Sunday, 9 September 2007

Rapunzel of the North - George Ttoouli

Eleanor Rees, Andraste's Hair: Salt Publishing, £12.99 (ISBN 9781844713042)

I know it's completely unfair and it's no way to start a review, but do we really need another young urban poet writing about 'the city'? OK, sure, Liverpool's only famous for that band and those poets who cashed in, so it's high time someone else took a good go, but really?

Writing about the city is marginally better than writing about classical music forms, or botching a Dante or Iliad, or rabbiting on about (Australian) Shiraz, (Tesco's) French roules and referencing mythology to try and elevate what is obviously doggerel to the level of art. If it's done well, anything goes. But the number of poems I've read which use "the city" like it's instant endorsement for a tired big-theme-a-comin' style or license to drawl on for 70 pages like Edward Carpenter on ketamine and coke, really ought to be a lot smaller than it is.

But as usual, the disgruntled outcome from judging this book by its cover needs to be kicked to the kerb. I'll start with the obvious: who is Andraste and what's so hot about her hair?

The first thing to note is that the Celtic goddess Andraste was linked to a 'hare'. Boudicca and a hare. No sign of Andraste's hair in what I've read, though unfortunately I left my Larousse in the platform toilets in Liverpool, obviously. (But perhaps there was a sign of the hare, or perhaps Andraste, in Jane Holland's book. If anyone else gets there first, let me know.)

The poem of the book's title does what I'd have hoped all poems that reference some kind of classical mythology would do: it turns a contemporary story into a legend. This was something Cavafy was a master of. Tilting myths to his own ends, turning seemingly irrelevant arcana into allegories for his contemporary world. This perhaps explains the dead-ender of the hair vs hare. It's a pun, but really, would anyone in Liverpool care, when the poem's content is what matters. Three men burning a woman's hair in the forest and the insistent refrain at the start, "she let them" do it, giving the sense that a rape has taken place.

A subtle accumulation of vocabulary tints the setting - a phrase like "the area is cordoned off" repeated just once, lending the atmosphere a police-investigation tone, that carries through. Alongside is the woman's resistance - carrying the burnt remains of her hair to the river, "to spread in the warp of water." This is a new narrative joining a longer chain, a poet recording a history that she doesn't want forgotten.

The piece is carefully woven, like the whole collection, with recurring moments, the vicissitudes of signs to themes (to paraphrase Eco) that start to build up a picture of Eleanor Rees' Liverpool. And given the potency of this poem alone, the clear craft that's gone into it, pulling it down to only the necessary, it's only fair that I now try to push out all thoughts of stereotypical Scousers in shellsuits nicking car stereos, to focus on the poetry.

There is a powerful sense of time in the collection, with tenses changing to fit the poet's eye and memory. Some poems begin with a sense that something in the past needs to be recalled - "Later, houses know" (in 'Or snow'); or literally in 'Seams of Dust':
The pavement erupts and the past
- tail twitching -
rises from the cracks.

But really what strikes is the present tense used throughout - every incident, no matter how occasional the content might seem, is tackled in the lava of being. I can imagine Rees undergoing a form of self-hypnosis, struggling to get back to the spontaneous overflow of experience and re-live it, or rather, to not let these moments fade completely. At the same time, each memory is tied to a tradition, be it Celtic, classical, or the dynasty of White Goddesses to which Andraste has been associated with.

The content of the poems has a sense of importance, as though the poet were earnestly turning a model of the city around to show you something you'd missed. People run over by cars, lying in the road; moments of passion between lovers; hidden places, like Olwyn's Valley, the Mersey countryside; or the tarmacked streets turned strange and mythical. These have fingers pointed at them - an impersonal finger, but one that highlights the emotion in the scene by offering it to the reader to create - and the sheer beauty and strangeness depicted is enough to keep the eye fixed, as in 'A Nocturnal Opera':

Morning scold of dark
touches eyes shut dark

to see old dark waning.
All shades of dark,

frayed edge dark,
are now hollow head dark...

window flat glass dark

in the street dark
in flowerbed dark

in gutter, wheels,
parked car dark

The repetition is stretched but not exhausted, turning the city into a gothic journey into which the poet places her narrator, "barefoot, bra-less, / flung westward." The ensuing poem is worth the cover price alone, for the scope and freshness of its construction, though it does leave some of the shorter pieces looking like filler.

This particular urban city poet seems to be trying to escape from the city that people know. Hers is not the Liverpool of docks and the Beatles, not the European Capital of Culture. Andraste's Hair defines the city as Rees has experienced it - not the real experience, necessarily, but the emotional truth, the weight of tradition, and the range of facets presented build to a more authentic picture than the abstract constructions that many established poets were conjuring in their early writing.

Perhaps it's the need to know themselves that drives developing poets to look into their roots, to ground themselves in a landscape. I'm not going to tackle the whole 'writing and place' thing here, but more the sense of writing place as a starting point for material. Think, for example, of Roy Fisher's early work about Birmingham (too embarrassed to reference the place at first, his first collection was entitled simply 'City'), or Cavafy's Alexandria (although the city featured throughout his work).

But perhaps what I'm thinking more is that urban landscapes have been dominated by men - Hart Crane, Tony Harrison, the Beats; rural ones too have men like Ted Hughes and John Burnside standing astride them, but whereas I can name several women writing about rural scapes with great credibility - Penelope Shuttle, Elisabeth Bletsoe, Alice Oswald, for starters - I fall short on women tackling urban landscapes (Catherine Walsh being one obvious exception). Suggestions on a postcard - perhaps there's a reading list I'm not aware of.


Andrew Bailey said...

Elaine Randell? I liked this.

Jane Holland said...

I did have a 'hare' poem in Boudicca connected with the goddess Andraste. Sadly it didn't make the final cut. Maybe it will appear in my Collected, under 'Unpublished poems' - if I don't lose my only copy of it before then!

Jane x

Jane Holland said...

Re women poets and urban landscapes, George, may I point you in the direction of my next book (due out autumn 2008) entitled 'Camper Van Blues'?

The lengthy title sequence takes place almost entirely on a motorway ...