Between Romance and Reality

Jenna Clake, Fortune Cookie

Eyewear Publishing, 68pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781911335528

reviewed by Ben Leubner

The poetry in Jenna Clake’s debut volume, Fortune Cookie, is a poetry of combinations. It’s part exuberant, Whitmanesque catalogues, part absurdist, Beckettian permutations. Given Clake’s interest in the Feminine and Feminist Absurd in 21st-century British and American poetry, though, it’s quite likely that my advancing Whitman and Beckett as influences right at the outset is problematic. So I shouldn’t say influences, perhaps; I should say, instead, ‘Things I thought of while I was reading her book.’ And since I’m not particularly well versed in Clake’s own area of interest, I have to do the best I can. Perhaps I should be more circumspect and simply say that like much contemporary free verse, Clake’s poetry, untethered from meter and rhyme, nonetheless remains tethered to repetitions and variations, combinations and permutations, enumerations and anaphora, perhaps the dominant formal features of free verse since Whitman, or at least since Ginsberg.

Some of this poetry of accumulation is lighthearted, and deliberately so, like the poem ‘CBSO’, in which Clake comes up with 37 variations on what the acronym might stand for while only changing the first word (the last three remain ‘Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’ throughout), thus:

Ceaseless Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where the doors will be locked      
         one hour into the performance
Ceiling Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where everything is upside down
Celebrity Birmingham Symphony Orchestra where all proceeds go to charity

There is pith and bite here: the ‘Ceaseless’ version brings to mind the nightmare visions of Bunuel and Sartre, while the ‘Celebrity’ version casts tongue-in-cheek aspersion on the often dubious philanthropy of the rich and famous. And perhaps if one posits itemisation itself as a kind of stereotypically masculine act (‘orderly,’ therefore ‘rational,’ hence manly or something), Clake, in this poem and throughout her volume, might be seen as playfully mocking and sending up such procedures, maybe even exposing them as symptoms of compulsion. Mainly, though, the poem does seem like a lighthearted exercise in amusement, almost a kind of parlour game that the poet is playing with herself.

Other poems remain rooted in humour but also shift more steadily towards the serious and critical. ‘Imaginary Boyfriend’ is a 21-line block of stichic free verse rehashing a series of phantom partners: John the artist, Samuel the architect, Aaron the pilot, Carl the dog psychologist, an unnamed poet (he was the first), and Tom the dancer. Two-thirds of the way through, though, the speaker laments: ‘Choosing an imaginary boyfriend is not an easy task. / “You must find a man who loves what he does, but not more / than he loves you,” said my mother.’ At first, one reads the poem innocently, perhaps as a play on the idea of childhood imaginary friends. Then, though, it suggests a kind of critical commentary on typical adolescent fantasies of meeting some version of Prince Charming, the artist who will paint ‘pictures of [you] and [sell] them on the street,’ the architect who will ‘put a lock of [your] hair / into the foundations’ of one of his buildings, fantasies that then frequently have problematic consequences when they collide with real-life relationships. And then, after that, a more disturbing still interpretation offers itself: perhaps the speaker has dated an artist, a pilot, and a poet. Perhaps these boyfriends were/are real, and yet are nonetheless imaginary, or remain so, having never been able to emerge from the fantasy blanket thrown over them from the outset. Maybe all boyfriends are imaginary, or at least largely so, the very category itself being fantastic. The man-for-whom-you-mean-more-than-anything-else is a dream passed down from mother to daughter, an oral myth passed on from one generation to the next, where its purpose is countermanded by its effect: far from being sound advice which will lead to happiness, it ensures continual disappointment, as the poem’s catalogue itself proves. Pointedly, the speaker of the poem ends all but one of the relationships: the pilot has an affair, the architect and dog psychologist are too devoted to their work; she has to move on. Only her favourite of the bunch, John, leaves her. He tells her, ‘I need to find a woman with a symmetrical face,’ a better model for his paintings, no doubt. Lurking behind his need is the asymmetry that exists between romance and reality, the fantastically perfect and the empirically flawed, itself a product of our upbringings, foisted upon us with the best of intentions.

Then there is Daniel, the subject of ‘Original Designs for a Terrible Thing,’ where if I’m veering a little too strongly towards the serious in my readings of either of the two previous poems, there’s no mistaking the serious import of this one, even as it, too, like almost every poem in Fortune Cookie, even the 28-part, ten-page finale, ‘The Exit’, remains in some marked way light and humorous. ‘Daniel was trying to get over something terrible,’ the poem begins. What the terrible thing is is never specified: a break-up? A death in the family? Some kind of otherwise traumatic experience? He takes up new hobby after new hobby in an attempt to distract himself, where these hobbies afford this poem its own embedded catalogue: first, pottery; second, sewing; third, origami. None of them quite succeed, though the origami keeps him busy for quite a while, it would seem. Still, after having made thousands of origami frogs, he resolves to keep only the best one, which leads him inadvertently to his next hobby: spending days ‘rooting through the bins and drawers / and the laundry basket and the pockets of his trousers,’ looking for the perfect paper frog, until ‘he completely forgot what he was looking for.’ He is now, to paraphrase Eliot in Four Quartets, distractedly distracting himself from a distraction with a distraction.

Beneath the poem’s curtain of humour, of course, lies an insight: that our attempts, when terrible things happen, to process our grief by way of distraction are very often helpless, futile, and pathetic, and yet this frequently seems to remain our preferred means of attempting to process grief and trauma, one reminiscent of the advice given to shell-shocked soldiers returning home after World War One: take in a music-hall show, play a game of cricket, get some fresh air, advises Dr. Holmes in Mrs. Dalloway. And the available distractions have of course only proliferated exponentially in the twenty-first century, matched only, it would seem, by the increase in our resolve to block from ourselves that, far from distracting us from grief, they only distract us from dealing with that grief, so that once again we’re back in the predicament of practicing something that has been promised to relieve a dilemma that in reality it only further entrenches. But if pottery and sewing and origami are distractions, it stands to reason that poetry might possibly be one, too. Daniel might have written this poem; he could just as easily be its speaker as its subject.

More often than not, fortune cookies deliver empty promises. A volume of poetry titled Fortune Cookie, then, would almost have to not take itself all that seriously, and to demand of its reader the same treatment. But we (or at least I) never take fortune cookies wholly lightheartedly, either. One knows, for the most part, that one is in for something silly, something humorous, maybe even something to be read, smiled at, and then tossed aside to be forgotten almost immediately. But there is also always, always that tinge of hope and dread, just before and as one cracks open the cookie, that expectation that something marvellous or strange or uncannily insightful might, just might, be on the brink of revealing itself.