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  • Helen Charman

(REVIEW) LOVE MINUS LOVE by Wayne-Holloway Smith

Helen Charman explores the chiastic structure of Wayne Holloway-Smith's Love Minus Love (Bloodaxe Books, 2020), revealing the layered time of the sequence alongside the book's portrayal of the relationship between maternity and consumption, and its articulation of the permanent-impermanent nature of experience and harm.

> Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Love Minus Love (2020) opens with an address from a son to a father that constructs a fantasy of cancellation:

Icouldbeafreegratefulguilt lessuprightsonandyoucould beanuntroubledtyrannic alsympatheticcontentedfath erbuttothisendeverythingth ateverhappenedwouldbeund onethatisweourselvesshoul dhavecancelledeachotherout

This desire for mutual disappearance is at the heart of all the speaker’s attempts to articulate themselves. In telling the story of their life, they tell of the violence of the father, the sacrifice of the mother, their resistance to their own masculinity and its latent eroticism, expressed through their relationship with the real-and-not-real character of David, ‘my only friend’. This telling is rooted both in the violence they wish to enact on themselves and the violence they have witnessed, and these intersections are made real in the imagery of butcher’s shops, Sunday roasts, Slimfast, and self-harm: ‘what / is / the / least / a / person / can / reduce / themselves / to’?

> Love Minus Love is one long sequence, the primary formal effect of which is a kind of layered time in which multiple things are happening at once, a looping track of intrusive thoughts full of recurring meanwhiles and elsewheres and temporal imprecision: ‘he is my age or younger’; ‘this woman is too old to be my mother or she’s not’. Within this narrative unravelling, individual lyric moments are distilled, revealing themselves just as linear biography collapses into itself: here the terrain of memory and experience is mapped out precisely by the speaker’s desire to erase it.

> This dislocation from normative chronology is not disengagement from circumstance. The chiastic structure of Love Minus Love is, in one sense, a representation of the continuing claims of the past, particularly the complex difficulties of working-class life towards the end of the twentieth century, with the consumption of meat as its central unifying metaphor. As the speaker moves away—or tries to—from childhood experience, he embarks on a series of replacements of the objects he puts into his body: the meat substituted for diet drinks, for cigarettes, for nothing at all. The work of understanding the trauma detailed in the text tries to use these processes to unwind time and its habits (‘gradually unlearning how to make cottage pie’) but the foundation of the self stubbornly remains, a totally perverse and completely relatable loyalty to your own history:

[rip open my right lung and probably you’ll find fag- ash butts a staunch inability to leave my dad behind a dirty great cow getting roasted in all the heat]

> Meat in itself is a curious reproach to time, or at least a tangible record of its harm. In Love Minus Love, canned meat becomes canned laughter, the relationship between the slice of roast beef and the living cow is inverted and the bodies of the poem’s protagonists are fair game for the abattoir:

meanwhile the woman who will one day be your mother is busy turning her belly into a butcher’s shop busy making her bed and laying in it

The maternal body, subject to the boring attritive harm done by domestic labour as well as violence, is both part of what traps the speaker in the corporeality of the past—‘I’m ridding my body of itself,’ he declares, ‘moving backwards from the milk’—and the ultimate symbol of deserving but unachieved freedom. Repeatedly imagined into different bodies and scenarios—becoming Patti Smith, becoming Demi Moore—the mother is still the one who transforms the dead cow into the edible meat: ‘Sundays she stands in the kitchen tenderising a cow the cow of course is / dead’.

> Towards the end of the book, a quote from Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty occupies two pages:

butthemothermustbenobleandheragonyredemptive withthesufferingofthewholeworldetchedonherface

Rose’s argument is that mothers become a kind of psychic depository for the fears of a culture—scapegoated, revered, blamed—and forced into a punishing binary whereby their worth is directly related to their virtue: their suffering counts only if they somehow transcend the complexity of the human character, if they are entirely selfless. In Love Minus Love, the suffering of the maternal figure is invested in a realism that pushes against—and in doing so, reveals—that dualism. Maternity, of course, is a political state, and one absolutely defined by socioeconomic circumstance. In the section of the text that begins ‘the posh mums are boxing in the square’, the boxercise class is both a theatrical, sanitised version of the domestic aggression described elsewhere in the sequence—‘roughing each other up in a nice way’—and a fantasy of health:

no removal of her womb ­– and I’m cheering her on in better condition cheering she is learning to fight for her own body in spandex her new life

This fantasy, positioned as it is on the cusp of the book’s turn toward elegy, is its own kind of desperate cancellation: the erasure of illness, the desire for justice meted out at the level of the body.

> The relationship between maternity and consumption, the mother’s butcher-shop belly and the cigarettes with their cancerous roots bedding down in her womb, is shadowed in Love Minus Love by an eroticism that relies upon starvation. David, who enters the text as someone almost indistinguishable from the speaker—‘you keep the leaves that tree has thrown off David / and I’ll be its body of twigs’—becomes, as the poem progresses, both an object of desire and a kind of confessor: ‘what is sad is there is even an intimacy / to getting mugged David’. The refusal of food (the refusal of meat) is a pathway to an intimacy that excludes the ‘drunk dads’, the ‘dirty butcher’, the dead cows. The ‘two teenaged boys’ loving each other ‘by not eating’ collapse into themselves and each other in the way first love and self-hatred so often do; nothing changes, and nothing can in this looping unconsummated desire that exhausts itself by working to delete itself: ‘my only friend hating bits of his body that aren’t there’.

> In the end, it is to David that the circularity of Love Minus Love is addressed to, is a gift for: despite the articulation of regret at stasis (‘I’m sorry nothing / changed’), the text is always ‘clawing towards you David’, triumphantly ‘riding myself backwards when the moon is bright’; ridding the body of itself. Moving backwards from the milk means precisely this clawing towards David; the thwarted evacuation of the self relies on the fact that he can never be reached. The richness of this sequences comes in the way the language challenges itself to move beyond the past without betraying it, to capture memory without slipping away from it; to articulate with nihilistic tenderness the permanent-impermanent nature of experience and harm. The fantasy it finishes with affirms above all the absolute importance of the domestic, and threat crammed into every kitchen cupboard. All the household / appliances are working fine.


Text: Helen Charman

Published: 13/10/20


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