Sunday, 3 January 2010

Poetry: Elisabeth Blestsoe

I'm delighted to hear that Shearsman Books will be publishing a comprehensive selection of the earlier works of Elisabeth Bletsoe later this month under the title 'Pharmacopoeia and Early Selected Works' bringing back into print all of 'Pharmacopoeia' (Odyssey/Terrible Work), selections from 'The Regardians' (Odyssey) and 'Portraits of the Artist's Sister' (Odyssey), and some miscellaneous poems.

You can find further details on the Shearsman site, together with more information on her 2008 collection 'Landscape from a Dream'.

We'll endeavour to get Elisabeth on The Blah Blah Blah Show at some future date, but in the mean time, an audo recording of her reading 'The Seperable Soul' is available on the 'Gists and Piths' blog.

To mark this reprinting of Elisabeth's earlier work, I'm reproducing my 1996 essay on her poetry, first published in the now sadly defunct 'Poetry Quarterly Review' to coincide with the publication of the first edition of 'Pharmacopoeia'.


The Poetry of Elisabeth Bletsoe

In his novel Love and Death on Long Island Gilbert Adair's central character writes a history of the representation of angels in the arts, its premise being that only by aspiration to and concourse with some form of the super-natural is the artist able to create out of the humility that is, or should be, his natural state and essence. So it is with THE REGARDIANS. Strong poetry doesn't just respectfully copy the way things are, it creates. It can make and unmake the very gods themselves, but only because it comes from the silence beyond the ego monkey's jabbering.

Last year the New York Times best-sellers list featured more angels than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Christian fundamentalists were as keen to tell us of their guardians as supposed abductees their alien consorts. In this country comparable 'literature' is more likely to be infected with new age whimsy. THE REGARDIANS is different. Bletsoe's angels are not ethereal beings, nor do they confine themselves to airy realms or deal in the empyreal. Far from ,cynical paganism', self-righteous evangelism and the Aquarian pick-and-mix; she is a Quaker and steeped in the traditions of English nonconformism. Hence the intention is as much political as spiritual. The millenarian hard rain nightmare of The Cloudseeder features Uriel the fire of God, connecting the Revelations-inspired visionaries of the late Middle Ages with latterday environmental apocalyptics, giving us a Dantean view of the cityscape of Cardiff. In The 'Oary Man Gabriel is seen in his role as heavenly ambassador, invoked by Gerard Winstanley in the founding of the Digger movement:

thrust into consciousness

by the radical English dreamers

who claimed your authority:

the Fiery Roll inscribed with blueprints

for a world

turned upside-down

It is a work of invocations, less prayers than active summonings of the human powers the angels represent into her consciousness and that of humanity at large. Thus, Archangelis and Lachrimatory draw on the mythologies of patriarchal religion (Bletsoe especially makes use of Jewish angelologies, later adopted by Christians and Muslims just as the Jews appropriated the gods of neighbouring nations and tribes into their heavenly hierarchies) only to undermine them: the dark energies of Michael and Cassiel summoned to recharge the female spirit more through opposition than identification, a vision of the weighers of souls, detached voyeurs in the guise of God's civil servants who know:

Heaven and Hell are the same place

all the suppressed beatings

of your enshrouded heart

cannot disguise

your secret joy

in failing

Similarly, Azrael triggers a cut-up of headlines from organs of the death culture: numbed to genuine experience of mortality we have no respect for life. The range of reference is sometimes astonishing but it is mutated into a strain of the language virus previously undetected: lain Sinclair meets the King James Bible. Infectious.

Bletsoe works in projects rather than poems. PORTRAITS OF THE ARTIST'S SISTER (published after, but written before, THE REGARDIANS) has a thematic unity, developing female 'mood-states' and 'life-situations' out of the paintings of Edvard Munch. It is a sequence meant to be read as a whole as his Frieze of Life paintings were meant to be viewed in one exhibition, each one note in the cumulative symphony. Munch is a poet's painter who thought in literary terms, sketching out his poem of love, life and death in words long before he recreated them in figurative art. Like Munch, Bletsoe writes out of her psyche rather than about it, employing a method that transcends autobiography while drawing on, at times, almost physiological memories- In the subconscious, Jung theorised, what is specifically personal is experienced in imagery we hold in common, in archetypes. With her knowledge of mythology and the contexts that generate their changing forms, mythmaking becomes reflective. The book takes the form of an archetypal journey, towards individuation and, in the macrocosm, sexual harmony, but in the language of human experience rather than psycho-babble. Moonlight is a fulcrum point in the book, fear turning to acceptance:

the wounded healer at the crossroads

opening the portals to a second life

loosely shrouded in delicious white

not a ghost, but a Sister

she sails her broken eggshells

over an ocean of night

It works almost like a series of mystery plays, the paintings tableaux: the stage-like simplicity of the settings and sometimes theatrical exaggeration of the postures of Munch's women become frames in the storyboard that Bletsoe fills out. If the work depended on an intimate knowledge of the paintings it would be problematic: like the printed text of an unseen movie (Brian Hinton) verbal commentaries on visual media rarely work. However, adopting the personae of Munch's subjects enables an investigation of not just the artist-model relationship, but also that of the observer and observed, on many levels. The poems have grown out of her relationship with the pictures. Whether we agree with her interpretation of Munch as being unusually attuned to the feminine (in the context of the nineteenth century, Presbyterian Scandinavia as depicted in, for example, the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg), her giving the voiceless a voice is what matters. Rather than trying to describe the spatial economy, contrastive colouring and sketchy rendering of the paintings she adopts their poetic equivalents: the prevailing tones of summer nocturnals conjured by her lunar idiom. As Munch was a great painter, so Bletsoe, also, is a great poet of the night. Dreams within dreams, where boundaries between mortality and the immortal, fact and imagination, are thin, as in the Madonna section of The Lady with the Brooch:

in her mouth's corner a spectre of death

in her two lips the joy of life

PORTRAITS... is an examination of repression, the power it generates and the possibility of channelling that power, using the vampire myth, for example, as an externalisation of the other within to enable surrender to it. It admits grief as a positive process, the deep awareness of mortality developing maturity, a prelude and inducement to transcendence. And within all of this inner alchemy, it is the women - a fearful girl at puberty, the tragi-comedy of a doomed affair in Ashes, watching the hands and skin of The Dead Mother - that put flesh on the spirit work and give it life.

PHARMACOPOEIA, shortly to be published, is a slim, interim pamphlet that elusively and allusively tells the story of a relationship in moments, each marked by a particular flower in a particular landscape. It veers from despair to fulfilment as if a love potion had been prepared along the course of the interlinked journeys. Bletsoe is a ruthless crafter of language which is here pared down so that the poems are almost tinctures. In emotional biography less is always more and what is omitted more telling than what is said. The language is restrained, almost academic at times, such that the occasional personal statement feels like the eyes of lovers meeting in the incendiary field that we lie down in & fall into the sky.

Elisabeth is a herbalist (Pharmacopoeia means a list of medical ingredients, including instructions on their preparation and use) and the text is challenging to the botanically illiterate, intercutting pieces from ancient herbals, folklore etc. However, even in this, both her slimmest and most difficult work, the characteristic features of her distinctive method are maintained.

She displays an almost Japanese discipline of concrete description and restraint, each piece a string of beautiful haiku-like beads. The way the text is laid out like a musical score hints at the breath patterns she achieves in performance, enabling the reader to recreate them in her own voice. (The use of space on the page is an additional visual aesthetic.) Form is defined not by rules but intention, discovered in the act of writing: ripples on the silence it emerges from. The poem as journey, inner and outer, such that the subject and reader are changed by its conclusion and given the impetus to reach it. Above all it is the sense of absolute commitment to her role as receiver/ transmitter that gives the intensity of Poetry as magic or medicine; not for mirroring but manifestation. (Sarah Hopkins).

We are also faced with a concentration that might put off the casual reader: the depth of reference, lexical range; a density of expression not found in the currently prevalent modes of social realism and autotherapy. But surely even the uncommitted will feel its tensions, be captured by its sound and rhythm and enter inner labyrinths where the heart does the thinking and the head begins to feel: nothing is stated, none of her immense and wide-ranging knowledge is made use of, unless it is also felt.

OOSER, still in progress, takes Bletsoe home to Dorset, and populates its landscape with the marginalised and dispossessed: the villagers of Tyneham, the Tolpuddle martyrs... Those poems already published in magazines¹ reinhabit some of the women of Thomas Hardy's novels and empower them with a sexuality he could only allude to given the strictures of the late Victorian novel. In opposition to Virginia Woolf's view that he makes them the weaker and the fleshlier... clinging to the stronger (man) and obscuring their vision she finds an openness to the feminine principle, not just in the eroticisation of the other but a genuine empathy with the sufferings of a sex caught in the double-bind of nineteenth century sexual hypocrisy. She takes the tragedies of their situations and makes them celebrations of a latent power:

neither life or death dilute me:

out of suffering may come the cure

The Ooser itself was a fertility idol co-opted into Christian festivals and bastardised as the devil. Evolving out of a British tradition of horned fertility gods going back 10,000 years it was transformed into a figure of terror, haunting sexual miscreants in skimmity rides and giving evil a face in mumming. Its last authentic Dorset representation was sold to America. A crude reproduction now amuses tourists in local Morris dances. It is about to refind its voice.

In her fine poem, Poetry, Marianne Moore longs for ‘literalists of the imagination’ who ....can present / for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them'.

Enjoy the gardens. Beware the toads.

¹ Rainbarrows (ODYSSEY #18)

Cross-in-Hand (TERRIBLE WORK #5)


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