Sophie Mayer’s work is proof that poetry can be both acutely modern, and unpretentiously crafted.
You will find no avant-guard posturing here, but neither will you find tedious, more Auden than thou, formalist bravura.
Mayer’s talent is one of a poet pathologically in love with language – that is she seeks to destroy what she loves.
It’s the only way to prove her devotion.
Words contort the lips and bend the tongue, and a take long hard piss on your poetic comfort zone. (More on pissing in a sec).
An elegy for the sonnet as an instrument of torture is a sarcastic though not disrespectful feminist satire on the chivalrous sonneteers of the likes of Wyatt, Sidney and Shakespeare.
From you: a mouthful of crown jewels,
A snail trail of slipped identities and dirty linen
All buckled to a verse form that plays
That pays daisy chains with rhymed pairs (legs
entwined in exquisite crucifixions),
whose ecstatic utter shudder is its
quietus: auto-poetic asphyxiation.’
There’s an angry humour here, but also a comment on poetic craft, the masturbatory indulgence and sad, sado-masochistic subconscious of courtly male poets. Words like ‘inheritance’ ‘exquisite’ and ‘ecstatic’, however, suggest that Mayer has a resentful admiration for her targets – sitting targets, tall in the canon’s saddle.
Though paying no particular heed to questions of meter – the meter Mayer creates is real, if entirely her own.
In a poem like Shell Key the lines pound out a balladic rhythm, the old English drumming of forgotten folk culture, the sing song swell of waves. They do so however, in an elusive way. The craft is not showy, but just present and effective. You don’t wow at the shape and structure of the line, but you get a rush from what each line does as it licks across your tongue.
‘she’s a rich bitten biscuit, teethmarks
an occam mock-up – simple as___,
sweet as___: there’s no way to
read this 2D into hap, fingers caught
napped at the undertow – chaotic!’
‘Occam mock-up’ is hilarious, but there’s no sense of who or what the poet is talking about. The words come in the refraction of modernity’s consciousness, but no – this is not Joycean. This is wordplay, but non-intellectual, the words and the lines come fully-formed from the concatenation of a fever of bombardment.
Mayer uses assonance as a wicked weapon, almost like a rapper:
an evidence; say, artifice
(du feu) in pinks prinked & frilled
little grissette with a wicked grille
has shrugged off her grisaille….’
Pissing into the wind: 2004 is one of Mayer’s less confounding pieces. This poem pretty much does what it says it’s going to do – give you are scoffing run down of patriarchal history, each line starting with ‘pissing into…’ and the rest is a study of the futility and cruelty of human hubris and narcissism.
Silence, Singing is an epic, broad, sweeping history of patriarchy and deep-seated mythic narratives, an eagle’s eye view of the crevices and canyons of the western psyche.
From Mary Sidney Herbert, to Bathsheba to Iphigenia, this is also a testament to the redemptive power of the poem. Not poetry as it exists in a male canon, but poetry as it is manifested in practice, the kind of poetry that Mayer practices supremely.
For Mayer, poetry is redemptive not in the passives sense of being saved by a male God, but in the sense of rewriting the world, rewriting, or reclaiming the canon as she sees fit. And rewriting herself as a woman, as human being, as an artist.
In this sense her fascination with male courtly poets makes sense, because these men too sought to translate rejection into love, just as Mayer seeks to translate the silence of women gods and women poets into a sprawling, articulate and timeless song.
I am still getting to know this worryingly good volume, and this nightmarishly accomplished poet. I don’t like the word Patriarchy, but I understand Mayer’s take on it, and can’t disagree with it.
Mayer is the kind of poet, like Pound, who forces you to relinquish your claims to cleverness, and if you can resolve yourself to humble yourself, especially if you are a male poet, you stand to gain a lot of nourishment.
(O) is published by Arc Publications