in Time & Space
Women's Experimental Poetry in Britain 1970-2010, Body, Time & Locale,
David Kennedy and Christine Kennedy
(192 pp, £70.00, Liverpool University Press)
penultimate page of David and Christine Kennedy's collaborative study, the
authors quote Nicky Marsh writing about the recognition in recent
experimental women's poetry that political responses need to be articulated
in a 'sharply sophisticated and reflexively aware' manner.' Marsh adds that
'this sophistication requires a careful negotiation of the gendered
implications of the local-global axis of contemporary political critique that
so nearly parallel feminism's politicization of the personal.' These words
are simultaneously accurate in their attention and care, and they also
characterise the range and quality of critiques which the Kennedys employ in
This study of some of the more neglected contemporary poets working in
experimental holds considerable range and power and is long over-due. The
book comprises an opening chapter on 'Categories and Methods' and a second
on 'Experimental Poetry and its Others' which open up some of the complex
poetic/ideological terrain under discussion , broaching the historically
reclamative projects of some of the writing, engaging with Kristeva's
multiple modalities of time, (a key concept here), drawing attention to modes
of 'voicing and unvoicing' in poetry and asserting the roles of fantasy as
'means of understanding ideology's deep embedment in the unconscious'. A very
valuable chapter Ð both as wide review and introduction- follows on with
'Critical histories' incorporating an excellent opening section on editors
and poetic practice and I like the way that the authors negotiate their way
into the phenomenologically irrecoverable 1970s, by using other texts by
women: Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and A. S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman. The authors also flag up the need for
sustained analysis of the economic factors governing and previously often
limiting British women poets' cultural production.
Chapters follow on Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Wendy Mulford with their
transformation and subversion of lyric modes, Denise Riley 'Corporeal and
Desiring Spaces', Maggie O'Sullivan's engagements with anti-human violence
and the lexes of abject and marginalised classes in Geraldine Monk's Interregnum.
Highlights include a searching discussion of the variegated registers of
Veronica Forrest-Thomson's L'Effet du reel':
Sometimes the interior is bodily and
sometimes it is a physical
place like a library or 'Prynne's room'. And both these aspects
of the late poetry relate to the huge problem of that it seems to
have with embodiment and reality. [...] Moments of socialised
and personalised being exist as dramatic events. The personal
and theoretical become ways of dramatising each other.
That's well and subtly stated as is the important rebuttal of the
occasionally encountered assumption that Forrest-Thomson's poems are
exclusively about writing.
The authors write movingly about Wendy Mulford's poems 'Goblin Coombe' and
'My Mother in May and Hawthorn' and trace connectivities in libidinal desire
for different versions of the Other and beneficent changes in the world.
The attention to the relations between the different sections Geraldine
Monk's Interregnum and
the effects gained when these sections are altered in different editions of
the work is exemplary: 'It is a montage of bodily, linguistic, perceptual
and temporal transformations which is keyed by one dominant current of
transformation: from ecstasy into suffering and back into ecstasy'. The
Kennedys write with regard to Maggie O'Sullivan's poetry: 'Representation is
an after-image of violence or trauma, because it is itself a kind of violence'
O'Sullivan's text rejects language as an articulation of sublimated
or repressed desires and seeks to remake it as an arena of action
for primitive drives.
In a telling discussion of 'Laibach Lyrik', the authors trace the ways in which
Denise Riley's writing moves past imagery of 'pasture, garden, orchard and
the overall locale of pastoral idyll' to different types of rupture and chaos
in the poem's second section. The desire linguistically to re-engage with
patterns of cyclical time is broached and the Kennedys accurately sense a
'traumatic hole' in the ways in which many critics have avoided those aspects
of this work which are fronted by 'images of wounds and' that which 'reads
Studies of the work of Harriet Tarlo, Elizabeth Bletsoe, Caroline Bergvall,
Helen Macdonald, Anna Mendelsohn, Redell Olsen, Elizabeth James and Frances
Presley as well as that of younger poets such as Emily Critchley, Sophie
Robinson, Marianne Morris, Andrea Brady and Jennifer Cooke are also included.
Despite (and perhaps because of) the conscientious awareness of trauma and
suffering at the behest of a voracious capitalist/military political system
felt impinging in much of the writing, the authors candidly find 'tremendous
fun' in Frances Presley and Elizabeth James's very fine collaboration Neither
the One..., 'we need to
approach/ we need to approach the past/to approach the past we need we need/
to approach the pastoral/ we need to approach the pastoral in a car'.
James's and Presley's tour-de-force is certainly hilarious; elsewhere,
Presley emphasises and mocks the first person singular in the context of
'collaboration in the feminine'.
Harriet Tarlo's fine poetry is discussed in context with radical landscape
work and attention drawn to the unpunctuated formal structures and 'phasal
units' exhibited in a passage like : 'catching against/ breaking/
branch/thick pulling/bramble/ steady hand/ stinging sharp',
('brancepeth beck'), which of course takes in the practice of writing as well
as walking through landscapes. I also admire the poetic 'Manga energy' and
use of signs and non-signs in Jennifer Cook's 'impossible revolution'
beginning at South Mimms motorway service station.
There are quick and telling side-glances linking and differentiating each
poet's work at intervals and many other critics are drawn generously into the
The writers hope, in passing, that they communicate their interest in strong
and significant examples of this work 'as readers and poets' themselves.
Indeed these two authors amply communicate their commitment to and excitement
and interest in this experimental poetry. They have shown us praxis and
method and prepared the way for approaches that could be used revealingly
elsewhere, perhaps regarding the oeuvres of Elaine Randell, Paula Claire and
It is difficult in such a short review to do justice to the richness and
energy of the Kennedys' study. This book takes me back to the poems
themselves with a new sense of their complexity: the lexical and experiential
projects, risks undertaken and registers opened by the poets involved.
Additionally, one implication of my citing Marsh's words in opening this
review, were that this wonderful study is itself a fine manifestation of
experimental and challenging discourse. I can't think of a better
© David Annwn 2013