Barque Press, Cambridge, UK / Potes & Poets Press, Elmwood, CT, 1999, $7. [Order from SPD]
Gazing at woodgrain will out its faces. After about three dazzled readings of Andrea Brady's Liberties, I noticed a similar phenomenon. Initially roped in by its lines that spill over onto each other with the effect of water in a small electric fountain made of river stones, by its ornate sounds and vocabulary, I hadn't noticed the story burbling beneath its jewelled surface. It is a coded, nearly subliminal story, to be sure, one that begs detection rather than understanding; it may only be whiffs or threads of a story, an oneiric tease. But there is something.
Here are its qualities: it is rural1, there is a horse2 ; there is a man and a woman3 ; there is a sexual encounter, possibly a rape or seduction4, although there is also evidence of love5; there is a clue that points to bygone times6. These qualities, combined with the one fact I know about Andrea Brady, that she resides in England (whose bucolic atmosphere is arguably unparalleled), turn this poem for me into a kind of fervently poeticized Poldark episode, or Wuthering Heights crossed with, say, Hart Crane (in that you can barely see the subject for the surface) and Le Chien Andalou7.
The frangible spiderweb of story may be mostly an excuse for the nectarious language, in which I find myself wanting to bathe or hop up and down when I am not thinking to imitate it.
Pyro-mezzanine, fennel alibi
staggering for beauty like a drunk in love.
How dull we are,
mouths thickened with milk work
she wanders over
pours out the euphoric pinks
Reading lines like this I am overcome with the admittedly Anglophono-centric conviction that these signifieds can only be connected to these particular sounds: "euphoric" can only sound like "euphoric" and is euphoric too; "fennel" can and should be nothing but "fennel" to the point that I can smell it. It is as if the words are made to glow their sounds. Add to this the peculiar diction with which the poem is dotted, functioning as its "petty fragrant ornaments": hyaline, crud, dermic, cumbrous, chantry, canella, roan, etc.not to mention the unusual collocations throughout ("angelic menarche" "denuded leniency" "melodic laying-in of white") and you have a painstakingly carved verbal cameo, no more "mere" decoration than any exquisite thing that actually changes the shape of your thoughts.
There is in this poem a fixation on virtue and vice. The book opens with an epigraph I think is from Milton (yet more evidence of "anachronism"):
That vertue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evill, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank vertue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excrementall whitenesse.
The troubled progress from vice, as in rape, seduction or "liberties," to virtue, "overcome with desire to be changed/ into a wheel of grace," is the movement of this poem, whose final line reads as a sanctification--a different kind of "liberty": "Oh leave off fighting with me,/ spread this angel over the perfumed ground."
The flickers of emotion in that movement, in which "souls quiver on a wire," "constitute and complicate its surface. This is a book to stare at like folds in fabric (liberty's gown) until the complications of its figures make themselves insistently present.
1 "Strewn frost cells freeze hillocks where they crest, panoramic weed..."
2 ". . . mare's/ tails race rattling her. . ."
"body's frenzy for splashes of vice in white/ jetting from the mouth of his horse"
3 To be more accurate, there is a "he and a "she" who may well be several hes and shes. "We" and "I" appear occasionally, but it is "she" who is most evident in the poem. She is a figure of eroticism and sometimes pity, as figures of shes so often tend to be: "She was a folk hero, we tied her ankles and wrists/ our intelligence reported a collapsing image, we rested/ on our heels the loveliness rocked a shape comforting itself." There are several moments when this "she" is in positions of suffering in the poem, and there are points when the "I" and the "she" show evidence of a twisted relationship: "I'll warrant she deserved it/ and I'm glad it's over with. Lascivious in the rain I see or avoid her with cruelty stagger against the railing. . . . When she does good I magnify her/ when she droops in pain I've clinched her."
4 The word "rape" appears thrice, twice in reference to the blossom: "her eyes drip their fuel/ into the gaping bed of yellow rape," and next possibly metatextually: "Raped by perpetual indeterminacy, by which the empty sac/ of her body was tossed again and again/ into the air." Who may have seduced whom in this quasi-story is unclear, but lines like "my strong thighs relent by truce, shaking,/ febrile with repressed agony they are quiet like toys" and "I wish to take you./ The dark rich sweetness here tells me so" indicate that certainly someone is doing somebody.
5 That love is most opulently evident in the second section of the poem: "Liberties, the City Adorned Like a Bride." The lines extend, get lusher to the point that I fall in love with this language of falling in love:Waiting, waiting for sleep's daring end with you
Waiting to be stroked with soft patience into
being the soul of plentitude opens and calls a million names
each being in you, yours, by the whole
yearns for you and by yearning becomes better
6 This being the word "stomacher," the embroidered frontpiece of a bodice like those worn by men and women in the Renaissance.
7 With this last comparison I'm referring to a propensity in this poem to a marvelous sphinctre-clenching grotesquerie, often involving body parts:
cold as halogen scratches/ on the bulge of her lactating eye
Peace where her wound is, flapping like a fried egg/ leaking toxic bubbles