THE SUNDAY POEM

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 26 Elma Mitchell

Eighty this year and still writing, born in Scotland in 1919, Mitchell had none of the female models of poets at an angle to male tradition (Bishop, Tsvetayeva, Plath) who sustained later generations of women. She created her strong, witty, original poems without them. I first met her work when reading with her and others for an anthology: we were all knocked sideways by her poised, potent, wicked delivery. If you ever get a chance to hear her, go. One New and Selected; poems in Penguin Modern Poets 6.

'After" in the title is a joke. This poem does not imitate Ruskin's conventionally lyrical vision of women, but mocks it as illusion. Between the lilies and roses of the first and last lines, it shows what woman's bodies really do and are, inverting male conventions of delicacy and strength. Distant from bodily reality, men sit behind mahogany (image of bourgeois alienation from physical work): their verbs are lean across, delicately manipulate. Tender gentle women have 37 violent verbs before go, sigh and find at the end, where they compose themselves to be seen as men (or any rate the great male guru of seeing) see them.

The form reflects women's traditional day, which begins and ends with illusion but is a savage whirl of activity between. It starts with a conventional rhymed (abac) quatrain (to fit Ruskin's conventional image) whose last words secret places introduce a five-line unrhymed stanza (abandoning formal symmetry), and the repetition of armed as real, no longer metaphorical. The weapons are not warm rags but knives. Women's reality is nothing to do with daintiness. The stanza ends in terrible chemistry. This goes on in women's secret places of work but also, implicitly, their bodies. From gutting to pulverising, participles teaming with hard consonants (G, ST, K, B, Z) foreshadow the central stanza's machine-gun, virtuoso list of gloves-off verbs from killing and asphyxiating to scrubbing, tucking, zipping, encouraging excretion.

The shock, that in order to look after, women must stab and destroy, begins with armed and assaulting in the first stanza, develops in the second (holding hearts to bleed, scalding), and is established as the norm by the third, especially where beat and grammar change. So far, we've had iambic rhythm. (The word "iamb" is the same shape, u -, as its metrical unit.) Dead snap by the neck is no iamb. Call it syncopated, call it a spondee (two longs, - -): any way you hear it, dead snap breaks the iambic run, sparking off a roller-coaster of harsh consonants (Ks, Bs, Gs, Zs, Ts), mid-line breaks (at pulpy, tepid) and savage verbs. From holding hearts to bleed to steering screaming cleaners round snags, the verbs have extra emotional meanings which insist on the violence involved in caring for people. At first the importunate young and incontinent old: but we are also heading back to those delicate males who get pocketed in the next stanza. The repeated needles at the end show how the comfort women dispense (like chemists - remember terrible chemistry) comes from sharpness and stabbing: from women's power to hurt as well as enfold.

That point made, the poem apostrophises women's bodies, source of that power. Physically, it marks a change of tone with huge hands!, another heavy spondee, rhythmically recalling dead snap.

Women are all volume (hands, voices, thighs, breasts). Men sink upside- down into (as it were) their pocket. Sex is the climax of the poem's anti- floweriness. The essence of women's secret places is bloody passages and hairy crannies, but men like to see it as fragrance; which woman therefore find outside themselves in cosmetics (mirrors, colours, odours). For men, women invert their essence (marked by the wordplay of all's over/ overalls). To suit the harmoniousness men see in women, the last stanza returns to harmony (the vowel- harmonies upstairs/hair, odours/roses) and, by completing the symmetry of four stanzas ringing the long anarchic centre, to order. Despite the splattering verbs, there has been symmetry and order in all the women's activity. Quickly consulting clocks, they produce lilies and roses dead on cue for the man, to sustain his delicately leaning, alienated, Ruskinian aesthetic.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

'Thoughts After Ruskin' is taken from People Etcetera: New and Selected Poems, Peterloo Poets (tel: 01822 834119).

Thoughts after Ruskin

Women reminded him of lilies and roses.

Me they remind rather of blood and soap,

Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,

Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places:

Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,

Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,

Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,

Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverising,

- All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.

Their distant husbands lean across mahogany

And delicately manipulate the market,

While safe at home, the tender and gentle

Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,

Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,

Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,

Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,

Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,

Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners

Around the snags of furniture, they straighten

And haul out sheets from under the incontinent

And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,

Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,

Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,

Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,

Contorting wool around their knitting needles,

Creating snug and comfy on their needles.

Their huge hands! their everywhere eyes! their voices

Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,

Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,

Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,

Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!

And when all's over, off with overalls,

Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,

Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,

And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,

Their essences of lilies and of roses.

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