Tim Murphy reviews VISIONS & FEED by Maria Sledmere (HVTN Press, 2022)
Poetry, it is often said, is about the distillation of language; indeed, perhaps the Platonic ideal of a poetry workshop is one in which all the time is spent removing excess words from poems. The objective is the related idea of clear poetic expression (even if, as Auden suggested, of mixed feelings). On the evidence of her second collection, VISIONS & FEED, Scotland-based poet Maria Sledmere would not have much time for such considerations. ‘Prologue to Aporia’, the first poem in the collection, ends as follows:
I permeate the ensuite of lexical arousal
dissociating in klepto feminism, the expert
wearing a lepidoptera skirt is my god
incandescent with swimming, stealing
& long-distance romance
we are winning big,
we are overwintered.
Permeating the “ensuite of lexical arousal” is as good a poetic self-description as one is likely to find, while the meaning of “dissociating in klepto feminism” is far too intriguing to be in any sense clear. It is in fact femininity rather than feminism that emerges as a recurring theme in the collection. ‘Pluviophile’, for example, opens with reference to “progesterone boredom”, and ‘Ovulation Tableau Vivant’ weaves several unpredictable elements into startling coherence – here it is in full:
Some bodies hurt more than others
barnacled to chalices and purple libido
colour me limerent
wave coming aces
I am cobalt and cherry pulp lyric
smoking room green
The confessional voice in ‘Prologue to Aporia’ speaks of “my allergy / to all silver, my payment for endless summer, my / girlhood for sale” and describes the stars as “woodcut / in the anorexic fashion” presaging the collection’s numerous references to eating and related disorders. ‘Self Portrait at 27’, for example, declares that you must think “like a thin person / […] to be everything / to be hilarious”, and in ‘Real Dinosaurs Made of Concrete’ we read that “everyone who drives a car killed my friend / I never want to eat again”.
This degree of sustained narrative is not common in VISIONS & FEED because the book consistently prioritises expressive montage over communicative focality
As would be expected, the confessional elements in ‘Self Portrait at 27’ are particularly pronounced – the poet once aspired to the “good-natured waitressing / and boundless love” of the Rose character in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, and now imagines “going forward / only as a VHS sensation / of landscaped psychedelia”. The retro references (which also include Judee Sill’s 1973 album, Heart Flood) are balanced by mentions of more recent developments:
On the eve of Brexit I was in the Flying Duck
at some kind of drag show, after a garage band
did the whole thing
your cheek broken drumkit
before the pandemic
flashing life before eyes, no setlist, punk butterfly
shred in the basement sweat
of fallen watching, between us squashed
everyone takes off their tops
I mean everyone, I drank endless pints of water
and knew this to be absolutely right and wrong.
This degree of sustained narrative is not common in VISIONS & FEED because the book consistently prioritises expressive montage over communicative focality. Some incidents are reported, and there are plenty of ideas fizzing about, but these remain secondary to what the book’s publicity refers to as Sledmere’s stylistic “cascades” into or about “the saturated live feed of post-internet lyric”. Several poems celebrate the fragmentary and often disjointed nature of internet culture, including “sins of depressive messaging” (‘New Weird Kirsty’) and poems that are “actually on the internet” (‘Bernadette’s Laugh in the Year 2000’).
Sledmere’s cascades are innovative and always stimulating, and despite the heavy doses of melancholy, the overall effect is joyful and positive
The free-flowing cascading voice in ‘Nuptials’ declares a liking for “abundance in poetry” because it “always makes a lovely splash” – while later adding: “We were all mostly / impressing ourselves.” This kind of vacillation is another feature of the collection; in ‘Pluviophile’, Sledmere writes:
my addiction to the social
is worse than if I smoked
or indulged in fraternal longing for edibles
at the lake that once existed
dredged and gorged with pain
Yet the poem ends positively, “in the goth allotment / tonguing the rain / quelle surprise”; and the rain gets tongued again in ‘Visions’, as the poet knows it is “made of crackle gel, glass beads of it / full of tiny histories, artificial, imitating rain.” Gardening is not so favoured; one of several footnoted quotations in ‘Visions’ is from Hélène Cixous – “Why garden when I know it will die?” – and this is echoed in the opening lines of ‘A Flame War’:
I won’t buy flowers for my apartment
because they’ll die. Flowers exist
to teach you about death, how every-
day it is. A gradual salacious creep.
‘Visions’ also quotes Sean Bonney’s 2019 collection, Our Death, and Sledmere follows Bonney’s engagement with political activism and progressive ideals with mentions, for example, of Donald Trump’s 2018 private visit to Scotland costing Police Scotland £3.2m (‘Self Portrait at 27’); and in ‘Visions’, of Bangladesh’s horrific 2020 experience of
[facing] the twin perils of
a super-cyclone and Covid-19
and the task of rebuilding the city
I mean poem, after the locusts of Rajasthan and
how inadequate the symposia was
to offer relief in the form of these stupid frontiers of talk.
VISIONS & FEED is billed as drawing together work produced over a two-year period, and perhaps this is part of the reason why, at nearly 120 pages in total, the collection’s ideal effect may have been diluted through a lack of selectivity. Sledmere’s revealed astrological placements include Moon in Pisces (‘Ode to the Yamaha SPX90’) and Venus in Leo (‘Aaron Maine’), indicating a dreamy sensitivity combined with a passionate confidence. This combination is certainly in evidence throughout the book: Sledmere’s cascades are innovative and always stimulating, and despite the heavy doses of melancholy, the overall effect is joyful and positive. The collection deviates from so much conventional wisdom about poetry that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does match this criterion suggested by Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Tim Murphy lives in Madrid. He is the author of four pamphlets, Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019), The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019), There Are Twelve Sides to Every Circle (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2021), and Young in the Night Grass (Beir Bua Press, 2022). His first full-length collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022), reviewed by Richie McCaffery here.