Disappointing Alice, Rachel Piercey
HappenStance Press, 2019 £5.00
After several reads of Disappointing Alice, I came away feeling both cautioned and encouraged. I took the caution to be about complacency in the face of the societal challenges which remain for women. I found encouragement in poems which act as a nudge when we’re flagging in the face of such challenges.
‘Song to Amelia’ is celebratory and affirming. It recognises how far women have travelled since trail-blazer Amelia Earhart’s time: ‘Roar with our forward-thrust— / change is history’s role for us’. The warning in this scenario is not to women but of the revenge which might befall those who would seek to undermine this progress:
How many things, between us,
we’ve made better. Come in, Electra.
Come in, Electra. Come in, Electra.
Similarly, ‘Bad Apple’ points to a man’s projection of stereotypical traits onto a female partner, believing ‘her comely barrel-ful / to be tight-celled and stain free.’ The danger therein is that, in the meantime, she might
[ ... ] slough off the heavy lid
and let the apples scatter, for the thrill that they might trip.
In gentler vein, ‘My Sister’ relates the conflicting roles women have to play and the mistake of denying this. While women are natural nurturers and may happily take on domestic roles, this does not define them. They are so much more. ‘He knew all this’ the speaker tells her sister.
From a female perspective, ‘Five Go to the Island Again’ charts the changing portrayal of women in literature and life. Anne is of an age where she was exposed to projections of women as primarily stabilising and domestic. Her daughter, however, has much broader societal impressions, and she might even better shape the choices available to her.
There is no room for smugness, however. Turning to Old England and its knights, ‘Chivalry Street’ deals with ambiguity. It challenges the idealism of those who might long for alleged simpler times, but also suggests we might be seduced into at least considering its false promise. The poem is tongue-in-cheek, self-referencing its own revivalism but, at the same time, acknowledging ‘the modern woman, whose symbolisms compete’. They certainly do.
Rachel Piercey beckons us into a kaleidoscopic world in which identity and expectations constantly shift. Everything is on the move and ‘change is history’s role for us’ (‘Song for Amelia’). Many voices, not all of them human, speak to us from the deep past to the personal now. We time-travel through twenty-one poems and centuries.
The poems are deceptively lucid—no outlandish metaphor or unfamiliar territory. Piercey takes us down by a river, through a park, into the Gents at the cinema. She gets the hoover out. She introduces us to a locksmith, Kate Bush, mediaeval knights, the Famous Five grown up.
But these familiar characters and scenes are used to open up a world of possible interpretations that are at once discombobulating and exciting. Take just the title: Disappointing Alice. Is ‘disappointing’ an adjective or a verb? If a verb, is Alice the object or subject? Is Alice the familiar heroine of a topsy-turvy, hallucinogenic narrative, or is it an Australian town, ‘deep in the desert / [...] where the gold / shades into the bone’ (‘Deep in the Desert’)? It is exhilarating to fall down a very English rabbit hole only to find yourself in the dry centre of a vast continent.
The poems here are full of women feeling the seismic movement of time. They question where they stand in relation to old certainties and rules, be they rules of the pastoral, fairy tale or chivalry or of domesticity and duty. The children’s game, ‘Guess Who’, furnishes Piercey with the opportunity to entice us into very serious play indeed. By inviting us to inhabit it with our very human insecurities, the game’s simple innocence is fogged as
We start to talk
about souls and the unfamiliarity of age.
We parse over and over
the toppling intensity of the wait
When is a pamphlet like a door?
Disappointing Alice is both a door thrown open in welcome, and a door thrown open to gleefully eject. Piercey stands hailing you from the doorway. ‘Come’ she says in her opening line. It’s an invitation to enter, to pay attention, to make yourself at home.
This invitation is extended throughout the pamphlet with ‘come’ used repeatedly, though its precise meaning shifts — come towards, come about, come undone.
In ‘Song for Amelia’, for example, each stanza begins with an imperative ‘Come in’ (in the sense of ‘respond’), with Amelia Earhart’s first plane, Canary, calling out to her last: ‘Come in, Electra. Come in, Electra.’
In ‘Richmond Park Pastoralises Rachel Piercey’, the park itself exclaims ‘Come live with us [...] O Rachel come’. And in ‘Deep in the Desert’, the poem’s subject, Alice, writes ‘Please come [...] please come’.
Considering the pamphlet’s title, I wondered at this point who Alice might be? Inevitably I turned to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: the eat me/drink me scene with the little door, and Alice’s elbow jammed against the White Rabbit’s front door. In Carroll’s story, Alice sighs ‘Everybody says Come on!’ Indeed, she says it frequently herself — ‘Come, we shall have some fun’; ‘Come, there’s no use in crying’; ‘Come, my head’s free at last!’
Thinking about Wonderland’s world of doors, keys and thresholds, and the importance of these same images in Piercey’s collection, I found ‘Lost Key’ unsettling. This poem begins ‘You have to trust / the locksmith’ and continues
It sticks in your throat
as he coaxes the lock,
how such a trivial loss
can mean this threshold
is not yours.
Look how the locksmith
is calmly captaining the door
In fact, there’s an intriguing emphasis on captains in this beguiling pamphlet. Chivalrous ideas of being carried over a threshold sit alongside the need to captain one’s own ship. Given this tension, the choice of final poem delighted me. Here, in contrast to the unguarded welcome of the opening poem, we’re left with the image of the poet poised with ‘one hand upon the latch’ and ‘one hand upon the axe.’
Come in if you dare.
Different Kinds of Attention
Reading Rachel Piercey’s Disappointing Alice, I’m interested by the different kinds and qualities of attention, especially ways of calling out.
The opening piece, ‘Hwæt’, is a direct call to attention. The word means ‘what’, ‘listen’ or ‘lo’ in Old English. The poem also uses abrupt punctuation; and the phrase ‘Hark ∙See ∙ ’ is later echoed as ‘Listen ∙ Look ∙ ’.
In ‘Song for Amelia’, Amelia Earhart’s first plane, the Canary, calls to her other aircraft and vehicles. The poem is full of insights that apply to life and the world: ‘My singing soul is my open circuit / and how I need your flick-fire to complete it.’ Few calls to attention are more important than those of a pioneering pilot. Always potentially at peril, they may need life-or-death help. This is highlighted in the poem’s ending where ‘Come in, Electra’ is repeated three times. The repetition may be desperation, or because the call is unanswered (and unheard: Electra was the plane that disappeared, with Earhart in it). Only one side of the conversation is given and the setting is historic. But I was struck by how similar elements of it are to modern life, and social media.
Need for attention is a thread that pulls the poems together. It also pulls me into them. In ‘Lost Key’, the ferryman of Hades is beautifully evoked through a modern locksmith. The poem ends with direct focus on (the cost of) sight:
Take the coins from your eyes
and pass through.
‘Kate Bush as Spider Goddess’ is a search for role models when ‘The options are sticking in your soul like flies.’ The teenager realises:
And Kate’s many eyes look right through never
and if you gaze at Kate
you find you are the whole story
Nothing is really the ‘whole story’ though, only a slant in attention. That is one of the pamphlet’s many delights.