Marbly limbs and mother's milk
Saturday 20 July 1996
This is partly a feminist project, of course, following French theorist Helen Cixous's famous injunction, to "write the body", and so give a voice to the traditionally silent area of women's physicality and desire. In this area, the American Sharon Olds has been pre-eminent.
Olds remains too little-known in the UK: it is good, therefore, to see her latest collection, The Wellspring, brought straight to us in a glamorous gold binding by Cape (pounds 7.00). Readers new to Olds will be astounded not simply by the frankness of poems such as "Celibacy at Twenty" - "I would move as little/as possible, the air seemed to press on my skin, my/ breasts like something broken open, un-/capped and not covered" - but also by its effortless, metaphysical movement from the body to a consideration of the nature of human love and what it means to have not yet experienced it. .
True Olds fanatics, though, may find The Wellspring a little disappointing. The familiar Olds ingredients are all here - the rapt voice, the eroticism, the concern with love and growth - but many of the poems, particularly those about her children's illnesses and her own adolescence, echo her previous work without moving on from it.
Olds is having an increasing influence on poets in this country, as is evident in Neil Rollinson's first collection A Spillage of Mercury (Cape, pounds 7.00). Rollinson too begins with the body, almost prosaically - "I crack the shell/on the bedstead and open it/over your stomach, ("Like the Blowing of Birds Eggs") - then, like Olds, opens the poem up with a daring image, frequently charged with unexpected tenderness: "it moves on your skin like a woman/hurrying on in her yellow dress, the long/ transparent train dragging behind".
Eleanor Brown brings more formality to the consideration of sex in her debut collection, Maiden Speech (Bloodaxe, pounds 6.95). The central section comprises no fewer than fifty sonnets about a love affair. This Shakespearean scheme adds a surprisingly modern edge to the sequence: there's space to consider the affair, and the act of writing about it, from many points of view, while the taut, echoing form adds an anxious, obsessive tone to meditations, and bite and wit to intimate descriptions: "I laugh in climax and you ask me why/(jaws locked around my loosened consciousness/as though at such a time I might be less/inclined to weigh my words, or tell a lie - /and I appreciate it's worth a try.)"
The body seems to be a fruitful area for Brown: this sequence, and some love poems based on musical forms, are the strongest parts of the book. Elsewhere, Brown applies craft and care, but less freshness and imagination, to monologues in the voices of various hard-done-by female classical literary characters - though originality is difficult in this increasingly popular genre.
Male poets expressing their feelings about fatherhood is a more genuinely new area for poetry - though it is noticeable that many of them continue to write about female bodies, albeit fertilised instead of eroticised, rather than their own. Many of Tom Pow's most successful poems in Red- Letter Day (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95), for example, move away from his exploration of place into the intimate, dangerous territory of his wife's body.
Even W.N Herbert, one of the most restlessly and relentlessly clever of the New Generation poets, enters this territory in his new collection Cabaret McGonagall (Bloodaxe, pounds 7.95), and also finds rich rewards. "Featherhood" is a deeply moving meditation on a failed IVF treatment in which the image of eggs detaching themselves from the womb is connected to feathers flying away in the wind "Sae licht this lives that laive us/oor griefs maun growe insteed...Ut is your braith/ That blaws thi feathirs o thi wurds/by me and awa".
Fans of the brusquer, more satirical Herbert may be reassured to learn that this poem is an exception. Herbert's cast of ferocious Scottish grotesques are alive and well and dancing in the anti-cabaret of the title poem. As usual, Herbert divides his writing between English and his own part- vernacular, part-McDairmid versions of Scots. The Scots poems are knottier, but also more finished and satisfying, as if, in trawling through ancient dictionaries of his tongue, Herbert has found the same microscopic complex perspective that he and many others of his generation have brought to the cells of the body.
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