James Pate reviews a collection of poetry that dwells in the destabilizing aspects of the mythic.
Bonny Cassidy, Chatelaine (Giramondo, 2017), 96pp.
Art enables matter to become expressive, to not just satisfy but also to intensify—to resonate and become more than itself. – Elizabeth Grosz (Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth)
Though Modernists such as Joyce and Eliot famously wrote works that brought a mythic sensibility to contemporary times, sometimes using the mythic satirically and sometimes eyeing the mythic as that haven modern life has largely lost (and sometimes both simultaneously), there’s a more folkloric approach to the mythic that I associate with writers such as Sylvia Plath and W.S. Merwin, with their interest in blurring the boundaries of life and death, day and night, human and non-human. Poets like Plath and Merwin focus less on narratives retold through generations, and instead stress the undercurrents of the mythic—transformations and metamorphoses that seep the literalness out from the quotidian world. If some Modernists— especially poets such as Eliot and Pound, with their far-reaching shadows—saw in myth a shaping influence that could counter present-day chaos, writers in the other, more occult mode, are more interested in the destabilizing aspects of the mythic, and in upsetting the boundaries between our highly regulated human world and the spaces outside of that world.
Australian writer Bonny Cassidy’s Chatelaine is a collection of poems that shares much with this more occult approach to verse, tapping into the intensity of transformation, weird becomings, and in-between-ness (one of the titles is “How to be Both”). Throughout, the language shapeshifts on the levels of both image and syntax. In “Dreamboat,” for instance, Cassidy writes, “In a riverbed I lay // three sleeps of clawed cobalt // and on the fourth, a sand-blank expanse / filled up behind my lids.” Here, the phrase “three sleeps of clawed cobalt” could refer to either “I” or the “riverbed,” folding self and space together in an almost painterly manner. This folding is carried out further by “the fourth” sleep being the “sand-blank expanse” dwelling behind the speaker’s eyes, as if shore and self, river and sleep have leaned into one another, becoming a singular web with varying strands. In the same poem, Cassidy writes, “But the plane’s really more a boat / which rather than landing / will only continue to buff and displace molecules. / It banks and banks.” In this verse, there’s transformation without end, without a final “landing,” and an infinite regress and egress (“It banks and banks”) instead.
The title poem, near the opening of the collection, gives the warning, “Beware the heath / of wilful words: / an analytic grave.” Counter to this grave is “the garden plot” where, the speaker says, with an Elizabethan flair, “airs live in my ears.” “Airs,” and not air; “ears,” and not ear. Cassidy repeatedly stresses the plural, the surplus – and all in contrast to “wilful words.” The word “chatelaine” itself refers both to a female owner of a castle or large house, and an array of chains worn on a belt for carrying keys and other items. Both possibilities are at play within the poem. This is the poet’s space, but not in a possessive, capitalistic sense. Rather, like the riverbed in “Dreamboat,” this is where terrain and speaker merge and mingle. “Morning rakes with me,” Cassidy writes, “through moss, diamonds, / pale undersides / that hang beneath the cott.” The morning rakes “with” the speaker, which simultaneously suggests that the morning is the agent here, the actor, and also that the speaker and morning work together (“with” as in “do this with me”). Such subtle multiplicity runs throughout the collection. Though her writing style is economical overall (short lines, precise phrasing), there is a baroque undercurrent in the verse due to this micro-level language play. For example, in “The way you live,” Cassidy writes, “Without talking about the middle / I am in it, making a case for myself,” suggesting a shifting dynamism premised on wherever the poet happens to be. World, language, self: nothing remains stationary or easily categorized.
One of the aspects of Cassidy’s book I liked best was the way the writer doesn’t limit herself to the familiar, natural world. Sci-fi visions of the future are woven into the collection as well, lending it a sharp, contemporary edge. “No longer a woman I am, at last, dalek,” she writes in “Ex-territorial.” And in the last lines of the poem, she tells the reader, “All my rivulets of pomp n petal / are simply grated-on. Arch droid. Mantis. / Watch this, now, I’m really going somewhere.” Dalek, arch droid, mantis: the speaker morphs from state to state, and, as with the plane/boat in “Dreamboat,” there’s no final uplift into static transcendence, but rather a sense of roiling movement (“I’m really going somewhere”). Cassidy’s poems are searchingly immanent, with “us,” the humans, part of a vast non-human fabric. Her poems are ecological in the most radical sense of the term.
Consistently, landscape and biodiversity are privileged here. In his essay “Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic,” the philosopher Gregory Marks distinguishes certain forms of vitalism with what he calls the Posthuman Gothic. If some types of vitalism imagine a landscape invested with notions of will and consciousness that sound remarkably “human,” then those types remain a form of anthropomorphism. But the Posthuman Gothic, he argues, reverses this dynamic. Instead of seeing images of ourselves outside of us, this Gothicism brings the outside (with its teeming, multifaceted activity) in. While reading Chatelaine, I kept thinking of this distinction, and how the book operates in that second mode. Cassidy’s poems continually strive to make the human strange, stranger, strangest. In “The red studio (movable types),” she writes, “Father was a potted fern, reclining miner, a diadem. / Moth’ went in sheepskin, sweet camouflaged poison. / Sap trembled from my armpits.” Even memory, in Cassidy’s wonderfully gripping and earthy collection, is dynamic, rendering parents into plants, children into trees bleeding sap. The supposedly closed circle of the domestic is threaded with biomorphic diversity. The collection is like an exorcism through which the reader might momentarily cast out their dull, anthropomorphic spirit, and enter into a field of shapeshifting lifeforms.
James Pate teaches creative writing and literature at Shepherd University, WV. His books include Flowers Among the Carrion: Essays on the Gothic in Contemporary Poetry (Actions Books Salvo Series) and Speed of Life (Fahrenheit Books).