Living Myths: Jemma L King

In weaker moments it’s tempting to think of contemporary poetry in two unequal clusters: the dominant “poetry of anecdote” (praised in spite or because of its lack of magic) and the real thing. Jemma L King‘s debut collection is the real thing.

The Shape of a Forest ranges across continents and historical periods, inhabiting personae from a witch’s familiar to a disease to a Welsh poet (who may or may not be a version of King herself), and training the third-person attention of other poems on subjects from Genghis Khan to human sacrifice. But what comes across is less the poems’ centrifugal variety than their common concerns. A rich seam of myth runs throughout the collection.

King has clearly learned a lot from Plath, developed it and made it her own. Poem after poem hotwires the unconscious with a startling compression of thought and image. Here is the second half of “Genghis”:

His machine eats a map
stains it

with a double helix
and dead men.

Half the known world is his.
His empire is a fire.

His eyes open
on every village.
His little suckling mouths
are a million.

The atrocity is in the white space between stanzas (especially the held breath between “stains it” and “with a double helix”) but the poem saves its real horror for the closing lines. Where modern science has shown that ~0.5% of the world’s current population (some 35 million people) are descended from Genghis Khan’s systematic rape in conquered territories, King turns this into an unforgettable image that’s all the more shocking for its dispassionate ambiguities (including a distant, twisted echo of Auden’s assertion that Yeats “became his admirers”).

King is particularly good on the myths we use to define our world, making no poetic distinction between the beliefs of the Druids and the perhaps wilder (albeit true) discoveries of modern science. One poem speaks of the thunder god Taranis in the same way that another borrows from molecular biology; the statue of Apollo from the Vatican Belvedere mutates into a meme that attaches itself to the US space programme; the familiar of the Pendle “witch” Elizabeth Devise writes a letter to her trial judges that’s all the more powerful a rebuke for assuming witchcraft to be real. Linking all of these (and many other poems in the book) is a deep understanding of the myths by which we live and through which we connect with the hidden parts of ourselves.

This awareness of constructed stories applies equally to the (apparently) autobiographical poems in the book. “The Kiss” (whose title already evokes a work of art and lays claim to significance with the definite article) sets itself up as a type (“Every woman knows this story”) and looks through the lens of others’ reactions (“Us, the hot / scandal of the dance floor”). “Hymn” explicitly refers to “the myth / of us”.

By connecting with archetypes and mythic representation, these poems also highlight the similarities between their historically and geographically diverse subjects. The rapes of Genghis Khan connect with a tense description of the aftermath of a modern rape in “Walls”, just as his violence and conquest recur in the present day in “Armour” and “Manoeuvres”. The contemporary poet reaches back to connect with the poetry of Wales gone-by (in “Hraeth”) and finds the mead-fuelled slaughter of Y Gododdin.

This would be hard to sustain if King weren’t such a skilled writer. Her free verse is taut and musical – now harmonious, now dissonant – and her control of tone is both daring and precise. These poems display an unfailing sense of when to hold back (“Eyes search / the radius of the room, / for that one guy / for one night”) and when to floor the poetic accelerator (“Later, the brain box / dissolves to chasm / and magic”). Here’s a moment from “Viktor’s Trap” that’s too good to spoil with commentary:

The bone clamp sends the
viper’s kiss boring through
his blackened lips
stripping trees in full tremble
of their wares.

He is a burst cable, dancing,
fire-footed, roaring at the
pulse of caustic nerves

Towards the end of the collection the image of the forest appears several times as a symbol drawing much of the book together. This is the forest of medieval romance and fairytale, the dangerous terrain that once covered most of Western Europe and that still evokes ideas of primal nature and monsters from the Id. Elizabeth Devise’s familiar speaks for much of the book when it says:

The forest might just fling me forward,
have me stalk your footsteps,
should I choose it.

A quick word on Parthian’s production values: this is a really well-made book; elegant but simple; classy without being showy. It looks like the real thing – which is exactly what these startling, haunting, wonderful poems are.

The Shape of a Forest, Jemma L King, Parthian Books, 2013.

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