Fallen Plums and Pulled Teeth

The Mirabelles
, Annie Freud (62pp, 8.99, Picador)
Waterloo Teeth
, John Whale (63pp, 9.95, Northern House/Carcanet)

In reading Annie Freud's The Mirabelles one frequently asks oneself who did what to whom, and why, and so this collection forces one to stretch one's mind. Alternately, some of Freud's pieces have the feeling of a jigsaw puzzle, which one must struggle to untangle and make sense of. This leads one to wonder whether poetry should be readily accessible (Whitman is for all his depth of feeling), or whether one's understanding of a poem should be paid for with sweat (Emily Dickinson demands this). Annie Freud's collection has some transparent moments, though for the most part asks of the reader, especially in the earlier poems, re-readings before one feels satisfied one has unlocked a piece.

Of the three sections of the collection, 'The Mirabelles,' 'The Inexplicable Human Gorgeousness,' and 'The Wreathed Jug' (which derives from letters and conversations with her mother),  the first held the most interest for me, and it is this section as well which demands the most from the reader. 'The Mirabelles' is a nice piece, reminding one that sometimes for no particular reason an event stays with one for years, even one's whole life. We call these iconic memories, housed in our minds in a different manner from typical, often forgettable imprints. In this piece,

     A young poet visits an older poet
     Who has enjoyed fame and success.

     In the street, a plum tree has scattered
     Its golden fruit all over the pavement.

The 'she' in this poem, the younger poet, plans to return and fill her pockets with plums, which she doesn't do, but 'the thought of them, / lying so sweet all over the pavement, // comes back to her and she remembers / them every day for the rest of her life.' This piece grew on me as I reread it, thinking of times when similar things have happened to me. Proust explores the vast, mysterious texture of memory, as does this poem, in a small way, reminding us that if memory is what we're made of, we don't know ourselves very well. Yet one can guess at why something gets remembered, engraved in our consciousness; accident could play a part, or random neuron firings, though one wants to ascribe meaning to such things. Here the plums, mirabelles, are symbols, ripe, beautiful, sweet scented, lying on the pavement and never retrieved by the aspiring poet. She remembers them though, forever, the act of not returning for them standing in longing and ambiguous relation to her future yet to be made. Plums are an ancient symbol of fertility, here not literally, but rather in the sense of a hoped-for artistic fullness. 2500 years ago in China falling plums were depicted (Book of Songs, poem number 17), evoking the passing of time, and longing in some ways not dissimilar to that implied in Freud's poem.

Some of Freud's poems took me to places I didn't want to go; this is not necessarily a bad thing, however, when the result of imagery evoking a palpable moment in place and time - sometimes it's a poet's intention to disturb. One such piece is another of the early poems, 'Pheasant,' which painted for me visions that tapped into squeamish tendencies in my psyche, though perhaps this was part of the point of the poem. The poem begins, 'Driving home from Winterbourne Abbas / with chipolatas, chops and cheese / I pass a pheasant dead on the road.' Hitting the brakes, putting the car in reverse, the driver notes 'Her body is warm, her plumage intact. / I pick her up by her scaly feet / and, laying her gently in the boot, / home I go with my fabulous loot.' What strikes me in this poem is that Freud seems to be consciously working against the reader's tendency towards pathos for an animal most likely killed trying to cross the road; she quickly turns the creature into food, in a situation where I'm guessing most readers don't want to see the road-killed pheasant that way. What makes us uncomfortable though is Freud's early and frequent  use of 'her,' which triggers then sustains personification, resulting in the unpleasant feeling it's something more than a bird being dismembered for dinner.

     Working fast with criminal haste,
     I pluck the feathers against the grain,
     trying not to tear her skin.
     I chop off her feet, her head, her wings,
     knocking the knife with the rolling-pin
     to make my cuts strike clean.
     I open her body and pull out her guts,
     her lungs, her heart and pearly eggs;
     I throw them out in the unread paper,
     setting aside the morsel of liver.
     Her flesh is coral brushed with silver,
     her fat, the color of buttercups.   

The effect here is less shocking than Baudelaire's 'Une charogne' (Carrion), though for me evokes a similar feeling of discordant juxtaposition, which only vegetarians I suppose have the right to complain of. As I think about it, this piece treads into taboo, playing with cultural or personal assumptions about what's okay to eat and what's not - my mother won't eat catfish, because it contains the word 'cat'; few English speakers eat horse, snails, goat head, or tripe, though pheasant may be on the menu, unless it's road kill, which complicates the matter slightly.  

Other poems I found enjoyable were ones where Freud strikes tones uncomplicated by elaborate syntax. One such piece, 'Daube,' a 'classic French stew made with cubed beef braised in wine, vegetables and garlic, and herbes de Provence,' conjures the mental vagaries of an unnamed soul in an unnamed institution, remembering a meal from long ago. What's nice about the poem is what it doesn't tell the reader about who this person is, where he is, why he's there, when or why he was in Paris, if he was alone or with someone. Was he with a lover, friend, spouse? We have no idea. 'Towards midnight, he shouted: carrots! / and the nurse put down her cup. / - What's that, dear? Were you dreaming? / - I was not dreaming ....

     There was a place I used to go
     and have a dish of melting beef
     that always came with carottes Vichy.
     Is it still there? Does anyone know?

This poem materialized for me the sense of life as a dream, of that moment when the past is truly past, when life's horizons, once broad, have narrowed irrevocably. Ninth century Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira captured this sentiment when he wrote, 'although I've heard / there is a road we all must / travel  never did / I think I must set out on / it yesterday or today'; Freud's poem too draws us into this particular moment, with a touch of humor.

Sections two and three, 'The Inexplicable Human Gorgeousness' and 'The Wreathed Jug' also had some pieces which drew me in, meriting multiple re-reads. Pieces I liked were 'Brandenburg,' recalling a visit to this city in the former East Germany, 'The Breast-Fed and the Un-Breast-Fed,' which, like some of Freud's other poems, makes use of a welter of pronouns, and finally from 'The Wreathed Jug,' 'Marrying Strange Men'. While reviewing poetry is admittedly subjective, it's fair to say Annie Freud's The Mirabelles is well worth the read.

John Whale's Waterloo Teeth is the kind of poetry collection which demands a lot from the reader; in fact I kept Google at hand as I read through the book, and probably couldn't have made it through without Internet help. This leads me to wonder if quick and easy access to information via electronic sources hasn't in some way affected poetry writing, and thus its reading. This said, I rather enjoyed the challenge of ferreting out references which in some poems tumble forth from nearly every line - assuming a 'hypertext' model, one reads such a collection almost as if it's on the Internet itself. 

Whale's collection prompted me to delve into aspects of history I had no knowledge of. Not all of the pieces in this book required me to do this, though many did. As this demands more than passing interest, the collection I think runs the risk of alienating readers who might not have the patience or interest to take the time to hunt down Whale's many allusions to sometimes obscure people and places. But the question of what's obscure and what's not is an interesting one these days, since if something's easily accessible on the Internet, then in a sense it's not obscure.

Whale has an eye for the macabre, and an early piece that caught my attention is 'Mary Toft'; knowing nothing of such a person, I discovered she was an English woman 'from Surrey who in 1726 became the subject of controversy when she tricked doctors into believing she had given birth to rabbits'. Whale's poetic musing on such topics brought to my attention something I've thought about from time to time, that people are capable of the strangest behavior, in fact just about anything it seems. And bizarre behavior is more common than we might like to admit. As it turned out, it was all a hoax of course, though the amazing thing is that Mary for a time had everyone, including several prominent physicians, believing her. Why she did it it seems no one really knows, though this works in favor of Whale's poem, which begins and continues in Mary's voice, as she describes what was likely a spontaneous abortion in August of 1726, followed by an intimation of what will happen in late September:

     My child pulled itself away from me
     in the dark fold of my bruised womb.
     I could not see him in my rush of blood,
     the confusion of my flesh and bone.

     In the first green months of my term
     I craved the milky meat of a rabbit
     its silky pinkness braised with blue,
     the sharp white fracture of a bone....

Whale gives us what's missing from most accounts of this strange affair, an inside view of the events from the perspective of Mary herself; yet when one reads about the case of Mary Toft, one realizes it tells us more about society or human nature than it does about the actors themselves. The poem, in Mary's voice, gives the impression Mary believes she's giving birth to rabbits and rabbit parts, which isn't clear from other accounts on can read. And yet one wonders what she's thinking when she concocts a fraud such as this one, if he's deluded herself into believing her story. The hoax, which gained the attention of prominent physicians of the time, and which was finally discovered after two months of investigation, ruined several careers and was followed by the entire nation. Reportedly several of the physicians involved stopped eating rabbit stew.

     In deep December I sent for Howard
     who delivered me safely of a limp buck.
     And I had him back day after painful day
     until a pile of eight (all dead) lay

     stacked upon the linen bedding.
     When the others came to watch:
     famed Manningham and St Andre
     I managed nearly seventeen in all,

     but most of these were incomplete,
     some lacked fur and some the bone,
     some were laces of silver sinew,
     some mere tags to load barley stew.
Something I am a bit ambivalent about in Whale's collection is where irony seems to cross over into sarcasm, and not because some of the historical figures the author features don't deserve it, some of them probably do. My sense of uneasiness stems from the fact that when dealing with historical personages, it's hard to know if what one knows about them is close to the reality of who or what they were, and why they acted as they did. In some cases what we know or think we know is quite wrong, or at least extremely incomplete. So I think for instance Whale's take in 'Fresh Hands,' about notorious murderers William Burke and William Hake who in Edinburgh, starting in 1827, sold the bodies of seventeen people they had killed to Robert Knox, a Scottish surgeon and anatomist, works better than 'Brioche,' which while enjoyable as a poem, seems to satirize Marie-Antionette. I suspect an operable principle is the more famous a historical figure, the less likely we are to have a satisfactory picture of who that individual was, especially when they are embedded, as was Marie-Antionette, in a complex historical drama. Whale's approach works better in 'Fresh Hands', because Burke and Hake's actions were clearly deviant, and the tacit complicity of Knox is beyond dispute.

Poems I was attracted to were ones less judgmental, pieces that catch a historical moment through the lens of the writer's mind. One such poem is 'A moi, ma chere amie' ('Come to me, my dear friend'), supposedly the last words of Jean-Paul Marat, the Prussian-born physician, political theorist, and scientist known for his career in France as a radical journalist and politician during the French Revolution, murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathizer on July 13, 1793. The poem recalls Jacques-Louis David's painting The Death of Marat in some of its details, and the words above were spoken to Marat's twenty-seven year old wife Simone Evrard as he lay dying. I like this poem because it takes a cosmic view (if this is an appropriate term) of this iconic event, voicing both the imagined thoughts (in Part I) of Marat's assassin, and the deceased Marat himself (in Part II). Lines I liked the best are at the start of Section II, when Marat, liberated from his diseased body, speaks:

     On the midsummer air my soul
     soars free of its inflamed skin
     like an airship over the body politic.
     I am the sacred heart of Marat
     shed for you and for everyone else
     to nourish the great wheatfields of France.

Whatever one thinks of Marat (he was a complex character) these are beautiful lines, a peaceful place to dock after the earlier violence of the stabbing, '... the word amie / gives way to a jet of arterial blood / and a cry to burst all the bubbles'. In the end Marat's corpse rests in L'Eglise de Cordeliers, while his heart, removed from his body, rests in a bejeweled urn.

'Waterloo Teeth,' the collection's namesake, is a curious piece, not the least because it features the eighteenth century practice of using teeth of the dead for dentures. What one age considers perfectly acceptable is repugnant to another. More shocking though is how the phrase 'Waterloo Teeth' came to be; in short, persons looking to make a buck descended on battlefields with pliers to yank the teeth of newly killed young men, lying where they fell. This apparently got its start at Waterloo, in 1815. Whale's sense of the macabre again comes through, this time near the start of the poem, in the voice of those wielding the pliers, 'we fell upon the rain-soaked bodies of the dead / and ripped lace gorgettes from the dandy officers. / From the rosy cheeks of English plough-boys / we pulled two hundred sets of perfect teeth'. 

Another poem I found quite interesting was 'Tom Paine's Bones,' a bizarre tale of one William Cobbett (1763-1835) aka Peter Porcupine, British political writer and pamphleteer, who somehow got hold of American patriot Tom Paine's bones and carried them back to England. This poem, as do many of the others, requires ferreting out allusions, so multiple readings and some googling are warranted; the end result though is an enjoyable romp through an unlikely chain of events leading to old Tom's bones being lost. My other favorites were 'The Goree,' about the Goree Warehouses in Liverpool, built in 1793, destroyed by fire in 1802, then rebuilt in 1811, and finally 'The Last of the Race,' focusing on a Passenger Pigeon named Martha, the last in existence, which died in Cincinnati in 1914. Both of these pieces depart from Whale's sometimes less accessible style, and speak to the reader in a friendly manner, invoking meditation on their subjects.
As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed reviewing The Mirabelles
and Waterloo Teeth. Both of these collections offer something for anyone interested in modern poetry, and as one might expect one will appreciate some pieces more than others. Reading these volumes offered me the chance to reflect on some what I believe poetry to be and what it should do for me as a reader. Something I've come to realize is the surprisingly subjective nature of evaluating poetry; one almost wants to say in this day and age it's futile to make judgments on such things as another's poetic production. And yet this is exactly what a reviewer is expected to do. I've always kept in mind the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish writer of Nobel fame, who once reflected there are many dangers lurking behind the modern writer, and that the task of any writer is to express 'the basic and ever-changing nature of human relations'. This Freud and Whale have done. 

      Howard Giskin 2011