Unravel, ravel, unravel

AK Blakemore, Fondue

Offord Road, 80pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781999930431

reviewed by Jenna Clake

‘If you are a woman, writing about your experience of being a woman, you are part of one of the most avant-garde literary movements there has ever been,’ writes AK Blakemore in her manifesto for the Poetry Review. Fondue, her second full-length collection, explores the experience of being a woman: what it means to desire, to be desired, and to try to reconcile this desire with feminism and feminist thought.

The title, Fondue, suggests dipping into something, oozing, being covered; it also suggests a breaking of boundaries, of being plunged into something else. This is how the collection begins, with ‘my sex’:

enter breakfast truck, the bluebottles
performing obsequies to marbled bacon

enter girl with manacles. enter
so damn adorable. he likes small fuckdoll.

The lines unravel, ravel, unravel again as Blakemore investigates the roles women are made to fulfil: sex doll, attractive cleaner who comes in ‘with a bucket / and a mop’, mothering healer (‘girl who applies the cooling gel’). Throughout Fondue, Blakemore plays with what is disgusting and what is beautiful: the bluebottles remind the reader of decay, but, shortly after, Blakemore mentions Yayoi Kusama’s I’m Here, But Nothing, an installation of household objects illuminated by ultraviolet light, with brightly coloured polka dot lights spread around the room. Kusama’s artwork is pristine, bright and colourful, but in reality represents the hallucinations that Kusama herself experiences. In nature, dots typically present poison, so there is a sense that Kusama’s hallucinations might be dangerous. Polka dots are also often used in girls’ clothing, and so, in the artwork, the cute and the hazardous combine. In Fondue, what is beautiful and what is horrifying must mix because it is everyday, and this is the only way to represent what it is like to be a woman: to be expected to fulfil stereotypes, to want to act against them, but be filled with doubt about how one might achieve that. In her manifesto, Blakemore writes:

‘Sometimes I come home from work after dark and strip lights in my kitchen will not turn on straight away, but instead flash abortively, and I stand in the hallway turning the switch on and off as my black cat walks across the linoleum floor, and is visible only in these flashes, a few strides further at each gasp of the light that will not work. And I think, that is how we should move from one thing to another in a poem.’

This is how we move in Fondue: the links between the marbled bacon, the girl with manacles and Kusama’s artwork are never made explicit, and so the reader must navigate the poem in the dark, grasping for the vivid, concrete images when they come.

Sex, in many forms, is explored throughout the collection. In ‘prelude’, the speaker watches pornography:

the man with the hosepipe was wearing overalls
beside a privet line of rosebushes, parti-coloured by the spray –
a striped umbrella, a jug of pale lemonade.

The speaker seems fascinated with idyllic American suburbia, as though her desire is pointed towards the characters’ lives, rather than her own sexual wants. This is a poem concerned with connection – or lack thereof. The woman in the porn video pushes ‘her lips to the fractal stream / of a hosepipe’ while the man holds the hosepipe. There is no physical connection, but for the speaker the scene is ‘so actual’ and ‘poignant’ and this leads her to think of someone: ‘and then i wondered where you were’. The speaker seems to crave something ideal, something she can believe is ‘actual’ too.

Film is an active presence in Blakemore’s poems, whether in cinematic, concrete images: ‘i want you / like a scorpion down my shirt […] a scorpion, and a white mouse / caught in human hair,’ (‘scorpion’), through ‘independent film-making’ (‘locusts’), or a romanticised view of summer in ‘ice machine’:

and here we are. thirty degrees outside,
fans respirating with the scent of dusty artificial flowers
and gluten, a touch on the hand
like a hotel ice machine –

somehow thrilling
and American.

Blakemore’s speakers hope to find meaning through art, through the everyday, through tropes they can understand and try to re-enact. In this way, some of the poems are ostensibly in conversation with one another. Desire and sadism are thought about at length, especially in the best-titled poem of the collection, ‘when my boyfriend spanks me my inner feminist weeps’. The poem firstly discusses Mlle. Vinteuil from Proust’s Swann’s Way. That desire might be evil is something that Blakemore’s speaker tries to navigate; she laments Proust’s character: ‘poor Mlle. Vinteuil! performative sadism / belies her good heart’ and tries to justify her own desires: ‘i realise nothing / and do so hate to explain / i know i don’t deserve to be hurt.’ Later, the speaker is in a ‘bar off the Old Town square’ where there is a ‘life-size wooden gypsy “wench” / with the varnish worn off her breasts / like a talisman of male predictability’. It is always against this patriarchal model of desire and sexuality that the poems are pushing. The poem ends with an assertion of the speaker’s desire (which simultaneously sounds like a plea for her claims about her lover’s tastes to be corroborated): ‘in bed i place your hands / you like it like this don’t you / you like it here.’ She is, superficially and for a moment, in control of desire and how it is perceived. But as the title suggests, this isn’t always straightforward – what we want sexually might ‘undermine’ our feminism. The point of Blakemore’s poetry is not to offer a solution, but to explore this contention.

This becomes clearer in ‘sadism’, with its straightforward and concrete images: ‘at home i am unknotting the yellow cardigan / i used to bind your wrists last night.’ The yellow cardigan connotes a softness that the binding does not. The speaker seems conflicted about this, describing herself as a ‘maybug the morning of nuptial flight’, suggesting that she might, as female maybugs do, have multiple partners (there is also perhaps a nod to the maybug’s other name: cockchafer). Blakemore’s speakers appear to assert themselves sexually, and then reveal emotional tenderness – but whether these are in conflict or resolved is never quite clear. The poem ‘house cat’ begins with wonderful tenderness: ‘sunday / and where we’ve loved it’s burning’ but speakers still claim to have ‘no very deep understanding of what / it means to be human’ (‘dandelion’).

Animals, such as a dead fox, offer connection: ‘i hoped no one would remove it / sentimentally // i wanted to show it to you,’ (‘a body’) or suggest a breaking of bonds: ‘it’s smart how the poisoned gel spreads through the colony / by cannibalism. he explains that they will eat their family, / that the poison will spread faster that way’ (‘nymphs’). In ‘grandmother’s cat’ (which is reminiscent of Selima Hill’s use of animals and her candid, direct tone) the cat ‘is ugly / because he’s always been that way’, but is also ‘beautiful and this because i hold him / in very high esteem’. There is a sense that the speaker might be talking about herself or a lover here: the speaker recognises their flaws, but loves in spite of them.

Fondue is, generally, not a far stylistic departure from Blakemore’s Humbert Summer (2015) or pro-ana (2016). However, Blakemore is steadily and carefully experimenting; the poems in Fondue are consistently engaging and strong. The most radical change in style appears in ‘is it safe to sleep naked in a hotel room? (a play for voices)’, which has four speakers, linking it to Anne Carson and Emily Berry’s work . At first, the voices discuss sexually transmitted diseases, but this quickly becomes a conversation about trust, and ultimately, a need for human contact despite everything:

voice 1:
non-sexual transmission may occur through shared bed linens. however, the crab louse cannot survive for very long, away from the sustaining warmth of the human body.

voice 4:
and who, ultimately, can judge him?

In her manifesto, Blakemore writes: ‘most of what we encounter in life defies exegesis, people are used to it.’ Indeed, the poems in Fondue defy explication in many ways: their ostensibly straightforward scenes are at odds with the dense references to feminist figures, feminist theory, and art and literature; their concerns of tenderness and authority are never reconciled; it is not quite clear why a dead, mangled fox makes a speaker think of her lover. Blakemore creates a world that we can never quite understand, which is entirely the point: we are invited in, and can look around; we might think we have an answer, but there probably isn’t one singular answer at all. As the speaker of ‘’06’ says: ‘i wish i could be sure of anything. wish i could tell you / you’ll find nothing but encouragement no matter / what dumb shit you want to do.’
Jenna Clake is a PhD in researcher with the Department of Film and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. Her debut poetry collection, Fortune Cookie, was published this year.