reading Annie Freud's The Mirabelles one frequently asks oneself who did what to
whom, and why, and so this collection forces one to stretch one's mind.
Alternately, some of Freud's pieces have the feeling of a jigsaw puzzle,
which one must struggle to untangle and make sense of. This leads one to
wonder whether poetry should be readily accessible (Whitman is for all his
depth of feeling), or whether one's understanding of a poem should be paid
for with sweat (Emily Dickinson demands this). Annie Freud's collection has
some transparent moments, though for the most part asks of the reader,
especially in the earlier poems, re-readings before one feels satisfied one
has unlocked a piece.
Of the three sections of the collection, 'The Mirabelles,' 'The Inexplicable
Human Gorgeousness,' and 'The Wreathed Jug' (which derives from letters and
conversations with her mother),
the first held the most interest for me, and it is this section as
well which demands the most from the reader. 'The Mirabelles' is a nice
piece, reminding one that sometimes for no particular reason an event stays
with one for years, even one's whole life. We call these iconic memories,
housed in our minds in a different manner from typical, often forgettable
imprints. In this piece,
A young poet
visits an older poet
enjoyed fame and success.
street, a plum tree has scattered
fruit all over the pavement.
The 'she' in this poem, the younger poet, plans to return and fill her
pockets with plums, which she doesn't do, but 'the thought of them, / lying
so sweet all over the pavement, // comes back to her and she remembers / them
every day for the rest of her life.' This piece grew on me as I reread it,
thinking of times when similar things have happened to me. Proust explores
the vast, mysterious texture of memory, as does this poem, in a small way,
reminding us that if memory is what we're made of, we don't know ourselves
very well. Yet one can guess at why something gets remembered, engraved in
our consciousness; accident could play a part, or random neuron firings,
though one wants to ascribe meaning to such things. Here the plums,
mirabelles, are symbols, ripe, beautiful, sweet scented, lying on the
pavement and never retrieved by the aspiring poet. She remembers them though,
forever, the act of not returning for them standing in longing and ambiguous
relation to her future yet to be made. Plums are an ancient symbol of
fertility, here not literally, but rather in the sense of a hoped-for
artistic fullness. 2500 years ago in China falling plums were depicted (Book
of Songs, poem number 17), evoking the passing of time, and longing in some
ways not dissimilar to that implied in Freud's poem.
Some of Freud's poems took me to places I didn't want to go; this is not
necessarily a bad thing, however, when the result of imagery evoking a
palpable moment in place and time - sometimes it's a poet's intention to
disturb. One such piece is another of the early poems, 'Pheasant,' which
painted for me visions that tapped into squeamish tendencies in my psyche,
though perhaps this was part of the point of the poem. The poem begins,
'Driving home from Winterbourne Abbas / with chipolatas, chops and cheese / I
pass a pheasant dead on the road.' Hitting the brakes, putting the car in
reverse, the driver notes 'Her body is warm, her plumage intact. / I pick her
up by her scaly feet / and, laying her gently in the boot, / home I go with
my fabulous loot.' What strikes me in this poem is that Freud seems to be
consciously working against the reader's tendency towards pathos for an
animal most likely killed trying to cross the road; she quickly turns the
creature into food, in a situation where I'm guessing most readers don't want
to see the road-killed pheasant that way. What makes us uncomfortable though
is Freud's early and frequent
use of 'her,' which triggers then sustains personification, resulting
in the unpleasant feeling it's something more than a bird being dismembered
with criminal haste,
I pluck the
feathers against the grain,
trying not to
tear her skin.
I chop off her
feet, her head, her wings,
knife with the rolling-pin
to make my
cuts strike clean.
I open her
body and pull out her guts,
her heart and pearly eggs;
I throw them
out in the unread paper,
the morsel of liver.
Her flesh is
coral brushed with silver,
her fat, the
color of buttercups.
The effect here is less shocking than Baudelaire's 'Une charogne' (Carrion),
though for me evokes a similar feeling of discordant juxtaposition, which
only vegetarians I suppose have the right to complain of. As I think about
it, this piece treads into taboo, playing with cultural or personal
assumptions about what's okay to eat and what's not - my mother won't eat
catfish, because it contains the word 'cat'; few English speakers eat horse,
snails, goat head, or tripe, though pheasant may be on the menu, unless it's
road kill, which complicates the matter slightly.
Other poems I found enjoyable were ones where Freud strikes tones
uncomplicated by elaborate syntax. One such piece, 'Daube,' a 'classic French
stew made with cubed beef braised in wine, vegetables and garlic, and herbes
de Provence,' conjures the mental vagaries of an unnamed soul in an unnamed
institution, remembering a meal from long ago. What's nice about the poem is
what it doesn't tell the reader about who this person is, where he is, why
he's there, when or why he was in Paris, if he was alone or with someone. Was
he with a lover, friend, spouse? We have no idea. 'Towards midnight, he
shouted: carrots! / and the nurse put down her cup. / - What's that, dear?
Were you dreaming? / - I was not dreaming ....
There was a
place I used to go
and have a
dish of melting beef
came with carottes Vichy.
Is it still
there? Does anyone know?
This poem materialized for me the sense of life as a dream, of that moment
when the past is truly past, when life's horizons, once broad, have narrowed
irrevocably. Ninth century Japanese poet Ariwara no Narihira captured this sentiment
when he wrote, 'although I've heard / there is a road we all must /
travel never did / I think I
must set out on / it yesterday or today'; Freud's poem too draws us into this
particular moment, with a touch of humor.
Sections two and three, 'The Inexplicable Human Gorgeousness' and 'The
Wreathed Jug' also had some pieces which drew me in, meriting multiple
re-reads. Pieces I liked were 'Brandenburg,' recalling a visit to this city
in the former East Germany, 'The Breast-Fed and the Un-Breast-Fed,' which,
like some of Freud's other poems, makes use of a welter of pronouns, and
finally from 'The Wreathed Jug,' 'Marrying Strange Men'. While reviewing
poetry is admittedly subjective, it's fair to say Annie Freud's The
Mirabelles is well worth the read.
Whale's Waterloo Teeth is the kind of poetry collection which demands a lot from the
reader; in fact I kept Google at hand as I read through the book, and
probably couldn't have made it through without Internet help. This leads me
to wonder if quick and easy access to information via electronic sources
hasn't in some way affected poetry writing, and thus its reading. This said,
I rather enjoyed the challenge of ferreting out references which in some
poems tumble forth from nearly every line - assuming a 'hypertext' model, one
reads such a collection almost as if it's on the Internet itself.
Whale's collection prompted me to delve into aspects of history I had no
knowledge of. Not all of the pieces in this book required me to do this,
though many did. As this demands more than passing interest, the collection I
think runs the risk of alienating readers who might not have the patience or
interest to take the time to hunt down Whale's many allusions to sometimes
obscure people and places. But the question of what's obscure and what's not
is an interesting one these days, since if something's easily accessible on
the Internet, then in a sense it's not obscure.
Whale has an eye for the macabre, and an early piece that caught my attention
is 'Mary Toft'; knowing nothing of such a person, I discovered she was an
English woman 'from Surrey who in 1726 became the subject of controversy when
she tricked doctors into believing she had given birth to rabbits'. Whale's
poetic musing on such topics brought to my attention something I've thought
about from time to time, that people are capable of the strangest behavior,
in fact just about anything it seems. And bizarre behavior is more common
than we might like to admit. As it turned out, it was all a hoax of course,
though the amazing thing is that Mary for a time had everyone, including
several prominent physicians, believing her. Why she did it it seems no one
really knows, though this works in favor of Whale's poem, which begins and
continues in Mary's voice, as she describes what was likely a spontaneous
abortion in August of 1726, followed by an intimation of what will happen in
pulled itself away from me
in the dark
fold of my bruised womb.
I could not
see him in my rush of blood,
of my flesh and bone.
In the first
green months of my term
I craved the
milky meat of a rabbit
pinkness braised with blue,
white fracture of a bone....
Whale gives us what's missing from most accounts of this strange affair, an
inside view of the events from the perspective of Mary herself; yet when one
reads about the case of Mary Toft, one realizes it tells us more about
society or human nature than it does about the actors themselves. The poem,
in Mary's voice, gives the impression Mary believes she's giving birth to
rabbits and rabbit parts, which isn't clear from other accounts on can read.
And yet one wonders what she's thinking when she concocts a fraud such as
this one, if he's deluded herself into believing her story. The hoax, which
gained the attention of prominent physicians of the time, and which was
finally discovered after two months of investigation, ruined several careers
and was followed by the entire nation. Reportedly several of the physicians
involved stopped eating rabbit stew.
December I sent for Howard
me safely of a limp buck.
And I had him
back day after painful day
until a pile
of eight (all dead) lay
the linen bedding.
others came to watch:
Manningham and St Andre
nearly seventeen in all,
but most of
these were incomplete,
fur and some the bone,
laces of silver sinew,
tags to load barley stew.
Something I am a bit ambivalent about in Whale's collection is where irony
seems to cross over into sarcasm, and not because some of the historical
figures the author features don't deserve it, some of them probably do. My
sense of uneasiness stems from the fact that when dealing with historical
personages, it's hard to know if what one knows about them is close to the
reality of who or what they were, and why they acted as they did. In some
cases what we know or think we know is quite wrong, or at least extremely
incomplete. So I think for instance Whale's take in 'Fresh Hands,' about
notorious murderers William Burke and William Hake who in Edinburgh, starting
in 1827, sold the bodies of seventeen people they had killed to Robert Knox,
a Scottish surgeon and anatomist, works better than 'Brioche,' which while
enjoyable as a poem, seems to satirize Marie-Antionette. I suspect an
operable principle is the more famous a historical figure, the less likely
we are to have a satisfactory picture of who that individual was, especially
when they are embedded, as was Marie-Antionette, in a complex historical
drama. Whale's approach works better in 'Fresh Hands', because Burke and
Hake's actions were clearly deviant, and the tacit complicity of Knox is
Poems I was attracted to were ones less judgmental, pieces that catch a
historical moment through the lens of the writer's mind. One such poem is 'A
moi, ma chere amie' ('Come to me, my dear friend'), supposedly the last words
of Jean-Paul Marat, the Prussian-born physician, political theorist, and
scientist known for his career in France as a radical journalist and
politician during the French Revolution, murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte
Corday, a Girondin sympathizer on July 13, 1793. The poem recalls
Jacques-Louis David's painting The Death of Marat in some of its details, and
the words above were spoken to Marat's twenty-seven year old wife Simone
Evrard as he lay dying. I like this poem because it takes a cosmic view (if
this is an appropriate term) of this iconic event, voicing both the imagined
thoughts (in Part I) of Marat's assassin, and the deceased Marat himself (in
Part II). Lines I liked the best are at the start of Section II, when Marat,
liberated from his diseased body, speaks:
midsummer air my soul
soars free of
its inflamed skin
airship over the body politic.
I am the
sacred heart of Marat
shed for you
and for everyone else
the great wheatfields of France.
Whatever one thinks of Marat (he was a complex character) these are beautiful
lines, a peaceful place to dock after the earlier violence of the stabbing,
'... the word amie / gives way to a jet of arterial blood / and a cry to burst
all the bubbles'. In the end Marat's corpse rests in L'Eglise de Cordeliers,
while his heart, removed from his body, rests in a bejeweled urn.
'Waterloo Teeth,' the collection's namesake, is a curious piece, not the
least because it features the eighteenth century practice of using teeth of
the dead for dentures. What one age considers perfectly acceptable is
repugnant to another. More shocking though is how the phrase 'Waterloo Teeth'
came to be; in short, persons looking to make a buck descended on
battlefields with pliers to yank the teeth of newly killed young men, lying
where they fell. This apparently got its start at Waterloo, in 1815. Whale's
sense of the macabre again comes through, this time near the start of the
poem, in the voice of those wielding the pliers, 'we fell upon the
rain-soaked bodies of the dead / and ripped lace gorgettes from the dandy
officers. / From the rosy cheeks of English plough-boys / we pulled two
hundred sets of perfect teeth'.
Another poem I found quite interesting was 'Tom Paine's Bones,' a bizarre
tale of one William Cobbett (1763-1835) aka Peter Porcupine, British
political writer and pamphleteer, who somehow got hold of American patriot
Tom Paine's bones and carried them back to England. This poem, as do many of
the others, requires ferreting out allusions, so multiple readings and some
googling are warranted; the end result though is an enjoyable romp through an
unlikely chain of events leading to old Tom's bones being lost. My other
favorites were 'The Goree,' about the Goree Warehouses in Liverpool, built in
1793, destroyed by fire in 1802, then rebuilt in 1811, and finally 'The Last
of the Race,' focusing on a Passenger Pigeon named Martha, the last in
existence, which died in Cincinnati in 1914. Both of these pieces depart from
Whale's sometimes less accessible style, and speak to the reader in a
friendly manner, invoking meditation on their subjects.
As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed reviewing The Mirabelles and Waterloo Teeth. Both of these collections
offer something for anyone interested in modern poetry, and as one might
expect one will appreciate some pieces more than others. Reading these
volumes offered me the chance to reflect on some what I believe poetry to be
and what it should do for me as a reader. Something I've come to realize is
the surprisingly subjective nature of evaluating poetry; one almost wants to
say in this day and age it's futile to make judgments on such things as
another's poetic production. And yet this is exactly what a reviewer is
expected to do. I've always kept in mind the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer,
Yiddish writer of Nobel fame, who once reflected there are many dangers
lurking behind the modern writer, and that the task of any writer is to
express 'the basic and ever-changing nature of human relations'. This Freud
and Whale have done.
Howard Giskin 2011