You talkin’ to me?

It’s my second visit to the pages of Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone by Annelyse Gelman. As previously noted, I’m not using this blog to talk specifically about the poetry – although it’s exceptionally fine, especially if you like poetry with a young, hip, thoughtful approach to things. To reiterate, all I’m trying to do – for now, in this “Absolute 101, Starting-From-Zero” poetry series is talk you through what it is I do when I’m reading poems. The further into the poems I get, the harder I find it to determine between my conversation with this particular poet, and the skill-set I’m using to get something out of them.

The important thing, for now, is to get that conversation started. What I feel like saying next, to an audience of people who are reading poetry because they want to read poetry, and not because they’re required to, is totally antithetical to the way that I was taught poetry at school: you can’t have a conversation with someone who isn’t talking to you. This is, I think, a particularly important part of the “I don’t get poetry” feeling that comes up so often. At school, you’re not required to like or to understand the poetry you encounter, just to anatomise it; and you’re exceptionally lucky if you happen to come across a poet who happens to be talking to you.

For me, in the final two years of compulsory education, the only point at which we “really did” poetry, it went like this: Moniza Alvi was not talking to me. Carol Ann Duffy was not talking to me. If anything, Simon Armitage was talking to someone who was in every way my opposite at that point in time. Grace Nichols wasn’t talking to me directly, but I overheard her say something interesting, and wanted to join in the conversation but found I had nothing to say in return. John Agard was telling me to shut up and listen, and I like that, and I think he was right when he seemed to be telling me that what I had to say about this didn’t matter: I was the audience, he was the storyteller. Sassoon – no. Wilfred Owen – more like it. He was talking to an outspoken kid involved in anti-war demonstrations, but he was a teacher: older, giving me big lessons, sources to cite in arguments. Only Tom Leonard and John Cooper Clarke had actually picked up the receiver and expressly dialled my number, and I think we spent about half a lesson with each of them.

That’s how I’d characterize it now. At the time, there were just weeks I had something to say in the classroom, and weeks when I drew bracelets all the way up my arm in gel pens. So how do you figure it out? Reading poetry is difficult, and it isn’t like reading anything else. It’s particularly difficult to read when you’re tired and distracted, and I, I’m afraid to say, am both. It’s difficult to read because the language is active. Now, all of language is active all of the time: that’s what language is: the attempt to shape and shepherd life, and to express and agree the experience of inhabiting the world. Poetry in particular though is active in a different way, engaged in exploring how language makes meaning, and what it’s possible to make the world mean: that’s necessarily crude, but I hope it communicates.

Poetry is always to some extent “language about language”, and about the relationship between language, thought processes, and the world we live in: it’s about the possibilities of communication, and ways of manipulating what’s happening in somebody else’s head. It can, therefore, seem (or even be) oblique: connections aren’t necessarily made explicitly, or using the same codes we use when we talk. Poems are separate little sites of language; they’re made of words in the same way that new cities are still made of buildings and streets,but you’re dropped into them without a map, and have to find your own way around them, even set up your own life there, with your own preferred back-streets and shortcuts.

So: I’m tired, and I want to give Gelman the attention she deserves. It’s a book I’ve been randomly assigned to review, and I know nothing about it. With this poet in particular, I’m extremely lucky. I can feel from the shape of the poems on the page that there are complicated and clever things happening in the longer poems, but there are clever and funny and and simple things happening in the short ones.

Let me state that again: start with the short poems. I push myself to concentrate through the seven little stanzas of the poem “Selfie” for no more particular reason than I’d rather be clicking through selfies on Twitter than working; I laugh out loud for the lines:

Make your bed
once in a while. stop eating in your bed.
Stop hitting yourself.

That ought, I hope, to be the end of a misconception right there: this is the twenty-first century, and you can put The Simpsons in a poem if you want to (“Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”). This is the big secret behind poetry: it’s not an “international conspiracy of horses arses”, it doesn’t have to be obscure and elitist; it’s not just rich white men holding conversations with Shakespeare by way of arcane references to William Blake. Sometimes a 22-year-old kid is thinking about Twitter and The Simpsons, and trying to make other people who think about those things laugh.

Start with the short poems – and just read them. Read every word of every line, and read it again if you think you figured out the grammar maybe half-way through: but don’t worry about it if you didn’t. As you’re reading the poem, don’t ask explicitly, “what is this poem about? What is happening here?” Just read every single word: it’s a poem, not a riddle. It’s awake and it’s doing something. Let the poem happen to you.

At the moment, everybody’s talking about “Mindfulness”. Lady Gaga stopped smoking by being “mindfully” taught to drink a glass of water. The dominant discourse is about a version of “mindfulness” that serves an aspirational social model – but it’s still useful to reading poetry. Read every word of the poem, and notice what it made you feel. It’s really simple and sounds daft: but if the poem is talking to you, it will make you feel something. So, just notice the way that you feel. You don’t have to pursue those feelings in any way at this stage. With Gelman, “Selfie” made me laugh. “My Legacy” made me laugh and nod along. If the poem you just read didn’t make you feel anything at all – didn’t even make you feel confused, like you didn’t understand yet but want to know more – it’s okay to throw it away. I bequeath you this: you have the right to walk away from a poem and never think about it again. That’s fine. You’re not thick, the poem’s not rubbish – necessarily. The poet just isn’t talking to you.

So: once you’ve read a poem, and noticed how you felt about it, read another one and do the same. And another one: for as long as your concentration hold out, and there’s no rule about how long that’s going to be.

By the end of a second sitting with a book, I’ve always figured out whether we’re going to be great friends, this book and I, or whether we’re going to have a passionate falling-out, or whether I think it’s interesting and clever but doesn’t move me. Reading poetry’s not an instant process. Spend time reading a few poems and building up a feeling for them. Then try to be aware of it every time something about the poems – a line, a word, an image, or something superficially unrelated that the poem prompts comes into your head over the following days. Annelyse Gelman reminds me of my brother, an episode of Star Trek, and a conversation about raising children that I had with my friend David on a train at the weekend. She makes me smile.

Later on, I’ll try to work out why and how.

Give the poems space to breathe. Give them your attention. Listen to see if you’re interested in what they’re saying, whether you understand from the outset or not; and if you want to, you can walk away.

I often get asked, by students early in their careers or by friends outside of the English department, “how do you read poetry”; people claim that they don’t “get” it, that it’s too hard, that it doesn’t make sense.

A friend recently challenged me: “if you believe in free university education, why do you accept a wage? Shouldn’t you just teach for free?” That’s not an argument I wish to pursue – I have my reasons – but I have very much enjoyed thinking about new approaches to academic knowledge and skill-sharing that could indeed broaden the reach of the academy to those who are being priced out.

In response, then, to my dear friend, with whom I hope to disagree several more times over coming years, I’ve decided to live-blog the process of getting to know a collection of poems that is completely knew to me, and which I’ve been asked to review for THE LAKE, a contemporary poetry web-zine.

I’m going to explain every step in the process of forming an opinion about a book whose author I’ve never heard of before, so that hopefully, the way that I read poetry might be communicated to anyone reading along all the way. In the end I’ll post a link to the review. As far as is humanly possible, there will be No Spoilers: an explanation of my process, how I decide what I think about the book, not a detailed investigation of the book itself – because that’s the skill I’m starting with.

Welcome to How To Read Poetry!


Getting to know a completely new poetry book, by a writer who is completely new to me, is always a bit like learning to read for the first time, all over again. There’s a whisper going through my mind about the sins of judging a book by its cover, but I certainly always form a bond with the object first of all, like a child who knows that this is the cupboard that stories come out of, but can’t yet operate the key. Like a child, too, who would instinctively put the object into their mouth to work out what it was years before they knew to trace the individual letters and sound out the words, I always sniff a new book. More rewarding, perhaps, when the “new” book is actually quite old, but there’s always some sort of association to be forged by this process. Books printed on thin, acidic paper for example always remind me of chip paper – it’s a homely-and-exciting sort of a smell.

Other books form relationships between themselves, and either appeal to me or put me off. A facsimile of the first edition of Just William that I had as a child, for example, smelled depressingly of petrol from the outside, but reassuringly of sherbert once I buried my nose in the leaves. New books, I have found, often smell of sherbert, which is something they hold in common with the letters that J.H. Prynne wrote across the Atlantic in his small and immaculate hand to Charles Olson in the 1960’s. I was so moved by the sweet-shop scent when I encountered the letters that I even wrote a poem about “Sniffing Jeremy’s Writing Paper”.

When I have finished sniffing a book – although I confess, it’s something I’ll continue to do intermittently throughout our acquaintance – I crack it open. I’m not precious about the spines of my little volumes of contemporary poetry, so many of which are stapled together between barely-thicker sheets of card anyway. If I fall for a poem, or take strongly against it, I’m going to want to get to know it inside-out anyway, and that will mean folding the pages back so that I can give it my full attention, making pencil notes in the margin and sometimes drawing little illustrations: I’m rather pleased with the tampico-smoking horse I recently drew on Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger to illustrate the absurdity of the proposition to an MA class.

Once the book’s open, then, I start to wander. Flick through the pages, looking for interesting shapes, phrases that jump to the eye of their own free will. I run my eye over the contents page, looking for titles that make me laugh or smile or think something, old or new. If there’s a title I like I might flick to that poem, again just cast my eyes over it, see if my bond to it is strengthened by anything in the object on the page.

And often, for a first meeting, that will do.

Of course, as I go to put the book down, a poem usually jumps out and grabs hold of me, and I have to sit immediately back down and give it my full attention.



A model letter for literature departments to use, to stop Chris Grayling’s barbaric ban on prisoners receiving books.

The Rt. Hon. Chris Grayling, MP –

We begin this letter with an apology for our late response to your decision, in November of last year, to ban prisoners in the British penal system from receiving parcels including underwear, books, and home-made cards. It is of course owing to the innate vulnerability of prisoners, and the low status that they are afforded by the government and press, that we did not hear about this situation until now, thanks to Frances Cook’s article on, Sunday 23/03/2014.

We should like to make it known that we oppose every aspect of this ban. The clothing ban will have a particular impact on women, who are not issued uniforms in British penitentiaries and as a result have to re-use the same clothing and underwear in particular for long periods of time. It is hard to read this measure as anything other than degrading, an attempt to undermine any sense of self-worth in prisoners who have already had their liberty restricted. The ban on receiving home-made cards is particularly perverse and seems intended as an act of emotional manipulation, particularly of parents in prison who are in essence being deprived of the knowledge of their children’s affection. Once again, we remind you that their punishment by law has already removed these people’s freedoms. Further sanctioning seems calculated to break their spirit and moral fibre, to humiliate and degrade them. We do not believe that any human being deserves to be treated in this manner. As educators, and members of the [DEPARTMENT AND INSTITUTION], it is the restriction of prisoners’ right to receive books that we feel particularly compelled to contest. We believe in rehabilitation, and we believe that denying prisoners’ access to the educational power and spiritual respite that books provide is, to echo Philip Pullman’s words on this subject, a “barbaric” move which will directly impede the rehabilitation of prisoners. We believe in the potential of prisoners to make overwhelming contributions to society, during their incarceration and after their release. We refer you in this regard to the careers of Sir Thomas Malory, Ben Jonson, Oscar Wilde, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Miguel De Cervantes, Alexandr Pushkin, Piper Kerwan, Emma Goldman, Eugenia Ginzburg and Joan Henry, among countless others: all former convicts without whom the face of the literary canon would be unrecognisable.

Denying prisoners the right to read – and to read whatever they want, whether it is supplied by the prison library or not – is in essence an act of censorship and an attempt to restrict their freedom of thought, which is not and must never become a part of the penal system in this country. We would ask you, who are at liberty to read anything you choose, to consider the thoughts of our friends George Orwell and Anthony Burgess on the logical conclusion of restrictions of this kind.

No government with a real desire to rehabilitate prisoners could countenance acting in a way that can only undermine the education and confidence of those within the penal system. We believe this ban constitutes an act of taunting and humiliating cruelty which is not within the spirit of the law, and we call for the immediate repeal of the parcel ban. We will continue to take action within the law to make certain that prisoners have access to literature and are permitted the psychic growth that is owing to any human being.

Yours sincerely,
Jordan Savage, Graduate Teaching Assistant.


Girl Talk.

January 7, 2012

The thing is, boys, it’s not about you.

I am going to say this once, and once only; and then it’s going to be dealt with for the purpose of this blog, for the purpose of anything else I might write for some time to come, and, hopefully, for the purpose of some other people’s conversations in some other places, too.

Feminism, yeah? The women’s movement? The proverbial “F” word?  Wanna know something really important about it? IT IS NOT ABOUT MEN. Okay, fine; it’s about men, in as much as it’s about social power relations, and men are part of society, and according to many different ways of slicing the society pie, they’re a part of society with MORE power than women or people of other genders. Particularly people of other genders, I would argue, but let’s keep that one for another day.

In her version of “Which Side Are You On”, the mighty and marvellous Ani Di Franco sings, “Feminism’s not about women”. She’s making the same point I do above, I think, about the fact that really we’re talking about social dynamics and the need to change them, and the need to have everybody involved in order to change them, and the fact that every man’s death diminishes me as I am involved in mankind, and an injury to one is an injury to all, and so on and so forth.

But actually, practically, feminism IS about women*. It’s about how we experience things; it’s particularly about how we experience inequality, but that isn’t the end of it. Because “the women’s movement”, which is one of the least coherent, most plural movements I’ve encountered, is or should be a progressive force for change. So it’s not just about when we experience inequality; it’s also about when good things happen to us, how we live and how we would like to live, what we love and what we would like to do differently in the future.

It’s about making things more equal, but it’s not about making women be more like men. I always express disinterest in the boardroom pay-gap – perhaps I have expressed this too loudly on occasion, but I don’t feel much like apologising for that – because I have a profound disinterest in, and antipathy toward, boardrooms in general. I think big business and its boardrooms are part of the problem. And I think they’re part of the gender problem not just because they don’t pay women as much as men or let women get to the highest ranks as frequently, but also because they espouse a particular, masculine, way of comporting oneself in order to get ahead.

Whilst I think that we need to change conditioned behaviours in order to make progress, I don’t think the way towards the kind of equality that I want to see is to condition everyone to take on a flinty CityBoy persona, regardless of gender. I think that all expected, and accepted, behaviours need to change – so as women, we ought to have the opportunity to imagine the kind of space in which we might feel equal, and start to set up processes that help us on the road to that equality.

And actually, we’re the only ones living our lives; women are the only people who can say what would make them feel better or worse. It is simply impossible to know that without being female.
Which is why, men can’t be leading decision makers in the women’s movement.  Understanding something intellectually and being empathetic and considerate is brilliant and necessary, but it is totally different to experiencing something first-hand, from the frustration of being constantly overlooked for promotion in favour of male colleagues, to the physical and emotional pain of violence from people who think trans women aren’t really women, so it’s okay to hit them.

The men who are our allies in this understand all that. Feminist, or pro-feminist, men (I more or less think that distinction is semantics: discuss), do not feel maligned by this. You’re doing great, keep being great, spread the word! Love, thanks and solidarity! The reason that I’m writing this and the reason I want to stress that really, feminism is NOT ABOUT MEN, is because I never, ever again want to have one of the following conversations:

“Feminism’s all good up to a point, but some people take it too far, and it’s not about equality anymore.” Really? Who does this? WHO? I know that female supremacists exist, but I am not convinced I have ever met one – and I’ve met like 95,000 different kinds of feminists, even some with whom I agree about nearly everything! Why do people still say this SO OFTEN?

“I don’t think you can achieve equality by excluding men.” Sorry, what? Who’s excluding whom, and from what? By saying men can’t lead this PARTICULAR charge, poor chaps, we’re not excluding them from anything. We’re building something more inclusive, something that will be inclusive of EVERYBODY. Women-only spaces, yeah? They’re not secret covens for plotting the downfall of all men. They’re spaces for strategising and reflecting, and practising new ways of doing things, and sharing experiences, THE BETTER TO BUILD SOMETHING MORE INCLUSIVE. Is that clear?

“Don’t feminists, like, hate men?” No. No, they don’t. This is stupid. Go away.

“As socialists/ liberals/ anarchists/ probably conservatives, it’s a while since I asked one, we are already fighting for gender equality as an inherent part of our political ideology. We do this collaboratively, we don’t need to separate men and women to do so.” OH REALLY IS THAT WHY THERE IS SUCH BLISSFUL GENDER PARITY AND SUCH A PLURAL APPROACH TO GENDER IN THE HISTORY OF ALL YOUR MOVEMENTS, THEN?

There’s one thing I’d really like to happen this year. I want to start a conversation with somebody new, about feminism and the women’s movement. Someone interested, but not “active” per se. And I want the conversation to be about WOMEN, not men.

*When I talk about women, I absolutely always mean anyone who self-defines as such. Comments disagreeing with this will be considered trolls, trolls will not be fed.

A Moffat Christmas Carol.

January 3, 2012

Okay. I’m sorry, the title is cheap; I chose it when I was going to write about gender politics in both of Stephen Moffat’s Christmas TV offerings. As it transpires, there is so very much to say about “A Scandal In Belgravia” that the straight-forward stereotyping of “The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe” fell by the way somewhat. I must also say that I was glued to my seat for both programmes.



Lesbianism is the greatest current threat to the British state. I’ve long had my suspicions, and last night’s episode of Sherlock, written by Stephen Moffat and entitled “A Scandal in Belgravia”, has only confirmed what I knew by intuition all along. It’s logical, really; if intelligence is the most powerful thing one can possibly possess, then the perfect spy is the most dangerous individual who could possibly exist. We know what makes the perfect spy, and the formula has been first honed, and then inflated, to give us Bond: orphan, unattached, no close personal friendships to speak of. He is able to drop in and out of multiple realities without contradicting the social index that most of us create as we trample our messy way in the world, forging human relationships willy-nilly, carelessly anchoring ourselves to a single identity.

James Bond is also a man. Therefore, he is (in most incarnations, when not played by Daniel Craig) impervious to sentiment. His sexual exploits vouch for his physical humanity, but are completely uncoupled from his heart and spirit. The women he sleeps with are there to explicate his masculinity : countless expendable, easily-led Bond Girls are required to counterbalance his pardigmatic ‘manliness’. Bond could never have been female, because women are, y’know, nurturing. Women care.

And then there’s Irene Adler. Or at least, then there’s Stephen Moffat’s Irene Adler, a million miles from “The woman” in Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. The woman who, remember, bested the great detective in the final telling, something that could of course never happen to a BBC TV hero. At least, not to a male one. The difference between these two women, however, would be a subject for another study.

Moffat’s Adler is a sex worker – a professional Dominatrix*. We are therefore to assume that she is manipulative, and not to be trusted. My viewing-partner had registered from Adler’s first scene that she wore red nail varnish –  and so was probably evil – and red lipstick, the tell-tale sign of lesbianism in detective fiction.

For as long as we believe that Adler is homosexual – and she tells Watson outright that she is gay – we can believe that she might win her battle of wits and wiles with Baker Street’s golden boy. Because power is a man’s game; the only female in Mycroft Holmes’ entourage plays the same role for Adler that she does for Holmes, Snr.: that of secretary-cum-hostess, with no real proximity to power. All of the other players for the top stakes, for our against Our Man, are male: Mycroft, Holmes and Watson, “Jim” Moriarty. And they are impervious to any love beyond comradely philia; in this episode, we learn that even kindly John Watson is unable to keep one girlfriend’s identity distinct from the last.

The moment at which Irene Adler sends a text message to Moriarty after kissing Holmes’ cheek in slow motion is absolutely crucial. This is the moment at which she suckers him, and the cunning lesbian perfect her deception.. That fingers-crossed-behind-the-back shot is the moment at which we know for certain that she is dissembling; she hasn’t really fallen for Sherlock, so her integrity, and her gender identity, remain in tact.

Power is a man’s game, and a woman had better be gay if she wants to join in. There are two messages to be taken from this. Firstly, of course, lesbians are not quite proper women. They have less icky-sticky feelings, less conscience, and are, in general, Much More Like Men. The second is that proper, y’know, normal, heterosexual women can’t get involved in high-powered plots, because they’d only get seduced out of the way. They’d fall in love, develop loyalties outside of their brief, and give up the whole shebang. Only a lesbian could be dangerous enough, as an individual, to threaten the M.O.D., because only a lesbian  could so absolutely constitute the unknown, and present an enemy with no discernible weakness.

So it’s jolly good luck that our boy Sherlock is able to “turn” her! If she had only really been a lesbian, and resisted his charms – as no heterosexual woman could do – then she could have crippled the state. With, apparently, her personal spending habits.

Everything turns out alright for Dear Old Blighty in Moffat’s Sherlock because lesbians aren’t really real. They’re just waiting for the right improbably good-looking sociopathic nerd and drug-addict to really get inside their heads, and straighten them out.

Why? Because lesbianism is the greatest current threat to the British state, of course, and we couldn’t have that validated by the BBC.

Happy New Year, y’all.


*She’s also already therefore a nice parallel with Bond when it comes to the disengaged sex angle, if you’re willing to accept that consensual professional sex and leading on scores of women are the same thing.

The Blasted Peninsula.

November 1, 2010

Welcome to Orford Ness

On Wednesday, I went to Orford Ness. The Ness is a spit – a gravel peninsula, jutting out of the Suffolk coast and into the North Sea. Within a few years, if erosion continues at the current rate, the spit will have become an island in its own right – as it is, Orford locals refer to it as The Island, and we access it by boat on a windy, overcast morning.

The Ness is part salt marsh, part marsh proper and after that, almost entirely made up of shingle. Along its seaward shore, the pebbles undulate in irregular craters, testimony to the site’s half-secret history: between the First World War and the Cold War, Orford Ness was used by the MOD for munitions testing, and homed Cobra Mist, an experimental over-land UK-American radar station.

The land has been de-commissioned now, and buildings are disintegrating back into the land – two porcelain toilets stand within the brick outline of a former mess-hall; the rooms are still visible from above, but one of them has now become one of the many lagoons that support the astonishingly diverse bird-life on the ness. In one morning, we see Redshanks, widgeon, egrets, avocets, a friendly barn-owl who flies close by our heads, and even a peregrine, spotted by our sharp-eyed guide as the smaller birds flew up in plumes below it, a black cloud below the light-house which is the main source of relief on a largely flat horizon. Within five years, the lighthouse will have to be retired, and in all likelihood dismantled, as the sea encroaches on the coastline at its foot.


View across the Ness toward Aldeburgh

In a small museum on the site, that gives some of the story of the changing landscape, and some of the projects that the MOD has claimed it for at various points across the twenty-first century, is the most troubling exhibit I have ever seen on public display. Below a brief history of the nuclear bomb, and a photograph of the Christmas Island bombing, is a disarmed nuclear warhead. It is small – about five feet in length, nothing to the towering images of bombs as high as houses that we see coming out of Albuquerque today – but the shape is so familiar it takes a moment to slew away the cartoon and movie images of friendly, personified bombs that move like dolphins, and re-focus on the death machine staring me in the face.

Unexploded WW2 incendiary bombs are still buried across the ness, a hidden threat to trespassing anglers who continue to diobey warning signs and strike out across the beaches, away from the designated, tested and cleared pathways.

What is entrancing about the ness is not what it is possible to see, but what remains unknown. The workshops where Nukes were built, now dilapiated and filled with pebbles, that WG Sebald figures as gas chambers in Rings of Saturn; the Black Beacon that stands stark agains the pale pebbles and grey seascape behind it; that platonic ideal of a red-and-white-striped lighthouse. They are potent triggers for memory and imagination; sites like this one are crucial to keeping alive the memory of Britain’s military history and the destructive role we played in the development of nuclear arms. Every time I learn something new about what happenned on the ness, what was tested here, which reconnaisance techniques were pioneered and honed here, I wonder at the untold stories, the years of MOD files on this blasted heath that have yet to be declassified.


Nuclear Warhead

The birds wouldn’t be here without the protection form industry and tourism that the continued military presence has provided it with across the years. The different kinds of marshland, side-by-side with their huge range of grasses and plants, different kinds of samfire offering purples and reds against the gently changing greens, would go unnoticed if the radar testing site hadn’t made this a National Trust site to be protected and explained to the public. The great scars on the beaches wouldn’t be there, either, or the huge,  unexplained circle of concrete that marks the landscape like a military Nazca.

Tired and with too much information, too many lines of enquiry, fighting for precedence in my head, I leave Orford Ness with my imagination ranging back across the decades, and with a strange sense of dissatisfacation that I cannot reconcile the different natures of this place to one essence. Driving away from Orford, I feel like I have read the first chapter of a murder mystery, and that the rest of the plot remains, yet to be uncovered.

White Trash, Warm Hearts.

September 28, 2010

The poetry of American poverty: Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (USA 2010).

Winter’s Bone is a thriller: a detective story in which  a girl must find her drug-dealer father to prevent the repossession of her family home to pay his bond. Were it set in some urban future dystopia and populated by gun-toting pneumatic blondes, it would be heralded, like Sin City, for its noir echoes: a surprising and compelling narrative structure, sparse, witty dialogue and hard-boiled characters who would sooner spit in your eye than shake your hand.

Set instead among meth-cooking hillbillys in contemporary Missouri, Debra Granik’s striking third movie has instead been criticised as ‘poverty porn,’ a term which, post Slumdog Millionaire, self-satisfied critics use offhand when they are made to think, against their will, about what life is actually like for the poor.

Poverty might be a major character in Winter’s Bone, but it’s not what the film is about. Yes, the film is a moral tale about family values, but the parameters of its morality could scarcely from the sewing sampler and mom’s-apple-pie saccharine of mainstream representations of the American rural poor.

Like the best of Annie Proulx’s short stories (which is how blockbuster Brokeback Mountain started life), Granik avoids language and lets landscape and setting tell most of her story for her. The few words that are spoken between members of the Dolly family run the registers from menacing to wise to comforting and back, and include stand-out lines like “I said shut up once with my mouth”, and “never ask for what ought to be offered.”

It is the quality of the silence that dominates most of the film that gives it its character. As seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) walks miles from homestead to homestead (these farm settlements seem only to have sunk into dilapidation since the days of the frontier) through mud and ice, the setting borders on the expressionist. Her desperation is obvious from the way that she stands alone, shrouded in her winter coat, staring down the unwelcoming facades of dark, wood-and-corrugated iron buildings with hellish meth smoke billowing from the cellars, open countryside at her back: nowhere to run to, no-one to speak to but a family who would rather beat her than have her ask questions that might endanger her and their way of life.

The unabashedly redneck Dolly family characters are bottomless. Their words never say what they mean; this is a community of people so used to being on guard against intrusion or attack that they do not speak honestly even with one another, although their meaning is always made abundantly clear by the action that accompanies it  – as when Ree is told to “go away” by an aunt who passes her a cup of coffee at the same time. The message is not ‘you are unwelcome’ but ‘you are not safe here’.

Ree and her family are clearly living in opposition to law and order as it is dictated by the American state, but Winter’s Bone cuts against the grain of anti-hero cinema in its sympathetic portrayal of state officials. This is particularly clear in the behaviour of the bailiff who has to threaten Ree with repossession: ‘but for the grace of God, there go I’ is written in his eyes – and later his actions – as one poor American is forced by his allegiance with the state to mount an attack on another poor American.

When Ree seeks out an army recruiting officer (Russell Schalk), he actually dissuades her from joining up, saying, “sometimes it’s harder to stay at home”. Several contributing factors make this scene particularly moving. First, there is the tension between Ree’s entirely understandable desire for escape, and what would happen to her younger siblings, Ashlee and Sonny (Ashlee Thompson and Isaiah Stone)  without her there to  care for them. Then there is the fact that she is not permitted to join up, at seventeen, without parental consent; with her father missing, believed dead, and her mother incapacited by mental illness, the no-man’s land that Ree inhabits is thrown into sharp relief.

This message, that sometimes it is harder to stay at home, sometimes that’s the brave thing to do – that’s of vital importance in America today. The glamour of the military is being sold to poor people as vehemently as ever, and women like Ree go off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan every year.

Winter’s Bone is gruesome at times; it is hard, and the camera work alternates between a grainy, shaky, Dogme-style and montage work reminiscent of the literary stream of consciousness. The film is rough and experimental. It is also honest, and, largely thanks to performances by Lawrence, the two children and John Hawkes as the terrifying and unpredictable uncle Teardrop, it has at its heart such a weight of human compassion and endurance that, for all its cold and poverty, it is never bleak.

See the trailer here.