Pamphlets are a marvellous way into poetry publishing for many emergent poets; currently some very challenging, innovative work is appearing in that form. Scotland’s own HappenStance (which has also published Clare Best) has rightly won awards for its beautiful work in this area, and Frogmore Press also create some excellent examples. Generally, it’s a slightly cheaper way to publish and to buy poetry (although not in this case), and it’s also a format (as in this case) potentially open to some interesting design solutions that might be both prohibitively expensive and logistically problematic for a full-length collection.
Folded rather than bound, Cell initially feels rather map-like, which is apt, as it traces a journey:
In 1329, Christine Carpenter – a girl of
fourteen– took a vow of solitary devotion
and agreed to be enclosed in a cell […]
more than one thousand days in the cell
before asking to be freed. When the Bishop
learned of her release, he ordered her to be
This single poem, divided into sections, each with a Roman numeral as the title to represent her days in the cell, is told in the first person. In the main, she addresses “Mother” who may be the child’s earthy parent, at times possibly the Virgin Mary, and at others even a hoped-for maternal aspect of the reader. Section I, opens in a suitably confident voice, the child happy in her spiritual seduction:
Come Mother, sit with me by the hearth.
I have the Book, a woollen blanket, pewter plate[.]
Very soon, however, even in the child’s seemingly composed state, which is reflected in the typographical orderliness, an italicised ecclesiastical voice breaks through. As early as that first poem, its funereal purpose is clear:
we brought nothing into this world
it is certain we can carry nothing out.
Significantly, that insistent voice enjambs into the second section of the poem, over the fold. As the sequence progresses and the darkness of Christine’s fate unfolds, her mental and spiritual disintegration is shaped both in the words and in how the poem breaks up on the page. CCLXI curves to the right, its visual rhythm reflecting the thoughts and dreams being explored.
By CCCMLXXI, one of the strongest sections of the pamphlet, with “Lucifer” as the first word, these lines are indeed breaking, as the girl’s emergent sexuality, and her slips between delirium and reality develop. The italicised voice cannot intrude here.
Soon after this, no reader can ignore the design, and will have to abandon any conventional way of reading. Now the oppressive reality of the cell is manifest. The engineered paper unfolds, though the reader is unlikely to need the didactic instruction,
HOW IT WORKS
Open the pages to reveal the cell.
Certainly, the diagram – with “The Cell” labelled– is overkill; both paper and the reader are quite able to interact. There is also something of these redundancies elsewhere; powerful phrases like “Explode the stones!” are followed by the more tired “erase my words/and memories”. Often, I wanted something more demanding.
I wonder too at Ridgway’s charcoal life drawings, which occupy fully six pages. They are beautiful (readers may be familiar with her work), but they are the artist’s usual, highly sensitive studies of the mature, and reasonably-fleshy female form. When a pubescent girl cries “wrap these bird bones”, is it not something more akin to the pain of a Schiele drawing that we need? This is a potentially remarkable collaboration; a harrowing tale, resonant in a world still shocked by the scandals of organised religion visited on the vulnerable that should not be just a showcase for what an artist (rather than an illustrator) already does very well.
There is much to love here but maybe much I wanted to love this more. This has all the hallmarks of a project with miles to travel yet… more poems, life-sized installations, more. This map is perhaps only a beginning.