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Guest Review: O'Hanlon on Pollitt

Abigail O'Hanlon reviews
by Katha Pollitt

I am acquainted – if perhaps less well than I ought to be – with Descartes’ mind-body problem of reconciling the seemingly intangible mind with the physical body. Even before Pollitt’s second collection is opened, then, it declares itself to be dealing with heavy subject matter, so the titular poem comes as a refreshing surprise as it becomes apparent it is not quite what you might expect from the title. The problem addressed here is not strictly of the mind and body but, rather, between them:

that my body had to suffer
because I, by which I mean my mind, was saddled
with certain unfortunate high-minded romantic notions
that made me tyrannize and patronize it
like a cruel medieval baron

The idea of youthful anxiety over self-image is not a new one. In fact, it is so well established by now it risks becoming tiresome, but what Pollitt does in this poem, as in this whole collection is to re-illuminate old concepts. The way Pollitt presents her own visions of such ideas is intelligently handled. She applies her own philosophy to themes of identity and the individual, mortality, the passing of time and the basic question of what it is to be.

Pollitt is heavily influenced by figures like Descartes, but also interesting is the inclusion of Eastern thought in her inspiration. In 'A Walk', she reflects on the “melancholy restraint” of the Ancient Chinese poets, even going so far as to quote Xīn Qìjí, “who when old and full of sadness / wrote merely, A cool day, a fine fall.” Several of the poems in this collection feel informed by the lean, esoteric style that is often present in Eastern poetry – in terms of diction, most notable are the minimalistic 'The Heron in the Marsh' or 'IntegerVitae'. The largely unornamented language reflects the simplicity the poems are trying to convey – “that’s how we’d live / if living were enough: / innocent, single-hearted”. These poems also demonstrate Pollitt’s ability to invoke strong images with only as many words as are needed:

At the end of summer
stands white and alone
a question mark

among the green reeds
that glow even as they fail.

In this collection, Pollitt’s work arguably favours free verse rather than rigidly structured traditional forms. Though she appears to be less concerned with it, this is not to say Pollitt dismisses form – take her contemporary sonnet 'Old Sonnets', or 'The Cursed Fig Tree', with its stark meter and almost uniform rhyme scheme. For the most part, Pollitt rarely rhymes, but when she does it is all the more effective.

A short middle segment in this collection titled 'After the Bible' does seem to stick out somewhat: perhaps the poems in this section would have been better interspersed throughout the collection rather than segregated. Despite this, these poems are of no lesser quality than the rest of them. Here, Pollitt re-examines different Biblical characters and personae – not even God is exempt. From this section, 'Moth' stands out as a more playful, fanciful poem, opening with “Come bumble-footed ones, / dust squigglers, furry ripplers”.  Yet it has enough depth to steer it away from whimsy – compare the closing lines: “at one with the burning world / whose one desire is to escape itself”.

Pollitt enjoys combining the lofty abstractions of philosophy with her own more down to earth experiences, and many of these poems are a fusion of both the ethereal and the personal. 'Maya' – the mystic belief that the distinction between consciousness and the material world is an illusion – is an example. Pollitt begins the poem by reminiscing, and the first two stanzas are full of internal half-rhymes that give it an excitable, fanciful feel: “flushed from our dash through the common, stamping our snow- / caked boots like Cossacks”. There is also a curious, swinging rhythm in the beginning of the third stanza: “we flung into our bon- / fire mere phenomena”, sounding cleverly ephemeral.

In the fourth stanza, the poetic speaker comes to the fore:

            It’s all maya – I still say that, Cartesian
            to the end, and yet it comes back differently
            now I believe it, everything is illusion
            and yet is no less everything

Here she brings the reader back to the titular mind-body problem, unafraid to quite clearly show her own stance. The key phrase here is in the latter two lines, central to the poem.

By the final stanza, Pollitt fully shifts into a more reflective, restful tone. She uses deliberate end-line rhyme to provide weight to her final image: “on [...] the train today / from which I watched, beyond my dim reflection, / the silent, bright elms burn themselves away.”

The Mind-Body Problem is a collection that combines Pollitt’s experiences with her own philosophical questions: perhaps she doesn’t go all the way to answering them, but instead leaves such conclusions up to the reader. This book is one that deserves repeated readings – there is a new insight to be gained every time you do.

Abigail O'Hanlon is a young British poet, in her third year of an English and Creative Writing BA degree at Kingston University.

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