Andrea Brady’s Cut from the Rushes is really two collections in one: a reissue of 2005’s Embrace and a new volume, Presenting. It’s also the most thrilling, visceral, challenging, uncomfortable and darkly-beautiful book I’ve read since… [I can’t finish this sentence because I can’t think of a suitable comparison: Cut from the Rushes is in a category of its own, and is simply stunning].
These are not easy poems – neither in their syntax, form and obvious linguistic difficulty, nor in their moral subject matter. Brady is one of the foremost innovative/experimental poets writing in the UK today, as well as being co-founder of Barque Press and curator of Archive of the Now (both of which champion diverse and challenging poetry). So if your idea of contemporary poetry has a direct line of descent from Edward Thomas and insists on immediate/unambiguous intelligibility, this book is not for you. But that’s your loss.
What jumps off the page (pretty much every page) is the sheer linguistic energy of these poems. Words matter almost viscerally in a world where language has become a weapon of coercive control in the “war on terror”, its euphemisms deployed by governments and corporate marketers alike, its subtexts implicated in problematic geopolotical power imbalances.
“Export Zone” is a fabulous example of this, and can be read in its entirety here. If you read this poem on its own terms (i.e. without rushing to “decode” it into “meaning”, but simply reading it through several times and noticing your own reactions), the poem will communicate a whole range of ideas and emotions (with remarkable power and clarity) long before you can put words to any of them. Then, as you start to piece together the various syntactic “meanings” in the poem (because they are present, albeit shimmering, ambiguous and unstable), you’ll find that they perfectly match the things the poem has already transmitted “before it [was] understood” (to borrow Eliot’s phrase).
This is remarkble, breathtakingly-good writing. Individual words slip between conflicting meanings repeatedly like a face/vase optical illusion; idioms from one part of the poem project forwards or backwards into others (e.g. “sucked” in the final stanza can’t help but pick up “sucked off two enemies” in the second); in places it feels as if words’ connotative and denotative functions have changed places:
my arms over my mouth demand for
beauty on the bell curve, ringing
. the change is slight on a five pound note
Here “bell” following “beauty” invokes the homophone “belle” (a brutal cultural irony given the context), while “bell curve” picks up “demand” (which in turn connects with “five pound note”); “bell” then sets off “ringing”, which morphs into “ringing the change”, which becomes monetary “change”; “slight” is both the paucity of change and the “slight” of the sexual transaction. This is not stream-of-consciousness word association, but something close to its opposite: a precise, crafted deployment of multiple meanings and connotations that collectively make the opening narrative of sexual exploitation more concrete, more horrific, more real.
Elsewhere there are love poems, political poems, darkly funny poems – all of them crackling with a similar raw energy. At the end of Embrace Brady tackles the war on terror directly with a vertiginous run of syntactic shifts:
. Montage of flag,
soldier, airplane. Get more for your
money with American
express more blood from your nipples give her
more gas the Cuban answers
via glare of the chemical light shit-smeared path at least
these ones were resisting cocked in their mouths
. vanitas and death’s
giving head in the digital snap
For all their dazzling modernity, these poems also invoke something of the early Seventeenth Century – the linguistic creativity of Donne, Webster et al – in their direct treatment of horror and moral culpability, but equally in their awkwarding of the language, like the twisting of Marlowe’s strong line into conflicted rhythms, the mutation of figurative language into a kind of runaway algorithm of poetic meaning that causes us to double-take images, unpick them, watch them argue against themselves (“Banality will never be obsolete, like the internal / combustion engine”). The poems are a response to their own times enacted in the language rather than simply communicated through the language.
In this Brady is a lyric poet as much as she is an experimental one (to the extent that either category is useful beyond the world of publishers’ catalogues and review shorthand). Her poems maintain a powerful creative tension between a modernist distrust of meaning and the urgency of direct communication, and in doing so manage to synthesize the best of two very different traditions. There’s a clue to this in Brady’s earlier essay “Grief Work in a War Economy” in issue 9 of Quid (also directly tackling the war on terror), which you can read in entirety on pages 6-23 here. In response to Steve McCaffrey, Brady argues that:
the reintegration of social agency into class power is postponed by a linguistic system which alienates any shared or certain meaning. This system may activate a privatised reader, but she is sequestered even from the powers of exchange, through meaning, with other agents.
More importantly for this paper, I’d argue that the fetishizing of the endless deferral of meaning replicates our inability – or unwillingness – to encounter death.
At the risk of wrenching this out of its original context, it’s hard not to see analogies with Brady’s own poetic methods: foregrounding difficulty but without tipping over into an “endless deferral of meaning”; challenging “shared or certain meaning” but never entirely “alienat[ing]” it; bravely, relentlessly and un-showily willing to “encounter death”.
These are difficult and necessary poems for our time, and I’d urge anyone seriously interested in poetry in the UK today to read this book.
Cut from the Rushes, Andrea Brady, Reality Street, 2013