Dave Russell on
A Lonely Man Circling the Earth
(Leeds Survivors Press, 2017)
Stevie James in her own words aspires to be ‘the muse of androgyny’. Several of her poems indeed have a dual aspect, a character with both male and female characteristics. Gender boundaries are explored in depth: in ‘For Julio Galán’, the painter has an androgynous quality – ‘A cigarette hangs from the man’s mouth/In your woman's face.’ Neo-expressionist Galán certainly gives ample coverage to the erotic – including transvestism. Stevie feels that she is his model/his muse: ‘O guide me into the dress like Dietrich/seamed up between whalebone and steel corsets.’ But the process is definitely two-way, as she says to him: ‘Cast off your gown,/ Go to earth/sequestered in brown loam. In ‘You Tell Me You Love Me’ she can say ‘You tell me I am your son/Lover, daughter . . . Mother-love and father figure’. ‘And This Is Love’ leaves it open as to whether there might be a gay partner.
Through ‘The Conquering of Gravity’ Stevie expresses her mythical persona; she conquers gravity by dressing up in a range of exotic wardrobe, and entering into an exotic dance; finally she casts off the wardrobe and dances naked. The female aspect predominates, especially in the area of clothing. It must not be forgotten that some of the most straight and macho of males like dressing up in female attire.
‘And This Is Love’ paints an idealised picture of love, from the blended perspective of participant and outside observer: lovely ‘two-tone’ image of ‘lily white cabaret girl’ and ‘ebony black cabaret boy’. She dreams her true lover would be an artist (presumably, conversely, she dreams that a great artist will be her lover). ‘Dark at Half Past Three’ faces the pain of unrequited love – a something with cosmic dimensions: ‘the moon on her back already//she has a lonely night ahead/in her silver diamanté gown/glowering in space . . .’ Some people say they die for love: ‘the space between us/– beloved and lover –/Is all death asks.’
‘Push Me to the Edge, But Push Me No Further’ defines the limits of devotion to a lover, including self-sacrifice and martyrdom. ‘Unequal Notes’ reveals feelings of lack of correspondence and reciprocity in relation to a lover. These sentiments contrast quite sharply with her willingness to die for a composer she adores in ‘An Angel for Pyotr Ilyich’.
A most intimate evocation of a relationship with a close woman friend comes in ‘Clare in the Night (or White Stilettos)’: Clare wanted to become a nun, and made a pilgrimage to the Church of Santa Chiara (a saint akin to a moon-goddess). She is lured into the bonds of the flesh by Antonio de Barista, who seems to prove feckless and faceless. Stevie has feelings of compassion: ‘I feel too much pity/To remove your skirt/Shorter than the conscience/Of all the men who have been there.’ But she also feels she cannot fully enter the cathedral; she puts some money in the collecting box, then leaves. Does she see something of herself in Clare?
The collection has a rich cultural backdrop, including Russian literature – a ‘phantom lover’ derived from Dostoyevsky, and a touching portrayal of Marina Tsvetayeva in ‘The Dresses’: she identifies intimately with her literary heroine: ‘I join you in time/UNSTOPPABLE’. She identifies with Marina as she tries on all the outfits which can be associated with her.
In ‘High Heels’, she fantasizes about wearing a dazzling evening dress and being a pianist; very sad ‘coming to earth: her soul is ‘Opalescent as the oyster’s wealth/Upon a forgotten sea bed.’ A reference to Alvarez’s study of Sylvia Plath in ‘Mademoiselle’, a lament for a child prodigy who did not seem to realise her potential, and who perhaps committed suicide.
‘Obscured by Orchids’ is a ‘retrospective’ on a past tryst. Interesting gloss on Tennyson: ‘. . . the back yard/From which Lady-of-Shalott-like/Sunlight bounced back/To gash orange on my tomato soup.’ But then she diverges from her role-model: ‘I say to myself ‘I am half-sick of shadows’//But this lady/Belonging Patti-Smith-like to the night/Devours them/Greedily.’ Deeply touching image of making love on a bed of orchids.
There is a musical background – ‘Elliott Carter’s String Quartet No. 5’ and Pyotr Ilyich’s ‘Pathétique Symphony’. From the film and pop world, Greta Garbo and Petula Clark are described in great detail, and with great affection. There is some feeling that Stevie wants to ‘be’ them – take over, ‘clone’ their bodies and souls.
Some stark social realism in ‘Lazarus Rising’, showing the grim underside of a job interview, and unveiling the propaganda in the process: ‘Lazarus (the legendary riser from the dead) is so sweet/Until he remembers it is the next century . . . and drinks to the dregs/The lost opportunities of the 20th Century. The poet can be bitterly ironic in her address to youth, but embedded in that irony is a deep compassion: ‘Rest your shaved heads/In the lap of utility/And know one day your winding sheets/-now rolled into neat bandages –/Will, unfurling, absorb the starch/of all your bipolar expeditions’. This partly challenges the mentality of ‘outward bound’ expeditions, and makes a challenging fusion of Arctic/Antarctic pioneering with the bipolar mental condition.
Some feelings of guilt and self-doubt emerge in ‘I Have Borrowed All My Life from Thieves’. She feels she has done a great deal of ‘cultural plundering’ of the accoutrements and posturings of famous figures from the past; she has felt ‘a slave to envy’, and omnivorous in her approach: ‘I have borrowed the bed linen of the untouchables/And fashioned it into a Fortuny gown/The razor edge of fashion/cuts your pathway.’ Stevie longs to break free from these attachments; but to so is an extremely difficult process: ‘Your strand of pearls is as strong/As barbed wire coiling out the enemy.’
Stevie is quite cynical about the creative process itself, such as in ‘Creativity’, where she finds words ‘weak and timid’ and yearns for a voice ‘torn/with Heathcliffian vigour’. Comparable observations on ‘spoken word’ are expressed in ‘Poetry Reading’. These poems are complemented by Stevie’s description of her reading habits in ‘Eternal Snow’.
This poet can face the depths of pessimism with a statement like ‘Dying was easier after all,/Than the dress rehearsal of life. But she can be truly resilient with a sense of the post-mortem, the eternal. ‘Heaven’ describes angels: ‘They are preoccupied/With god, with wings,/With little missions of mercy/Or gigantic plans of redemption.//The seers and prophets were mistaken/When they thought heaven/A remote whiteness of the cloud.//It is a simple thing/Of black, white, sable and green/Sketched in the softest of pencils.’ Similarly, ‘Light’ presents a biological/cosmological perspective, from the starting point of an amoeba, with not altogether unsympathetic echoes of the Book of Genesis.
The overall feeling is of someone who has struggled successfully to find her own identity: ‘I choked on men’s fantasies far too long –/Now the song is mine, it is mine’ (‘For Marianne’). In ‘Everywoman’s Handbag’ Stevie seems to be convinced that she is the generic voice of humanity. Interesting paradox in ‘My book devoured, not a word read’, and a final focusing on an individual partner: ‘I am the silent prayer on your lips.’
Stevie’s own words on her work are highly illuminating: ‘I would wish the poems to speak for themselves, and hopefully they reflect something of my desire\ dream that everyone should be able to live wherever they choose on the spectrum from male to female and all the ranges in between. I believe gender (as opposed to sex) is far more fluid than our culture has led us to believe. My ‘voice’ veers more to the feminine, but I try, on occasion, to use a male voice – as in the poem The River. ‘For Marianne’ is about the experience of Marianne Faithfull, who as a drug addict lived behind a wall.
‘Some interpretations of certain poems express things I wasn’t even conscious of meaning. But they are perfectly valid, and I would not contradict them!’
Her final assessment of her own mortality (including the title) forms a fitting conclusion to this incisive collection: ‘I shall die in a shroud of silver screen/And when at last I come to eternity/(which waits for us all from the moment of birth/Will a genderless god gather me in and say//I am lonely, so lonely circling the earth/What is a man or woman worth?’
Congratulations to Leeds Survivors Poetry for having produced this volume; it is high time that London Survivors emulated this example!
Copies of A Lonely Man Circling the Earth are available for £6 (which includes postage & packaging) from Leeds Survivors Poetry, c/o 8 Beulah View, Leeds LS6 2LA.
David Russell © 2017