Barrier, battleground? The table as disturbing metaphor
Two Cinnamon Press titles were launched last week at the Poetry Cafe in London. The first reading was given by Jane Monson, pictured, from her new collection of prose poems, The Shared Surface. The Cambridge-based poet could be greatly commended for being there at all, since she attended with a brand-new baby. Congratulations Jane and little Sylvie.
These prose poems take the table as their main subject and offer incidents, mostly domestic, around it. The shared surface is also a reference to how we touch and live with the same objects, how we certainly share the same planet, or the same house, yet see things very differently. Sometimes we may feel isolated, even dislocated from other human beings and they from us. What a great metaphor the table is. I hadn’t really thought about it much before. We speak of getting together round the table when we think of agreement and dialogue. Or perhaps family meals and eating. But a table can also represent a barrier and even a battleground. Think of all those awful silences, enforced manners, the refusals to eat. The “you’re not leaving this table until ….” syndrome. And the desk? The football field sized executive desk with the chair behind which the boss exerts his power over you the interviewee. Which of us hasn’t been there? These are my memories and interpretations of “table” issues. However, the poems go deeper and often darker.
I particularly liked the rather unsettling ‘A Wolf at my Table’ which looks at the influence on children of parental differences and patriarchal attitudes. An overbearing father blames the mother for allowing the children to bring “live crabs in yellow buckets to the breakfast table … While she knits, darns so their socks go round and round their age, the stitching of the house comes undone.”
‘No shooting at the table’ is a poem about a child who used to run round a table pointing a gun at people’s heads - not a toy gun, but a real one normally used for hunting. It is not made clear how he was allowed to get away with this behaviour. The poet explained during the reading that this poem had been inspired by her own father.
Some of the work is quite surreal. The sequence at the end, a disturbing look at a piece of performance art in which a table is placed beneath an atrium - artist one side, viewer the other - is an uncomfortable journey between the looker and the looked-at. Sometimes art can reveal things to people about themselves that they would rather not see. Sometimes too this is the role of poetry.
The second book of the evening was On the Bevel, by Janice Moore Fuller, who had come from North Carolina for the launch of her fourth collection of poems. There is an emphasis on the personal in these poems, but always with an overarching relevance to the reader. When poetry is described as “personal” it is somehow taken to be a criticism. Yet it seems to me that if a poet does not write out of personal experience - whether physical, emotional or psychological - then what is being written is pure fantasy. That may make good fiction, but it will not make good poetry.
Which of us does not have relationships? Which of us does not have childhood memories? A personal life is the one life that any of us is truly capable of living and the lives of others are endlessly fascinating, particularly when it comes with acute observation. I particularly enjoyed the endorsement of Moore Fuller’s collection by Alan Michael Parker, who says that the poems are inhabited by “all of the miscreant ghosts, glum gods, ex-lovers, good daughters, and curious cats who haunt the poet’s imagination”.
Poems such as ‘Insomnia’ carry a sense of memory and how we carry our childhood with us and evoke a strong sense of place: “West of here alone a road, once dirt, a catfish / Lurks and turns at the bottom of Hendrix Pond … ” The distressing ‘Relics of the Martyr’ conveys how horrific happenings can get taken up and colonised for strategic effect by people who have seen them on the news: “We have occupied your grief leaving you nothing.”
If you’ll excuse the terrible pun, Cinnamon is not getting the press it deserves. There are some really good presses and good books struggling to get even a paragraph of review space. The Write Out Loud reviews team is launching a campaign to promote these smaller poetry heroes, the editors of which work extremely hard to promote the embattled art of the poem, as well as having to fill out endless forms for a smaller and smaller share of the funding cake – or more likely no funding at all, except what comes out of their own pockets. So bear a small press in mind next time you pay £5 for a double shot skinny large cappuccino sundae with extra gloop. Do your heart a favour and buy a poetry book instead. Frances Spurrier