The Girls on the Wall, Diana Bridge
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Janet Charman
reviewed by Cath Keneally. Originally published in Landfall 198
(Autumn 1999). 313-17.
Bakhtin on 'outsiderness' is invoked by Diana Bridge as a way in to her collection of poems,
The Girls on the Wall. A Note elaborates the condition of 'appendage' the
author endured in the places that engendered most of them - a galling state compensated somewhat by 'an extraordinarily rich cultural life'. Bridge describes a cycle of 'love, disillusion and growth' in her
response to Indian art, and it is this she anatomises in the first section of her book.
The verses are abbreviated, the stanzas short; they enjoin a meditative reading, slow you down to Zen-time. Bridge attempts the difficult feat of becoming one of the subjects, mostly carved female figures in Indian friezes, while maintaining a respectful dialogue with 'a history of delicate erasure.' This project provides the underpinning for a series of elegantly restrained poems grouped under the headings 'The Girls
on the Wall', 'Unbidden Images' and 'Closing the Border', the subject matter moving eventually close to 'a double trajectory of loss' in her own story.
There is a sure-footedness about Bridge's traversing of such fraught cultural territory, a lightness of touch. As you read, a procession of fragile images accumulates gravity: 'She, small scale,/ .../ furled into his side'; 'I have once touched your face,/ while leaning up against your knee./ Just to see what it was like'; 'And what is he doing?/ Placing the tips of his limbs/ into compliant recesses.' In response to stone figures forever playing out unchanging
legendary narratives, Bridge teases out what an ur-princess in a poem called 'Consequences' identifies as 'the uncertainty (that) is al the stories / of the world'. (Her prince, waiting at the foot of her tower wall, sits safely; he merely
remarks, 'she will slide down her hair.')
Lest I seem to be making her sound preachy, didactic is the last accusation you could level at Bridge. There's no argument from cause to effect, no naked ratiocination of any kind. The uncomplaining or, indeed, blissful women she considers are not twisted into twentieth-century attitudes: 'A Book of Screens' shows a woman 'behind a palm', pouring tea, holding a book of screens and portcullises, 'an architecture of exclusion', sure enough. 'Someone outside the pale', she writes, 'could take a file/ and scrape the painted/ eyes off screens', but Bridge won't charge in with Western certainties to do the honours.
Bridge's poems build up an accretion of images and rhythms and phrasing that seem to be modelled on at least a version of 'oriental' writing: spare, telling arrangements that make the most of the least possible. Her introductory Note mentions her journey into the world of Indian writing in English, and the attempt to construct her own
responses. Sometimes this sounds rather Omar Khayyan - 'oh my beloved, your face wears the burden of desire' - legitimate enough but a teeny bit kitsch, but mostly it sounds right.
The experience of reading these poems in sequence is a sort of thousand-and-one-nights deferral of closure, punctuated by phrases with the predestined ring of legendary tales: 'Shadow of a bird across her door/ telling them it is time'; 'She is waiting for you/ at the bottom of the well'; 'They meet in the shadow line/ below the glass'. The precision of
judgment behind Bridge's weighing and weighting of each stanza reveals itself on a second and third reading: only one or two moments to be caught in each poem, only a couple of phrases to do it in.
The second and third sections of the book enunciate some of the unspoken themes of the first. 'The Pattern' shows Bridge's virtues to great effect: a meditation occasioned by a gift-weaving, modestly neutral of hue, sitting 'like a Chinese grandmother', with 'tiny crumpled feet', over a chair. The poet meditates on its pattern, 'beguiled by the spaces', 'caught on the interlocking', enchanted by the predictability 'of this/ and each tradition', while aware that arguments 'as large as plates slip/ through a row of holes'. Her closing question manages to be mostly but not entirely rhetorical: 'Window or grille?', a neat trick of standing between, position indicated by characterising the 'chadar or [...] jali' as defence against 'the way a man/ will shout in your face'. Similarly, a poem for Yang Huifei, a
strangled concubine of an eighth-century Chinese emperor, makes a Western point in Eastern fashion, juxtaposing two vignettes, the 'bird carcass' of the murdered girl ('Writing wells out, / blood between the thighs'), the shabby poet who writes her story for posterity, 'distant similes' stacked 'by the wine jar'.
Bridge's poems are quiet, with a sort of stored heat. Later poems in the collection maintain the spareness of the earlier ones, private loss encapsulated in the same vocabulary as musings on global dispossessions. 'Chrysanthemum' observes sunlight cutting off the flower's petals, 'less of a mystery than/ you .../ bisected by the string under your shirt', and concludes with a seamless incorporation of a phrase from the Rig Veda: 'All this was water/ in the beginning'.
Seamless borrowings in a convincingly personal idiom is Bridge's achievement. Some of the last poems in this collection don't decode easily, but they're about rupture and disconnection, so her always-potent metaphors seem to transfer to what you want them to be about. 'The marks crawl like snails/ up from the nail beds/ ... They are the first half-year's stigmata, miracle-free.'
There is a scholarly respect for ancient wisdoms behind this book with a willingness to identify ever-repeated mistakes What could have been a gushy travelogue becomes a collection of beautiful specimens, admired but nonetheless pinned with the entomologist's ruthlessness under glass. While the poet uses the riddles and honeyed diction of venerable tradition, she wants us to judge.
While Rapunzel, or someone very like her, gets to speak on behalf of princesses in Diana Bridge's poem 'Consequences', Janet Charman uses the tower-deserting maiden to name her fourth collection of poems. Or rather, she uses the repeated call
of the prince, 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel', to which we all know the ending: 'Let down your hair'.
Charman's epigraph for the collection is a proverb about the advisability of picking up any man you might find, rather than 'letting him lie', which brings bad luck.
The Rapunzel in the poems of the first section of Charman's book has slid down the tresses and got herself well and truly locked into domesticity; twenty of so poems deal with her situation as a wife and mother, allowing grandmothers and mothers-in-law and husbands their say as well. Charman's muse is a more profane one that Bridge's, but her preoccupations are not dissimilar.
The poems' titles tell the story of a Rapunzel marooned in a suburbia, the fairytale conceit adding part-ironic, part poignant resonance. 'Winding up here' tells, in typical Charman fashion, no more than it has to of a tale, tetchy couplets full of prickly charm: 'you don't impress me with/ your plant and pool and /holy rolling black sand beach', declares the unwilling houseguest (daughter-in-law?), casting a long backward glance - 'where was i from?', that self-minimising lower-case first person touchingly childlike in context. And then come a pile of those dislocated images she does that always catch in my throat... 'lines/ undone Dad/ home late on the Unit/ eat without/ his plate trapped weeping over the hot pot' ... 'long hair dried slowly there'.
The sequencing of the poems in the Rapunzel section matters. The third one, after 'her fresh start' and 'winding up here', is 'BP/ "the quick stop!"', extended double-entendres under garish fluoro light, the girl from the forecourt pregnant, 'she "non" in a french/ window .../ .../ the con rod/ the valve it opens/ .../ she's been/ piston'. Charman sets her face against any hint of sentimentality in this fragmented telling of part one of the old, old story; in this poem, half-spoken, half-overheard half-thoughts, demotic, unsympathetic, refuse to be maudlin, the girl's gone ('but she was hardly showing'), 'fired all green'. It's a nudge, nudge, elbow-in-the-ribs poem that's also a sly punch in the guts.
'Rapunzel's mothers' follows the 'quick stop' poem: a lower-case cascade of bile over a 'green daughter/ in law'; then 'Rapunzel widowed', preparing food for the visit of 'the sort of daughter/ has had enough on the plane'. I love Charman's controlled out-of-control tumbling verses, half-phrases bitten off like a gasp
where the living wall breaks down
kitchen sitting bed
stomach heart head
The Rapunzel motif has unlocked something: a domesticity, overlooked old women, deserted young women, the prince a Hamlet in his lunch hour, wanting out of a
'solitary enraptured/ suitable life'. But lest the conceit become strained, many of the poems in the Rapunzel section don't refer to the stranded princess, while those that do vary from straight irony to pathos. 'Rapunzel gets/ her separation' casts around with heartbreaking eclecticism from Freud through folktale for answers, 'fort/ da/ .../ now you'll spin/ alone', but derives its knockout effect from what Charman does best, bare-bones pictures strung together in emotionally-logical sequence: 'men tangle/ untangle lines/ making their way/ to the water/ beach braille/ night feeding gulls/ and rowing women', sustained in brief lines reducing almost to anguished silence: 'pigeon/ flap/ fall/ a light'. And finally, 'happily ever after' is fierce, furious in your face, political: Rapunzel stranded again, very much in the world, with a child to look after: 'my job is sick/ shall i give up my child/ .../ give child my job/ i shall sick up'.
Invoking fairytales is a resilient feminist ploy which, like any too much used, can become dull. These poems hone in sharp again, they're pointed and venomous, cautionary, sad, brave, funny. Watch-out-girlie-you-know-what-they're-like revisited with ghoulish relish. The Medicine Woman of 'Cimarron Strip' details her ministrations to the wounded hero, rewarded with 'the bag and matching shoes/ to wear into the break/ as he rode off'. Folktales are also, as we know, about bears and wolves and dangerous forests, and defensive irony is
insufficient protection against them, you need spells: 'if/ i find the window lock loose he'll be home/ late/ if/ i find the window lock shut he'll be home/ not/ ringing to see/ if a name like his/ is on their lists'.
The hopping from one register to another is effortless; Charman is at home with, revels in the riptide of conflicting psychic currents, doesn't try to reconcile them. Don't be fooled, though, this is a highly controlled writing, the flow held together by surface tension of alarming strength.
If the first section is the story of a marriage, the second, 'economy class', is an extended fancy-free fantasy - dalliance with 'the plane man', a woman unmoved, in the driver's seat, the poem cast as versions of a dream within the frame of a waitress's small larceny. The remaining sections of the book are 'the gift cup', 'Mrs Harry Kember remember' and 'cheery whistling/ hearing voices'. Charman has a gift for inhabiting fictional/ other consciousnesses: old Mrs Harry, the girl whose voice speaks 'celibacy', a short bravura piece ('"that footballer is out/ can't give you his room number"/ what a
relief/ i can go with yous instead'), many more.
In the final sections, many of the poems are cryptic, but never annoyingly so. You
read them over, the way you repeat a coded sequence of numbers to yourself till the pattern dawns on you. Her field is always the domestic, that is to say, the world. Her scope is dazzling. She writes from a liberated intelligence that wanders free-range over the territory of knowledge. Her voice is one of the most compelling I know.