Gillian Allnutt is a contemporary English poet whose work I have admired for the better part of fifteen years. If someone asked me -- which, to date, nobody has -- to describe her poetry, the words that might come to mind are not mine, but Hopkins’: “counter, original, spare, strange.” Frankly, I’m a sucker for strangeness. I like idiosyncrasy. I like mystery. I like echoes that die away into white space. I like being taken to the edge of what I can understand, then asked to step out into what I don’t understand (without minding too much that I don’t). I don’t mind -- in fact, I sort of love -- not knowing exactly how things fit together, but trusting anyway that they do, somehow.
It’s important to know this about me as a reader -- I guess. To some extent any reader of poetry has to be content with mystery, though some poems are more reticent in their epiphanies than others. Some poems make clear arguments, and some don’t. I tend to like ones that do, but love ones that don’t. In other words: degustibus &c. Given that I’m the kind of reader who wouldpraise the counter-original-spare-strange in poetry, let me proceed to do just that.
But maybe you’d prefer to see for yourself what I mean. Here’s an example: a poem of Allnutt’s called “Elsbeth,” which appeared in a 2008 issue of the British poetry journal TheRialto. I chose it at random from an online search, but even pulled out of a hat, so to speak, it does very much the kinds of things that I’ve just described.
Like many of Allnutt’s poems, “Elsbeth” is a persona poem. Via the poet’s accompanying note, we’re given to infer that the speaker is the daughter of the German painter Otto Modersohn, and that she’s addressing her stepmother, the rather more celebrated expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. I believe this is the painting the poem references, though Modersohn-Becker painted Elsbeth several more times in 1902 (here, for example, and here). This helpful gloss locates us in a character, but also in an isolated moment like an inlet in an ongoing tide of narrative.
What it’s possible to know, though you don’t have to know it all to read the poem, is that Otto Modersohn and Paula Becker were members of an artists’ colony at Worpswede, in northern Germany near Bremen, a flat, windswept, big-skyed place. They were contemporaries and friends of, among others, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who dedicated a poem to Paula on her death. Modersohn’s first wife had died in 1900, and the next year he was married to Paula. The marriage went unconsummated for many years, owing partly, it seems, to Paula’s wish to avoid motherhood, in order to devote herself to her art -- though she seems also to have been ambivalent about the marriage itself, and she and Modersohn lived apart for a number of years, he in Germany, she in Paris with another man. When Paula did at last return to her marriage and bear a child with Modersohn, it was at the cost of her own life. Her daughter Matilde was born in 1907, and less than three weeks later, Paula was dead of a post-partum embolism.
None of this contextual information bears directly on Allnutt’s poem, except to emphasize the smallness of the moment it captures, and of the person who speaks it, over and past whom all these un-narrated events are pouring like a ferocious wind off the North Sea. For this speaker, the larger adult life with its tragedies belongs to the mystery, the white space, outside her own fragmentary words. On the edge of these life-and-death events, she is a bystander, largely forgotten by history and also, we might infer, by the very people who should have thought of her.
Against this backdrop, the speaker’s words themselves are compressed, tentative, associative, and -- well, spare and strange. From line to line, Elspeth’s utterances seem disconnected: the saint of the legend came out of the egg like a bird -- or like a rag? This is the sort of inconsequential putting-together a child might do, that would prompt adults to laugh dismissively and say, “Well, is it like a bird? Or like a rag? It can’t be both.”
But the poem has a logic -- for one thing, it has a form. Rhyme, if nothing else, holds its apparent randomness together. For all its openness on the page -- a line, two lines of white space, another line -- the poem has no formal loose ends. Everything in it rhymes with something; it forms a kind of eternity knot, nothing sticking out, nothing abandoned, nothing orphaned -- nothing, that is, except Elsbeth herself.
On every level, the poem holds itself in tension: unmetered lines dropped like crumbs on the page, but ordered by rhyme; words venturing into silence, but not too far; a girl with no mother who speaks of her mother; a hatched saint like a bird and a rag, freed and discarded in two lines. In its spareness, it maintains a certain ascetical clarity. Elspeth, thinking of the saint whose name she can’t remember -- “Boris or Gleb or Basil” -- anticipates perhaps a similar fate for her own egg-soul: “It’s laid.” Like the saint, she may imagine emerging into freedom, or into forgottenness.
Perhaps this is why she wants her soul to be painted, to fasten it to the world and preserve it there, to give her, Elsbeth, a place, a purpose, a “word . . . like a wheelbarrow handle.” The “cost” of life, like light, is “not inconsiderable” -- she’s aware that her father counts this cost. In the face of adult losses, betrayals, and self-absorptions, which must appear a great, blank, all-permeating mystery to a child, that child pleads for love, and more than love. She pleads to be allowed to exist and to matter, as much as a wheelbarrow handle exists and matters.
We don’t have to know much about the person to whom she addresses this plea to find it poignant, though of course the more we do know, the more we can apprehend the weight of loss which her words, gnomic as they are, bear into the world. The poem itself, though, stands against her non-existence. It names her and gives her a voice, counter, original, spare, and strange.
This is the general mode of Allnutt’s poetry: surfacing out of some larger, and largely unknown, story to grant readers a brief eccentric glimpse into an experience which for us may remain largely a matter of guesswork. To be honest, I can see how some readers might find this maddening. Sometimes I find it a little maddening myself. Her poems can be introspective and self-referential to the point of -- well, for example, the titular sequence in her book Nantucket and the Angel arises from a private narrative in which the Angel Gabriel appears to, and temporarily moves in with, an old woman named Nantucket, described on the back cover as “Gillian Allnutt’s imagined 90-year-old self.” Right, well, okay . . .
Right, well, okay pretty much encapsulates my stance as reader in many of the Nantucket poems. For example, at the end of a poem in this sequence, entitled “Phoenix” (the “she” in the poem refers to the old-woman character, Nantucket), I read this:
Is she, like
Isak Dinesen back in Denmark, living on oysters, champagne?
With Nantucket it’s Guinness and milk.
Polly put her onto it.
And I think, Who the hell is Polly ? The poem, even in its entirety, gives no answer that I can see. In the whole sequence, Polly never appears again. She just looks in at the door, there in that last line. She glances at us from a life hidden in the white space around the edges. Polly’s a crowning mystery in a poem whose logic is rooted in something inexplicit, unrevealed. Right. Well. Okay. Of Nantucket, meanwhile, we’re told, She’s both axe and off-cut:
Is she not also her grandmother’s
tacked-together pocket, pre-war blanket with watermark,
tarnished brass tap, broken cup, phoenix,
with terribly singed wing-tip?
Uh, if you say so. Here I ask myself, why do I buy this poem’s logic at all? What gives its assertions any purchase in my mind? Is something wrong with my mind, that these assertions do gain some purchase there?
What I answer myself is this: Right, well, okay. I’m willing to buy the language and, by extension, what comes with it. Alliterative sounds hold the lines together, in much the same way that they did in the old Anglo-Saxon line: tacked together pocket, pre-war blanket with watermark. In that line, consonants hand the sound along, t to ck to p to w, like a baton in a relay race, or a bucket brigade. Meanwhile, though it’s loose and unobtrusive -- by which I mean that I’d probably read the poem twenty times casually before I realized that it was there -- the rhyme scheme, as in “Elsbeth,” orders things further. Far-fetched as the lines are, in terms of the things they claim, they leave, literally, no loose ends. The pattern isn’t regular or predictable; still, again, everything rhymes with something. A place for everything, and everything in its place, which makes order of chaos even when you don’t know what all the things themselves are, or are for. In the end, though there’s not a lot of logical coherence in a passage like this --
Don’t expect her
to have got the act of mutability together yet,
at ninety, with a name like that, Nantucket,
cloistered, clobbered with annunciation --
(I mean, again, whatever) -- the sounds themselves knit things up. Formal coherence is a level of coherence, and it forces even the most oddly assorted details to hang together. Even as I think I mean, again, whatever (a variation on the theme of right, well, okay), still I’m willing to trust the poem. I’m willing to accept even Polly, not knowing who she is. I’m willing to accept not only the imaginative world of the poem, but the imaginative world outside, in the white space that’s always pressing in on it.
“Phoenix” isn’t my favorite Allnutt work, but like “Elsbeth” it’s a good illustration of what I love about her poems, even when I find them crazy-making. Perhaps it’s a sign of a credulous intellect, being too much dazzled by linguistic virtuosity and too ready to grant that there’s any sense beneath the surface of the words, or in the unrevealed narratives that inform them. On the other hand, this is one of the elemental things that sets off poetry from prose: that it hints at more, suggesting that whatever it does venture to say, far more goes unsaid. There’s more to the universe than what can be pinned down in language, and even that pinning-down is speculative at best.
It’s this sense of enormous unknowing that illuminates my favorite Allnutt poem, “Fenlight.” The poem’s backstory, sketched out, as in “Elsbeth,” by a note at the bottom of the page, is an event clearly situated in history: the collapse, one February night in 1322, of Ely Cathedral’s central tower, and the efforts, overseen by one Alan of Walsingham, to rebuild it so that it won’t fall down again. In the poem, this Alan, Sacrist , practical man, stands beneath the enormous hole in the cathedral’s roof --
quo se verteret vel quid ageret,
not knowing which way to turn nor what to do --
the unimaginable / hole it’s his job to engineer some solution for, and is overwhelmed, “momentarily,” by simultaneous currents of uncertainty and joy:
quo se verteret vel quid ageret --
the ordinary fenlight enters and it feels
as if the sparrows flying in and out
are flying in his heart.
In my mind, this moment in the poem echoes the climax of Ruth Pitter’s poem “Morning Glory,” in which we penetrate to the golden heart of the flower to find an angel “crying Glory and hanging in the eye of the sun.” Here, too, we’ve penetrated to the heart of something sublime, though what we find is inarticulate. It doesn’t cry Glory; it just is glorious, even in its simplicity. At this moment, the human heart opens, like the cathedral roof, to the enormity of light and sky, the intimation, if not the declaration, of heaven.
In reading around for illumination as I wrote this piece, I stumbled on this -- it seems to me -- incisive paragraph, in a 2013 review of Allnutt’s work:
To say the poems are meditations is too obvious, except that it is worth saying because such writing is rare; one must say more than that, that the way here as a record in poetic form is unique and, for anyone who has read her poems over decades now, the patient development is of something earned by a kind of stealth... [W]hat is shared here is both beautiful and awkward, it cannot say and it goes some way towards saying.
I suppose you could go too far in the pursuit of silence and mystery on the page. You could dismantle language too much, be so spare that you do away with everything counter, original, and strange. Certainly the poet who writes too little would be a rarity, if not an outright paradox. Still, it’s fascinating to observe what looks like a process of stripping-away -- of speculating, by way of a poetics, about what would happen if you just didn’t rebuild that tower. What if you left the hole; what if you widened it? How far could you widen it before the whole edifice collapsed, leaving nothing but everything: all the untold stories?
That’s what seems to happen in “silt road”, another of the Rialto series that includes “Elsbeth.” In this poem, even the syntax is peeled down to its nouns: a house, a step, a place, a skep. They hang on the page as unfinished thoughts, half-formed questions whose answers, again, remain hidden. The poem’s lines are like something washed up -- the “silt” of the title suggests a flood -- broken, with its essential parts missing. Even here, though, a framework remains, however skeletal. Though the lines are fragmented, still they mostly rhyme. The house is abandoned; nothing rhymes with it. But everything else about it is joined to something else: step / skep, Barnack / brick. We’re not given to know whose it is. We’re not given to know any of its stories, though like archaeologists we might piece together some narrative out of these shards the poem offers without comment. All we know is that it stands; it retains its structure and so endures the pressure of all the unknowing which surrounds it on every side. Skeleton that it is, this house stands.
Ultimately, as a reader, I have to ask myself: why am I attracted to these poems? The first and most obvious answer, to me, anyway, is that I do love the oddness of their language. I take pleasure in the way the poet’s ear revels over juxtapositions of sound and in archaic words, like skep as if to save those words from linguistic amnesia. I love these sounds and the minimal structures they’re strung on. I’m beguiled by the way so many of the poems feel like artifacts of larger stories, cast up in bits and pieces from a great white silent sea. More than that, though, I think what I respond to in them is their sense of the contemplative. I love the ways that, in what they say, they engage with things not said. Maybe this meditation on mystery by Marilynne Robinson gets at what I mean:
We are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery within which we must attempt to orient ourselves if we are to have a sense of our own nature… I believe that there is a penumbra of ignorance and error and speculation that exceeds what might be called the known world by a very large factor indeed. I believe this penumbra is as beautiful in its own way as what I have called truth because it is the action of the human consciousness. It is most human and most beautiful because it wants to be more than consciousness; it wants to be truth.
Or maybe I really can’t explain at all, except by way of analogy. The other morning, on vacation, I sat with my coffee on the deck of our borrowed house and watched the gray sound wrinkling under the overcast sky. I was thinking not about poetry, but about the sea: all the life it hides beneath its sliding skin. When you look at the water, you know that you’re looking at something not-empty, though from where you sit, emptyis how it looks.
My mother came onto the deck. “I wish I could see some dolphins,” she said.
A moment later, something disturbed the water: a wave’s edge against sunlight, or something solid? And then the sound was full of them. It was like watching falling stars: if you looked too hard in one place, you’d miss three someplace else. Out of those depths, they kept breaking and entering, fins and backs and sometimes tails, brief but real, like waves become suddenly flesh. They weren’t the whole sea. The whole sea hadn’t become dolphins. Mostly it was water, unreadable as ever. But these glimpses of solid life, reaching out of that reticent water: they sufficed. We could have watched them all day.