Poetry

Review: “Wake” and “Drink” by Laura Madeline Wiseman

Wake published by Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2015.

Drink published by BlazeVOX [books], 2015.

This review first appeared in 2016 in Strange Horizons.

These two poetry collections are reviewed together. There’s some similarity between them: both are centred on family and myth, with metaphors both mortuary and marine. Both are worth reading, although if you’ve only got time for one, I’d recommend you go for Drink. I’ll get to that one in a bit.

Wake is the slimmer of the two volumes, and it is primarily concerned with death – specifically, relationships with death. Before death, after death, how monsters approach death and how women do. The last of these is particularly relevant, as Wiseman’s death is a woman, come in the form of a sister. This female, familiar perception is not one I’ve come across often – barring F.G. Haghenbeck’s portrayal of Godmother Death in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo­, or Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series,  for instanceand it gives an interesting flavour to the text, one that’s underlined and simultaneously undercut by the unsympathetic portrayals of corporeal sisters.

“Unsaid Negative Confession: We Hate You” (49) has the poem’s narrator screaming her hatred at a sister who stands block-like, impervious. Apparently she feels nothing; the hatred doesn’t touch her – which is what you’d expect from a death-sister and not a blood one. Everything dies, and tantrums on the stairs make no difference. The mythological carries on, undisturbed by the messiness of human emotions and accusations. Yet the attraction remains, the sense of family loyalty even if it’s one-sided.

“I like monsters” says the poet (in “Preference”, 56). Yet “My sister is a monster” (so claims the poem “Barren Monsters”, 58) which tells of an abusive relationship between the sister and her partner, a man who hits and pulls her hair, who calls her names. The sister is infertile, presumably because “Monsters and humans can’t mate”. One would presume, in this case, that it’s the partner who is the true monster, but biological femininity will out – the bleeding, the “extra wombs” – for body here defines monstrosity more than action. It’s a classification prefigured by early behaviour. The poem “Book of Monsters” (61) states that “As a girl, my sister painted her bedroom’s ceiling and walls black”. Black, the colour of death, of unconsciousness and falling away, if ever there was one. The monster-sister, building a habitat.

No surprise, then, that this monstrosity is reflected in the death-sister. The walls between realities are narrow things, and easy to split. This is most obvious in the imagery of the death-house. In this world, that house is only visited once, and the door is one way. In Wake, however, the house of death is a place to be visited over and over again as one walks in and out of the underworld, as in myth and legend.

Part of this dual approach is due to the nature of the collection: Wiseman takes a genre-mashing approach, creating a whole out of disparate parts, so that more realistic poems are cheek-by-jowl with explorations of fairy tales (the Little Mermaid and Snow White) and mythology. Part of it, however, harks back to the sister-relationship of death. A sister’s house is a place for visits, for taking tea and gossiping – or throwing cups and slamming doors, a grand exit full of pique and refusals. “We don’t go there anymore” says the poet (in “Death’s House”, 38) and it’s a saying that comes with the echoes of fractured relationships and replacement, for other people are lining up to visit Death’s House. Other people live there; they “tread the family carpet, watch the doors”. Yet later, in “Sister Death” (46), “We know it’s time to visit again” and it’s all reminiscences of past lives together, of parties and shared beds and thin walls so that conversations in one room can be heard in the next. The reminiscing isn’t kind. It’s of a bitter thank-goodness-I’m-well-out-of-it-now sort, an uneasy truce. But if that relationship has notes of realism in it, then they’re overshadowed, often, by a text that values a sort of mutual, metaphorical osmosis. In “The Entrance to Death” (64) the same narrator who refuses and remembers crawls over the threshold: “I’m going in. I’ve been there. I can come back.” In “Death’s Cameras (51-52) it’s “Together we’ll go back to the living”.

But go back to what? Come back as what? As one of the women in “Anthology of the Dead” (40) who gather under an advertising flyer, lured in to tell stories of their own deaths, their own murders? Stories of being strangled, of being framed as a suicide, of the betrayal of sisters and mothers (by sisters and by mothers? or just by daughters?). And these stories they tell – how real are they anyway? Are they just fairy stories of another kind? Ariel the amnesiac mermaid, making things up because “Anyone would forget an event that turned every step into a feeling of knives” (in “Considering Lore”, 39).

It’s a focused collection, Wake, albeit with a focus that blurs to ghost each action with metaphor and myth trailing behind like incense. That focus makes for a very interconnected text that can be a little repetitive but at least is certain of what it is: a study in death and sisterhood, one that stalks behind with a rotting welcome mat.

I read Wake before I read Drink, and really it would have been better to have read them the other way around. Drink appears to be the more foundational work, and large portions of it are dedicated to the portrayal of an abusive, alcoholic mother and the resulting suicide attempt of a sister. The effects of alcohol, of drink, are contrasted in this collection with the imagery of – and poems on – mermaids. It seems an odd combination, at first, and one that relies on wordplay – in the drink, on the drink, and so on. Bottles piling up in the rubbish bin of a cheap motel room; bottles sinking to the ocean floor and being used as toys. Empty bottles broken up and used for art; empty bottles filled with seawater and messages.

But the wordplay is underpinned by deeper connections – the varying myths and realities of modern life. The poem “On Vanishing” (19) makes this particularly clear. After the disappearance of a plane, possible reasons for that disappearance get stranger and stranger, delving into science fiction and controversy. Then “Someone says, Mermaids. Another says, This is about lack of security, welfare moms. There’s no such thing as mermaids.” The myths of the past, of half-human, half-fish sea creatures are being replaced by the myths of the present: the welfare mother as the reason for social (and aeronautical) collapse, the ever-present expectation of terrorism as the new lurking monster under the bed (in the hold). These myths expand into our social consciousness. Given that this is a book about mothers and daughters, the myth of the welfare mother holds special weight. Unemployed and slovenly, bearing multiple children to different fathers and spending her money unwisely. A scourge to her daughters, violent and abusive. That it appears to be true in this case – the sequence of poems in Drink where the mother ignores a daughter’s suicide attempt, telling her boyfriend du jour, on being confronted with that daughter’s failing body, to “Step over her, Joe. Step over her” (“Complicit IV”, 63) is particularly horrifying – doesn’t mean that the exception is the rule. Unless, of course, we’re mythmaking. Then, the single incompetent individual is blown up, magnified as the representation of an entire class, because demonising that class is an easy thing, a simple explanation. Terrible mothers don’t bring down ships in “On Vanishing”. They bring down planes.

The subject of the myth changes, but the object – the desire to explain, to place blame – remains the same. It’s not mermaids pulling men underwater any more, it’s irresponsible women drowning themselves in drink, and the children are suffering for it.

But if the terrible mother shares the threatening nature of mermaids, so do her daughters. It’s here that the two parts of Drink really come together: it’s an exploration of what living with drink, what being surrounded by it, can make of you.

In Drink, the daughters of an alcoholic become mermaids. Not literally, of course. They don’t learn to breathe underwater. Their legs don’t fuse; they don’t live on fish and the folk they lure into drowning. What they share is more subtle than that. It’s certainty that ties the two pieces of myth and reality together… the certainty of self, of what it means to be a mermaid, to be the daughter of a drunk.

This certainty both strengthens and handicaps. Mermaids “fear nothing. The only thing to fear is mermaids” (“Shadows”, 24). The only thing to fear is the self, in other words. The self that refuses to die, even after swallowing a bottle of pills and being stepped over by boyfriends, still and silent on the carpet, surrounded by vomit. The self that is afraid of backsliding, of transforming into the mother, because alcoholism in a family member increases the chances of alcoholism in the self. “I don’t drink anymore so there’s no beer, no wine, no liquor to take a drink” (“Hit the Bottle”, 87). Reminders of temptation, of generational repetition, are always about. A partner who collects bottles (and how much is the daughter of an alcoholic going to be drawn to others? has it happened without her understanding it?). Bottles that appear out of nowhere: “I didn’t understand why there was a bottle by the sink. I didn’t put it there” (“The First Bottle”, 72). Bottles thrown into the ocean, and always the possibility of return: “You say, It will come back. I shake my head, thinking, No, some choose never to come back” (“A Bottled Message”, 71) – the implication being, of course, that some do.

Mermaids are trouble because their only danger is themselves. They’re unaffected by anyone else. “Not like elves or fairies. If you stop believing in them, they don’t care or die” (“Against I: Myth”, 29). If you stop believing in a parent, do they care? If a mother’s daughter is overdosing at her feet, does she remain unaffected?

The rock solid certainty of personality, this absolute cleaving to myth, is reflected in the certainty of daughter towards the mother. “Welfare Queen” (43) is acid in the description of the parent: negligent, abusive, entirely absent of boundary. The daughters, in reflection, are called “Pariahs. Homeless. Whores” because certainty is catching when myths are about. They’ve a mythic role to play, those daughters: the next stage in the intergenerational cycle of dependency, the image of their mother.

In response to sexual abuse, the girls “grew scales, bone hard and jagged, an armour”. Their humanity is taken away by the indifference and determined looking-away of neighbours, when there was no-one “who would talk to us like we were human / we swam mostly alone” (“Pariahs”, 51).

Mermaid traits are thus a defence mechanism – but a double-edged one. Becoming a mermaid may protect from some threats, but it comes with certainty and risk, the possibility of turning into mother, of being so solidly set upon a rock made of bottles that the final destination really is drowning in drink. “I write, SOS. I write, My sister refused to die. I write, We are all mermaids” (“O Captain! My Captain!”, 88). The daughters swim alone, but another poem, “The Mermaid’s Sister” (89) says “I don’t swim, not even close”, while being gifted with bottles by a lover.

The drink is always a temptation, for mermaids, for the daughters of alcoholics.

It’s what’s expected of them, anyway.

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Nature as Creative Catalyst

entanglementsI’ve a new book chapter out!

Actually, that implies there was an old book chapter. Nope! There’ve been a handful of papers, but this is is the first academic chapter I’ve had published. It rejoices in the name of “Nature as Creative Catalyst: Building Poetic Environmental Narratives through the Artists in Antarctica Programme”, and it is riveting stuff I tell you.

But if you think that title’s a mouthful, have a look at the collection that it’s in: Ecological Entanglements in the Anthropocene, edited by Nicholas Holm and Sy Taffel. Perhaps it’ll all be a bit clearer when I tell you that the working title of the project, for most of the time I was involved in it, was Working With Nature. Basically, it’s a collection of essays on the many different ways that people interact with their natural environment. Aside from mine, there are chapters on photographing the Australian landscape, suburban landscapes, postcolonial property rights in New Zealand, and more. The focus does tend towards the Antipodean, but it’s not the only setting explored.

My own chapter looks at New Zealand’s Artists in Antarctica programme. Every year, artists are sent down to Scott Base, to live and work with the scientists there. This is done in order for artists to communicate the Antarctic environment to the general public, in different ways than the scientists do. Basically, to give a more well-rounded experience of the continent to said public, who let’s not forget are the ones paying for NZ’s research programmes on the ice. The more invested the public is in Antarctic conservation and science, the better – at least as far as I’m concerned. Selected artists may be writers, film-makers, visual artists, textile artists, musicians, and so on. Being a poet myself, I focused on the visiting poets and how they built environmental narratives of their experiences.

I’m not going to lie, one day I’d love to be part of the Artists in Antarctica programme myself. Still, until that happy day, I can at least appreciate the work of the poets who have been able to go thus far… namely Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, Chris Orsman, and Owen Marshall. Lucky, talented bastards.

 

Agency and the Consequences of Creation

reef poemsI’ve a new paper out! “Agency and the Consequences of Creation in Mark O’Connor’s Reef Poems” has recently been published in volume 23, issue 1 of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. It’s free to read at the above link.

Reef Poems can be quite hard to find these days, but if you can track it down it’s well worth it. An absolutely fantastic collection by the Australian poet Mark O’Connor, who very kindly granted me permission to quote from his poems in my paper. I can’t emphasise enough how much I enjoyed this collection – it’s sad and enraging and funny all at once, with touches of the speculative throughout. And given the ever more dreadful state of the Great Barrier Reef in general, any piece of writing that comes down hard on its side is to be supported, so look out for Reef Poems if you can, you won’t regret it! (And if you ever have a chance to support the GBR in a more tangible way, please do. It’s an extraordinary ecosystem that should be protected at all costs.)

Anyway, here’s a taster for my paper:

In 1972, the Australian poet Mark O′Connor (1945–) got a temporary job as a scuba diver at a scientific research station on the Great Barrier Reef. “All I could draw on,” said O′Connor, “was a certain amount of biological knowledge, which I was pulling in hand-over-fist from the scientists. But I had those two essentials for poetry: time and solitude to brood on what I saw” (“The Poetry of the North” 26). Four years later, his first collection, Reef Poems, was published. Since then O′Connor has established himself, alongside writers such as Judith Wright, John Kinsella, and Peter Minter, as one of Australia’s foremost ecopoets. O’Connor shares with Wright not only a history of environmental activism, but also the perception of a “rift that alienates humans from the biosphere” (Platz 259). This alienating rift places humanity as separate from that biosphere instead of part of it, and O′Connor’s desire to close the gap, to drag together and reconcile, is shared by such ecopoets as the Australian Susan Hawthorne, who comments that “Our planet like us is a living system… This is not a romantic idea of mine, it is metaphoric, but no less real for being so” (95). But desire for reconciliation does not make reconciliation, and O′Connor goes on to illustrate, in some of his Reef Poems, a world where the rift between humanity and the biosphere is ever widening….

 

Carnival Microbial

grendelsongI’ve a new story out!

Carnival Microbial” is free to read in the latest issue of Grendelsong. It’s creepy, creepy science: a circus where the performers are all microbes. Specifically, horrible diseases: Scarlet Fever as a trapeze artist, Tetanus as a human blockhead, and so on. Sandwiched in the middle of this little prose-poetry collection is the freak show… a caravan of historical microbiologists, of deadly bacteriologists. And when Smallpox gets a little too close to Edward Jenner’s cage, the Carnival is out a ringmaster and the microbes have to go about selecting a replacement.

It’s weird biological fantasy, essentially. Now usually my biological preferences fall to plants, but I like talking about science in interesting ways, and there’s more to science than seagrass.

And talking of Jenner, here’s his excerpt. You can read the entire strange thing at the above link if you’re interested.

Edward Jenner: has a cowhide on his wall, stretched tight in four directions and with the feet cut off. The cow’s name is – was – Blossom.

has a milkmaid with poxy hands and otherwise perfect skin, who sings as she squeezes and believes all the tales her mother told her. Her name is Sarah.

has a garden, and a gardener who raises kids as well as cabbages and carnations and chances. The child’s name is James: he is eight years old, with skinned knees, and can be trusted not to make a fuss.

has a scalpel, to scrape the pus from milky hands, to open up the freckled skin with slices and supplement with smallpox. The scalpel doesn’t have a name. Tools very often don’t – or so Blossom and Sarah and Jamie would say, all innocent, as if their opinions mattered to anyone.

Paper: ‘I Close the Mima’…

2015-2My latest paper has recently been published! “‘I Close the Mima’: The Role of Narrative in Harry Martinson’s Aniara” is out in volume 54, number 2 of Scandinavica. It should be available for free on their website soon; I’ll put a link under the Papers tab when it is, in case anyone’s desperately interested in reading it. Though if you’re into sci-fi, I’d definitely take a look at the source material. It’s a fascinating book-length poem about the dangers and isolation of spacecraft…

Abstract:

In 1956, Swedish writer and Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson published an epic science fiction poem, Aniara, about a spaceship thrown off course and dooming its passengers to an eternity of deep space travel. Aboard was also the Mima, an artificial intelligence that eventually committed suicide out of despair. The Mima is generally perceived to be a mimetic construct, but this article also interprets her in the form of a personified narrative: when the Mima dies, both the community aboard the Aniara, and the structure of the poem itself, breaks down into individualised constituents.

It’s the first paper of mine to focus on a science fiction text. Hopefully not the last!

Chemical Letters: Aluminium

Caroline sits in Piccadilly Circus

on the steps under Anteros.

 

Pigeons scramble on bricks before her

and each brick has a letter. Sometimes two.

They are familiar,

the Kemiske Breve.

 

A man sits next to her, throws bread

from a paper bag like a hollowed out envelope,

with a red wax seal, Ørsted.

He offers it to Caroline, and they feed the birds together.

 

I used to wonder, he says, what it was that caused

several pieces of the same kind

to come together, cohere in unity.

Now I’m here, I wonder.

Was it love?

 

This is my favourite poem from my recently published collection, Chemical Letters, wherein a woman called Caroline wakes up in the periodic table. Because she’s a scientist, she promptly goes exploring. She’s able to do this because the table takes the form of an apartment block, and behind every door is a place or a time related to that element.  This is the aluminium poem.

If you’ve ever been to Piccadilly Circus in London (I have!) you’ll have seen the winged statue on top of a fountain. The statue is popularly – and wrongly – called Eros, but it’s actually his brother Anteros. What’s the difference? Well, Eros is the god of erotic love, while Anteros represents returned love that’s not necessarily erotic in nature. (It was put up to commemorate a philanthropist, so you can see that Anteros is really the more appropriate of the two.)

So what’s this got to do with aluminium? Well, the Piccadilly Anteros is the first statue in the world to be made from aluminium.

Aluminium was first produced in 1825 by the Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted, who you can see in the poem above is sitting on the fountain steps beneath Anteros, feeding the ever-present pigeons from a bread bag shaped liked an envelope. Ørsted also happened to write a book called the Kemiske Breve – the Chemical Letters. (See where I’m going with this?)  There’s a visual pun I couldn’t resist here that makes me happy: though it’s not the case in real life, the bricks around this fountain are imprinted with the abbreviations for elements… with H and He and Li, with Al for aluminium…

One of the things that Ørsted wrote about in the Kemiske Breve was cohesion. How chemistry came together, with its particles and elements and magnetic attractions. And it’s this poem that hints as to how Caroline ended up in the periodic table to begin with. A later poem indicates she’s spending her afterlife there. (It’s not just her, and it’s not the only afterlife…)

But why?

Perhaps it’s love that brings like together, says Ørsted, sitting under the statue of love returned.

Perhaps Caroline loved science so much that that love got paid back after death, so she could spend it in the company of what she loved, and those who loved it with her. Perhaps that’s Caroline’s cohesion and coming together, and Ørsted with her…

Yes, I’m a science nerd. Sue me. It’s my favourite of the chemical poems, and the part that sticks it all together. If you want to read more, maybe check out the collection?

Chemical Letters

CoverMy first poetry collection is out! Chemical Letters has just been published by Popcorn Press, and – unsurprisingly, given the title – is about the periodic table of elements.

But as anyone who’s read The August Birds or The Ghost of Matter knows, I like mixing speculative fiction in with my science and this is no different. Chemical Letters is about more than just atomic weights…

A scientist wakes in the periodic table come to life: an apartment block built by Mendeleev, who squats in the basement as superintendent. Behind each door is an element, and as Caroline explores the chemical letters of her professional life, she finds other scientists, other visitors. Van Gogh is painting sunflowers with chromium yellow; the hydrogen of Hindenburg is burning at Lakehurst; Marie Curie is playing catch with radium—and Caroline is stepping through science, opening doors one after the other, searching for a place she can call home.…

You can buy a copy direct from Popcorn Press, or find an e-copy or a print copy at Amazon.

Mary Shelley Makes a Monster

shelleyThis week I’ve got a long poem out at Strange Horizons! “Mary Shelley Makes a Monster” is inspired by Shelley’s life. I read a biography of hers recently – picked it up from the library almost at random, because it was on display and reminded me that I loved Frankenstein and didn’t know much about the author.

If you’ve come across my novella The Life in Papers of Sofie K., you’ll know that I’ve an interest in women and monstrosity – particularly historical, looking at women who bucked the expectations of their time and were often punished for it. Sofia Kovalevskaya, with her monstrous mathematical brain, was the first of my experiments on this theme.

Then along came Mary Shelley: most famous for a story of a constructed monster, and I thought What if it were you all along? What if the monster were truly your creation, not Frankenstein’s? What if  you were the monster, Mary?

Hence the poem. It’s really a thinly veiled allegory of the events of her life. It reads speculative enough, to be sure, but some years back now I studied English at university and this is probably the only chance I’ll ever get to show it off.