(REVIEW) In the Pleasure Dairy, by Helen Charman
Katy Lewis Hood rolls up her sleeves for this review of Helen Charman’s new pamphlet, In the Pleasure Dairy (Sad Press, 2020). Attending to the pamphlet’s engagement with class, gender, (re)productive labour, literary and social history, race, shame, maternity and violence, as well as Charman’s previous publications and recent editorial work with MAP Magazine, Lewis Hood asks whether it’s possible to burst through the clots of inherited affects and behaviours and feel the ‘language-matter of precarity […] together/apart in our variously feminised, variously desiring, variously maternal and unmaternal bodies’.
‘Meet me again, / in the Pleasure Dairy’, Helen Charman invites us into her new pamphlet with Sad Press – ‘for half the working week’s as good as not.’ As Charman explains in The Poetry Review, ‘pleasure dairies’ were installed by women of the landed gentry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries so that they could ‘pretend to engage in what was considered to be pleasing, domestic, appropriately feminine work without having to do any actual labour.’ These dairies were often designed by prominent architects, with inside decoration glorifying the feminised virtues of childcare and breastfeeding, despite the fact that many upper-class women employed working-class women to carry out such care work on a daily basis. Meanwhile in the dairy next door, other working-class women would produce the milk, butter, cream, and cheese – so both these working women and the cows that didn’t belong to them performed the (re)productive labour of nourishing the house.
In the Pleasure Dairy traces this unevenness of nourishment through fragments of social history. This begins with the creameries of Limerick, Ireland, where in 1920 dairy workers seized the means of production to resist classed and colonial extraction under the slogan ‘We make butter not profits’. Other histories underpinning the work include infant mortality and infanticide in Victorian Britain, and more recent configurations of precarity that condition the possibilities both of family and of a research-based poetic practice.
Following Support, support (Offord Road Books, 2018), Daddy Poem (SPAM Press, 2019), and Worry Work (earthbound press, 2020), In the Pleasure Dairy continues Charman’s concerns with the violence of social reproduction and the university as an institution in capitalist patriarchy. Both thematically and temporally, it also follows her PhD thesis on maternity, sacrifice, and political economy in Victorian social realist fiction – even while its form feels wilfully distinct from the logics of academic writing and its institutionalised reward system. (It seems relevant to mention here that during the Covid-19 lockdown, academic article submissions by men increased while women’s article submissions plummeted owing to increased domestic labour, not to mention the impact of university responses to the pandemic on casualised and precarious workers.) Conceived as one long poem split over eight sections, from ‘Life begins’ to ‘Economic concerns’, In the Pleasure Dairy unfolds in scraps and gleanings, moving between lists, dreams, bits of the I Ching, Denise Riley, Christina Rossetti, ballads, acerbic asides, and moments of anxious address. The temporal slippages and disjunctures across these materials assemble a bricolage of social histories told through borrowings and white space; they also seem to operate as markers of living fractionally across a shifting distribution of precarious employment and the social subject(s) such working conditions demand and produce. ‘Where does a year go? Carefully void your contract.’
Although the list of ‘Qualities’ that open the second section of the book, ‘Image: Earth’, are not those typically found in a job description, they might be used to describe the feminised (and racialised) precarious subject: ‘Weak, Yielding, Dark, Nurturing, Responsive, Receptive, Adaptable, Submissive, Charitable, Protective, Even-tempered, Frugal, Fertile.’ A bit of late-night googling suggests these qualities are associated with the I Ching’s K’un or Earth trigram, along with ‘Family Member: Mother’, ‘Body Part: Belly’, ‘Time of Day: Night’, and ‘Animal: Cow’. Pressed up against the right-hand margin of the page and sliding between nouns and adjectives, the ‘Miscellaneous’ category includes: ‘Cloth, Kettle, Pregnancy, Level, / Balanced, Impartial, Large / Wagon, Form, Ornament, / Multitude, Tree Trunk, Shaft’. This list is a refrain across the pamphlet, interspersed with other lists that gather mismatched proximities and broken attributes as mundane forms of the daily, trauma and need, ‘aspects I / can no longer be bothered to list’. Later, for just a moment, the transformed ‘my cloth my kettle my pregnancy […] my many multitudes’ might become markers of autonomy – but in becoming possessions they have already been snatched away, not by the state or economic system but by the recurring figure of the Ur-Stepmother.
In the pamphlet’s structure, it seems necessary that the Ur-Stepmother doesn’t appear until the end of the second section, because the stepmother relies on a predecessor: the ‘perfect family’ or harmonious marital and maternal relations that have been lost, perhaps through the birth of the child itself, its messy entry and unconditional demand for nourishment. Before the Ur-Stepmother even arrives in the pamphlet, the fairytale family has already been broken through another list, this time of the causes of infant death: ‘Want of / breast milk Wasting diseases […] Damp / atmosphere Bad weaning / Maternal exhaustion.’ When she does arrive, she ceaselessly turns precarious working conditions into individualised failure: ‘The Ur-Stepmother works in finance / she asks you pointed questions at / barbecues about your job prospects’, and she ‘still believes in the rationalism / of meritocracy.’ She is a pantomime enemy with ‘wedding photos on A1 canvasses in the hallway’, blown up over the equally unsalvageable shadow-family mythically preceding her.
In an article on Christina Rossetti, the feminist writer Jacqueline Rose offers the Rossetti family as an exemplary indication that models of ‘ideal family life’, promoted by right-wingers and conservatives, remain a hotbed of trauma, abuse, despair, and harm. Christina Rossetti appears in multiple forms across In the Pleasure Dairy, through snippets of poetry and correspondence but also as a ghost-side or alter ego to the mobile lyric subject. In ‘Looking a gift house in the mouth’, Rossetti is split and doubled; Charman combines a line from a letter from Christina to her brother Dante Gabriel reading ‘I have borne myself til I become unbearable to myself’ with the visceral redoubling of:
Christina Rossetti stuffs the baby back inside her Up the hill you think you are Christina Rossetti after two pints of cider Christina Rossetti stuffs the baby back inside her
Between Rossetti’s auto-rhyme of ‘myself’ and ‘myself’, the poet turns herself inside out. Charman’s lines reverse the riven doubling, the rhyme of ‘inside her’ and ‘of cider’ contracting the final words in the third line. What is the relationship between ‘in’ and ‘of’ when it comes to bearing and refusing to bear the thing that is and isn’t you? Whereas Rossetti once described herself as her ageing mother’s ‘least last valentine’ as she cared for her until death (despite her own bodily debilitation), Charman writes that ‘Christina Rossetti’s least last valentine sits sticky propped up / against the vinegar’. Against the curds and whey of the pleasure dairy and the milk-plumped, nourished child, the pamphlet has an aftertaste of ‘salt’ and ‘pickles’, fizz and acid, the stain of memory and a body on the brink of expulsion, ‘being sick’ from the demand to ‘[e]at up your own insides’.
And so In the Pleasure Dairy is caught between its double dedications, to Charman’s mother and to Hetty Sorrel, the milkmaid from George Eliot’s Adam Bede who leaves her baby to die out of shame for giving birth to a child out of wedlock. The pamphlet is caught between the strictures of the socially permitted family and ‘the forces of supply and demand’ that produce its value, and the compounded impacts of these forces on the possibility of care. Mothers, as Denise Riley writes in ‘Affections must not’, ‘were always a set of equipment and a fragile balance’. In Daddy Poem, Charman tips this fragile balance, writing: ‘The poet displaces her own desire for maternity, / learning about violence’. Such learning is shaped by whiteness and cisnormativity as the means by which both maternity and violence against women are made legible in right-wing and trans-exclusionary agendas, as Charman notes in an interview for SPAM with Daniya Baiguzhayeva. As Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers has theorised, through slavery and its afterlives Black women were simultaneously gendered and ‘ungendered’, and simultaneously made ‘mother’ and ‘mother-dispossessed’ via white logics and practices of property that repeat into the present.
How is mothering possible in these conditions? The ‘[d]amp atmosphere’ listed at the beginning of the pamphlet as a reason for Victorian infant death re-emerges differently towards the end: ‘Disgrace, or: the city you / “choose” has thick air that is / poisoning you.’ The thick air’s concentrations are also classed, racialised, gendered. The death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013, which may be the first death to have air pollution officially named as its cause after the campaigning of Ella’s mother Rosamund, showed the continued social violence exerted on working-class communities of colour. Black pregnant people in the UK are five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white people. Queer and trans young people make up almost a quarter of the youth homeless population, and those who are homeless are highly likely to have experienced familial rejection, abuse, or violence. How is mothering – in the expanded, queer senses discussed by Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Sophie Lewis – possible in these conditions?
In the Pleasure Dairy replies caustically to the suggestion it might hold answers in the form of an emotive line or tweetable critique; the section title ‘Poem against landlords’ is immediately followed by ‘like / that’ll do anything’. Rather, its efforts are in assembling and blocking through the movements and disjunctions between language and its bundled material conditions. Sampling and processing become a kind of ‘milk testing’ – to borrow a phrase from another brilliant dairy poet, Ellen Dillon – and the possibility of smooth commentary gets clogged up in the poem’s direction to ‘[f]ill all available drains with butter.’ (This is possibly my favourite line in the pamphlet – despite not being a dairy-eater – for its sheer refusal…) A few pages later, this clog exceeds itself, in a long section beginning ‘to want the butter, and to want to have the money for the butter’, repeating and doubling ‘want’ and ‘have’ and ‘butter’ and ‘money’ with each repetition until the saying is thick in the mouth. When the pamphlet arrived, I was staying with my mum (who I think it’s fair to say isn’t into poetry) and for some unfathomable reason I tried to read the butter section aloud to her, to see how it felt to say. As I read, I was confronted by the strangeness of my ‘own’ voice, its delivery pulled apart from the familiarity of relation:
You don’t even sound like me if I did, I’d rip my own tongue out.
Perhaps, then, In the Pleasure Dairy engages in the jamming up of ‘inheritance’ and its classed and gendered machinations, its modes of self-making and coming to voice. It is often difficult to be in the poem: it is not set up as the pleasing architectural space of the pleasure dairy, adorned with the products of a ‘wet nurse’s breast’ or ‘distant udder’ turned into social and economic value. Rather, the pleasure dairy’s castoffs abandon the prospects of a coherent, productive space from forces of extraction, precarity, social and sexual violence; they do the in-between work of worrying, incompletely figuring the durations and disruptions of living ‘to have have to want want’ from uneven gulps of breath in the poisoned air.
I can’t or don’t want to end with a rounding off, a legible statement, or even a portent. In ‘I read the tea leaves but the answer’s still escaping me’, Charman’s speaker asks: ‘Where do I put myself if public life’s destroyed?’ The year of writing and reading this book, work and violence press even further into tenancy, further into stratified exposure. On the brink of another lockdown, I return to May Day – when flowers were blooming pastel colours like the cover of In the Pleasure Dairy – and to the poems Charman commissioned for the Tenancy project at MAP, a Glasgow-based art publication. There, we find breakings and remakings of social reproduction and its spatial formations. Gloria Dawson writes that ‘A house is an absurd place to struggle for a new form of life’ but that ‘most of those / who have tried it have had no choice but / to try it there. But to try it here. But to try / it there.’ These movements between ‘here’ and ‘there’, spaces of necessary assembly, seem to echo Diane di Prima’s ‘Revolutionary Letter #8’, echoed in screenshots on my timeline in the week of her passing, which ends: ‘NO ONE WAY WORKS, it will take all of us / shoving at the thing from all sides / to bring it down.’ Could the thing be the pleasure dairy, could the thing be the global dairy corporations which have the same amount of combined greenhouse gas emissions as the UK? How could pleasure be configured otherwise? ‘Shirking on rented space-time’, Nisha Ramayya imagines:
when we future conditional enjoy a little more and less destruction of personal space, an embolism in the communal organism unless you’re using it to pray says The Architect of the Matrix our landlord, not everyone needs to puncture their necks to prove the poem’s truth, but: the ghoul did squinch at a mooncup pop the lard really did turn blue!
Another blockage, an ‘embolism’ in the blood and milk and fat and fluid of collective life – can we ‘pop’ it? What does this language-matter of precarity feel like together/apart in our variously feminised, variously desiring, variously maternal and unmaternal bodies? Denise Riley: ‘Milk, if I do not continue to love you as deeply and truly as you want and need / that is us in the mythical streets again’. Perhaps: ‘Fill all available drains with butter.’ ‘Fill all available drains with butter.’ ‘Fill all available drains with butter.’
In the Pleasure Dairy is available to order from Sad Press.
Text: Katy Lewis Hood