May 17 2023
Poetry Review – THE HOUSE OF THE INTERPRETER: Stuart Henson finds a wonderful web of interconnecting threads in Lisa Kelly’s new collection
Those who enjoyed Lisa Kelly’s A Map Towards Fluency should rush out and order this new book. It’s chock full of her trademark wit and invention—a kind of serious playfulness that disarms and charms. Typically, a Kelly poem is built around an intrigue, some curiosity of language and life that’s at once uncomfortable and unsettlingly familiar. ‘Because’, as she says in “Alternate Reality”, ‘sometimes there are bits of ourselves we just can’t deal with.’
Take, for instance, the opening of “Encounter”. The problem here is nothing to do with the speaker’s self or her qualities and all to do with expectations imposed by another:
I am a centaur at the counter, half human, half horse, selling dog food to the man who thinks he’s human because he chooses to use his voice.
Already that kind of language-tension between ‘centaur’ and ‘counter’ has set something going—something connected with the way words are heard. And then you realise what a wonderful visual image it is, for the person seated at a checkout desk or standing, perhaps, at a counter. Then, ‘half human, half horse’. Innocuous at first, until you get to the fourth line. Then suddenly there are all kinds of questions in the air about what makes us human. The customer thinks he has the attributes of humanity because he uses his voice to communicate. But even more striking is that final assertion that spoken language can be a choice, a choice so often privileged over other languages like BSL. If you’ve read Kelly’s earlier work you’ll be aware that she writes from a D/deaf viewpoint in a number of her poems—a strand that’s continued here.
I am a centaur at the counter, Sagittarius my sun sign, half hearing, half deaf, half speech, half sign, and I encounter this customer.
‘Counter’ (encounter) ‘customer’ and later ‘censor’… It’s a sequence of discomforting near rhymes, and it works well in a poem that holds prejudice up to scrutiny. The customer turns out to be as patronising and offensive as John Agard’s racist in “Half-Caste”. But in this case the victim is unable to confront the perpetrator, unable to counter. The closing image of an angered, injured creature ‘cantering away’ if only she could, ‘bucking, harnessed’, is spot-on in conveying the hurt that’s absorbed in this kind of asymmetric situation.
As in A Map Towards Fluency, there’s quite a lot of focus in the opening section of The House of the Interpreter on learning and signing. It’s a rich source for exploration, for re-defining the ways we look at the world, with lots of scope for the quirky humour that often marks out a Kelly poem. This from “D/diaries: Saturday Morning Lying in Bed, 9th February 2019” in which she muses on the ‘undeafening’ of the wind, the direct gaze of those who ‘have to keep eye-contact, watch lips’ and on a conversation with a friend who is a dancer:
She is expressive. I like watching her sign. She is unsure of the guy who sat next to her. His sign name is Fox – right hand around his nose drawing out into a pointy snout. > I couldn’t pick up his English name, he fingerspelt too fast. Miles, I think. (the quick brown fox…)
Miles too fast. The use of the symbol to represent on the page an action in space. The association of the alphabet pangram… All very Kelly. And as she observes at the end
Dream thoughts are wild and senseless, yet have a pleasing music. I translate quickly, or I forget, and the page is silent.
Is there even a whiff of Ted Hughes’s dream fox in that last clause—or am I just imagining…?
What’s new in this collection is her exploration of the world and workings of fungi. The second section of the book consists of two-dozen poems for which mycology is at least the starting-point. Titles like “Mycelium Lampshade”, “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World” and “Scarlett Caterpillar Club” give you something of the flavour. Fungi lend themselves to lists, jokes, musings, literary reference, environmental philosophy… but whichever way the mycorrhizal network takes her, you always feel there’s something interesting going on. There’s the huge importance of fungi to the natural environment. Did you know that plectasin, found in the ebony cup, offers a rare breakthrough in the battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria? (I didn’t) And fungi are sexy. Did you know Charles Darwin’s daughter destroyed all the specimens of Stinkhorn on their estate to stop them offending her notions of decency? (I didn’t). Shakespeare’s Caliban gets his sixpenn’orth in too. His Dirt Eaters are all victims of oppression and degradation, the people who, like fungi, live at the base level, among the leaf-litter …
…who have clawed their cheeks with index and middle fingers, who know this sign for shit is the truth of shame, who have seen it for a sham, who have been cheated of their land, their culture, who have been taught language, and their profit is they know how to curse.
Kelly’s vision is an earthy, physical one where things grow and fruit with immense energy. The ramifications of the fungal underworld are ideally suited.
Colour is important to Lisa Kelly too. ‘We talk in triangles of colour’. ‘Yellow the flicking of my hair / Red is the ripeness of these lips / Pink is the tap against my nose / Blue is the roped veins on my wrist’ (These from a group based on the acrylics with fabric borders by American artist Faith Ringgold) In the third section of The House of the Interpreter there’s a lovely sequence gathered under the title “Metamorphoses: Colours, Marks and Signs” which brings together several of her preoccupations. “Silver”, in sign language, ‘is a hook of little fingers / flashing into a filigree.’ Each six-line miniature gives us a little burst of colour from the author’s life. This is how “Blue” shades into “Black”:
Boo held on to the blue by her bite as I swung her round. She left teeth marks. Black When Boo disappeared down a deep rabbit hole – the horror of loss until the earth gave birth. After Boo had six pups with black spots, she was no longer mine. She was lost to motherhood.
Each recollection, as you can see, has the brevity and focus we’d associate with haiku. Indeed she may be using a Japanese form I’m not familiar with, since Kelly is adept at using and adapting forms throughout. There’s a couple of abecedarians, a coupling—the form invented by Karen McCarthy Woolf—a golden shovel, a pantoum, a sestina, at least two sonnets, a bit of terza rima, a mirror poem, a Spore Poem made up from tweets, and a poem incorporating a haiku written by an internet ‘poem generator’ that comments wittily on the scope and function of artificial intelligence.
So this is an observant, alert book: one that forages among the arts as well as sciences. Isaac Levitan’s vase of Dandelions forms a natural part of the author’s pre-sleep meditation on family and European history, folk-names and flowers and blue and yellow. Michelangelo is caught learning BSL linguistics with flashcards on a treadmill. Goya puts in an appearance, painting his terrible Saturn on the wall at Quinta del Sordo. (‘He has a choice of four blacks: bone black / lamp black, ivory black and red black.’) It’s also a determinedly political book in its refusal to let pass the inequalities that diminish our society. Kelly’s anger is equally fierce when it’s put to use on behalf of a whole group—as in “#WhereIsTheInterpreter” which berates the Government for its failure to provide signing interpreters for the Prime Minister’s Covid addresses—or when she speaks up for the mistreated individual. In the case of “Blackbird and Beethoven” it’s occasioned by an appalling accusation of fakery aimed at the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. (Like the conductor who made the remark, she’s not named, but I don’t think it can be anyone else.) The fusion of images that link the musicality of Glennie, Beethoven and the blackbird—the addressee of the poem—is a tour de force:
Blackbird, you came before and after Beethoven, your shaped phrases and motifs recorded in his pocket notebook. You sing the opening to the rondo of his violin concerto. I see him, blackbird, as his housekeeper saw him – pencil in mouth, a yellow beak, touching the other end to the soundboard of a piano to feel the vibration of your song, Blackbird, as he hits the notes harder, as the piano starts to fall apart, will the fake musicians turn round?
In The House of the Interpreter there’s a whole web of interconnecting threads. If deafness is a creative link that continues to run through Kelly’s work, then the underground networking of the mycelium offers similar riches. It may well be an obsession that will persist and push up fruits beyond the one book. By coincidence, I’ve also just been reading Crow Country, Mark Crocker’s lyrical account of his obsessive study of corvids and their roosting habits. At the end, he struggles to explain the drive to absorb oneself in the processes of the natural world. He uses the term biophilia, borrowed from the American naturalist Edward O. Wilson. ‘At its fullest,’ he says, ‘studying the life of another living creature is a way of engaging all your faculties… of being intensely alive and recognising that you are so.’ That’s exactly what poets like Lisa Kelly are about.