I remember seeing Alison read at Pembroke in February 2000, when she was the Australia Council fellow at Cambridge: she wore a leopard-print dress and high-heeled black sandals and surveyed a crowd (myself included) of ratty/dumpy/boho students and faculty dressed as much for the soul-creeping dread of the late winter fens as for the cold. But, as we came to realise, Alison's strategy against the soul-cold was to burn brighter, to be fiercer -- and in her fierceness was a lack of critical distance (irony, intellectualism, equivocation, revocation, self-denial, incomprehensible density as cover for deep feeling) that marks a lot of contemporary experimental poetry. Her reading was full of voices, like Prospero's isle, but also blushingly full of bodies, with a directness and cutting-to-the-quick that is poetry's essence -- and which I think is neglected.
Writing about apostrophe (poems that address a listener within the text via the exclamation O! or the use of the second person), critic Jonathan Culler describes it as symptomatic of "all that is most radical, embarrassing, pretentious, and mystificatory" about poetry. I love that strange combination of words (and they definitely came to mind while I was watching Jane Campion's new film Bright Star today). Poetry *is* embarrassing, not just naked but skinless, not just skinless but the act of pointing and saying: "Look, no skin! Look, blood -- meat -- pulse!" It's in that radical strategy of drawing attention to that which we do not look regard that Alison's poetry excels. "I am concerned," remarks the titular garment in "What the Glove Said," "with the skin of nearness."
The glove's exactly the object (intimate, inside-out, human-shaped) to speak metonymically for the poet. As the title of her most recent collection Theatre suggests, she brings a playwright's (and theatre critic's) eye to the drama of revelation and the honing of address. The book begins with a plangent and seemingly transparent poem about her inability to write the poem that she writes, which sets the stage for the fiercely doubting, elusive yet ever-present "I" that will declare and undercut itself throughout the book. Of the self's relation to poetry, and the writer's relation to the reader, the poem "Theatre" asks
and is this really my own damageThere's no deflection here, no deferral of meaning. It's reminiscent of John Berger's Pages of the Wound, and some of the prose poems in the collection have the dense, earned slippage between allegory and political reality of Berger's novels.
or a wound torn in others
that they must diagnose
through my skin?
Even so, the "I" struggles to come to terms with its incarnation, its necessity for the production of poetry. In "Flames," the speaker extinguishes the poem with the lines
I am ash for a beloved voice, while the poem "after Arseny Tarkovsky" (which is a version or ventriloquism of the Arseny Tarkovsky poem used by his son Andrey in the film Stalker) ends with an accounting that cannot add up: "My life… My love… my soul… my thoughts… but it isn't enough." Even when the act of writing appears to offer sufficiency and expression, it's not enough:
whose irony rebukes me
She writes her body with the tips of her fingers but it is no longer her body. The words are not her they belong to nobody. She writes to slough off her name. She speaks to become invisible. She desires to become what she is.No wonder Alison's first collection for Salt was called Attempts at Being.