Sexual damage and porcelain: Jane Joritz-Nakagawa ‘Plan B Audio’ (Isobar, 2020): Steven Hitchens ‘The Lager Kilns’ ( Aquifer, 2019)
Reviewed by Frances Presley
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s Plan B Audio deploys a variety of poetic and narrative styles, often experimental, within an overwhelming context of disease and damage. Arranged as one long poem, with no sub-titles, it charts the author’s treatment for cancer in remarkable detail and honesty, but also with constant creative energy and invention. Joritz-Nakagawa is an American poet who has lived and worked in Japan for many years. She has published nine books of poetry, as well as her selected poems, and she also edited an anthology of innovative transcultural poetry and essays by fifty women poets: women: poetry: migration, (Theenk Books, 2017).
Hers is a gynaecological cancer – an assault on the female body and sex. At times the starkness of the experience seems to demand a simple record of events: ‘entering the hospital / x-ray on a screen / shop of horrors’. Naked poetry, in all its senses. Yet there is also a more reflective and paratactic shaping of language, which is as strange and unfamiliar as the experience itself. She comments humorously on her own practice and the reactions we can expect:
Perhaps it is true that experimental poets
hide their bodies in unintelligible lines
(yet so visible to some of us !!).
Photographs by Susan Laura Sullivan often act as breaks between segments of the poem. The cover image is in colour, while the interior images are black and white, but even the cover is a winter scene in sepia tones, a waterlogged field circled by crows. The images also have the slightly blurry, grainy effect of newspaper prints, or something distanced, as life is distanced through illness.
In Plan B Audio Joritz-Nakagawa plays with language and the poetic line. Sometimes the line is short and periodic, which can have the effect of undercutting the meaningless language of commerce: ‘warm bargain. liquid phony’. Sometimes she uses run-on lines, which are speedier and more prosaic. Even in the darkest moments there is pleasure in word play as, for example, in the musicality of two-word lines: ‘sedentary infection / perma sludge … wild valid / lonely weeds … sunshine thine… rosy solitary’. She varies the number of lines in a stanza, often two or three: they remind me of haiku and syllabic count, especially in the Japanese setting. The verse lines can seem connected, as in the example below, but can be hard to connect or even random:
a crack in the sky
through which spirits flow
Elsewhere the text may be widely spaced on the page, an open form. As she writes: ‘the visual design of the text / shaped by pain / by wonder and despair / reclaiming the lost body’.
The political anger in Plan B Audio is unmistakeable: even in the midst of her concern with mutilated flesh, Joritz-Nakagawa sustains an awareness of the commercial imperatives at work within the hospital: ‘money cures cancer / weaponize your pet’, or ‘Future / hospital bills fit into two line / stanzas’, when clearly they don’t. Her political acumen remains acute and this is also reflected in the photographs of bleak institutional space. Although this book charts her struggle with cancer, it has much wider relevance for our times in terms of capitalism and man-made disease, due to invasion of habitat, which affects us all through coronavirus:
i knew what i saw could cause me to melt
into small droplets like a drizzle of
a coming plague stinging my back
all night long
This speaks to our experience of an omnipresent disease which dictates our every movement: ‘as if your mind / merely followed your body / your inner city’. Later, in a nightmarish, hallucinatory sequence, she writes about experiencing a loneliness that tears at her heart, as much as the treatment tears at her flesh: ‘I find out these were experiments to find out which was more devastating, the loss of the body or loss of mind deprived of meaningful human contact.’ Here is self-isolation.
Some of Joritz-Nakagawa’s most interesting experiments are with surreal narrative and dialogue in poetry and prose, which can be deceptive, pronouns ambiguous, but always with a deep feminist anger and rebellion against the institution. There are characters called Elderflower, Buttercup and Cupcake who engage in girlish, but also painful, memories of eating disorder and bodily dysmorphia. Later, as patients, they invent names for their stomas. The machine for radiotherapy is a dragon which devours her: ‘the/ multi-headed dragons tear/ at my vulva’. She decides to ‘fall in love’ with the dragon, as the machine ‘whirs and licks me’, but this is a grotesque parody of love making.
In another narrative she is in solitary confinement and working for a drug company: ’My job is to sort medicine / by size and colour in a different / part of the building’. The unfolding of the narrative is punctuated by mock hyperbolic headlines in capitals, rather like a graphic novel e.g. ‘I ESCAPE !!!’ in which she finds a tiny door to crawl through, follows a colour pattern of streets (like the colour patterns of the pills) but makes a mistake and finds herself in a red building with the dragons. This is followed by ‘A PROMOTION!’ when she is declared incompetent at pill sorting and promoted to garbage collection, at which she seems equally incompetent, but is kept on because of the funding (another sly political dig).
The narrative becomes Kafkaesque when she is locked up for sharing ‘sensitive info’, by the ‘administrators’ who, in an apt political satire, ‘will surely brag to their friends about the … spare parts they’ve accumulated… progressives have been requesting tax breaks for those without spare part stockpiles, while conservatives demand large annual bonuses for the stockpilers’. Finally, she is given the job of feeding stray cats – we dream of the sick animals we are when we’re ill.
It will be a long time before she can retrieve the life that she had, but she begins to take the first steps out of the hospital. Elliptical two-liners chart the devastating illness experienced, but offer a way out – the contradiction of damage which is also creation:
The page of departure is a series of free-flowing three-line stanzas. She is returning to the person and the life she loves, but also leaving the doctors who have looked after her: ‘row of doctors / in stiff white uniforms / why do they love me’. She remembers the things she has missed in the world, such as cherry blossoms and students laughing, but also goes to meet the grey sky and buildings, which feature so ominously in the text and images, and now are simply there to be recorded:
what is this world
The Lager Kilns by Steve Hitchens is another page-turning long poem, although peripatetic rather than confined, as it takes us on a journey along the canals of South Wales. Hitchens lives in the Valleys and he explains in the preface how his love of maps was magnified by discovering Google Earth in which familiar territory became a ‘blank space’ with ‘deleted communities’ linked together by the mighty canal system. The industrial canal was in use between 1790 and 1944 and some of it has been filled in and made into motorways, yet the contours can still be traced in roadways and streets. Hitchens leads walks and performances along the canal system – both where it is visible and where it is hidden. I have taken part in two of these walks in the Cardiff area. They have resulted in Hitchens’ handmade poetry anthologies, as well as visual and sound recordings.
This book is also an historical fantasy in which the narrator becomes a clerk in the Cardiff Bute Docks Company: an ‘imperial admin outpost’. I like the slippage between past and present, which is very effective and both have equal value in the poem. In the preface Hitchens contrasts the china works of Billingsley at Nantgarw, which strove for perfection, with the contemporary Docks development – a ‘cashpoint cove of contactless cruising’. The alchemical process is key to The Lager Kilns, both in terms of industry and poem itself:
Billingsley is striving for a fusion of matter so fine as to be translucent, near intangible:
the albedo stage of the alchemical opus, stage of ablutio, a purification to open new
In his guise as clerk the narrator uses the Company map to go into the ‘Dead centre. And the canal is there. Like a snake. So I am commissioned to write this report’. The way Hitchens achieves time travel through experimental procedures is fascinating, but its power is based in the dark material of landscape, people and history. It is in a tradition of working-class witness and record, as well as close observation of the natural and post-industrial landscape. Hitchens’ juxtapositions are calculated, but always experienced. The poem is the kiln in which these materials are fused and refined.
Sections of the poem are places along the route, usually an industrial site. Each begins with a colour image: collages of reports, photographs and maps overlaid with fragments of poetic text. Throughout The Lager Kilns there is a balance of prose poetry and poetry, sometimes combined with more descriptive or narrative prose, which helps to pull the reader in. Hitchens deploys short end-stopped lines, neologisms and broken syntax to convey the exhausted state of the contemporary landscape, as here in Cyfartha, a former ironworks:
Plug skull thread, iron claws lie. Flux gasping. Winternal. Drippled.
There are unmistakeable echoes of Dylan Thomas’ poetry in Hitchens’ rhythmic and sonic complexity; his insertion of Anglo-Welsh voices: ‘You working today no? … She said what happened I said well’; and in the small-town locations. Thomas was an influence on British sound poetry and there are even more distinct traces of poets such as Bill Griffiths and Geraldine Monk with their verbal cityscapes. These poets are also present in the humour, which is both essential and humane, of The Lager Kilns. Graffiti, typical of urban edgelands, also makes a vivid appearance: ‘Spray slurred walls: cunt flaps – fuckit – suck my dick’.
Ynysfach, another ironworks, combines descriptive prose about the canal route with stanzas of speech rhythms and others of complex poetic language:
subtery metalicon crustre
gurglimpses of flushingdark
Some of Hitchens’ word play derives from a procedure for generating text called ‘Markov Chains’. Similar algorithms are now used in predictive text, but for Hitchens the most interesting moments are when the algorithm gets it wrong and predicts incorrectly, creating unusual combinations of letters or words. He uses this method to create cut-ups of texts and portmanteau words.
Past industry can seem more heroic and hopeful, but we are reminded of its brutality to workers and the local community. This is especially true of Aberfan, where children and teachers died when an unstable spoil tip from the coal mine collapsed on a school in 1966. Prose passages alternate the present moment with extracts from powerful and moving witness accounts of the disaster: ‘When daylight comes there are no hymns. People scuffle through classrooms, one looking for dawn. Smoke pours down at small panes collapsing above us.’
At Abercynon there was a steep drop in the level of the canal which required extra locks. The journey is described as if it still existed: ‘The boat begins to lock steeply down through the next three sets of staircase pairs’. There is much about the building of the canal by heroic navvies, reminiscent of the male camaraderie celebrated by Lee Harwood, with its adventure and back breaking labour: ‘Navvies scarecrowed over icebreakers, iron and clear… Flannel shirts open to the moon.’
Pontypridd forms one of the longest sections and is also Hitchens’ home town. There is tenderness as he sits with his sleeping daughter at night, listening to the elemental forces: ‘winds ride through the streets / swoop hoof-thunder encirclings’. He also looks to ancient knowledge, poetic tradition and mythology, as the opening lines suggest:
The town may be changed,
but the well cannot be changed.
The town is surrounded by a transformational landscape of ‘hill sorceries … A counterfactual antiquary of ancient fires’, and there is movement into this ancient yet newly constructed world: ‘Text after text we climb…Fallen thunders walk the mind’.
The importance of Nantgarw has already been highlighted. Each segment begins with instructions for making porcelain, but also contains lists of outlets in an industrial park, many closed, and almost none in manufacture. The different stages of making porcelain are re-enacted: ‘Stage two is the stage of the glacial. Bone phase. Scatterfly-vulvae. Mollusc puckered’, or in stage three: ‘Vaginal phases. Glaze holds wings. Solve and silver, a new coagula’.
The vulvae here are an allusion to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, in which she combined the art of porcelain painting of plates with the vaginal shape as a universal female form. There are many flowers in this section, some wild and some used in porcelain: ‘Stipple calyx. Petal ions. Whole surface florid’ juxtaposed with ‘Scrubgrass and buddleia lot through barbed mesh. Lanky ragwort’. There are also extracts from Billingsley’s letters, with his secrets of manufacture and his troubled private life: the quest for perfection consumed Billingsley and ruined his health, beyond any need for profit.
We travel on past the Melingriffith water pump which is the occasion for some gorgeous sound poetry, such as ‘Blisted soft-droppers moist-hiss’, and into Cardiff city. Historic description juts up against present-day disruptions of place and language, interspersed with lost voices, held together by canal architecture and ancient geology: ‘Smell of tar, hum of digger. Seagulled glut on drift digged pluggets. Quartz canal a sedimentary remembrance’.
The canal ends its remnant journey at Sea Lock. The walker/ narrator is also a dock worker setting out in the early morning: ‘I wake with a start next morning bells ringing over Cardiff Bay… Unhook tin bath from backyard wall and half-fill jugs of cold phosphoric’. The contemporary Bay area is an uneasy mix of underclass and new wealth, founded on a ‘treacherous area of marshland’. Cranes praying ‘over turquoise glass apartments’ contrast with ‘ancient hoodie courtyards’. Poetry re-emerges in this section wheezing its sounds into the freezing fog and grudging daylight: ‘bronchial tottersun/ crunches gulp’. The strange impersonal landscape of the redeveloped quay gives way to the sea and evening sky:
cloud peninsula meteor-dappers
The Lager Kilns ends not at the sea but with a coda, Tipping Space, in which the journey through past and present is synthesised in disjunctive, yet welded, poetic lines: ‘This is often our map: / scouring voids between the tipping space’. The poem is an investigation of the tipping space and the voids, unsparingly excavated and reconstructed.
Both Joritz-Nakagawa and Hitchens create new and liberating poetic pathways to guide us through modern labyrinths, whether they are bleak hospital corridors or lost canal towpaths. We are as convinced by the skill of Hitchens’ fusion of matter in The Lager Kilns as we are by the skill that once existed to produce the finest porcelain. Joritz-Nakagawa is also writing at the very height of her artistic skills, though the matter is her own mind and body under duress. Like the ceramic plates in the Dinner Party, Plan B Audio reshapes damage to the female sex, lifting women’s art out of any restricting format.