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Guest Review: Atkin on Pollard

Polly Atkin reviews
by Clare Pollard

 And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I'm feard it be mysel.
 ‘Tam Lin’

A changeling: a faery child exchanged for a human one – a cuckoo child left to be reared by unsuspecting human parents. This exchange is almost always about survival. Sometimes, but rarely, the term refers to the human counterpart, scurried away to grow up in Faery. Lives are lost, or only forgotten. A changeling is often unaware of its otherworldly nature.

‘Changeling’ as a term only appears once in Pollard’s collection, but it is an idea – of difference, of dislocation – that weaves through the whole. In London, the poet is party to the make-believe described in ‘Adventurers in Capitalism’, whose speaker ‘bought a house, but it’s like playing house’, and whose ‘wardrobe’s a Fancy Dress box’. She is dislocated from a childhood of flower-pressing and tree-language, as in ‘The Language of Flowers’:
            Once I pressed flowers, so learnt their names …
            but then the siren song of cities cooed from my TV’.
The flower-names have been replaced by ‘too many’ words for shoe, and bourgeois middle-class London things: ‘Selfridges, mojitos, latte, weed’. Without the words she has forgotten, she ‘can’t think clearly’.

‘Skulls of Dalston’ seems to suggest that living in Dalston – ‘white, pushed here by price’ –  she is alien, endangered by her obvious difference to the hooded youths who are her neighbours:
            And he’s watching for the Love of money crew
            the DNA boys, the Murder Dem Pussies,
            and I’m looking at the Arcola theatre, up-
            and-coming shows, acting out a play in my head:
            rape – the spurt of blood – stairwells –
            I am rehearsing a play called Hell.
Both survive by keeping their head down, trying to disguise their obvious allegiances. The poem, however, does not seem to get beyond the obvious, effecting a litany of street detritus which seems to be trying too hard to be ‘edgy’. This hints at remnants of the ladette culture of some of Pollard’s earlier work, which appear in poems such as ‘Thirtieth’.  Although these poems have their place, I’m not sure its in this collection.

The changeling Pollard is no more at home in her old places than she is in London, as ‘Waiting for the Kettle to Boil, Lancashire’ deftly shows. Here, the speaker is ‘no longer afeart’ of her strangeness in her old home, where she was ‘the changeling daughter/you never understood’. The poems opens ‘Now I’m free of you I’m free to love you’, describing perfectly a common reaction to the home left behind. She has chosen to go where she thinks she belongs, but as the speaker of ‘The Lure’ relates, is now finding her ‘glittering’ dreamland ‘a blasted, withered place’. Neither one thing nor another, the changeling is at home nowhere.

This book is an experiment in rewriting, and reinvention. Traditional-style ballads such as ‘The Lure’ sit alongside more obvious re-imaginings of tales from myths old and new, local and international, and the confessional, contemporary poems Pollard has become known for. Guinevere, Cassandra, Circe, Queen Mab, The Pendle Witches, The Hodden Horse, The Mermaid of Zennor, a host of saints, The Beast of Bodmin Moor, Tam Lin and the Erl Queen make appearances. So, however, do those gangs of Dalston, The Book of Mormon, CCTV cameras, Youtube and Pollard’s ‘lucky and disgusting’ city friends, ‘still partying on a Sunday afternoon’.

Where this juxtaposition works, it works brilliantly, producing such evocative doubles of the familiar works as to partly anihillate them. This can be seen in ‘The Two Ravens’ (more commonly known in the form of ‘The Twa Corbies’), which Pollard repositions in the context of the recent Iraq War, cleverly playing with histories of conflict and rewriting implicit in the popular ballad. Pollard has called these re-imaginings of folktales ‘new versions’, deliberately placing them within a culture of malleable narrative.

A great deal of our best-loved poems rely on exactly this – making something new out of something familiar. In Changeling Pollard is drawing not only on a rich heritage of myth, legend and folklore, but on a long literary heritage of readdressing these in poetry. Just think of Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, which draws on the same sources as Pollard’s ‘Tam Lin’s Wife’, a poem that also calls up in its title and approach Carol Ann Duffy’s well-read collection The World’s Wife (Picador, 1999).
Similarly, the atmospheric ‘Whitby’, might otherwise have been called ‘Mrs Harker’ perhaps, or ‘Mrs Dracula’. These female-perspective poems continue a theme set up in Pollard’s earlier poetry, particularly those poems Bedtime (Bloodaxe, 2002) which
re-imagine Mrs De Sade and Eva Braun.

Barely a student gets through school now without studying Duffy’s poetry, or Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which are A Level texts. Which begs the question, what is new about Pollard’s new versions?

Pollard has said that for her ‘Tam Lin’s Wife’ describes marriage – and in this – and as it is conveyed in the poem’s last line – ‘love has no conditions. None’ – she does indeed make her own version. In the ballad, Janet has to hold onto Tam exactly because they are not married – if anything, he is more legally wed to the Faery Queen. Janet holding on to him as he changes – when ‘all those things I prize in you/your beauty, kindness laugh, –/are stripped off one by one’ – is a physical contract to override the earlier one. In her version, Pollard makes this timeless story into a narrative about her current concerns, which could be said of the whole collection, whether those concerns be marriage, consumerism, or terrorism.

Pollard uses the framework of myth to comment on contemporary politics: Cassandra predicts Climate Change, ‘The Cruel Father’ uses a classic trope to comment on honour killing. Poems less obviously contemporary, such as Pollard’s version of ‘Reynardine’, still have a politicized message. ‘Reynardine’ is one of many narratives from around the world that follow the model most familiar to the majority of readers through the tale of Bluebeard, or ‘Captain Murderer’ as Dickens’ knew him. ‘Reynardine’ falls into a subgroup of these tales in which the male protagonist has fox-like characteristics, associating it  with ‘Mr.Fox’ (or ‘The White Road’) quoted as an ‘old tale’ by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, and most recently reimagined in Helen Oyeyemi’s synonymous novel (Picador, 2011). Although Pollard’s narrative is set in a a-temporal fairytale world of ‘cloudberries’, ‘disappointing market lads’, ‘dark castle[s]’ and ‘fens’, set as it is alongside her contemporary poems, this too becomes a moral about the dangers of capitalism, and consumerist culture. The narrator will wander forevermore in search of Reynardine because within his castle he has ‘everything you want.’ It is desire, not men, who pose the danger.

Pollard has been compared to Anne Sexton for her confessional style.  There are clear echoes here of Anne Sexton’s 1971 collection Transformations, based on Grimm’s tales, which marked a departure for Sexton from more introspective work, as Changeling does for Pollard. Just as Wordsworth and Coleridge drew on a culture of popular ballads to create the radical poetry of Lyrical Ballads back in 1799, Pollard seems to be aiming at a radical shift in this, her fourth collection.

Whether she achieves this or not may lie only in the individual reader’s reaction.
Nevertheless, these poems have something to say, and say it evocatively, and sometimes quite beautifully. Changeling’s strengths lie in the poems which draw on myth but also investigate Pollard’s own life and concerns – hybrid creatures grown out of her earlier confessional poetry, and her newfound interest in folklore, such as ‘Caravan’, the closing poem – an unsettling love poem in which hooded hawks brood comfortably alongside the ever-present TV and ‘broken washing machine’. Its weaknesses lie in the same hybridity: like a changeling, this collection does not quite know what it is.

Polly Atkin lives in Cumbria and teaches at Lancaster University. Her pamphlet ‘bone song’ (Aussteiger, 2008) was shortlisted for the 2009 Michael Marks Pamphlet Award. 
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