David Gilbey Reviews Ann Vickery and Brendan Ryan

By | 22 November 2016

In an early poem, ‘Amanuensis’, Vickery riffs a pervasive preoccupation of the collection – what might be called ventriloquialism. It begins ‘Ghosts rarely write well. They combust under copy’, but in fact this poem – and many in the collection – belie the line. One of the intriguing strengths of Vickery’s poetry is its echoing multivocality – her persistence of murmuring verbal ear-worms. As the poem continues: ‘Remember Tiresias transported to female form / just for striking a few sexed-up snakes. / The birds gave him visions too.’ For me, this is one of the underpinning conceits of Devious Intimacy: the way Vickery’s poems utter, cite, speak their ghostly progenitors – the bastards and pedigrees who have contributed to the poems’ begetting. Vickery’s visions voice vivid vocal vivisections, as this poem playfully demurs: ‘when beaks begin to speak in Greek, I am I / yet transcribed, a sympathetic everywhere / and nowhere liaisons entre cause and effects.’ I’m tempted to suggest the last lines encapsulate (or at least suggest) tauntingly, the volume’s poetics: ‘Histrionic mummery. / Good girls know that golden rule: it’s practice makes perfect.’

‘The Flea’ plays with these ideas both more seriously and (to further instantiate Donne) more ‘indifferently’: ‘The Sicilian Donne feeds his flea / blood Liszt full in the over-ripe sun’, initiating a series of fugues where music’s relationship to ecology (and design) courts a new sense of sin ‘among the fly-ridden hibiscus’. Vickery interlaces mythology with satire and assonantal apostrophe, discoursing through echoes of what might be thought a motif: love and its (mis-)directions (terrors?). A piano doesn’t so much ‘impugn’ as ‘tune’ a ‘whole new landscape’ (such toccata fingering!) where ‘Flea sits, flea listens, but flea wants / to sup upon shins more tender, skirtly captive / to spider-fine, serenaded passion.’ Vickery’s attention to minutiae of wordplay is a mark of her crafty ear for Donne’s ‘original’ carpe diem (his poem was a variation on a well-known medieval-renaissance erotic bawdry) as well as more modern, ambiguously-gendered desires. But what for me is masterful is in the next lines, with their sense of that traditional tension between soul and body (immortality and its obverse) in: ‘Immorselled moment, this mortal decadence / marked by a slowing air / a loss of step’, measured (intimately) by the body’s minute awareness. The final lines echo Donne again, reframing the flea, love, death and the gods in a clustering (de)crescendo that gestures towards the way love’s dance (‘dervishly’) is still celebrated in the heavens (‘leoninely cosmological’) and popular music (‘Bo Diddley’). The final word, ‘swat’, not only dismisses Donne’s original essai but reinscribes the woman’s power of refusal.

Another ‘literary’ piece, ‘And what shoulder, & what art’, celebrates the speaker’s sense of her own ‘Tiger flesh […] primitive fantasy. / To be stretched by appetites not your own.’ Vickery has taken the insistent questions posed by Blake and repositioned the allegory, apposite to the notions weaving around Devious Intimacy: ‘Love’s pact, / the essential tear between you and not you.’ The ‘feral’ life of the tiger, ‘What guilt hunts for’, is ‘obsidian desire’ which may, disturbingly, result in ‘you unbecoming’ on the ‘tripwires of motherhood’ – somehow both more domestic, societal and more pervasively haunting than Blake’s ‘forests of the night’.

The very fine ‘At Heatherlie Quarry’ frames an enquiry into the way poetry might be read in terms of geomorphology: ‘how to read / dys-scriptively, query the quarry’ by ‘everlastings in bloom […] forever keepsakes’. Maybe the flowers suggest the delicate but persistent petals of poetry? This fracturing of a conversation poem reminds us of the playful plenipotence of the poet: ‘today there is no stonemason / only stonemusing’ who finds herself ‘gariwording’ (I have no idea what this might actually mean but I’m held by its suggestivity). The poem becomes a ‘Babel enfant’ which ‘reconstructs a monument’, generating narratives, images, structures beyond the literal scope of the words but left to the reader to juggle (along with whatever other memories surface).

I can’t possibly do justice to all the intricate, suggestive complexity in these sophisticated, satisfying poems. They took me back to Berrigan, O’Hara, Notley (‘a wardrobe of lilaceous effects’), through Western Victoria (‘Love with spurs of an echidna’), Swansea (‘Love again, latrines & God knows what’), Rimbaud, ‘not Jane Austen’. Juggling fashion with prophecy (‘Style: the Sibyl’s only available expression’); theology with ‘Western Triv’; schadenfreude and amor fati; Vickery’s poetry takes in or alludes to much of Western art, culture and writing so that history is interrogated achronologically, peering through her poems’ micro-telescopes. ‘Goat Night in Northcote’ takes a sly shot at western moral and spiritual imperatives: ‘The lost art of torment … / Medieval toothpicks fraternise with the chewed fat of discontent … / a blending of nether, soft as the hay we lay on. / Each sin has a silver lining.’

I’m tempted to suggest that, despite the insouciant ‘vagabondage’ of ‘saunter[ing] saucily scant-eyed at the workers / … down the streets of Fitzroytown’, Vickery’s poems celebrate the intricacy and unstable inevitability of what, in other poetic traditions would be called ‘Lerv’; but here ‘devious intimacy’ is often manifest as ‘Found / sunshine’ echoed in the penultimate lines of the final poem as ‘wide open houses with gingered / dickens and felicitous dawns all flowing through’. And despite the final line’s (dis)avowal that ‘there can be no excuse for bad ghosts’, the many liminal presences in this volume are conjured, embodied, embraced and enjoyed by this, and I hope, many other readers of Ann Vickery’s poems.

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