Poetry review – THE OSCILLATIONS: Although Kate Fox’s collection arises from the Covid crisis, D A Prince believes its sensitive treatment of isolation, frailty and grief will remain relevant when specific memories of 2020 have faded
This collection marks a change in Kate Fox’s poetry. On her website she describes herself as a stand-up poet and broadcaster, with a comedy series on Radio 4 and three previous collections. Her performances are memorable. A line from her Yorkshire-accented poem about the end of the world has stayed with me since I first heard her perform it — ‘Call this an Apocalypse? I felt nowt.’— and it feels appropriate that her PhD from Leeds University is in solo stand-up performance, class, gender and Northernness. It cheers me to see academic recognition for what is, on the surface, entertainment rooted in its own soil.
With The Oscillations, however, she has moved away from work that is primarily for performance and into a quieter, more reflective space of self-examination. The collection is divided into two sections, ‘After’ and ‘Before’, with ‘After’ centred on the effects of the pandemic in her own life. March 2020 is a turning point (as it was for everyone) and the fifteen poems in this opening section explore how isolation, combined with recovery from covid and the uncertainty of its long-term effects, have allowed her to explore how best to give words to her feelings. What struck me is that while these poems are written from inside the pandemic she has avoided over-using vocabulary which ties them too specifically to coronavirus. No ’lockdown’, no ‘Covid’; only passing references to hand sanitiser. Instead we have isolation, separation, a lack of touch; all aspects of ‘distance’.The result is a set of poems that are about the too-familiar constraints on daily life but also with a wider reference; in ten years’ time these poems will still be as relevant because isolation, physical frailty and grief will still be part of human experience.
The theme that links both sections, however, is distance. The pandemic has schooled everyone in the necessity of ‘social distancing’ but for Fox this was already a hidden part of her life. Before March 2020 she was already working on a set of poems about neurodiversity and how those with some degree of autism are separated and isolated from the world around them. Standing two metres apart is how, metaphorically, she has handled relationships all her life, even when she seemed at her most connected, in front of an audience. In ‘The Distance 1’ she writes—
I was always clumsy and elliptical, unsure of the correct orbits how close was too close, how far too far.
Doubts about physical distance are matched by an uncertainty about emotional connection, and the rules that other people seem to understand with no difficulty. Within the family she was ‘the Black Sheep, the Scapegoat/ too clever for her own good’ (from ‘Floor’). Her mother’s lack of understanding was key to her troubled childhood—
My Mother was not patient about how clear I needed instructions to be, how much longer than for other people it takes me to learn by seeing, or building up muscle memory.
That’s from ‘Skimming’, a poem about how far she and her partner walked while recovering from long covid. This is a poem that measures physical distance and also how differently two people can perceive the same landscape—
How much movement there is and sound, I said, how quiet it is and still you replied.
Poems like these are built cautiously, as though words are building blocks which can be toppled at any moment; it’s a way of showing how carefully a neurodiverse person has always moved in the navigation of social relationships. When the person is also a performer, it becomes complicated by the distance between the stage and the audience, as well as between the created-self of the performer and the ‘real’ self hiding within. This is explored in ‘The Stage’ —
…people who flicker like early holograms who don’t know who they are from one minute or month to the next and say things like “I don’t always agree with myself!”
As Fox notes elsewhere, they wear the equivalent of masks, something now made real in everyday life.
As well as geographical distance there is also historical distance. In the opening poem, ’Pharmacopoeia’, Fox takes the reader away from England in 2020—
And suddenly the plagues are the most interesting part of a city’s history.
She’s widening the viewpoint—other places, other times; what is personal is also part of a bigger picture. Here she takes us to Amsterdam, 1635, where Doctor Tulp (best known through Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp) is publishing his Pharmacopoeia ‘to counter all the bad plague literature.’ It’s a reminder that the world has survived previous plagues, and fake information. The personal element is lightly sketched—‘I imagine a hotel bed,/ two plane seats,/ empty, waiting.’—but with no sentimentality.
The new relationship developing within these poems is introduced with the same delicacy; ‘The Distance 2’ shows the spaces crossed to make connections between Fox and his ex-wife, and how the pandemic has introduced new and acutely-observed protocols. ‘I ask how she is,/ with the new sincerity of these times.’ and, in a snapshot of friendship,’She hands me a sourdough starter in a Stork box/ through the fence/ careful our fingers do not meet’.
The spare accessibility of the language, the attention to the rhythms of natural speech— particularly the hesitancies of uncertainty—as well as the inclusion of familiar references all work to support the sense of how fragile the individual self is. The discipline of performance poetry means that Fox is alert to the patterning of emotions as well as to the role of wit to hold the reader’s attention.
Although the collection is organised in two sections, and the rules of publishing dictate that one poem follows another tidily in the order set out on the Contents page, I’ve been surprised how close ‘After’ and ‘Before’ are in tone and subject. I decided against treating the sections as separate entities because in both Fox shows the multiple fissures that have always affected her life, both through work and in private. The experience of distancing that covid has brought to all of us brings a new level of understanding. Some good has come out of the past twelve months, including this heart-felt and revealing collection.