“Arse – myne! – that’s how you know me”
Magma 67, extra review: Katy Evans-Bush reviews Alison Winch’s Trouble, Emma Press, £6.50pm
Alison Winch’s debut pamphlet, Trouble, seems to have been a long time coming.
Even with a foreword by Sarah Howe and all its extraneous matter – title page, contents – it only reaches 36 pages, but it hints at many more pages unseen. For one thing, it contains extracts from not one but two ambitious sequences, and one from a longer poem.
One of these is a series of short prose pieces, ‘OF WIFE’, in which a first-person narrator – everywife, or a sort of Spiritus Uxorem – crops up in different times and situations and gives her account of moments with a ghostly ‘marriage counsellor’. The tone is both barbed and light.
‘1. ON THE MANNER IN WHICH THE WIFE ANNOUNCES HERSELF’ begins, “The marriage counsellor has me sit on his chaise longue, behind him a long green garden like a secret glade. I pretend to be one woman.” The sequence, of which poems appear dotted through the pamphlet, takes on the feeling of a dream, dipped in and out of, in which the marriage counsellor comes to feel like the husband in Anne Carson’s 2001 collection, The Beauty of the Husband. He’s unknowable, inscrutable, and desirable – and ultimately unobtainable.
In an 18th century ballroom, there’s a bit of mansplaining: “He availed himself of a flagon of pear wine and enlightened me on the characteristics of men, their manners, tastes, opinions. The bell tolled noon. As he stood his pink curved heels gave him a rakish height. I leaned in to taste his painted lips…” (‘THE TEA TABLE’)
‘Alisoun’s’ is based on – or ‘appropriated from’ – Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’: the narrator Alisoun relates her experiences with three men and extrapolates on love, desire and marriage:
Arse – myne! – that’s how you know me
that & my wenching – but dear Lord what an arse!
like the dymple blush of a just-plucked pear
plump on its honybee haunches
when the kitchen is a lyht box of morning sonne…
Alisoun’s Middle English seems to owe almost as much to John Berryman as Chaucer. It’s kept utterly now by a skilful use of anachronism, syntax, and the just-right spelling deviation – as in the “lyht box” above. Her imagery is vividly particular, full of medieval flowers that recall the old tapestries – and wrapped in sound:
wet fenyl smell of shut cupped dayes-eyes/sprung moss
I chew at the air’s colossal fizz
Its gentil gorse
The sonne’s pancake mouth at my face
There have been lots of poems written in recent years in Middle English; Tom Chivers has done it, I’ve done it, many others have, and Steve Ely in his debut collection even regressed to Anglo Saxon. Alison Winch adds to this mini-canon by her use of this female character as a hinge for contemporary, feminist experience. The voice feels authentic and also recognisable. Rather than creating pastiche, she throws out (as it were) a line, and gathers in the women who came before us, validating and owning our shared experience. This is fine poetry, and unequivocal feminism that enfolds previous historical periods.
Though Winch’s sense of the movement through time is refreshing, and Alisoun feels convincing, her 18th century is less than convincing, with anachronistically courtly flourishes and wrong-period dishes. But the poems themselves, in their colour, image and affective content, are spot-on. More predictable poems, like ‘Pomegranate’ (which feels too familiar from too many first collections) are offset by fresh, unusual ones like ‘All the Affairs are with My Grandmother’, which finishes the book. A line like “Uxorial I coupled a coquillard under a bedde faked by roots of a pyne tree’ (‘Alisoun’s’) demands a mention of Wallace Stevens.
A deceptively small, pink volume from the Emma Press, with a line drawing by Sophie Herxheimer on the cover, Trouble feels like an otter (“In spring the clouds were the sunlit backs of lazy otters”) slipping into the flowing stream: a flash, and it’s in. Now for a first collection where we can read the entire sequences, please!
You can read more reviews by Katy Evans-Bush – of Cate Marvin’s ‘Oracle’ and Anne Carson’s ‘Float’ – in Magma 67. Copies can be purchased here: https://magmapoetry.com/buy-magma/