Revolutions in Time & Space

Women's Experimental Poetry in Britain 1970-2010, Body, Time & Locale
David Kennedy and Christine Kennedy
(192 pp, 70.00, Liverpool University Press)

On the penultimate page of David and Christine Kennedy's collaborative study, the authors quote Nicky Marsh writing about the recognition in recent experimental women's poetry that political responses need to be articulated in a 'sharply sophisticated and reflexively aware' manner.' Marsh adds that 'this sophistication requires a careful negotiation of the gendered implications of the local-global axis of contemporary political critique that so nearly parallel feminism's politicization of the personal.' These words are simultaneously accurate in their attention and care, and they also characterise the range and quality of critiques which the Kennedys employ in this volume.

This study of some of the more neglected contemporary poets working in experimental holds considerable range and power and is long over-due. The book comprises an opening chapter on 'Categories and Methods' and a second on 'Experimental Poetry and its Others' which open up some of the complex poetic/ideological terrain under discussion , broaching the historically reclamative projects of some of the writing, engaging with Kristeva's multiple modalities of time, (a key concept here), drawing attention to modes of 'voicing and unvoicing' in poetry and asserting the roles of fantasy as 'means of understanding ideology's deep embedment in the unconscious'. A very valuable chapter both as wide review and introduction- follows on with 'Critical histories' incorporating an excellent opening section on editors and poetic practice and I like the way that the authors negotiate their way into the phenomenologically irrecoverable 1970s, by using other texts by women: Caryl Churchill's Top Girls
and A. S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman. The authors also flag up the need for sustained analysis of the economic factors governing and previously often limiting British women poets' cultural production.

Chapters follow on Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Wendy Mulford with their transformation and subversion of lyric modes, Denise Riley 'Corporeal and Desiring Spaces', Maggie O'Sullivan's engagements with anti-human violence and the lexes of abject and marginalised classes in Geraldine Monk's Interregnum

Highlights include a searching discussion of the variegated registers of Veronica Forrest-Thomson's L'Effet du reel':

Sometimes the interior is bodily and sometimes it is a physical
place like a library or 'Prynne's room'. And both these aspects
of the late poetry relate to the huge problem of that it seems to
have with embodiment and reality. [...] Moments of socialised
and personalised being exist as dramatic events. The personal
and theoretical become ways of dramatising each other.

That's well and subtly stated as is the important rebuttal of the occasionally encountered assumption that Forrest-Thomson's poems are exclusively about writing.

The authors write movingly about Wendy Mulford's poems 'Goblin Coombe' and 'My Mother in May and Hawthorn' and trace connectivities in libidinal desire for different versions of the Other and beneficent changes in the world.

The attention to the relations between the different sections Geraldine Monk's Interregnum
and the effects gained when these sections are altered in different editions of the work is exemplary: 'It is a montage of bodily, linguistic, perceptual and temporal transformations which is keyed by one dominant current of transformation: from ecstasy into suffering and back into ecstasy'. The Kennedys write with regard to Maggie O'Sullivan's poetry: 'Representation is an after-image of violence or trauma, because it is itself a kind of violence' and:

O'Sullivan's text rejects language as an articulation of sublimated
or repressed desires and seeks to remake it as an arena of action
for primitive drives.

In a telling discussion of 'Laibach Lyrik', the authors trace the ways in which Denise Riley's writing moves past imagery of 'pasture, garden, orchard and the overall locale of pastoral idyll' to different types of rupture and chaos in the poem's second section. The desire linguistically to re-engage with patterns of cyclical time is broached and the Kennedys accurately sense a 'traumatic hole' in the ways in which many critics have avoided those aspects of this work which are fronted by 'images of wounds and' that which 'reads like self-harm.'

Studies of the work of Harriet Tarlo, Elizabeth Bletsoe, Caroline Bergvall, Helen Macdonald, Anna Mendelsohn, Redell Olsen, Elizabeth James and Frances Presley as well as that of younger poets such as Emily Critchley, Sophie Robinson, Marianne Morris, Andrea Brady and Jennifer Cooke are also included. Despite (and perhaps because of) the conscientious awareness of trauma and suffering at the behest of a voracious capitalist/military political system felt impinging in much of the writing, the authors candidly find 'tremendous fun' in Frances Presley and Elizabeth James's very fine collaboration Neither the One
..., 'we need to approach/ we need to approach the past/to approach the past we need we need/ to approach the pastoral/ we need to approach the pastoral in a car'. James's and Presley's tour-de-force is certainly hilarious; elsewhere, Presley emphasises and mocks the first person singular in the context of 'collaboration in the feminine'.

Harriet Tarlo's fine poetry is discussed in context with radical landscape work and attention drawn to the unpunctuated formal structures and 'phasal units' exhibited in a passage like : 'catching against/ breaking/ branch/thick pulling/bramble/ steady hand/ stinging sharp', ('brancepeth beck'), which of course takes in the practice of writing as well as walking through landscapes. I also admire the poetic 'Manga energy' and use of signs and non-signs in Jennifer Cook's 'impossible revolution' beginning at South Mimms motorway service station.

There are quick and telling side-glances linking and differentiating each poet's work at intervals and many other critics are drawn generously into the discussion.

The writers hope, in passing, that they communicate their interest in strong and significant examples of this work 'as readers and poets' themselves. Indeed these two authors amply communicate their commitment to and excitement and interest in this experimental poetry. They have shown us praxis and method and prepared the way for approaches that could be used revealingly elsewhere, perhaps regarding the oeuvres of Elaine Randell, Paula Claire and Tilla Brading.

It is difficult in such a short review to do justice to the richness and energy of the Kennedys' study. This book takes me back to the poems themselves with a new sense of their complexity: the lexical and experiential projects, risks undertaken and registers opened by the poets involved. Additionally, one implication of my citing Marsh's words in opening this review, were that this wonderful study is itself a fine manifestation of experimental and challenging discourse. I can't think of a better recommendation.

David Annwn 2013