• Rhian Williams

(REVIEW) Pomes & Joys: A celebratory anthology for Anna Mendelssohn (Fathomsun Press, 2020)

The Zoom launch of Pomes & Joys: A celebratory anthology of poetry and essays for Anna Mendelssohn (Fathomsun Press, 2020), edited by Kyle Lovell, was one of SPAM’s live highlights of 2020. In this review, Rhian Williams situates the poetics of Mendelssohn’s work in the context of her life and politics while closely exploring the variety of responses on offer within Lovell’s rich anthology. Moving through prose and poetic encounters with Mendelssohn’s work, teasing at contradictions, tensions, positions and potential lyric evasions, Williams 'sense[s] the potency of the unspoken’ in her writing and its ongoing legacy.

I said but how can you write on – on an uncorrected manuscript – – on an uncorrected map – how can we be adequate to the hurt – here – and the – how can we be adequate to the – correction – — Vicky Sparrow, ‘House of Correction’

‘the blue I dreamt is untranslatable’ — Anna Mendelssohn, from Tondo Aquatique

In August 1971, poet and activist Anna Mendelssohn was arrested at a flat in Stoke Newington, London, and charged with possession of armaments and conspiracy to cause explosions. Whilst hiding out in Amhurst Road, she had determinedly defended the cause of the ‘Angry Brigade’, drafting their Communiqué No. 11 and using the same duplicating equipment for that as for a radical newspaper, Strike. The resulting ‘Stoke Newington Eight’ trial became the longest at that point in English legal history, involved Mendelssohn taking the stand to speak in her own defence (and deny the charges) over a day and a half, and ended in her conviction and sentencing to ten years imprisonment. She served four years. She continued to study and write poetry until her death in 2009. She had little interest in publication but did issue three volumes under the pseudonym Grace Lake before others mobilised the publication by Salt Publishing in 2000 of the longer Implacable Art, which includes some line drawing and hand-written pieces. Variously using different names throughout her life — Mendleson, Grace Lake, Nancy Pye, Mendelssohn — her story yearns to fluidity, shapeshifting, elusiveness. And yet, she stands as the object in a historically-drawn out legal interrogation, pinned and skewered. Her poetics — alternately understood as avant-garde or ‘positive’, characterised by anger, frustration, sardonic repartee, vulnerability, rage, tenderness, hermeticism, solipsism, spiky allusion — extend, probe, serve, undermine this fundamentally oxymoronic experience of self. Her figure calls to the logic of enigma. What is the case of Anna Mendelssohn?

Pomes & Joys: A celebratory anthology of poetry and essays for Anna Mendelssohn, edited by Kyle Lovell, seemingly seeks some kind of mimesis of its complex subject in its accumulation of form — essay, prose, lyric, avant-garde poetics — and this results in a thoroughly absorbing, if productively restless collection. I have been thinking about it for some several weeks. And I start writing up this review on the day that the US House of Representatives, in another historical moment, has voted to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time, following the domestic-terrorist riot he incited at the Capitol last Friday. P&J is scratching at the skin of what I am reading, what I am processing.

The anthology is bookended by two essays written from within ‘the academy’ (by which I mean institutionalised academic study and grant-funded preservation of writing oeuvres) but from different perspectives. The opening, ‘Vanguard Vulnerability’, is led by Sara Crangle, who acquired funding for the cataloguing of Mendelssohn’s archive to the University of Sussex and is editing a scholarly edition; the closing is quite beautifully orchestrated by Joey Frances, poet and PhD researcher. Between these is interleaved a dazzling collection of experimental poetry from Linda Kemp, Lotte L. S., Callie Gardner, Stephen Emmerson, Paul Hawkins, Charlie Baylis, Vicky Sparrow, Tom Snarsky and Florence Uniacke. These works are touching in all its emotional and haptic senses. They draw me in. Yearning, curious, melancholic, nervous, oblique, they are angry, hurt, sardonic, sceptical (like their subject)…and they are persuasively, yet fleetingly held together in the feel of bodies, flesh touching/ed, intimations of connection: ‘ye latent fervour bends the in- / articulate prostrations to rub / abstractions O’ (Kemp); ‘Mendelssohn’s rheteric [sic]/ eke in the solid / milking hands’ (Uniacke). They emerge from a capacious ecology that intimates pain, regret, bitterness, and sensation: ‘Plastic stones are mixed in with actual stones. / No one notices’ (Emmerson); ‘the dark oaks of the dining room, every knife buried among the airport car park—letterboxes / where there should have been a lake’; ‘Whenever we step into fields, the vegetation becomes quiet’ (Lotte L.S.). What kind of ‘occasion’ does Mendelssohn present contemporary avant-garde poetics, what is said in her name?

Crangle is troubled by Mendelssohn’s position on violence, and understandably so. Her essay sets a tone of ambivalence as she points to vexed relations between Mendelssohn’s oft-proclaimed distaste for violent action (‘at the faintest suggestion of violence / i crack into action to prevent it’, qtd.), and her hot-tempered, violent poetics (that wishes to vanquish ‘people without minds’, qtd.), which Crangle situates in partly antithetical relation to Modernist avant-garde traditions of high-handed, snobbish ‘inglorious trampling’. Yet, despite this courting of poetic/aestheticised action, the unsettling legacy of Mendelssohn’s agitated poetic remains and seems to me (my mind having been pricked by this subtle anthology) is that it can only — and perhaps demands to — exist as non-existence. That Mendelssohn’s is an ‘unspeakable’ case, in the most serious sense. I want to dwell on this contradiction — which feels almost holy — as it surfaces across this committed collection, infusing all its poetics and addressed directly in Frances’s last essay, more experiential than the opening academic study and, for me, valuable in its openness, its candour.

But first I want to admit that I kept returning to this footnote in Crangle’s essay:

Mendelssohn most regularly positions herself as victim of circumstance: of anti-Semitism, of the British distaste for Northerners like herself, of class politics and misogyny, of the New Left, of fascism, of World War II and Viet Nam, of the courts, and of the society that did not do enough when she was a chronically ill, impoverished single parent studying at the University of Cambridge in the mid-1980s, and subsequently gave reluctant permission for all three of her children to be fostered.

Reading and re-reading this point, I feel compelled to ask, ‘is there a position in which Mendelssohn was not subject to anti-Semitic or anti-working-class hostility? One in which her children weren’t removed by social services?’ To ask, ‘does one position oneself into living in the immediate shadow of a Holocaust that would have exterminated you and all others of your ethnicity? Is one’s children’s motherlessness a form of positioning?’. I felt troubled by a sense of something being held at arm’s length here, that a diagnosis was being made on the authority of an academic and disciplinary ‘objectivity’ that puts the body to whom things happen at a remove. A sense that academic study requires the reader, on encountering testimony, to unearth the strategy at play. But, as Lotte L.S. writes, ‘This was not the abstract view of a remote future. I watched the different shades of sunrise on my first morning alone for months’. The footnote itself is a little difficult to place — subterranean to the main text, what relation it has with the essay ‘proper’ is not exactly certain; is the footnote itself being held at arm’s (or foot’s) length? Crangle’s essay is intelligently and ethically astute, so this footnote feels disruptive, perhaps less a statement by Crangle and more a rogue artefact of the challenge that Mendelssohn’s case poses to how we regard the body and the subject in public sight. To the ethics of academic practice, to the logic of semiotics, to the assumption of ‘positionality’ as the mechanic of social relations. I can’t help regarding how the alt-right movements that so chillingly have taken hold across different continents were masterminded, at least in part, by Steve Bannon, a reader of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. Is Bannon’s diabolic praxis to slam the body up against forms of academic evisceration? Does the Black woman who presses the panic button in her office at the Capitol and finds it’s been disabled position herself as victim? Does the white man in the Auschwitz t-shirt in the crowd use his body to position himself in the play of signs, or is that body available for arrest? The latter has prevailed for now; whether this will lead to a prosecution will be a measure of the challenge that terrorist positioning poses to how we regard the subject, legally, theologically, academically, lyrically. Mendelssohn’s case comes into view — so different, yet so pertinent — to trouble us.

Frances writes compellingly on the latent (and often not so latent) animating figuration that drives Mendelssohn’s work, especially present in IA: the equivalence that she insists on between the interrogation of her person by the British state and the interrogation of the poem by the would-be literary critic: ‘really the law should not encroach / Upon poetry’ (qtd.); Frances notes ‘the critic-as-cop […] always male, brutally extracting explanations from the poetess and her work’. The response he finds in Mendelssohn’s work maps a terrain of ‘painful affective experience’ that produces ‘an ambiguity of social relation’ to disrupt and re-draw the cop/chased dynamic. And so Frances tests himself to stay with the admitted difficulty he encounters in reading Mendelssohn as an ethical practice, a willingness ‘not to understand’ as a means of bearing witness to her near-wilful obscurity as a resistance to prying eyes, to the authoritarian reader who would crow, ‘I see you, I own you’: ‘Mendelssohn’s is an aesthetic which refuses the mechanisms whereby identities, intentions, interiorities can be named from the outside, placed under scrutiny, have their ownership of themselves taken away’. Movingly seeking to progress on from the reading-as-chase problem, Frances pursues a very gorgeous — and I think important — formulation at the end of his essay that holds out richness, even hope:

Despite its anger, pain, protestation and refusal, it might then proposes [sic] a positive space, a set of relations which are much more hazy, where we might relate to one another in states of suspended confusion, where we might exist amorphously, and still cry out to one another, relate to elements of shared experience without the necessity for a strictly demarcating kind of understanding.

And yet…this causes me to fret about whether this puts such work beyond discourse, beyond record.

Frances reads and recovers Mendelssohn’s evasive poetics in light of the very material realities determined by the gender of people like Mendelssohn and so many others. But in what we might call ‘lyrical terms’, this (entirely sympathetic, even empathetic) reading nevertheless assumes that a subject can be inferred from a poem and that that subject, being a woman afforded state/patriarchal violence, will use it as a place to hide. Even if you’re evading sight because you will be attacked, this still constitutes a deliberate strategy on the part of the avant-garde poet. A knowing, sophisticated, nimble-even-if-anguished sidestepping. Beyond the concern that such readings risk placing the poet in the inevitability of her own silenced context, making herself her only point of reference (a place of incarceration long afforded the ‘poetess’), I’m minded to ask, what if what looks like evasion is an absence; what if this is not a strategy, but the conditions of lyric? Not a means to keep ahead of the interrogators, but an experience of selfhood as itself elusive, unknowable, precariously or fragilely manifest, if at all. Of selfhood as an effect. This raises the stakes across the board — for the prosecutor of an action, for the literary critic/analyst and their exegetical ‘method’ (I use scare quotes to indicate a discomfort with this process as having any kind of method at all. All we can do is be proximate.), for the literary executor.

Alternately, I look to the poems between the essays for some approximation of the enigmatic poetics that Mendelssohn not so much enacts perhaps as stands for now (‘Not quite seeing the / subject’, Stephen Emmerson). To Paul Hawkins’ ‘impersonal’ machine poetics of ‘G R E Y (after Anna Mendelssohn #1)’ that generate a sucker punch of visceral realisation of the emergence of violence, of the reality of atrocity, of the almost-unbearably painful poignancy of you, you, you, you, you, you, you (who?). To its capture of the ambivalence of origin. I note the recurrence of a sense of work across the pieces (‘her work sits on me in the night like an alp’, Vicky Sparrow), of the work of history, the work of editing (‘like a set of studies / for the later work projecting artistic judgements’, Callie Gardner), the work of archiving (‘The poetry cached / In a hillside’, Tom Snarsky), the work of storytelling. Is it me, or does the ‘guernica’ revealed by Hawkins lurch over into the soundscape of Charlie Bayliss’ ‘lake grace’ (‘grace lake and unica zurn eating butterflies in a rainforest’). Perhaps most absorbingly, I fall into the beautiful hush of Lotte L.S.’s contributions, and it’s here that I find the compelling enigma that Mendelssohn’s poetics, and her fact, held out to me all along (‘Subjectivities proliferated’). It is in these skilful lyrics and the beautifully tissue-papered layers of ‘As If To Misread Song’ that I begin to sense the potency of the unspoken. That high point where the case has been made to oneself, where the conceptual formulation crystallises in the mind (‘By the end we knew / the centre was within us’) — the position has been taken — only to find that it cannot be uttered. That our convictions lie elsewhere, at a remove from articulation (‘I say out loud to nobody, somewhere.’). We cannot speak our truth. The torturous position that Mendelssohn’s writing attests to is that of the purist, the committed. The agony of the manifesto writer, the communiqué drafter (‘what could it mean to be socially and politically accountable in poetry—and who is that accountability to, people or concepts?’). For once a thing is spoken, is it not in that moment at a remove, a falling off, a compromise, a debasement (‘the gap left by things which have already happened’). And yet, doesn’t that impossibility underwrite action itself, become its guarantor, its unwritable contract.

Imagine if afterwards everything can be pure sensation: sugar-fed and alive in its dismantling.

Lotte L.S.’ lyricism tracks the work of poetry itself, in origin and in our encounters, a form where we approach ‘Not content, not accessibility, but an ethics of conduct. We are getting closer.’. Where the poem longs ‘to become all at once, and bury them within the writing’. I’m moved by how this attests to a poetics of existent absenting, written in the name of an enigma.

Anthologies pulled together ‘in honour’ are apt to become hagiography, but I am prompted to think of another figure of religiosity. Not a saint, but a hermit. A nun. Writing her obituary for The Guardian, Peter Riley spoke of how, ‘at odds with society, and unable to establish a bohemian artistic circle around herself’, Mendelssohn ‘developed an increasingly hermetic way of life’. Just as he describes her poetry as ‘fundamentally ecstatic’, so I sense this collection of celebration realising (uncovering, restaging) a Mendelssohnian poetics of mystical absorption in perhaps just these theological terms. Vexed always by articulation, Mendelssohn comes into view (‘we watch muted videos of you online’, Lotte L.S.) as a figure of incantation, the hermit perpetually held in the endless work of prayer, the consummately action-less action. A self that experiences itself as nothing but a guarantee of conviction as an article of faith.

Shhh, hushwing, don’t turn back. Nothing else— calm, deep forest. —Lotte L.S.