Beauty is rarely soft or consolatory. Quite the contrary. Genuine beauty is always quite alarming. (Donna Tartt, The Secret History)
The Greeks. The Greeks. The Greeks. Inventors (or early adopters) of tragedy, comedy and pillars (Ionian, Doric and Corinthian), along with much else in white (mostly, but not always), Western culture and thought. 3,000 or so years after Homer began The Iliad, is it any wonder (thanks to etymological remains like ‘cupidity’, ‘erotic and (best of all) ‘psyche’) that the Greeks of antiquity still live rent-free in our heads?
In Your Turn To Speak (Blue Diode), Lady Red Ego gives voice to Attic skeletons. The ‘frame’ in which these poems perform, or are performed, is the theatre. Think open air auditorium, like Epidaurus, built around a central altar. A theatre where there are gods in the gods and performance leans much more towards religious practice than entertainment.
There are three ‘acts’ – ‘The Proposal’, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. There is a chorus (led by Coryphaeus, as all good choruses should be), who may be commenting on what is said by others or may be speaking directly to the reader themselves from their imagined viewpoint in the wings. These things come together as musique concrete, an unfolding patchwork of overlapping, clamorous, disorderly voices.
Poetry has the right to refuse to yield to a reader’s desire for orderly narrative. And so it is in the way, Your Turn To Speak, determinedly queers any attempt at linear reading[s]. This is a book to let wash over you, enjoy the ebb and flow of its images, references and sounds – don’t get too hung up on what it all means (hang-ups are definitely not welcome here).
That said – a little detective work is always fun! A favourite hack, when reviewing a collection of poetry, is to examine what happens in the middle. What is the fulcrum upon which the collection rests, what does it balance and how does that balance shift between ‘opening’ and ‘closing’.
Exactly half-way through Your Turn To Speak, we run into Anteros, god of requited love (and avenger of the unrequited). Anteros speaks:
Yes, darling The train was drawing in. Dundee station, so much like a palace, all that cheap white paint and stairs that escalate above mountain summits.
This is interesting because it is the first of only two mentions of any Scottish geography in the book. The second follows six pages later, when the Chorus say:
Where are you going? (On the train to Perth.) After all, Anteros has answered (and he has asked) yet another question.
So, the book turns on the arrival of the god of requited love. And, by dint of these two references to the Scottish here and now, Anteros’ arrival is explicitly linked to the poet, not to any of their ‘masks’.
So, we could, if we wanted, parse some or all of the poems that are included between these two sections (between Dundee, and Perth), and afterwards with this in mind. Not least the reference (to “bed-death, la petite”) given to Sappho to make, and Achilles’ frustrated “We should not have spent so much time / sleeping alone”, which ends his soliloquy on the following page.
As this shows, Your Turn To Speak, kind of does (as the cover blurb says) “dissect the DNA of the love poem.” In this book are a series of loves and anti-loves – love denied (Achilles and Patroclus), love turned monstrous (Polyphemus), and love of the abstract or ideal. In between all these myths and fables, Lady Red Ego weaves in a fragmentary, disassociated account of love, as the unmediated, unfiltered thing itself.
Voices and characters promenade on and off-stage episodically. Your Turn To Speak’s big trick is the call-back, with which Lady Red Ego sets up sequences of shifting or varying loops. Witness the four repetitions in the opening section ‘The Proposal’:
The theatre is filled and the play is announced. Zeus takes centre stage. His booming voice dominates, But then, no, here is Hera and she has something to say. Zeus was lying. The crowd gasps . . . And so, it begins. Patroclus reveals that he bottomed (shock and horror) [ . . . ]
A few pages later:
The theatre is filled and the play is announced. Zeus takes centre stage. His booming voice dominates, But then, no, here is Hera and she has something to say. Zeus was lying. The crowd gasps . . . She angles her arms to reveal a babe. We think of Christ, but it is not yet his time [ . . . ]
Another couple of pages:
The theatre is filled and the play is announced. Its ears perk up at the sound of its name – Tragedy –
And, finally, towards the end of the Act:
The theatre is filled and the play is announced. You come with all your friends, eat dinner backstage. You performed well yesterday; you must perform better today.
Within these and other loops, individual lines cleave together to form an ululating, harmonious whole – or, in several satisfying instances, tear away and apart, in moments of bright, lyrical imagination such as this (in words given to Aphrodite in ‘The Iliad’):
Sweetheart, will you weave baskets of nonce taxonomies so that I may have a word for this hot, wet love?
Or, later in the same Act, where Coryphaeus says:
You can find truth, If you really want to. It is tucked into the accordion underbelly of a mushroom.
Your Turn To Speak ends with an almost physical impact – like a trireme hull, run aground upon a beach. A final sequence of seven poems mix the anthropomorphised voice of Odysseus’ homeland of Ithaca, with reference to something that “was unsaid” (again, most likely ‘love’) before the poet herself, in the guise of Sappho has the final say:
Remember, Polyphemus, that even you are blessed to die in your native country. Some of us smear ash across the atlas, our shadows wrung out.
This is the book’s final unmasking. The various ‘actors’ who speak elsewhere in these poems being masks themselves, masks which the poet has donned and discarded with skill and no little bravura.
Such an epigrammatic closure with its echoing, “even you are blessed [. . . ]”, bridges Lady Red Ego’s debut collection and that of Edinburgh-born but now US-based, Jay Gao. Both books also share a reckoning with the classics and an abiding sense of brokenness, of a landscape scattered with fragments and remains.
Gao’s much-garlanded Imperium (Carcanet) derives (in both its literal and situationist/Debordian senses) from Homer’s Odyssey insofar as it is loosely themed around travel and being far from home. Contra some unattributed cover-blurb, however, this isn’t so much a “global poetics of diaspora”, as a ‘poetics of tourism’.
On wide ceremonious deckchairs white as lotuses we complained about the price of iced drinks . . .
The ‘frame’ for this collection is the hotel, resort or tourist bar. Backdrops vary, from Phnom Penh to the Siwa oasis in Egypt. In the foreground is wealth (“newly graduated, upper-middle class children”; “silver humped Ferraris”, and a “platinum Amex card”), indolence and a relaxed attitude to service (“Is it still tradition to tip here”, narrator/Gao worries in ‘Seeing Man (I)’). Imperium’s most tantalising call-back to Homer, isn’t actually to The Odyssey, but to The Iliad which gets a delightful mention in reference to a “Hermes scarf decorated with a scene of nude men fighting . . . ”
The reader may wonder whether some ”minor trickster deity” wasn’t guiding Gao’s hand, when he wrote ‘white as lotuses’ into ‘Seeing Man (II)’, which is set in a North-African resort. Because there is plenty here to remind us of the popular HBO TV series – not least the vicarious pleasures of getting up close and personal with terrible people that you wouldn’t want to spend time with in real-life.
As such, we don’t need that much help (per Fiona Benson’s review on the back cover) from Gao’s “acute and attentive Odysseus” in order to hear “the buried histories of Imperialism” in these poems. While narrator/Gao and co. complain “about the price of iced-drinks”, it’s evident that the ‘Imperium’ of this collection’s title refers to the almighty reach and sway of the tourist dollar. And that being what it is hardly news, not least to Gao’s “hired driver for the day”.
Imperium contains 21 poems over 88 pages, which seems like not many until you discover that ‘Nobody’, at the collection’s centre, is a sequence of twenty short prose-poems, bookended symmetrically by ‘Body Sonnets’; two more longer sequences of three or so lines per page.
These last are sonnets which Gao has “exploded, like Cornelia Parker, into fragmented language ruins, imperial debris, and word rubble”1 and were drafted using an ‘algorithmic poetry scrambling tool’ previously employed by others including Lillian-Yvonne Bertam.
The series of prose-poems that make up ‘Nobody’ (which Gao says began life as an essay)2 give an account of a transactional relationship which, though it has apparently been going on for years, is mostly viewed through the prism of a single-night’s assignation that begins in a bar “adorned with camp colonial fodder” and proceeds via “labyrinthine corridors” up to a hotel room where “the number eight looked like they were the plucked eyes from a hallway bust of a magistrate’s head made to lie down on a pillow sideways.” It ends with narrator/Gao outside where “the monsoon shower [is] as warm and pulsing as blood”, “longing to return to a greater body yet to be judged as the most irresistible in the suspicious minds of the others”.
By dint of its positioning, its literal and figurative centrality, and also the fact that ‘Nobody’ contributes much of Imperium’s actual heft, this sequence needs to do some heavy lifting – a responsibility which it isn’t quite able to shoulder.
Important things are said, in relation to power [im]balances and the leverage that money exerts. It’s in this sequence also that we see Gao at his most exposed and personal, which adds jouissance. But ‘Nobody’s’ impact is lessened by the levity and casual attitude to privilege and wealth in the preceding poems. What comes across are ‘wants’, rather than ‘needs’ and it feels like there’s little really at stake.
On its use of language, while Gao has said he is, “always aiming for a form that is animated, a form that, inspired by Denise Lervatov, might be considered organic3” – in practice, Imperium’s default setting is to plant a kind of solid, bristling/resisting word-hedge on the page.
There’s some of contemporary poetry’s typical type-setting tricksiness and many muscular disjunctions within and between phrases, semantic breaks in meaning and imagery which exercise the mind while leaving the ear largely unmoved. Such as these lines, from the opening ‘Hero Worship’, which force the reader over a series of voiceless alveolar stops, like a scramble over sharp rocks:
No matter how many rooms I gift my heroic molecules, they refuse to fall in line, to deterritorialise. To be honest, I am excited to know what aporias you will be planning soon. I praise our tenantless sun.
Several poems in Imperium use a form Gao calls ‘the stack‘, while others press their text into similarly dense arrangements on the page, which makes the handful that don’t do either of these things worthy of especial interest. In two of these (‘Not Unequal To Many’, and ‘Where There Is Bread There Is My Country’) we find a pair of weighted lines, anchor-points between which the rest of Imperium seems to hang suspended. They are:
What were your wanderings about (‘Not Unequal To Many’),
If I could be granted a homecoming that would cure me (‘Where There Is Bread There Is My Country’).
Here is Imperium’s emotional core, the apparent purposelessness of a life’s journeying through a world populated increasingly by “Ivy-league digital nomads”, and the slippery, ambiguous promise of ‘home’, which feels as though it should grant comfort and certainty but is often as subjective and nebulous a concept as, say, ‘heroism’. In ‘Nobody’s’ twelfth section, Gao underlines this point:
Because, all along, you knew the hero in the world must always return home, no matter the cost; you won’t even realise you are homed until it is right in front of you, but by then it will already be far too late.
All of which echoes Your Turn To Speak, in terms of its intentional, conceptual and psychological distancing from the hyper-masculine potencies of Homer’s ancient myth-songs. For Imperium, The Odyssey is not so much inspiration or source-material, nor is it what it was for Joyce – a map or framework onto which a new work can be built. This is not a “reimagining” of The Odyssey, so much as a worked example, to show how the very little that is left of our ancient cultures must compete for space with all sorts of noisy, globalised commodity-clutter – “exotic dragonfruit salads”, “earbuds like bullets or errant commas”, and “khmer pop [blaring] from tuk-tuks camouflaged in Coca-Cola logos”.
The way Gao has broken Homer’s narrative into negligible pieces, scattering them across the landscape of these poems leaves The Odyssey standing like the remains of a ruined temple, from which stones have been taken over the course of centuries to become the fabric of meaner and more prosaic buildings – as both a monument to the past and a guilty admonishment to the present.
About our contributor
CD BOYLAND [he/him] is a poet, visual poet and editor who lives near Glasgow. His pamphlets are ‘User Stories’; ‘Vessel‘; ‘SMC_‘ (pronounced ‘Seh-mik’) and ‘Ptchdk_‘ (‘Pitchdeck’). In 2023, in collaboration with Julie Laing, he organised ‘off-page’, first in a series of anthology/exhibitions held at Many Studios, in Glasgow. His debut full-length poetry collection (‘Mephistopheles’) will be published by Blue Diode Press in November 2023. Other work has been published in magazines and anthologies such as: 3AM Magazine, Gutter, The Interpreter’s House, The North and New Writing Scotland.