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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Fairies and Poems II: Shapeshifting

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Continuing last week’s Cinnamon Press poetry collection retrospective of the work of Gail Ashton and Susan Richardson, I look at two more collections. One from each author. (Part 1)

Midnight M6 lights ahead, pomegranate seeds scattered and overhead tea lights shattered, dead suns, handprints on a sodium sky

One of Ashton’s untitled poems ‘talk of selkies’ sets up a stream of imagery that combines fishing with gendered violence, so that ‘the hook and line of him caught/ in her eel-thrashed self, the open gash between her legs pickling raw’. Violence is picked up again and again in different contexts. In ‘Like father, like…’ a poetic voice describes ‘his flair for fists, expletives’. The collection The Other Side of Glass, in this way, is not just abstractly aware of the dynamics of power and subordination, but concerned texture of those dynamics, their meaning and the stories spun about them. Metaphors make the often fleshy, embodied detailing more visceral; in a different untitled piece, psoriasis (this time a natural affliction, rather than a human evil) becomes the literal scales of a shapeshifting mythic creature.

There is nothing tame about this book; not only in that it goes dark places, but in how it is obsessed with nature in all its amorality. Wildness stalks in piece after piece. In ‘Dunstanburgh Castle Ruins’ for example, the ‘I’ of the poem wants to ‘track a gleam/ of washed-up snow,// and feral me.’ Staccato lines emphasise a cold sharpness and clarity, reinforced by the ‘ice-skald, scree, scrimp of air’, and ‘frost-/filled night’. Line lengths are used in a similar way in ‘Walking the dog’ where ‘Blackened/ paths beckon./ Behind us/ woods roar. Nature here is also something the erupts, overspills, and resists containment, the follows its own rhythms and ways.’ In ‘After the Flood: Hoarwithy, 2011’ ‘the chaff of fields, hours-old shiver of scrag-end lambs,/ crows run ragged by the wind. Four swans applaud the sinking sun,// their beat of wings a song, of sorts.’ We are often left with a sense of an overabundance that can only be approached elliptically, that resists the language that seeks to contain it. This uncontainable aspect of nature encompasses the human too, so that in ‘Owl-talk’ lightning laps the crease/ behind your knee’.

Given the struggle with language and reality, the constructions of these poems often speak to a purposefulness and precision. Every word feels careful and resounding, the use of enjambment in ‘Fattening the Albatross’ as one illustration, highly poised and meaningful: ‘I will never break// the silence.’ Likewise, the line break at the end of ‘morning light’ where ‘light// from the kitchen window/ and the day’s acute/ un-/spooling’. The attentive will note that this is not the first connecting hyphen cut off in that exact way, referring back to ‘Dunstanburgh Castle Ruins’.

The sensation caught me by surprise— a sickle fin seeking to breach my spine and the notion that sea-nymphing no longer satisfied. Then click I found my new form by sound— for a moment click click I was both dolphin and rider then wholly clickclickclick the creature whose back I’d sat astride.

Medieval bestiaries are peculiar texts today, not because they are collections of fantastical beasts, but because they present a view of the world as God’s creation, and therefore complementary to scripture. The world as a kind of second text was redolent with meaning, conveyed by God to humankind. The creatures in the bestiary are often just as exotically strange to a modern reader even when we don’t identify them as fictional, because they have morals to impart, and indeed exist for that reason. Such a world the sociologist Max Weber would call enchanted, and the world of today as disenchanted.

Susan Richardson’s skindancing depicts a similarly enchanted world, if more pagan than those enchanted bestiaries. One of the longest and most powerful pieces, ‘Humanimal’ is very much a bestiary of human-creaturely blends, redolent of anthropomorphic imports and with one for each letter of the alphabet (emphasising a textual reading). These chimeras include the Dog-headed Man who ’Chases cats!/ Sticks! Leaves! Chases cars! Gulls! Tail!/ Measures the length of alone.’ and the Ryder, Sophie (The Lady-Hare) who is ‘like so weird. Totes bizarro. Yeah, have you ever met anyone else who looks as freaky-dean as she does?’ In the course of this book, we meet many more such beasts, interfacing always with us, in every instance saying something about us; that is, about what it is to be human.

One of the earlier poems begins with a quote from Knud Rasmussen’s The Netsilik Eskimos (there are many such epigraphs in the book). This one is redolent of the ethos of the whole work. ‘In the very earliest time, when both people and animals lived on earth, a person could become an animal if he wanted to, and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes they were people and sometimes animals and there was no difference.’ As with the poem ‘Metamorphosis’ in Richardson’s Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, the opening poem ‘The White Doe’ depicts such a human to animal shapeshifting: ‘belly hammock between four legs/ instead of back-rapped, compliant-wifing.’ Another visceral piece of body alteration, ‘The Pen is Mightier’ captures the implicit violence, even horror, of the idea of being so remade: ‘What my spine believed were prickles of unease. were the birth-hurts of feathers.’ This theme, the titular one, offers plenty of opportunities for rich juxtapositions between animal and human physiologies and psychologies, anxieties and euphorias, bringing various states of being into sharper focus. Another poem opens with a quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘Animals are “good to think [with]”’. As with Rasmussen’s words, it’s an apt mission statement.

With illustrations that feature Celtic knots, creatures of every type and various social accretions (from architecture to items of clothing), Pat Gregory’s accompanying art emphasises Richardson’s blurring of animal and human spheres. Some of these pictures, such as the one that pairs with the sequence poem Zoomorphic, even depict snapshots of changes in form, of animal and human features at moments of mutual exchange. So that the elongated neck of a woman meets that of a giraffe. Richardson not only leaps from creature to creature, but appropriately she prowesses at the same time from one discursive register to another. We might get a train passenger’s stream-of-consciousness at one moment in an untitled piece and an animal’s surreal perspective at another, such as in ‘Awen’ when the bird boasts that ‘though she’ll try to un-us/ she’ll cuss our dizzy-dazzle/us-gloss of flight/// us loves to live thus/ usly’. The layouts of these poems furthermore compliment such registers, so that while the inner monologue is a solid square block of thought, the bird’s whimsical flights are tiny stanzas arrayed on the page, with plenty of empty space between each one. Other poems, ‘Thylacine’ for instance, flitter between such voices and formatting, creating dialogues and clashes of wildly varying subjectivities.

It’s often a wry collection too. ‘Top Tips for Whipping that Irksome Work Stress’ is hilarious; written like a corporate self-help listicle, but addressed to a prospective Queen Ant and culminating in the advice ‘You Are More Than Just Your Job!’ Richardson plays a lot with the idea of translation and language. At one point, after a poem that makes much of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s aphorism, ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’, we have ‘A Note on the Lionese Translation’ replete with academic references. And, going in the other direction, we encounter ‘a mermaid’s transcription’ which ‘appears here alongside the English translation for the first time.’


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