In Lockdown with the Marys – a review essay
The before-our-very-eyes magic of all the poems in this collection is that their exploration of ‘confusions’ is revealed in the large number of rabbits – having been pulled from so many hats – scampering around the pages with their vibrant interpretations.
As we are told in Rupert Loydell’s Abracadabra: discovering is no more ‘than the next trick’.
His group of poems A Confusion of Marys – the third section of the whole – takes an industrious approach to ‘reinventing and reclaiming’ (Annunciation Manifesto) with the framing of what representation is by going straight to the heart of how we do perceive/want to perceive,
‘I am interested in symbols of excess,
the handcrafted construction of sets,
superficial and cultural constructs,
unexpected moments, imperfection
and humanness juxtaposed with
religious and scared iconography.’
And this is an approach from a number of the poems, but there is an adventurous spirit in spiriting through alternatives: for example, the variables of how we continue to perceive the annunciation of Mary is ironically captured in two poems Cut-Up Annunciation and Fancy Dress Annunciation where randomness and party artifice exemplify how we keep the mystery ‘essential’ and how we ‘found something that fits’ the moment, because it will be no more than a moment before we move on, or are moved on.
Damaged Gods puns on the broader questions of finding and defining – discovering new ways to perhaps believe in old ways. I am not convinced that if ‘we shall learn to pray again’ we can avoid the acceptance ‘we are just illusion’ – as if illusion is just a flip of the coin, a transposition of one for the other. But of course it is Loydell himself who says ‘perhaps’ so it’s a moot point, apart from thinking about it.
There are lines from poems in this third section where they are more impressions than questions or workings through. Two poems Shadow Annunciation and Pixelated Annunciation create more visual representations through language pared back and/or repetitions. Each evokes rather that narrates, and the latter mimes its words typographically.
I’m drawing more of a reflection from the range of poems in this section than trying to illustrate precise distinctions – stressing the differences and how they engage, constantly. So these two just mentioned, for example, don’t conclude in the rhyming of
‘It’s fine art America, it’s city life,
shouting at his pregnant wife.’
which are the first and last lines from Fine Art America when a more comic take on the domesticity of annunciation becomes transatlantic where so many of the world’s jokes take place.
If you want just playfulness, ask Nigel.
The book’s title poem in this section is one of the most lyrical, and it is beautiful. It takes its cue from the David Bowie song Sorrow and as the poem cascades across the page, the melody of the song (impossible not to be hearing as we read) plays out the lament of our unknowing/uncertainty, where
‘everyone else is a non-believer’
And as we are re-defining, yes, I am working backwards.
Sarah Cave’s middle set of poems The Autophagy of Mary have an overall lyricism that is filtered through personal memory, history, and gender politics – this latter the cradle within which everything is rocked, and not to soothe. If there is a premise to these it might well be,
‘while all the official channels of faith are drawn
by men they are given by women / Women curate
the experience / women like my Grandmother
her Great Grandmother / who made the church
smell sweet on Sundays / giving lessons’
But this isn’t a polemic. We can begin in the more general where,
‘The stern women in the church
who hand out the book of common prayer
relish the anachronistic language’
then move into the personal recall, and the here and now of faith in its learning curve, as when referring to her mother,
me to the sacrament / and together
but always separate / we pray
at the many altars of her doubt
on her lips are prayers and Labour Party committee minutes
of protest / her CND pin tabbed to my label’
I like this journey into the self and the framing experience with which we can identify. Whilst it was then a solitary experience, that aloneness it is now shared,
‘I learned the creed / alone
sat in the choir pews / maudlin’
And the sharing is surely ongoing – past and present – with many questions to ask like those of the niece who has an important cameo role,
‘…Veronica asks me why she
should accept that Aristotelian self-reflection
must rest like little flowers
in her hands when they bury her / why must
she wait / Her question starts a forest fire
Her question burns me / I have no answer’
All women are Mary and her journey from ‘powerlessness’ to a ‘defiant symbol’ is a lineage of poetic [biblical] mistreatment and then that of Cave’s justice.
And as I said, the cradle doesn’t rock as a lullaby, this evidenced in a moment’s evocation of artist Eric Gill and childhood abuse – how men protect themselves: the not knowing still.
It is through this rocking we rock boats, so to speak, the gospel/s passed down through time and taking so much time to unravel, to define Mary’s place among men and mythology, and learn by observations that, for a young girl, things are not necessarily clear at the time,
‘Three women pray at the shrine of Mary
mother of God / clutching her feet
stroking her dress / I watch one woman
slip her hand lovingly between the statue’s legs’
It is a moment of divine [apologies] intervention, Cave – who has been authorial before – delivers a line both comic and incisive as the poem’s narrative reaches one of its own instants of revelation,
‘I have written about Mary as though she were exploited
by her encounter with the divine / perhaps she was
but then I would have to accept that God was gendered’
The comic turn rolls over later into another gem – this after serious scrutiny of ‘Gabriel’s masculinity’ – when Cave combines for her further reference points ‘the Ark of the Covenant’ and ‘the first Indiana Jones film’: the punchline in a link between the birth of Christ and a scene from that film.
By this stage in the poem’s journey the gender politics are essentially not for exposing as humorous – they exist, so anger won’t eradicate, but the historical damage cannot be excused – and in what could be a summary of the fundamental role of Mary in breaking that stereotype [literary/political/religious/social and so on] she is the other resurrection, rising out of her subjugation through the words of men,
‘Mary is metaphor / Symbiotic with creation / destruction
and redemption nurturing it into full fruition / Without
her God’s plans are impossible / Her biological ability
to bear Christ into the world is pivotal’
In this triumph – and it is: poetically, emotively, intellectually – Cave can be demonstrative,
‘Here and now, I would like to see Mary
become the figure head
of a gender-neutral sex cult’
The book begins with Loydell’s Annunciations prose poems exploring the ‘she’ of Mary, not as gender specifically, but as person/figure/victim/art object and all else. What these pieces tell us is that Mary has no control over who she is, but
‘She cannot escape the idea that she is special’
In this second prose poem, Mary is heading to a termination, literally framed within a bus shelter by the advertising hoardings of a personal choice over the small things in life while she struggles for the independence with which to tackle the much larger.
The poles of intervention in Mary’s life are examined through, for example, the saucy-ish soap opera of a visiting by Gabriel, and then the remote representation from Andy Warhol. She is as much a modern invention as she is ancient ‘depending on your point of view’ – though this is applied to the ‘start of a great religion’ which seems to me a trickier proposition, whatever one’s proclivities.
But it is the mileage in Mary’s story that matters more than anything else. That these wonderfully broad and exploratory poems add a whole new geography to the landscape is great storytelling. Prompted as they are by history’s multitude of other representations, it is an impressive exponential revision and re-imagining and re-contextualising – this latter the true catalyst for further discovery. That I have experienced most intensely in lockdown is yet one more ripple to this.
The book’s opening epigraph is
‘The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.’
– Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
As someone with no doubt that I have no faith, I can happily reject the clever aphorism of this, but on reading these poems I also happily accept the – perhaps – braver attempt to dance to its paradox.
Sarah Cave and Rupert Loydell have clearly danced this for some considerable time and thinking,
and I have also reviewed/commented on Loydell’s Dear Mary here.