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Brandishing Levers

Andrew Wynn Owen

Rachel Piercey
The Flower and the Plough
Emma Press, 2013
40 pages
£4.99
ISBN 9780957459601

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“I think of the postmodern attitude,” writes Umberto Eco in Reflections on the Name of the Rose, “as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.’” In launching her own exploration of what a “love poem” might be, Rachel Piercey squares up to that challenge. She faces not just the crushing weight of what has already been said, but the imperative to keep on adding to it, to keep on saying it.

Where Alexander Pope blames “space and time” for separating a pair of lovers, Piercey wryly adds to the list: “politics”, personal “histories”, and “generally the things that make you tick”. This revisionary spirit takes her from the intricacies of osmosis to updatings of Catullus and the result constitutes a dazzling debut pamphlet for Piercey and her publisher, Emma Press. The persistent scientific metaphors follow in a strong tradition, explored at length in recent years in the writings of David Morley and Andy Brown, that balances on the tension between captivating specificity and unruffled detachment:

We’re here at all
because heat
hitches with air
to smooth out cool.

And the one
who cares more
will have all their
extravagance drawn out.

This evocation of osmosis between two tiny living cells in which “water is compelled | to level” as an analogue for human interaction is an inspired use of disparities of scale, zooming out as though Piercey’s speaker has glanced up from a microscope or spun the dial on a varifocal lens.
With nimble turns and fine-tunings, the lab-coated care of Piercey’s scientific diction bolsters her traditional and heartening expressions of idealism. In “Make it up to you”, a title that shrewdly equivocates between reconciliation and spur-of-the-moment storytelling, love is reverently said to be “the only acceptable | form of repentance” even while the speaker’s level-headed realism allows that “a love poem” does not really require love on either side, situating this brand of love as a literary construct existing between people:

He didn’t love her
and she didn’t love him

but for all that, surely
it was a love poem.

Piercey has ordered these explorations of the “love poem” genre with architectural continuities of tone and argument. The stage is set for the immediacy and intimacy of ‘Sleepless night’, starting telegrammatically “Three a.m., in bed,” by preceding poems of historical placement. The free translation “When I grew up I got Catullus” declares that “The sun will always roll around the globe” but an individual’s hours for rolling in bed are fleeting, while “Family Tree” imagines an atavistic mechanism, like DNA with cogs, at the end of which

An old man and woman stand
a long way back
brandishing levers.

At this poem’s pivot, when “you meets me”, the attachment of the third-person form of the verb to the second-person pronoun exemplifies Piercey’s exceptional knack for compressing the poetic-scientific observer’s clout into the compelling cadences of colloquial speech.

The Flower and the Plough is full of astonishing formal touches, sensed on first reading and seen on the second. “Sea Bed” gives the impression of a speaker with much more to get off his chest than the immobilizing pressure of submergence in a zone where “Every sound is pressed out”. Piercey expertly formalises a journey from breathless compression to relieved release with the diminishment from six to five to four syllables in the lines of the opening triplet and the expansion from four to five to seven in the last:

Every sound is pressed out,
every ghost of light.
My miles of skin

feel each force pack it tight.

I remember one

whose arm smashed me
whose fluke raked through me
who split my heart and held it.

The closing line is a haunting round-off to this trajectory, alliteratively fixed and fixated on the one “who split my heart and held it.” Comparably sculpted, “Symbiosis” is a sonnet revisiting the conventions of “love poetry” with a light-hearted, left-field twist: these lovers are the Egyptian plover and the Nile crocodile and they star in a conceit exploring unconditionality in love, the plover persistent despite once having seen “his love rip shreds from a giraffe”. Piercey ventriloquises the even-handed tone of a documentarist in this final poem, bringing it to bear with charming effect on a fairytale out of Herodotus:

The Egyptian plover takes for his lover
the Nile crocodile. An unlikely pairing,
feathers with scales, finicking wade with
splayed legs, but she welcomes him wet-eyed
and wide-jawed.

Illustrations from the pen of Emma Wright complement the ranges of register and reference charted by Piercey’s speakers. Wright’s drawings are exuberant throughout, by turns cartoonish and painterly, playful and simple in the manner of Quentin Blake. Gears and wheels tumble down the page opposite the “cogs locking | unlocking | through hundreds of years” of “Family Tree” in a visual cascade to match that poem’s staccato scatter of short lines and vertiginous line-breaks. “Brief encounter” is flanked by two trapeze artists swinging to meet one another mid-air, hinting at the thrill of union and the let-down of a miss, earlier evoked by Piercey’s concern when imagining human relations as a system of gears, “What if you’re the slipping kind | not the catching?”

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson jokingly gloss the explanation “because I love you” as “evading the issue”. But there is no evasion in Piercey’s analyses of love. Genre-wrangling wit gracefully dissects the metaphorical “fictions” of love poetry, without losing any romantic pulses from “the things that make you tick”. The reader is hoisted into the action so that the turning of a page following the line “and your combined points pull away” becomes an act of wresting reluctance. Unlike the pillow-talk of “Sleepless night” that will “never | see the light of day”, these controlled illuminations of an important genre – establishing a rare, relaxed, and scientifically-engaged voice for the lyric speaker – match the charm of private with the skill of public speech. Piercey’s oscillations between lover’s ecstasy and love poet’s objectivity are so deft that her analytical lens becomes as much a fascination as the amorous perspective which it focuses.

Andrew Wynn Owen is reading for a BA in English at Magdalen College, Oxford.