Flarestack Poets 2010, £4.50
Reviewed by Gill Andrews, Matt Merritt and Hilary Menos
We learn from the back cover of Incense that Crowther has spent many years in the weight management industry, so it’s perhaps not surprising that these poems, all on the subject of body fat, feel absolutely authentic. There is a strong sense that Crowther wishes to share—through poetry—some of her understanding of our complex relationship with this subject.
‘Vial as I Am’ begins:
.......Am I not
.......a keen enough lover to want a vial
.......of his lost fat, cloudy or clear,
.......to be worn like a locket
.......of fading hair?
Intellectually, I see Crowther is drawing a parallel between different responses to different parts of the body (hair vs. fat). As such, it’s perhaps unfair to criticise the poem for making me feel a little nauseous. I believe no area should be forbidden to poetry, so I do admire the poet’s courage, in devoting her pamphlet to this subject. But I might not have chosen to read 23 poems about body fat if I hadn’t been reviewing Incense.
My favourite pieces are probably the simpler ones: ‘Tremella Nostoc’ draws interesting parallels between star jelly and body fat, and ‘Fataboo’ contains the lovely lines: “Liquid calories/ are half their number/ especially wine” (if only!). I also enjoyed ‘Stereotype’, which I read as drawing a parallel between overweight people and ghosts:
.......I’m too old to be
.......scared of a shapeless
.......thing. It’s a ghost and who
.......believes in them?
All the Incense texts are ‘fatras’. That is, 11 lines preceded by an introductory couplet composed of the poem’s first and last lines. This repetition works better in some cases than others. ‘Stereotype’ has the strong introductory couplet: “I’m too old to be/ inarticulate” and both these lines also work well to frame the ‘core’ of the poem. But I get very little from the introductory couplet to ‘Fatspell’: “Just as fat’s ostracised at birth/ branches must shake snow off or die”. I can’t help feeling these lines may have been written to fit the fatra form. Crowther displays skill in sustaining the formal pattern, but I’m left wondering why she chose to do this. It’s clear she enjoys a pun—perhaps the idea of writing poems about body fat in a form called ‘fatra’ was just too tempting to resist?
A collection about body fat written in a medieval verse form usually associated with nonsense poems—put that way, it doesn’t sound that promising (although its appearance, in Flarestack’s new house style, ought to be enough to snag the attention of the curious).
But Claire Crowther is never less than interesting, and the decision to use fatras—the verse form in question—begins to look more and more inspired as the book progresses.
Each piece is brief and pithy, consisting of 11 lines and an introductory couplet made up of the first and last lines of the poem. The way Crowther uses that couplet is one of the most fascinating things.
At times, such as in ‘Fatspell’, those first two lines (“Just as fat’s ostracised at birth/ branches must shake snow off or die”) are used simply to frame what follows, almost to act as a précis of what’s to come. In others, such as ‘Untitled’, that opening blast (“Ask a woman who’s lost four stone/ from side to side like a throat cut”) unsettles and disorientates the reader, so the poem’s final destination, and the route used to get there, is all the more of a surprise.
It helps Crowther deal with an everyday subject in a way that’s never mundane, and combined with her ability to combine deadly serious with deadpan hilarity, it makes this a pamphlet to enjoy. Take part of ‘Over is Almost All of Lover’, for example:
.......I’ve always thought
.......I was infatible
.......in my sealed-in stuff that oozes energy.
.......I’ve avoided naming a bomb
.......I’ve considered variants such as
.......Lo, Low, Lite, Lyte, concluding
.......they were the signs of an idiotocracy.
There’s mystery there, and the reader is asked to do some of the work, but it’s far from inaccessible. Crowther excels at using plain, unadorned language in a consistently inventive way.
Read in one sitting, there’s certainly a cumulative effect, but it’s not a collection that defies dipping into, either. Unusual, highly individual, and highly recommended.
What’s the point of form? Of using a particular form? And how far can a poet stray from the conventions of a particular form before a poem ceases to operate on that level? I ask because Claire Crowther describes the poems in her pamphlet Incense as ‘fatras’, a medieval form that evolved in Northern France around the 14th century.
A fatras (plural also ‘fatras’), which literally translated means hodgepodge, mess or trash, is a kind of medieval surrealism—the creation of apparent nonsense by juxtaposing incongruous things or giving animate characteristics to inanimate objects. It involves wordplay, ridiculous associations, and intricate auditory games. Fatras emerged at the time France was making a great effort to refine speech and manners and adopt Latin as the courtly father tongue. They were written as a kind of rebellion against the language of the establishment. A particular structure is also called for: eleven unrhymed and un-metered lines, plus an introductory couplet composed of the first and last lines of the poem and which holds the central theme.
The poems in Crowther's pamphlet resemble fatras in certain ways. They do each have eleven lines plus a couplet. In most cases the couplet—composed of the first and last line of the stanza—makes sense. In some it does seem to carry the theme. But I wouldn't say these poems were surreal, or nonsense, or carried the rebelliousness of traditional medieval fatras. The overall tone of the collection is less one of irreverence and subversion than of wistful mourning.
My fear . . . well, I have two fears. My first is that Claire Crowther calls these poems ‘fatras’ because the theme of the pamphlet is fat. Nice little pun, but that's about it.
My second fear is that she’s actually being much cleverer than this and I’m missing something. Maybe she’s making a point about the disempowerment of fat people. Maybe she’s questioning our general prejudice against fat. Maybe she’s re-making a traditional form to suit her own requirements, in the way many poets re-work forms, obsessed as many of us are with physical size and shape. If this is her intention then I applaud it. But I don't get that sense from the poems themselves.
My favourite piece in the collection is ‘Tremella Nostoc’, which I will quote in full:
.......Our parents hunting star jelly
.......Our parents hunting star jelly
.......after a storm
.......or when they had seen stars falling
.......on paths near home,
.......found stuff that had lost its light,
.......Tremella Nostoc, 'a strange
.......gelatinous substance of no form
.......creeping over gravelly soils and mixing
.......with mosses on rocks by waterfalls',
.......as familiar and weird as flesh-
I find this beautiful, evocative, tightly written, and somehow poignant. I’m not convinced the poem needs the introductory couplet, however, and calling it a ‘fatras’ distracts me from the point. There is much cleverness in this pamphlet, but for me the best bits arrive when Crowther gets lyrical.