Cell, Clare Best
Frogmore Press, 2015 £10.00
[Art Michaela Ridgway; Design Katy Mawhood]
The Nightmare of Motherhood
Described by the author as a ‘not-quite-pamphlet’, this is a folding artefact, a poem in twelve sections with monochrome illustrations by Michaela Ridgway. The folds can be read as a booklet, with a ‘secret’ section in the middle, the cell. You have to manipulate the pages to read final poems in the story. There is a story. In 1329, Christine Carpenter, 14 years old, was enclosed in a cell in a St James’ Church, Shere, after taking vows of ‘solitary devotion’. She lasted nearly three years before petitioning for release, which she was granted. But not for long.
The not-quite-pamphlet gave me nightmares. Literally. The brooding, shadowy illustrations speak of the female body, isolation and pain. The narrative voice is Christine’s own – but I identified with her mother, and this was my point of interest, and pain.
Mother has a capital ‘M’ in the pamphlet; she’s important to her daughter. But she has no power. First the daughter, a typical teenager, tells her what her role will be: ‘I’ll wait by the grating; / you’ll pass me bread, water, eggs.’
What do you do when your daughter dedicates herself to madness? You survive. You pray that your daughter will also survive. You do what she asks.
But there’s nothing holy happening here. This girl has bought into a horrible travesty of purification. People, as we all know, do extraordinary things in the name of faith, and sometimes they are very young when they destroy themselves. Christine wastes away. Her teeth come out and she lines them up on the windowsill. The Lord ‘will see my offering'.
Then she begs her mother to get her out. ‘You are strong,’ she says.
Christine is temporarily freed. ‘Sit by me,’ she says to her mother. ‘Rock me in your arms’. And then finally: ‘lay me on the briny slabs’.
Cell filled me with pain and rage. A potent tale for our times.
Poetry as Art installation
This is an innovative way of presenting poetry: as an art installation. The poster-sized sheet of paper contains twelve poems and five drawings. There’s a partial horizontal split in the middle which enables the collection to be folded in many different directions and, at its centre, to contain an empty box-like space: the cell.
This origami is a challenge to read because, instead of reading from A to B, the eye meets many distractions: the folds, other poems above and below, liturgical chants, the instructions and the internal spaces. I found the poems easily presented themselves in the ‘wrong’ order but it’s very involving to puzzle this out, turning the paper over and over.
The drawings also offer much food for thought. They’re of naked female torsos with bold black lines, sometimes smudged, showing one body or two bodies intimately overlaid: a palimpsest of flesh. I was immediately searching for a connection between words and pictures. I’d expected something frailer and smaller, an illustration of the shrinking as the girl suffers. However, when I looked more closely at the drawings, I saw lines and erasures, like false starts, which I interpreted as having a link with the degrading of the body in the cell.
But as the artist told us at the Brighton launch, the drawings were chosen to accompany the poem – not drawn in direct response to it. Some are deliberately at odds with the trajectory of the narrative. She did, however, feel a connection in that the three drawings which didn’t fit into the rectangles allotted to them (an overflowing of the back of a head, the toes of a foot, a knee and a leg) could be seen as a challenge to the idea of containment at the heart of the poem.
What an exciting and defiant idea! That the artist’s images are equal to the words – the drawings bringing something new to the poem and the poem bringing something new to the drawings.