ESSAY Sarah Howe

NWR Issue 96

Skipping to the Apocalypse

In his work on dreams, Freud took an interest in the phenomenon of words that contain opposite meanings at once. For example, our English word ‘clamour’ comes from the Latin clamare (to cry out) but has a near-obsolete twin of contrary meaning, born of clam (softly, secretly). Such linguistic relics, Freud believed, suggest how primal man could only begin to think about concepts by holding them up
against their opposites, gradually learning to separate the two halves of an antithesis. Elyse Fenton’s first book of poems, Clamor, charts the experiences of an American woman whose husband has been deployed as an army medic to Iraq. The collection structures itself around ‘this word’ (which chimes through many of the poems) ‘that means sound and soundlessness / at once’. The title’s compressed antithesis also shapes these lyrics in more subtle ways, leading them to interrogate other apparent contraries: man and woman, combatant and spectator, distance and intimacy, complicity and guiltlessness.

And so when Fenton depicts the blast of an IED (improvised explosive device) in terms of the ensuing deafness, this comes to stand for the unequalness of words to conveying war’s reality: ‘the hard dust / beneath your feet could breach like a cleft / in meaning.’ Aware of its own desperation, ‘Love in Wartime (I)’ tries valiantly to pitch itself against language’s inadequacy: ‘When I say you I have to mean / not some signified presence [...] but your mouth and its live wetness.’ Central to the collection is the conjuring trick by which letters – and poems – seem to make an absent person bodily present. ‘Word from the Front’ is one of numerous poems set at the end of a telephone’s receiver, as the speaker struggles to visualise her lover’s everyday life in Baghdad from nothing but his ‘voice over the wind strafed line’.

Want to read the full article? Go to our online shop where you can buy an individual issue or take out a subscription to NWR, saving £3.98 on the cover price. Prices start at £16.99 for three issues via Direct Debit, including p+p (UK only).


previous essay: Islands on the Edge: St Kilda
next essay: Of Dinosaurs and Theoretical Corsetry


A brief note on copyright:all authors have given permission for their work to appear online on New Welsh Review's website. Copyright remains with the author. If you wish to reproduce part or all of any article then the permission of the author must be sought, and the author and New Welsh Review credited accordingly.

Contact us:Registered Office PO Box 170, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1WZ - Telephone 00 (44) 1970 628410
© New Welsh Review Ltd, all rights reserved - Registered in England and Wales - Registered number: 02493828
Website design: mach2media and mopublications      Website development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.