Jane King’s collection Performance Anxiety draws together poetry from two previous books which were first published in 1993/4, in combination with more recent work. Performance Anxiety is a holistic, well-chosen collection that works around central themes of identity, theatricality and female experience.
King’s work has a considerable autobiographical focus. In her 1994 poem “Wash Day”, she uses the extended metaphor of separating laundry to address issues of racial segregation and mixed race:
Sorting the laundry
into piles of dark and light
thinking about the theory
there shuld be no spot
of colour with the white
or of the contrary…
To follow this philosophy throughout
I’d have to wash each item
and ideally dismember some clothes
and they’d never sew back whole.
Dismembering clothes is both flippant and demonstrably ridiculous – but applied to societal rules governing the reception of mixed-race individuals this dismemberment takes on a deeply sinister character. She concludes: “I’m putting all the wash in one load” – a cry for equality that cuts through fluff. The poet draws on plain language and concrete images throughout her work, which is often conversational and intimate. Her insightful interrogations of broader political structures operate from a traditionally female domestic sphere, and in this respect she shares much with Carol Ann Duffy.
Also like Duffy, King makes forays into form, and these poems are often reflexive: declamations rather than discussions, rhetoric rather than intimate conversation. In “Yellow Girl Couplets”, for example, whilst she ostensibly addresses a particular group (“Any more yellow girls out there…”) the poem goes on to address men who perpetuate forms of societal hypocrisy wherein girls of mixed race who have pale skin must ‘bear the brunt’ of masculine sexuality. They ‘have no race’ and so are shunned by “white boys’ mothers” who say they ‘wouldn’t do’ and by “black boy[‘s]” who hurl abuse. King’s anger is vivid, her pen sharp, and her couplets well balanced.
These fierce, honest poems are at the back of the book, and they come as a surprise after King’s less convincing newer work – this is also a curious way to lay out a collection, but in Performance Anxiety, the newest work is at the front. The lengthy hiatus between collections sees an interesting alteration in her style. That earlier fire has been replaced with a rather safe, reflective aesthetic. There are exquisite moments, such as the opening stanza of “The Pearl Diver”, where “Sometimes a soul swoops through sleep/ Like a pearl diver” – a beautiful and unusual image.
Otherwise, there is often an overreliance on rhyme to carry the meaning of the newer poems, giving rise to an overly obvious and dulled patina. In a poem about cats, King writes: “Miss Si is pregnant/ Doesn’t want to play./Hides herself in a bookshelf all day.” The rhyme, rather than elevating the meaning, instead makes the work predictable and stultifying. Even the nightmarish interlude in the next stanza, where one cat “fucked the putrefying corpse” of another, feels artificially shocking and lacking in weight.
For the most part, King’s later poems are on lighter themes – so much so that they threaten to pale into irrelevance. She writes of trees: ‘Now, strangely it occurs to me/ that they have turmoils I can’t see’. This combination of everyday language and mundane thought does not allow for the brightening, the intensification, that good poetry can wring out of seemingly ordinary images. King’s earlier work is extremely strong, but her most recent work is, on the whole, rather disappointing.