Guest Review: Black On Flynn

Linda Black reviews
by Leontia Flynn

Leontia Flynn’s second collection Drives raises the question to what extent a troubled childhood influences creativity. According to Alice Millar such creativity 'somehow permits us to give form to the chaos within'(Pictures of Childhood). Millar rejects Freud’s notions of ‘infantile sexuality’ – his drive theory – and the Oedipal complex (referred to in one of the epigraphs to Drives) for unfairly blaming the child.

What of the parents in all this? ‘Back in his childhood were parental rows/really responsible…’ ('Robert Lowell'). ‘ A finger is pointed’ (‘Samuel Beckett’) mostly at the mother; ‘ It is inconceivable this is not to do with my mother’. In ‘Charles Baudelaire’s Mother’ he writes to her ‘I think the one of us will kill the other’. Bishop’s mother ‘won’t return from the institution’. Is the mother to blame? She certainly can’t, or didn’t, make things better; ‘… unheard and unheeded, are the cries of a blubbery child’. (‘Alfred Hitchcock’).

Flynn takes as her subjects the lives of others – writers, film makers – giving them posthumous voices in a series of sonnets. The poem ‘Elizabeth Bishop’ links themes of travel and the passing of life ( the second epigraph is from Bishop’s ‘Arrival at Santos’):

‘…..the door which she heard slam
slams for her too. She thinks it says her name:
orphan, depressive, drinker, lesbian –

and soon-to-be veteran loser. Losing
in many attractive locations: Maine,
New York, and (scene of her near-death
brush with a cashew) Brazil . . .
lost parents, houses: she’ll lose exceptionally well
lover by lover. She even loses her breath.’

Creative lives lived in the shadow of depression; the drive to repeat childhood trauma. An epigraph to ‘Winter Light’ tells us late in life Bergman was too ‘depressed’ by his films to watch them.

The depiction of people and places is often harsh. New Year does not bring hope as ‘Word reaches us: a friend of a friend is dead/ by her own fair hand.’(‘Poem for New Year’). ‘For the suicide in the Tate Modern’, reflects the poets own sense of mortality:
‘They said your phone rang, that you took the call

then fell, and died. The sympathetic trace
(read ‘morbid instinct’) falters at this part.
After the vaulting over what comes after?

There’s a sense of loss rather than discovery, of inevitability – death, despite being ‘a jerk’ (‘Dorothy Parker’) can’t be outwitted.

How much successful writing comes from happiness? I don’t sense much happiness here. There’s a lot of travelling; a lot of places – Barcelona, Rome, Paris, New York etc – briefly visited, a mood of restlessness and dissatisfaction, a searching for something (seemingly not external). The view is often bleak. In ‘Personality’, looking out ‘…onto the row upon row of grey hills’ the poet comments ‘just at this moment/ there isn’t much in my life I’d miss if it were over.’ You take yourself with you, as the phrase goes. Beausoleil is ‘…less of a town; more of a few roads stacked/on the suicide skid from the cliff to the silent sea…’ ‘The Little Mermaid’ ( ‘the worst tourist attraction, not just in Copenhagen, but maybe anywhere’) ends with, ‘You can not take one more pace. Each step brings pain…’ Later, in ‘Don’t Worry’, we are told ‘ – but don’t worry/ about famine or war, here in our world/of love. Okey dokey?’ Drives is a book that stirs both the emotions and the intellect.

Then there are the many illnesses; the boy who will develop leukemia (‘Dhillon Sees The Ocean: The Odyssey’), Beckett’s ‘ boils, odd facial rashes, phantom pains in the limbs/ nightsweats, insomnia, dreams of suffocation, /palpitations, panic attacks, diarrhoea , aching gums . . .’ ; Lowell’s ‘ill-spirit’. For ‘Marcel Proust’, ‘life is a sickroom/ - a morgue requiring three coats and a muffler’. Christmas comes ‘like cholera’. In contrast are the moving poems about the poet’s own mother and father reaching the ends of their lives, displaying non of the anger reflected in the fore mentioned poems.

Towards the end of the book I found myself thinking; here is a voice acutely aware of the temporality of life, but not a voice of old age – what of the drive to create life? only to turn to the last poem: ‘Poem for an Unborn Child’, not it seems the poet’s own:

‘To ‘avoid any danger of suffocation’
I ‘keep away from children’, men with beards
and weird prescriptions . . .’
On first reading Drives, my impression, my after image, was a somewhat disturbed picture. After close reading it’s still a troubled one, but illuminated by Flynn’s brave and heartfelt exploration of the journey through life,

‘as though (old story)
life and art
for this poet, as minutely clocked

as his dramatic final taxi journey
(as his heart
in his body) when both stopped.’

(‘Robert Lowell’)

Linda Black received the 2004/5 Poetry School Scholarship and won the 2006 New Writing Ventures Award. The beating of wings (Hearing Eye, 2006) was a PBS Pamphlet Choice. She received an Arts Council writers award in 2007. A collection of prose poems, Inventory, was published by Shearsman in 2008.