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Marina Dora Martino Reviews ‘Girlhood’ by Julia Copus

Girlhood is an anthology of objects and ephemera – hallways, windows, televisions, shadows, bonfires, the hissing of rain. They are not a chaotic congregation, but rather nexuses of a convoluted poetic neurosystem. Julia Copus’s multiple narrators, who share an urgent, almost unreasonable impulse for autobiography, try to use them as milestones on their storylines – storylines that are oddly recursive, weaving in and out of past, present and future. The collection itself is partly divided into sections with names like ‘Le Couteau’, ‘Le téléphone’ and ‘La Vache’ – tokens of memory, but also catalysers and tools of agency. I dedicate six sections to six of these objects, or shadows, in the attempt to unravel them, expose them and catch a glimpse of their function in the characters’ lives – a girl, a woman and a psychotherapist who obsess over forms and figures. Those are the stitches that hold their stories together; that make their past present, and their present the only possible outcome of their past.

Egg, or a study on grief

Grief is too sparse, confusing and gaslike, able to travel in all directions. The only way to deal with grief is to steady it, make it into something round. Make grief into something round and it will find rest, confinement.

We steady our own like an egg in the dip of a spoon,
as far as the dark of the hallway, the closing door.

What cannot be learned will keep lingering inside us, “a lumpish residue”. Girlhood is too sparse, like a field. The only way to deal with girlhood is to steady it, make into something round. Make a girlhood into something round and memories will be round too, and fit in the dip of a spoon. What happens when a girl grows? A girl who grows will keep being a girl, a residue.

Smoke, or an innuendo of blindness

… Everything
must go!
And it did each time
with feeling, like the putting out of candles

In the house by the factory, the future takes shape, unnoticed and unheard. “Bad things happened there./ They are happening still.” They leave marks, chemical fumes, and holes that open unexpectedly in a house “too porous” to resist the pull. Like the putting out of candles, everything leaves a trace of smoke. Even the dog hasn’t truly vanished, it is still “lying somewhere in the dark/soil.”

I smoked too, but I did it alone.
           O dolor! O me! I walked alone
           under a torn, rice-paper moon!

Door, or the loneliness of rage

Anger is a door. If it opens suddenly on a dark street, the pull of light is so strong that it can suck a girl in. Take a storm, for example; take a horse – they are forces that are external, almost impossible to control. In language it often happens that “the horse is the anger”, the angry one’s the rider. So one could say:

….It wasn’t me, Your
Honour: it was my horse.

But a girl cannot make that kind of protest, even though she wasn’t the one who opened the door. A girl can only regulate the fluctuations of her memory, decide when to remember less or to remember more.

Telephone, or the passion for interpreting signs

There is a doctor; his name is Lacan. He’s large like a father and sharp like a knife. His patient, Marguerite Pantaine, sits in a room with him. She is there to be analysed. Marguerite is 38. Marguerite is of average intelligence, normal gait. Marguerite is ‘delusional’, ‘paranoid’ and got depressed after both her pregnancies. Lacan is studying her; he takes notes. Marguerite hears voices; they are very far and very close, like the ones in the telephone. The ringing telephones have changed from the ones of her girlhood – she has proof of their evil now, carriers of horrible news. Lacan thinks the ringing telephone is the call of a manic episode for Marguerite. Marguerite thinks the ringing telephone is to be mistrusted – it is a traitor, like doctor Lacan

because what could spill from it you
could never tell – and no one was there
besides the phone and you.

Birds, or the mutability of communication

Lacan talks to Marguerite, he’s sad. Marguerite doesn’t talk to Lacan, but she keeps in conversation with the birds. They tell her: spring is only for you. She remembers the spring shadows that day, their voices telling her “This is your stage,”

… you have the knife,
to use, so do so.

Box of matches, or how to solve a puzzle

Do you remember the fields, Marguerite? No, I don’t remember the fields. Do you remember your mother, your father? No, I remember nothing of them. Lacan is in search for beautiful answers – he says: remember! And Marguerite remembers, but doesn’t speak. He calls, Marguerite, Marguerite! “A girl could lie down in a voice like that,” but Marguerite doesn’t. She thinks of her little boy, the presence of whom in her life was “faith itself,”

Whose boyhood is a municipal park in flower
in full, unstoppable sunshine, and I am the warden.

Lacan thinks “he has solved the puzzle of me. Good! And let him.” Marguerite will keep being a warden, the mother of her memories. To him she’ll give something light and unimportant, like a box of matches or an empty spoon.

Marina Dora Martino
Marina Dora Martino is a writer and translator currently engaged in postgraduate study and research at St Andrews University.

Girlhood is published by Faber & Faber, 2019, £14.99 hardback

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