(REVIEW) In The Sick Hour & Fovea / Ages Ago
Rhian Williams places two pamphlets in conversation: In the Sick Hour by Kaiya Waerea & Jane Hartshorn (Takeaway Press, 2020), and Fovea / Ages Ago, by Sarah Lasoye (Hajar Press, 2021). Both works enact a circularity (‘the careful joining up of realisation’) and call back to each other through questioning timescales of the body, the dynamics of childhood, memory, illness, both committed to the odd, oblique, meandering and visceral.
3-6-9, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the street car line…I’m reading Fovea / Ages Ago and that old clapping song keeps coming into my mind (with all the exquisite aural appeal of the sound of palms clapping). I am in the playground, there is hard concrete beneath my feet, I clap hands with the girl opposite me. Passing the time, shaping time, forming selves. There is something plastic — in the sense of dynamically shaping — about childhood. Tactile and alert to texture, shape, form. But it’s kind of woozy too, as time slows down, Shirley Ellis’s vocals slip and slide out of earshot, out of time, shimmering into and through Sarah Lasoye’s musical, chiming lyrics, dreamy 1960s-girl-group soaked playlist and – catching you just as you drift – her sharp, spiky, crisp (hilarious) school notes on the inquisitiveness of the child. I like feeling caught in this warp and weft. Weaving, weaving, like Lasoye’s mum.
But Lasoye’s isn’t a simple, sweet book. There are bones, knives, blades. Hollows in the body, carvings. Oddities, viscerality. It is continually reaching over and through my mind to Kaiya Waerea and Jane Hartshorn’s In the Sick Hour, a beautiful, complex, touching (haptic and emotional) archive of the body’s exquisite sensitivities. Both of these searching collections are pricking my skin to the shape of the body’s emergence into and through culture; sophisticatedly snagging on poetry’s knack of catching the creative experience of living. What strikes is how both of them provide an archly knowing sense of both the labour, and the surprise, in the act of poetry, an always-bodily forming:
poetry has broken the back of my voice craft a bowl from spine like lifted hands waiting for something to fall into them Lasoye, p. 11
If Lasoye’s body forms hollows for catching, Waerea and Hartshorn’s gorgeously fuses and merges with its bed host, pooling viscous slicks of gluey word formation:
mattress hollowed with body / with elbows / with the basin of hips / a trail of words oozing from mouth / saliva glistening in circles / snail mucus / on stones / eddying between cracks in the wall / words opaque / slow bone fuse of nouns Waerea & Hartshorn, p. 6
As a resistance tract (and it is importantly that), In the Sick Hour manifests a hot anger, even if in depleted energies, that is fomented in the sick bed as political crucible: speaking with, from, to, all who feel the strife of capitalist time in the tubes and sinews of the body (which is everyone), this is a collection that envisions a ‘Crip Futurity’ that foregrounds care, soft lighting, metaphor (‘After Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World’). Ending with a series of emails between the two writers, the pamphlet’s corporate (of the body, collective) project muses on the violences of the clock, narrative, linearity – essentially capitalist order – and commits instead to the timescales of the body, the viscera: the odd, the meandering, the oblique, the strange, the porous. It provides us with Preliminary Exercises in Bending the Clock Face. This is a collection with an extraordinary, moving, hyper-intelligent feel for our continuities with the more-than-human, with the materials, objects, structures that form our contexts, hold our bodies. This seems to me something like a radical humility — which is where humility operates as a kind of Kantian principle of affording respect.
In the service of such kind radicalism, Waerea and Hartshorn exchange letters that press at the experience of illness in all its feelings of déja vu, circularity, and anxious futures (these emails are valuable, vital indeed, documents of the private life of academic production, records of its cruelties and inhumanities; notes on what it demands of the worker to survive). Thus they share spirals and circles that, yet, generate creativity, compassion, thought. The circular is rewritten: not the dead-end of stagnation, but the careful joining up of realisation. Hartshorn asks at one point, ‘as the very act of writing involves putting words in some kind of order, is there a way to do this without reflecting a recognisable temporality? How can we communicate the plurality of time?’. In the Sick Hour provides its own exacting answers: delicate line drawings pull the eye and body towards undulating curves, spirals (one thinks of the Spiralist poets’ radical open-endedness), floral-type structures that suggest the body’s organs, and intimate cell structures (‘stepping gingerly through dreams | treading on curlicues | of truncated ivy’, p. 18). Suspended alongside poems that shift between left-aligned lyrics (intricately executed, strikingly clear-sighted entry points into acts of self-care, or perhaps self-maintenance: ‘pucker of the needle | as I guide it from my flesh | fluid lacing my joints | like a thread of silk | from elbow to wrist’, p. 13), fragmented shards of lines across the page, or lists held together by slashes, these drawings visually realise the alternate paths through time that the poems so deftly tread. Interleaved between this is an extraordinary sequence (‘Bed Rest I-VI’) that tracks one of the most compelling accounts of bodily sensation, disorientation, metamorphosis and parasitism I’ve ever read (‘the idea of this tree is still hunched inside me, tingling along my arms and legs, pushing nodules through the webbing of my toes’, p. 24). Prose poems floating within white circles against a purple background (is the recollection of the dye colour used for pathology slides deliberate?) suggest the eye of the microscope; these pieces turn a bright, unsparing, viscerally-intellectual light on the body suspended in (productive) malfunction. If you have ever experienced the slow stalling of a body in need of rest, these poems are vital reading matter.
Lasoye’s engagement with childhood also means to reckon with time, offers answers to Waerea and Hartshorn’s questions. Subtly indicating that both childhood and memory of that state occupy the same kind of quarter of experience as illness — ever present, yet repressed, marginalised — Lasoye could be speaking to Waerea and Hartshorn when she writes:
and the body will not be an instrument but a measure, close to time if time could ever move like that, without an axis. Lasoye, p. 79
This is Lasoye’s first collection, and her introduction contains hints of nerves, teetering attractively between excitement and a nagging need to explain. But this collection is so assured, it startles as it expertly takes shape. There is a real architecture to Fovea / Ages Ago; refined and knowing, the poems are well-weighed in the hand, exacting in their ear for rhythm, stress, the press of syllables (it is musical throughout, likened to an EP, featuring nocturnes, hymns, and eight-track mixes). Fabulously unsentimental and endlessly bodily (‘All of us dense-boned, trampoline-skinned’, p. 37), Lasoye’s clear-eyed writing (the title, and Hanna Stephens’ clean, knowing illustrations all link to the eye, to the retina) maintains a beautiful sense of meeting metaphor, figuration, and symbol exactly on a level: looking sharply into the face of objects, Lasoye confidently becomes them:
I become the cake, with a knife inside delicious and inscrutable like groundwater belting beneath the soil confounding the downer, with a knife inside Lasoye, p. 53
These moments of fantastic metaphoric realisation form nodal points across the collection (of a spoon: ‘instead I swallowed it | and the cool metal slide down my throat | and the silver was–at once–within me (like it was | never its own)’, p. 27), winningly pursuing – generating – a revelatory morphology that segues smoothly between differing object states. I am very taken with this entry point into the pre-taxonomic instinctiveness of the child.
It follows that the poems do not shy away from the disarming intentions of the child either: these poems reverberate with the consternation and resolution of one who simply looks to set things straight, again in terms that reveal Lasoye’s precise feel for the potency of invoking the body: ‘I want to cut your eyelashes | so they grow in thistles like mine’, (p. 35); ‘Dear God, I have something to tell you. I peeled a girl today, like she was an apple. She went bright red and her eyes bulged to hold the pain. You should have seen it.’ (p. 23). Staying eye-to-eye with the sensations of the metaphors and figures that she invokes, Lasoye’s writing contains hard and burnished truths (I like very much how she turns things over in her hands, in her poems, looking for the seams, for where the light leaks); it is appropriately arresting in its term of address:
See how the truth starts as a seed or a stone? How you can’t make one the other? I want to rub this truth against the roof of your mouth. Once it’s under the tongue, once it’s against the gums there is no going back, I’m afraid. You’re the first person I spoil, in this way. Lasoye, p. 35
As Waerea and Hartshorn warn, ‘Your anger will thicken in this cotton mouth, | it will fold, & unfold again’, p. 20. Indeed, Lasoye’s odd and arresting imagery takes me back to the stomach-turning feel of Waerea and Hartshorn’s strange, fleshy, hairy object of ‘Bed Rest V’ — a grossly vivid entity felt in the hand that recalls the androgynous creativity of Meret Oppenheim’s ludic, Jungian objects and motifs. But where Oppenheim invokes the perversity of dreams, Waerea and Hartshorn are unflinchingly, caringly, meeting needs in the manifest present, acknowledging and staying with continuities to the self:
The hairs bristle against my hand as I run warm water over its surface, and there is an oddly dull pain somewhere deep inside me. Fibrous blood tangles in the hairs and crevices, I stretch and work the flesh to get to it. Hands chapped and cracked from the hot water move with care and longing. Waerea and Hartshorn, p. 21
Across their conscientious records of objects, symptoms, affects and effects, and in their alternative calendars, almanacs and books of hours and days, Waerea and Hartshorn allow us into the quiet stillness of the moments that lie ‘in between’; moments that constitute the backbone of the works and days that capital demands of the body. Spaces that transpire, I feel, to be ones of understanding, appreciation, where we find mutuality, frugal acts of care:
it is the small of the afternoon and an ant stitches the pale of my wrist Waerea and Hartshorn, p. 11
Across and between this collaboratively formed collection, and in oblique communication – via a community ecology – with Lasoye’s visceral poetics, I see that the body is always in poetry, and I am moved:
What is language if not tying a wrapper? A weight to hold your body upright, a child splinting both our bodies upright. A language, like blood, takes two people to let. Lasoye, p. 43
Text: Rhian Williams
Image: N. Benchimol