Penguin Modern Poets 1, If I’m Scared We Can’t Win: Emily Berry, Anne Carson, Sophie Collins (Penguin Books, £7.99).
L I have a few of the Penguin Modern Poets collections from the first series on my shelves, I think maybe the Levertov/Rexroth/Williams and the Corso/Ferlinghetti/Ginsberg, and I vaguely remember paying over the odds for the Elmslie/Koch/Schuyler because I stupidly thought I could start collecting them all before I googled it and found out how many there are. Though the books are meant to be introductions to the selected poets (via “representative selections”) – I think I only ever bought and read them for one poet on the cover. With this Berry/Carson/Collins collection in the now twice-revived series though, I was excited to read the whole thing cover to cover, and not just by picking and choosing poets I thought I liked. What was your first Penguin Modern Poets book?
C I bought one in a second hand bookshop for 10p I think…a 1966 edition of Penguin Modern Poets 8: Edwin Brock/Geoffrey Hill/Steven Smith. The cover was black and featured a large image of the underside of a mushroom cap in a darkroom…
L Well remembered. Number 4 is a nice pink so I guess we have that to look forward to. Next is Michael Robbins/Patricia Lockwood/Timothy Thornton – and number 3 (Malika Booker/Sharon Olds/Warsan Shire) has just come out, too. These books are supposed to be a sort of poetry guide for everyone, from “the curious reader” to “the seasoned lover.” I think I’m somewhere between the two for all three of these poets in this first collection. I think we were both introduced to Berry’s Dear Boy at the same time in creative writing class, and I remember immediately trying to write my own bad versions of some of those poems – trying to recreate some of those incredibly quick and sharp changes in tone that Berry does so well.
C …they weren’t great.
L Weirdly I think that one of the reasons why I like Dear Boy so much (and the selections of Berry’s work in this collection, which we can get on to) is that I find her poems so difficult and confusing. Not difficult and confusing in the way I find a lot of poetry though, where I might just read it once and forget about it, or move on to the next poem like huh (which I probably do too often), instead there are some poems in that book, and in this sellection, that I feel like I’m now a bit obsessed with.
C I agree, and I find that particularly true of Berry’s poems; they demand that you keep thinking about them.
L Recently I took Berry’s poem “The Tomato Salad” to a close reading workshop with Edna Longley. I had say why I’d chosen it and all I ended up just saying was that I had no idea what was going on in the poem and had no idea what it might mean, but that I think about the last few lines of the poem basically every time I chop tomatoes. Those lines have really stuck around for some reason. I’ve even made some mad attempts to translate the tomato in parts (with varying success), and sometimes think about interjecting my own anecdotes with, “Did I mention this was in California?”
C Don’t do that.
suspended seeds, the things a cut tomato knows
about light, or in what fresh voice of sweet and tart
those tomatoes spoke when they told my dearest
friend, ‘Yosçi yosçi lom boca sá tutty foo twa
tamata,’ in the language of all sun-ripened fruits.
“The Tomato Salad,” 12.
C I’ll admit that line has been rattling around my brain for the best part of a month to the extent that, reading it now, I can’t help but feel I’m being mocked.
L What do you mean? Like the tomato is laughing at us…?
C There’s something mocking about it as a kind of nonsense, particularly as we’re in the realm of the completely unknowable “the language of all sun-ripened fruits,” but that might just be playing on my own insecurities.
L …of not being able to speak to fruit…
C As for knowing Berry I’d read Dear Boy and tried to get that Aurora’s Escapes pamphlet after you mentioned it.
L We get a sense of the huge range of Anne Carson’s poetry in those excerpts from Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995), Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse (1998), The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in Twenty-nine Tangoes (2001), and Red Doc> (2013). I guess that one of things I think is so great about this Penguin selection is that Carson’s work sets off Berry and Collins in a kind of way. What do you think – had you read much Carson?
C I really only knew Autobiography of Red and had read some reviews of Red Doc>. As you would maybe expect from the poet with the most major publications here, Carson’s poetry is quite varied, and this at times makes it rather difficult to approach some of her poems as you’re keenly aware of them being only part of a very different work.
L That’s true – I guess you can see the “representative selection” working hard in the Carson section, whereas (though we’ve just talked about Berry’s first collection, which lends some poems) the Berry and Collins sets fit together pretty neatly.
L I’d seen Sophie Collins read twice before, and give a conference paper once on ekphrasis and google image searches. Her poems in the 2014 Test Center I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best seem to be pretty different to the Penguin Modern Poets selections (only “Nolita” appears in both), and I’m looking forward to reading her first collection, which is out with Penguin this year. We’ve spoken about tender, the online journal that Collins co-edits with Rachel Allen – but otherwise were you familiar with her writing?
C I’d only come across one of Collins’s poems before, and in fact I didn’t even realise I had until I read “Healers” in the collection for the second time. Aside from this, and what you’d told me about tender, the other encounter I’d had with Collins was an interview she did with Charles Whalley on poetry in translation covering, albeit briefly, Carson’s verse novels.
L I hadn’t seen that. Maybe we can get to that Currently & Emotion: Translations anthology another time. I know we’ve talked about being a bit uneasy about this impulse to try and pull all three sections together, but I wonder if we might start with this question of how the collection is put together and what might ~bring together~ these three poets. Penguin Poetry editor Donald Futers has written that “[a]ll three write about female experience from present-day Britain to Ancient Greece,” though I think this is probably a bit too straightforward. What do you think?
C I’m still not 100% sure of the unifying factor beyond, like you say, a “female experience” line. Given the three poets we have here, I think it’s really difficult to categorise a lot of these poems or think of them as being in any sense connected to each other, but perhaps there is a progression? It certainly isn’t obvious.
L That there might be a progression through the book is pretty interesting, maybe we can come back to this when we get to Collins. Either way, the book definitely starts with a bang with the Berry poems, beginning with that devastating combination of “Dear Boy” and “Letter to Husband” – Berry’s strange ventriloquism at its best. I think what’s incredible about the Berry selection is that it’s seamless; there’s this uncanny, uninterrupted voice running through the poems (helped perhaps, by our coming back to Arlene, “Sweet Arlene,” “Arlene’s House,” and “Arlene and Esme”). Given how anxious some of these poems are – it’s kind of mad that we’re able to go from one to the next without thinking wait, where has this come from. I wonder how that works. –And coming off of that: what do you think about the Arlene poems?
C For me these poems are the best part of the Berry component of the collection. I think the fact that they’re separated from each other, that the voice keeps coming back as you say, provides a way into the collection through what might otherwise be a kind of wall of schizophrenic speech. Unlike Carson, Berry has chosen not to categorise the poems in the contents as being from Dear Boy (2013), Stranger, Baby (2017), or elsewhere, and more so than Carson or Collins, I feel like Berry’s selection has been carefully arranged to mimic a collection in itself. Of the three, “Arlene’s House” stands out for me.
have stopped changing colour. You can get used to
pretty much anything. Arlene just turned up and knew
all the house’s tricks, the way the wind sucks doors shut
and the twist in the shower hose. Outside they see her
standing at the window. The neighbours try to ask
if we’re all right. She stands at the window and drains
the world until there’s nothing left to get up for.
“Arlene’s House,” 10.
C There’s something of the American Gothic in all the Arlene poems, but especially this one. The focus on the house, a sort of grounding in real space (mimicked by the solid wall of text) is misleading here though, since this place of stasis, where even mood rings have “stopped changing colour,” has no sense of order. The workmanlike sentences, the simple statement of fact without sentiment (“You can get used to pretty much everything”) populate the poem with stark, haunting moments, which are held together only by the omnipresent Arlene. This is not a place where things happen, this is a place where things don’t happen and keep not happening. The figure standing at the window, a staple trope of psychological thriller and horror film, who “drains the world until there is nothing to get up for” creates a sort of void in the middle of this poem which, on the surface, you would imagine to be very dense.
L There were two highlights for me in this mini-collection, as you’ve put it, “Trees” and “Picnic.” Both of these poems seem completely occupied in the language (and linguistic acrobatics) of psychoanalysis: the “textbook relationship history” and debate about the “pseudo-science” in “Trees,” and the weird analysis and metonymy happening in “Picnic.”
Was the problem hers, or was it ours, for having all come to accept an unconsciously low level of ceiling?
Did those who were happy and self-confident always reside in high-ceilinged homes?
I could give other examples.
Another friend, an academic, became irate once while denouncing psychoanalysis as a pseudo-science, and afterwards described the work of various other academics as ‘gibberish’.
C Yeah, this poem has my favourite line from Berry’s section: “For god’s sake, the colour dominated the room.”
L That’s terrifying isn’t it. It makes me think of “The Yellow Wallpaper” or those red drapes in the red room in Twin Peaks. There’s so much colour in these poems: the “fear of colour leaking from vegetables” in “Some Fears”; the mood rings in “Arlene’s House” that “have stopped changing colour,” and it’s the uncanny similarity between the colours of the curtains and the upholstery in “Trees” which triggers the “[f]or god’s sake” in your favourite line. In the last poem we also have the “mood of the sea,” whose “colour became the colour of my eyes[.]”
It hurt my eyes
My, yes, salty, wet, ocean-coloured eyes
Albeit that in the dark they were the colour of the dark, and on fire
C And, of course, the tomatoes, “red and yellow tomatoes so spectacular she would | never get over them.” Again there’s this sense that the speaker is skirting the edge of sensory overload, like they’re about to lose their grip on the narrative.
L Ending on “Picnic” is brilliant, I think, because the poem is so bleak and devastating. After we’ve seen Berry be so composed in the other poems (a kind of master of other people’s voices) – here that kind of breaks down in an analysis scene.
I polished my feelings
Sometimes I think if the devil came and offered to swap me into some other body without me knowing what I’d be getting,
And, sure, I believe in the devil
L I don’t mean that it breaks down in an incomprehensible way, but after the brutal narratives of the Arlene poems especially – the gymnastics of this poem is staggering. We seem to move between (and have unprecedented ~access~ to) these kinds of free associations. The key part here for me was the intervention about half way through: “I like it when I am writing a poem and I know that I am feeling something,” then we get the digression, this time an address:
Our correspondence would make us famous or that
Once we’d become famous our correspondence would too?
Maybe it still will
I’ll need to make a lot of cuts first
L We move back again to the left margin in the same breath, wondering “[w]hen did everybody start wanting to be famous all the time | Or has it always been this way[.]” After a brief return to the scene of writing in “the October rain” (“I wrote that when it was still October | It must have been raining”) the bottom of the poem just sort of falls out and we manage to sink even lower:
The warm American voice says: There is no lack or limitation,
there is only error in thought
My thoughts are wrong. My thoughts are wrong
The thought that my thoughts are wrong is wrong
C Yeah, the repetition without resolution, the draining away of punctuation (that full stop above is our only pause), it gives a feeling of, well, I wouldn’t say sinking, but a kind of creeping panic…
Sometimes if you stay still long enough you can make it go
I remember just one thing my mother said to me:
Never look at yourself in the mirror when you’re crying
I did not follow her advice
C It is brutal. It’s brutal because of everything this does to “Picnic” when you work back through it, and the more I think about it, to the previous poems. All the ventriloquism, the simmering horror of Arlene, the underpinning narratives of “Our Love Could Spoil Dinner” and “Her Inheritance,” all of it unravels in front of a mirror that we never see.
L Let’s move to Carson now, and we have to start with that first poem, which works like a kind of ars poetica, I think.
“Short Talk on the Mona Lisa,” 33.
L For me that “moment when the water is not in one vessel nor in the other” perfectly describes the uneasy feeling I have reading these poems…like you’re waiting for the poem to resolve in some kind of way?
C It’s an interesting choice, when Carson does have such a range of voices in these poems, that the opening is a kind of quiet meditation, ostensibly about a portrait. It provides a nice segue (horrible word) from the Berry, a kind of palate cleanser.
L We’ve spoken before about Carson’s section is a kind best-of or highlights reel, maybe more like that “representative selection” we have in the inside cover. How well do you think these poems sit together (though this probably a clumsy way of putting it)?
C Initially I didn’t enjoy reading these poems together in this order, though with re-reading they seem increasingly well-suited. I think not knowing Carson’s work well is the most obvious barrier to enjoying these poems, which is not to say they’re not brilliant poems with Carson’s impeccable talent for dry humour, but that they’re considerably more self-conscious of their intertextuality than any in the Berry or Collins sections. This is most acutely obvious in the poems taken from longer works (those from Red Doc>, Autobiography of Red, and The Beauty of the Husband), but is perhaps true of most of them.
L Though the selection is much longer than both the Berry and Collins sections, I really raced through these poems. We pick up the pace with that back and forth in “Interview (Stesichoros)” from Autobiography of Red. Since we mentioned particular lines we remembered from the Berry, mine for Carson are in this poem. You can hear them so clearly.
S: There is no Helen
I: I believe our time is up
S: Thank you for this and for everything
I: It is I who thank you
S: So glad you didn’t ask about the little red dog
“Interview (Stesichoros),” 41.
C I agree, though sometimes (and maybe this is true of the Carson poems in the main) I feel like this poem is too clever for itself.
L What do you mean?
C The meta-joke of a poem in formal imitation of an interview belying its content…and becoming, in a sense unresolvable is for me a bit irritating. It’s more irritating to know that it might be the purpose, and so on and so on ad infinitum.
L Besides this interview, there’s so much dialogue in these poems. Straight after the “Interview” we have that back and forth between husband and wife in the extract from “The Beauty of the Husband, XXII. Homo Ludens,” where by this point we’re so familiar with this form that we don’t even need a H or W to prompt us:
No I’m not sad.
Why in your eyes –
What are you drinking.
Can you get me a tea.
“The Beauty of the Husband,” 43.
C Yes, and it’s so easy to gloss over on a first reading.
L Carson’s insistence on conversation, on lots of voices speaking over each other leads to that terrible mix up between mother and daughter (speaker and addressee) in “Lines” that we almost miss:
of my life, I describe what I had for brunch. The lines are falling
now. Fate has put little weights on the ends (to speed us up) I
to tell her – sign of God’s pity. She won’t keep me
she says, she
won’t run up my bill. Miracles slip past us.
L The move to italics after “she” (on both occasions) leads us to thinking we’ve moved from the voice of the daughter-speaker to the reported speech of the mother. Except the italicised “me,” (“She wont keep me”) if it was reported speech would really be you, otherwise the mother has said ‘I won’t keep me.’ The same goes for the confusion between “my,” (“she/ won’t run up my bill”) and your, otherwise it would read as ‘I won’t run up my bill.’ In this small detail of mixed pronouns and possessives (which I read past the first few times) Carson has packed a kind of misrecognition of Greek proportions between mother and daughter.
C Of the two ‘interview poems’ (“Interview (Stesichoros)” and “Interview with Hara Takimi (1950)”) it’s the Takimi one which I found myself going back to, even though the start is so disarmingly pedestrian. It achieves more than the Stesichoros poem, I think, because of its ending, which cuts so neatly to heart of the interview process being parodied elsewhere.
HT: I wish I had a splendid laugh.
HT: Ah war.
HT: Humankind is glass.
I: Why not take the shorter way home.
HT: There was no shorter way home.
“Interview with Hara Takimi (1950),” 48.
L We also have to talk about those translations in “A Fragment of Ibykos Translated Six Ways.” Going back to that first poem, and that “moment when the water is not in one vessel nor in the other,” it felt like these poems were attempting some kind of mad resolution of their own, all the way from Greek lyric to microwave manual. Do you know translation party? It’s a site where you enter an English phrase and it tries to find an equilibrium in Japanese by repeatedly translating between the two languages. Sometimes a phrase enters a resolution fairly quickly, but often it spirals off into an infinite loop.
C Translation party has eaten so much of my time. It does produce some outstanding lines though.
L (As an aside, if we put in the first few lines of “A Fragment” we get: “Spring Maiden of the total length of the garden, on the other hand, wood Kydonian apple, if present, have been watered down by the flow of the river.”)
C …it’s uncanny…. The anchors in this poem are those “On the one hand,” “On the other hand” and the “Nay rather” phrases that run throughout. As with every poem of Carson’s in this book, they’re incredibly well crafted fragments, though again I wonder if they lean too hard on their ideas…
C The other poem we should talk about is “By Chance the Cycladic People,” which is made up of fifty-eight numbered fragments divided into sixteen irregular sections, all arranged out of order. One thing to note is that online versions of this poem carry the note that it was written with the aid of a random integer generator.
L I didn’t know that. They seem so perfectly arranged though! Reading them in order again, it’s even stranger how this poem works because of how tightly the phrases are linked (i.e. tuna/boats → boats/night → insomnia):
1.1. The boats had up to fifty oars and small attachments at the bow for lamps. Tuna was fished at night.
1.2. The Cycladic was an entirely insomniac culture.
“By Chance the Cycladic People,” 69-71.
L What that says about the poem I’m not exactly sure–
C –chance operations meets the Cyclades, the circular isles?
L Maybe. It’s not exactly circular though, is it? Either way it’s one of my favourite poems in this collection and (thinking back to your comments about Berry) one of the most frustrating. The ‘Cycladic’ of the title refers to an Early Bronze Age culture that arose in the Aegean around 3000 BC known, chiefly, for their white stone carvings of smooth, featureless human figures. I’m curious how the random integers came into the writing…the flow and dissonance between the lines is so spot on.
7.0. To play a stringless harp requires only the thumbs.
5.0. The Cycladic people were very fond of Proust.
4.3. Is it because you don’t want the impact.
“By Chance the Cycladic People,” 73.
C There is something satisfying about these lines as fragments. It may be, as the poem supposes, “because [I] don’t want the impact.” The full line breaks between the fragments stress their self-sufficiency, though nonetheless, the poem invites you (or more accurately cons you) into grouping the fragments in their respective ordered verses.
2.1. It was no use. They’d lost the knack. Sleep was a stranger.
2.2. Well, they said, these are the pies we have. It was a proverb.
2.3. This became a Cycladic proverb.
“By Chance the Cycladic People,” 69-71.
C Aside from this process being oddly reminiscent of a choose-your-own-adventure book, in this difference between the random and the ordered fragments we see Carson’s most successful experiment with form. There is a sense that these poems, which appear as conversation, interviews, biography and translation are part-reality, part-fiction. Carson plays with the nuances of intention, as with the Cycladic people who “ground their lips and nipple off in the distress of pillows,” becoming the statues which are now their only recognisable cultural product. These are poems that try to find an equilibrium between Carson and their source material.
L How many times have you said well, these are the pies we have this week?
C …a few…
L Well finally then, let’s look at the Collins section. Like the opening Carson poem, I think in “Arduous,” we get a sense of what’s to come: that kind of unravelling between Arduous, Andre is, A girl dates, and that incisive, pointed last line.
or ‘men are my future’,
merely how hard this has been.
L The endings of some of these poems are so strange and brilliant, like how did I get here? I’m thinking especially of “Before,” where we start in 1239 with “the Mongol leader Batu Khan” and end up, without blinking, with a “Fiat Panda carrying a team of cleaners[.]”
C Yeah – maybe the endings are even stronger because Collins forms the final section of the collection. I read that first line of the last poem, “First I was this, and then I was that,” as a reference to this, and maybe (thinking back to us misguidedly trying to tie the selections together) to the collection as a whole.
First I was a granule of pepper
on some dolt’s midsummer meal
and then I was data, before becoming
something altogether more tenuous
C While we’re on this poem and endings, what did you make of “Yrs” as an ending to the collection as a whole?
It’s like a little goodbye like the Yours X at the end of a letter. “Here is the ink print | Here is the archival jet” fits in with your reading, then we end up somewhere completely different.
I spoke Dutch freely
Merry Christmas +
Love to you
L I read it around Christmas though so this was funny.
C …and a Merry Christmas to you, too.
L The ending of a poem like “Healers” though is doing something slightly different. I think this is my favourite poem in the Collins section, and if I remember rightly when I saw her read it once it started off as a kind of funny poem, like it sounded like it had punch lines (something about those “fundamentally insecure” lines and that “unusually pious” child saint, maybe). When I read it here though it was the opposite, and though I think we very nearly get taken in by that slick voice (that seems so confident and in its place) it all falls apart in that mechanical, and weirdly sad, ending:
before she dropped a bolt pin
which released a long section of tube
which released another bolt pin
which released several wooden boards
which scraped another tube
and made an unbearable sound.
C You felt sorry for the scaffold. The beginnings of these poems are completely different though. I think that occasionally their simplicity (or appearance of) slackens the poems, and we end up with top-heavy poems like “Bunny,” which spend too long wandering in the forest of rhetorical questions to reach that ending, which simmers with anger, but doesn’t deliver in the way some of the other poems manage to.
L I disagree insofar as I don’t think those questions are rhetorical. Like I understand that the answers aren’t right there on the page, but for me those questions aren’t just for effect, and I think they all have answers that we just don’t get to see. At Aldeburgh once I saw Collins read a poem called “Questions (after Tara Bergin)” on a ‘workshop’ panel. The poem was made up of a series of police interview style questions in quick succession, and everyone in the room got a bit obsessed about what these questions might mean and who was asking them and why they were asking them and what this person might be thinking and so on. It seems a bit basic now I’ve put it like this but I think what some people were missing was the way the poem conjured these answers…you kind of ended up answering the questions yourself. “Why don’t you take some responsibility? | For yourself, the dust?” is a good example here…you can’t help but answer it.
and how much of it do you have?
When and where did you first notice
the dust? Why didn’t you act sooner?
Why don’t you show me a sample.
Why don’t you have a sample?
L I think “Eight Phrases” is doing something similar…like you can imagine the awkward response to that overcomplicated chat up line, “My drink is getting lonely, would you like to join me with yours?” I guess both of these poems are interested in what’s happening between the questions and the phrases, like that “space between | two untranslatable words” in “The Palace of Culture and Science.”
C The Collins poems are a clear change in gear from the overt intertextuality of the Carson poems, though there are strange structures and networks between the poems like the sisters and the saints. Helpfully Collins provides a guide as to their purpose in the delightfully titled “The Saints 2: What the Saints Do.” However what the saints actually do remains a matter of some conjecture…
and through the centuries
They see your thoughts
your future thoughts
The saints manifest in burning homes
The homes are their minds
but they’re also real homes
“The Saints 2: What the Saints Do,” 82.
L Yeah that’s great isn’t it – it sounds like a child trying to explain the plot of a The Saints 2 film. Just going back a second I think you’re right about the structures and networks between these poems. I know we didn’t get very far when we tried before to put together the Russia references you pointed out, but I’m more interested in the churches, nuns, saints, and that illustration at the start of “Poor Clare.” I thought it was a reference to the onion router, until I worked backwards from Minoress → Poor Clares → ‘Tertiaries’ → Third Order Regular…or TOR. I’m still not sure where that gets us, though I’m looking forward to seeing if the new book has more of these illustrations in. “Poor Clare” got me thinking about how some of these poems (“Yrs” and “Beauty Milk” especially) work like riddles (“I am a multiplication | and a made up belief”) – you’re almost waiting for the what am I, aren’t you.
C Yeah, except we can never quite see what it is. Like we’re examining the I of the poem in a roundabout way, through the poems’ sparse arrangement.
and a made up belief.
I am nothing for days afterwards.
They say ‘sum’ about me
Because they believe I am expanding.
Really I’m too clean cut.
“Beauty Milk,” 88.
C Perhaps even more so than the Carson section, I find that the Collins poems overlap each other well, often feeling like a “made up belief” in the same way as the speaker here.
L We’re back to that strange network and coincidences happening between the poems.
C In these poems we see a kind of lightness of touch, like in a riddle, and it works to great effect in both “Beauty Milk” and in a poem like “Anna Karenina.” The final lines of the latter might be my favourite from this section; they seem like a good place for us to finish.
much over your future’
but my future
– there is only one –
my future is heard this
and is become loud
“Anna Karenina,” 101.