Emily Critchley has written some of the most exciting and dynamic poetry to come out of the UK in recent years, as well as editing Reality Street’s keenly-anticipated Out of Everywhere 2. Here’s a closer look at two poems, both reproduced by kind permission of the author.
from The Sonnets (2010)
Luke, I can no longer stand you in thought or word or deed.
Your neon lego hieroglyphics turned out to be trash,
or worse, a monument to someone else’s love,
i.e., yr own.
All I want is to return to Rome.
I’ll dig out that figurine of the Madonna ~ the one we hid the money in ~ & stuff tears
of remorse down her throat.
(I need to feel right now how others have suffered
as I suffer.)
Deprived of all visions. Man, it’s taking a long time to wake up
out of this yoga pose. Relaxation should be the same as praying
or communing with Magdalena
about her centuries of bad PR by ~ guess what! ~
clueless whores like you
This is a seriously good poem but a difficult one to write about. It shimmers and blurs and spins around tone and meaning, never allowing itself to be pinned down to any single reading. I’ve started this post several times from different angles and found that, whatever route I took into the poem, I inevitably closed down more options than I opened up, while the poem itself was busy doing to the opposite. I guess that first sentence should have read: this is a seriously good poem and a difficult one to write about.
To pick one example from many: there’s a series of motifs in the poem that dance a kind of ritual deconstruction of the English sonnet tradition (the imported-from-Italy, male-gaze-anima-projection-unexamined-privilege version that started in the sixteenth century and can still be found lurking in a poetry journal near you). The opening parodies the fusion of religious imagery and earthly love that was endemic in the Renaissance, although here the effect is less fine amor sublimation than a kind of hyper-literate unease: “in thought or word or deed” picks up the language of the general confession and subverts it into a dramatic/ironic put-down. This sets off a cluster of decontextualized religious language: “remorse”, “suffered”, “suffer”, “visions”, “praying”, “communing”, “Magdalena”.
Underlying this is the structural offset between “the Madonna” in the octave and “whores” in the sestet. Aside from the madonna-whore complex of Freudian psychology (and its later more constructive appropriation by late twentieth-century feminist writers), this also invokes the founding context for English-language sonnet sequences, when the rival (male) pamphleteers supporting Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart sought to portray their own queen as the virginal “woman clothed with the sun” and her rival as the whore of Babylon – something that breaks through to the surface in Book I of Spenser’s Faerie Queene but also provided Elizabethan sonneteers with a respectably Protestant blueprint for the structural role of sublimated Mariolatry in the work of their Italian predecessors.
In this poem the virgin is relegated to a makeshift moneybox, Mary Magdalen becomes the object of communion and “whore” is reserved for the poem’s addressee and the centuries of writers who perpetuated the Madonna/whore nonsense in the first place; but the poem’s tone and register have already completed the act of subversion before the reader has had time to process the content (once again, genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood).
And that’s just one view of the poem’s multidimensional duck-rabbit illusion. Offsetting this glut of (already subverted) Christian symbolism we have (equally subverted) references to Egyptian and Indian spiritual traditions (hieroglyphics being etymologically religious writing, and the yoga “pose” being both the position itself and the Western appropriation of Eastern spirituality).
There are multiple other language-games with literary tradition (“monument” in an English language sonnet can’t help summoning Shelley’s vast & trunkless legs of stone, which is a note-perfect resonance for this particular line; the straddling of octave and sestet with the repeated “suffer” is a wonderful technical flourish and genuinely funny), but the poem’s real energy comes from its dramatic and tonal play, the constant refusal to settle into any stable register or mode of lyric address. Every time I think I’ve pinned the poem down or exhausted what it has to offer, it surprises me with something new (e.g. the way the whole thing collapses if you remove the words “right now” from the eighth line, but returns to its protean dance as soon as you put them back in).
The Sonnets was published five years ago, and it’s interesting to compare this poem with a more recent, unpublished work (again, reproduced here by kind permission):
Untitled (love poem)
You are there without judgment, poem, for all the coming & going
All the whenevers
All the beauty or the ugly
The rage or the happy
The world, this phantasmagoria.
If it is true illusion in the most sacred sense of the word
what is your part of all this
blame? Why you so private yet
but are you not?
No one will listen to you now.
You cannot be corrupted, monopolized or merged,
you cannot even be held
(you crush the hands that bear you up).
Nor will you fit
into a split second. Consumerized.
You are like those children growing under a great tree
centuries from now. Just wait.
The metaplay and interaction with tradition(s) are still evident, but the tone is very different. Stating the obvious, this is addressed to a poem rather than a persona. Going one further, it’s a poem addressed to a poem, so in at least one possible reading is likely addressed to itself. Where this would be irritating in the hands of a less-skillful writer, in this case it’s fascinating, producing a poem that’s built from layer upon layer of ambiguity: “without judgment” can equally mean non-judgmental or unwise; beauty/ugly and rage/happy slip between noun and adjective without allowing either to settle; even where the syntax is conventional, the denotative meaning skirts around the irrational.
Meanwhile the connotations are note-perfect, and the whole thing transmits remarkable shades of meaning without ever having to get distracted by the constraints of surface-sense. Those passive participles in the third stanza set up a far more powerful opposition between the poem and commoditized late capitalism than any more conventional explicit statement could have achieved. At the same time, those ambiguities turn back on the poet and the reader (if we’re feeling smug for being included in the privileged discourse of the poem rather than the out-world of commodity, monopolies and mergers, we need only pause to consider the conflicting meanings inherent in “you crush the hands that bear you up”).
I love the pulse and ebb as the poem draws closer to conventional syntax then withdraws into something dislocated (“Why you so private yet / of it / but are you not?” is wonderful). This fuses into something chilling and exhilarating in the final couplet, where the simple elision of tenses creates a kind of both-timelines-at-once prolepsis from that simple participle “growing”, which is both anchored in the present “you are like” and wholly of the future “centuries from now”. It’s hard to think of a better proof that a poem doesn’t need to wave its difficulty or its fractured syntax in the reader’s face in order to challenge our perceptions of language or question the way we interpret the world/words/it.
More than any other close reading I’ve done for this blog, I’ve come away feeling I haven’t begun to do justice to these mercurial, subtle, multi-layered poems. But I’m going to keep learning from them, and would urge anyone who’s serious about the challenges facing contemporary poetry (here, now, or under a great tree centuries from now) to do likewise.
Love / All That / & OK, Emily Critchley, Penned in the Margins, 2011