THE SUNDAY POEM

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 39 Christiania Whitehead
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There are many brilliant poets I haven't introduced yet, but here's one who's starting out. She teaches medieval literature at Warwick University and her first book, shortlisted for the Forward First Book Prize, tackles apparently traditional themes like Christian allegory and erotic gardens, plus talking chickens, women's bodies and expectations, in a dead sharp, amused, fresh tone.

If you wanted to catch a unicorn, you had, traditionally, to trap him with a virgin. Sit her down, and your unicorn will appear out of the forest to lay his head (with that phallic horn on it) in her lap: the natural spot for any horn to home in on. The unicorn-virgin relationship encapsulates the mystique of female virginity, while symbolising its loss. In the hanging emblazoned with the words "Mon Seul Desir," on the "La Dame et La Licorne" medieval tapestries (popular these days for cushions and table mats), the Lady is touching the horn: her virginity fascinates the unicorn and his horn fascinates her.

This poem's speaker, a specialist in double meanings, has no truck with images of purity that have their sexual cake while eating it. You were never meant to last applies to both virginity and its winsome medieval symbol, who has degenerated into an outmoded bit of fine art, surviving on a prayer cushion or in locket form (or on table mats). The poem is getting at women's saccharine, self-decorative view of how men might see their sexuality. As if feeling holy is something you can pick up, leave and chuckle with when you want. It has been women who cling to the virgin Mother of Jesus, identify with her modest reception of the Annunciation, chuckle in their withdrawing-room, ache for white weddings, sew prayer cushions, pin secret hopes of love to superstitious tokens (shamrock), and whose sexuality is identified with roses. The poem's straight-talking turns the white, surface prettiness of those woman's self-images brown; it whisks away any cobwebby mystique about virginity (of course the horn must go). Forget history's adolescent trappings of sweetness: they mask a fake denial of sexuality. Rocking horse is a child's toy but think what "rocking" stands for in the history of rock music.

The three-liner stanzas are pinned down by short, direct sentences: no well-wrought filigreed form for a poem attacking the emptiness of outworn symbols. Through these strong, no-nonsense, amused sentences, admonishing a cuteness that has got to change, the OR sound of horn (the poem's main point of attack) echoes from unicorn through horn, paws, horse, thorn, form back to horn. This beast, defined by its horn, is about being nakedly sexy while denying that's what you are being; and that kind of sugary, little-girl denial has no mileage left. It paws the ground like a warhorse, but only a little; is surprised faintly, has nothing but milk teeth. It is pretty but ineffectual; what it stood for was elevated like a bird (perched), put high on a pedestal, eluding capture by bonny cavalry - think knights on white horses, cavaliers, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the traditional accessories of masculinity in history and myth (but also rocking horse, its toyland expression). It eluded real confrontation with masculinity by dint of a streak up a tree, like the Catholic king hiding from Puritans in an oak. But since unicorn symbolism has always mixed sexual denial with sexual flaunting, streak also speaks to us of flashing and nudity.

In its climax of double entendre, Mother of God, what did you start?, the poem scolds the little unicorn like a miscreant, holding it responsible for all Christian, especially Catholic, sexual hangovers and their effect on women. We move from start to go. The poem wants to wipe women's symbolic slate clean of all the muddle, guilt, denial, hiding, and fetishising of empty sweetness, of the paradox that this peculiarly phallic horn should symbolise women's virginity. Let's get out of the nursery at last, says the poem. Let all that symbolism, like the horn of this sweet but useless little creature, creep back inside everyone's head. Tomorrow it will be the colour that Shakespeare chose for truly female sexual characteristics: "If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun."

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`The Unicorn ...' is taken from The Garden of Slender Trust (Bloodaxe)

The Unicorn is a Symbol of Virginity

Dun brown tomorrow. The unicorn

looks surprised. It had faintly expected

always to stay white.

"Does that mean my horn will

creep back into my head?" whispers

the miscreant, and it paws the ground

a little, as if in protest.

Tush, rocking horse. You have nothing

but milk teeth to talk with,

you are only the little creature

the woman chuckles with,

when she is feeling holy.

Perched there amongst

the shamrocks and thorn roses -

you were never meant to last,

but came down through the ages

on a prayer cushion or in locket form,

eluding the bonny cavalry

by dint of a streak up a tree.

Mother of Jesus, what did you start?

Of course the horn must go.

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