REVIEW by Nia Davies 31/07/2012
by Zoë Brigley
‘[They] beg me to recount it all – / to tell their stories, my story, and I do.’
This is Zoë Brigley, setting herself a poetic quest, whilst on a residency at the Brontë parsonage. In her second collection, Conquest
, she lays out a rich store of these stories. Like her first book, The Secret
, the poems in Conquest
, are divided into three parts. The first sequence, My Last Rochester, is written in intimate proximity to the objects, ghosts and woes of the Brontë women. The second, Conquest, charts a North American journey and a happier modern day love story. The third part returns to a painful exploitation of the feminine with The Lady and the Unicorn section .
The palate Brigley paints from is multicoloured and textured. The archetypal or exotic image, the mythic and dreamlike narrative and totemic objects are strung through each poem like beads on a bracelet. Coming across each of these repeated charms presented a new pleasure for me – the sea voyages, fat and things that fatten, flowers – both wild and cultivated, windows, fruit trees, sexual desire, mouths and tongues, colonies and colonisers.
These narratives are often told in an unadorned fashion. Sometimes this approach works well – as in the unexpected punch in the stomach of the first poem of the ‘book’ ‘My Last Rochester’. But there is, in that same poem, a patchiness which I noticed throughout the collection: lines which seem to hold a certain intertextual value but, for my tastes at least, feel bland or undeveloped. The first line of this poem (and of the book): ‘She’s in an attic room in a Georgian house/ in the town which you knew but never liked’ was one of those. In the last stanza, the perspective shifts from second to first person. So much of the poem hinged on this telling of a narrative and yet I wasn’t sure who was talking about whom. This was frustrating as I felt I couldn’t quite grasp the power of the situation at hand.
Despite this somewhat flawed start, the Brontë poems that follow were some of the most enjoyable. I particularly liked ‘Daughter’, a spell for a ghost child – a dark, creaking whisper which touched on something in my own dreaming life.
Brigley’s pictures of female experience are recognisable – she exposes such archetypes with sensitivity. But those experiences are nearly always told from this one perspective – of a woman in peril. I came to suspect this straight-looking narrative viewpoint. In ‘Passage’, Brigley charts the nightmare of a woman’s journey through a series of violent storms. The storm equals a man, of course, ‘the first man she knew/ was a storm that stopped her voyage dead in unknown waters.’ This metaphor exploring sexual violence and desire also felt unoriginal. Treated with that oft-used tonal certainty, it failed to move or convince me.
The pained voice and the tales of mistreated women return in a whole sequence in the last section, The Lady and the Unicorn. By this point I felt weary of reading about another genteel lady trapped in a man’s world surrounded by totemic objects and with all her ‘faith in pleasure wrecked’ (a reference back to that tempestuous man again?). By now I just wanted Brigley’s waifs and would-be adventuresses to break out – either to have their stories told from a different perspective – perhaps using a different viewpoint or new use of register, tone or linguistic exploration. Or I wanted them to just do something completely different – maybe even to run away and join a roller derby team.
The second section, Conquest, offers some of this freedom on a vast western frontier. Instead of returning to the cloisters of Europe for the last Lady and the Unicorn sequence, I would have preferred to remain in the more spacious and various poems of the middle Conquest section, or for Brigley to chart a new direction. Poems like ‘Farming Florida’, ‘Love and the Orchid’ and ‘Pennsylvania Winter’ do contain some of the flaws mentioned earlier but they were also some of my favourites. They show Brigley’s unique flair for a rich weave of intertextual language and narrative. Her striking symbols and talismans act as way-marking breadcrumbs, guiding you through this exotically illuminated storybook of poems.
previous review: Regeneration
next review: The Life of Rebecca Jones