Title: Georges Perec is My Hero
Author: Caron Freeborn
Publisher: Circaidy Gregory Press, 2015
Price: £7.99 here
Reviewer: Nick Cooke
Even a cursory reading of Caron Freeborn’s poetic debut will establish some of her many remarkable qualities, chief among them perhaps being her ear for dialogue, her gift for the rhythms of the speaking voice, and an amazingly fluid touch with set forms such as sonnets. Further exploration reveals another key feature – the one that arguably binds this collection together above all others – in her ability to present miniature but always gripping stories of characters caught up in and struggling to contend with the messy and sometimes murderous business of real life as she knows it. From a working-class background, based in Basildon, Essex, she became a fiction writer, publishing two novels in the Noughties, before deciding her true literary metier lay with poetry, and although her previous life as a full-length storyteller may be all in the past now, several of its sub-crafts have undoubtedly lived on.
In almost every poem, fascinating glimpses of characters are given without any pretence that the whole truth of their lives can or should be revealed, any more than in reality we ever know every detail of people’s existence. Freeborn has too much honesty and integrity to try to sell us pat answers to the questions she implicitly asks, and part of the pleasure in re-reading her collection is the effort we willingly make to try to work it all out for ourselves.
The most obvious example is ‘The people in my street’, printed in landscape to encompass views of both sides of the disadvantaged-area street in question, with each house the subject of a mini-story about its inhabitants as seen by a curtain-twitching but perceptive and compassionate neighbour. Others go into more detail, such as ‘Reality Bites’. This poem’s opening reminds me of a technique much favoured in the modern language teaching arena, known as guided discovery, where students are asked to imagine a story based on three apparently disparate phrases or images, between which they have to find connections. In this case Freeborn’s entry to her dramatic monologue is as arresting as any suspense film:
‘I didn’t choose this life. Others did. No
really – it tells you here: theatrical
light (pro), Aer Lingus flights to Dublin (two),
Viagra (large). That’s quantity, not size
Despite the poem’s near-three-page length, we never can be quite sure we’ve found the solution to the ongoing puzzle, but it would appear to be the one proposed by Sally, an inquisitive friend of the speaker, as is apparently confirmed when the speaker says, of Sally, ‘Was her solved it.’ Pressed by desperate circumstances into an unconventional career choice, the speaker apparently makes and stars in minimalist porn films in Ireland:
‘I handed over the pills to the two
waiting men (one a scrawny little
thing, not promising, one much burlier)
and I lie on the floor, my legs open,
a virgin bride. Must say, not all it’s cracked
up to be, this porn, this sex, this life. Ah
The way the phrasal verb ‘cracked up’ is itself cracked up by the overrun line suggests that the character herself is only just holding herself together in the face of the reality she tries to laugh off. And the other split phrase ‘Ah/well’ has us hearing the first word as the start of a scream, only just suppressed by the way it peters out into another commonplace expression. These are typical of Freeborn’s ability to conjure complexity from minimal resources.
A passage in the middle of the poem acts as a key not only to this piece but Freeborn’s work overall:
‘Some lives, you can
see how they’re put together. Though sometimes,
that together doesn’t amount to much
when you pin pattern along chalk lines.’
And the ending comes as what Larkin called ‘a sharp, tender shock’, when the focus shifts to Sally herself, and a life we only partly glimpse:
‘Sally died not long after
that. Never did take her to see my porn film.
They say it’s the things you don’t do that you’ll
Once again the enjambments have meaning. ‘After/that’ captures a dignified hesitation, a reluctance to spell out what ‘that’ actually entails, as the deep-down-sensitive speaker attempts to distance herself from her own squalor, while ‘you’ll/regret’ gives special force to the verb, driving home just how much of life is about regretting inaction. And there’s a stolid irony in that ‘Never did’ – as if the film in question were the kind of thing you’d find in a high street cinema. (It very much reminded me of the final line in Tom Waits’ song ‘Frank’s Wild Years’: ‘Never could stand that dog.’) But the most telling moment of pathos comes right at the start, in the characteristically pithy: ‘Others did.’ All too often Freeborn’s characters have little or no control over their own destinies, and operate within constraints they may not even be fully aware of.
Arguably, Freeborn writes best of these constraints when she imposes restrictions of her own on her style. It’s here that the collection’s title comes into full play, because although Freeborn is quoted by editor Mandy Pannett as explaining her choice in terms of ‘Perec’s questions about how we give common things a meaning, how we rescue the details from the assault of the Big Stuff’, we also associate Perec with his own experiments in the sphere of formal constraint, for instance in novels written without the use of a given vowel. Freeborn doesn’t go to quite those Oulipian lengths, but she does frequently turn her versatile hand to set poetic forms. There is a wonderful villanelle entitled ‘Covenant’ in which the key line wittily shifts from ‘just one small kiss’ to ‘one small just kiss’, and, even more impressively, a splendid sestina, one with clear literary/parodic significance (‘My last duchess’), in which she respects all the rhyming intricacies and repetitions of the 39-line form, while maintaining the Browningesque spoken rhythms with her usual dexterity. However, the form Freeborn has truly mastered and shaped to her own often breathtaking ends is the sonnet. The collection ends with a preponderance of these, as though she were consciously returning home after a season abroad among a range of other verse forms. ‘At the Salon’ is a classic instance:
‘Little Kelly shaved my mother’s head. Jew
turned Nazi. Comedic version: small, fat
with panic, veins threaded round imagined
stares, appalled. Kelly’s fingers first
to touch the skin. And my mother: Oh mate,
The warm-hearted but sharp-edged humour, both the mother’s and her own, is central to Freeborn’s attitude, as it was in a poem about her father (‘If my dad were here’) earlier in the book:
‘He wouldn’t take my kids to see the
circus: no animal should be made to do
tricks, bleeding disgrace, way it bowed down
to the fat fella. And you couldn’t smoke.
People pretend – look, got to make him right –
to like poems – up their own backsides – bored
to buggery. Fact. They’d like a good spy.’
Although it is rarely safe to assume that references in Freeborn’s work reflect her own life rather than that of a character/persona, in this case the details and opinions do appear to be based on her actual, late dad. Without ever descending to clich‚s of the ‘heart of gold’ and ‘salt of the earth’ variety, she does insist on ending this one with further filial praise and pride:
‘If my dad were here,
he’d tell me no one should own a little
piece of England, and he’d buy a drink for
the poor old sod who, shame, look at them shakes,
couldn’t buy one for himself.’
There’s real beauty and subtlety in the father’s ‘them shakes’ as against his daughter’s studied use of the subjunctive in the first line (and poem title): she’s not likely to have used that ‘were’ back in the old days, before she became a poet. And her father’s combination of unforced generosity and down-to-earth scorn for literary pretension later earns a place in one of his daughter’s best sonnets, ‘Leigh-on-Sea’, good and typical enough to be worth quoting in full:
‘I always want to make a metaphor. Read
the literal into touch; find a shore
against my ruin; bore my friends’ smart eyes
with blind psychotic need until they plead:
Give us the drill, lovely – Have a drink – Lie
among the washed-up dead – Shut it dear or
leave. Ssh- You know I cast my net to catch
a shoal of unlike things. There. That’s agreed.
My dad built boats and took us out to fish
for tiny souls and pinched-tight pinkish crabs
and rocks of many winkles, stuff like that
greenpopped seaweed you can eat. Used to wish
Dad liked poetry, not just salted dabs.
Sometimes a sand flat is just that: sand, flat.’
Incidentally, although Freeborn is not a poet who over-uses direct literary allusions, as if wary of her father’s disapproval from beyond the grave, that ‘shore/against my ruin’ is not only time she invokes that most literarily allusive of poems, ‘The Waste Land’. In ‘At the Theatre’, the line ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’, in the midst of the expletive-ridden resentful fury of a patronised proletarian theatre-goer, tacitly acknowledges that few poets have so consistently drawn on the real language of the working class as Freeborn does, but at least Eliot (rather less well placed than her in terms of social origin) had a stab at it in ‘A Game of Chess’. And in another sonnet, ‘Remedial/Recovery’ it is ‘Four Quartets’ which provides a key source for a tale of artistic frustration:
‘Your brother was born without a tale:
In his beginning was my end. You flew
past us, though I stabbed you with my pen
trying to pin you to the page. I failed.
Schlepped into form, unbrushed, unkissed, askew,
afoot. Prose slips through my fingers like wine.’
As Eliot said, ‘That was a way of putting it, not very satisfactory’ – though possibly more satisfactory to us than the poet, who is so ruthlessly critical a self-reviser that she is bound to end up less than fully satisfied with what she produces. On another level, though, she specifies ‘prose’, as though in valediction to her previous literary genre. Suddenly the sextet’s past tenses, particularly the one which changes the Eliot quote itself (‘In my beginning is my end’), take on new meaning from the personalised context.
Touching and often heart-wrenching as the poems on her parents are, even more centrally Freebornian are those where the speaker is self-evidently a persona and one well out of the ordinary run of life – except that maybe it isn’t quite so far removed as we might like to think. Here’s the opening of yet another sonnet, ‘Life Lessons’:
‘My sons smoke contemplatively, gazing
at the hooker they’ve just killed. Awesome. Proud
of their achievement, they loudly call me
from roast chicken and potatoes and raised
bread dough. Look Mum! I’m amazed, and say so. ‘
If this recalls Tamara, the mother of the mutilating rapists in Titus Andronicus, the culinary allusions take on added meaning. But does the prostitute murder satirise some supposedly acceptable, certainly commercially successful video game – and if so, is that a million miles from what we already have? Again no simple answers are given, and there’s another degree of mystery, in that the contemplatively smoking sons are later revealed as only eight and nine years old.
‘I tuck them up at night,
well-versed in burps and bears and bellicose
giants. Stroke their tangled hair, line up their
teddies in size order, give chase to fright,
lie about heaven. Well done, boys. I choke.’
We are now closer to Violet Kray than Shakespeare, in terms of a mother who dotes on her boys, no matter what. We can’t avoid our hearts going out to the character, even as we recoil from whatever it is that’s so toxic going on under the surface of her life.
I find that Freeborn is at her most compelling when she deals with this fusion of the human and the inhumane, precisely because she hints at such a thin dividing line between them. In perhaps the most hilarious of her poems, ‘Twenty things I’ll never tell you’, she makes sure to stifle the reader’s laughs at the very end:
‘I hate cut flowers though you present them on Fridays;
Last December, I kissed your boss at the Christmas do;
Your mother’s beginning to stink of wee;
It’s gross, the way you eat biscuits sideways..
16) I’m not sure I love our child. Our Lou;
17) I wish she didn’t have Down Syndrome;
18) I wish I hadn’t pinched her last week. And before;
19) I once killed a man in Acapulco;
20) No, it wasn’t Acapulco, it was Basildon.
Is that ‘pinched’ as in ‘painfully squeezed’, or ‘stolen’? The finale is the more chilling because of Basildon being Freeborn’s home town and the subject of several marvellous photos in the book by Steve Armitage. It may be rather easier to ‘go loco’ there than in the more glamorous Mexican location. However, the spirit of Freeborn’s parents, among other figures, hovers over every page as if to provide a counter-balance: the book, for all its depiction of life at its sleaziest and most horrific, is never entirely bleak.
Freeborn is now at work on a blank verse novella, which will presumably continue her unstated mission to preserve the novelist within the poet. To which one can only respond, in a rush of enthused anticipation, ‘La romanciere est morte; vive la poete!’