It was already an alcohol fuelled night when we arrived at Campo dei Fiori‘s The Drunken Ship. I was out with a Roman Catholic seminarian whose groin was in open rebellion against celibacy, and the groin, it was rumoured, was winning. In the time it took me to get the beers in, he had lured two young, uncomfortable looking Roman girls to the table. I was introduced as a photographer for a British fashion magazine and, seething at the deceit, and at my own awkwardness with girls, I set to work on the beer, sublimating my disgust at the deception into aggressive chain-smoking. Responding to the toilet’s siren song, I lurched to the loo through a storm-tossed tunnel of exceptional inebriation. It was then that I was hit: poleaxed by a man running straight at me. Stunned and confused, I peeled myself off the floor, palms flat against the wall of an improbable goldfish bowl. I clawed at my assailant, who was now leering into my face. It was then that I came to the understanding that the bar’s back wall, from floor to ceiling, was a mirror, and that my assailant was myself.
Liane Strauss, like a contemporary Velázquez, delights in the mirror’s destabilizing reflections and refractions, and there’s no wicked stepmother in sight. In Cut and a Blow Dry, the ritual trip to the salon is elevated to the status of high culture: ‘”I’m in love,” I tell you. / I’m watching you watch me / in the mirror that covers the whole wall, // like one of those vast fading maps at the Vatican, and always reminds me of a Greek trireme, / or an essence, how anyone ever got it // into this bottle of a shop front in the first place / where, through the battering gales / of the four winds from the blow dryers, // you’re always telling me to fall in love’. We might assume that the first line’s declaration of love possesses intimacy and power, but the tercet drills through the layers and we’re offered an exchange of gazes and finally their reflections in the mirror. A declaration of love, bounced back and forth is simplified into two dimensions and, as life-changing love flattens and shrinks, so the salon grows and the blow dyers assume the epic proportions of Boreas, Zephyrus, Eurus and the others. Stylist and client converge: ‘We laugh together in the mirror. / There is no difference between us’.
In ‘Self-Portrait as Myself’, Strauss’s speaker says: ‘I offer you myself instead, / today, in the image of my dead grandmother – / among my better efforts. / She’s in one of her beloved cafés, / Vienna, between the wars, / a back room, gilt and mirrors, / a proscenium of smoke, a fox / dangling from a chair-back / like a provocative suggestion. / Dark and small, in classic / clingy Vionnet, back and shoulders bare, / in quarter profile, turning, / already laughing, already / demurring, her rosewood / scrolls of hair that could have been carved by Gibbons’. Here, Strauss’s sentences fall through her pacy lines like silk draped from the shoulders and, like Cut and Blow Dry, nothing is as it first appears. ‘Gilt’ is all about the surface, and tarts up the cheap dod of wood beneath. The homophone invites us to see something sultry and Bohemian in the smoke, mirrors and tempting glimpses of flesh. The poem drifts through time and with the reference to Grinling Gibbons the 1930s give way to the 1600s. Time future is contained in time past but, whilst the speaker of Cut and Blow Dry shares a conspiratorial moment with the stylist, here the connection is uncanny, internal and genetic.
In Seduction, the poem gravitates to the centre of the page, its symmetrical ragged left and right margins evoke the city reflected in water. ‘If people can dream together, / we dream together. / This is the way it always starts: / Out of the darkness of the streets that lie between us / and the river rising like a rampart raised to part the city / from its dreamed and dreaming counterpart / across the river – a darkness falling like the leaves / shed by the street lamps every evening dreaming / they shed light and keep the city from the river – / we find our way back to each other’s side. / It doesn’t take long’. Strauss’s lines grow like the ‘rampart raised’ and the lines’ heavy alliteration also serves to bisect the poem, which evokes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and, given the Intended’s ignorance of the manner of Kurtz’s demise, the rive gauche and the rive droite begin to look poles apart: ‘we stop and start and smile and stop again / like two strangers in a doorway, until whatever it is that parts, / like dawn the lips of the curtain, like the last look, / tears us from each other’s side’.
Little in this collection is as it first appears. Relationships shift in the light and reconfigure themselves line-by-line. Even the title of Nature Morte reminds the English speaker of the subtext behind the ostensibly bland phrase ‘still life’. Strauss’s focus zooms in on the fruit like David Lynch’s camera in the opening scene of Blue Velvet: ‘This has nothing to do with hunger. / That fruit’s been sitting out too long. / That peachy cleft’s delectable, but wrong. / That lemon is unpeeling like a stripper. / Each apple’s been meticulously rotated / just like they do it in the supermarket / to hide bang-spots and worm-holes’. In a collection all about looking, Eve’s apple does not taste as sweet as it initially appears.