2011, Alien, BREATH, FAT, God and After, Pablo Veron, Previously on Battlestar Galactica, Ridley Scott, Sally Potter, Salt, Salt Publishing, Sophie Mayer, The Private Parts of Girls, The Tango Lesson, Trial Proof for The Blue Feet (Kiki Smith)
In Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, a character called Sally pitches to a firing squad of film producers by a pool straight out of Hockney. Their response is the stuff of nightmares (or an Orange Wednesdays advert): yes, yes, yes but will it make any money?? Sally decides to clear her head in the belle époque sophistication of Buenos Aires, where she learns to Tango with the smouldering, playful Pablo, the real life tango dancer, Pablo Veron. The sterility of the film’s London mise en scène gives way to warm domesticity and the ritualised society of the milonga.
Sophie Mayer, author of The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love and regular writer for Sight & Sound has little patience for the studio system in her collection The Private Parts of Girls. In BREATH, taken from the sequence Previously on BattleStar Galactica, she presents the blockbuster as the source of life itself, the astronaut ‘Inhaling the in-flight movie (some Cameron extravaganza)’. The aside and the offhand determiner ‘some’ a neat comment on our addiction to globalised inanity, as the film plays ‘in sensurround in your all-beige cocoon’. The poem reads like the opening sequence of Ridley Scott’s Alien, as the crew of the Nostromo emerge from stasis. Watching the hi-tech pods in the film, one might imagine stasis as a miraculous retardation of bodily functions. Who could have imagined that the latest blockbuster shoved in a Blu-ray player would serve just as well? ‘And in that sleep what dreams may come. Clouds of celluloid / and carbon encircle us. And outside, nothing like its photos, / unspectacular, Saturn passes by’. This is not cinema: it is the sleep of death.
As the astronaut loses all bodily awareness (an idea developed again in FAT), Mayer uses the truths of gravity and blood, symbolised in the dancer, to contrast with the airless, weightless virtual world that many of us now choose to live in. In Trial Proof for The Blue Feet (Kiki Smith), Mayer suggests that the basic human battle is against gravity. ‘Pushing up on bruised pad and ball, she perches between / the toast crumbs and the broken tap’. The poem celebrates physicality, as the stars tattooed on the dancer’s feet ‘pulse over / roped veins, startling calluses like galaxies / formed from the dust of grinding the self / into grace’.
With a secular but recognisably Protestant work ethic, we grind ourselves into grace. In God and After, the demotic language and teenage paraphernalia initially present loss of faith as a spat between Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, as god ‘traipsed / out of your life one spring afternoon, / soft and early, with all the stuff / from your place he could cram / in an army surplus kit bag / scrawled with band names in marker’. Without him, the poem’s structure transforms. A void appears around its second page, and the alternating long and short lines give it a jagged, broken quality. Once again, gravity’s presence is felt as ‘The edge of the bed is a cliff / unknown / to those who have not / unslept / there’. Thomas Hardy was the first master of the un- prefix, and Neutral Tones’s troublingly unnatural ‘unblooms’ in Hap is perhaps Mayer’s metatextual way of ramping up the sense of spiritual crisis.
Nevertheless, in these poems, Mayer recognises that gravity, fragility and pain ennoble us. Our battles to overcome ourselves are a source of dignity and beauty. To settle for the Blu-ray is to lose our humanity.
- Check out the recordings of Sophie Mayer at the Archive of the Now.