Stride Magazine -


Anchoress, a poem,
by Esta Spalding,
[121 pp, £8.95,  Bloodaxe]

If, as Freud succinctly put it, the hysteric ‘mainly suffers from reminiscences’, then ‘Anchoress’ is a hysterical text of our time. And it is well worth a read: not least because we are living in hysterical times, in the Freudian, and not-so-obscure senses of the word. If every security scare currently delivers us to further levels of anxiety, the militaristic posturing of Mr Bush and his political allies seem to be diving into an inevitable re-run of George Bush senior’s hawk-like behaviour towards Iraq in 1990. And worse.

Esta Spalding’s remarkable long poem explores, through the memories of a bereaved lover, a young female student’s intense inner life which is increasingly drawn into reports of the atrocities of the last Gulf War. Such is the level of her psychic involvement that she dies at her own hand, in
Chicago, dramatically setting herself on fire as an ultimate act of protest. This, briefly, is the story of Helen Green, although it is through the raw and reminiscent fragments penned by the man she has left behind that we are invited to piece together the personality and family history of this young woman lost to the world. For a creative piece of writing (Spalding was prompted by the true story of such a tragedy but stresses her work is imaginative) this poses obvious challenges: how to flesh out Helen’s background, capture her psychic crisis, trace the love affair which takes second place to the suicidal urge, capture, in general, the disembodied voices of the dead. Spalding does all this admirably, frequently through the Vancouver ‘Lab Notes’ of the grieving marine biologist Peter, as he also struggles, in his work, to reconstruct marine life forms from their washed-up, broken bones.

Helen may aspire to a solitary immolation, but her background is complex. A French Jewish mother, haunted by the dim memory of cave paintings flickering in her personal and national consciousness. A father Will, frustrated poet, who dies with Helen’s mother in a dramatic mid-air plane explosion. A strangely named sister, France, to whom Helen is connected as if by an extra invisible skin. A weaving of traumatised sibling fantasies in order to deal with the weight of their grieving:
France takes to skydiving; Helen to acting. As Antigone, love, vengeance and immolation become her trinity of devotion. These stories, related by Peter, are often straight from Helen’s words: ‘a story Helen told me’; ‘Helen’s Song’, are typical fragment titles. So too those with a cave image: ‘A cave in the suburbs’, ‘The cave painting game’. Games are equated with words: memory association games Helen and France play together, skating dangerously over raw vocabulary. Secret words Helen shares with her lover: tendrilly – to embrace with tender affection. Unconscious yearnings almost surface with painful recurrence, like Helen’s drawing of a whale which Peter retrieves and cherishes.

Spalding’s writing is startlingly lyrical. Storylines necessarily trail off, tail into one another with little sense except the poetic. Sometimes (despite the warnings I issue to creative writing students to avoid the abstract and general) her abstract insights into Helen’s story are beautifully and delicately memorable:

          We are always falling
          (and things falling through us – others,
          those beloved) with fingers open
          (and mouths) trying to catch air
          (which science has told us is full,
          not empty) which feels full
          when we reach for it
                   (‘A decision about science’)

Helen’s (particularly Jewish, it is implied) sense of destiny – if you can call it that – is also lyrically expressed, amidst the fragments of memory and language:

          Helen will fix what has been broken.
          She must go back to one tribe, one lamp,
          one promising land.
                   ( ‘What she sees’)

Into this fragile, but vocation-sensitive soul, comes the absurd and cruel injustice of the Gulf War.

          Bush is at peace with himself,
          Bush is at peace.
          The war is coming. It makes me sick
                   (‘My jealous mouth’)

Helen is sick at the prospect of more murder. Burning bodies haunt her already febrile imagination. The oil accumulates for her self-immolation. And (at the time of writing this review) our own memories return, as history gears up for another murderous cycle of hysterical repetition. I found Helen’s decision traumatic but convincing, as Spalding’s narrative (through the jagged edges of Peter’s year-on notes) gathers intensity. A page of prose-poetry addressed to George Bush (Sr.) sears with outraged condemnation: ‘your crowning achievement will be an Arab nation in flames, your approval ratings will soar, you are running for re-election with your flag planted squarely in a hill of civilian bodies, a dead line of human beings, you and Hussein are grand-standing, but the price will be a people…’ (‘Helen’s tirade’) For this and many reasons, I recommend you read this book.

What continues to puzzle me, however, is the poem’s title, ‘Anchoress’; and the intermittent references to psychic desolation which are linked to this – predominantly Christian, medieval – religious life style. Spalding is clear on the basics of the anchoress’s vocation; as Helen’s sister explains:

          Once there was a girl who gave herself
          to the Virgin, built herself behind stones
          into crumbling church walls. Anchoress,
          she was fed through a thin opening,
          passed out her shit, her piss.
          people came to her for prophecies…
France’s song’)

Spalding weaves into her poem the imagery of slipping into a hidden cave (Helen does this as a child), retrieving there purity, wholeness of purpose and memory. But this leads to violent rejection of the world, culminating not only in Helen’s suicide but also the emotional devastation of those closest to her. I would suggest that the anchoritic vocation was (and still is) the opposite of this: withdrawal, yes, but also a pledge of stability, an openness to the suffering of others (Julian of Norwich famously counselled and comforted those who came to her window) and a rootedness in patient prayer. The anchorhold is a ‘safe harbour’, not a pyre of raging despair, or even of righteous disintegration. This is the only extended metaphor where I feel Spalding is slightly off-target. My hesitation is reinforced by the author’s notes and references. ‘Helen’s Song’, a very moving section, acknowledges some sources but not
St John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic: ‘I die because I do not die’ is a refrain from his powerful, quasi-erotic mystical poetry. The anchoritic, the mystic perspective is deeply involved in a yearning for love which transcends the self and the world yet embraces both – it is notoriously difficult to articulate, even in poetry. Spalding’s text is breathtaking on the psychological, mythic, and political level, but not on the level of religious mystery. Luce Irigaray, the French feminist critic, writes of the phenomenon of the ‘mysterique’, a way of speaking which tentatively implicates hysteria in the fragmented communications of mysticism; a fascinating concept. But I think that by those standards ‘Anchoress’ is still both in the world and of it.

          © Sarah Law 2003