Chris Edgoose reviews Medlars by Geraldine Clarkson (Shearsman, 2023)
Geraldine Clarkson’s second full collection is not the kind which presents its meanings to you in neat rows (poetry as well-tended garden) or even one that allows you the intellectual satisfaction of being flummoxed by it on a first reading before it slowly reveals itself to you over subsequent re-readings (poetry as striptease). Medlars, whose subject is broadly speaking England – the UK, but really England – is a collection of nonsense poems in the very best sense of the word. It is not ‘Nonsense Poetry’ (although it does put Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear to good use, along with several other English poets), but it frequently revels and rolls around in the sounds, spellings, and silliness of language the way Nonsense Poets do; and this is often given priority over formal coherence. It may be better to call this a collection of poems which resist sense. Anti-Sense Poems, perhaps.
As befits a country and a political union so fraught and so difficult, Clarkson’s poems do not choose to provide easy solutions; in fact, their strength is that they refuse to provide any solutions at all to someone who reads them as they may be accustomed to reading. In fact, a casual reader will be likely, after some time dealing with opening lines like “On the nth of suck-tuber, an ounce and a pinch of thyme” (‘Eyes in a Whirl’), to put the book down in irritation, muttering “This is nonsense!”, perhaps with the feeling a reader of Finnegan’s Wake would get if they had not been pre-warned that it was not supposed to make sense in the traditional way. But in both cases of course, such a reader would be missing a great deal.
The poems in Medlars are nonsense because, to give it a semiotic spin, Clarkson puts her signs into contexts that crowbar their signifiers from their signifieds – a strategy that is metaphorical in itself, actually, given the many splits running through society. The poems’ words and their contexts within the poems often do not fall in line the way we expect them to, and so we are forced to find new ways to ascribe meanings.
Medlars is a collection of nonsense poems in the very best sense of the word
Clarkson achieves this subversion of expectations by conflating the Nation as a sociopolitical construct with the Nation as a physical, geographical, topological phenomenon. By doing this at the level of lexis and syntax as opposed to just that of imagery and metaphor, the implied political, social, and cultural splits become part of the fabric or DNA of these poems. The Social and the Natural become one grammatically.
For an example of this, see the second stanza of ‘Eyes in a Whirl’ (whose opening line was quoted above), where two mothers have “Eyed each other” on a bus going past “the new pig-five block near the park” and decided to “Get off and lark it!”:
They gathered musk and bourses, eggy,
and peeped themselves on two flues. Text-fawning,
they hit the egg sack. Summer was not sealing the gorse
but an old shrew, with cool enough plinth to smuggle
to Ipswich, laughed off neonatal silk.
Sense, in the traditional sense anyway, is clearly not the aim here; in fact, Clarkson blatantly and hilariously flouts sense, enjoying the richness of the language, and challenging the reader to apply their own significance to its relationship with the two women who appear to be the subjects of the poem. Our questions are simply not answered, that is not the poem’s point; it presents us with a sensation of the fullness, the fertility, the ripeness in nature, and integrates this sensation (it is more than juxtaposition – if anything this is intraposition, if we can call that a thing) with some kind of interaction between two women in some kind of town-based situation. All the rest of the meaning-giving in this poem, all of it, is left to the reader.
The penultimate poem, ‘Now!’ may help shed light on Clarkson’s project in Medlars. It is a prose poem, and in it, a “cheery” male figure, possibly some kind of showman “with florid cheeks and blues for the whites of his eyes”, commands his “leotarded assistant” to begin operating a surreal, publicly situated contraption which could only be described as a ‘Now Machine’ because it literally spews out the present moment. “Leotarda” makes this happen by “grab(bing) the spindle” and “turn(ing) for all she’s worth – till now starts churning out in huge gobs and clots”. This ‘Now Machine’ sends forth “huge potent draughts” which disturb and interest the surrounding public, the language building in short sentence after short sentence, becoming ever more febrile until “The air corkscrews, exfoliates, flaying an imperceptible layer of skin till nerves buzz and hum. Fragments of song stream by, long streamers you can snatch, catch 3 at once. The present is here in industrial quantities. Everywhere, moment.”
Clarkson is not minded to provide answers, but to allow the questions to hang in the air – indeed it seems to me that the only way to approach Clarkson’s work is through the medium of the unanswered question
So, what can we make of this? Again, Clarkson is not minded to provide answers, but to allow the questions to hang in the air – indeed it seems to me that the only way to approach Clarkson’s work is through the medium of the unanswered question; this is the incomplete lens we must learn to look through, one that forces us to think for ourselves in new ways.
In the case of ‘Now!’, some of the questions we might ask are:
What is this machine? It is a physicalising of the present tense, but why? Is it to emphasise memorably, comically even, the unitary nature of space and time? Is it a symbol of social media – technology whose provenance can be followed back to the capitalism-driving contraptions industrial revolution, and further to the printing press – bringing us into a heightened awareness of the present moment? Is it Poetry itself, creating in the reader a ‘nowness’ that is lost as the poem ends? (I favour this last reading, but I would not confidently commit to it.)
Who are the man and the woman? Are they personifications of patriarchy and the oppression of women, who do the hard work while men bark commands? Are they different aspects of the poet herself? The immediacy here is both a command and a demand made by a man to a woman. Action is required and delay is not, the exclamation mark informs us, to be tolerated. But is this more Command (control) or Demand (tantrum)?
What is the poem’s significance? Is it an allegorical rendering of Britain? The man’s ‘florid’ (red) cheeks and the creepy ‘blues for whites of his eyes’, lends credence to this reading (and Medlars makes consistent effective use of the colours of the Union Jack, particularly blue), but if that’s it, who are the people who “jolt and break off conversations”? And why do married couples fall in love afresh while other people lie down and pretend to be dead in the street?
I could go on with the questions, but you get the idea.
The poem reminds me of two other glorious works of art: Kafka’s The Penal Colony with its demonic torture device (an equally vivid, and only slightly less impossible though more monstrous, creation) and the recent Oscar-winning film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once. What is important here appears to be all the intensity and chaos of the Present Moment – perhaps the particularly human (man-made?) side of life’s eternal Now; and so, is Clarkson by extension simply encouraging us to consider what awareness of ‘the human now’ really means?
Clarkson presents a reimagined community, but one which the reader is required actively to participate in uncovering
There is a significant difference between Clarkson’s ‘Now!’ and the Now in Kwan and Scheinert’s Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, which is that while her poem is about the Everywhere and the All at Once, she excludes the Everything. Her Now is public, and it is unavoidable and intense, but it is also very physical. She is concerned to leave room for a metaphysics, something which, following Wittgenstein, is beyond anything we can speak about, but which poetry, and poetry of Clarkson’s variety in particular, is able to bring us closest towards. Something that falls outside the now, but which awareness of the now might allow us to glimpse, albeit incompletely.
What we are given in this collection, then, is an idea of a nation, or a series of ideas; it is in fact an alternative rendering of England as what Benedict Anderson called an Imagined Community – people who don’t know each other imagining themselves to be part of a single entity – making up, inventing, the thing that defines them as a single group. Clarkson presents a reimagined community, but one which the reader is required actively to participate in uncovering. Anderson’s phrase was mentioned in the introduction to We’re All In It Together, the recent state of the nation anthology, which I reviewed here, and of which Clarkson’s ‘Apocalypse (Synopsis)’ was one of the standout poems, as it is in Medlars.
Not all the poems here could be called Anti-Sense. A number of English poets, for example, whose lives and works contribute to the idea of cultural England, are used straightforwardly and effectively. Clarkson squeezes humour cheekily from Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ in ‘S.T. Coleridge Promotes His (Under) Wares’, in which Xanadu becomes a line of ladies’ underwear (I can’t help wondering if the ghost of early twentieth century ‘saucy’ seaside postcards sits somewhere behind the double entendres ingeniously found in phrases from the original poem). And ‘[Autumn, most amorous]’ picks up the luscious “mellow fruitfulness” of Keats’s ‘To Autumn’ and reworks his gleaner-like personification into a wonderfully ripe-to-bursting female Green Man (a Green Woman I suppose, but there is nothing green about her: “plumped up / on the divan of the year […] Her split skirt, maroon and walnut, / flaps against my skin and cool / slabs, honey-almond flesh, slide behind. / […] / About her flutter saddlebrown smells, muck rich.”)
This is a funny, stubborn, arch, cheerful, cynical, joyful, frustrating, angry, wise collection. And it is required reading for anyone who takes poetry seriously
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Eliot’s The Wasteland was published a hundred years ago last year, when many of these poems must have been in gestation. In some ways this collection feels like a response to that work a century on – poetic conversations after all can take place over ages. Where Eliot found barrenness, dust, devastation and dismay, in contemporary society, Clarkson (anything but uncritical) chooses to see life, richness and hope.
Medlars is one of those collections to which only a book-length review could do justice; I have touched here only on those aspects that seem to best give an impression of how much more there is to discover for a reader prepared to give it time and brain space.
Elsewhere, Clarkson, always formally experimental, methodically breaks down (simultaneously creating new) meaning in the six poem sequence ‘golden opportunity, wet streets’; faces – as she has in previous collections – her relationship with her mother (‘Everything you told me came untrue’) and her experience of formal religious practice (‘A Whiff of Phosphor’); satirises middle England (‘O Respectability’); and makes superb and unfashionable use of allegory and personification (Mrs Molesworth, Mrs Milkwater, Mrs Merryweather, Old Mr Spence, Mr Derwent, Master Grief).
If the above is not enough to recommend Medlars to you, then get hold of a copy simply for Clarkson’s way with words (“glimquist and sunkissed on a burgundy chaise longue / she turns phrase after phrase on the lathe of her tongue”) and the evident fun she has with wordplay (“O my enemy, your love of enemas. / Your unfailing response at funerals, balled / handkerchief out of sight, and your discretion / at weddings, tongue in check / about the bride’s peccadilloes.”)
This is a funny, stubborn, arch, cheerful, cynical, joyful, frustrating, angry, wise collection. And it is required reading for anyone who takes poetry seriously.
Chris Edgoose is a poet and blogger at Wood Bee Poet. He lives near Cambridge in the UK, and has had work published in several magazines in print and online.