Monday, 9 November 2015

First thoughts on: Tracey Herd - Not in This World

Do women write the narratives they live in? It was a question which struck me on reading Tracey Herd’s latest collection ‘Not In This World’, released on the 4th November – already a Poetry Book Society Choice. The verses fluctuate in their focus, from childhood to cemeteries, cheating to termination– yet the voice seems to maintain throughout: the subject is female, the experience, human. Open to any reader are raw, vibrant poems which explore ‘everyday’ issues: betrayal, breakdown, loss. Think these aren’t the things of ‘everyday’?  It’s hard to accept, but they are faced by so many – and Herd’s poems will show you differently, and deliver, brilliantly.

"Her ability to dip into the raw of so many experiences"

  The collection was also originally inspired by the life-story of the late Elizabeth Hartman, a 20th century American actress who experienced both success, as well as depression. And here the poems plunge us into a world where everyone is enrolled to be an actress, actor, ‘identity’. This may sound farfetched, but Herd’s series of largely short yet finely-crafted poems call on us to think about what in life is ‘acting’ and what is ‘actuality’.   The difference between who we are and what we become.
The collection opens with ‘What I Wanted’   with the speaker craving for a ‘plump bountiful/landscape’ – a thought process we’d more readily associate with an old farmer, rather than the small female voice of the poem. The voice goes on to allude  to ‘proper winters’ like parents now reflect on things of the past like ‘proper music’ – therefore taking the attitude of age and nostalgia – yet prescribed to the position of a child. This underlines a central theme feature: the expectation, from a young age, that women will take on society’s stories, as well as their own. The feature of expectation, imagination, fantasy - as her allusion to fairy tales explore. Afterall, the second poem ‘What I Remember’ sees this through ‘not the race itself but the evening’, like an attempt to focus on the individual events, despite the great ‘race’ of life we are aware of. That is what is striking about Herd’s collection, her awareness, her ability to dip into the raw of so many experiences. She calls too on the means of film, story narratives and music to deliver an exploration of love and loss within this.

The collection follows on from Herd’s previous poetic successes which include her debut ‘No Hiding Place’ (Bloodaxe, 1996)  which was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, and ‘Dead Redhead’ (BloodAxe, 2001). ‘Not In This World’ has already been shortlisted for the T.S Eliot Prize 2015. It could be seen as testament to Herd’s great skill: she captures the unafraid energy of a growing Scottish poetry scene (she currently studied in and lives in Dundee) yet also draws on symbols which cross cultures. Particularly prominent are ‘mirrors’,  which stand coldly in poems such as in ‘Nobody Home’ with the lines ‘the mirror gave us both away’.  It’s hard not to see this mirror as not just revelation, but relation – like the father ‘giving away’ the girl at a wedding. Thanks to Herd’s accessible style, we can reflect on how we use language and symbolism not only in relation to women, but those around them.

 Reflection is after all a prominent theme in the collection, as we see in poems like ‘At the Captain’s Table’ where ‘the mirror spat/its cruel portrait back in her face’.  Herd’s women face taking on multiple identities – ‘girl’ and ‘sister’ just some of the expected roles – yet are able to turn this ‘spit’ from the mirror into speech:   they themselves can reflect on their own experiences and become symbolic, as well as constructive. As a female reader, this speaks out to me saying that we have the power to reflect on the issues, and importantly, talk about them. It is important to seize this. Thus although the poems can be dark, there is light in the capacity for conversation they create. It’s all the more reason to get reading.

"It is important to seize this"

Yes, ‘Not in This World’ certainly provokes us. This includes shocking us before making us speak. In her exploration of the reflection of identity, Herd uses a number of narratives, often common to the cultural imagination – things that we think of time-over.   These include events as grand as ‘The Imaginary Death of a Star’ (i.e. have you ever looked up at the sky and thought ‘what if one blows up?’) to lines from The Great Gatsby in ‘The Music Men’ and even the occasion of ‘Happy Birthday’.

The variation in the poems illustrates how women are pulled across roles and expected to be culturally symbolic in them, a little like Elizabeth Hartman, a Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee, was herself as an actress.  And of course, the reality is often much different than the ascribed ‘role’. We discomfortingly see this in how the ‘Happy Birthday’ is a mourning of the past rather than a celebration, the passing of an aborted child – a literal ‘birthday’, expressed in a literal, painfully blunt manner. The female speaker considers ‘You were scraped away like unwanted food’ and ‘I didn’t allow you/even one breath’. If this is abortion, the speaker reflects on the routines of life she is expected to do, like clearing away food, and the almost casual proximity to death. This made me think of abortion in British society, and how it is often given as an option in life for women (which I agree with) but often treated as ‘routine’(both in treatment and like any other ‘routine’) in that the actual support women receive after can be shockingly minimal.

The routine and narratives women are expected, or often find themselves falling into and fulfilling (without feeling fulfilled in themselves) can be cruel. Herd hammers this home through what appears to be a repeated motif in the collection – a voice of child-like bewilderment at what is happening. This suggests it is an affront to innocence, and it is the childish tune of ‘He loves me. He loves me not’ which tinkles through ‘The Diner’: the instant recognisability of this showing the humiliating ‘conventions’ facing women which are often seen as desirable and ‘sweet’.  It is this continued exploration of childish, infantile roles which turns desire on its head, with questions in the collection like ‘Dr. when am I most real?’ and the reductive logic of ‘when your heart is on fire/you must be alive’  illustrating female perspectives unsure of their identities.

Women still face a society which can readily place them in a position of child-like uncertainty of who they really are.  Herd expresses this with adult bluntness, as well as through the motif of childhood: again reflecting the theme of fluctuating identity – which Elizabeth Hartman herself most probably experienced.  We see the actress spread across poems: in ‘Vivien and Scarlett’ she is ‘absorbing the part she is born to play’, whilst in another fades to a ‘blind and insignificant player’ and later a ‘failed actress/holding the script.’ These are elements of biography with a painful continuation still through our own lives and society. After all, we may idealistically look at these roles and say something like: no, no, no – women don’t’ face things like that in this world anymore. And that’s why the title of the collection is no important ‘- Not in this world’: the statement we use to brush away injustices which are still happening, as much as we’d like to insist otherwise. Herd draws our attention to these and makes us talk about them.

"In order to experience loss, we have to have had something first"

The pain drawn to the surface by Herd’s powerful collection is productive.  We see women’s identities reflected everywhere – across even the biggest symbols – yet taken away from them. At points it seems women only take their own through loss: like the intense examination of abortion, and also suicide, which is how Elizabeth Hartman died. But in order In order to experience loss, we have to have had something first. Loss is created through possession, and that is the message I gain from Herd’s words. She possesses a power in writing and exploring women’s position, which other people can take up too.

 This is poetry which encourages discussion of identity. Whether male or female, old and young, reflecting on the current treatment we subject people to and the expectations we have of identity, is important. We can realise the power we possess to change, rather than losing it to routine. This is a collection which needs to be read. 

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