Heroines from Abroad (Carcanet), by Christine Marendon, translated by Ken Cockburn, reviewed by Chloé S Vaughan
Christine Marendon’s Heroines from Abroad, translated by Ken Cockburn, is a revealing collection that reminds us that the power of poetry isn’t limited to the words. The feeling that overcomes you when reading the poems is numinous; they take you out of your home and into the forest at sunset, or by a tunnel at 4am, and make you distinctly aware of your place on the planet.
Nature is a dominating power in her poetry, and instead of personifying it, she in turn puts us into the ground as grass, weeds, wind, etc. to remind us where we actually come from. In Evening Primrose Marendon invites us to look inward at ourselves as a singular species, and at all the different aspects of nature which stand alone, but also to focus on the threads that bind us all together:
In each person there exists a sheer
drop. Darker than campion
which during the day turns inwards
it likes to spread gold
over broad expanses.
So we, animals and humans,
are also vegetation, layers of the coal age. We are
offshoots, belonging to the species
which pays with pollen and honey
and still waits for the new age.
Everything is connected
to not belonging
In Breath, a human becomes ‘a missing feather’ which belongs to a bird that is illuminated ‘so bright’ it becomes ‘a comet’. In Papyrus, humanity becomes mycelium who lack the need for sunlight like typical plants, but who we create forest floors with nonetheless.
A plant will do anything one requires of it for the
sake of light. Expressing this extraordinary process
as precisely as possible in words is wonderful. We
are mushrooms, we lack chlorophyll. It’s enough
that we think, to do a good job. […]
The best in us all is love. Irreducibly we are also
Marendon wants us to appreciate our differences, but acknowledge the differences anyway. While plants are described with siblilance, alliteration and soft plosive consonance, humans are restricted to sharper aspects of speech with harsh plosive k’s and t’s. Despite this positioning, the entire stanza together is made up of the same base language, in the original German or the translated English, and that’s exactly the point; however different aesthetically or phonetically, we’re still made up of the same root. This semantic field of the intermingling of plants and people throughout the collection harks back to a pagan sense of belonging to the earth as one part of a growing, multifaceted, web of nature.
There is also a focus on the created environment humanity has developed in order to live in relative comfort and ease. However, the hyperrealistic way Marendon places the reader makes it seem as though you’re looking at the planet through a fishbowl; a decidedly uncomfortable, but fascinating, perspective. In ‘Landmarks’, the narrator helps a man who falls and hurts himself:
A stranger to me he crashed to the ground right
at my feet, hitting his head. His dog was running
in a distant meadow.
Marendon’s use of line breaks throughout are jarring and apply tension and show care for each chosen word to make their disconnect more pronounced. The enjambment throughout this poem creates divisions which make the shock one feels when in a traumatic scenario that much more realised:
[…] His head
was lying heavily on my arm, when sight returned. My
estrangement blinked into close-up, then I was
an animal, became the dog, which helped his master
back to his feet. We departed with the stones.
In ‘Checkpoint’ a few pages later, the narrator describes a journey through a tunnel as though travelling through the belly of a mechanic beast,
A black tunnel,
darkness and iron, a creature of mesh and grilles
above the flow- soundless
tongues of water licking the piers
whilst in ‘Stellaria’, prayers become obscure pieces of metal that have the potential to be ‘ a rifle//or an astronomical telescope’ if only they knew how to fit them together correctly. In ‘Rotunda’, a handshake leaves the narrator ‘kneeling// to the saints of motorway slip-roads and// service-stations’. The juxtaposition of concrete concepts of human constructs like tunnels, guns, and motorways, with more abstract notions of prayer, religion, and dreaming encapsulates exactly what makes up the human experience; the tangibly real, and that which becomes real through faith and belief.
Marendon’s collection is an exacting evaluation of the human species, that weaves didactic lessons of ‘remember where you come from, and what you really are’ throughout. Heroines from Abroad encourages us to open our eyes to the limits of ourselves, and to acknowledge the power and the presence of nature in our lives. She encourages us to accept the dark parts, embrace the lighter parts, and live in the place where the pair meet. This collection is beautiful and intense, and while you come out from the final page with a head full of questions, you also leave with a heart full of connectedness to the world around you, and a brain open to the possibility of opening a window once in a while, and finally watering your succulents.