‘I was one burnt daughter in a genealogy’: Sarah Cave on three collections that offer new, feminist forms of disruption

Rachael Allen, Kingdomland (Faber, £10.99)

Sophie Robinson, Rabbit (Boiler House Press, £10)

A K Blakemore, Fondue (Offord Road Books, £10)

Rachael Allen’s Kingdomland is a dream sequence, nightmarish and visionary, replete with apostles burning, forests burning and boundaries (both physical and metaphorical) burning. Skies are diurnal, blood orange reflections of burning:

Another body found burned in the oval, purple and mystical,
and all around her
peppery crisps in the shape of a heart.
                                         (‘Prawns of Joe’)

Allen unfolds images of animals, humans, vegetables and landscape in varying forms; poems run snake-like down the page or stretch long arms across the paper.Kingdomland is never on dry land. We are always at sea, moving between physical beings whose forms are liquid – woman, pig, man, gland, cucumber. The text is mercurial.

There’s a satisfaction in slipping so easily between being and beings and it feels as if Kingdomland is making something different happen in the brain. The poems change us and require a different state of consciousness, moving us beyond place.

This is Allen’s first collection and it covers a great deal of ground. It moves between environmental concerns, sexual abuse and rural isolation with a skilful ease, even a blitheness.

I didn’t earn any adulthood 
I had it thrust upon me

she visited once 
and told me

men have the upper hand 
unbanded her chest

to reveal rows of wounds 
delivered concomitantly
                                     (‘Landscapes for a Dead Woman’)

Kingdomland wears its dark narrative lightly. Sparkling with humour as well as grotesque imagery, Allen’s lyric experiment allows us to move lucidly between people, objects, and animals, and her absurdist flourishes ignite the dark themes of the book with a charming playfulness.

At a recent reading in Plymouth, Allen answered questions about the process of writing Kingdomland and discussed ideas around performance, specifically the performance of femininity. But there’s also an implicit performativity in the way that she asks us to inhabit different entities in the poems – like the ‘mimic octopus’ we can be a purblind monkey, an opal gland or cucumber, though not even the mutable form of the octopus is allowed to stand. Ultimately, this creature ‘might be many things / but it cannot mimic me’.

At the same reading, Allen described how she is influenced by critical theory – particularly writing in this vein on animals, feminism and place – which reminded me of Derrida’s essay ‘On Animals’. The philosopher, caught naked by his cat, must find a language to navigate the awkward moment. In that moment, Derrida and his cat must silently negotiate their existential collision.

In the poem ‘Dad is Pig’, Allen’s porcine father performs an absurdly grotesque interrogation of masculinity. Allen’s feminist critique simultaneously merges with her query over animals’ agency:

slice him up
there’s a vacancy
in the sky
and complacency
in the sty.
Who’s useful after that vasectomy anyway [...]

And so, the mother ‘wears him / calls him / the big holdall’.

Animals are metaphors, heirlooms, flesh in our mouths, and we need to see them all together in order to make sense of them. A few poems later, ‘Beef Cubes’ uses a similar technique to objectify a girl at school:

hot tight Penny 
that girl at school

who put talc on her face 
and sausage blush

on her cheeks 
was a meat clown

Penny is flesh in our mouths, metaphor, object, even heirloom.

In the poem ‘Porcine Armour Thyroid’ – possibly the best titled poem of 2019 – the ‘I’ is a pig gland, a part of the anatomy that synthesises substances and is synthesising the world: ‘I am a gland, the smooth opal / gland of a pig, who is bubbly with glands’. The collection begins and closes with the girl and then the girls floating ‘up/ to the billowing ceiling’. We start the book as an individual and by the end we have found others. Simply by moving an ‘s’, this remarkable poet synthesises her kingdom.

Rabbit is a burnt daughter; a lyrical ‘i’ who is burning with and against addiction. Sophie Robinson’s third collection is a tightly controlled explosion of language.Rabbit is ‘too sad & too drunk’ but Rabbit also revels, reveals and relates. Rabbit’s vernacular makes new the everyday linguistical encounters, interruptions and starvations of the millennial. Rabbit’s second section opens with a sequence called ‘Denial’; a desperate, keening half- song that repeats the phrase ‘is thirsty’ over several pages.

Rabbit’s narrative is abstract, largely concerned with addiction and sexual violence. Its rhythms and aesthetic are those of the New York school. Rabbit is a female versioning of the alcoholism of a lesbian Frank O’Hara or Charles Bukowski. The penultimate poem, ‘Fucking Up on the Rocks’, is an overt homage to O’Hara, evoking his angry playfulness and emphasis on obstructive line breaks.Rabbit’s lines pull you one way and then suddenly go another. Robinson’s tendency toward poetic contrariness is evident in the poem ‘Norwegian Air’, which twists and turns until we arrive unsure of how we started, not unlike a Norwegian Air flight. In the space of this one poem, Robinson moves effortlessly between images of ‘jeremy corbyn cutting a chocolate brownie into cake slices’ on Instagram to lines like ‘late at night in london the dead are burning still / the dead are listening / the dead are poor and angry’. Finally, untying the whole thing, Robinson leaves us with a visionary insight: ‘the new moon is just the same old moon cutting back across itself / i knew this already/ i willed it to be so’. Beautiful and perfectly done, like Jeremy Corbyn’s chocolate brownies.

Rabbit is fierce.

Rabbit tries to escape its own existence, a nightmare of addiction with only thin cracks of light allowing relief – ‘i stayed awake all night looping / like a gif around the things that made me bad’ (‘U Pig’). This creates a visually arresting sense of contemporary nihilism, and the repetitions of the gif, along with restless interruptions like ‘is thirsty’ and ‘ima jerk / ima jerk’, kick out like limbs beneath the duvet.

Rabbit is radical. Rabbit is angry. Rabbit is witty.Rabbit is also hurt.
‘Biggest Loser’ is a long poem, not dissimilar to Rachael Allen’s ‘Girls of Situations’. Both are litanies of sexual abuse by indifferent men:

i told him: don’t touch me 
& he touched me again
& then i said i said
don’t touch. he told me
to go fuck myself 
& he smacked me 
in the face
hard
with the back of his hand

The first stanza of ‘Hurtface’ is mournful and dejected:

i came home late like a man like a stranger zebra headed & foreign
put my key in the door & keen & cry for all my flat old places fall asleep on the keyboard & reblog the universe fuck with my long 
sad dick every last utensil put on whiskey & strip in the garden [...]

The second stanza sings:

o bum! o joy! o bloated world!

And all the while the poem enacts something deeper through the shallow surface of its emoji title.

In ‘Fucking Up on the Rocks’ there’s a rush of release. The poem is a complex devotional to Frank O’Hara, lionising and critiquing the self-destructive behaviour of both O’Hara and Robinson. I am reminded of this extract in ‘Lit Moments’:

i don’t want to see myself in anybody
else’s art I don’t want to know what they think they know about
                                                       me I don’t 
want magic i just want silence sitting on a special step halfway
                                                       up &
full of love

Rabbit’s world is dark and inverted and Rabbit is vulnerable, waking up constipated, belly against the sand.Rabbit is intimate – like licking a wound – and deeply political. Rabbit is both self-hating and self-loving articulation of the rhythms of the internet generation and the pop-art installation that is our late, late capitalist lives.

Fondue is something different. A different kind of addiction. A K Blakemore’s second collection deals with the complexities of male–female relationships and the nature of desire. The poems in Fondue present a beautiful and carefully written negotiation of the complexities of attraction. Blakemore clearly has a talent for restraint, her writing often seeming to push against the whiteness of the page.

i want to be so pretty that i’m 
so pretty that people will say 
she’s so pretty it’s like 
annoying
                                  (‘poem’)

Prettiness is annoying. This is a plea for something more, ugliness perhaps, certainly imperfection of some kind, but there’s also a fear of these things.

Blakemore is a conjuror in her silk kimono, red sweater, sun hat – there are lots of costumes in Fondue – and she rotates these definitions deftly throughout the collection. The ‘pretty corpse’ found on the front of a packet of cigarettes in ‘smoker’s children’ is turned into something picturesque. This conjuring trick is an act of negotiation; beauty cannot exist without its counterpart and the latter is inevitable and occasionally preferred. Her ‘grandmother’s cat’ shows us how something ugly might please another:

my grandmother’s cat is ugly 
because he’s always been that way:

the woollen wrists
scapolite eye unhooked
in quasi-mystical disputation –

but he is also beautiful and this because i hold him 
in very high esteem

Blakemore’s sparse minimalism here complements the sudden baroque apparition of words such as ‘scapolite’. Like bracelets on a naked arm.

‘Gregor’ is a loving triptych to Kafka’s Metamorphosis,whose speaker attempts ‘to conceal my disgust as you draw your squat / body up to the dish of milk’. ‘Lilith’ is a gorgeous poem. Lilith is a night demon and Adam’s first wife:

i caught the large moth 
with my bare hands –

Blakemore’s poems are exposed limbs – intimate portraits – framed by the white page. Objects, boyfriends, sexual acts are always defying our expectations like the turn in a sonnet. The result of the conjuring trick is to draw a veil over the authorial voice.

In ‘bedspread’, the diminutive ‘i’ responds to the object of the bedclothes in different ways. Her body morphs into the catalyst of the object, an object that has some glossy charm but also resembles the ‘skins of the thousand / rag dolls / i have slain’ – and the body is, after all, ‘such a pretty corpse’. The cover image of a man holding a doll suggests a critique of the objectification of women. Blakemore’s poems offer a sorely needed corrective to our image of the fetishised manic pixie dream girl, a literary trope that haunts its audience, both attracting and disgusting it simultaneously. The MPDG is a ventriloquist act, the outsider male giving voice to the perfect outsider female, who, when left alone, is a voiceless doll – but Blakemore gives her voice, filling the empty trope with a fragile echolalia.

In her Poetry Society manifesto, A K Blakemore writes that ‘if you are a woman, writing about your experience of being a woman, you are part of one of the most avant-garde literary movements there has ever been’.

I don’t believe this is true. Women can write out of any experience, including ungendered experiences. What makes an artform avant-garde is disruption. A poetry that is informed by identity can certainly be avant-garde but it is not what defines the work. All three of these collections are disruptive in some way and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether they fulfil the criteria or not.