by 'Branches of a House' Agnieszka Studziñska ( Shearsman 2021): 'Origin' JL Williams ( Shearsman 2022): 'Fairoz' Moniza Alvi( Bloodaxe 2022)
Reviewed by Lucy Sheerman
Agnieszka Studziñska’s Branches of a House, JL Williams’ Origin and Moniza Alvi’s Fairoz offer three different studies in the architecture of loss and belonging. The long poem form permits a subtle and complex investigation that experiments with different perspectives, time frames and perceptions of personal connections and rifts.
Agnieszka Studziñska’s collection Branches of a House (Shearsman, 2021) concerns itself with the exploration of place and identity. Her own move from Poland, as a seven-year-old child, to the UK feels poignantly present in the descriptions of returns to remembered places and spaces and the thwarted searches for roots in a partially remembered landscape that is not quite present but not truly the past. The book reconstructs a series of buildings which are inhabited by memory. In spite of the focus on the physical traces of buildings, doors, windows, corridors, points of leaving and of meeting, these abstract spaces are never empty. They are inhabited by the memories of the people who dwelled there. At certain points Studziñska seems to speak to these lost voices as she also addresses the empty rooms, sleeps in them, eats in them, plays the role of mother, daughter, lover in them.
In ‘Brick’, for example, a child discovers his sense of belonging and self as he encounters the tactile space of a house, its walls:
. . . scabrous to the soft fingers of a child who traces its exterior as he learns to walk
in a house. It is as if the brick moves through him or we through the brick, the house
changing in registers of light. (p.13)
Here the narrator and the figures they observe, are pulled apart into their smallest elements: the child learning to walk, the house learning or remembering its architecture of past lives through the relic of its constituent parts, the bricks and left behind traces of a house. Always, these fragile architectural spaces, haunted by the memories of lost inhabitants are close to a return to the earth from which, like the bricks, they were summoned. Here ‘There are bricks wherever we look & fallen branches. . .’ (P.13).
In ‘Spring’ the reader encounters:
– a suggestion of permanency arrested in thickets of light. The neighbour has started
a bonfire & the smoke of dead things & wood cling. . . (p.19)
Throughout this collection the houses are provisional, never empty shells, they are rather containers of a collective sense of remembering, one which all too often summons the certain knowledge of trauma, for in these poems people are always leaving, being forced to abandon their houses. Consequently, the stability and soundness of these structures is continually undermined in this book. Like the roots that grow inexorably across the poems, the foundations of these buildings are insecure and temporary. More transient than the bodies that they protect, imperfectly, these houses seem to be organic places, shaped by the people who constructed them around their need for shelter, protection. They might also be nests built amongst branches, a habitat created in a hollow trunk or an underground den burrowed through tree roots. In ‘Biography of H’ a house gradually subsides back into a person, the person who might have built it.
Ghosts are everywhere, particularly in the sequence ‘Branches of a House’ which also gives the collection its title. There are unsaid, unsayable words and phrases littered across these pages from the opening of the first poem:
She packs lightly travels light
closed in her mouth like a clump of smoke
parting from places in her small history (p.51)
History, the story of the people in these poems is provisional, their stories, like their homes, fragile and impermanent:
The house breathes her out. She breathes you back in.
They speak in silence, the blue shadows of breath misspell home. (p.52)
Everywhere there are people dislocated from these hubs of memory and safety. In section IV Studziñska notes that:
Children struggle to survive in sub-zero temperatures in Belgrade. Frostbite like
leeches. […] He sleeps in an old train station on the pillow of the platform. My school
was destroyed and my home too, he says. (p. 52)
In ‘Dear Ghost’ this ephemeral state of being becomes part of the way that memories are shared, stories told. Language itself seems to be lost in the rootlessness of exile, the disappearance of place, the intimate knowledge and understanding of location, weather, nature, for Studziñska:
We are nature’s apparitions
a sequence of sentences silhouetted
we ask what does this mean?
we ask how of our phrases?
letters loose & loosening
you struggle to draft never shipped (p. 64)
The loss of the mother tongue, her mother’s language, her own are traced through these disappearances. The mouth is the place where language and longing are found, the language of lost histories, the longing for food, for the apples that recur as an image throughout these poems. In this haunted landscape, filled with the immanence of loss, buildings are places of trauma, the thwarted desire for roots, although they still grow into the darkness of the earth. On a trip back to the place where, it appears, the author’s family originated:
A woman sells homegrown vegetables and fruit outside the cemetery. Earth in the
traces of her hands and produce. Earth in the corner of where she stands and where
she lives. Earth between you in language where it breaks. (p. 66)
As Studziñska notes in this, the final poem of the section, ‘Derrida urges you to speak with ghosts, Even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet.’
Much of Branches of a House is concerned with the plight of living in sites defined by personal history, framed by bricks but shaped by family inheritance and trauma. Origin, written by JL Williams, is concerned with the hopefulness of new life. An extended love poem to the poet’s daughter, it progresses through the cycle of unborn communion, the miraculous realisation of pregnancy and new life ‘inside’ the poet. The writer’s inner life and the imagined environment of the developing foetus become fused in these poems as the expectation of a longed-for baby brings words for things, lost words, new languages to the writer. It’s a euphoria partly imposed by circumstance. The poet, her partner and the baby are all confined to their home due to lockdown and the poems capture the intensity of that intimate period of birth and the overwhelming sense of limitless love that follows contained within the limits of lockdown. In spite of this atmosphere of fear, of the outside world, of breath and of the poisonous air beyond their flat, the repeated image of light suggests a place in which illumination and possibility radiate outwards. This collection reads, therefore, as an expression of hope, in spite of the shadows of the outside world mapped by Studziñska and indeed by Williams.
In ‘I never wanted a child’, Williams describes her own childhood as one of suffering, in fear of an unpredictable stepfather, a lost mother and the relentlessness of caring for much younger siblings. It is counter to the tranquil space in which the parents live with their new-born baby. After a life primarily defined by not wanting a child, Williams describes how she began to long for one but had to face her own difficult childhood in order to come to terms with her future as a mother. Williams describes how:
On my windowsill as a child, the blue glass blue bird caught the light and
glowed. I lost my first poem, but I remember it went something like this:
blue glass blue bird blue glass blue bird blue glass blue bird blue glass
blue bird blue glass blue bird (p.28-29)
The repetition of the image manifests the same delight in the miracle of light her daughter brings. ‘This nearly unbearable shining’ can be read as a rewriting of the author’s infant fascination that was captured in the blue glass poem as well as an articulation of the intense witnessing of the phenomenon of light that she experienced as a child:
silver thread blowing in the wind
your first laugh your every breath
to catch the end
follow lightness through light (p.36)
With motherhood comes a separation from the familiar world but, for Williams, motherhood came at the time of Covid and so the disappearance of freedom, autonomy, exercise, independence are masked by the isolation and captivity of lockdown. Motherhood becomes, instead, a source of wonder, satisfaction and emotional satiation. The losses are felt elsewhere, in the social breakdown and death described in the long poem ‘Mother Virus’, the Brechtian title poem of the central sequence of the collection. They are also in the erasure of memory that takes place in ‘Broken sleep breaks the memory’ when the poet finds:
Names elude me,
I realise the tap in the kitchen sink is running,
what did I come here to do?
Other memories shudder to surface,
years ago dreams, conjured landscapes
invented and drowned in the stuttering torrents of waking. (p.56)
The receding of the outside world and its alternative stories is replicated in the poet’s forgetting of words. In ‘Your mouth is full of sounds’, the baby’s mouth expresses delirious pleasure in the world while her body’s register of this leaves marks on the writer’s legs. The bruises are a register of beauty and shared creativity, so much so that she wishes to memorialise the pain:
. . . I have bruises from your toes /pushing into my thighs I want to tattoo / these
bruises cast in bronze the pushing / of your toes into the sand of my flesh (p.59)
There is gladness in the communication and self-expression that is shared between mother and baby, as for example in ‘What I’m trying to say is’ where Williams writes: ‘. . . I saw your lips opening just like mine’ (p. 47). The hurt of the pressing feet is echoed in the discomfort of sounds that reveal pain or suffering in ‘What doesn’t kill you’:
I didn’t know
how relieved I would be to hear your first cry
or how it would make me cry
how my fears would drop away – of hating crying (p.65-66)
Out of sight, and masked from these scenes, is the memory of the failure to find correspondence and reciprocity with her mother and with the child she once was. Williams could be speaking about her mother as well as her child in the final lines of ‘Moving’. It is a poem which echoes the rootless search for habitation traced by Branches of a House:
Now you’re out of me I’m something like a home
become a house, moved from and somnolently uninhabited.
Other parts of my body are yours and I,
being repossessed, don’t mind anymore who sees me naked.
Still I can feel the ghosts you’ve left behind
each time you smile, swallow, cry. (p.39)
In Fairoz (Bloodaxe, 2022) by Moniza Alvi the link between motherhood and injury also lurks. Alvi draws out the stories of repeated hurts and the wounding caused by a wounded mother via a story in which the possibility of healing and restoration seems constantly out of reach. Fairoz, a young Muslim woman, is the eponymous protagonist, whose history is related in an extended series of poems that return to the central concern of the work, her complex inner life and bleak outer world. The sequence of poems incorporates a range of different narratives and narrators. This includes fairytale accounts of Fairoz’s experiences on the internet-forest, folk-lore inspired accounts of encounters between god and the devil, depictions of a hostile home environment and details of her toxic relationship with her mother. There are reminiscences from Fairoz, pieces constructed from quotations from reports and accounts of extremism, and also poems written from Alvi’s point of view as she tracks Fairoz’s story of her encounter with extremist ideology.
Filled with the imagery of religion, there are allusions to the fight between good and evil metaphorized in a subset of poems that return to conversations and interactions between ‘God’ and the ‘Devil’ and their struggle for one-upmanship, companionship, relationship and acknowledgement as in ‘A Story of God and the Devil’: ‘They looked at each other / with recognition. / Occasionally they swapped roles.’ (p.39)
In its depiction of Fairoz’s inner voice and life the book reveals the conflict between haven and exile, heaven and purgatory. It’s a study in displacement, the process of exclusion and the desire to belong, to be beloved and accepted. It is also, therefore, a study in the experience and exercise of cruelty. Fairoz’s search for meaning and self-discovery in belief in God is thus unravelled throughout the sequence of poems which track an increasing openness to extreme beliefs and acts developed in the context of a sense of exclusion and lostness.
The metaphoric forest, the internet which Fairoz explores from her room at night, is filled with shade and darkness and the uncanny gothic reality of fairytales such as Red Riding Hood. Fairoz thus ‘wanders the dark pathways of the internet.’ (p. 12) ‘The Devil and the gleams’ traces the sense that, for Fairoz, the internet becomes both planetary orbit and the only source of illumination:
[. . .}
And on the screen’s dark sky
a single star gleams.
Shrinks. And disappears.
A gleam is
something to work with. (p.21)
This realm is one in which figures slip in and out of view, half obscured, wolfish and axe-wielding, both tantalising and repulsive.
While the childish world of fairytale merges with the need for reflection and recognition in the gleam of the screen Fairoz stares at, the source of the hungry searching seems to lie at the door of the hostile and toxic worlds of home and school. As in so many fairytales, and indeed in Red Riding Hood, the mother is absent or willfully complicit in the protagonist’s experience of danger and lostness in the internet-forest. The metaphor of coldness is associated with the brittle control and emotional distance of the mother and the frigid emptiness of Fairoz’s world. In ‘where the swarm is thickest’, the house is both physically and emotionally frozen:
Indoor snow again.
The house was full of it,
flake after flake
all the white bees swarming.
‘Amma, it’s freezing! Where are you?’
‘I’m upstairs WORKING, Fairoz.
And don’t be stupid, it’s not at all cold.’ (p.49)
In ‘It was long ago’ the mother is described in the moment that she
. . . forced a piece of ice
into her hand, not a word spoken.
It stuck there like a burr. Ice with hooks.
In the palm of her hand
a cold flame was burning. (p.53)
Continuing the fairytale imagery, the mother is represented as the emotionally distant Snow Queen, introducing an increasingly urgent sense of lack and loss, one which leads the protagonist into the hostile internet-forest in the fraught quest for answers to her unspoken, unspeakable questions as well as the search for love and responsiveness.
While the fairytale demonization of the mother in this context has clearly slipped from the well-thumbed pages of a storybook, the emotional fragility of Fairoz feels real and urgent. The slivers of ice in her heart, the frozen landscape of her home contribute to the distorting of the imagined and real territories of her world:
In the morning
she says to herself:
‘I don’t like my life.’ And again.
Sun creeping through the curtains.
And now on the way to school
‘I don’t like my life because —–’ (p.25)
Fairoz’s need for warmth is urgent in its metaphorical framing in these poems as a mental and physical malady accompanied by the loss of bearings insisted upon in a landscape of snow. The only warmth that features, however, is in the tender, pared back ‘He’s “v v sorry”‘, a poem filled with the colour and warmth of the tulips Tahir gives her:
From Tahir buds opening slowly colours of flames
tulips! tulips swaying dancing in a circle faster
fasterfaster sprawling out out dying colour
of blood (p.59)
The longed-for fire and colour of the tulips are, like so many other elements in the book, ‘not real’; they are the bruises Tahir left on her skin after he punched her. It is only when she realizes his involvement, as well as her own complicity, with a terror attack that she succumbs to the cold that threatens to overcome her throughout these delicately interlinked poems. In ‘In the snow’ she sinks into the deadening possibility of hypothermia, frostbite when she is depicted as “she lay down in the indoor snow – / it numbed her slowly, very slowly.” (p.89) This extended long poem form permits multiple perspectives, resisting answers to the questions posed by its protagonists and instead offering its readers twisting ‘dark pathways’ and more questions.
All three collections use the long poem form to interrogate complex relationships between mothers and daughters, the desire to build new habitations and the dream of new worlds. It is a testament to the capacity of all three writers that the books can accommodate such conflicting concepts even as they unpick the idea of mothering and its frequently toxic associations. All three works excavate the trauma of separation and exile in writing that counters the slow and inexorable experience of loss with the intensity of vividly conveyed remembered scenes.