Sophie Collins, Who Is Mary Sue?, Faber, £10.99, ISBN 9780571346615
Lila Matsumoto, Urn and Drum, Shearsman, £9.95, ISBN 9781848615687
A.K. Blakemore, Fondue, Offord Road, £10, ISBN 9781999930431
Alexa Winik discovers a powerful “poetics of vulnerability”
The thread that connects three new poetry collections – Sophie Collins’s Who Is Mary Sue?, Lila Matsumoto’s Urn and Drum, and A.K. Blakemore’s Fondue – might be easily traced back to an earlier work: Anne Carson’s 1992 essay ‘The Gender of Sound’. “Let us dwell for a moment on this ancient female task of discharging unspeakable things on behalf of the city,” Carson writes, “and on the structures that the city sets up to contain such speech”. Analogous to cathartic ancient rituals, these collections together construct a hybrid and self-reflexive chorus of women’s voices that unleash “unspeakable things” – from violent traumas to ineffable joys – through poetry that feels as inventive as it does important.
Out of the three collections, Collins’s Who Is Mary Sue? is the most expansive in scope. Collins masterfully assembles a cross-section of critical discourse, journalistic pull-quotes, lyric essays, and experimental free verse to launch an urgent interrogation of the cultural conditions that continue to suppress women’s voices, specifically in the aftermath of trauma. These hybrid poems are slippery in tone and don many masks, creating crucial distance between poet and speaker that allows Collins to delve into difficult subjects such as violence against women and internalised shame.
The book’s central motif – the dismissive epithet “Mary Sue” – is a fascinating mediating device that Collins deploys to depict the role of cultural production in gendering acts of speech and silence. “Mary Sue”, readers learn, is a term drawn from the world of fan fiction and refers to an archetypal female protagonist associated with “narcissism and/or wish fulfilment” (‘Who Is Mary Sue?’). In a long prose sequence, Collins recontextualises this term, however, as a symptom for the “double standards of content” that relegate women’s experiences to the “narrower”, supposedly inferior space of the private sphere (‘Who Is Mary Sue?’). Mary Sue, then, becomes a spectre in the background of Collins’s first-person poems, invoking a crucial question about how these double standards bleed into women’s daily lives: if invented female protagonists are not even believed, then how could women survivors of “unspeakable” traumas expect to be?
As Collins depicts it, when women internalise this question, traumatic memory cannot be externalised and festers as debilitating shame – a psychic wound that is “awful, the size of a disc, / and deep” (‘The Engine’). Yet what makes this collection a much-needed work of stunning feminist complaint is that Collins’s female protagonists create forays out from this wound and its attendant silences. Among the mysterious personas and surreal dreamscapes that Collins summons, women’s voices demonstrate incredible agency to reclaim unspeakable terrain as a site of productive fury; they “blurt things out” (‘A.S.’), they “initiate the flames into their small routines” (‘Untitled’). At one point, a disintegrating construction scaffold, personified with feminine pronouns, breaks away from its church wall with a brutal fury and makes “an unbearable sound” (‘Healers’).
These exquisitely disobedient voices reverberate throughout the negative spaces and intentionally blank pages of Who Is Mary Sue?, lending a surprising poise and generosity to a debut collection. They also mark Collins as a poet with a prophetic edge, one who discharges unbearable sounds not on behalf of any city’s patriarchal social structures but on behalf of other vulnerable voices who may need a guidebook for surviving them.
Lila Matsumoto’s Urn and Drum shares with Who Is Mary Sue? an urgency to interrogate the politics of what is unspeakable. Matsumoto, however, channels her observations through a more microscopic lens on material culture and the world of objects. This playful yet weighty collation of block texts, photography, allegories, and vignettes excavate a full range of “unspeakable / loss + bliss” (‘Levels of Cognizance’) within the commonplace. As Matsumoto writes in the aphoristic prose sequence ‘Soft Troika’, her desire is to “Follow the everyday without privileging adoresome buildings”.
Matsumoto’s attentiveness to the secret lives of objects is textured and sensuous. Details like “self-help muesli” (‘Princess of flexible bamboo scattering light’) and “fleshy foam sleeves” (‘Peaches’) exemplify the kind of hyper-awareness that colours the setting of this collection in high-definition. Here, seemingly static objects might accrue new meanings against a backdrop of loss. A jar’s lightness becomes “a contradiction to gravity’s will” (‘Jar’) and fondant cake is “here for you” with a side of “grief bacon” (‘Fondant Cake’). Even the more enigmatic passages in Urn and Drum work to draw attention towards the small, inviting readers to “look twice” at the external world “because it gives off a ridiculous amount of bloom!” (‘Soft Troika’).
For Matsumoto, such attention is not a simple platitude for mindfulness but an embodied feminist hermeneutic. Urn and Drum exudes this perspective through the sounds and shapes of its textured dioramas in which “objects aren’t torpid” (‘Soft Troika’) but always mirror back the self’s own mutable and shifting identities. Moreover, Matsumoto’s feminist poetics do well to reclaim the domestic sphere from the realm of the unspeakable, granting it a newly invigorated lexicon without inadvertently recapitulating into essentialist views of femininity.
With this continual reclamation of natural and domestic spaces, Matsumoto’s brief and vibrant poems are deceptively complex. By examining the potentialities in seemingly static objects, she ultimately reveals a rich spectrum of human vulnerability reflected, namely the daily unspeakable realities of death and unfulfilled desire, the urn and the drum. Her striking, self-reflexive poems offer readers a convincing portrait of renewed attention to the external world and what it means to ask of that world “[t]o what extent is it sustained by longing […] [t]o what extent is that longing mine” (‘Meteor’).
While Collins and Matsumoto opt for a more mediated approach in their poetry, the crystalline and terse diction of A.K. Blakemore’s Fondue largely bypasses these distancing devices. In fact, Blakemore plunges straight into the borderlands of cultural taboo where readers encounter, among poems about ugly cats and mermaids, “the fractal stream” of pornographic ejaculations (‘prelude’) and a speaker who feels newly born like a “maybug the morning of nuptial flight” (‘sadism’) after a night of BDSM play. Sublimating taboo into delightfully odd euphemisms or metaphors is something Blakemore does exceptionally well.
But this strategy, though imaginative, accomplishes more than mere wordplay. For Blakemore, this oscillation between shadow and light, transgression and conventionality, all play into a broader ethics of writing towards the obliteration of stigmas around “unspeakable things”. With such an emphasis on linguistic destabilisation, it’s not surprising that mouths, throats, teeth, and gums are often invoked throughout this work. “this is a poem about my mouth,” Blakemore writes in the collection’s titular poem, “with this mouth i will teach you what it means / to live // without fear of contaminants” (‘fondue’).
Blakemore lives up to this claim as the poems in Fondue are captivating in their fearlessness. In another departure from Who Is Mary Sue? and Urn and Drum, Fondue’s brave ethics of destigmatisation emerge most effectively through compression and economy. Indeed, some of the most stunning moments in this collection occur when a poem teases out its political implications within the drama of a single line. In ‘samaritans’, as one example, Blakemore creates a bait-and-switch using heavy enjambment:
and i never saw the point in talking
is just a sharp thing you stand on in the night, with
bare feet –
as a kiss you said
was forced, you never wanted.
In its brilliantly evoked final lines, this poem pivots from risk of sentimentality towards the immanence of trauma in daily life for certain bodies.
‘Samaritans’ is but one of many poems whose linguistic leaps and dodges keep Fondue’s reader skipping along its darkly bewildering corridors. It also suggests a broader theme in this collection: that taboos might be reclaimed not just as fury or invigorated language, but also as revelry. For Blakemore, celebration seems to represent an embodied resistance to shame and loss. As the speaker admits to herself in ‘dandelion’, “you / have no very deep understanding of what / it means to be human // but you damn well know you’ve got to play”.
Collins’s, Matsumoto’s, and Blakemore’s varied poetic universes remind readers that to be human is to be endlessly contingent. Gender is, of course, one contingent point amongst many. But across these provocative and poignant collections, gender’s social construction is the primary site where each one might refresh and reclaim the politics of “discharging unspeakable things” and advance a much-needed feminist-informed poetics of vulnerability. I have no doubt that readers who encounter even one of these books will feel, along with the speaker in the concluding lines of Who Is Mary Sue?, “seen, in some important sense” (‘Postface’).
Alexa Winik is completing an MA in Poetry at the University of St Andrews. © The Poetry Review and the author.