Issue 26: Adam Piette reviews Anna Mendelssohn and Gail McConnell

Anna Mendelssohn, I’m Working Here: The Collected Poems of Anna Mendelssohn, edited by Sara Crangle (Swindon: Shearsman Books, 2020)

Gail McConnell, The Sun is Open (London: Penned in the Margins, 2021)

Reading Sara Crangle’s monumental edition of Anna Mendelssohn’s poetry floods the experiencing body with contradictions, language energies, intricacies of political manner, entanglements of voice. As the growing number of commentators and scholars working on Mendelssohn’s poetry and poetics (notably Vicky Sparrow, Jordan Savage, Eleanor Careless, Joe Luna) have argued, the lines resist and challenge readerly conventions and appropriations as analogous to carceral and disciplinary processes Mendelssohn knew all too well through the disastrous suffering meted out to her on the back of her association with the Angry Brigade - the harsh sentence and time at Holloway prison, the loss of her children, hectoring by the police and media.

Poems that engaged with these experiences and with the plight of an impoverished ex-con, single mother and struggling writer are rightly celebrated and have the tough striking power of outsider militancy and feminist defiance. What this remarkable and revelatory edition does is to gather all the work she managed to publish in little magazines and pamphlets during her lifetime, and to supplement it with some of the thousands of poems Mendelssohn wrote and never published and which grace her huge archive at Sussex along with her extraordinary artwork.

Sara Crangle’s tireless work as editor and curator among the archives, and this splendid, beautiful book, will surely bring this crackling, burning and witty multivocal poet into this century as a major irrevocable voice no longer cast upon the wilderness at the edges of it all, but right here in readers’ heart, bodies, minds.

And all this little review can hope to scratch out is a very small measure of the depths to the surfaces of these hundreds of poems, and the care, love and attention the editorial presentation affords them, with the fine 100-page introduction (with a spectacular and generous reading of the 2006 poem ‘Silk & Wild Tulips’, so fine and exemplary about the accretive woven convolutions of the poems), the meticulous editing and recording of variants in the 180 pages of notes, and the whole volume’s bright invitation to new readers to enjoy the work’s difficulty and mesmerising levels of engagement with language and the world, and to scholar-poets to come explore the archive at Sussex, the ‘enormous repository of visual art, nearly 800 notebooks, an estimated minimum of 5,000 poems, and a vast array of loose papers, letters, drawings, paintings, and memorabilia’ (31).

What surprised me most reading through the work with Sara Crangle’s kindly guidance (and the habits being generated by the work itself to read slowly despite the enormous bulk of work in this volume and the trove in the archive) was the sudden and strange wit of the poetry, the impersonations, railleries, counter-thrusts of comic language against the mockery, the gentler embrace of the reader after trial and error, the quicksilver switches of guise and discursive style, the felt urgency of some of the darker jokes, picking at mental stress and strain as at scabs, opening vistas to inwardnesses being experienced as if improvised suddenly on the hoof before captious reason closes the doors on the wards and cells. Just this example first, the exquisite and frightening ‘The End is Listless’, from the 1993 collection Viola Tricolor.[1]

Viola Tricolor is one of Mendelssohn’s personae, a late modernist alter ego tricked up in fancy dress as herself-as-poet; as Viola in Twelfth Night (male impersonating a female impersonating a male to reveal the fooling of romance, sexuality, patriarchy, while cross-dressing beyond subjectivity); as Viola Tricolor in the novella by Theodor Storm, featuring a Rebecca-style plot of replacement wife staggered by the injustices and dangers of the roles women are forced to adopt as if in an evil play; as the wild pansy ‘viola tricolor’ also known as heartsease or love-in-idleness, the white flower made to bleed purple by Cupid’s arrow and used as love potion in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

‘The End is Listless’ features the I-voice (though no ‘I’ is uttered till the third stanza) in a junk-strewn backyard in a city, escaping the ‘arguing voices’ either of the party in the house, or in her head, or out there as the hostile views of power, or all at the same time. A wreck of a car sits there in the garden near a dilapidated fence where ‘dry tall yarrow’ is warming its broken environment. The poem considers this space as a mental retreat that is also damaged: at the same time an ‘importunate’ zone where the arguing voices ‘want the world from my heart’, threatening to tip her into unbalanced mind, like Viola’s Feste-like manoeuvres gone wrong (‘fools are this way born’).

The lure is love, if we follow the love-in-idleness sign: we are loved to bleeding by those who pretend or impose their care, those who have designs on our hearts. The back gardens of the zone have sheds ‘where neither numbers are people / in the harvest reality would endanger us’: lines condensed to close to cryptic, but which gesture towards a paranoia about the people who treat people as numbers though they are neither, or at the enemy within which impersonates the people who are ‘neither number’, who are neither one or two or three, etc, so who are neither I nor you and I nor the three of us in the mind (ego, superego, id), nor the numberless hostile aliens of the world.

These neither-number people want to harvest a reality which is a danger to her, as a harvesting of her might be. But who are we, who is this ‘us? They too are not people really, but ‘cards symbolizing unreal ignorance’: the cards we are dealt by fate, the cards of the game of symbols that rule the world, the language of ascriptions and descriptions and prescriptions.

This reading of mine is too harsh, though, and risks wrecking the quiet determinations and serenities of the poem on the page: like the yarrow there is a force in the poem which warms, ‘warming towards broken staves’. The warmth, I’d hazard, is the comedy of the procedure, of the composition - for the voices that argue and threaten are countered by a more genial presence along the lines which soothes, which warms, which nods to the paranoid subject ‘don’t think the worst it may not happen’; and which enjoys the satirical staging of the scene and its personnel as a comic author-creator like Viola in Twelfth Night or Puck in the Dream might.

The comic voice is agile and has a certain command over its levels of engagement with the world, with the readers out there. The cards symbolising ignorance seem to be telling the subject ‘to first look & without dissociate thoughtlessness / look again to feed a sense of inadequacy’. The poem is partly telling us how the poem is being made and might be read: it is made according to a version of a random style of composition, that encourages dissociate thoughtlessness, in other words a free-wheeling and anarchic practice drawn from surrealism that does not play word association games with language, but goes deeper into dissociations, and avoids the rationalisations of thought.[2]

The cards, like the wicked pack of cards in The Waste Land, tell us not to read this way, however: we must as readers look again at the unconscious material being thrown up on the page by the method and read for sense, uncover the alienating sense of inadequacy at the heart of the pain, and therefore at the reason the figure is so lonely in that back garden.

But we are not in the hands of the neither numbers, we are being guided by this gentle spirit, who warns us not to be fooled by the cards, for they sponsor ignorance. The comedy of the staging of the advice to the reader has to be looked at again, so its second thought needs to be countered in its turn. We must resist the invitation to understand the lines as expressing inadequacy; we should be aware of this as an attack on the free imagination itself and what one might call the radical Raworth method of composition, or the Mendelssohn multivocal and aleatory mode, slandered as ‘dissociate thoughtlessness’.

This comic method rises above the tradition it is often mistaken for, a tradition going back to the Eliotic poetics of mimickry of the dissociated sensibility. The misprision is a ‘deathly influence’, the yarrow-warm voice tells us, that attacks the poet because the people who harvest reality are ‘unused’ to this strange environment of the radical late-modernist lyric, a zone where:

                    high wind light

unpeopled afternoon back of the wreck

washed out are the dozing chassis

This certainly has some root back to The Waste Land with its Fisher King ‘round behind the gashouse / Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck’; but the lines tap other roots, the dreamy scapes of early Auden with their obsolete machinery, or Adrienne Rich’s exploration of the ‘evidence of damage’ (‘the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck’); which are nonetheless pushed beyond, towards the imagining of an enjoyed and improvised utopian zone, a place to rest, to savour the high wind and the light, the high wind’s light, the high and light wind, in other words the place where language breathes and invents itself in a kindly sleep of reason, an outside comically free of those who would so wreckfully care for her.

How entrancing those words: ‘washed out are the dozing chassis’, which bring together the washed-out colour of the rusting hulk, the fact it is washed out, like the seemingly damaged mind is said to be all washed out, but presented as a cleansing, a cleansing away of the story of the wreck. The ‘are’ implies the chassis is weirdly plural, and so it is if it allows itself to be inhabited by the otherwise peopling subjectivity in the yard; and the quiet equanimity and good humour of ‘dozing’ turns us back to the warming yarrow, to the soothing effect of the staves of the fence with the yarrow there.

If we read the fence as just about wrecked life and constraint, we might think of it as equivalent to the prison walls of the cells Mendelssohn was incarcerated in. But the poem reads the fence as ‘any lock up’ which ‘intrigues quiet gravel’; as a possible portal into the high wind light, quietly intriguing for implying so many possible other meanings that lie back of the wreck.

The third stanza turns the poem’s mind against the caring accusers and their cruelties (‘real harshness shouldn't blame the wrong people’) which may also include the compositor of this poem too, with the wild paranoia at large: except that the wrong people this time are the poets, the ‘truthsayers’ who attend to the wreck and not to the autobiography or story of the wreck.

The accusers are associated with the policemen of poetry who like their poets to suffer and confess in the pages of their careful criticism (the poets stumble ‘over beds of nails guarding reputations’), and are possibly American, since they ‘hate the British accent I affect / on the rare occasion I can be bothered to speak’. These lines break through the layers and levels with this turn to direct satire: yet even here the yarrow sensibility admits self-admonishment with that turn on the poet’s own proud singularity.

Where the speaking takes place is ‘by the ladder allowed heartsease to slow’: the ladder figures the dream steps to fame and reputation, and the heartsease the drugs administered to the truthsayers in the institution of poetry with its beds of nails. Heartsease is viola tricolor, we recall, used as a heart cordial, but also a love potion by those who want ‘the world from my heart’, those seeking a confession or two before dusk, as Denise Riley’s poem puts it, and it was Riley who told us the eyes of the girls in 1970 were ‘awash with violets / pansies are flowering under their tongues’.[3]

Those truthsayers are the feminist collective of the second wave, then, of the poets of the feminist avantgarde, fooled and maddened by the contrivances of romance and its confessional drive. The pansy under the tongue may have harmful druggy effects on the compositional intelligence if it slows the wit of the imagination with the unhealthy focus it invites on the bleeding heart of damage and wreck expected of those at the bottom of the ladder.

The response to this threat is the last wild stanza, a fantasy that outflanks both those who control the truthsayers with their emotional constraints and traps, and those truthsayers who would prefer to remain mesmerised by the passive victimhood of the damaged. The last eight lines conjure a crazy object ‘in a different city’, a thing made of asphalt, bismuth, ‘upholsterers’ glue’, bleached planks that revolve and are ‘tricarnate’ (have three ridges like some turtle shells). The art-object is fashioned from a wreck of language, out of broken objects, discards, junk, the bleached planks possibly the same washed out ‘broken staves’ of the fence: the wreck has ceased to be a car but has become the thrown-away detritus that feeds not a sense of inadequacy but into all creative making.[4]

The thing made is ‘a globe’, so related to the world they wanted to wrest from her heart, and it has flower-identity like the wild pansy, for it is a ‘beach club lily’, so seemingly merely decorative, outside the world of real work. But the patchworked piece may be an identity too, Beach Club Lily, a version of the Viola persona at work with quick new disguises, a role being played in the teeth both of the modish, abstract and knowing critics (‘at the mercy of one who reads his theory’) and of the philistines who fight ‘like fury against all artists’. And we return to the satire of the kinds of artists the theoreticians and philistines admire, since what is being targeted are:

particularly ones who don’t walk around half naked

in a copy book comic of a tied up kid

in which each gradient is a bricked in id

The lines imply defiance of the norms of the accusers and their lethal care which prioritise (female) poets who are glib Romantics, sexually available, in bondage, and seeping their unconsciousnesses. But they also describe the actual practice being demonstrated here in this poem: the opposite of what is wanted, so a poetics of concealment, of freedom, of defence against those surveilling controlled and fake interiorities; and a poetry that is not only wise to the enemy reader but offering a comic turn to the gentle reader being addressed at another level, with the display of the comic as exhilarating and differently wild language play - note the arch rhymes, the deliberate glitch of ‘copy book comic’, the sarcastic performance of stand-up lines.

The planks of the fence protecting the improvised utopian zone are repurposed here as tricarnate, a provisionally organic construct of ego and superego as personae that disguises the id-voice, freeing it from bricked subjection, but not as adventure movie emotionality for the New Critics to enjoy along with their acolyte truthsayers: but as the simple dull consequence of persistent resistance and solidarity. 

That act of liberation is not describable as fake uplift or as confessional at the back of the wreck: it is deliberately low-key, holding up the comic globe-object and its revolving flower as enigmatic, flat, bathetic even. The end is listless: the ending escapes the charm of the mainstream poem promising a quick fix of heartsease. Here the ending has lazy dozing poise, a listlessness that eludes the grasp of the enemy reader; it is also without a list of qualities that can be appropriated - all we have as list is a set of negatives from ‘those who don’t’, or rather strange enigmatic negatives that are also reinventions or recyclings, just as ‘the end is listless’ reworks the set phrase ‘the list is endless’. Like a comparable persona, ‘minnie most’, Viola Tricolor ‘walks backward’ (442)[5] - this poetics makes the most of its illegibilities and secrecies and recyclings of tack and tactic. It lives in the mysterious high wind light beyond critique.

Poetry after the wreck is at the back of it in order to occlude facile and greedy emotion-seeking that is indistinguishable from prurient feeding on the pain of others. That feeding impulse in readers seeking emotional hits, Mendelssohn warns, is ontologically close to the procedures that regulate people that don’t, the forces and grids of understanding imposed by the logic of capital, bureaus, police and surveillance forces, culture merchants, critics, and, as Sean Bonney puts it, ‘institutionalised avantgarde politesse’. The clarity of this analysis makes it tricky then to turn to a collection that does display difficult emotion after the wreck of a killing, the poems Gail McConnell has written in memory of her father, William McDonnell, shot before her and her mother’s eyes in front of their Belfast home on March 6, 1984.

The poems appear as double-justified columns, to resemble the clippings of the killing kept in a cardboard box marked DAD BOX, and so, rather in the spirit of Anne Carson’s Nox, the collection stands as an elaboration of the scraps and tatters of personal archive. The collection opens with one of the clippings, stating in blankly indifferent neutral factoid prose the newspaper view of the death. The clipping tells us William McDonnell was ‘assistant governor of the Maze Prison’, and that he was shot dead whilst checking his car ‘for explosive devices’ ‘in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter’.

The collection invites us to wonder at that as news that stays news, since now recycled as the first poem in the sequence, The Sun is Open, and triggering the suspicion the clipping might be actually from The Sun, the British tabloid newspaper. The sequence follows this with a poem constructed from found material, instructions how to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, in a light typeface, interrupted by scraps of self-talk in bolder type, the poet telling herself she ‘could begin’ with this found material, as long as she can ‘take what I have found and break it up’, ‘glue it back the wrong way’ (p. 11). The procedure is close to the cobbled-together junk-object being constructed in ‘The End is Listless’, and gives a bodily, Gothic twist to the mouth-to-mouth, as though the bringing back to life, as fabricated in these borrowed words-as-found-objects, is gauche, needy, a gesture of a spectrally late Electra.

At the same time the poem, if it is a poem, is glued back the wrong way: this is the wrong way to begin an elegy. Begin with the little girl, and make her cry, the newspaper reader can be heard thinking: ‘BEGIN WITH VICTIM’ is how the citation from the resuscitation manual begins. And in a sense the sequence obliges, for the next poem announces the beginning of the little girl’s life:

YOU     COME     into     this     world

head  first  come in on your  rump

they  call it   breech  you  may  be

lifted                                                   out

I’m        making        soft       returns

for this  you need two keys SHIFT

and ENTER to go down to the line

carries  on  the  carriage    moving


The style of this tracks back to Beckett and Carson, but with a more studied exercise in reflexivity. The YOU of the first paragraph has a Shandean twist, with second person coming from Beckett’s Company, so in good Irish company, and the baby Gail’s arrival rump first is shadowed by the reader’s coming into this text world the wrong way round - this is the wrong victim, surely: the newspaper demands the three-year old, why this new born?

The comedy of ‘come in on your rump’ is matched by the quiet reflexive jokes of the second paragraph with the sequence’s return to the 1980s figured as a soft (as in overly emotional) form of return, a ‘moving / back’ imaged in the return to use of the obsolete technology of the typewriter. The lines of script are being typed as if in real present continuous, and the ‘you’ with their need in this paragraph is again the self divided into writer-compositor and remembered/remembered, though we are starting before memory proper with the breech birth subject.

The shift back in time and the entry into the child mind is what is being prepared for, and Gail McConnell activates suspicion of the move back as mechanical, gauche repetition (‘carries on the carriage’), just as the trope of the newspaper column is forcing the words into lines and creating orphan effects, as well as unnatural loose lines (as with ‘lifted                           out’) generated by strict justification. These typographical facts, though unspoken, become dramatic themes, since the sequence is about the strange orphaning of the violence, and the loose and strained attempts at justification of elegy.

What the poems might be said to be doing is lifting the blanking of trauma out of the silences at the back of news and into the print space of the poem we are reading. But just as we can enjoy the moving reflexive wit here, it is being framed as a response to an imperative that may be being generated by the newspaper drive to sensationalise and dramatise suffering at a remove (‘YOU COME’ as an order being obeyed). What is ‘moving’ in this elegy may be fabricated by the print imperatives of prurient genre expectations.

What follows fulfils some of the those expectations, inevitably: we have the child’s eye view of her childhood and of the wreck-event as remembered by the 21st century Gail McConnell, with unavoidably moving effects on the feeding reader. At the same time, those impulses are being held in check, resisted, satirised, drawn under scrutiny by the range and the repertoire of the box-poems, particularly in the pieces that reflect on the toys and religious upbringing the girl-Gail remembers, building a picture of twisted patriarchy and commercialisation of desire that questions the facile emotional hits of father-daughter elegy.

In a poem late in the sequence, the poet reflects wryly on where she’s got to with her mimicry of the Dad Box, ‘what a paper trail this was what | does it all add up to’ (p. 112), and responds to her own question with an endless list of negatives that recall Mendelssohn: ‘not | a murder book and | not an archive not a fever not a | feeling all these things and none’. What is being confessed and not confessed are the secret death drive parricidal impulses that Derrida found operating in Freud’s ‘archontic’ take on the archive, at the same time as the counter to that, the patriarchal logic that openly contradicts the death drive. It is and is not archive fever that is running the composition because the poet is producing the poems at another level somewhere beyond the theory: ‘it’s what dislodges in my body | when I hear balloons pop pop the | birthday party I spent in the | corridor outside the room’.

The trauma is a combatant’s PTSD, but remembered as something dislodging in the body, dislodging countering the whole house and home etymology that structures Derrida’s analysis of archive fever: the girl’s body discovers traumatic repetition as a shock recall where ‘all these things’ dislodge, and find her outside the room of culture, of genre, of the ways and means of the standard stanzaic lyric. In the corridor outside the room where the balloons go pop pop, the little girl has a vision of the toys in the party bags next door, and her imagination zeroes in on one:

A maze   on   its screw lid a little

silver    ball    making     its    way

through  lines  and lines you tilt

the thing help it along

The little tube has a maze top that summons the Maze prison, and the little ball seems to figure the compositional imagination as it composes the lines we read, but as a making of a way through lines already determined by the other makers, the forces of law and order that make prisons, the makers of the law that shape the archive fever and which also generate erasures of the archive as the shock reaction of dislodged interiority takes place as language. The agency of the girl mirrors the agency of the adult poet: the silver ball can be moved if ‘you tilt | the thing’: not destructively, even playfully, though determined by the makers.

The ‘thing’ of the trauma is still there as wreck, but can be tilted, as in read aslant, freeing the mind a little from the news story of the wreck, such that the difficulties involved in the mourning of her father’s violent death are acknowledged as troubled by the role he played in the Troubles, helping run the Maze and its disciplinary violence. This is a murder book and it is not; for its pressing into type of the thing of trauma is a dislodging of the subject out of the rooms of powerful elegy into edge-space aslant: and its sequence is something of a revelation, stitching together text, archive, memory with found material and obstinate self-questioning that makes this one of the most startling elegies in print.


Adam Piette co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen. He teaches at the University of Sheffield and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, The Literary Cold War.

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