Uncategorised Freedom

Emily Critchley ed., Out of Everywhere 2: Linguistically Innovative Poetry By Women in North America & the UK

Reality Street, 368pp, £15.00, ISBN 9781874400684

reviewed by Kate Duckney

Consider Peter Pan, the pouting boy king, a symbol of endless playfulness, laughter and petulance. Now turn your attention to Paul Auster and his assertion that we need ‘cackling boys to remind us of how great it is to be alive’, and that without these boy writers ‘there is no literature.’ There is space to experiment inside the outline of eternal boychild, but the writing never grows, it never connects. Peter Pan spurns the independence of Wendy when she is no longer compelled to be the plaything of a latently aggressive sexuality. This is precisely what Kia Alice Groom of Quaint Magazine means when she says ‘[b]oy writers tell us that the only way to pay respect to another writer (who is not a cis-man) is to use their body as an intellectual blow-up doll.’ Peter adored Wendy when she was complicit in his fantasy, but became furious when she rejected it. The poets of Out of Everywhere 2 reject Neverland, the definitive nowhere hailed as paradise by so many male writers, and oppose the Nomad Child King. This is not to suggest that there is no playfulness, ego or desire in the writing, but, rather, an active inclusiveness that stems from editor Emily Critchley’s despair over the fact that ‘there is too much talent to be represented exhaustively here. I regret all omissions.’ This apology suggests that the book begins before the first page, and continues after the last – the eternity is not one of ego, but of community and connectivity, it is not about exclusion, not an elite club of lost boys who shoot down floating girls from the sky because they neither care nor know any better. Critchley, I believe, is opposing this concept directly, and with a sense of urgency too.

‘But,’ I hear some of you ask, is there still a need for an all-female anthology of avant-garde poetry today?’ Critchley’s answer to herself and her readers is a resounding yes. Though the world of UK mainstream poetry is populated by prominent female writers and spearheaded by a woman laureate, the hydra of misogyny continues to re-assert itself, now often in the space where female, non-binary, PoC and queer writers seek a more experimental space for their marginalised voices. Of course, the head-sprouting is less volatile, as is the deceptive appearance of today’s modern feminist backlash; at the same time, male dominance in the poetry community, particularly in the Alt Lit sphere, is still mutating in its disturbingly specialist way, and it is still monstrous. What has become generally known as ‘alternative literature’ has been sharply criticised in the last year for being a ‘[white] boy’s club’, an alternative that we are now seeking an alternative to.

What makes Out of Everywhere 2 a revolutionary text is the notion that these shared experiences do not have to be ‘real,' or distinctively focused upon poetic ‘womanhood’; there is a frequently occurring expectation, I believe, when ‘Women’s Poetry’ is lumped into collections, for some kind of outspoken, straightforward tackling of injustice, or else an earthiness surrounding the corporeal plight of the ‘female’ body. There is nothing necessarily wrong with these approaches. What is wrong is that there should be assigned subject matter for women poets; readers want to feel what it is to be a woman. They want it in simple terms, and they want the gratification instantly, laid out in comfortable formulas that perpetuate the idea that Woman is Code, or, perhaps equally as reductive, a maddeningly uncrackable one. To be a woman poet does not necessarily mean you have to write about being a woman at all. Neither are perceptions of feminist liberation, or the state of being a woman, uniformly shared. The poets featured in Out of Everywhere 2 play with artifice, spite, theatricality, meticulous science, kitsch, unflinching boldness, delicate beauty: ‘everywhere,' for them, is about autonomy at the source of uncategorised freedom.

Amy De’ath, in the extract chosen from Lower Parallel, explores, through her profound experimentation with prosody, how our instinctive knee-jerk reactions to life, and the manner in which we record these moments, are becoming meshed with mechanics. This exposes the mechanics of gendered language itself:

downloading, the Simpsons, South Park, Donald and Daisy Duck, Family Guy, Felix the Cat, Christopher Wren, Power Outage,
Moral Outrage, Disillusionment, how pathos lies at the root of all this as the dead roll to the foot of the bed, say “womb” is a verb, “aborted” is a feeling.

The placement of the coldly worded ‘womb is a verb, aborted is a feeling’ beneath the extensive list of blue-lit streaming titles and abstract emotion means that it reaches us only after a haze that feels like passive viewing, a linguistic tuning out: the rigid categorisation of such widely attacked lived female experience feels chillingly blasé as it is strung through the rolling, slack-mouthed rhythm of the list. This is complicated by the insinuation that these words are spoken by the dead, perhaps even the stillborn: ‘as the dead roll to the foot of the bed.’ Are we witnessing a playback, a crackling screen of societal projection upon women to bind their bodies to specific language, to accept it without question?

When acceptance of an artificial language construct becomes passive, there is darkness to be found in de-shelling the cybernetics of that state, of hanging in a void where the rootless enjoyment of music merges with the meaningless assignment of identity. Often we do not acknowledge the way we respond to music, we just ‘do,’ despite the fact that there are certainly complex psychological theories behind our preferences, and the ways in which we respond to rhythm and melody. Is our absorption of language, a chillingly pre-meditated structure of power, becoming shrugged off as something so deeply internalised we no longer need to bring it into conscious discussion? We accept pleasing sound in a positive way, but we should not accept the sound of words with an uncritical ear; De’aths frankness hits the windscreen in precisely selected moments to prevent us from cruising, and it is expertly accomplished.

Francesca Lisette reprises this idea of female fertility and its binding to words in her poem ‘LANGUAGE LANGUAGE LANGUAGE LANGUAGE’:

Embryo spoiled
in a dark bleat of snow.
What lives in a wrinkled condom

These stand-alone lines encapsulate the rejection of the ‘bounteous’ woman so often rounded out of the same recycled lyric material, firstly by dismissing fertility as the vehicle for voice and, secondly, reclaiming the merged substance in a condom as a genderless creative origin, external to the body, and a portal to an independent queering of language that was, and is, forbidden to women to use without scrutiny. It been so easy for men throughout history to inhabit female roles (Browning’s ‘The Laboratory’, Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ and Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’ being classic examples) and for the reader to accept these voices as women without bringing the author’s identity into question: the male speaker spins a woman and returns resolutely to being a man. It is not ‘deviation,’ ‘experimentation’ or ‘dress-up,’ it is simply ‘creating a different and vivid perspective with artistic merit.’ It is important however to remember that the politics of writing as a woman, with its persisting barriers of expectation and stereotype, must be acknowledged and scrutinised, perhaps for the time being, in order to shatter preconceived notions. Conscious performativity, as I will soon explore, is a way of actively mocking and tackling the issue of gendered voice at its root. Lisette both acknowledges the construction of gendered language and dismisses it by harkening back to the birth image, transforming it instead into an origin for a poetry untainted by gendered preconception; it offers a notion of ‘beginning’ rather than bolstering the assumption that women writers can simply make the same seamless unburdened transitions as male writers. The asexually reproducing nature of the title, also, suggests a freedom and possibility of form which stems from this concept of rejecting the womb-cage as an assumed base for all women poets, again demonstrating the anthology’s celebration of uncategorised freedom.

Mechanics of language and gender are performative in the Butler-sense (‘gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original’), and there is also a kitschy theatrical response to this undressing of societal norms, an echo of the Gurlesque zeitgeist that amplifies the literal theatricality of construction in a grotesquely camp fashion. Jennifer Cooke is a queen of this DRAG poetry, situating her ‘Kittenista’ (‘proud, tall, womb removed’) in South Mimms Service Station, where she imagines a transient revolution (for what cause exactly, we remain unsure) among the grease, faux-fur, coffee rings and RAC men of a night by the motorway in Hertfordshire:

“the people have
spoken. i am the will of them whose needs
I speak from my feathered lips, the sacred man
date in my guts”
[her pelvic floor drops, cracks
the carpark in two; eating tenners for coke-seams
we look up as one]
“This night will matter.”

‘Date in my guts’ suggests a digestion and excretion of man, a rather graphic reversal of the rib birth in Eden, one of many roles that is paper-mâchéd and paraded in this piece. The experience of a service station at night -- a transient environment, a world that so often feels taken out of time -- can be likened to a bottle episode on TV, where all the characters, canned for a night, explore extremities of their natures that evaporate the next day. This is the perfect terrain for gender burlesque. The poem, with its jilted asides (‘is this an audience?’) and deeply surreal stage directions (‘[The RAC man transforms into a Moon Calf]’) is an overt construct, as are the roles it presents; for example, when the RAC man ‘asks about her child-bearing lips’ the kittenista screams:

“How” arms raised, bangles rattling, "do we all keep walking upright?”

Her biological barrenness is hammy in its execution, playing perhaps upon the lewd, unmaternal, sharp-edged stereotype of a ‘feminist’ that never quite fully evaporated from 70s propaganda. This paper character is created to be scrunched up, and the beauty of her final line ‘this night will mean something’, is that it will probably mean nothing. The grotesque flashes of bellowed monologues and metamorphoses will be gone by morning, only to inhabit other lives, other places, other poems. With its separated cells all contributing to a whole, an anthology is a fascinating environment for performativity; for the fluidity of these deaths and re-births, a trying-on and shucking-off that reminds us that if assumptions around gender can be built, they can be broken down just as simply as when a curtain (or poem) closes and re-opens as something new.

As well as the overtly theatrical amplification of accepted roles, the women in Out Of Everywhere 2 have re-imagined the domestic sphere as an uncanny site of horror. Sophie Robinson, in her poem ‘She! The Revolution rooms – bathroom’ presents a world that stands so stoically beside reality that it enters its microfibres, seemingly abstract in close-up but penetrative on a cellular level, as the cooling relationship strikes the emotional attention of the reader:

Chin shadows curve the day away,
Unhook her with scissors: bathroom exile.
Thrust, sunny thrust, fisherman’s snag,
The comparative horror of a slipped rug
Toweling skywards, splashing ochre.

The syntax reads like a broken window being pieced back together, an intriguing pasting of sound and image that merges the visual and auditory. Yet there is nothing about this writing that deviates from the visceral: it is a sickening swoop into something unclean created purely from a lurching soundscape. It is a tight molecular structure, keeping us firmly in the fleshy ‘now’ of the poem:

We flinched again – you’ll clear the glob – legs of blood,
of satin stocking under plaintive offspring

For Robinson, rooms are not transient spaces that ‘symbolise’ the lives we lead, or cells to inhabit before exiting. They are not passive places, but the apparatus of our present lives; the question posed is: how can we stop treating poetry as a passive space, like the way we treat rooms? This deeply resonant final stanza may shed some darkness:

She is naked, screaming, this is not a
metaphor. To habituate or
symbolise this thought is nothing less.
You think of a bathroom as transitory
places, but people can die there, humming,
dark sun, slow destination, humming.

Sascha Ahktar, in her poem ‘House,’ also employs this fragmentation of daily flashes in an exquisitely warped house-in-the-woods, in fairy-like proportions:

Magick, eggblue
umbrella, paper
kitchen hexe

The single images seem almost like sweetly naive guesses for a word game, and are overturned by the final line:

hangman, the hanging man

Are we seeing again how the beautiful abstract can become an endgame when it cannot connect to lived experience?

What we return to ultimately is the poetic experience of ‘everywhere’, and Critchley’s anthology is tangible evidence of this; a working process of what female writers in the UK and North America are striving to achieve. Emily Critchley's statement that to cover all of this talent is an overwhelming impossibility is something I think I've proven, and I regret all omissions. I cannot fully articulate the diversity of style, form and rebellion of the book, which is broader than that which I can map here, and needs to be read to be wholly absorbed. I urge women writers to keep this Everywhereland in mind.
Kate Duckney completed her Masters in Poetry at the University of East Anglia in 2014 and now lives in London, where she works in alternative education. She is the author of a book of poems, Ada in the Shells.