Gillian Prew's In the Broken Things
Reviewed by David McLean
The years are collecting themselves into a lifetime.
How they misbehave. But they have learned
enough, and that is probably love.
(abstract 15, p 41)
These last lines in the book in many ways summarize a large thread in Gillian Prew's work. She is probably the foremost female poet (or poet tout court) currently active, in the sense of being the best, the most verbally agile, articulate and quietly spectacular. Her work recently - apart from summarizing responses to loss, ageing, the general disgraceful temporal process to which desiring bodies are subjected, the loss of desire and eternally temporary presence of absence – has seemed to point at a reconciliation with all the nasty existentialia that define our vile predicament.
The lines just before these explain her advantage over anybody who does not put poetry first:
Inside, my incoherencies choose poetry over analysis
translating the confused to the written, and each word
sodden with willingness, the need
to make contact with another surface.
Prew uses, she tells us, poetry to do what Derrida tells us that poetry does or should or can do, in the two Istrice articles, to present nostalgia for wholeness and presence and completion in an understandable form, to express our longing for the fragments of our (probably confabulated) memory that fall away into the void of uninteresting history without actually resorting to the drooling idiocies of the lyrically religious. Whether or not I am making Derrida essentialize here, when Gillian Prew makes a reality of a feeling or a moment she makes poetry in the sense that Larkin or Plath do. It is a glorious proof that the lyrical impulse is not dependent upon the bad faith and cowardice that talks of religion or of the slipshod spiritual.
The book concludes with fifteen “abstracts”. These are what one gathers from the name.
The philosophers have answers
but no Answer.
The poets have only poems
...and sometimes that is enough.
(abstract 10, p 36)
In a sense Prew's opinion expressed here is defensible, if disingenuous. There is no Answer because life is not posing a question, it is just “given” - the questions of poets are generally the dull maintenance work of the idle stream of Gerede. I think it was Quine, swinging wildly from the continent to Anglo-Saxon intellectual climes, who tells us that asking for the meaning of life implies that you really haven't understood what life is.
But she knows this better than anyone:
Read books is all I can say: it curtails the anguish
or at least makes it seem familiar.
I will mention love here. It does not make one ounce
of difference in the end, but it exists in the desert, in
the wing, in the written word, in the broken things.
(abstract 3, p 27)
It's as though she is adopting the coziness of poetry and literature as a relinquishing of stringency, although her voice is not cozy, does not reconcile in any light or easy way. The abstracts carry this sense of a lack of obvious palliative, but even more so the first series that opens the book, the dream poems.
These range from dreams of the natural and a “dream caused by the adjacency of love,” ending
Love is not dead horses. Love is
the moment of waking
and not quite knowing.
Love is the death of surety.
to a more typical collection of dreams built around themes of death, cessation, mortality.
There is a broken story in this land.
It is called History. It is written
that the birds have ragged beaks
because a smooth edge is impossible
that they fly to mock the sorry men
of the plains who pray for wings, who
exist in the shadow of gravity
moored by inherited ideology.
(dream caused by the homogeny of states. p. 7)
Prew is “swollen by the need to speak” because even the most beautiful aesthetics still makes the landscape pretty fucking desolate, because there is this flicker of life a while and the honest conviction in every rational mind that that's all there is to it. Science and empirical history is a great inductive list of everything with the obvious and surely correct concealed premise “and that's all there is.” But it needs capturing, it needs loving. And a poetry with its religious roots ripped out is perfect for doing that. Sadly, nowadays, most writers aren't doing that. But Gillian Prew is, along with a very few others, and she does it so well that she fills the intellectual gap very adequately.
I’m piling on summer in thick layers of heat
a yellow chrysalis on the edge of a cliff
my mother is a clatter in a metal box
& there is no one else. there is no one
to unfurl my wings, colour them
into flight. I feel
they are too thin to accommodate the air
too fragile for movement. too dull
(dream caused by being a child, p4)
Nobody does it better. This book is absolutely first rate, and I can totally recommend it to anybody who isn't dead inside yet.
You can find the book at: Virgogray Press
David McLean is Welsh but has lived in Sweden since 1987. Up to date details of well over 1100 poems in various publications, both print and online, over the last three years or so are at his blog at Mourning Abortion. There you will also find details of several currently available books and chapbooks - including three print full lengths, four print chapbooks, and a free electronic chapbook. A new chapbook is out now from Heavy Hands Ink. It costs ten dollars as paper but is also available as a free .pdf download.