Un(dis)closed: Reading the Poetry of Emma Lew

By | 1 August 2017

For Lew’s speaker, it is the head which proves ‘perilous’ (line 4). Indeed, it is the wandering imagination (‘reverie’) which, while ‘shrewd’ (line 4) that leads to a journey through ‘shambling waves’ (line 5). ‘[S]hambling’ suggests a lack of order, yet this is belied by the form of the poem where assonance of ‘sh’ (‘shrewd’, ‘shambling’, ‘shore’) suggests continuity. Moreover, the ‘sh’ sound makes language itself a kind of comfort and a possible progression towards sleep and dream. This dreamlike journey is perhaps through life, continuing past more water (‘waterfalls’ symbolising pent up emotion being released) and ‘time lost’ and ‘first chastities to mar the shore’ (line 7). Yet sexual constraint is contrasted to felt passion as ‘defenceless men set me aflame’ (line 8). Here, Lew continues the paradoxical drawing together of water and fire.

The fourth stanza takes a different stance to agency:

Not me at all, but my double, my look-alike;
not someone, but anyone in a cloak and hood… (line 10-11)

While one might think of this as a reminder of the difference between the poetic speaker and the author, it is perhaps preferable to see this as setting up a distinction between the conscious and unconscious self. While the conscious self is bound by cultural conventions, the desires of the unconscious are more uncontrollable. The ‘cloak and hood’ suggests a mask of anonymity and perhaps also of the story of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ where distinctions between good and evil are more difficult to detect.

The fifth stanza also draws attention to the poem’s own artifice: ‘How bare the narrative seems!’(line 13). This contrasts with the sartorial ‘cloak and hood’. The poem reinforces its own essential emptiness through the four-fold repetition of ‘nothing’ in the fourteenth line: ‘And nothing! And nothing and nothing and nothing…’ It also suggests the absence of meaning that becomes apparent in a journey where one seeks signs of meaning, whether this be reading a poem or a journey for meaning, or life’s journey.

The allusion to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is reinforced in the sixth stanza by its opening line, ‘If only you could see me riding on and on’ (line 16) although it is undone by the subsequent line, ‘babbling like a saint in the open fields!’ (line 17). Here though we are back on the ground, we are not grounded. While the villanelle has an ending, the content of Lew’s final stanza suggests endlessness. The speaker rides ‘on and on’ upon ‘open fields.’ Spiritual revelation is babble or unintelligible. The ‘open fields’ also recalls Charles Olson’s vision of projective verse as composition in field or open. Olson pits projective verse against what he called non-projective verse or closed forms such as the villanelle. Here Lew troubles Olson’s view, developed with Robert Creeley, that ‘form is never more than an extension of content’, perhaps enacting that ‘content is never more than an extension of form’. Olson himself was fascinated by Melville’s Moby Dick, culminating in Call Me Ishmael (1947), a precursor to Projective Verse (1950). In Part One of Call Me Ishmael, he writes: ‘I am willing to ride Melville’s image of man, whale and ocean to find in him prophecies, lessons he himself would not have spelling out. A hundred years gives us an advantage’ (n.pag.).

Just as Olson turns to Melville turning to Shakespeare, as a reader I have sought meaning in Lew’s poem in maybe not a ‘hundred other places’ but in literary allusion and influence. Besides Melville and possibly Olson, there also seems to be an echo of Emily Dickinson who writes of similar, cryptically provocative journeys of the self. Unlike Dickinson’s poems which often end dramatically open and seemingly unfinished (often emphasised by her use of a closing dash), Lew’s choice of villanelle enacts a turn-around, ending with the opening first and third lines. Whereas Dickinson suggests a movement beyond (whether it be the trappings of the poem itself, life, or social mores), Lew focuses on both its possibility and impossibility. This is underscored by her use of the conditional ‘[i]f’ in ‘If you could only see me riding on and on’ (line 16).

Thematically and unlike Dickinson’s ‘Because I could not Stop for Death,’ Lew seems to enact a solitary journey in the poem rather than one conjoined with another. There is no sense of the speaker actually acting upon being ‘set aflame’ by ‘defenceless men’ or of a significant or single Other. Even though a ‘you’ is invoked, it is to watch only the subject herself (‘If you could only see me riding on and on’). The focus remains solipsistic and the end of the poem has the speaker babbling alone in the open fields. While suggestive literary ghosts can be found in situ, the shared journey that is most apparent is with the reader. This is the contract which is perhaps eschewed but not broken. While the speaker eschews marriage, the reader desires intimacy with the poetic text. The poem’s self-consciousness or meta-textual narcissism may ‘rattle’ us as readers, yet this reader, at least, continued with its journey till its conclusion.

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