The title of Maggie Sullivan’s second collection is suitably cryptic; the remote suggests detachment as well as control. Sharp, capricious and clever, these poems are interested in process—creative, physical, and political.
The opening poem, ”How to build a poem” uses the metaphor of building a wall to demonstrate the creative process:
two, three, no more,
at such precarious angles
you think they must fall.
Like a dry stone wall, these structures are self-supporting, held by “patience” and pressed “until the stones find their own grip”.
The parting imperative “Be bold, / choose big stones”, certainly applies to this collection. Spirited and playful, Sullivan experiments with form (“If I reach the zebra crossing, it’s alchemy”, “Politics of form” “World Circular”); reflects on the personal (“Frame for an abacus”, “Free fall”, “Screw”, “Hospital Soap”) and reveals a subtle comic voice (“Clean Break” “Devious rhymes and furious fairy tales”, “Thrush”).
Many of the poems possess a vivid physicality: the action of maggots “unwholesome scavenging… exhuming ulcerous flesh” (“Maggots”); the experience of eczema “scratched near down to the bone/ and still not pacified” (“Meditation on a Subcutaneous itch”). The deft flip from the physical to the philosophical delights: the maggots possess “dual capacity to cure and contaminate” which “deserves some praise, / if cautiously”. While the boiling “skin fissures“ of eczema make the speaker
a pariah in the playground,
provoked external torment
and I never knew which was worse,
the goad inside out or outside in.
Politics in its broadest sense animates much of the collection. “Salt and Vinegar” details the attempt by Frinton with its “whitewashed front, / beach ironed nightly” to avoid the “massed ranks” of neighbouring Walton with its “penny arcades” and “bumper cars” and, worst of all, the take away fish and chip shop. More than a comedy of manners, this poem reflects on the process of change:
Then with a tide came
news of meritocracy.
We signed a counter petition,
delivered in person to the good people of Frinton
bearing gifts of freshly made batter,
Change, however, is not always beneficial to the majority. The poem “Aragon Tower, Deptford” focuses on redeveloped apartments which passed from local authority to private ownership—another example of the “gentrification” of our cities:
the Council tenants dispatched, clutching copies
of Lewisham’s Regeneration Strategy,
hardly visible from the seven penthouses.
Sullivan invites us to reflect on the power and processes of the state and the effects on its subjects. “Documentary” (for the women of Styal), invokes a Foucualdian vision of permanent visibility but no communication, “State of the art equipment / captures every angle. /… / on permanent view, an instituted chorus”.
In “Crow’s Law” (May 4, 1979), Sullivan locates the day of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory as that which enacts the “Law of Crow”: “Crow landed everywhere, / feathered stone, / hooded spoiler“.
Ubiquitous and menacing, Crow’s
sermon of No,
no profit beyond the Law of Crow,
presents an ironic juxtaposition with the lines of St Francis of Assisi (patron saint of animals) which Thatcher quoted on the steps of Downing Street on that day: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”.
The final poem, “Greeting”, is the most affecting illustration of the power of “politics”. In this poem, Malcolm (a man with learning disabilities) becomes an object correlative symbolising the gulf between the needs of the individual and the demands of the system.
Malcolm’s carer says he must not
say hello to all and sundry.
Malcolm’s heart feels otherwise
everywhere he goes.
Secure in Pathways,
a greeting is demanded,
“This is your new carer. Say hello.”
Malcolm works on his approach,
thinks it should be simpler.
The world waits, Malcolm.
Dynamic, innovative and poignant, there is much to admire in the remote.