‘Contemporary Women's Poetry & Urban Space: Experimental Cities’ by Zoë Skoulding
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
Review by Bethany W. Pope (UK)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 44.
Zoë Skoulding's Contemporary Women's Poetry & Urban Space: Experimental Cities provides an in-depth analysis of the role of 'the city' as it appears in the work of six modern female poets. Focusing on work by Alice Notley, Lisa Samuels, Geraldine Monk, Ágnes Lehóczky, Erin Moure, and Lisa Robertson, Skoulding aimed to, 'explore the city itself as a space of experiment inhabited by, or paralleled in poetic practice.' The analysis Skoulding provides is very good, intellectually sound, engaging and, at times, enlightening, but there are a few structural problems that need to be addressed.
Skoulding knows her stuff, and she is adept at displaying it. Her introduction remains clear even as it zips across time from ancient Greece to post-modern London. She summarized her theories with aplomb, writing, 'If the transformative urban imagination has been predominantly masculine one, my intention here is not to demarcate an alternative feminist Utopia, but to shift attention to the role of the city and its processes of transformation in poetry by woman writers.' Beginning with a section titled 'Alice Notley: Disobedient Cities' Skoulding dives into a detailed dissection of Notley's katabatic underworld sequence The Descent of Alette in which the heroine plunges into an oppressive urban otherworld where she does battle with a misogynistic tyrant whose body is, in fact, the city itself. In order to defeat the tyrant, and birth a better version of the world, Alette must encourage the residents to rise up and dismantle the city. Skoulding writes:
The tyrant is the city, the embodiment of a patriarchal, capitalist perspective; by singularizing this figure Notley draws attention to the means by which global capitalism subsumes multiple perspective within itself. The city can only be perceived as an entity through the tyrant's overview
In order for women to gain a valid place in the world, the world must be remade from scratch.
This desire for deconstruction (as a means of reconstruction) is carried forward in Skoulding's chapter 'Geraldine Monk's Restless Soil'. Here, Skoulding explores the ways in which Monk's work highlights the importance of shifting, fluid borders; in language, performance, and national boundaries:
Monk's poetry invites, and at times demands, a reading that is a form of translation: a reading that assumes a position of otherness, and thereby draws on the capacity of English to accommodate multiplicity as well as to dominate as a global language. Such a reading explores the urban spaces of northern England through linguistic trajectories spanning different periods, locations, and social groups. It simultaneously reveals the differences between languages, and between their social contexts, and the necessity of keeping such divisions permeable.
This chapter, and the themes explored in it, made me think of Kei Miller's wonderful collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, a book in which the accepted norms, philosophies, and cultural structures are examined through an eye of otherness. Through such an eye, the flaws inherent in such structures are inevitably revealed.
In 'Lisa Robertson: Prosody of the Polis' Skoulding takes this revelation even further. She writes:
Robertson reveals the city's multiple rhythms by slicing through them. The interest of 'Disquiet' lies particularly in what it is not: it is a response to a series of photographs but it gives no representation of Eugène Atget's vanished surfaces; rather it places us as listeners within spaces, not the lost spaces of the past, but those of the present. In moving beyond poetry it exposes, like a negative image, what poetry can and cannot do.
It also exposes what societies are, and what they can never be in their current incarnation. It is important to state that this destruction of accepted social structures by people who are considered 'other' is necessary for the health of society as a whole. No human person should ever be viewed as 'other', though the fact that this needs to be stated is incredibly depressing. Hierarchies depend on establishing 'otherness'. Humanity does not. Hierarchies are not necessary to humanity.
I mentioned that there were some structural problems in this book. The first is that Skoulding doesn't cover enough area. Her analysis of the poets she chose is sensitive, intelligent, and thorough, but if she were building a city out of a text she sticks squarely to designing the centre. Instead of a map of London, we have a fragment of the banks of the Thames. In short, I enjoyed what I read but I would have liked to have more text to explore. I would have liked her to have turned her keen magnifying eye onto more authors.
The second major issue, considering the audience (primarily, I imagine, students and the kind of person — usually dedicated poets —who reads poetry textbooks for their own pleasure) is the cost of the book itself. The publisher is selling copies for £55 and if I had just gotten through a review of a book which engaged my interest and I saw that price tag on the website I would be disappointed, if not actively angry. This is not the fault of the author, of course, but the publisher should take note. I know from experience that it is possible to release a hardback book to a general audience for a third of that price. Those readers whose budgets do not quail at the cost will be very satisfied with the product that slides through their mail-slot.