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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Guest Review: Mazer On Pollard

Ben Mazer offers a close reading of
'Invitation to a Vampire'
by Clare Pollard

From the point of view of this Bostonian, (spiritually exiled in his own city! gasp!), The Wolf in London (Editor, James Byrne) has just published something marvellous in Clare Pollard's 'Invitation to a Vampire' (The Wolf, 19). Every line in this poem is delicious, independently and in context carrying the weight of an enormously permeable presence. Just what that presence is, and what it permeates, tows and squeezes emotion through an intensity of impending dread into the heart of desire. The poem leaves nothing in its wake, seemingly swallowing up existence itself with its weird words.

The epigraph from Bram Stoker is worth saving for after. The poem truly begins in mid-flight—

Whirlpools of gulls whip over harbour—
clou ds of yellow eyes—
and the stone sea's fearsome, melted
and roused to terrible passion.


These inseminating 'Whirlpools'—summoning an immediacy of dread worthy of Todd Browning's Dracula film—or my childhood's tattered green Sundial Press copy of Bram Stoker's masterpiece—(never mind the deliciousness of 'pools'/'gulls'/'yellow'/'melted', 'Whirlp'/'whip', 'over harbour', or the masterful whipping violence of the first line, in flight out of darkness)—are auspices of an inclusively spiraling montage of perspectives dragging the ether of being and feeling to the precipice of self-questioning. Hideously murky and multiplicitous alien onlookers—'yellow eyes'—hang in macabre, piercing detachment over the granite-like, and hence death-like, force of a sea that itself is bidden by some alien force to an instability and uncertainty proximate to an unspecified 'fearsome' and 'terrible' eventfulness. The single word 'melted' paints an entire picture not only of forces of nature, such as snows, drawn into vastnesses of metamorphoses, such as seas, but, by insinuation, of entities as concrete as death or nothingness being themselves subject to animating alterations of a disturbing nature.

Pollard's poem is built in a rolling sequence of quatrains. With an increasing rapidity of cutting, a series of unsettling vantages are brought out of isolation into a seeming simultaneity of informing evil.

Adders slip through moors behind.
On the promenade lovers
masticate winkles.
Punch kills the baby.


How deliciously the makers of life devour the living. With what a sleeping punch Pollard's pulling of punches garnishes the accidental with the toxic and killing ironies of the irresponsible. Lemonade provers, maters are adders of mores and matters, I might add.

The roses on the fortuneteller's
tatty hut are leeched,
and I've never bought a reading
for fear she'd shrug
for I am good and pure, a bore,
and in my room, again,
writing this diary, its prim script:


And what is there more to fear than the indifferent judgement of the fortuneteller, the imaginary and self-magnified miniscule guilt of being 'good and pure, a bore'. The diarist seems almost to take pride in the legible strides of [her?] annunciated insignificance. Almost as though trying to ward off evil by whistling, but also as though yearni ng for a visitation of evil to relieve her of her condition. How melodramatic and self-pitying the comma before 'again'; how proudly self-denigrating the self-observance of the diarist's penmanship. Oh, I'm such a bore! Are you listening? Yet, while her attention is focused on her diary, what attention is focused upon her?

The weaving of consonantal sounds—'tatty hut'/'bought', 'for fear'/'for'/'pure'/'bore', 'she'd shrug'/'good', 'pure'/'my room'/'prim'—is prim and good and pure. 'tatty hut' is a delightful phrase, aptly conjuring multiplicities of tellings, of verbal comings and goings, of worn-ings, universal tattlings, divinings. All omens are of the not good.

My engagement ring tightens;
a noose on the gallows.


The poem's ring of engagement tightens: 'yellow eyes' (oh yes!)/'noose' (noo...)/'gallows'. To the diarist this is news. And then a luscious line:

Yet something dark veins me,
as jet veins Whitby's cliffs—


Something there is that will not let wit be. And down a few lines:

I have heard there is a nun
walled up in our sacked abbey—
another legend warning of desire.


Pollard's poem proceeds through pantheistic self-apprehension ('I'm the lighthouse lamp') and Browningian anxiety ('and a prow pierces the beach') to a graveyard with 'through-stones flat as beds' (revivifying and through-veining the Whitby through-stones) and the pointed appearance of 'the white moon like a fingertip/pressed up to glass—/a brute bat's wings are beating at the glass!'

The pounding, insistent rhyme of 'glass' and 'glass'—built on the sound of the preceding 'gallows'—(not to mention the beat of 'brute' and 'bat') constitutes not only a reiterative, self-accusatory confrontation with the world, moving from simile to the extremer identification of sheer naming at the precipice of immersion, with only 'glass' remaining between self and world, between self and self, but, perhaps, the world. It is as if that (voice or intuition...) which is within the narrator-poet-victim-self were the substantive world-word in apprehension, moving into culminative staticity. Oh, the shame! The shaming of the naming! Clare is clear as glass.

Come on then—I invite you in.
Why fight my own thought?
I'd roam this world too.
Penetrate it.


One roams oneself. One penetrates oneself. One is two too. Invites or fights. 'Penetrate it' is double-edged invitation and self-apostrophe. So is 'Why fight my own thought?': these are words for a vampire to hear; vampires beget vampires. Suck their blood and they may live forever. The invitation is to endless repercussions of the self.

Feed on me that I can feed,
for I am sick of being tame.
Evil and freedom
are the same.


'I am sick of being tame' means two things. But T. S. Eliot says there is no freedom in art. Perhaps freedom is not what we think it is. Possibly 'I am sick of being tame' means many things. Or possibly there is only one thing it can mean, if it should mean anything at all. The epigraph is Stoker: 'You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest, but I have more.' Let me say at least that the chief delight of this poem is not in its philosophical content, nor in unauthorized invention, nor should it be, but rather in the human emotions of longing and reflection which it expresses with palpable humour and distinct wit.

I have not quoted Pollard's poem entire. It is obvious that I think it worth looking up. The dawn is coming, and I must go now.

Ben Mazer's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many international periodicals, including Stand, Agenda, Harvard Review, Salt, Jacket, and Verse. He is the author of The Foundations of Poetry Mathematics (Cannibal Books), and other books. He is also the editor of Landis Everson's Everything Preserved: Poems 1955-2005 (Graywolf Press) and Selected Poems of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman (forthcoming from Harvard University Press). He is a contributing editor to Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics.
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