Reviewed by Sophie Mayer
March 2, 2011
Jo Shapcott’s fifth full-length collection won the Costa Book of the Year award for 2010, beating favourite Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with an Amber Eyes, a memoir that combines the close study of a single object (a group of netsuke) with a family history of the Holocaust, two guaranteed prize-winning attributes. This is not to demean de Waal’s achievement, which is (in the long-awaited paperback) next on my ‘to read’ pile, but to echo the surprise expressed by the media at the judges’ decision to award the Costa poetry winner the overall prize for the second year running.
It’s also to question, somewhat cynically, that surprise. Like 2009 winner Christopher Reid’s A Scattering, which dealt with the death of his wife, Shapcott’s Of Mutability is engaged with life-or-death questions; in this case, her diagnosis of, and treatment for, breast cancer (never mentioned directly in the book, but covered extensively in the press). Regarded thematically, the Costa judges’ decisions smack somewhat of the classic Oscar for Best Actor/Actress Portraying a Character with a Non-Disfiguring Illness.
On first reading, I encountered Shapcott’s collection as the poetic equivalent of C4′s Embarrassing Bodies. That is to say, the collection offers the moving, humanist and genuinely complex constellation of shame, curiosity, empathy and wonder about embodiment that the programme (were it not so teeth-grindingly awkward and aimed at a producer’s unflattering fantasy of the “general public”) could promise. Poem by poem, Of Mutability thinks through the unmentionable fact that we all possess a body, and that it is embarrassing (literally, a block or encumbrance) in a culture that has long prized the intellectual over the physical, and long identified the embodied with the feminine and consigned them both to the side of the incomplete, diseased and lacking.
In her interview with Shapcott the morning after the Costa, Guardian journalist Kira Cochrane (and Shapcott’s upstairs neighbour) asked the poet whether
she consider[s] her work to be political? Yes, she says. “First, it’s poetry by a feminist. There’s that, straight away. Then there are a lot of meditations on landscape in the book, which are informed by climate change. And, I guess, there’s a political with a small ‘p’ spirit active in the work, in that you hope readers will walk into the poems and come out somehow changed.”
That idea of change – mutability – is very much part of the collection’s political spirit, in which cancer and climate change are seen comparatively and interconnectedly as symptoms of humanity’s restless pursuit of progress. It’s only when the book approaches the topic of war, as in ‘St. Bride’s', that the ground slips from under its steps. While more assured and less pathetique that most of the other poems that appeared alongside it in Carol Ann Duffy’s portfolio of war poems for The Guardian Review, ‘St. Bride’s’ shares with several of them an awkward t/here pairing that works through a lack of specificity to erase ‘there’, submerging the firebombing of an unspecified Other country (unnamed) into a memory of the London Blitz.
Across the axis of the book, which turns on the longest, densest poem ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ as its pivot, ‘St. Bride’s’ is mirrored structurally by ‘Cedar of Lebanon,’ which states – of a tree associated with the Biblical and present-day Middle East -
I do not know it, over there across the valley.
I cannot smell the sap from here,
nor think of it as mystical or healing
I do not know why I want to speak
about vertical grooves and dark bark
the colour of elephant hide
or cracked pony, when it is not so. (41)
The repetition with variation of the negative (the poem opens with the word ‘Not’ and ends ‘not so’) is a challenging rebuttal in the negative’s own terms to Wittgenstein’s oft-quoted ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should remain silent,’ and a more tangible (if/because tangential), provocative and forceful — political with a small ‘p’ — address to the palimpsest of violences and misidentifications linking and delinking here and there, West and East, self and Other.
This poem’s approach of testing and undermining the claims of metaphor, observation, identification and the poetic imagination pays of superbly in the thread of the book’s address to the fallibility of the body, particularly its carcinogenic habit of cell generation. Shapcott steers a careful course away from associating disease, fallibility, leakiness and excess with femininity. Once seen as a ‘niche interest’ (largely to be coloured pink), breast cancer has been refigured as the illness de nos jours: one in eight women will be diagnosed with it, and many more than previously will survive. Unlike Betsy Warland’s Only This Blue, a poetic essay on surviving breast cancer (including a double mastectomy), Shapcott’s collection never uses the C-word. In a similar way, however, Shapcott’s collection enters into territory at once familiar (the female body/the ‘diseased’ body as female and its relation to the natural and built worlds) and a brave new world, a post-apocalyptic landscape of mutant survivors who recall, in their changed bodies, the mutability of us all.
It’s the mutability and multiplicity of cells that makes life possible — and that is the mechanism for cancer. Shapcott’s collection takes on this ambiguous effervescence from the opening lines of its opening, titular poem:
Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
in this spring chill. (3)
The present participles in the second line, echoed by ‘spring’ in the third, augur and inaugurate the mood of the book: an inhabitation of the embodied moment in all its ‘itching feeling.’ Spring itself becomes a verb in later poems that chronicle the return of life, particularly a sequence of tree-titled poems culminating in ‘Viral Landscape’ (48), which plays with classical ideas of perspective and the sublime (as well as the identification of female body and landscape), merging instead the body’s sensations with the green, growing world, ending ‘We are moving and I can’t see a thing.’
Those trees are also girls, interrupted or reinvigorated: there is more than a hint of Ovid in a collection that echoes his philosophical concern with metamorphosis as a principle of existence and, in metaphor and simile, of poetry. Shapcott ventriloquises not Ovid, but the Getians of Tomis, the city where Ovid was exiled (now Constanta in Romania) – and not only the Getians, but the Getians via Pushkin, who was exiled nearly two millennia later to the same part of the world. Shapcott has previously presented versions from Rilke, in Tender Taxes, specifically from Rilke’s poems in French, which was his second language.
Tender Taxes remains my favourite of Shapcott’s collections for its intense, precise mysticism and eroticism without the self-deprecating (very English) humour that she often sounds, and for going furthest into the exiled strangeness of poetic language. The palimpsest of exile – geographical, linguistic and (as the female poet slips into the male poet) gendered – is recalled in Of Mutability in the wonderful ‘Abishag (after Rilke)’, a voluptuously perturbing poem about a young woman’s erotic gaze at an older man, exactly ‘abject,’ as Abishag says of her smell.
Earlier Shapcott collections contain similar, deft and death-defying works of ventriloquism that bring voices back from death and exile; the multi-layering of poetic voices here is reworked yet again through the Getians’ (or Gypsies, in the poem’s title) perspective on Ovid, a weakling urbane Roman who does not know how to place his body in the world. ‘He was waiting for a change of heart upstairs,’ the poem says; the cliché is Ovid’s, quoted by the speaker(s) as implicit proof of his dissociation from the bodily (24). But his time in Tomis changes him, until at the end he ‘screamed instructions about his bones / which he swore were pulling south inside him’ (25).
The body’s relation to the world is revealed as complex throughout the collection, with the diagnosis and experience of cancer and its treatment offering a new awareness or way of knowing. ‘I said goodbye / to the outside of my body: I was going in,’ Shapcott asserts in ‘Era’ (4). Yet the investigative and exploratory connotations never turn to assert a mastery or an answer.
a drop of water. Maybe the imperfections, the proliferating cells
help it refract the full spectrum
she wonders in ‘Deft,’ the fourth in a series of exploded sonnets that use the classic lyrical approach to the female body, with its history of the blazon and seduction, in inventive and surprising ways. Lines ‘proliferate’ syllables in ‘Deft,’ noting the uncontainability of the imperfect, fluid body in its transformations.
The body is also measured, in a group of linked poems, against the changing skyline of London, from the fragments and myths of the Temple of Mithras to the phallic thrust of St Mary’s Axe (aka the Gherkin): placed to mirror the tree poems that come later, these poems utilise and query the insistent verticality of architecture, full of flying and falling and ‘totally open musical space’ (‘Sinfonietta for London’, 18).
But the poet also insists on the upright, although she described to Cochrane the influence of Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill and particularly how
“Woolf talks about the amount of time you spend lying on your back, so that the horizontal view is suddenly much more typical than the vertical view. And that means you see life anew – you’re open to the sky.”
But the figures here walk, climb, hug trees and dance, as in ‘La Canterina’, Shapcott’s contribution to the emerging genre that half-ironically imagines the woman poet as circus artist (as in Abi Curtis’ Unexpected Weather) (20-21). The poem ends with the tightrope walker ‘half-naked / technically // distressed,’ (21), suggesting that the tension between virtuosic performance and female embodiment, between public speech and the male gaze, has yet to be resolved. Little Auntie in ‘Somewhat Unravelled,’ speaking truths from her dementia, suggests as much:
She says, look at you, with all your language,
You never became the flower your mother
wanted but it’s not too late, come with me
and rootle in the earth outside my front window. (28-9)
Dense and chatty, this poem at the book’s centre contests the poet’s practice through an enfolded ventriloquism in which Auntie shows the poet new ways to speak and be, which unfold through trees and teas: landscapes of gold and green and leakage which come together in the final poem.
‘Piss Flower’ was in fact my first encounter with this collection, displayed at the entrance of the Barbican’s retrospective of the work of Helen Chadwick, whose most famous installation ‘Piss Flowers‘ was a direct response to the pissing contest of the male-dominated art world. Shapcott’s poem translates the late artist’s casting technique (making bronze casts of the melt-spaces carved in the snow by her stream of urine) into something that has both levity and evanescence, a response perhaps to Catullus’ charge that the words of women should be written on running water.
I can shoot down a jet stream
so intense my body rises
a full forty feet and floats
on a bubble stem of grace
for just a few seconds
up there in the urban air. (54)
In the half-rhyme of ‘feet’ and ‘floats’, the strange and wonderful verticality of the recovering/recovered body is inscribed: at once connected to the ground by forty proliferating feet, and floating into the gilded sky of eclipses and comets into which the opening poem invites us. Piss is an instance, unfixed, ‘of grace,’ an inside propelled outwards to embarrass us, like – Shapcott suggests with her piss’ ‘velocity / you’d have to call aesthetic’ – poetry. Erecting her mutable golden tower on the ‘urban air,’ the shared landscape of our culture, Shapcott’s collection is exactly and necessarily ‘political with a small “p”,’ and we are changed by it.
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