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Blog Review 6 – Karen McCarthy Woolf Reviews Susan Wicks’s ‘House of Tongues’

The title poem, ‘House of Tongues’, is after Paul Bowles’ 1947 short story A Distant Episode which recounts the capture and physical mutilation of a linguistics professor travelling through an unnamed country that is probably Morocco. The professor suffers an emblematic violence when his tongue is cut out by a band of Reguibat tribesmen. It’s a strange and compelling narrative that stays with you long after reading and House of Tongues has a similar effect: these are subtle yet invasive poems that creep into your psyche and occupy space.

In the poem, Wicks skilfully interweaves the original narrative with a more intimate domestic tableau, where

Next to the back door
the tongues of our battered trainers
strain under laces, swell
crusted and luminous.

Throughout the collection the body is often in a state of flux, whether from ageing, sickness or an inflicted violence. In ‘Under the Blue Umbrella’ Wicks juxtaposes a fragile and metaphorically encircled Mediterranean idyll with wider political concerns: “No one’s heart clenches here. No one is seen to bleed/from the anus, or stand naked at a wall to be shot.” Likewise, the ‘Untitled (Wheelchair)’ after the Lebanese/Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, which like many poems here, gives voice where voice is lost. Even the seemingly anecdotal sonnet, ‘Box’, about a topiary bush in the shape of a bird, which “daily becomes less bird, and more completely bush” provokes a contemplation of the ongoing human wrestle with nature, the manicured garden versus wilderness, bush against bird.

This sense of tension and fragility is elegantly expressed elsewhere. In a short sequence at the beginning of the central section, ‘What She Was’, deer wander into the house, and the narrator has to “wake/and feel their noses on my face,/my breasts, nudging between my thighs.” Here Wicks avoids the myriad ‘Bambi’ pitfalls and instead manages to capture the experience via a precise and visceral approach:

I sensed rather than saw them move
in the darkness, the dark fractionally displaced
at the edge of seeing…

The sea is also a recurrent motif and is often a conduit for the book’s emotional and thematic core. In the opening poem, ‘Pistachios’, physical ageing is pitched against a sensuous vivacity, yet these contradictions are empowered by simple expression. If sex, “as they say, is a kind of dying” then you “never know exactly when/or where or how fast/sex leaves” as it’s carried out on the tide. Later, in the lyrical ‘Inside the Movement’, the idea of death as process is expanded and it’s “as if the land itself had had a stroke”.

Against this quietly unsettled backdrop, there’s a deep sense of hope embedded in the heart of the work; if there are environmental imperatives humankind must attend to, then the fact that “we’re built for loss” (‘Inside the Movement’) is perhaps a more optimistic thought than it seems. A lesser poet might have rendered these ecological themes dull or clichéd; Wicks energises the subject through adroit and stylish handling that is confident but never showy.

The final section entitled ‘Nightwatchman’s Yard’ is set in Visby, a medieval city on the Swedish island of Gotland. Wicks builds a historical picture through a series of poems that give voice to the city’s saints, warriors, workers and villains. It opens with the monologue ‘Confession’; set in 1350 it’s the story of an embittered church organist who deliberately poisons the town’s wells with bubonic plague so that: “Now I can let my voice/howl in your pipework, echo to the town walls: how I spit on each upright soul/in this stinking city…” As in ‘House of Tongues’, sound – and specifically the voice – becomes a charged leitmotif through which both revenge and injustice are enacted.

At this point there is also a sense of release; as if the restraint of writing from the self is cast off, allowing the poet to run riot within the anarchy of embattled medieval society. Everything that was economically held back pours forth in these vigorous narratives, whether it’s the blithe sense of entitlement that infuses the utterances of the invading Dane Valdemar IV in ‘The Plundering of Visby’ or Little Ingeborg, “A woman alone/with her child and her child’s child” who is tried as a witch. What connects them to the other poems is emotional authenticity and the sense that the dystopia we experience now was ever thus.

Karen McCarthy Woolf
Karen McCarthy Woolf’s poetry chapbook The Worshipful Company of Pomegranate Slicers was selected as a New Statesman Book of the Year in 2006. Her poetry also featured in the anthology, TEN New Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010, ed. Bernardine Evaristo & Daljit Nagra).

House of Tongues is published by Bloodaxe, 2011, £8.95.

for blog review 5, see Dave Coates on Noel Duffy’s ‘In the Library of Lost Objects’
for blog review 4, see Miriam Gamble on Ailbhe Darcy’s ‘Imaginary Menagerie’
for blog review 3, see Steven Waling on Rupert Loydell’s ‘Wildlife’.
for blog review 2, see Cath Nichols on Gregory Woods’s ‘An Ordinary Dog’.
for blog review 1, see Mark Burnhope on Katy Evans-Bush’s ‘Egg Printing Explained’

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