St Andrews Town Hall
4th March 2016, 2.15pm
The idea behind ‘Border Crossings’ is to bring together two poets, neither of whom is from Scotland, into a single session. This wasn’t the first StAnza to include events of this nature, and I don’t think it will be the last. It’s a fixture. This particular two-voiced reading featured a poet from England and a poet from Sweden.
Valerie Laws, whose wonderfully-titled poetry collection The Facebook of the Dead came out in 2014, is also a writer of crime-thrillers, a dramatist, and once (infamously) spray-painted poems on live sheep to celebrate the quantum theory. You heard me right. Apart from all the above, she is currently writer-in-residence at the Gordon Museum of Pathology in London. I’ll bet you didn’t even know a museum of pathology had a writer-in-residence. Well you do now.
So if I tell you that she writes poetry that shows ‘a funny side to dementia’, for example, you won’t be too surprised. That was precisely the way she launched her reading in today’s ‘Border Crossings’. In her poem ‘My Mother’s Two Lovers’ she celebrates ‘the men’ – that’s what her mother called her husband, Valerie’s father, convinced in the early stage of her dementia that he was two separate men, and that she was having an illicit affair with one of them and had thereby ‘doubled her marriage’. Valerie at the time was facing single life, having recently divorced. All was not lost, however, as subsequently she met a younger man at a funeral with whom – before the ashes of the departed were cool, no doubt – she got it on with, big style!
I think by now you have grasped the mood of the readings. What followed included: a poem set in a dissecting room, where ‘veterans of the war on gravity’ gave their silent, passive contribution to medical knowledge, their genitals, amongst other parts of their bodies, still remarkably solid; a poem where jars in the pathology museum were occupied by 19c deformed fetuses, ‘such little characters’; getting her five-year-old son used to the idea of death by taking him to see his dead grandmother – a woman who, while alive, routed Jehovah’s Witnesses from her doorstep and ‘all along their Watchtowers’* – and he asks “Will she be stuffed and in a glass case?”; ‘The Facebook of the Dead’, the poem inspired by Lee Halpin that leads her collection of the same name, and which depicts the deceased’s Facebook presence continuing ‘like racehorses whose jockey has been jettisoned’; and finally a poem about the sex life of slugs, who ‘build bridges between two equals’ and afterwards stroll the pavements, fearless of rape.
Valerie had deposited us in strange territory. Aase Berg took us deeper into it. I am sitting here thinking ‘Scandinavian’ and trying hard not to add ‘noir’. Oops. Oh well. Let me, then, tell you how appropriate that might be: Aase appeared before us dressed entirely in black, she planted herself at the microphone and did not move, did not sway, she read in… in… no, not monotone but monochrome. This description sounds dreadful, BUT as Aase writes and reads in a place somewhere between dourness and calm, this delivery draws attention directly to the words themselves. For a while the audience shuffled in their seats, then they were silent, then they were mesmerised. First she gave us one of her poems in Swedish so that we would appreciate how her original work sounds – its rhythms, its musical value – and then continued with the translations by Johannes Göransson.
There was an abstract quality to her poems. It often seemed as though a phrase or an image in one gave rise to the title or theme of the next, and the effect of that was that her entire reading almost seemed like a single poem, even when she changed from one collection to another. Each image was, in a way, discrete and distinct, and nevertheless the listener connected them, constructing a narrative the way we do with dreams when we awake. Is it relevant that she started with crystal structures and ended with parasites in snails, on the way referring to men as ‘manipulative fuck-obsessives’? Not to the experience today. I was left with the impression of beauty – don’t ask me how! Here are some of her telling lines:
… one always holds the harpoon alone…
…I want to be a bird
birds are never free
they are in complete control…
With their slugs and snails and all in between, Valerie and Aase in combination merit a whole nickel’s worth of stars.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson
*You have to be of my generation to get that one.