Pharmacopoeia and Early Selected Works, Elizabeth Bletsoe (Shearsman)

This volume represents the bulk of Elizabeth Bletsoe's early poetry and provides a companion edition to Landscape from a Dream, her more recent work, published by Shearsman in 2008. Bletsoe is a one-off in the British poetry scene as her work is 'an anomaly', to quote Tim Allen, falling  as it does somewhere outside of both the spiritual/new-age tradition and the more language-based experimental poetry of the London and Cambridge avant-garde. This shorthand is reductive and not entirely helpful but Bletsoe's wide reading in mythology(ies), botany, history, languages and psychology informs her work in a manner which fuses the pastoral with the urban, the analytic/psychological with the mythic, to produce a poetry which is pretty much unique and therefore hard to classify. Not that you'd immediately want to classify her work because reading/hearing it read is such an enjoyable experience in itself. The intensity of her engagement with language in both written and spoken forms (she's a spellbinding reader) is both inspired and highly wrought.

The first section in the book is entitled
Portraits of the Artist's Sister and refers to the paintings of the late Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. While you can see the attraction of Munch's expressionism to Bletsoe's sensibility, her re-imagining of the female characters in the paintings are defiantly at odds with much early art-historical writing on Munch which favoured the fallen-world scenario in which Eve/Pandora was the temptress and cause of all the worlds' problems. There is a feminist, almost-polemical thrust to these poems - similar to that in her engagement elsewhere with the heroines of Hardy's novels - but what she does with this, in terms of the power and imagery of her work is to produce poetry which engages the reader at a visceral as well as an analytical level. There's also a lot of humour in her writing, especially when engaging with that 'archetypal' or perennial subject of the relation between the sexes:

     when you pulled me
     from the mud,
     and woke me
     touched me
     with a fern frond
     a green interrogation mark:
     I could smell disaster,
     the gunpowder between us
         (from 'Alpha and Omega')

This sets the scene for the fireworks to follow and yet the enjoyment of the writing is as much to do with the way Bletsoe meshes different kinds of vocabulary as with the story she is 'retelling'. Take this crisp encapsulation of the early days of intoxication where the lyricism of the imagery is both part of a long tradition yet very modern. The reference to the milkshakes sets it roughly in time-if-not-place and also raises a smile.

     we drank different coloured milk-shakes
     walked by the sea for hours
     brightness fell from the air
     and the golden pillar of the moon
     simmered on the water
          (from 'Alpha and Omega')

She mixes comedy with emotionally powerful, sometimes overwhelming, feelings and the final lines of the poem get to the heart of the issue which touch on those almost taboo areas of emotional intimacy and control which many writers skate around or make light of:

     but then I caught you
     talking with a SNAKE
     you said that he was interesting
     that there was nothing in it
     no matter -
     I squashed his head under my foot
     while you were busy
     among your many orchards

     I love you now, Omega
     now you are safe and dead
     but it was when you said
     it was when you said
     you loved me -
     that I feared you most
           (from 'Alpha and Omega')

This is powerful stuff, sexual-jealousy, torch-song material that you could imagine Ute Lemper, for example, doing as a number. And yet the challenge of the analysis, the upending of tradition, is as powerful as the emotional intensity of the language and its incantatory drive.

In 'Moonlight', from the same section, the central female 'subject' is transformed from a 'passive agent' to a character 'with agency' to use E.P. Thompson's term, a player whose mystery and femininity is nevertheless powerful, if dangerous and not always to be trusted. The subconscious is indeed a dangerous place and while Bletsoe plays with notions of the 'femme fatale' and 'otherness' the struggle for control is emotionally charged and intense:

     she is now beyond the pale
     where blackness is thick, like fur
     and the great grey-faced owl
     murders, a moon on wings -
     this joy drinks deeper than delight

The final stanza is assertive and more calm but its imagery is deeply original and powerful nonetheless:

     loosely shrouded in delicious white          
     not a ghost, but a Sister
     she sails her broken eggshells
     over an ocean of night.


Again, it's the mix of analysis and emotional intensity, delivered via a startling and highly unusual image that creates the effect, a shiver of delight. Why is what Bletsoe does so much more powerful and
real than so much current poetry which utilises imagery in a 'new-age' context?

In 'Vampire', the opening lines create the dramatic backdrop for conflict - 'I come from a darker mountain/than yours,/a colder fjord' - and then moves into incantatory mode which leaves Bram Stoker standing:

     take my hair, my red hair
     make it a bright bonfire
     let the flames creep over you dancing
     eating up your little love, your offerings
     you bring to the altar of my body

     and he said too wild your music is

     and he said yes he said yes
     yes I will

The intoxication of the language is in tune with the nature of the seduction yet you just know it's all going to end in tears. It's the strength of the writing, its theatrical expressiveness, which makes this material so powerful and the reader simply wants it to go on for ever.

The other major section in the book is entitled
The Regardians and uses the idea of  'the angel' in a more or less secular sense but as a way of mixing the archaic with the modern and of creating startling and unexpected moments of 'epiphany'. In 'The Leafy Speaker', for example, we get this:

     you break through the hedge
     in your wide-brimmed hat
     and call to me:
     a startling epiphany
     though your feet seem solid enough
    on the unremarkable pavement

Although the subject is mythical its materiality is real enough (those solid feet! an amusingly 'undermining' notion) and the incantatory charge of the language is what fuels the readers delight. In 'The 'Oary Man' Bletsoe mixes shamanic ritual with 17th century radical traditions and an awe-inspiring reference to the night sky. The language embraces both the apocalyptic and the raw reality of a cold Christmas evening in the here and now. The way Bletsoe brings all this material together and makes it work is quite astonishing because in the hands of a 'new-ager' this could be an appalling mess.

     in apparent waste land
     the spade rings on hard earth
             a page stays unwritten in my head,
     the slow course of seeding fresh perceptions
                                        draws us to sleep;
     secret works being wrought underground
     in rhizomes,
               corms and bulbils
     the poem                             the swollen belly
     thrust into consciousness
                by the radical English dreamers
                      who claimed your authority:
     the Fiery Roll inscribed with blueprints
                  for a world
                                            turned upside down

We are at once in the world of Christopher Hill and the Ranters, Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution, while also being given access to the processes of artistic creation via 'natural growth' and these 'underground' radical movements.  This is all held together by Bletsoe's method of 'incantatory organisation', something which is especially evident when you hear her work read out. Once having heard her read it's very difficult to re-read these poems without hearing them in her own voice and that's not something you could say about every poet, or would wish to for that matter!

In the section disarmingly entitled
Individual Poems, there is a quieter form of observation at work, the material is often more fractured, diary-based observation featuring alongside some delightful asides yet the work is still filled with an intensity of experience where multiple forms of knowledge jostle with the everyday. Bletsoe has a glorious ability to incorporate the colloquial with more specialised lexicons and yet integrate disparate materials in a manner which is entertaining and also makes you think and want to learn:
     new weeds
     make delicate
     shapes; stars,

     these 'fontal truths'
     & a pair
     of mallards
     the waves
               (from 'Watchet')

This is poetry 'of place' but it's so lightly touched and well-observed that it provides a counterpoint to the prevailing dark materials and emotional power. Which isn't to say that that there is no strange material in this section. In 'Notebooks Retrieved from the Sea', for example, the observation is incorporated into a more mythic mode which often has a dreamy, film-like, surreal quality:

     Dreamt I woke to find a woman
     reading aloud from
     a book with no words,
     holding her right hand in greeting
     to the sun and the sea.

     The sea turned into a carnival,
     became a multitude
     and a horned man
     with caprine eyes
     embraced me, saying:
     'you are now, and have always been
     one of us'.

However Bletsoe utilises myth or history or the stuff of nature in her writing it's the power of the language itself which creates its intoxicating effects, not some belief system which we are being sold or tempted with, however sophisticated the salesperson. Her work is the genuine article because its power comes from her engagement with language and with the world.

Pharmacopoeia, the final section in the book, is prefaced by a quotation from the late poet Geoffrey Grigson - 'we cannot emotionally separate a flower/from the place or condition we find it in'. Each poem is prefaced by the title of a particular plant, including both English and Latin names. As indicated by the Gregson quote, this is 'poetry of place' yet by giving details of the qualities of individual plants, Bletsoe, who knows a lot about homeopathy, suggests mini-narratives which makes these delightful pieces more than the usual 'nature appreciation' type of poem. In 'Stinging Nettle (Urticus diocia)', for example, we get this:

     'beset with little prickles'
     flagella for the
     subjugation of wayward

               though makes a good thick
     heating &
                rich for the blood

So as well as natural history we are given snippets of social history, nutritional values and other more unusual functions which can be found for various plants! Bletsoe herself said, in an interview with Tim Allen in
Don't Start Me Talking (Salt, 2006):

     I read
Pharmacopoeia to one group and a very straight, shy
     Irish woman was smiling behind her hand until the end when
     she burst out laughing and said 'Oh, that's really filthy!' -
     apparently starchy botanical terminology can be subverted
      into something quite erotic.

Pharmacopoeia, in tandem with Landscape from a Dream, now makes available a substantial body of work from one of the most interesting poets currently writing in English. Although she's not one to hug the limelight, despite being a fantastic reader of her poetry, Elizabeth Bletsoe deserves much wider recognition than she has so far received and I hope the publication of this splendid book will go some way towards making that outcome more likely.

           Steve Spence 2010