Anne Seah finds divisions within Chris Tysh’s feminist poetry
By Anne Seah
Chris Tysh’s latest book of poetry is a book of divisions, and proud to be so. Its title unabashedly declares it – Cleavage – an act of splitting. This referential act of splitting is even graphically displayed by the extra large “V” that incises the word and splits it in the middle, separating “CLEA” from “AGE.” Cleavage obviously also refers to the physical depression between a woman’s breasts. Thus, the division that the book cleverly sets up is one of gender. This act of gender division is executed once again in the titles of the poems. Just a glance at the content page is enough to realise that Cleavage is made up of 26 poems, the title of each beginning with a woman’s name, arranged alphabetically from A to Z. In other words, the alphabet has been cunningly restructured as a female language. Cleavage then, is clearly an attempt to make a split from the patriarchal literary tradition.
Indeed, Tysh’s poetry mirrors this attempt. Most of the poems are divided into parts and there are none of the traditional poetic forms; even free verse is hacked up. Not only are lines and stanzas of irregular length and aligned differently, but enjambment is the norm for both language and images. Take, for example, part ii from ‘Brigitte, beside herself’:
Sentences are cut off such that lines run into each other without punctuation. Hence, they may be read in multiple ways, resulting in multiple meanings. “[S]hore” in line 2 may function both as a noun and a verb. Likewise, “misbehave” in line 9 may refer to “the long fake teeth / in the feral graveyard” (lines 7-8), or to “miss junky” in line 10. Similarly, “miss junky” may has just “pass[ed] out”(line 10) from an overdose as has passed the “entrance exams” (line 11). It is also impossible to determine whether the persona pushes his/her oar in, or whether s/he witnesses his/her oar being pushed in (lines 12-13).
The image of the three men in a boat in the first stanza is also abruptly shoved aside, interjected by 3 stanzas of a female character (we cannot even be sure whether it is the same character), only to resurface at the end with the violent image of the oar.
The divisions in both language and images are not particular to this poem alone, but consistently executed throughout the book. In fact, the chasms become literally wider and wider with each poem. By the time we reach part iii of the last poem, ‘Zoe, a zone of her own,’ words are no longer even arranged in irregular stanzas and solitary lines, but grouped in clusters ranging from only one word to at the most, four words. By then, it is possible to read the poem in literally any direction – downwards, diagonally, horizontally, across either one or both pages, etc.
For a book that plays on the multiplicity of language, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the poems include foreign words. However, for a book so insistent on demonstrating the plurality of readings to provide a glossary is definitely curious. While the need for a guide to the foreign words may be explainable, definitive and specific instructions on how to interpret the word are surely a cleavage (pun intended) from the feminist cause the book is unarguably championing. Besides explaining that “querelle” in ‘Queenie quarantined: a sonnet’ is a “French word for quarrel,” the glossary also informs us that it is “a direct reference [italics mine] to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1983 movie, Querelle, based on a text by Jean Genet,” thus limiting and defining the context in which we are to read the poem.
The need to provide a glossary, and with it, guided and specific interpretations, seems to stem suspiciously from an awareness that the poems, with their hacked up patriarchal literary tradition making a claim as female language, are in fact quite un-readable. This is hardly unexpected, because if the literary tradition is patriarchal, how is it possible, having come from that tradition, to either construct or read a language that is non-patriarchal? That, however, is a philosophical question, and is poorly situated in a review. Although, to some degree, it does explain perhaps why Tysh’s Cleavage poems read so much like the remains of a language (and thus also for my inclusion of the question). The best and most startling lines are still those in the old patriarchal tradition, such as “I’m planning to de-metaphorize femininity’s plunging neckline / post a guard ready to dive into gorge at the merest ooh-la-la” from part iii of ‘Brigitte, beside herself.’
So it seems Cleavage is really just a clever and pretty performance. Instead of successfully cutting loose from the patriarchal literary tradition, there is only the display of attempting to do so. The graphical “V” is impotent and does not penetrate. It is a visual reminder of the female body – a body that indeed cleaves to the patriarchal body of literature, but only in the sense of adhering firmly, closely and faithfully to it. Tysh has been betrayed by her own feminine Cleavage.QLRS Vol. 4 No. 3 Apr 2005