Phillip Hall Reviews Quinn Eades and Gabrielle Everall

By | 9 November 2017

The poet’s muse might be a struggle to maintain mental health, but the effort, at least for her readers, is certainly worth it. That image of ‘my loneliness is a bomb / raising a siren call’ is achingly strong while the final three lines represent a heartfelt plea, free of melodrama, and burning with anxiety. The exploration of this angst is continued in ‘Psappha’. Here we are told that Psappha ‘liked the word ‘les’ in French for obvious reasons’, and that papyrus (which the poem links to Psappha’s name) is ‘a material that comes from the cells of a water plant like the spine of a woman’. This is an incredible image, jolting the poem to a startled standstill before resuming with an interrogative story about an abusive father / daughter relationship involving pedophilia and a medical profession too quick to ‘blame the victim’. This is difficult subject matter but Everall responds to it with bold sensitivity.

And Everall also confronts, head-on, the confinements that restricted so many women in the twentieth century. The poem, ‘The Crone Sisters’, begins with:

To be big then
was normal.

Beware a woman
who takes herself
past her procreative

Gertrude wrote
with her eyes
bigger than her belly
she had a face
like a Roman Emperor
a mask of Stein
that Picasso
tried to paint out
after ninety sittings.

The clever and comic punning in these lines are so defiantly juxtaposed with the interrogation of the sexism that Gertrude Stein experienced throughout her life. And the breadth of allusion in that third stanza is astounding: how does such plain language work to echo round and round inside your head?

In the allusions to Stein’s ‘face / like a Roman Emperor’, masks and Picasso portraits, there is an engagement with notions of gender fluidity and erasure of the female. Both Eades and Everall know that this is fractious terrain, and both bear witness to these painful needs for self-identification with great subtlety and empathy. They display none of the crude binary thinking of transphobic thinkers on this subject, who see trans-men as just more manifestations of patriarchy’s hegemony. Everall’s poem, ‘Mount Gertrude’, ends with the following:

Stein is the man
takes Picasso’s hand
in marriage
he is barefoot
and pregnant to her.

Stein is the brother
Hemingway’s lover
T.S. Eliot, Henry James
and Joyce
are invisible to her.
Stein is the drag king
as Chaplin and Keaton
she loved to feel
the weight
of their clothes
fall from her body.

There is a defiantly comic play in these lines that advocate for a wonderfully feminist take on gender fluidity. In those last four lines, there is both a subtle eroticism and assertion of equality in the gender wars. Everall has a stunning way of spinning serious politics on the point of lines that are comically and erotically charged.

Later we are told that Virginia Woolf wanted to ‘break / chastity … with her head / placed like a vice / between Mrs. Ramsay’s / knees’; that Virginia and Vita Sackville-West ‘are a juggernaut of want’ and that Vita ‘has her finger in the circuit’; while later again we read:

The spine
of the book
is my cunt
you touch it
to take
me out.

This is brilliantly comic imagism. Love, however, is not all good sex and contentment. One of Djuna Barnes’ lovers is Thelma, described as having eyes like ‘two black child coffins/not waiting for the resurrection’. And Thelma would later abandon Djuna to the ‘escalation/of alcohol, Sapphic bordellos/and sanatoriums’. Both her family and a medical profession, too ready to conflate homosexuality with insanity, would persecute Barnes. Everall’s book concludes with a powerfully evocative plea:

Djuna, Are You Still Alive?

In New York
where your family
had you put in
a sanatorium
for drunkenness
Are you still alive?

Trapped in Patchin Place
for forty two years
playing ‘Madame Vitriol’
cockroaches crawling up the wall
twice you’ve attempted suicide
Can you hear E. E. Cummings call?
Are you still alive?

Addicted to opium
Blind in one eye
Your false teeth don’t fit
Your nerves are pinched
You’ve fallen five times
Your ribs are broken
You’re comatose in an
old person’s home
Are you still alive?

The tragic trajectory of Barnes’s life is terribly reminiscent of the life of the Australian poet and translator, Aileen Palmer, and reminds me of Sylvia Martin’s brilliant biography, Ink In Her Veins: the Troubled Life of Aileen Palmer (UWAP, 2016). It is shocking that powerful writers like Gabrielle Everall and Sylvia Martin are forced to interrogate such manifestations of historical homophobia to this day.

I hope that, in the years to come, Rallying by Quinn Eades and Les Belles Lettres by Gabrielle Everall are still celebrated as major contributions to the field of Queer poetics. Both books delight, unsettle, arouse and challenge. They allow, even someone as old and conventional as me, to dream of a future where equality and diversity might just be not only possible, but also celebrated.

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