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To Have Been Her

Maya Krishnan

[1]

Phoebe Stuckes
Platinum Blonde
Bloodaxe Books
2020
64pp
£9.95



In a letter to a friend of Robert Burns, Wordsworth draws a now-familiar distinction between the “human character” and the “poetic one”. Although a poet’s work is not independent of their “character and situation in society”, it is the task of the poet to take the different aspects of a sociological position and “construct out of them a poetic self, — introduced as a dramatic personage”. Wordsworth originally drew the distinction between the human and poetic self in order to defend Burns’ literary reputation from a critical biography by Dr James Curry. It is a distinction that I recalled when reading Phoebe Stuckes’ outstanding debut poetry collection, Platinum Blonde. This is not because Stuckes’ work invites interpretation as autobiographical (it doesn’t, or at least not any more than most other contemporary verse), but rather because while reading I felt the urge to ask Stuckes’ poetic persona out for a drink, and had to keep reminding myself that she only exists on the page. It would be the kind of evening that might lead to both of us trading stories of misadventures while slurring our words, or more likely would end with her noting that she has a prior engagement, before draining her glass and wandering off into the night.

Although Platinum Blonde is Stuckes’ first full-length collection, Stuckes is not a newcomer to the contemporary poetry scene — she won the Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award four times, was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award for her pamphlet Gin and Tonic (2017), and completed Platinum Blonde with the support of the 2019 Eric Gregory Award. In Platinum Blonde, Stuckes introduces her readers to a persona at once extravagantly over-the-top and painfully real. She is an urban partygoer who has “accidentally loved several rich girls” and “expect[s] to come to a sticky end”, but who also says, in a line that can be read in a whisper or with a snarl, “You don’t know/what I’ve done to cope”. Her emotional extremity is no less genuine for being performative: “I have chewed my lip bloody/trying not to be in love with you”. This extremity is delivered with a self-ironising edge which ensures that Stuckes stays just on the right side of melodrama. This is difficult to do well. There is a risk that the emotional extremity might come off as self-indulgent, while the irony would read as self-recrimination that intensifies rather than undercuts suspicions of self-indulgence. But Stuckes rarely falters, repeatedly landing lines in which extravagant confessions are delivered in a smooth deadpan: “I could hurt myself but I probably won’t”.

The writing in Platinum Blonde is spare. Few of Stuckes’ poems are longer than a page, and many are written in couplets of free verse. The couplets present series of compressed images or anecdotes that are almost always slightly overflowing the narrow space they have been allotted: “I should throw down my glass/and leave but I won’t, I have to be ordered out/like a dog and wouldn’t I rather be loved?” It is a formal choice that neatly conveys a sense of being a bit too much for the narrow world within which Stuckes’ persona is straining to fit.

Part of what makes Stuckes’ literary persona compelling is the distance not only between the author and the speaker, but also between the speaker and herself. This distance could be explained in terms of irony, but it is also plausibly identified with wisdom — in particular, with looking at an earlier version of oneself in a manner that is sympathetic without being condescending. “Have you ever seen/a woman in a plastic tiara throw up?”, Stuckes asks. “I have been her”. This last line resonates with Fiona Benson’s comment as judge of Stuckes’ winning entry to the 2019 Geoffrey Dearmer Prize: “I have been that woman. I see that woman, and I will her on into her life.” The feeling of having been her is essential to Platinum Blonde. The speaker seems to approach herself with the sort of wisdom often associated with retrospection, even in the midst of the all-consuming intensity of her own present moment. The present is treated as if it were the past — as something that can be the simultaneous object of horror and humour without any risk of incongruity. This collection is completely immersed in the maelstrom of one’s early twenties, while also incorporating a wry approach to those years.

The voice within Platinum Blonde is not entirely uniform. This is in part because the poems are drawn from different stages of Stuckes’ already substantial career. “Three Spells”, which was first published in Ambit in 2016, seems comparatively wholesome: “Girl, have a peppermint tea/and sleep on it. Keep hold of your story/like a dog on a lead”. “Three Spells” echoes the uplifting register of “Daughters”, one of Stuckes’ earliest published poems (not reprinted in Platinum Blonde), in which she exhorts, “Let us never be conquered/Let us no longer keep keys in our knuckles/Let us run into the streets hungry, fervent, ablaze”.

An entirely different voice from that of “Daughters” and “Three Spells” speaks in “Disco”, which features a “party girl/running low on favours” who says she doesn’t want to watch TV shows with rape scenes because “my life is already like that/I don’t need to watch it on the screen”. In “Cassandra”, exhortations reappear with a cynical edge, reflecting overfamiliarity with betrayal: “They will come here, the wives/standing up for their husbands./They will pour the molten gold/of their wedding rings down your throat/if you let them. Do not let them.” One might see the earlier and later poems as issuing from entirely distinct poetic personas: the former is the optimistic proponent of a vision of empowerment, while the latter engages in sometimes-vengeful exercises of poetic power against a world that has disappointed her. But in spite of the difference between these personas, they can also be read as organically related. There is a sense that the first has grown up into the second through a transformative process catalysed by violence. The failure of the ecstatic emancipatory vision (at least in its original form) creates the conditions under which it becomes possible to find, within the experience of violence, an equally violent creative potential.

The nexus of violence and creativity in Stuckes’ work recalls Plath as a poetic ancestor. One of the few reviewing clichés worse than comparing a female essayist to Joan Didion is comparing a female poet to Sylvia Plath. And yet it is hard to avoid noticing, in Stuckes’ image of a married man whose shadow “eats me on the pavement”, the inversion of Plath’s Lady Lazarus, who “eat[s] men like air”. Stuckes’ flat and decisive statement, “Do not let them”, echoes the opening line of Plath’s “The Couriers”: “The word of a snail on the plate of a leaf?/It is not mine. Do not accept it.” And Stuckes’ deliberately strained simile of “seagulls…hooting/like ambulances” functions with an incongruous internal logic reminiscent of Plath’s simile, “I crawl like an ant in mourning”.

One overarching similarity between the two poets is that they both construct creative personas for whom an almost surreal imaginative impulse functions as a gesture of refusal. This is a distinctive way of thematising psychological intensity. Although Stuckes’ references to suicide attempts and hospital questionnaires might seem to categorise her as a poet of ‘mental illness’, Stuckes prefers to speak of being “mad” or of “madness”. She takes an impious attitude toward contemporary idioms of mental illness, even when invoking them (“Perhaps I should get diagnosed”). Stuckes exhibits a sense of triumphant extremity that channels the energy of being “hungry, fervent, ablaze” into a destructive creativity fuelled in part by literal destruction.

This last point suggests the respect in which Plath and Stuckes most fundamentally coincide. Each finds and expresses poetic power in a mode that an old-fashioned psychoanalyst might categorise as masochistic. Even though Stuckes’ reference to the men whose shadow “eats me on the pavement” inverts the image of Lady Lazarus, it is an inversion that is perhaps more true to Plath than Plath’s own words in that instance (Seamus Heaney criticises Lady Lazarus as poem that falls below the standard of Plath’s best mature work for being “vehemently self-justifying”). Some of Plath’s most striking characterisations of her own force are ones in which Plath casts herself as passive: “Something else/Hauls me through air —/Thighs, hair;/Flakes from my heels”. Yet in a line such as, “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me”, there is a triumphalism no less forceful than that of Lady Lazarus for being more incongruous and twisted. What Stuckes learns from Plath is how to transform the sociologically conditioned experience of having been done to into a site of metaphysical knowledge from which emerges the artistic power to do.

Platinum Blonde accomplishes what some of the best literature does, which is to articulate a standpoint that you hadn’t recognised as such until it was given a coherent form of expression. Although being a (semi)glamorous party girl is one aspect of the persona that Stuckes creates in Platinum Blonde, this collection will also feel familiar to anyone who has spent a few too many years both bemoaning and revelling in being a fuck-up. Many of Stuckes’ lines could have been mottos of my own young adulthood (“like you I am wondering if I will always be like this”). Stuckes succeeds at the Wordsworthian poetic task of drawing widely recognisable insight from a particular “character and situation in society”. The power and skill of Stuckes’ writing ensure that the persona Stuckes creates is one readers will care about long after they stop being her but still can say, with Benson and Stuckes alike, “I have been her”.

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Maya Krishnan [2] is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at All Souls College, and is Essays Editor for the Oxonian Review.