Tag Archives: teens

The World According to Francesca Lisette

I wrote last October extolling Lisette as one of the finest younger poets writing at the moment and I’ve now bought ‘Teens’ from Mountain Press which collects most of her stuff in one place. A fortnight ago I read something about Julian Barnes in one of the lit. comics which ventured the view that the English literary novel can be read as a series of disappointingly rainy afternoons. It might not have said that but that’s what I wanted it to say. Since then I’ve been overly occupied thinking about the world of the innovative English poem and this has revealed that this line of thought ‘works’ with regard to some individual poets but not with others and the reason for this split isn’t altogether clear.

Francesca Lisette’s work does (for this reader any way) contain a defined world and I’d like to spend some time thinking about what this might look like. I’d also like to stress that this isn’t about ‘themes’ in that it’s not so much what people write about or even the way that they write but much more about the place that they write from which in turn isn’t about influences or personal background. Before getting myself into deeper abstraction, I’ll proceed by example.

Just as the literary English novel comes from a world of bourgeois disappointment and rain in the afternoon, Lisette’s work can be thought of as coming from the body or bodies. I’ve said before that Lisette’s tone is of ragged defiance and there’s more than a little of this in the way that bodies are in the work. Although Lisette’s poetry is both dense and oblique (withdrawn) these bodies bring something tangible to the readerly experience which works in a number of ways. This is from ‘Cite College Remix’:

  exudes a velveteen primp icon
nesting in teeth and tongue. frilly gangblast
rocks censored gash: rhododendron witness
twitters off kerbline, covers for a threaded agent
not allowing crystal layby
scoop organ mesh.
no matter how much blue
tears //into the jargon that sleeps in your body

(Lisette doesn’t do capital letters at the start of a sentence, she does full stops but not capitals)

I think it’s entirely reasonable to assume that this is not a poem about bodies but that the body and body parts are used as a kind of grounding, as a counter to the juxtaposed abstraction that makes up the poem’s subject(s).

By way of further illustration these extracts are from ‘Preface’

        educated hordes sustain a wiped gob
- corn, grated in th'umbrous bowels


    mirror sips flesh atop the pale flight of stairs

‘Preface isn’t a poem ‘about’ bodies but it might be a poem that makes use of the flesh and fleshy things as an undercurrent. Incidentally, I’d much prefer it if ‘umbrous’ had this definition from 1481 “He was umbrouse or shadewous, that is to saye he was colde and refrigerat fro all concupyscence of the flesshe” which seems much more fitting than its primary definition.

There are very few poems in this collection that don’t have bodies or bits of bodies in them and this brings me to think about the place that this stuff might come from. It occurs to me that young children have an unfettered and uninhibited interest in their own bodies until what we call socialisation and this ‘fits’ more than the obvious butcher / operating table / morgue places. I don’t however think this childish place is altogether happy, there’s too much violence in the work for that.

I now want to turn to the use of ‘ash’. I’m of the view that this is a word that needs to be treated with immense care in the wake of Celan’s ‘Aschenglorie’. This might be a personal foible but I can make a case for that poem’s insistence on care and precision. This is from ‘What Continues’-

all festooned where half-fashioned
rooves have crept: mantra dies off
in the bed of living up we rose
caulked and feckless,

brimming over with ash we die
and knit itches into permanence
bloody hurricane fighting brow
vacantly suck.

Before proceeding, I want to note the brilliance of ‘caulked and feckless’ which must rank alongside ‘relinquish flounce’ as proof of Lisette’s invention and skill. It’s not entirely clear that our death occurs because we are brimming over with ash but I’ll take this to be the case, our bodies are filled (to the brim) with ash and we die because everything is blocked up. ‘Permanence’ relates to something that doesn’t die and we, the dead, tie itches or irritation into it. This is very strong stuff and does treat ‘ash’ with the care that it deserves.

This is the start of ‘Flesh Elect’-

Roll river bank cyclical  lumped ash welts
smearing the city's
clicks and the hand glows

This is one of the angriest and ‘raggedly defiant’ poems in the book and it’s about shopping, the idiocies of retail, the stupidity of the consumer and the violence we do to ourselves-

The shade to be seen
asphyxiating your gullet with."

I’m not sure about ‘lumped ash welts’ but I think that can recognise the connotations that are being reached for. As with ‘What Continues’ the word is being used to suggest some kind of defilement but I don’t think a welt constructed from ash works as well as it reads.

This final example is from the third ‘Patient’ poem in the ‘Casebook’ sequence:

leads lose or abdicate expression  4am ash-light pours over you in cast metal
breather have you in tragic motion oder starred denial unchangeable ridge

The ash here could be cigarette ash but I prefer to think of it as approximating Celan’s use, I think the notion of the light from the ash being poured (or pouring itself) over someone particularly strong. This particular sequence is deeply political and the second ‘Patient’ poem is the best in a very impressive collection.

So, does any of this indicate a world? For me, this is a very urban world that exists in almost permanent night and continues to dance around the threat of crisis. The nearest I can get to it from my experience is central London in 1973/4 with bombing campaigns, strikes, and the strong stench of corruption. The all night cafes where you could plot the revolution and it all seemed….. feasible.


Withheld Poetry

I have been thinking about this for a while but what follows is more tentative speculation than anything with definition or clarity, I’m also likely to change my mind. Last year I wrote about Joe Luna’s contribution to the ‘Better than Language’ collection and remarked that what mattered was the stuff going on outside and around the text rather than the words themselves. I’ve since elaborated on this a little but it now occurs to me that several of our better poets are in the business of withholding or making poems that function as a collection of items/events that are incidental to what’s being talked about.

This line of thought started with a discussion with Neil Pattison about obscurity, I felt that one particular reference was far too obscure for it’s own good- Neil responded by pointing out that this might be secret rather than obscure. This was followed by coming across Luke Roberts’ observation of the ‘deliberate secrecy’ deployed in the work of Francesca Lisette.

I probably need to be a bit more detailed, I’m not talking about allusion in the sense that a phrase can allude or point to something else. The material that is withheld isn’t signposted at all except by the fact that it isn’t present and the poem that we have appears to be what is left when the’secret’ has been removed.

Before this gets hopelessly and incoherently abstract, I’m going to take refuge in some examples of what I’m failing to describe. In my head, Luna, Pattison and Lysette are the most conscious/deliberate withholders at the moment so I’ll use a poem from each. This is Joe Luna’s poem from the ‘document’ containing this and poems by Francesca Lisette, Jonny Liron and Timothy Thronton which was published by Grasp last year. The blurb says “Joe Luna’s poem is a singular work made from revisions and concanetations of smaller poems, written alongside and sometimes in response the others here”. This is the first half of the third part of this singular work;

with silliness & love taut multiplies
the trauma that produces humans. here
is my head so bleed it will you make my
infant mouth stay nothing: there, if I am
fully human, what goes in and how
the square can phrase that with a charge
of infantilism or crack: head's mother
tongue's cheap trick, selling short what's smashing
but prevented, love: given half a chance
who wouldn't harm what represents us,

I should perhaps have mentioned that this collection is a response to this government’s enlightened approach to the funding of higher education but that really isn’t much help with what might be going on here. The astute amongst you will have noticed that sense seems to have been deliberately disrupted or damaged without quite veering off into the completely abstract. The reader (me) is thus left with the impression of something which has been excised from the poem but still exists outside it. This notion is further enhanced by the considered use of punctuation- the full stop in the second line is not a typo and is followed by the lower case ‘h’. Normally I might find this kind of thing overly clever but this is more than redeemed by the degree of invention and the careful use of language that allows for this kind of disruption.

What’s also remarkable is the shifting nature of the proximity to sense/clarity, of how we almost know what “here / is my head so bleed it will you make my / infant mouth stay nothing” refers to or means even though we never can.

I’ve said this before but Francesca Lisette writes stunning poetry that manages to combine defiance with invention and humour.

Coincidentally, Mountain Press have just published ‘Teens’ which appears to gather together most of Lisette’s work. This is all of ‘Descension’:

fractionate uglies pass under mucked,
where eyes are, where palms grit to bless.
lunar spacings fringe the raw velvet
revolving the splintered crease.
[pin intervention]
now decidedly a field: turned-up,
caught in buttercup
high confessional
black touching dank silver
working to undermine the grease
jellyish strapped-in. blue myths wheel and caw;
bones stream in particles winded
caesarian synapse gives out: gives over

afterwards the shadowed wreckage
bacon won breeds eyes silkily
intentionally fathered.
cloud-set skin replaces knives and worm-wracked pentagonal
it is the laugh, the hairshine.
throttles on vampirically.
features too, escape voluble knowledge
all the undoings dozed out while braised:
carrying this kiss of initials like a stricture

Is this what Roberts means by “deliberately secret”? I’d like to put it another way, the above contains brilliant moments of verbal invention and enough indicators to allow us an informed guess as to what might have gone on but this can only ever be a ‘might’ because the language never quite gets to be formed even though it gives the impression of wanting to. It could be argued that this is just another piece of dense oddness but (as with Luna) what’s important is what isn’t said and we can only catch this at the corners and edges of the lines.

Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’ is one of the best poems written in the last ten years. This has primarily to do with the ‘voice’ of the poem and the determined urgency that it contains but it also withholds in a way that is slightly more nuanced than Luna and Lisette. This is a section that makes my point:

Scope under the silicon tint is tinfoil, patches
thumbnail, scan. Rubric, stinted, component of
this limb
is related to this joint
radiant proteins, bonding in a dream, stripped
out in light : tint qualifies, the eagles venturing
acquisition only ; stability maps in to sculpted
enamels, restriction polishes up as belt, teething
ulterior surface, desaturated : is tinfoil, scoped
then selective, this humane break in the product
line. Tracking its metric, folding, cursive, the scan
is firebreak, no quality witheld, the stinted whole.

This is grown-up poetry that isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s got to be worked with, the reader has to identify the things that aren’t being said which without doubt are much more terrible than the things that are. In fact I’d like to suggest that Neil’s withholding is to do with heightening and intensifying our anxiety and pushing us toward action or at least a response to the Bad Things that are almost described.

Another thought occurs to me- this keeping back isn’t done so that the reader can fill the gaps with whatever his or her experiences might suggest. These are real and tangible things that are not being said and that might be the point because the world is full to bursting with things that are made clear, are made plain to such an extent that we think we know lots about what there is to know. Only we don’t know very much at all and these poets are very good at bringing us back to the many absences and gaps that we need to recognise and pay attention to.