The poem, “Kindness, you can’t accuse me of”, proffered early in Michelene Wandor’s new collection Natural Chemistry, completely fulfils its title. Essentially written about the poet as performer, Wandor certainly cannot stand so accused, but she might be charged with many less desirable qualities. Written retrospectively and with acidic disdain, Wandor describes a fellow poet’s reading as a simpering act of anecdotal value, which she finds inadequate and which she also contrasts with her own brisk performance and affinity with the “polite, thirsty” audience. The reader will search vainly for any hint of irony when Wandor announces her possession of “high moral ground, me, I think”. Perhaps the poem is a private joke, wasted hopelessly on this reviewer. Certainly, it sounds a bitter note from which this collection (particularly the sections overtly concerned with writing and poetic processes) never fully recovers.
Elsewhere, “Samson after Milton”, presumably based upon Samson Agonistes, proves far more elusive. Presumably is the optimum word, since the poem itself gives little clue as to its speaker, or indeed its aim, beyond vague references to betrayal and subsequent loss of strength. What Wandor adds to the tale of Samson, or indeed how she views Milton’s tragic drama, is left unclear. As a distillation, a concentration of image and feeling, the poem might be adequate on its own terms were it not tied to such a weighted title. The self-appointed “moral high ground” Wandor sought to occupy only a few pages before is conspicuously empty.
Moving onto more solid footing, the poet’s feminist roots are clear in “Silk Thistle or how the vote was won”, detailing the Suffragettes’ struggle for enfranchisement. The poem possesses an interesting structure, based on different scenes. However, the poem’s grounding in an intriguing and concrete sense of place somewhat diminishes the originality of the imagery, as it follows women through protest, arrest and imprisonment. Wandor’s ultimate description of hunger strike and force-feeding is as predictable as it is frustrating – resulting in the ironic “vote for me” , doing little to resolve or justify the poet’s historical dredging. Quite why the reader is treated to an eleven page foray into the politically charged past remains mysterious, and it is enjoyable only for evocative phrases such as “my pulse flutters like an insect’s wings”. This is perhaps the primary problem with Natural Chemistry; too often the reader is left asking why, as Wandor’s fragmented style omits more than it contains.
Consequently, reading her poetry aloud is an exceedingly awkward affair. With a tendency toward the musical, Wandor’s splintered lines are doubtless intended as a flow of sound rather than controlled metrical verse, but they are difficult to read coherently. Quite where the audience is for something entitled “dialectical: palimpsest/palindrome/barlines” remains an important question. This poem is many things; dialectical is not one of them.
Wandor is neither short of ideas nor skill, but in its execution her collection lacks any discernible structure, any tangible base or it would seem, any greater meaning other than that glimpsed through the vaguest of associations (“some say the story of Esther is the story of the virtue of women”). Self-evidently, poetry does not need a binding sense of structure and explicit aims in order to be successful – indeed, many poets thrive upon inexact qualities. Wandor’s poetry does this to some extent but it never seems to find an original mode of expression, relying instead on tired images and on broken syntax to create something so indistinct that its meaning is significantly obscured.
Perhaps this collection will offer some the looseness of meaning and interpretation they seek, being a cluster of musings upon the interweaving relationships between fiction, history and myth, which are undoubtedly explored knowledgeably by the poet. Kindness may not be an attribute Wandor seeks, but it is sorely missed in this collection which has all the compassion of a scarlet litmus paper.