Felix Cassiel on

Liberties
Victoria Bean
Smokestack, 2017
106 pages

Bean cover

A German poet, of appreciable wit, in the wake of the death of the Romantics wrote:

‘We write for or against something, for or against an idea, for or against a party; but women always write for or against one particular man, or, to express it more correctly, on account of one particular man.’

While we can readily imagine the smirk emerging on Heine’s lips, we can also - using that commercial awareness typical of all children of modernity - appreciate the utility inherent in writing in the shadow of a determinate, recognisable foe. Heine, in the manner of the lyric poet, drew on a panoply of rarefied energies in the making of his verse; in his prose he would afford himself some playfulness.

Today, however, the task of the poet is different; having undergone the trauma bequeathed us by the intrigues of the past century and a half, our emotional stomach has shrunk, and our ability to discern the imperceptible has been, if our art is anything to go by, somewhat economised.

But with new limitations come new opportunities; by channeling energies, artistic and vitriolic, toward ‘one particular man’, we maximise the potential for a lethal penetration. When one is bedevilled, it pays to know said devil.

Victoria Bean, it seems, is one who knows her devil; and while she does not name him outright, the first poem, ‘Waltz’, makes clear the calibre of the antagonist with which we are dealing:

Hangover heavy
he sags into the chair

snarls answers to
questions they
haven’t yet asked:

yes, no yes,
yes no

yes, no and
no comment

quite possibly
and
quite possibly
not.

Like many pieces in Liberties, ‘Waltz’ is a portrait of omission: Bean paints the holes, and around them we trace the facade.

Unsurprisingly, the primary theme of the book is power; the question posed is not who has power, or who hasn’t, but rather: in these conditions, how does power manifest?

The parade of characters we meet herein share a common trait: desolation; of this state they seem partially cognisant, like a dark spot in their periphery vision, yet at the extent of their powerlessness they could not guess; nor are they likely to diagnose it as such.

‘The most merciful thing in the world,’ said H.P. Lovecraft, ‘is the inability of the mind to correlate all its contents’. And while this inability appears to be crucial to the survival and propagation of the species, Bean posits the supposition that this mercifulness has perhaps gone too far.

In ‘Blue Love’, we encounter

The man who’s done twenty years has a
blur of blue love
on his knuckles and wants to go straight and talks and talks and falters
only when he recalls
his girlfriend going with his two best friends;
he catches his breath blinks back familiar tears and tries to banish the dissolute image
we can all picture now.

His salt water story falls
a sad slow rain
but he won’t accept a tissue.

And in ‘Untitled’, as in ‘Waltz’, we are positioned at the opposite end of the room to one who has power, and is enjoying the attention it affords him:

He writes no comment
in the air with his finger
pokes and punctuates
each invisible syllable
to hold their questions at bay
for as long as he can.

The only individuals who have acquired a sense of power, fleeting as it may be, have done so at the expense of another. In this light, we see the vampiric ecosystem of humanity uncloaked. But we should not be quick to view Bean as a misanthrope.

Pity, hatred and fear make up her palette; the characters that come to life before us are victims - the corruption is bone-deep, yet in spite of the evidence there abides a belief that things should be different. In works like ‘There’s a war on somewhere’, Bean displays a high tolerance for pity, pity so acute it becomes unbearable for the reader:

He punch punishes the soldier he once was
left hooks his left cheek
splits an already fine line
from a shaving nick this morning
jabs a finger at his temple:
I’m not thick you know
but the shadows of his old sergeant
father, teacher still tell him that he is.

The work is not all-encompassing; those who read poetry for aesthetic fulfilment will come away feeling undernourished - the focus of the material is monomaniacal; to achieve its desired singularity of effect, some sacrifices have had to be made.

Bean is a skilful deconstructor, and in her attempt to extract the cause of the condition she is occasionally ardent, and very often conscientious, yet it is more often than not that dismay constitutes the sum of her exploration; routinely, she finds little more than the gristle and rust of the human machine. For example, in ‘Not another night’, we are regaled by a desperado as

He describes the space in his cell;
arms outstretched –
a fisherman recalling a catch.

Says he’ll hit his head on the wall
to get himself anywhere
but here again tonight.

Shows off knuckles where a ladder of
rough stitches recount another time
his hand split apart in protest.

A young woman walks by, his leg
drives and up and down as she passes,
stops when she leaves.

He goes back
to dreading
tonight.

As the collection unfolds our antagonist moves from form to form; it is the constable, the sergeant, the emergency services telephone operator; it is a half-forgotten memory, a peculiar tone of voice; it is omniscient, a thwarter of hopes, an enabler of unfulfillable desire. And the more Bean seeks its essence, the further away it moves - this creature, which seemed to exist so overtly and specifically in the organisations of the powerful, becomes, in the reader’s consciousness, a chemical fact - a thing present in the transforming and decaying cells of diseased humanity.

Bean returns time and again to the motif of speechlessness; the characters are terminally unable to communicate; their emotions, having no outlet, fester, and go unreviewed; their situation, having no spokesperson, is incomprehensible to their peers. They are, in the truest sense of the word, invalid; and while their impassioned lament may strike an occasional note of sympathy, resulting in a microwaveable dinner, for example, as in ‘Empty cells’, they remain, through the non-transmissibility of their condition, self-contained, self-isolated, and ruled by a self-perpetuating despair.

‘Bad world for poor people,’ said the similarly invalid Stevie, in Conrad’s The Secret Agent; and in Liberties, we hear the extended echo of what Conrad termed ‘the lament of poor humanity rich in suffering but indigent in words’.

The fate of the speechless is to be ignored. Under these conditions, violence is a natural effect. Bean presents this on a miniature scale in ‘Bone China shadows’:

Sweep the teacups from the table
give the painted birdies flight –
only hearts can break
these china platters.

That’s a thousand pounds
he says and
I’m calling the police.

Shards hurt less
than lack of
interest.

Following violence comes resignation, and several of our poet’s creations are resigned to, and stupefied by, their powerlessness - of this, ‘He has nothing’ is a quintessential example:

In spite of
his young years alone
he smiles

in spite of
his mum’s addiction
he’s warm

in spite of
a fingerprint found
he laughs

in spite of
everything we know –
he has

nothing
to worry
about.

So what of the remedy? In the course of Bean’s explorative surgery our adversary has grown less distinct. Does it have a determinate origin, and a singular manifestation?

‘Power is everywhere’, said Foucault, and ‘comes from everywhere’; the problem, perhaps, is not that a particular subset of power (socioeconomic) is monopolised by a few to the detriment of the many, rather that knowledge of power - personal power, how to get it and how to keep it - is so scarce, and is, in fact, not even an object of contemplation for those constituting the poet’s universe - the ‘frightened and furious’ mother, the petty criminal who ‘can’t even pass the time reading.’

Bean herself seems to exercise her power to the utmost within the limitations of her verse; in these studiously-crafted miniatures, which exist for us almost as windows in a rotting corpse, she represents with restrained avidity an empathy that has been tested and tried, sometimes violently, but which still refuses to avert its hardened gaze.

The result is not an empowering experience for the reader, who vacillates automatically from a feeling of gratitude to one of hopelessness; yet in closing the book we do so with a sense of having enjoyed a privileged glimpse; Bean allows us a peek at the viscera, and, in our role of voyeur, we speculate on the repugnant mysteries contained in its bloody folds.

To whom or what the viscera belongs is left an open question; it is with unease that we suspect the worst.

Felix Cassiel © 2020