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(REVIEW) Plainspeak by Astrid Alben


In this review, Jon Petre illumines the poetic encounters and clarities of Plainspeak by Astrid Alben (Prototype Press, 2019). Remember that age-old function of poetry to defamiliarise, enchant, make you notice, make you care? Beautifully, Petre picks apart how his works in Alben’s exciting and uplifting new collection, a mischievous and lively ‘poetry of transformation’.

> ‘Oh poet I love you Poet if no one else will love you Poet’.  It’s one of poetry’s most powerful and delightful powers – the facility of language to point to stuff already around us and say look, as it is this is a beautiful thing. Strip back the mundane, forget ego; speak plainly. Poetry is an uncovering and a re-revealing: look again and see the object for what it is. In Plainspeak, Astrid Alben leaves rhyme, experiments with form and all but the barest punctuation to the wayside in her effort to see and speak more clearly, to declutter her verse and ‘burst open speak plainspeak’.

> There’s something David Bowie-ish about Poet, Alben’s alter-ego and our guide through Plainspeak. Like Starman, Poet is a visitor who is experiencing the mundanities of life for the first time. Poet’s encounters – at the bus stop, in the departure lounge, in the park in the summer – are shot through with joie de vivre that lends this collection a refreshing light-heartedness.

> Alben’s poems are startlingly simple, relishing the beauty and the joy of simple, everyday sights:

In Exeter a boy plays football by himself in an oversized blue-and-white striped anorak. It’s mid-June. […] moths / only come out at night yet are attracted by the light. Here they are long before dusk over slow water.

> Not much more that needs to be said there, is there? Through Poet’s eyes it’s as if the world is speaking for itself. These things are beautiful. Notice them! (you can stop reading now if you like.)

> Plainspeak is poetry of transformation. Alben inhabits Poet’s identity with mischievous invention, switching between the constructed persona of Alben herself as wise and world-wearly, witness to ‘a nervous breakdown’ on the flight from Heathrow to Cork, and Poet, who takes ‘an après-ski delight’ in the departure lounge. Alben has prefaced Plainspeak with a quote from Rimbaud: ‘It means exactly what I’ve said, literally and completely, in all respects’ – yet, as Plainspeak shows us, the fun and the beauty of language lies in its motion, the impossibility of fixing words with just one meaning. Nothing – not Alben, not an image, not a theme – can escape language’s propensity for change. Plainspeak is filled with puns and diversions: ‘an origami swan gathers its quills accelerates on the runway’. Such literal mindedness is gently subversive as well as funny. Why shouldn’t an origami swan take flight? Why shouldn’t we be free to experiment and play with our identities? Simple thoughts are no less radical ones.

> Each poem in Plainspeak follows the same form, four unrhymed couplets with enjambed lines, their run-on syntax offering even more change, reversal and reinvention. I read the poems in Plainspeak as a continuous whole, focusing on the thematic content and the unshakeable motifs of flight and migration. Once again, there’s freedom in simplicity. Putting monkeys on the bus, fairy liquid in lakes and Kafka ‘schnozzled in clover marigold lichen’ Alben has a great time upending convention and conformity. In playing with language thus, Alben reclaims reveals the radical possibility of re-inventing ourselves through new and surprising language, which, she shows us, can be done just by speaking in the clearest, plainest form.

> The politics of transformation gather weight in ‘Hermaphrodite’, where the speaker remarks: ‘a boy is a boy by birth not a girl not a choice’. Such identity troubles invariably centre on our bodies, as in ‘Customs’: ‘Not a / single cell the same as seven years ago if every cell / renews itself how can it still be stand still please still be me?’ It’s easy to speak differently – but that’s small comfort to a speaker suffering from dysphoria. Alben’s plain, direct language can be joyful, but with this comes a no-punches-held attitude to the painful realities of transforming one’s identity. At customs, crossing the border, ‘my body’ becomes ‘a refugee / burdened with anxious jealousy’.

> In Poet, however, there is relief from the baggage of identity. Like a child, unlike us, no one’s told Poet he can’t decide for himself who he is. With his ‘migrant heart’ Poet is a traveller in another sense, an emigrant grappling with a new language (possibly speaking ‘plainly’ for comprehension). Poet’s speech, thought and invention are thus double: multilingual, vibrant towards the conventional limitations associated with customs, identification by the authorities, and a border.

> As I reached the end of Plainspeak I felt the mood shift, as though Starman, by now an ageing Mr Blue Sky, is wise to the approach of Mr Night. ‘Morning Papers’ begins:

Poet squeezes his tiny head by the slot machines to quieten the daily manslaughter, bedwetting, genital mutilation, lottery results, pharma-corruption, […]

> ‘Terror in the Terminal’ highlights the voyeurism with which we address violence and terror happening elsewhere ‘Lean in take a closer look. Press play’. ‘Road Kill’ hones in on the extreme violence and brutality of accidentally hitting small animals with your car – ‘I couldn’t wring its neck headlights panting do the kinder / thing and keep tomorrow open strong.’

> These poems that intrigued me the most, the ones that detail small encounters with horror and the tiny acts of cowardice that are as normal as all the nice things we ought to take more notice of. Play is serious business!

> Plainspeak is delightful. Our world contains multitudes, and we can encounter beauty (and violence) in nearly everything, from the washing up to ‘Peeing in the Grass Along the River Ex’. (Have you ever heard such a well-titled poem??) Plainspeak explores the gulf between artistic creativity and mundane everydayness. Though Poet worries over plastic in the oceans, the fear and anxiety of crossing borders and the annoyance of daily impoliteness, the liberating potential of language is enough that we should keep going. These are thoughtful poems, whose openness to joy doesn’t mean they lose their foot on the ground.

Astrid Alben’s Plainspeak is published by Prototype Press. Get a copy here.


Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge (1899)


Text: Jon Petre

Published: 8/5/20


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