Sandeep Parmar is one of the most exciting emerging voices in British poetry. As a scholar, she is known primarily for her work on the modernist poet Hope Mirrlees; as a poet forging her own voice, she is known for the 2012 collection The Stone Orchard, and now (and, one hopes, pre-eminently) she is to be known for Eidolon, an incisive collection of poems that is as well-executed poetically as it is well-conceived philosophically.
‘Well-conceived philosophically.’ Why? Well, without wishing to assess a work of poetry in terms more suited for conceptual art, it comes down to Parmar’s appropriation and development of the concept of the “Eidolon” from ancient Greek. As she writes in the collection’s afterword:
“An Eidolon is an image, a ghost, a spectre, a scapegoat. It is a device, like a deus ex machina, to deal with the problem of narrative” (p 65).
What initially attracted Parmar to this concept, she elaborates, was its very “otherness” to her, a British Sikh woman, raised with only a very limited knowledge of ancient Greek. Rather than taking up the “Eidolon” as a blasé token of highborn and anachronistic Western learning (being au fait with ancient Greek), this collection takes it up in a way that is, paradoxically, perhaps more in tune with the concept’s connotations – as a spectral term that is constantly eluding Parmar’s grasp as a self-conscious “outsider” to the linguistic contexts that birthed and transmitted it.
It is this very elusiveness that provides one of the key creative impetuses for this collection. This is because possessing what she takes to be a tenuous sense of the “Eidolon” has allowed Parmar to experiment with it in ways that might make more dyed-in-the-wool classicists balk. On the face of it, her collection seems to reprise a well-worn protagonist: her central “Eidolon” is Helen of Troy, a figure who appears in this guise in works dating back to Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Helen. It is what Parmar does with Helen, however, that shows that she is not merely slavishly recapitulating this tradition. As appropriated by Parmar, Helen becomes a metaphor for excluded femininity, from antiquity to the present. The “Helens” that feature throughout this collection, then, speak a multitude of ghostly female perspectives: from Helen the stateless refugee (poem xix), to Helen the witness to a disgusting act of casual racism (poem xxii), to Helen who stands triumphant outside of history, all avenging angel, in the penultimate (and to my mind best) poem here.
The collection consists of fifty poems arranged from ‘i’ to ‘l’ in Roman numerals (coming from a poet who reflects on the limitations of her grasp of ancient Greek, I took this for a playful exercise in cultural miscegenation.) Beyond the influences of the classics (Euripides, Homer), the style of the poems owes much to the modernism of Whitman, Woolf, and H.D., all of whom feature as references within the poems themselves. At points, this anchoring in modernism frustrated me, and I sensed a very occasional tendency towards academicism emerging from it. The real frustration in this sense, came from the fact that Parmar clearly has more than enough in her arsenal to transcend this tic, and to speak in a much less “mediated” voice. Take, for example, this stanza from poem xxxiii:
What historical irony
is the citizens of Tel Aviv
buying gas masks
irony itself a mask
I felt that each of the poems in this collection offered the perspective of a different “Helen”, turning this proper name into a common noun for the “everywoman”. That may be an entirely errant interpretation of Parmar’s intentions; it is testament, nevertheless, to the power of her poetry to provoke sustained and deep reflection. Indeed, as she writes in poem xxxii:
An idea is not a woman but many women
the composite of an idea’.