Simon Turner reviews Boudicca & Co by Jane Holland (Salt Publishing), £9.99, ISBN 1-844712-89-3
What is most striking about this collection upon first delving into it is the sheer range of material on display. We have a number of poems detailing domestic everyday life; strong evocations of landscape; Anglo-Saxon translations; echoes of medieval songs; and, most impressively of all (but we can come on to that later) we have the long sequence to which this collection owes part of its name, an imaginative excursion into the life and career of the Queen of the Iceni. This range may well have something to do with the collection's vintage: nearly ten years in the making, the poems in this collection represent a great leap forward from Holland's enjoyable debut, The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman.
If the collection is 'about' anything in particular, it is 'about' notions of Britishness, and notions of womanhood. I'll start with womanhood, as it is the less controversial, and less problematic, of the two central themes. Specifically, Holland seems concerned with opening up, and dismantling, traditional notions of femininity. From the book cover (reminiscent, at least to my eye, of the famous jacket photo for Germaine Greer's feminist classic The Female Eunuch) through to the Boudicca poems, Boudicca & Co. is packed to the brim with unconventional representations of women, not all of them positive - the 'Dragon Woman' in the poem of the same name is a particularly unsettling presence - but all of them transcending the preconceived boundaries of what it means to be a woman. Early on in the collection, this attempt to go beyond the patrolled borders of 'correct' female behaviour is enacted in 'Hot Days in the Eighties', where the speaker - employing a familiar syntactic trick of talking about herself in the second person (it's all 'you you you') - remembers how
You chopped your locks in the back
of the car one day, dyke-short.
Kept dental dams in the glove box,
grew the hair under your arms
to a mousy fuzz. Purchased
a map of the highways, went native.
The car - as any reader of Kerouac or fan of the Boss's seemingly endless series of songs about the open road could tell you - is a good old fashioned symbol of masculine freedom and self-reliance, and Holland's re-appropriation of it here is charged with significance. I was reminded a little of Lavinia Greenlaw's own tales of Thatcher-era delinquency in Minsk, but Holland's take on similar material seems to have a lot more punch and muscle.
Arguably the most remarkable component of Holland's poetry, however, is actually stylistic rather than thematic, for she is among a very small number of female poets (Alice Oswald being another) for whom Ted Hughes is a vital influence upon their poetry. Oswald, of course, has written about her love of Hughes' work elsewhere ; in the case of Holland, I'm just extrapolating what I see in the work - in short, it's guesswork. That said, if we take a poem of Holland's like 'The Song of the Hare' ('She sang the song of the hare / and the hanged man hung // as the god in the tree / put forth branches of sorrow // and the lark climbed high / in an ecstasy of cloud'), replace the word 'hare' with 'crow', throw in a little more blood and guts and atomic annhilation, and presto! We have a Ted Hughes poem circa-1974.
Okay, granted that's a parody of Hughes, and wilfully unfair to Holland's poem (which is beautiful), but the bigger point I'm making is that for a woman writer - especially - the presence of even a ghost of a Hughes influence is, I would argue, a pretty big deal, considering that for most of the 80s and 90s, Hughes was a byword in some circles for poetic / political conservatism and spousal abuse. If the rehabilitation (or, more correctly, rediscovery) of Hughes began with the publication of Birthday Letters in 1998, then it has arguably reached something of an apotheosis in the ardent championing he now recieves from writers like Oswald. The Hughes influence on Holland's work is perhaps quieter than it is in Oswald's poetry - Holland, for example, has not inherited Hughes' occasional tendency towards adopting a strident rhetoric of cumulative imagery and over-abundant sonic effects - and is perhaps most noticeable at the level of the telling image, of the perfect phrase. Take, for example, these lines from 'West Kennett Long Barrow':
Rain condenses its euphoric mass
to a single blessing
the intestinal silence of rock.
Though compelling in their own terms, there is a distinct ghost of earlier Hughes poems like 'Pibroch' here, and much of the collection is shot through not only with Hughes' gift for image and phrase, but also with his concerns with landscape, and with landscape's relationship with a sense of identity, both personal and collective.
Such identity - in Holland as in Hughes - is most often bound up with a sense of the ancient forces underlying the recent (and implicitly inauthentic) accretions of national boundaries and political institutions. 'Elementals', the sequence of which 'West Kennett Long Barrow' forms a part, re-imagines components of the ancient landscape of the British Isles (going futher afield in 'Almost Iceland') in terms steeped in myth and folklore, bringing the land to life with a startling admixture of personification and physical descriptions, even enactments, of its components. Writing of an isolated house in the middle of a wind-swept landscape in 'Almost Iceland', Holland writes:
Its single chimney grinned up at the sky
like a maniac.
For miles around, whole islands lay down
and withered. Stones
stunted themselves in its shadow.
And always the wind
hammering for the house
to be absent.
Elsewhere, the capacity for the landscape to signify notions of belonging and identity is rendered explicit in poems such as 'Warwickshire' ('England // my beleaguered sunken island') and 'Benediction', where Holland describes what can only be described as a visionary experience brought on by the landscape itself:
vast and intricate
charging the space in my head
with moths dancing - dust in the beam
and the smudge of a spire
glimpsed above sycamores -
the spirit of the tribe.
This emphasis upon landscape as a marker of belonging is potentially liberating when set against the political (and implicitly exclusionary) abstractions of nationhood or 'cultural identity': anyone can belong to a landscape; it is simply a question of being there, of living on it, and in it. Conversely, however, Boudicca & Co.'s employment of ancient (British and Anglo-Saxon) history, mythology and literature as a guiding principle in its representations of place might equally be read as problematic: a reader of a liberal cast of mind, for example, might well balk at the use of the word 'tribe' (which recurs more than once in the collection), with its connotations of the narrative of national 'belonging' associated with, and propagated by, the far right.
Of course, I do not wish to suggest that Holland's poetry is in any way right wing or regressive in its national politics, and Boudicca & Co., in totality, cannot be easily co-opted by the racist rhetoric of the far right in the way in which, say, Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy can. What is apparent, though, is that words such as 'tribe' are loaded with significance, and cannot be used lightly, particularly when the paratextual material for the collection frames Holland's poetry within the ongoing contemporary debate on the meaning and value of 'Britishness'. Holland succeeds in her articulation of 'Britishness', I would argue, because of her willingness to challenge and critque the founding myths and narratives upon which the political idea of Britain is based, and not simply fall back upon the meaningless pieties and generalisations (all too easily capable of spilling over into the jingoistic racial nationalism of the BNP), which most often characterise the political classes' attempts to tackle the very same subject.
This effort to engage with British mythology and history from all angles - positive and negative - is most persuasively articulated in 'Boudicca', the sequence of poems dealing with the legendary Queen of the Iceni which concludes this collection. Where a lesser poet may have simply recapitulated the old myth of Boudicca as a heroic warrior queen routing the invading armies of Romans, and in the process cementing a romantic notion of Britain as a unified coalition of disparate tribes, Holland is brave enough to show the horror and violence enacted by both sides of the conflict. Certainly, the Romans are not portrayed as exemplars of civilised behaviour, but neither is Boudicca an entirely innocent player in the theatre of war:
Once, I slipped on a brain
in the road: decapitated owner
against the ruins of her house.
I couldn't help laughing;
she looked so comical,
feet dragged in the dirt,
spare head grinning.
Equally, and futher complicating the portrayal of Boudicca presented in the sequence, Holland is not afraid to show us a tender side to the warrior queen, as in the beautiful poem 'Boudicca's Son':
[...] I had a son once.
For three days.
The pale bluebell of his eyes
closed after sunset
and his whining breath
rattled into silence.
The sequence is littered with anachronistic references (hand-grenades and rifle butts play a part in the skirmishes with the Romans), which lends a further depth to the poems, and rescues 'Boudicca' from being simply an effort to flesh out a myth, pointing us towards more contemporary paralells (I don't need to point out the resonances of a poetic narrative detailing a violent response to an invading imperial army whose methods have a tendency to contravene the basic tenets of human rights legislation, so I won't).
In the process of dismantling the Boudicca myth, then, Holland has opened up new avenues for the possiblity of an engaged and visceral war poetry written by non-combatants, which evades the pitfalls of much protest poetry - we need only compare Holland's work with the anti-war 'poetry' of Harold Pinter to gain some indication of how rich and rewarding her response to modern conflict is - by shifting methods towards the imaginative and narrative elements of poetry, rather than the rhetorical and political. In this sense, the 'Boudicca' sequence has a great deal in common with David Harsent's Legion, which represents a similar attempt by a non-combatant poet to engage intelligently with the realities of war. This is, frankly, an outstanding collection, and Holland, as a result, can now count herself amongst the front rank of contemporary British poets.