Animal People: Carol Rumens, Seren
The cover of Animal People says “the key to the collection is the sequence ‘On the Spectrum’, which explores what it is to be ‘on the autistic spectrum’…”. This sequence is intended by the poet to be “vignettes of a woman’s life, partly based on my own, as poetic documentary”.
‘On the Spectrum’ is a deliberately fragmented piece of work. Some sections accord with a popular understanding of what “autism” means: “A kids party is foreign languages / screamed at you as she as you as he as you run about the little island / no boats are visiting for a thousand years.”
Other sections may relate more directly to the protagonist’s own life, where in a “winter night, clear skied” one metaphorical constellation “figures bright”, as the “articulation of the best of what you were”, until the poet finds “one twisted-metal star-collision mirroring your mind”.
Finally there are sections that draw on aspects of science or religion to relate to the condition of being ‘On the Spectrum’: “But when I pray is there nothing … unseeing enough, enough / away to want no small talk?”
‘On the Spectrum’ is placed at the end of the collection. A page of discussion about it follows, but is headed “About Animal People”. Rumens puts forward some very speculative ideas about autism. She suggests that both autism and an affinity with animals “may be associated with genes which have been passed down through the intermarriage of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal Man”, while acknowledging “we’re all animal people in a broader sense, of course.”
This is the first reference to the title ‘Animal People’. Combined with cover art showing chimeric people with animals’ heads, it gives an almost literally back-to-front impression, as if inviting the reader to start at the end of the book and work backwards. Yet if you did that, reading the rest of the collection in the light of the title and final poem, nothing is obviously directed towards the experience of autism. The poems are on a wide range of subjects, rarely developing a theme from one to the next. They are complex, sometimes playful, and often full of cultural allusions.
In ‘House Clearance’ Carol Rumens enjoys the absurdity of answering the question “Won’t it be fun to turn into our possessions! / Let’s practise.” Word-play is the game in ‘It’s Time for the Weather’, as “Blizzle lightens to waterbud before strengthening to pluvoria”.
‘Figurine’, starting “Heart of a calf, composed/of two mini-humans,” became approachable when I Googled “the Ain Sakhri cave, c 8000 BC.” The figurine is an ancient carved pebble, now in the British Museum and featured in the BBC Radio 4’s History of the World in 100 Objects. I had to work hard to reach the point where I was beginning to understand this poem, but when I got there it felt worthwhile.
By contrast, ‘A Few Study-Notes’ had me beaten; searching for ‘Richard Lovelace’ and ‘Carol Rumens’ took me to her Guardian Poem of the Week column on ‘To Althea, in Prison’, which explained some elements of the poem, including why “I sleepily revolved the aesthetic question / but couldn’t solve it: is it ‘gods’ or ‘birds’ ”. Beyond this, I saw no way into her British/Oriental civil service scenario, though I did note the TS Eliot reference in “The Prefect /Scribbler writes, You will enjoy the mountains. / Here we feel free. His eloquence delights him.”
In a posting on the Seren books blog, headed “Aspie chromatics/ Carol Rumens on Asbergers [sic] ASC, and Poetry”, Rumens identifies herself as experiencing Aspergers Syndrome, one of the conditions on the Autistic Spectrum. She says: “I want to speak for a greater understanding of autism, and I choose to do it through the medium I’m best able to employ. … Rather than use poetry as propaganda, I would simply ask it to report back sometimes from the field, like a travel correspondent in the complex, many-coloured terrain of a newly discovered country.”
This seems to be authorising us to look for a relationship to Asperger’s Syndrome in the poems in this collection. It took close reading and internet research to bring me anywhere close to understanding some of these complex and individual poems. Was this amount of effort necessary because the poet was expressing her own ideas and understanding as fully as possible, without considering the reader? Could this be an indication of being “On the Spectrum?” Does this make her an “Aspie” poet?
Psychological speculation makes me uneasy. Many highly regarded poets usher the reader into the world of their own individual cultural knowledge and experience just as uncompromisingly as Carol Rumens. Don’t read Animal People for the psychology, read it for the poetry.