Richie McCaffery reviews The Mouth of Eulalie by Annie Brechin (Blue Diode, 2022)
The poet Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975), something of an expert in matters of the heart, described the white-heat of the beauty and insanity of desire as ‘luve’s arcane delirium’ in his most famous collection Under the Eildon Tree (1948). ‘Luve’s arcane delirium’ is exactly what Annie Brechin finds herself wrestling with in this, her first full collection. Sex, as is well known, is notoriously hard to write about convincingly, especially in poetry, but this is usually because we try to in some way euphemise or aggrandise the act (note that Brechin rarely uses metaphors). Instead, Brechin, through her speaker-protagonist Juliette Larson, opts for boldness and frankness. How about this, the opening poem, for its sheer unapologetic ‘epater’ force:
This cotton has wrapped me for three days.
Your semen glues and then flakes.
Shall I pretend I sat in the study
reading the lives of saints?
My love, let me put
your cock into my mouth.
It will sound like
I know what I’m doing.
Before the Enlightenment, literature wasn’t afraid to discuss carnality and the ‘grotesque body’, look at Chaucer, for instance, or Jonathan Swift’s ‘Celia’. Then along comes Descartes with the mind / body problem and abstract thought becomes separated from the business of earthiness and corporeality. Add the prudery of the Victorians and the Edwardians, and sex in our poetry and literature has become a hidden, subterranean thing, which it really shouldn’t be. In ‘By Expressing Our Desire We Make Ourselves Weak’ the speaker poses herself the question:
What did my boldness get me?
The memory of love, Not love itself.
If I had been meek.
If I had been another – but no
always one drink too many
always one remark too feminist
always one doctrine too intellectual.
always some reference to Plato
which remarks me as iron not silk.
Who would sleep with a crowbar.
I strongly disagree, but then the poem is rhetorically geared up to compel you to defy it. No-one wants a meek character who goes with the tide (if they do then they’re not worth bothering with), the speaker did nothing wrong, they were uncompromisingly themselves and that’s no reason for such self-laceration. The relationship in these pages was also at times undeniably beautiful. When on holiday the speaker is struck with a case of thrush and forbidden from having sex for a full week, by day five the vow of chastity is becoming unbearable:
Terrible the pressure between two sets of eyes
no diver could withstand.
Do you think it’s ok?
Oh come on let’s.
Although it would be nice
to have a little lubricant.
He rushes to the kitchen
comes back with virgin olive oil
then it is not just functional but beautiful.
Viscous and slipping everywhere.
Our skins are Greek gods and lotus stamens.
Heavenly globes were not more golden than her breasts then.
(from ‘Men Fear Female Desire’)
I absolutely love the simultaneous aptness and incongruity of using ‘virgin’ olive oil as a lubricant. But this is to give the wrong impression of The Mouth of Eulalie as all about sex. Here intellect and lust are pretty much equal bedfellows; this is a speaker who knows their Foucault, Artaud, Deleuze, Guattari and Lacan, much to the disapproval of their Grand Prix-loving partner.
Here intellect and lust are pretty much equal bedfellows
Really, this book is about the whole Nantucket-sleigh-ride of a turbulent relationship which begins with desire, comes aground with unfaithfulness and abuse and ends with the realisation that ‘She wants him to be in love. He wants a wife’ and this gulf is unbridgeable. There are certainly traumatic episodes, not least the harrowing poem ‘The Abortion Dress’:
In the next room there were only women.
The herd by the abattoir.
Someone offered me a guidebook of Iceland.
I forgot most of it, maybe it was the drugs.
The nurse offered me a laundry basket.
For your dress.
Ok, you want to keep it on?
Fine. Just your knickers then.
It was a small pleasant room
yellow like a breakfast room.
The doctor, pleasant
to the point of exuberance.
The horror seems to be in the composure of the writing and how ruthlessly efficient the process is. Nothing goes wrong but something just isn’t right. And then, ten days later:
Tired of my ‘heavy period’
I let you fuck me on the wooden floor.
The floor was hard
somehow we rolled off the rug
and my back was hurting.
I didn’t mind though because
you made me come.
You were always very good at that.
This poem brilliantly captures that sense of ‘jouissance’, death in the midst of the pain of joy, that the post-structuralists listed above would be able to instantly relate to. The book follows a similar Bakhtinian pattern as that of Under the Eildon Tree beginning with the ecstasy of love, through the suffering and resultant depression, leading to the symbolic death of the protagonist to end with a revival of sorts, a realisation and assertion of self-worth:
Where the only thing between us is sex.
Great hooks ripping into her sides.
No wonder he slept with Marie.
He’s bored. I’m bored.
She gets up she takes her handbag.
Leaves the credit card riven on the countertop.
She walks she leaves she goes out onto the street
into the sunshine she leaves she flies
she is like aeroplanes knife-bright blades in the sky.
She is the dove the warm feather stretching and rising.
There is only her.
There was always only her.
(from ‘Desire Cannot Sustain Respect’)
It’s worth pointing out that the credit card is the emblem of the partner’s financial power in the relationship and it’s also interesting to point out that Juliette speaks in first person but then is also referred to in the third person in these poems, as if she is now detached from the story and telling it from a distance or height – perhaps the vantage point of recovery?
This collection ends with a glimmer of salvation, but suggests that salvation comes from within
There is much more in this collection that makes it meaningful and relevant, such as the social issues it touches upon, like young people living in fear of losing their precarious jobs, and how being a wage slave turns you into something unrecognisable:
I’m afraid of losing my job.
We don’t care if our lovers love us
we care if our clients love us.
I don’t want to vote for a government
Who is the enemy. That’s what young people
in my country can’t understand.
This is not a war. We are all getting out of this
alive. Whether you want to or not.
(from ‘Who Cares If They Love Us’)
This collection ends with a glimmer of salvation, but suggests that salvation comes from within. This is a collection that spoke to me more eloquently than many I’ve come across, it’s certainly one of the most underlined (I like to annotate my books). Consider the magnificence of the closing line of ‘South Bank Time’ where a couple spend a nice leisurely day out in London in May:
Days like this guess at perfection
but wisely avoid it.
They seem so rare among the clutter
of laptop and privilege.
We are broken into by sunlight.
Richie McCaffery lives in Warkworth, Northumberland. He’s the author of four poetry pamphlets – Spinning Plates (HappenStance Press, 2012), Ballast Flint (Cromarty Arts Trust, 2013), First Hare (Mariscat Press, 2020) and Coping Stones (Fras Publications, 2021), and two full collections, both from Nine Arches Press – Cairn (2014) and Passport (2018). He’s also the editor of Finishing the Picture: Collected Poems of Ian Abbot (Kennedy and Boyd, 2015), The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure (Brae Editions, 2018) and Sydney Goodsir Smith: Essays on his life and work (Brill, 2020).