Monday, March 14, 2011


The Feb/Mar number of The Poetry Project Newsletter features an excellent essay by Sean Bonney on poet-activist Anna Mendelssohn. Using the simplest of language, the essay begins with a seemingly self-evident but too often ignored appeal:

If you want to find good poetry written in Britain, you have to go looking for it: with very few exceptions, it is hidden away behind a poetry of more or less genteel self-expression, metrical sentimentalities and easily digested liberal homilies that are essentially reports on police reality.

Reading English and American literature through the late 1960s at the University of Essex — at a moment when Donald Davie, Ed Dorn and Elaine Feinstein were among the faculty — Mendolssohn dropped out a year before completing the degree. In the bio note attached to her work in Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos, which Bonney quotes, Mendelssohn writes: "My academic career was brought to an abrupt halt in 1967 by harassment, both political and emotional. Upon returning [from Turkey] to this country, in 1970, I was attacked, my own poetry seized, and my person threatened with strangulation if I dared utter one word of public criticism. I was unable to return to university at that point and was silenced."

Such a note could, I suspect, be dismissed as the hyperbolic excesses of an unprovoked paranoia were it not for her arrest and imprisonment in 1971. Convicted as one of the "Stoke Newington Eight" for her alleged involvement in a series of bombings attributed to The Angry Brigade, Mendelssohn served seven years on a ten year conviction. By the mid 1980s Mendelssohn relocated to Cambridge, where she resumed studying literature and writing, falling in with Peter Riley, Rod Mengham and others who would publish a small portion of her poetic output through Poetical Histories and Equipage. In a December 15, 2009 obituary at the Guardian, Riley writes:

Anna's legacy, apart from a room heaped to the ceiling with books, poetry manuscripts and drawings, lies in her unique artistic temperament, beholden to no cultural dictates, fiercely reclaiming her rights as a woman and Jew, but partaking equally in art as a theatre of linguistic and visual delight.

Bonney seems most interested in Mendelssohn's unbeholdenness, but for Bonney the poetry Mendelssohn produced during the 1980s is not just detached from cultural norms and dominant tendencies; her poetry embodies and enacts a poetics of total refusal and unrelenting struggle:

Mendelssohn's utopian society of art is overridden and taken away by the sentences of authority. It is unsurprising, then, that a dominant mood in Mendelssohn's work is anxiety, and even a sense of persecution. It is a political poetry that is fully aware of the limits of what is permitted in bourgeois society, that understands that for a revolutionary, or ex-revolutionary, the prison is the centre and the perimeter of permitted life.

Further on Bonney reads Mendelssohn's poetry through the contradictions and interpenetrations of interiority and exteriority, inside and outside:

As far as Mendelssohn's enemies are concerned, and these are many — not only judges but, variously, pompous poets, social workers, narrow-minded politicos and patriarchal imbeciles of all sorts — it [Mendolssohn's poetry] is a communication that speaks to them in order to deny their ability to read, and to refuse them a place within the poem. It is an outsidedness that also has nothing to do with the easy conformity of the poet as some kind of rebel. Mendelssohn is no rebel; the content of her refusal to communicate with her enemies is one that demands the possibility of communication, and of the reality of a community that can exist despite the accusations of its incomprehensibility and illegitimacy. In the face of those who would have "silenced" her, the response is to speak a language to which they have no access.

If I read this correctly, the poem appears to perform — or simply exist — as a hermetically and hermeneutically sealed terrorist cell within the polis, an impenetrable instance of urban blight that aspires toward its own renewal by otherwise unavailable means. Especially affirming in Bonney's reading of Mendelssohn is his clear rejection of the self-congratulatory outsider status too often assigned to decidedly political poetries. The preference is for taking and occupying the center rather than fetishizing our distance from it.