Claire Trévien, Gareth Prior, Georgie Belladonna Sid, John McCullough, Other Countries:Contemporary Poets Rewiring History, poem, poems, Poetry, Rebecca Támas, review, The Blitz, The Rokeby Venus, verse
In the anthology’s introduction, Trévien writes that ‘we wanted poems that would make us create new patterns of association in our brains where a historical period or event was concerned.’ The aim’s a lofty one, then. However, Prior and Trévien score some home runs and, given the anthology’s broad sweep – from Harry Man’s telescoping of time in his sestina, Earth, which runs at breakneck speed from the planet’s birth in 454 billion BC to our species’ search for alien life, to Martín Espada’s uplifting litany, Alabanza: In Praise of the Local 100, a psalm to the restaurant workers starting their shift in The World Trade Center’s Windows on the World on the morning of the 11th September, 2001 – there’s an excellent chance that something within its pages will knock you off your feet and leave you looking at the world in a different way.
For me, it was Rebecca Támas’ The Rokeby Venus. It was as a child that I first witnessed iconoclasm through the welts on Venus’ back care of the suffragette, Mary Richardson. My memory conveniently buried the inconvenient detail, the political intent behind the slashing of the painting, and Richardson’s act became my first encounter with a senseless vandalism that, to my mind, fitted into a continuum with the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the recent destruction of Nimrud by Isis. As I approached my first reading of Támas’ poem, I was convinced that it would support my liberal reading but she denied me my complacency. Her first line and stanza, ‘very quiet until the cut,’ like Richardson’s chopper, appears from nowhere but the definite article lends the cut a purpose, unsettling the reader. If this is senseless violence, an iconoclasm, then Richardson’s surgical precision is at odds with the indiscriminate brutality of hate. Indeed, if her cut is surgical, then surely her intent is to ‘do no harm.’ Only now does Támas direct our gaze to the victim, ‘her body held still / looking at itself / naked in a windowless room.’ Venus’ stillness is not the stillness of repose, it is held, like a stress position, and the ‘windowless room’ feels more like Orwell’s Ministry of Love than Titian’s boudoir of repose. Into this confinement, Richardson’s chopper is ‘a filament of rapturous electricity // her body // her bodies // are full of holes / and all the light is // all the light / is flooding in.’
My other extraordinary moment was John McCullough’s Polari Georgie, Belladonna, Sid, where the blitz, one of The Second World War’s most potent symbols of indiscriminate Nazi aggression (for British readers, at least), is deliciously, outrageously transformed: ‘Paper, scissors, stone. Grinning poster boys / for Winston’s bona* home front, the flashing sky / pink as a boudoir’ and the heroic servicemen are reimagined as ‘saintly omi-palones** who fall / when we stroke the Polish navy’s smooth serges.’ Reimagined is the word here because the dominant narrative, the narrative of heterosexual heroism, is writ so large and read so close that it is almost impossible to imagine anything else. However, with a few deft lines, McCullough has lifted the scales from my eyes, redrawing the Allied war effort with considerably more diversity and humanity. Even the Blitz now feels significantly different as Georgie, Belladonna and Sid ‘linger here, still paper / but folding, folding. The streets swarm with mammoth / skirts, decency, bedsits. I’ve used the last smudge // of American shampoo. Each dusk I vada*** / the ripped-open, scattered rose sky and pray / to God for the safe return of my blackout.’
* bona – lovely
** omi-palones – effeminate men
*** vada – look at
For even the blitz to have become a liberating space for those for whom ‘The horrors of peace are many’ serves to illustrate just how effective Trévien and Prior have been in their quest to rewire history and, if you haven’t encountered it yet, give their poets the chance to challenge a few of your assumptions about the world. You’ll be the richer for it.