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“The mirrors are tired of our faces”: Changing the Subject in the Poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson

[ . . . ] the last poem, “Sonnet” is the love poem I have tried throughout to write straight and have been held back from by these technical and sociological difficulties. For, as to theme, this book is the chart of three quests. The quest for a style already discussed, the quest for a subject other than the difficulty of writing, and the quest for another human being. Indeed such equation of love with knowledge and the idea of style as their reconciliation is as old as art itself, for the other person is the personification of the other, the unknown, the external world and all one’s craft is necessary to catch him. And, of course, being caught as a poetic fiction, as a real person he is gone.[1]

This essay discusses the relations between love, lyric, and real human beings in Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s poetry, considering the ways by which Forrest-Thomson gets her poems into the contradictions of lyric’s second-guess: performing knowledge of lyric’s ironic prevention, as a condition of the lyric’s truth. This approach, I believe, may also develop grounds for a critical re-evaluation of her work, grounds at least on which recent accounts of the value of her poetry may be disputed. In her monograph Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry, Alison Mark has argued that the work of Forrest-Thomson and certain of her contemporaries, including poets as distinctive as Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, and Denise Riley, are significant as participants in a broader “movement” within late twentieth-century Anglophone poetry which the writing of the Language poets, Charles Bernstein’s work in particular, decisively embodies.[2] I want to put aside for now the egregiously indiscriminate reading of Forrest-Thomson’s British contemporaries which this position implies. There is a more straightforward problem here, which can be rather crudely put: if Veronica Forrest-Thomson was, in her best and last work, a lyric poet in a significant and consequential sense, as the present essay argues, this might mean that she was not, in any significant or consequential sense, a Language poet. Lyric is often the name given to whatever writing Language poetry is thought to be oriented against, the name of poetries and poetics superannuated by its advances. Where Language poetry esteems the text as cooperative process, lyric gives passionate voice to the authority of the differentiated subject. Despite its shortcomings, this premise has proven influential. For Rei Terada, contributing to a special section of PMLA on lyric studies, lyric has disappeared under Language poetry’s practical and theoretical assault on its parameters: lyric after Language means too much to be grasped, its volume exceeds the sign. In its place new possibilities have emerged for the poet hip to the “postlanguage” situation to contend with. Intimate, electrified, lyrical lyric might be being written, even right now, but the structures which guarantee its meaning as lyric have become unavailable, and if they haven’t quite yet been recognised as such, then they should be: “Let’s let ‘lyric’ dissolve into literature and ‘literature’ into culture,” Terada argues. To prevaricate here would be to repress the momentum of revolutionary historical forces—in Jerome McGann’s opinion language-oriented poetry has been the “most significant poetry” since no less resonant a date for the history of radicalism than 1848.[3]

Perhaps such statements are not meant to be taken entirely seriously. But the profile and preponderance of these claims mean that situating Veronica Forrest-Thomson as a precursor of the Language projects will tend to obscure a great deal else that’s present in her work. Evidently her writing was important to Charles Bernstein early in his career, and her work is indubitably interested in language, or was at least informed by semiology, much of the time.[4] But there is more to the picture of her reception and production than her presence in Bernstein’s compendious reading. Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry gives short treatment, beyond a peculiarly dismissive gesture of gratitude, to “the group of poets and critics who sustained her work” (1). This is a serious false move. Poets such as Anthony Barnett, Andrew Crozier, and perhaps J. H. Prynne above all, were in the late 1960s and early 70s producing work with which Forrest-Thomson’s was in deep sympathy and active correspondence. Proper recognition of this contextual fact entails arguments quite different to those which Mark’s work mounts. Or let me put this another way. From this vantage, was Veronica Forrest-Thomson in fact “well ahead of her time” as Mark claims (2)? Or is it not rather the case that Language poetry was behind it? That the discoveries which Mark apprehends as the especial property of Language poetry were anticipated by the poets amongst whom Forrest-Thomson lived and wrote? And not only that; but might their responses to those discoveries, in certain ways antagonistic to those of Language poets, also be esteemed the preferable articulations of their possibilities?

The counterclaim is intended chiefly to disclose the insecurity of its prompt, but the orientational problems in Mark’s work necessitate a re-contextualisation of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry. This brings new grounds for its evaluation into play. What is primarily valuable about Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s work, in my view, is neither its good performance of any particular kind of artifice, the linguistically innovative, for example; nor its responsiveness to the linguistic turn, or anticipation of Language poetics; nor its charming brokerage of continental philosophy to Anglo-American literary academe. Rather, Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s work may be valued precisely for its late discovery about lyric’s second-guess; its recognition, brought about by love’s crisis, that lyric problems are also the no-less complex problems in the relations between “real persons,” and may require us to know them as such, without lyric being itself “dissolved” by ironic depredations upon its notionally pristine sincerity. The position which arises from this discovery constitutes, I believe, a precondition of what Prynne apprehended as the imminence of a “new invasion of subject” in Forrest-Thomson’s last work.[5] The argument of her life’s writing is, from this perspective, an argument for the priorities of the changing subject in that later writing; the difficulties and reconciliations equated for life and lyric alike in what “The Garden of Proserpine’s” Persephone calls “the problem of love.”[6]

Indeed without the “problem of love” in Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s work, her second-guessing, albeit formally lyricised, is not very interesting or valuable. These problems only become interesting and valuable in her work when life—when experience or reflection—has made her sickened by and afraid of them. Her earlier writing is equally prepossessed with the ironic prevention of lyric “trying” as her later, but the poems which result are theoretical and allusive fiddlings, often inert and tendentious.

a whatnot leer
clear in nose swerve, in
blue insinuate grin let in
seen within (is) a view
somewhat askew;
                     and you? (21)

Forrest-Thomson’s first published collection, Identi-Kit, from which the above lines of “Clown (by Paul Klee)” are taken, is preoccupied with the mirror as symbol of lyric’s prevention: spoofing as self-reflection claims for lyric attempts to signify or intervene beyond the subject. Whatever else it may be, in Forrest-Thomson’s early writing, the object of lyric is always primordially a mirror-image (an image of the world which has ‘me’ in it and an image therefore of myself before the world: reading left to right, or front to back, I am, in the mirror as in this syntax, in front of it and never out of it). Images of others are also images of herself, often of herself unconvincingly guised as some one other. “Clown (by Paul Klee)’s” right-shunted “and you?,” for example, polishes the poem into allusive reflection of Ezra Pound looking “On His Own Face in a Glass”:

O strange face there in the glass!

O ribald company, O saintly host!
O sorrow-swept my fool,
What answer?
                          O ye myriad
That strive and play and pass,
Jest, challenge, counterlie!

I          ?          I          ?          I          ?
                                                         And ye?[7]

Forrest-Thomson’s play before the painting-as-mirror, contesting and costuming her self, is not a clear reflection of Pound, yelling in the glass. If Forrest-Thomson sees the face of Klee’s clown in her mirror and recognises it as Ezra guised as a “whatnot” Lear howling for his fool, a corresponding recognition of herself in this double image doesn’t deliver her into the tragic ostentation Pound’s Shakespearean caper effects. Rather, the poem deflates. Pound’s “I?”can’t support “ye” in rhyme or in fact, but sounds instead amidst the strange felicity of the neologism “counterlie”: Forrest-Thomson’s “view” prepares and enforces the split from looking subject to image. Then Pound’s “ye” remains his conflicted “I” in a way that Forrest-Thomson’s “you” does not. We don’t expect Pound’s “fool” to answer back (he speaks already): Forrest-Thomson’s might (her poem being already an answer to Pound) and the perilous grandiosity of Pound’s lyric—foolish in a more dangerous sense—becomes in Forrest-Thomson’s poem an ironical by-play, a fictive joke about poetic fiction. The real poem, never mind the real person, is elsewhere. This is characteristic fooling by Forrest-Thomson. Things are “somewhat askew,” that’s all—the poem is a site of lite slapstick narcissism, nobody really drowns. Perhaps “Clown (by Paul Klee)” only wants its readers to recognise it as a work of play: as a small and pleasantly futile enjoyment of limit’s pleasures, cultivating minor poetry for its graces, or from deference.

This is not to say that Forrest-Thomson’s earlier poems do not intertie gamely and intelligently with the intricate curiosity about ideas in philosophy and poetics which animates much of her writing. But the poems of Identi-Kit schedule a dissatisfaction with their glib interconnection, a turn which would, in her later poetry, resurface in that work’s painful fidelity to the ironies of the relation between lyric and the lives of “real human beings.” The brilliant “Epitaph for an Un-Named Priestess,” first published in 1969, represents a turning point. Forrest-Thomson has had enough:

There are not enough nouns around which to create images.
For verbs express activity and the act
is unambiguous. Experience is an active
verb. Mummy and Coffin of an Un-Named
Priestess (c. 1050 BC). There are not
enough pronouns to create images around.
Only the ivory handle of a bronze mirror,
said the Lady
of Shalott. (65)

As with “Clown (by Paul Klee),” “Epitaph for an Un-Named Priestess” proceeds from an encounter with visual artworks—not a painting in this instance but figurative sculpture and Greek pots. Unlike her earlier work, this is a poem of irritable dissatisfaction: the lyric poet as the Lady of Shalott, mistaking knowledge of the mirror for knowledge of “real life,” is no longer, even as a diverting paradox, a trustable image of poetic vocation. As the Lady of Shalott speaks for the poem, Forrest-Thomson speaks through allusion to the Lady. “ ‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said the Lady of Shalott” in Tennyson’s romance, and Forrest-Thomson is likewise nauseated:[8]

The simplicity of wedge on ovoid, nose
in face and the functionality of buttocks
is belied by a shifting poise and glitter
an instability of marble. I am, however, sick
of mirrors.

[ . . . ]

But there aren’t enough names. So what
is left except fiction, verbal activity
being too crude for us. The act
is unambiguous (vide supra). To leave
a clay jar inscribed “Megakles
is handsome” and signed by “Phistias
as potter” since
                          we have already
                          forbidden madness
                          and the representation
                          of madness,
is the alternative to mummification. It
is the poised instability of marble. So,
of the second case “in which the poet speaks
in his own person”, “the best example
is lyric poetry”. (66)

Again Forrest-Thomson sees herself reflected in an art work: the heavy, simple shapes and textural “glitter” of a reclining figure by Henry Moore. Biliously she recognises in the sculptured form her self, and her own crudely exacting description of the Moore sculpture becomes a crude depiction of her own figure. Again as in “Clown (by Paul Klee)” mistaking modernist figurative images for mirrors is affecting and absurd. Here, however, that absurdity is at once more ridiculous, more severe, and more moving than in those earlier poems. Her sickness with the ambiguities of the mirror, with the interplay of allusion and image, with the whole farce of mimetic art itself, isn’t here an ironic affectation worked up into a low-grade amusement.

Its commitment not only to the entertaining but also to the semantic potential of the degraded and unambiguous is critical to the argument of the poem. Typically, the means of that argument are citational and controversial. “Epigraph for an Un-Named Priestess” is a poem in formal conversation with J. H. Prynne’s “A Gold Ring Called Reluctance,” a discursive ode collected from first publication in the formidable little magazine The English Intelligencer (1965-1968) into Kitchen Poems (1968).[9] Forrest-Thomson’s poem engages with Prynne’s both through imitation—of its form, alternating between wider and narrower verse-blocks, and the lecturing register which partially comprises that poem’s rhetorical tonality—by direct allusion; and by acute animadversions against Prynne’s positions. Prynne writes:

No resolve about places, the latch-key to
our drifting lives, seems relevant without
this smallest notion of dust. How to
purge the dismal objection to this, remains
a question. Not to be answered, but used,
as a metabolic regulator: pulse rate, place
rate, dust. If you lie on your back the
literalness of that position is a complete
                          transfer. Thus I
                          dream about courage
                          but love chiefly
                          several friends
                          and one woman
                          who is the Lady
                          of wherever we
                          may go.

The evident shift of pronoun (what I
now mean by “we”) is a clear question
about place. (Poems 21)

Forrest-Thomson’s “Lady” in “Epitaph for an Un-Named Priestess,” we might guess, comes not from Tennyson direct but via Prynne’s “Lady / of wherever we / may go”; her poem’s pronounal question derived from Prynne’s approaches on considering the capacity and power of such signs. Recognising the development of a serious engagement with Prynne’s work is crucial to reading Forrest-Thomson’s later poetry, and conversation with his writing of the late 60s and early 70s (from Kitchen Poems through to 1971’s Brass) was highly significant in the development of her later poetic practice. Prynne’s work not only refined her sense of poetic vocation, and gathered new impulses and possibilities into her formal repertoire, but was influential in formulating as such the dilemma Forrest-Thomson discerned in lyric poetry’s ways of being and saying words of love, a central preoccupation of Prynne’s early poetry. For the Prynne of the years between The White Stones and Brass, love’s knowledge discloses the shared horizon of being and perception. It is a curve of proprioceptive contact between physical life and universal order, a threshold at which poetic language can make available for consciousness a partial way of access to the universal, bringing about a means for its expression. In The White Stones Prynne exerts a deep, high-resolution attention on this curvature, which was at that time constituted for him, perhaps, as in 1971 he would argue it had been for Charles Olson:

[Keats] knew that the heart’s affections were holy. And so it’s clear Olson did, so it’s clear that was the condition of mind for him: that affection, that love occupy the universe, because the curvature of the further side of the ultimate ocean—you go from land to shore, shore to sea, sea to ocean, ocean to Okeanos, Okeanos to the Great Void—[ . . . ] is love.

[ . . . ]

the capacity of the universe for love is that for which man was born. Oh yes, I am an absolute predestinarian in that sense. I believe utterly in that it is man’s destiny to bring love to the universe, I mean, to fulfill the universe’s potential for love.[10]

Yet though the poems Prynne wrote in love’s service are often moving, often passionate, they do not move in orbit of “the problem of love” as Forrest-Thomson knew it. She was repulsed by the universal: myth is available to her poetry only under parodic duress; systematic philosophy is a losing language-game; dialectics a dodge. In her later work, against what was for her a disreputable over-refinement in the sometimes painful reconciliations to agape contested in early Prynne with shattering dialectical hauteur, Forrest-Thomson commits to what she can trust. That is, to what she understood as poetic craft, and to that craft’s material of words and figures—with their attendant ironies—as an adequate provision; to semilology as good science about that material, and the canonised tradition as good science about the craft; and to exposing her writing practice to affective experience, especially to her experiences of living with and without erotic love. For Forrest-Thomson, the problem of love may be said to begin with the problems of Barthes’ “lover’s discourse”; but for Prynne, “the problem of love” is of another order.[11]

the public assertion of “value” does not over-run the
channels, seeping into our discretion. Whom
we love is a tangled issue, much shared; but
at least we are neither of us worth it,
                          though we transfer
                          it into all other
                          matters: that
                          discretion is
                          our one place. (Poems 23)

Love, as “A Gold Ring” argues, may be in a limited sense unfungible, not viable for exchange, siting the place where “discretion” holds against “the public assertion of ‘value’ ”; but does this mean that it can be truthfully signed in language? Or is the language of social life, within the historic conditions of an organisation of transference disadvantageous to “discretion” and therefore to love’s truth, inevitably an inhospitable place for love’s signs, for love’s discrete exchanges? Wherever Forrest-Thomson’s “Epitaph” reaches, prevention and negation are entailed: there is no way out from the ironic circumscription of lyric subjectivity.

What’s left is lyric composition as an existential language-game in sportive despair at the threshold of love’s prevention. But in her late work, in “The Garden of Proserpine” and “Sonnet,” second-guessing is no longer play. It is a necessary way at once of displaying and defending vulnerability. Lyric’s irony becomes the means intimately to express loneliness; not only that of an allusive construct built out of Prynnian “discretion,” Plato’s strictures on poets in The Republic, and “the Lady of Shalott,” but that real personal loneliness which becomes part of the “thematic” triad of On the Periphery, cause of the “quest for a real other person.” “Sick” of the mirror, Forrest-Thomson’s persona in these last poems of On the Periphery is realized not as a subject locked-in to the contradictions of narcissistic self-reflection; but as a “real person” in confrontation with “an other,” one who is not only one Other in the glass but another subject, a thinking and feeling “real human being” whose indiscretion has thrown the poet into encounter with “the problem of love.”

The only thing, contrarily, to do with the problem of love—
As with all other problems—
Is to try to solve it.
You won’t succeed but you won’t make a fool of yourself, trying
Or, at least, not so much of a fool as those who refuse to try.
So here we go for another trip and hold onto your seat-belt,
           Persephone. (139)

Why should “you” not “succeed” in solving the “problem of love”? What, anyway, is the “problem of love”—or for whom is love a problem, or when? In the precincts of “The Garden of Proserpine” the problem is, plainly if punningly, that “Love is hellish”; the “problem of love” is that love has been destroyed by infidelity. Forrest-Thomson’s second-guessed attempt to solve this problem is represented by the six lyric stanzas which continue and conclude “The Garden”:

I loved you and you loved me
And then we made a mess.
We still loved each other but
We loved each other less.
I got a job, I wrote a book,
I turned again to play.
However I found out by then
That you had gone away.
[ . . . ]

I went to hell with dignity,
For by then, we were three.
And whatever I feel about you,
I certainly hate she. (140)

The “three” “we” are by the fourth of the lyric stanzas which conclude the poem is not composed of “subject,” “object,” and a “third term,” but “you,” and “me,” and “she.” The “problem of love” is not a problem of “theoretical” but of “real” life: the condition of not being loved by those “whom / we love.” The attempt on a solution knows itself as no solution: lyric entreaty for love doesn’t work—or not like this, pleading for love when there is no hope of success, the poet fooling herself in the synthetic comfort of a ballad. The question has become a problem, charged with intensity: and recondite knowledge of the theoretical repression of the object under lyric’s irreconcilable authority finds a meaning, as lyric’s second-guess, in the knowledge of the real absence of a “real person”; the condition by which “Sonnet’s” promissory lyric of desire, vouchsafed by irony, will become possible:

If I say “I love you” we can’t but laugh
Since irony knows what we’ll say.
If I try to free myself by my craft
You vary as night from day.

So, accept the wish for the deed my dear.
Words were made to prevent us near. (141)

“The problem,” writes Alison Mark in her discussion of Identi-Kit, “is how to identify a self that can operate in a world where boundaries are shifting and conclusions temporary” (17). Is this the problem? Perhaps this problem is indeed the problem with Identi-Kit. But isn’t the problem not rather: how to shift boundaries and reprise conclusions in a world where self is pre-identified and dominated by social relations whose signs prohibit attempts at discretionary re-identifications? This recognition was, perhaps, a precondition of the “new invasion of subject” Prynne in retrospect apprehended in Forrest-Thomson’s last work. Or to put this another way, in terms closer to those of On the Periphery: the “problem of love” is in truth how “I love you” can be truthfully said by lyric saying, to entrust its saying and to be trusted saying it, without the lyric’s own pressures, inadequately known, forcing this act to become a mere “operation” of “self.”

[1]Preface to On the Periphery. Reprinted in Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Barnett (London: Shearsman & Allardyce, 2008) 168. All references to Forrest-Thomson’s works are to this edition, and given in the text.
[2]See Alison Mark, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2001) 121.
[3]See Rei Terada, “After the Critique of Lyric,” PMLA 128 (January 2008): 195-99 (199); and Jerome McGann, “The Argument,” in The Point is to Change it: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2007) xi.
[4]See Charles Bernstein, “Artifice and Absorption,” in A Poetics (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992) 9-89, esp. 10-15.
[5]J. H. Prynne, “A Personal Memoir,” On the Periphery (Cambridge: Street Editions, 1976), 43.
[6]“The Garden of Persephone,” Collected Poems, 139.
[7]Ezra Pound, “On His Own Face in a Glass,” first published in A Lume Spento (Venice, privately, 1908). The poem’s formal layout varies across the early books and the editions of Pound’s work: the version used here is the poem as it appears in Poems and Translations, ed. Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003) 45, which takes its text from the poem’s first publication. Though Forrest-Thomson would have possibly known the poem in another form, the right-shifted last line is retained in all versions I’ve seen.
[8]Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott,” from The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks, 3 vols. (London: Longman, 1969; 2nd edn., 1987) 2:391 (l. 71).
[9]See The English Intelligencer 12 (first series, 1966), f. 141; repr. in Prynne, Kitchen Poems (London: Cape Goliard, 1968), §4; Poems (Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe, 2nd edn. 2005), p. 21 (all subsequent references are to this edition, and given in the text). The poem is one among nine works, or “news-items” (Kitchen Poems, postscript) by Prynne published in that number of the magazine, all of which, excepting ‘A Gold Ring Called Reluctance’, were later collected into The White Stones (Lincoln: Grosseteste Press, 1969). The English Intelligencer was a collaborative worksheet publishing new work and correspondence by a diffuse network of poets, including regular contributions from such major British writers of the later twentieth century as Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth, Peter Riley, and many others. The poem is in dense interlocution with the streaming concerns of the Intelligencer, an invaluable context for reading Prynne’s work of the period. See for example John Hall, “Some Notes for the Biographies of Poems Written and Unwritten,” TEI 9 (1966): 105.
[10]Prynne, “On Maximus IV. V. & VI. A Lecture given at Simon Fraser University on July 27th 1971. Transcribed by Tom McGauley,” Serious Iron 12 (1971), unpaginated. Note that Prynne has never authorized publication of this transcript.
[11]See Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Robert Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978; repr. New York: Vintage, 2002).