During the day, our cathedrals rarely feel like spiritual places: the turnstiles, shops and tea rooms in the narthex are at odds with the stuff up at the holy end. And so it was shocking to drop out of this world and into an Atlantean realm of the uncanny in the space of the few stone steps down into the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. It was a perfunctory visit on autopilot, as I was keen to fill one of the holes in an already empty weekend. But, clambering down, I stopped short: for there, waist high in an impossible stillness of aquatic serenity, stood a man reading. For an uncanny moment I was frozen in time and space, waiting for him to acknowledge my intrusion with a glance, but there he stood. I was at the threshold of things, brushed by the draught blowing through the door.
In her collection, Eliza and the Bear, Eleanor Rees offers an unstable, beguiling and slippery collection of poems in which the darkness of the city stalks the dream-time of fairy-tales. The first part of the title poem opens with ‘I did not know my lover was a bear. // I’ve seen him bare. I’ve seen him leave his skin. // He roars. Bear-wet, grizzly – / shakes his head, crawls into bed, / places a bloody paw on my breast. // In the morning a paw mark on my skin. / It masks freckles, masks my nipple. // I did not know my lover was a bear. // I did not know he was on all fours all night / crawling the streets looking for the wilderness. // I did not know he wanted to go / back to woods and harsh brackish skies’. The homophones ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ grant the bear a Protean quality, as meaning shifts as the sound stays stable. There’s an undercurrent of deceit here, as the speaker thinks that she’s ‘seen him bare’, but how could she have seen through the secrecy of his ursine fur? Throughout the collection, Rees’ stanza structures are deeply porous. The white space between them suggests openness and fluidity but also suggests a solitary emptiness, the forced monologue of the jilted lover. What does ‘paw mark’ mean? A gentle love bite might be the souvenir of a human encounter but bears’ paws are the tools of a predator and suddenly the poem’s speaker begins to sound like a victim of domestic abuse in denial. And why does the bear need to crawl the streets all night when he his lover waits for him at home? ‘Crawling’ in the context of city streets suggests someone seeking the services of the oldest profession and the poem’s refrain, ‘I did not know my lover was a bear’ also says ‘I did not know my lover’. The poem is gloriously unstable and, in part 3, the speaker realizes that ‘the garden is in the treetops / and this is a tree house / and that the ivy on the brick work / are branches of a giant tree, / that to fall from here would land / me in a meadow somewhere / and there would be a bear in the grass / and it would have your eyes / and it would ravish me’. The successive ands create the awkward intimacy of the stream of consciousness and the bear becomes a sexual fantasy, a blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Its unfamiliarity and wildness shifts in our hands again, becoming a strategy to keep things interesting between the sheets.
In On an August Midnight, Rees’ disquieting call of the wild is transposed to the city: ‘And there floating in the river of my window / are faces looking in at me. / In the midnight hot summer dark – / watching, waiting, whole. / They smile and preen / and enjoy their eyes / which glow, two storeys up, / in on me here alone – / searching for names in the glass. / Air is stiff and creaking, / weighed down by the excess / of heat and drought. // Rain is days away. / Outside is a jewel. // Dark woods over the horizon / bellow join us, join us, / and the hollow by the canal / is just as cacophonous’. One might imagine that faces looking in the window would, well, just be looking in. ‘Floating in the river’ modifies this into a disturbing and unnatural image which, in turn, feels less relaxed and even more menacing as the air is ‘weighed down’. Bodies, after all, would float without a concrete overcoat. The dark woods’ bellow to ‘join us, join us’ sounds like something from The Shining and, although it might be easy to accept that the woods, teeming with life, are capable of a bull-like bellow, a hollow is, by definition, empty, which turns the water of the canal into an especially unsettling space.
Rees is mistress of the liminal and Walking the Avenues evokes Conrad’s Gravesend, where ’the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint’. However, unlike Marlow, Rees’ speaker isn’t going anywhere. She has ‘no lantern to carry / – a fiery globe in the white fog – // across the estuary mouth / to lure sailors to the rocks. // I know that ships are still leaving / down the river years before // – to Jamaica, America – // young sailors aboard with their eyes to the shore / and the girls they leave behind, // wild and red-eyed, / skin stung with the bite of the salt and the sun – // while at the end of my road / in today’s shadowy dusk // a broad-shouldered man is walking / into the thick fog, into the ether’. For a lantern to be a globe it would have a gravitational pull; women, it seems, will be abandoned and nothing they possess is powerful enough to change this. The estuary mouth morphs into the most fecund yonic image, but not even a female of these proportions is enough to keep men home and, like Conrad’s estuary, Rees’ telescopes through time, ‘down the rivers years before’ to suggest that, in affairs of the heart, the man always leaves. The undercurrent of violence seen in Eliza and the Bear is present here too, as salt is also a colloquial word for an experienced sailor, transforming the ‘skin stung with the bite of the salt’ into something casually abusive. Yet, for all his physical power, this man is also the stuff of dreams, as he walks into the ether, the space beyond the clouds, whilst the woman remains ‘tethered / by the city streets’, either as a bitch tied by her lead to the supermarket’s railings, or as a modern Andromeda to the man’s Perseus who, with his winged boots, can also fly but, in this skit on the legend, leaves her to her fate.
Like the best fairy-stories and myths, Rees’ is an untrammelled sexuality, one centred on female experience. Her collection of poems, like a dream-sequence, appears to float between desire and experience, between the wild spaces of the city and the feral reaches of our rivers and canals. The combined effect of these poems is dazzling and unsettling, as we experience a powerful set of sometimes self-destructive desires.