When I saw Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo (1999) dwarfed by Trafalgar Square’s scale and chutzpah, it took my breath away. Wallinger’s figure, modelled at life-size, was lost amongst the great and good of the British Empire. Even Jesus Christ, bound, scourged and crowned with thorns, Wallinger seems to say, will be ignored by traffic and tourists. But this was not, I think Wallinger’s point. The vulnerability of that tiny human figure also rendered the square brash and vainglorious at a stroke. Wallinger’s statue demonstrates both the powerlessness and subversiveness of being small.
In The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus presents her reader with a collection of poems choked by creepers and poisoned with stale air. She opens with This Is the Poem in which I Have Not Left You, where we read that ‘The doors of the Green Dragon are not bolted / behind our backs’. At the line break there might be some uncertainty about whether the speaker is trying to forget a lock-in or a lock-out but the following ‘behind our backs’ adds a sneaky, calculating quality to the exclusion. There’s also an echo of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise here too. The speaker offers us a series of desperate, pathetic statements that she has not left which add to the prevailing sense of hopelessness and finality. The poem’s unsettling conclusion introduces a bird like Keats’ Nightingale, or Hardy’s Thrush: ‘Then further off, after the rain is done, / the voice of the redstart calling do it, do it!, / calling from the smallest tree in the garden’. Although birds are sometimes symbols of optimism and change, Copus’ phrase ‘the smallest tree in the garden’ again brings Eden to mind and we question the redstart’s call: only one animal speaks from a tree in Eden. Was its advice followed, or ignored? Is the speaker tortured by hindsight?
A couple of pages on and Wardes covers similar territory. The poem appears to describe a house: ‘Three years we lived immured by its faulty electrics’ but we would usually expect to be immured by walls and not electrics. The house becomes threatening, a place where unpredictably violent snakes of cabling lurk beneath the plaster. Nothing is as it seems, as the reader might initially suppose the rats to be a part of the problem when, in fact, the line break trips us up: ‘the draughty rooms that opened from them, the rats / that huddled for warmth in the corner cupboard’. The scene that Copus creates is choked and monstrous like something from The Go-Between, or Sarah Beeny’s Restoration Nightmare. In Copus’ hands, Time is the amber that suspends the insect in the paperweight: ‘It’ll be fine again tomorrow, my sweetheart whispers / into the dark, some fifteen years ago. / It is early autumn and we two are lying / flat on the moon-drenched lawn, our eyes / fixed heavenwards; the slowly crumbling house / although we cannot see it is afloat / somewhere beneath our feet – this woman, / who is me, and her dark-haired boy. / Something about the way the light has fallen / or the way their outstretched hands seem fastened / each to each like two cut-paper dolls / tells me it’s already too late to warn them, / the long day done and even the peacocks silent’.
Nothing is certain in Copus’ meticulous, unsettling work. She resists the easy binary opposition and instead creates the memorably troubling. In Amherst Interior, Copus primes the reader to anticipate the easy contrast between American progress and Dickinson’s straitened life. The word ‘burgeons’ forces this reading: ‘Outside her window, America burgeons – / its ports and cities and highways, / its snaking railroads. Outside, / the purple foothills of Montana // darken with log cabins’. Copus makes us wait across the stanza break for the word ‘darken’ and, in terms of progress, it’s downhill from here. Surprisingly, Copus’ Dickinson is revealed to be at the centre, not the periphery: ‘In a shut room, with no seasons or weather, words / collect on the page like rain from the brimming / sponge of a cloud: blot, dusk, speck, / god, blood … Week after week // volcanoes, earthquakes, bombs / brood at the heart of the poems. The sun slips down / stage left behind the hill’ It is the sun which is slipping stage left and we’re back to Wallinger’s Ecce Homo: in the face of the human, no matter how small, no matter how reclusive, even the burgeoning of The United States looks like cheap theatre.
In Hero, Copus’ fabulous reworking of Hero and Leander, she stretches her caesuras into a void, like the Hellespont, dramatizing an agonising wait for a boy at the bottom of the Aegean: ‘Now time grows long as wool is drawn / through oily fingers into yarn’. At a formal level, the poem offers the reader a series of separations as the storm claims Leander and leaves Hero. Like Tennyson’s Mariana, there’s nothing like an absence to trigger an existential crisis and what Copus presents her reader with over the course of this collection is not break up poetry: it cuts keenly and deeply.
In The World’s Two Smallest Humans, Julia Copus has created a compelling, claustrophobic world which tests and questions the limits of human significance. Copus skilfully evades the easy answer to create a troubling sense of uncertainty. Hero and Leander were just another pair of young lovers, yet the story testifies to the value of human endeavour, which leaves us richer, even in tragedy. Mark Wallinger’s statue is the same; it’s because of our smallness that our endeavours matter so much.
- See Julia Copus at The Twenty-fourth Aldeburgh Poetry Festival (Fri 2nd – Sun 4th November).
- The Day I met the Son of God (guardian.co.uk)
- The World’s Two Smallest Humans by Julia Copus – review (guardian.co.uk)
- The best recent poetry: August 5 (telegraph.co.uk)