Marie Allitt: ‘I must invent my own markers’

Measuring Poetic and Inner Landscapes of Illness and Pain

Over recent decades the medical community has come to realise how increasingly they must rely on the voice of the patient, not just in clinical consultation, but in creative articulations.

In the medical encounter, whether an appointment with a GP or an emergency situation, time is of the essence. The voice of the patient, while vital, is given little opportunity to speak, mostly limited due to time restrictions. As a patient, we tend to hierarchise the problems, and may even leave the appointment never having mentioned something that was bothering us. So much of our time and effort is put into trying to explain and describe, as accurately as possible; before the appointment we instinctively prepare explanations of the problems, symptoms, concerns. We must measure what we say, and how we say it.

Hugo Simberg, 'The Wounded Angel' (1903)

Hugo Simberg, ‘The Wounded Angel’ (1903)

Yet, this measuring is not a purely negative thing, as restriction is not always limiting; in fact it can be freeing and illuminating. Shaping how and what we have to say enables the creation of a narrative, which uncovers things not yet realised. For example, we might realise how one sensation is a direct result of a sensation elsewhere on the body, or how some problems only emerge at certain times of the day. The art of narrative and creative construction can emphasise, subordinate and organise these symptoms and sensations, helping make sense of pain and illness.

The same could be said for poetry, where “restriction” or “limitation” in its construction can be freeing. In crafting poetry, word choice is measured, sometimes designed into a specific poetic form, or breaking convention outright. Writing poetry, like explaining symptoms, is a negotiation with and navigation through language. The poetry of illness can and does contribute to the language and articulation of pain, and consequently the recognition and understanding of illness and pain.

In experiencing illness, there is a need to express and explain one’s sensations, but the language of pain and illness is often elusive or fails us. In sharing one’s sensations, whether with medical practitioners, or friends and family, we require our language to bring them with us; to give them access and insight into what we are experiencing, and how it feels. We try to give them the directions to follow us on the journey. However, as Arthur Frank in The Wounded Storyteller remarks: ‘Serious illness is a loss of the “destination and map” that had previously guided the ill person’s life’ (Frank, 1). Thus, we are left to redraw the map, and create a new route and pathway which might aid the expression of pain and communication to others.

I wish to explore such a struggle with expressing the inner landscape of pain through Marguerite Bouvard’s poem ‘Landscape’:

Landscape

The dimensions are dizzying; peaks
unraveling the sky, light sheer

as rock unbroken by leaves or shrubs
or the humble shadows of passersby.

In this wilderness, I must invent
my own markers, a way of describing

distances only my body knows.
I’m like the first settlers who tried to stake out

a plot in rampant space: nights,
the frail structure of belief crumbles.

And yet you look at me and see a woman
like any other; you don’t see

the landscape of illness, the cliffs
within myself I scale each day.

Bouvard describes the internal landscape of mental illness as if it were the natural environment. Immediately we can see the overwhelming nature of the illness she is experiencing where the ‘dimensions are dizzying’. While it is ‘unraveling the sky’, it unravels her world, and the knowledge of her body. The poem specifically concerns mental illness, which explicitly suffers from invisibility, compounded by the struggle to share the symptoms and pain. The illness is isolating and confusing, made worse when she cannot explain the extent and details that make up the symptoms and effects of the illness.

It is at night when the vulnerability and isolation especially (re-)emerges for her, when ‘the frail structure of belief crumbles’. She questions the belief in everything, from the validity of the sensations, to the accuracy of the body and the mind in identifying these ruptures. Crumbling belief leads to doubting one’s ability to not only articulate and convey, but also survive. This ‘frail structure of belief’ might also be the system of language, which has never seemed so frail before. It is often only in times of crisis, emotional or somatic, that we realise the futility and failings of language as a tool to express what is going on inside. Finding ‘a way of describing’ becomes an urgent personal and social need. At the same time perhaps her failing ‘belief’ is in medicine itself; a system and institution which seems to fail her.

Edvard Munch, 'The Sun' (1909)

Edvard Munch, ‘The Sun’ (1909)

These anxieties are intensified by the heavy descriptions of a natural landscape, ones which are infused with sublimity. The poem is made up of images of sublime natural features: ‘peaks’, ‘wilderness’, ‘rampant space’ and ‘cliffs’. These are natural features which are awe-inspiring, but which put the individual on a brink between pleasure and terror – the effect being both breath taking and triggering breathlessness. The final image of poem, ‘the cliffs/ within myself which I scale each day’, is reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his sonnet ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’ are the lines: ‘O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’. Both poems focus on the cliff as the image for the mind, but more specifically of a mind undergoing crisis. For Bouvard this is the daily struggle; it is the cliffs which she must ‘scale each day’; ‘scale’ in the both the sense of climbing and of measuring. She must climb and conquer these cliffs in order to function, but she must also measure and take note of changes from day to day, recognising the good and the bad days. The cliff images from both poets poignantly convey the struggle and the fear which is a large part of mental illness, melancholy or grief.

At the heart of these sublime images however is the overwhelming sense of being lost; lost not just in any expanse, but ‘this wilderness’; ‘this’ cementing the personal, first-hand nature of the experience. The ‘dizzying’ sense is reinforced by the inclusion of: ‘I’m like the first settlers who tried to stake out/ a plot in rampant space’. Such a detail makes us ask, where do we begin? A huge expanse lies open to us, instilling fear and anxiety. A number of things are taking place. On the one hand the ‘dizzying’ feeling infers that she is the first to feel the pain and symptoms of the illness, as a ‘first settler’ she must scope out and ‘stake out’ the topography of the landscape, so that she can provide a “mappable” list of symptoms.

On the other hand, her body is an undiscovered country, which must be territorialised by modern medicine. Arthur Frank explains that ‘Just as political and economic colonialism took over geographic areas, modernist medicine claimed the body of its patient as its territory, at least for the duration of the treatment’ (10). Medical treatment must begin with the initial medical encounter, of which she is both the object and the subject. She must speak as an ambassador for her own body, to communicate the inner landscape.

Of course, Bouvard is not alone in adopting the physical landscape to represent the interior state, but it is significant that she places cartographic images alongside permeable and amorphous aspects of nature. She presents images of unchanging and stable marking: ‘distances’, ‘dimensions’, ‘markers’, ‘structure’, ‘scale’, which suggest a solid framework around which to articulate the mutable experience of subjective illness.  Yet, we might argue that these frameworks are not entirely solid, but rather subjective and adjustable. In fact they are movable markers, lacking specificity, for example exact units of measurement. The landscape of one’s own body is something that is familiar so surely we know what to expect of it, but to convey this becomes increasingly difficult. Perhaps Bouvard’s use of such, seemingly, stable features of measurement is an attempt at providing some lynchpin foundational concepts around which to construct a language and expression.

The overpowering loss of control is protracted by the perceived inability to articulate and therefore communicate the illness. She must find an individual language of pain and illness: ‘I must invent my own markers’, through a personal reading of her own body. The invention of these ‘markers’ demonstrates her awareness for the need to be responsible for demonstrating one’s pain, as well as solidifying the instinctual, human necessity to find ‘a way of describing’. Specifically, ‘markers’ suggests a physical sign. While mental illness is less likely to produce a physical ‘marker’, the demands of the body require a physical or material output. Bouvard adopts ‘marker’ as an externalisation of her inner landscape. This poem is the ‘marker’ she has invented for herself.

The fact that she ‘must invent’ such ‘markers’ is due in part to the failings and disappointments of medical encounters, which is especially evoked at the volta of the poem. The overall poem fits the traditional 14 line structure of the sonnet, including a volta, or turn, where the tone and message slightly changes key. It places significance with ‘And yet you…’, engaging directly with the disenchantment and frustration of expressing pain, and of making someone else see the pain. This is the only second person address in the poem, extending the content of both the poem and the illness experience outwards. The ‘you’ implicates us in the disillusion of invisible suffering. We ‘see a woman/like any other’, and ‘don’t see/ the landscape of illness’, because the pain, and the nature of mental illness is invisible. The symptoms are emblazoned on the inner landscape so cannot be witnessed. Crucially there are different levels of disenchantment; not just the medical institution, but with the frustration at conveying pain. It is not an outright criticism of the medical system, but a subtle critique of something far more pervasive: the ineffectiveness of language for pain, twinned with the problem of listening and understanding another’s pain.

The language of measurement, distances and sizes, etc. infuses the poem with images of quantification. In this poem Bouvard subtly employs the quantifying language of the physical world as a replacement for the non-existent language of bodily quantities. When we attempt to describe our symptoms, we measure our words carefully.

We must measure our words carefully; measuring in every sense of the word. We literally measure the amount of what we say. We must measure and quantify the level of pain, on a scale or comparison which can be communicable to others; medics, friends and family. Poetry, and any creativity through art and literature, allows for a reification of the unknown, abstract and unquantifiable symptoms of the inner, mental landscape. Art opens up a space for experimenting with the articulation of illness; of redrawing a map on the sufferers own terms, and of showing to others the inner landscape of illness and pain.

 

Marie Allitt is a second year PhD Candidate in English Literature at the University of York. Her thesis explores spatial representations in first-hand medical accounts and narratives in the First World War, from the perspectives of caregivers. This draws upon interdisciplinary ideas from Human Geography, History, Medical Humanities, as well as Literature.

She holds an MSc by Research from the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘The Traumatised Body in Combat Narratives of the First World War’ (2014), and an MA(Hons) from the University of Glasgow, in English Literature (2013).  

 

Works Cited

Marguerite Bouvard, ‘Landscape’, Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry ed. Jon Mukand (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994) 273

Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief’

 

A Found Poem

Found poem_HuenThis is a found poem I created by taking words and phrases from a classmate’s essay. I have been attending Tabish Khair’s creative writing workshops, and once, he asked us to write a three-part essay about a domestic item we could recall from childhood—the same item we have now, and will have ten or a hundred years from now. As we turned up with the essays typed and printed out, we discussed the writing in pairs, and the challenges we encountered as we wrote.

Tabish then asked us to snip out redundant words or phrases from each essay and construct a poem from the bits and pieces that were left. And so this found poem emerged, born from the off-cuts of a classmate’s essay. The orange stroke underneath the title is the only added component. As you read the poem, you might guess what domestic item my classmate wrote about. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here.

The process of piecing these fragments together was challenging because the ‘writing’ was restricted, just as a poet restricts his writing by adopting the form of a sonnet. Tabish has advocated the importance limitations as we write, because one of the pitfalls of writing in free verse is forgetting to push ourselves hard enough as we settle on a particular line or image.

In the essay, the word ‘itch’ referred to a strong desire to do something rather than the skin condition it describes, or reimagines, in the found poem. This is an example that shows through cutting and pasting, the fragments not only become a new piece of writing but also allow words and phrases to take on new meanings.

Recently I have been inspired to transform experience I had as I write poetry, which is what I attempted to do in this found poem. By exploring how a bodily itch can be reimagined using childhood imagery, I sought to demonstrate how the genre of found poetry can help us achieve what the poem calls ‘maximum game turnover’. Just as we reimagine an experience in a poem, we can create as many poems out of the same pile of words and phrases. This is, in some sense, what writing a poem is all about: multiple trials before an idea or message is best communicated in the most interesting way. Found poetry is much more than patching slips together.

 

Antony Huen is a first-year PhD candidate at the University of York, where he researches how contemporary poets draw inspirations from visual art. He is a recurring contributor to Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. He was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

Walking with Will: A Shakespeare 400 Celebration

The Complete Walk is a free event taking place on the South Bank on Saturday 23rd April (10am-10pm) and Sunday 24th April (10am-8pm).  For more details and a map, see http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/special-events/the-complete-walk.

CELIA                     Didst thou hear these verses?

ROSALIND            O, yes, I heard them all, and more too; for some of them had in them more feet than the verses would bear.

CELIA                     That’s no matter: the feet might bear the verses.

ROSALIND            Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear themselves without the verse and therefore stood lamely in the verse.

(As You Like It 3.2.1275-80)

People have been making jokes about metrical and anatomical feet since the dawn of time.  Or at least since the ancient Greeks, whose word πούς had the same double signification.  The Romans inherited both the word – pes – and the pun, and took to it with gleeful enthusiasm.  Shakespeare himself was not above a good ‘foot’ joke, as the wonderful (prose) passage in which Celia and Rosalind mock Orlando’s attempts at love poetry demonstrates.

It is appropriate, then, that for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare’s Globe is staging a ‘Complete Walk’ all down the South Bank.  The idea is that this weekend (23rd-24th April), members of the public can walk from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, going from screen to screen watching a specially-made short film for each play.  In approximately 5000 steps (2.5 miles) you can take your own journey through Shakespeare’s works, while literally following in his footsteps along the Thames.

Each of the films combines archive footage with scenes that have been shot for them in the locations hovering in Shakespeare’s imagination as he wrote.  Of course, there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever set foot on foreign soil, and his geographical nous has frequently been (often rather smugly) called into question.  A prime example is the infamous coast of Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale – Ben Jonson was only the first in a long line of critics to point out that Bohemia is in fact land-locked.  The eighteenth-century editor Thomas Hanmer, indeed, was so distressed by Shakespeare’s demonstration of his ignorance, that he altered ‘Bohemia’ to the suitably-coasted ‘Bithynia’.  But in this case the last laugh may belong to Shakespeare – there is considerable contemporary evidence that invoking the ‘coast of Bohemia’ was akin to referencing the Swiss Navy.

Another claim that is frequently made is that all of Shakespeare’s settings are effectively thinly-veiled disguises for Elizabethan London.  This is, of course, to a great extent true.  However, it is also clear that Shakespeare did conceive of differences between his locations, from Milford Haven to the islands of the Mediterranean.  The Complete Walk rather brilliantly allows walkers to experience this double-vision, layering the imagined landscape onto the one in which Shakespeare’s own feet were firmly rooted.

If Shakespeare had never left England, what were the sources from which he drew inspiration for his foreign places and people? Any answers to that question will necessarily be speculative, but can be fascinating.  There are some clues in the plays themselves.  In Twelfth Night, for example, Maria describes how Malvolio ‘does smile his face into more lines than is in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies’ (3.2.74-6).  This map has been identified as one by Edward Wright, which appeared in Hakylut’s Voyages in 1599:

Edward Wright, 'A chart of the world on Mercator’s projection’ (c.1599). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Wright, ‘A chart of the world on Mercator’s projection’ (c.1599). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare may have seen a copy of Georg Braun’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published between 1572 and 1617, which contains beautifully illustrated maps of nearly all the cities which feature in his plays.  The map of Alexandria is suitably exotic, with palm trees and camels wandering around outside the walls.  Within the city, ancient ruins stand alongside newer buildings.  There are no pyramids, but interestingly there is a structure labelled ‘obeliscus’ – it has been argued that Shakespeare conceived of pyramids as obelisk-like structures, and that this is how he thought of Cleopatra’s monument in Antony and Cleopatra.

Braun & Hogenberg, view of Alexandria, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1588-1617). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Braun & Hogenberg, view of Alexandria, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1588-1617). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messauod, by an unknown artist (c.1600). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messauod, by an unknown artist (c.1600). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While Shakespeare’s London might not quite have been the cosmopolitan melting-pot it is today, trade and politics brought people and objects from the far corners of the earth.  In 1600, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud was the Moroccan ambassador to Elizabeth’s court.  Some scholars have suggested that he personally inspired the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s Othello.

However that may be, there was a growing sense by the turn of the century that London was at the centre of a network of geographical possibilities that were rapidly opening up.  Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe, completed in 1580, was emblematic of this.  In fact, Geoffrey Whitney included in his Choice of Emblems (1586) an emblem for Francis Drake entitled ‘Auxilio divino’, showing cords from his boat encircling the globe, held at one end by a divine hand.  Looking at this image, it is difficult not to think of Puck’s exuberant boast in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘I’ll put a girdle round about the earth / In forty minutes’ (2.1.547-8).

'Auxilio Divino', from Geoffrey Whitney's Choice of Emblems (1586). Source: https://www.mun.ca/alciato/whit/w203.html.

‘Auxilio Divino’, from Geoffrey Whitney’s Choice of Emblems (1586).

Even in these days of high-speed air travel, we still can’t quite approach the speed of Puck.  Though we may be on average better-travelled than Shakespeare, few people walking along the South Bank even in 2016 will be lucky enough to have had the opportunity to visit all of the places which Shakespeare chose for the locations of his plays.  The Complete Walk will bring them all to London, to the very heart of Shakespeare’s theatrical world, so that borne by our own feet we can visit them, in a twenty-first century embodiment of the imaginative potential of Shakespeare’s verses.

Carla Suthren is a PhD candidate at the University of York working on Shakespeare and the Renaissance reception of Euripides.  She has been working as a research assistant at Shakespeare’s Globe for the Complete Walk project, focusing on images that might have inspired Shakespeare’s works.

David Troupes: On Jean Valentine’s ‘Annunciation’

I want to leave the metaphysical or spiritual ideas of this poem – fascinating as they are – to one side, and just dwell a moment on the way the form of the poem, its use of mid-line caesura and a final enjambment, balances thought and experience as two aspects of a unifying, religious (in the sense of re-ligaturing or reconnecting) drama.

The first line divides between these two categories, thought and experience. The first half sounds formal, abstract, as if sparked by a discussion. Then comes the caesura, which is like the quiet of a gathering current. And then the second half, ‘breaking open’: this is, by contrast, experiential language. While the first half of the line is controlled by the nouns ‘soul’ and ‘flesh’, the second half is verb. It is pure event, like a sudden reality taking the place of what had only been an idea. The six words and seven syllables of the first half quicken into the two words and four syllables of the second half.

The second line, without caesura, introduces the central conceit of the poem while steadying its momentum. Like the opening half of the first line, the second line is more thought than experience, more object than verb. But the third line resumes the increasing momentum, with two worlds and three syllables hastening their energy into the yet smaller line-portion of ‘pouring’, a single word of two syllables.

At this point, the ‘Annunciation’ has already set up a convention of thought rushing, foreshortened, into experience across a line’s caesura. The poem then plays against this expectation with a somewhat overburdened line in which the speaker’s alarm takes on the qualities of a verb: already our mind is trying to stuff ‘my life breaking open’ into the cramped, urgent space occupied previously by ‘pouring’. ‘No one to catch it’ is the record of an idea, but ‘my life breaking open’ is the record of an experience overwhelming the speaker’s expectations.

These expectations are again overwhelmed, even more startlingly, with the final enjambment of ‘my/pelvis’. Nothing in this brief poem has prepared us for this lineation. We could say that ‘my’ takes its place as functional verb, in series with the other post-caesura experiential phrases. The final effect of Valentine’s decision here, however, is to shock us out of the more or less painless rhythm of the poem up to that point. The small variations in form from line to line have been easy enough to accommodate up to this point, but the enjambment is too much, and we are left blinking at the closing image with the sense of being woken from a dream only to find ourselves in a dream yet stranger.

Poem quoted from ‘Door in the Mountain: New and Selected Poems’, Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

David Troupes is currently completing a WRoCAH-funded PhD at the University of Sheffield on Ted Hughes and Christianity. Alongside chapters and articles on Hughes, he has published two collections of poetry, and a selection of his recent work was included in Carcanet’s ‘New Poetries VI’. See www.buttercupfestival.com for more information.

‘An Idea of Iowa’ by Jack Quin

‘Who in their bleakest hour has not considered Iowa?’

State of Iowa

‘Who in their bleakest hour has not considered Iowa?’ Thus begins Caitríona O’Reilly’s eighteen-line poem ‘An Idea of Iowa’ from her new collection Geis (2015). Her question might be appropriated to last night’s Iowa caucuses, the opening act of a marathon race to the White House. With billions of dollars poured into the campaigns of prospective presidential candidates from wealthy donors, feverish grassroots supporters and big business, sleepy Iowa might seem like a strange starting point. The Hawkeye State prides itself in being the ‘first-in-the-nation’ to nominate the would-be Republican and Democratic candidates for the general election in November. To outsiders the privilege afforded to a state with six times as many pigs as people and 10 million acres of corn is somewhat bewildering. Florida, Texas, New York and California won’t hold their primaries for at least another month, and often the field of presidential hopefuls has been sufficiently cleared by the time the larger states have their say.

With the media spotlight firmly, and almost exclusively, on Iowa for the past few months, jokes about its obscurity have come from comedians and pundits alike. Last week Stephen Colbert joked that the ‘Iowa caucuses are just eleven days away, which means we’re just twelve days away from not talking about Iowa for another four years’. And the BBC ran an article comparing Iowa, rather unfortunately, to a little known Winter Olympics sport: ‘Iowa is like the Luge (frozen, thrilling and then forgotten for four years)’.

*                      *                      *

O’Reilly’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Idea of Iowa’ emerges from the same overstatement, and indeed overinvestment, in ‘the plain state’. At a reading of her new collection she confessed that she had never visited Iowa, but that she was inspired by an episode of The West Wing in which the quixotic White House staffers criss-cross the state in the lead up to the President’s re-election bid. If this is anything more than a witty anecdote it is deftly and delicately handled in a poem that idealises and self-effaces the idea of Iowa:

Who in their bleakest hour has not considered Iowa?
We live in a place where everything leans in

as if to confide in us, and learn, too late, it is a trick:
the frieze, the whole entablature must topple,

as the drunk on the bus, in the course of his life story,
anoints us with cidery spittle, as the ash

from a thousand fag-end sunsets settles on us.
But Iowa. A darkening indigo shimmer above tracts of corn,

yellow as far as the eye can see, yellow as the sun
in a child’s first drawing, as the cere of the bald eagle

hanging with locked wings on thermals.
Iowa is rising. Free of the deadweight of ice, […]

O’Reilly’s kaleidoscopic imagination flits between seemingly disparate elements. The Greek Revival architecture reminiscent of Washington gives way to the vast fields of Iowa: ‘the frieze, the whole entablature must topple […] But Iowa. A darkening indigo shimmer above tracts of corn’. The thaw begins in Iowa, note the pun on ‘frieze’, ‘Iowa is rising. Free of the deadweight of ice, / It gains an inch a year, a vast loaf proving.’ In contradistinction to ‘a thousand fag-end sunsets’, Iowa is awash with colour in O’Reilly’s dream-America. The state-flag, a bald eagle with a ribbon in its cere, and the regiments of corn-fields serve as appropriate emblems.

Yet O’Reilly’s fidelity to the archaeology and geology of the landscape traces a longer history through Iowa than its contemporary political significance:

Who thought of it first? (Indian grass, prairie moonwort,

the Pleistocene snail? A place where wars are fought for honey?)
Named for a people asleep, a people with dusty faces,

even its hills are so much dust: loess, the millennial
accumulation of cracked flood-plains; winds.

The lilting word she loves to repeat, ‘Iowa’, comes from the Native American Ioway tribe, which in turn is derived from ayuhwa meaning ‘asleep’. The word was mistranslated by European explorers as ‘dusted faces’. Iowa becomes a stratified accumulation of depletions: glacial deposits and sedimentation form the yellowish-grey Loess Hills, the mischaracterised and displaced aboriginal inhabitants ‘with dusty faces’, and the rich yellows of the cornfields grow over the dustier yellow landscape, ‘the ash / from a thousand fag-end sunsets’.

*                      *                      *

o'reilly - geisNow that the dust has settled and Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton have been the declared the winners of their respective caucuses (though the latter only narrowly) the presidential primaries move to the Granite State, New Hampshire; and Iowa will lie dormant for another four years. A collection of Presidential Primary poetry would be slim in pages and slimmer still in sales. However, the idea of American political campaigns claims poetry as its natural register. According to Mario Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, ‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.’ In the Democratic primaries idealism often trumps pragmatism, and in this year’s Republican primary Cruz trumped Trump.

The measure of O’Reilly’s poetry is that its politics is not emblazoned as a bumper sticker. O’Reilly has offered a curious connection between her immersive, environmental celebration of Iowa and the capricious realpolitik of Iowa. The latter might appear only in glimpses: ‘We live in a place where everything leans in / as if to confide in us, and learn, too late, it is a trick’. Digging deeper, O’Reilly unearths an Iowa that exists beyond four-year political cycles, an Iowa that is formed and reformed by geological cycles over millennia. In Justin Quinn’s The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800–2000 Caitriona O’Reilly is numbered among the contemporary Irish poets who have abandoned ‘the nation as a framework for Irish poetry – on the level of theme, technique, forebears, etc. – what one commentator has called the post-national moment’ (Quinn, 1). ‘An Idea of Iowa’ and Geis as a whole might be understood as pre-national and post-national in equal measure. But an important qualification must be appended to Quinn’s forecast. If O’Reilly’s verse has evaded narrow national frameworks it nevertheless voices a refreshingly subtle political – at times eco-political – aesthetic. Without being apolitical or apathetic her verse leaves governing to the prose writers.

Jack Quin is a PhD candidate at the University of York working on the later poetry of W.B. Yeats and the relationship between modern poetry and sculpture. He holds a BA and MA from Queen’s University Belfast.