Thursday, 4 February 2016

Literary and literal imprisonment, Clare Best's Cell

Clare Best is on one of the most interesting personal journeys in U.K. poetry. She’s constantly evolving, playing with different approaches to verse and blending it with other genres, all without losing her identifying touch.

Her latest production, Cell (Frogmore Press, 2015), is further evidence of her drive. I term it “production” because it’s not quite a pamphlet, rather a poetic artefact. It’s not concrete poetry as such, but it melds the written word to other forms: art and design, as the pages combine pictures by Michaela Ridgway, ingenious origami and Best's verse to create a cell in both literary and literal terms.

The afore-mentioned cell is explained by the poet in her introduction:

“In 1329, Christine Carpenter – a girl of fourteen – took a vow of solitary devotion and agreed to be enclosed in a cell built on to the wall of the chancel of St James’ Church, Shere, Surrey. She spent more than one thousand days in the cell before asking to be freed. When the Bishop learned of her release, he ordered her to be forcibly re-enclosed.”

So the story is full of narrative and emotional impact. That attracts the reader in itself. However, the main critical interest lies in Best’s linguistic approach to her material: the poems tend to speak in the first person singular from Christine’s perspective. Language is drawn from the 21st Century in every way. In other words, Best has consciously decided to offer us a highly contemporary take on a 14th Century tale. Here’s a short quote to give a flavour of what I mean:

“…Knees lock on the ice-flagged floor.
The priest’s voice distant, thick as fog.
Stones climb all around me –
only a slip of daylight now…”

What is Clare Best’s intention? It’s to suggest imaginative points of departure for her reader to draw comparisons between the two periods in time, to wonder how much or little has changed, to focus on inherent, eternal human issues: the nature of suffering, injustice, tyranny, sin and religion. She succeeds.

Moreover, there’s a pivotal reflection of female identity throughout Cell. Mother-daughter relationships (as Christine’s mother indirectly, implicitly suffers too), the subjugation to male authority and even the wielding of sexual power are all vital to any understanding of this poetic artefact. Here’s one such instance:

“Lucifer again…

He spins me off my feet,
       scatters fennel seeds
                     and clover for a bed –
       he spreads me,
enters like a fist.”

The portrayal of a traditional figure (Lucifer)  in contemporary sexualised terms is a clear example of Clare Best’s method. It shocks the reader into making fresh leaps and connections. This is why Cell represents such an achievement. 

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