Olivia Cole reviews Clare Pollard’s Bedtime (Bloodaxe, £6.95) and Alice Oswald’s Dart (Faber, £8.99)
In Magma 21 Clare Pollard railed against a seeming contemporary resistance to confessional poetry. Confessionalism, she asserted, is everywhere: on our TV screens, on the best-seller lists and in the tabloids. It is a claim wittily substantiated in Bedtime, as in ‘My Bed’:
Tracy Emin lives down the road from me,
and recently’s had notable acclaim
due to a certain bed. As poetry’s
in need of press, I thought I’d do the same –
show you the place I slept and dreamt and came!
Admittedly, it’s not in the best taste,
but self-promotion must be in-yer-face.
Well quite. However, as Pollard pointed out in a manifesto that called for more “postcards from the edge”, when it comes to poetry, such personal candour remains the exception rather than the rule. “Good confessionalism”, she suggested, appeals because
it explores our darkest emotional instincts: our deepest scars, secrets, griefs and desires.
It is the mode in which poetry, so often deemed by people as dusty and irrelevant to their
lives, can proclaim its relevancy.
‘My Bed’ is of course tongue in cheek – going as far as to immortalise Big Brother’s Darren blithely feeding Channel Four chickens – but the poem sticks to its word. We are presented with an up close and personal glimpse of the poet (“whiny / when it seems football’s always on TV”) as she reveals her very own “explicit, splendid, loaded bed!” The flippancy of this spoof contrasts strongly with Pollard’s commitment to the genuinely confessional. Throughout Bedtime, the conviction that there exists a distinction between confessional poetry and confessional junk (of which, for me,Emin is emphatically not an example) is given a lively voicing. Confession is present, but so too is an energetic consideration of precisely what it is that personal art entails.
Confessional poems – dialogues with lovers and friends past and present, and recollections of childhood and adolescence – have their place between the sheets of Bedtime. However, the personal focus of Pollard’s debut collection, The Heavy Petting Zoo, has undoubtedly widened. In that collection (much of it written while she was still at school) Pollard confronted poetry and the reader with the tear-stained loos of nightclubs in Bolton and the hormone-crazed trauma of teenage experiments in lust and love. Bedtime contains a broader but equally scathing look at sexuality and desire. There are more animals in this zoo – as well as Emin and her bed, Sylvia Plath, John Lennon and Dorothy Parker convene for a ‘Fantasy Dinner Party’ and Pollard’s unflinching ability to anatomize her own emotional states is put to great use in several persuasive dramatic monologues. ‘Posing for Dante Gabriel Rossetti’ offers an appropriately rich and painterly evocation of his muse’s inner life. Reduced to an objet d’art whilst desperate to find her own artistic identity, his muse’s weak lines of poetry are as still-born as their child. “So, look at me one last time:” the until-now silent woman commands,
paint the hair hanging in plush red curtains
around the show of my face,
skin titanium white,
hips sharp as bent paint tubes.
Would you like to take me – in my thick laudanum trance –
my hair splattering the pillows like coughed-up blood
as you sign your name on a corner of me?
When Eva Braun, Hitler’s young mistress, speaks in ‘The Bunker in Berlin’ she voices a clever riff on Plath’s “Every woman adores a Fascist”. The “Brute heart of a brute like you” at the centre of ‘Daddy’ is here imagined into existence with a candour that even Plath stopped short of: “You fucked with a brute heart, / fists clenched – fighting yourself”,
This is life. Tomorrow’s death. We’ve cyanide
and pistols, they’ll not find us waiting here
to be their freaks, their puppets, but nobly dead
In the quietly poised poem ‘A Greek Morning’, Chaucer’s enigmatic Criseyde is given a chance to explain the infidelity that seems inexplicable in the original poem. As in so many of Pollard’s own statements of feeling, a mass of sensual detail and off-kilter visual observation accumulates to energize personal utterance. The Greek Diomede lies in this poem in “a sliding morning sleep,”
his hirsute back bared like a boar’s,
his fingers, their pads fleshy as dates, circling my rim.
The reason for given for betrayal emerges as fear of Troilus’s own imminent desertion – “My sweet Troilus,”
I always knew that you would stop loving me,
from my wintered fingers like a dry leaf.
The version of emotional experience presented here comes close to that of which we read of in ‘Character-shaping Childhood Experience’; an analogy of love in which lovers become destined to sail unstoppably away like long-lost helium balloons.
Not only do the dramatic monologues widen the focus of Bedtime, they also offer vivid and exciting evidence that confessional poetry is less specifically private than simply, and unashamedly, concerned with the experiences that affect us all. Far from burying the poet in the self, personal poetry can lead us through a particularized medium to the most important and universal of themes. The temporal and geographical scope of Bedtime reinforces the point. However, if there is history in this collection there is also plenty of room for the contemporary world – a recognizable vaguely queasy land of Godlessness, crashing commuter trains and disaster hungry news channels in which multi-ethnic take-away food co-exists with racial tensions, and if Darren and his chickens might seem just a touch too of their time, then this is the exception rather than the rule. The landscape that provides Pollard with her setting for these bedtime stories is a New Labour England that many will recognize and find refreshing to see assessed with such unremitting honesty – and moreover with an aesthetic that is unafraid to acknowledge that the ridiculous and the grisly can co-exist with the sublime. as in the beauty of flowers in tube station florist, “Though I see no greater hand, please do not think / this astounding beauty wasted for one moment upon me” (‘The Florist’s’).
The Preface to Dart, Alice Oswald’s second collection, advises us to read all the voices that this long poem contains, as “the river’s mutterings”. Over two years, Oswald has collated the experiences and language of people who know the Devon river, using
these records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters – linking their voices
into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea.
Such a strategy seems to fuse a mystical conception of the natural world akin to that of Ted Hughes (perhaps the most famous chronicler of Oswald’s native Devon) with an appropriation of human experience more common to a more confessional genre of writing.
Dart delights in its own slippery autonomy, beginning with a question that casts a spotlight on its own uttering identity:
Who’s this moving alive over the moor?
An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
“I know who I am,” the river teasingly asserts. We may remain less sure, but this is part of the appeal of this seductively lyrical long poem. The river’s progression and the characters that it and we encounter embrace both a sense of its past with a contemporaneous grasp of its significance to those who use its force for either work or play. There is a daringness similar to the water’s own unstoppable progress at work in the poem; Oswald leaps from the tea shops and bathrooms that are a maid’s experience of the water,
in a place of bracken and scattered stone piles and cream teas in
the tourist season, comes the chambermaid unlocking every morning
with her peach-soap hands:
Brush them away, squirt everything, bleach and
vac and rubberglove them into a bin-bag, please do not leave
toenails under the rugs, a single grey strand in the basin
to a naturalist’s magnified scrutiny of the world contained within the river’s own life force,
shhh I can make myself invisible
with binoculars in moist places. I can see frogs
hiding under spawn – water’s sperm –
The river and the poet manage at moments to make themselves invisible, to hide themselves behind a profusion of physical and emotional detail. Poetry itself enjoys a similar liberation: manipulated by Oswald into a wonderfully musical free-fall. Thought is allowed to float with the seeming nonchalance of the river itself; metre, form, punctuation are all intermittently cast off and re-found throughout the poem’s progression.
One of the most rewarding elements of this long poem, and one that means that it rewards countless visits, is the sheer quantity and variety of layered experiences that Dart fictionalizes and records. The river has its practical uses, entrances with its beauty, and yet is simultaneously the setting for tragedy and loss. Oyster gatherers compete for their place in the poem’s fabric with the creatures blighted by their task, and with rival poachers. “Who lives here? / Who dies here?” Oswald asks,
Only oysters and often
the quartertone quavers of an oyster catcher.
Ghosts haunt the poem – the river becomes a magnet for acts of narration and remembrance, both specific and universal.
The river’s force may be one that we can use and enjoy, but its power is far beyond that of human life, and even of art. The poem’s epigraph from Ivan Illyich, “water always comes with an ego and an alter ego”, offers a suggestion that Dart has its sources closer to home that its competing voices and characters might lead us to presume. The personal experiences of the poet, as a human being but more prominently as an artist, seem to provide some of the layers of experience from which Oswald has woven her narrative. An insomniac haunting the river’s banks may feel empowered as he picks a slate and hurls it “over the water’s wobbling light”, but he finds that
it sank like a feather falls, not quite
in full possession of its weight.
Oswald’s poetic prowess is unafraid to admit that even art has its limitations; just as the stone, however tantalizing its progress, will sink beyond the water’s surface, poetry too will fall away. Dart’s final voice is that of a sealwatcher; the river has reached the sea, a “self-maker” which “suckles and settles” and speaks “its meaning over mine”. The sealwatcher tells of how he writes his or her name on the beach, the edge of the earth’s “trembling sphere”, only to watch it disappear. The seals seem to demand once more an answer to Dart’s opening question, of “who” it is that we encounter in the body of the river,
who’s this moving in the dark? Me.
This is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy,
all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, this is Proteus,
whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,
driving my many selves from cave to cave…
The identity of the river remains ultimately as elusive as that of the speaker who manages to manipulate the timeless progression of the water into a discourse that looks with tantalizing eloquence to past, present and future.
In both Dart and Bedtime the “deepest scars, secrets, griefs and desires” that Pollard has suggested should take centre stage in poetry are elaborated and elegized. The “river’s mutterings” lead finally, in a more oblique manner than Pollard’s self-confessed “in-yer-face” strategy, to a common end: a consideration of life, death, loss, regeneration, and the act of writing itself. And if that counts as “a new confessionalism”, then here’s to that.