a pamphlet to be a collection by a poet so recognised by this country’s writing competitions, regrettably, has its disadvantages. The ‘competition poem’, if there is such a thing, exhibits a familiar emotional trajectory, and does so with the necessary force to support itself alone. Like pop songs written with the same chord progression or like the three act structure of most mainstream cinema, the sort of lyrics in which Atkin evidently excels typically follow the same shape, taking a subject, developing the speaker’s stance towards it, and arriving to a resolution, back to the tonic major chord. Whilst there are reasons for this formula’s success, it can also engender predictability. When Atkin’s poem ‘Mute’, describing a Mute Swan “Ugly/as a god”, begins “No grace in the nicotine yellow curve/of your throat”, the appearance in the penultimate stanza of the line “And then I see it, your grace” was already to be expected, and the experience of reading the poem is only of seeing how long the poem can continue before succumbing to this predestined end. There is a risk that this structure, once mastered, can become more important than the poem’s subject matter; in one or two of the poems in the pamphlet, it feels like Atkin has built another intricate, self-contained device around a subject that doesn’t justify the energy spent on it. And in any circumstance other than being collected together these emotional trajectories wouldn’t be a flaw; only when read consecutively does the pattern become patent through similarity and weakened through repetition. With this in mind, I found myself, whilst reading through the pamphlet, wishing Atkin had written more long poems to give herself room to develop ideas through more subtle and circuitous means. ‘Other People Dream of Foxes’, in four sections over nearly five pages, is an example of this, using the symbol of a fox in an uncertain and memorable poem about dream and fears, with more than enough to keep a psychoanalyst busy, and more interested in evoking and adapting moods than in shaping any immediate emotional perspective. It’s a masterful poem, eschewing the tight technical patterns she uses elsewhere in favour of slow but carefully measured effects, showing a gifted and accomplished poet able to unnerve the reader.
In Flying Into The Bear, Chrissy Williams can’t be accused of sitting still. The twenty poems are formally experimental, both in the sense of using novel structures for the poems – she has more variance of form than either of the other two pamphlets here discussed, and rarely uses the same twice – and in the sense of her interest in repetition and variation within the poems. On the former point, Williams works very well with different forms, varying from prose poems, such as ‘I Lose Scarves’ or ‘Bubbles for Reuben’, to purported stage directions, as in ‘Stage Directions for The Dog Always Wins’, to social media updates, as in ‘Sheep’. On the latter point, of repetition and variation, we have a large feature of Williams’ style, as in ‘Moorhens’:
You’ve been eyed up by a devil,
tip-toeing round reeds in big steps.
Runners twitch. Behind you.
Scream with your legs in her face.
Scream with your long green legs.
She wants, she wants, she wants
you: blood slicked, in flux, fucked.
She will tear away your face
for a second’s delight. Ho, ho, ho.
Punch’s masked eyes glare red.
The progress by turns of varying sound from “slicked” to “flux” to “fucked” is particularly clever, hitting the profanity (that was suggested in the “eyed up” and “she wants”x3) bang at the end of the line. In some instances, Williams’ repetition is disconcerting, such as with ‘Moorhens’ – she mentions in the notes that she finds moorhens “alarming” – , suggesting madness and obsession. In other places the repetition is chaotic and amusing, such as the poem ‘JOHN SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION in the Spring’, which inserts those first four words of the title into an otherwise conventional poem; for example:
We lean into the soft brake BLUES
as you flip the indicator on
JON at the corner where the four roads meet
in front of the old farm. SPENCER
One can imagine this is especially entertaining to hear performed. But this sort of repetition, at its best, feels like a rejection of both poles, as if the language is trying to push beyond both fear and joy to something else.
In ‘Stage Directions For The Dog Always Wins’, we have three stanzas, one for each ‘act’, all of apparent stage directions and all three ending with the line:
The dog enters, grinning. Stage lights fade out.
This is unexpected the first time, funny the second, and, the third time, something else. Take, also, these lines from her poem ‘Some Notes From Lars Trier’s Five Obstructions’:
Listen to the perfect human living.
Write down ‘tortoise’.
The first line is one of the oddest, best, and most enigmatic of the whole pamphlet, but it also has something po-faced about it; the second line is completely silly. But there is, somewhere in the movement from fear to joy, again a third option, as if there is, as ‘Some Notes From…’ ends:
[…]something you hope to understand
in a few days.
Indeed, silliness is the biggest challenge to Williams’ poetry, with the feeling that she would wish to take language and start from scratch, to create a new vocabulary with which to articulate this third option. Silliness is always what distracts her – as Williams writes in ‘James McAvoy, Ping Pong, A Sign’, “[p]erhaps all words are just Turkish Delight” – but is also the route by which she would say something new. The obvious, central example of this is the symbol of ‘the bear’ itself, where, in the first poem, ‘The Bear of the Artist’, an artist asked to draw a heart draws a bear instead:
I asked him, ‘What kind of artist are you anyway?’ and he said,
‘I am the one who exists to put bears in your head, who exists
to put ideas in your head in place of bears, who mistrusts anyone
who tells you they know what kind of place the heart is,
the head, how it should look, what size, what stopping distance,
and as long as you keep me existing to put bears in your head
I will, because nights are getting shorter, and we’re all tired,
we’re all so tired, and everyone could use a bear sometimes,
everyone could use a wild bear, though they can be dangerous
and there’s nothing worse than a bear to the face, when it breaks
– always – remember how your bear breaks down
against the shore, the shore, the shore.’
It is significant that the artist draws a bear instead of a heart. When we say ‘heart’ we are rarely talking about the hard, hollow muscle in the left of our chests; we are talking about what it has come to symbolise. The poem attempts to do something similar to “bear”. The artist puts “bears in your head” and then replaces bears with “ideas”, as bears, as we normally understand them, are a stopping point, a diving board or gangplank to leap off into the unknown. We accept that the artist is talking about bears as we know them at the start. Then we have the silliness of “nothing worse than a bear to the face”, which, in its unexpected humour, clears the way for the next step, where bears “break down/against the shore”. We are no longer sure that the poem is talking about furry quadrupeds at all.
The poems in Flying Into The Bear are sometimes at risk of approaching the fatuous, as the playfulness can seem shallow, as if to devalue its own medium; however, not only can Williams write in a variety of forms and styles, but the silliness is self-aware and effective in its results, showing a way in which poetry can move beyond itself. And of all the sins a poem can be accused of, silliness is at least the most fun.