Remembering & Interpretation



Lines of Sight, Frances Presley (Shearsman Books)



Much of Frances Presley's work is to do with remembering, remembering and interpretation. Whether she is engaging with the landscape of Exmoor or the recollection of her mother's experience of being captured by the Japanese during WW2, there's always a need to understand, to appropriate the experience in some way by giving a sense of meaning to her experience in time or place. If this sounds a bit 'heavy' or 'mock profound' I can only say that Presley's explorations are often tentative and cautious, in the sense that she doesn't claim some overall position or omniscience, but her work is intriguingly textured, always stimulating to read and fuelled by curiosity. There's also a lot of humour in her poetry, either when she plays with language in a scholarly yet libidinous manner - Hare, for example, where the glossary is as pleasurable to read as 'the poem', and becomes a work of art in itself - or as in Strawberries, which is literally dazzling to look at and as good as any of Edwin Morgan's early computer-generated poems. This side of her writing reminds me most of Giles Goodland's work, where the playful and the serious are interlocked, so to speak.


There's a wide variety of page layout in this collection, often referring to the relationship between the nature of landscape and spatial design within the book. Presley's live performances of her work, particularly the Exmoor-based poems, which she co-presents with Tilla Brading, add extra dimensions of voice and computer-generated visuals. I have to say that I find her work more interesting on the page where it's easier to concentrate on individual pieces without feeling overloaded by a multi-media approach. I'm probably in a minority here, though, as I can remember the last time I saw Presley and Brading present their work live, several in the audience were intrigued by the notion of 'deep-mapping' which explored both landscape and language as a sort of cultural construct.


The tentative element of Presley's work which I referred to earlier is most evident in Van Goor's/Mi Nature/English/Words/Book, where she re-examines her experience of learning some Dutch as a child and discovers that it's in the limitations of her knowledge that the most exploratory and playful writing is able to develop. Language sounds and shapes are central to these explorations which appear both scholarly and entertaining, two areas which don't always mesh together well. Curiosity is the essential value here and I'd say that it's Presley's driving force, whether in her engagement with Language and its history or with her relationship with the natural world and the landscapes of Exmoor.


Her work also has a polemical angle, particularly in the section which describes statues of women in public spaces - a rare phenomenon which I'm sure Marina Warner has written a book about - and her pieces on Margaret Thatcher are both funny and penetrating: 'I think I am being watched/she is safe behind glass/I am reflected/head height to her waist/-Bizarre innit?' (Thatcher at the Guildhall). The tone of these pieces together with a reference to the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn in the notes suggests a republican sympathy.


There's a wide variety of writing in this chunky volume, from the inner-dialogue, diary-based constructions relating to her thoughts and feelings while walking across the moor, to the more humorous wordplay in Learning Letters, where the neologisms project the forward thrust of the poetry, quick-witted, across-language and verging on the manic, something I find vital and refreshing. It's good to see Presley's poetry included in Carrie Etter's Infinite Difference - Other Poetries by UK Women Poets because her work needs to be more widely discovered.


         Steve Spence 2010