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(ESSAY) Where Does a Body End? Moving through a Globalised World [...] by Max Parnell


‘Where does a body end?’ Max Parnell takes an extensive venture through the pages of Lydia Unsworth’s Uncertain Manouevres (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2018), asking how do we know, how do we travel, how do we value our world, our wild, our guides, our motion and ourselves in a time of environmental crisis?

Move to New Zealand, wherever. Pick the name that suits you best. Do you like to wear German trainers? Who doesn’t? What about Japanese?  

> It’s already dark at five pm and I’m watching a group of tourists photograph a landmark in Glasgow whose significance I myself don’t know. Whilst I watch these figures move, people that could be from all corners of the globe, I think back to the month I spent in France this summer: another traveller moving through overcrowded cities, trying to silently assimilate. To say that Lydia Unsworth’s debut collection, Certain Manoeuvres ‘guided’ me through that month would miss the mark. I don’t think the collection, containing a profusion of reflections on travel, notions of belonging, the fragmentation of the self and its relation to ecology and new technologies is written to offer immediate answers. Rather, the reward comes through the ways in which this collection invites the reader to dip in and out, to meditate on the questions it poses and to return to it, as was my experience.

> The focus of the speaker’s voice; sometimes ‘I’, sometimes ‘you’, and even ‘us’, calls upon the reader to reflect on their own place in the world, on their own sense of identity and on the many, fragmentary selves that constitute an individual. Pieced together through recurring titles that feel as though they are in conversation with each other, the reader drifts with the speaker’s voice, situating us within the conversation. Each of these partitions neatly opens up a space in which the speaker switches pronouns as a way of altering how the reader engages not only with the speaker’s voice, but with how they, the reader, relate to the questions being posed.

> In the sections entitled ‘On’, the voice speaks mostly to a ‘you’, a subject that the speaker seems to know intimately; ‘your house is the only one on the street’. Whilst seeming to maintaining an acute awareness of this subject’s identity throughout these sections, it seems also apparent, right from the first page, that this ‘you’ perhaps represents ‘us’, speaker and reader alike. Unsworth delicately captures this collective ‘you’ throughout the collection through references to the habitual motions we enact whilst travelling:

Even now, at the furthest station, you disembark, head toward gentrification. Buy a postcard, write home that you have travelled. Buy a coffee, read books by authors you already know.

These reflections on the generic and predictable experience of travelling in a globalised world are woven throughout the text, as if as a way of framing the commonalities we pass through when travelling without quite comprehending why we do so. The speaker’s voice is frequently direct, creating an immediacy to the poems that demands our attention:

Out of office auto-reply, here I come. Culture shocks, here I come. Inspiration, here I come. Another temple,  here I come. Border control, here I come. Bucket list, here I come. The perfect getaway, here it comes.

One of the structural elements of this collection that works so effectively is the insertion of notes from a 1968 guidebook, Famous Cities of the World: Amsterdam. These short fragments not only help to partition the positional focus of the speaker’s voice, but also add a sort of humorous reference to the speaker’s meditations on the (often disappointing) motions of travelling. As the guidebook notes, the view from a certain building presents ‘what could be almost any city’, but only through a ‘closer look’ do features become more  distinctive. One of the questions that arise throughout this collection is whether or not travelling can ever offer us this ‘closer look’? What even is a ‘closer look’?

> The doubt of whether we can really come to know something, or somewhere through such fleeting visits resurfaces throughout the text. It’s a sensation many of us know: leaving a place feeling like you’ve barely scratched the surface, resulting in the seemingly inevitable sense of ennui. In one section of Effects, the speaker almost implores us to consider this question: ‘Imagine tapping into some sub-tropical region, really getting to grips with it, knowing which leaves to eat and which to ignore.’ To read this whilst moving from city to city, spending less than a week in each, it was hard not to look at my surroundings and wonder what small impressionistic fragments someone must take away from the cities that I have lived in.

> There’s an intimacy to the speaker’s voice throughout the collection, one that at once recalls personal experience whilst simultaneously conveying a sense of unwanted indifference many of us have felt whilst doing what travelling ‘tells’ us we should do. In particular, I think of the speaker reflecting on their experience visiting ‘the oldest university library in the world’:

Whilst I hadn’t seen the oldest university library in the world itself before, I’d seen something like it. Beautiful as it was… most of my attention was caught up in the fact that I wasn’t really feeling anything. There was no sickness, no awe… just a lot of thinking about whether or not to bother taking a photograph.

I think this passage speaks to many questions that arise with contemporary notions of travel. The phrase ‘seeing something for itself’ struck a chord with me, as I think it hints at our tendency to research or look at places we’re going online before seeing them in ‘real life’. I recall once, after accepting a position at a university abroad, searching Google street views to check how the area around the department looked. When I finally saw it in actuality, there was a strange sensation that I was looking back at myself in the university library in Glasgow, the then present reality of that ‘distant’ street seeming to be inextricably tied to my former home.

> This seems to happen on many levels, not just through Google maps & street views, endless online photos and reviews, but also with ever increasingly sophisticated technologies. I know someone whose job consists of creating VR experiences of luxury holidays so that buyers can ‘get a taste’ before paying for the real thing, just to check if it’s worth actually seeing it ‘in real life’. This raises questions of the actual reasons for travel. Is it to discover something, to be surprised and have to learn from the difficulties faced in not being in the know? Or does this meticulous planning and the profusion of information render the act of travelling a process designed merely to ‘experience’ something in person?

> There also seems in Unsworth’s poetry to be a reference to the insatiable desire (or perhaps even necessity) to situate ourselves around the globe, at the expense of feeling a sense of belonging. The speaker alludes to this, noting the ‘under-rumble of quietude, a sharp but not entirely pleasant suggestion to be still’, alongside the way the anxiety of flying stops them wanting to move. When an unnamed speaker remarks ‘this might sound weird, but I’m satisfied’, the implication is that this satisfaction results from being still, from remaining in one place. I couldn’t help but smile at this line, recalling a time when a friend of mine, when explaining why she wasn’t moving, told me exactly the same thing.

> As I mentioned before, this collection didn’t exactly ‘guide’ me through my journey in France, but seemed instead to act as a reference point; the eloquent articulation of many of the emotions I encountered being mirrored back at me from Unsworth’s poems.  The speaker’s voice, at once relatable and honest, seemed almost too accurate with where I then found myself; ‘I just wanted  to come home… a place where you didn’t have to stand up if you didn’t want to and you didn’t need to buy anything’. Whilst I didn’t have the immediate urge to return home, I’d started to grow tired of the inability to simply ‘be’ in a city without consuming. Having been asked by security to stop sitting on the floor in the train terminal of London St Pancras, the only place where you don’t have to consume anything, these words seemed almost too pertinent.

> Throughout my time in France, moving by train from one city to the next, I frequently found Certain Manoeuvres making me think back to Ashton Nichols essay Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting. In this essay, Nichols draws our attention to what he interprets as technology’s ability to heighten our interconnection with all elements (living and material) of our planet:

’The globe is now completely mapped, filmed and photographed, from those 1960’s snapshots of the delicate blue-green planet seen from outer-space down to Google Earth shots of the smallest streetscapes and streambeds. With my own computer mouse, and with MapQuest or Google Earth, I can move from Mauritius to Manhattan in a minute; I can spin from the Seychelles to Seattle in a second. I can zoom down onto every housetop. I can see almost every car in every parking lot. But this is not a problem. This is not a loss. In fact, my ability to scan the surface of the globe with my computer in seconds is part of what assures me that I am linked to every living creature, and every material object, that surrounds me’[1].

In its direct yet tentative language, Certain Manoeuvres speaks to this notion, calling upon us to consider the  implications not just of living in a world entirely mapped out, but of travelling in such a world with this all encompassing map available in our pockets. Do we see such hyper-visualisation and advanced documentation as Nichols does; as an ‘assurance’ of connectivity with our surroundings? Or do we encounter this with a similar sense of melancholic despondency touched on in these poems? I feel the focus in this collection hints less at the connectivity, and more at the atomisation caused by contemporary technology. In Effects, the language has a cinematic quality to it, constructing a scenario that feels familiar, if not personal; ‘We move through the world but we take our computers. You sit on the metro in Japan and swipe right, swipe left.’ Even when travelling, something generally characterised by an openness to new experiences, a desire to learn and to immerse oneself in a new environment, Unsworth draws our attention to travel’s invariable tendency to pull us out from the  atomisation caused by our relationship with technology.

> When the speaker insists that ‘nothing here is wild’, I think we can’t help but see ourselves in the description of ‘you’ that follows:

You search for something that doesn’t flaunt the stamp of man but all mountain ranges are rectangular fields and all wolves are dogs. The same logo is on the beach as can be found on the roofs and on the bollards.

In this specific, yet also quite familiar sensation of trying to find somewhere untouched or ‘wild’, there seems to be an emotional state we are growing accustomed to in the age of the Anthropocene. As I looked  from the window of my train, crossing the southern coast from Marseille to Toulouse, I found myself also scanning the horizon, Unsworth’s description of ’ hotel penthouses’ and ‘factory chimneys’ unfolding in the early morning light.


> Another aspect of Certain Manoeuvres that spoke to me through my travel was the fragmentation of the self and the myriad forms such ruptures can take. This concept is examined not only in relation to the speaker’s person, but in relation to our environments, noting the inserparateness of locational disconnection and a fragmentation of the self.

> There are multiple passages throughout that collection that not only felt pertinent to where I then found myself, but that seemed to trigger memories of an emotional state experienced when living abroad. One instance of this came in On, where the direct address to ‘you’ feels so candid:

You hear the constant pitch of your old country from inside the ear, pressing down on you like bad weather. You drown it out by sticking to the busy streets: trams, motorbikes, yellow lights, etc.

I think this musical portrayal, to some degree, is both metaphor and literal. It’s something I’ve certainly been through, as if no matter how hard you try to assimilate somewhere, to step inside that language and occupy a new, partially formed sense of self, there are instances where the previous fragments of ‘you’ seem to creep in like a faint, distant pitch. It’s a note you’re familiar with, one you recognise and that often feels frustratingly dissonant to the key of your new, modified self. Is there a coping mechanism for such ontological discordance? Or do you simply pass through the busy districts where the noise of unremitting nightlife makes the past self impossible to hear? Reading these lines, memories surfaced of walking alone, comforted by the twenty-four hour culture of an unfamiliar district that allowed me to just exist without explanation.

> There’s something about the speaker’s inextricable link to the objects that make up their person that feels so tied to the notion of travelling as a potential for personal growth. Unsworth hints at the objects that make up part of this experience — postcards, letters, photographs — whilst questioning how crucial of a role they play in actually forming the person. Were they to be discarded, would some part of the self be forever lost?

I take unneeded items and classify them: paper, plastic wood. Fling them… freeing up vital storage. The fact that the past still exists is so unnerving.

Again, I find this another example of Unsworth’s ability to offer us images both metaphorical and literal, leaving us to meditate on the multiple possibilities of this phrase. Does this ‘vital storage’ signify physical space exterior to the body? Or this act of clearing out physical relics of the past a way of clearing out internal, cerebral storage, creating a space for one of the speaker’s myriad persons to fill? I think one of the aspects of this ontological fragmentation that enriches the collection and that allows these questions to resonate is the fragmentation of the language itself, or, more specifically, the fragmentation of the definitions of words that are presented as false equivalences.

The word for time is tide, the word for tide is tie, the word for tie is binding. The word for wait is one step away from the word for watch. Hour logging. The word for war, the word for ear, emphasis, a prostitute.

I think the effect of these moments of playfulness comes in large part from the sharp contrast with the direct, prosaic style of the collection. There’s something in the severing of these words from their meaning, alongside the detaching of the self from one specific body that reminded me of Jameson’s ‘schizophrenic fragmentation’. This develops further when the speaker’s false equivalences move into a form of double negation; ‘you are better not at home than not away’, which feels almost like the discordant clash of two parts of the self  disagreeing with each other. It feels like the ‘buffering’ the speaker alludes to, the glitching of one’s physical self with the idea of this self as they move through different environments. One of the lines that beautifully meshes this physical movement with a virtual movement comes in ‘Effects’, the collective ‘we’ travelling to ‘the edges of computer games…  to see where the mesh runs out, see where the coders traded trees for grid’. The insistence that ‘nothing is wild’ extends in the virtual space, with no vector left untouched.  

> As we find ourselves entering the final stages of Certain Manoeuvres, the poetry takes these deeply personal questions of self and delicately entwines them with contemporary questions of ecological degradation and technological entanglement. Maintaining the same direct and immediate tone we’ve grown accustomed to, Unsworth’s poetry looks at these questions with a tentativeness that avoids trying to be didactic. Instead, the reader is invited to consider these questions through the speaker’s seemingly incomplete and slightly obfuscated images. We see the speaker ‘attached to [their] past self by telephone wires, in paper repetitions… a molecule rotating in one of two directions’. This series of persons, seemingly enmeshed in both the memories of the phone conversations and the wires themselves,  throws us back to Unsworth’s earlier meditation; ‘Life, whatever that is: grain, maize, a chip in a computer’. These reflections, rather than standing outside of the other questions raised in Certain Manoeuvres, interlink both conceptually and formatically throughout the collection. Linguistically, the same fragmentation of definitions pulls apart the language surrounding extinction and consumerism.

Everything becomes a monument, an internet cafe, a clothing range. Timing is crucial. The Latin name of the functionally extinct Yangtze river dolphin means left behind. The word for pigeon is dove, the word for Dove is Unilever. As soon as one thing is joined  with another it becomes a different thing that is again just one.

Including false equivalences alongside genuine definitions, it forces us to pause and reflect upon the ways in which language plays a role in our perception of such environmental questions. Unsworth neatly pulls this off, pointing to the ways in which, through entering our definitions, words related to the natural world become synonymous with material products and consequently affect our conceptualisation of our environmental surroundings.

> This oscillation between false equivalence and actual reference is at work throughout the collection, arising unexpectedly at moments to present us with images whose veracity is uncertain. I think this is one of the most intriguing elements of Unsworth’s poetry, a sort of uncanniness that draws our attention to the peculiar (and often challenging) alterations occurring in our world. One of my favourite examples of this comes in ‘On’, the weight of such a passage demanding a pause in the text:

Everything makes two of itself and because of this we think the planet will also. I move to another city so as to be free of my earlier mistakes. In Russia there is a town on the outskirts of Moscow made entirely of plastic. When the mothers are raped they look directly at the camera before they walk away. Locals clamber over rolling hills of refuse looking for something to build a roof from, anything that corrugates.

Evidently there’s a lot to say about these few lines, but one of my first reactions (strangely or naturally, I’m not quite sure) was to Google such a town in Russia to see if it actually existed: I still don’t know if it does. As I started to type the words into the search bar, I realised that I didn’t need to know whether it existed or not. The fact that such a strange place could exist says enough in itself, demonstrating the bizarrely concerning ways in which our landscapes are being transformed during the Anthropocene.

> I don’t think it’s possible to comment on this passage without addressing what I found to be one of the strongest images of the collection. Needless to specify, the direct and explicit reference to sexual abuse woven into the middle of phrases speaking to questions of ecological degradation leaves the reader no choice but to pause and deliberate on two significances: principally, the significance of this image in isolation, and secondally the (possible) link between this and questions of ecology. It’s not my place to state what this means per se, but one notion these lines invited me to consider is the inseparability of human rights issues from the ongoing, and multifaceted challenges of the deeply entrenched environmental concerns of our time. Can these specific violations be treated in isolation? Or are they part of a greater ecology of issues that interlink and merge, forcing us to see a perpetual mutability that makes these questions impossible to detach from one another?

> So where does a body end? As we move through this collection, following the speakers ontological fragmentation, it’s hard not to look at the objects of our own lives in which small parts of our self manifest. As I moved through city after city, dipping in and out of Certain Manoeuvres, I couldn’t help but feel that lodged within the camera, the journal, the interrail pass, all this paraphernalia of travel, was now a certain fragment of who I was during that month. This is a powerful collection that asks many difficult questions, ones that I feel require time to meditate on. Even after multiple close readings, there seems to be a life to this text which grows and mutates independently, mirroring the ways in which the speaker fragments, multiplies and manifests themselves in obscure objects and spaces throughout the poems. That this is a collection I will return to, I am sure. How these reading experiences will be, I couldn’t say, such is the nature of this multifaceted, intricately layered collection.  


Uncertain Manoeuvres is out now and available to order via Knives Forks and Spoons Press. Lydia Unsworth’s latest chapbook, Throw the Towel In, will be released by KFS Press later this year.


Text: Max Parnell

Image: Knives Forks and Spoons Press

Published: 5/4/20

[1] Ashton Nichols, ‘Prologue: Urbanatural Roosting’, in Beyond Romantic Ecocriticism: Toward Urbanatural Roosting (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. Xiii-xxiii. (p. xv).


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