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Neil Fulwood

THE AUTISTIC ALICE by Joanne Limburg (Bloodaxe, £9.99)

Joanne Limburg’s third collection for Bloodaxe, graced with a haunting cover image by Henri Senders, divides into three sections. The first is a reprint of The Oxygen Man, her 2012 pamphlet with Five Leaves Press. This sequence of eighteen poems deals with the aftermath of her brother’s death, her odyssey to mid-western town where he lived and worked.

From the outset, Limburg encounters an America that is stifling, bewildering and more than just a little off. ‘Welcome to the United States’ describes an encounter with an official at passport control – “a man with the softest voice in all Chicago” – who responds to Limburg’s reason for visiting (neither business nor pleasure) by unselfconsciously cutting loose with his own account of family tragedy:

                                                                        His brother –

                              well he was missing for a month, a junkie –
                              they found him when they dragged the lake …

“Strangers with this kind of honesty make me go a big rubbery one,” Edward Norton’s character observes in Fight Club, a film that opens with a car-crash depiction of support groups and emotional catharsis. What Limburg encounters isn’t quite as extreme, but if you can imagine a non-pugilistic version of Fight Club, perhaps directed by Wes Anderson, you’re some way towards the vision of Americana that’s on offer here. The bland corporate microcosm of a Best Western hotel turns into a Ballardian automotive nightmare the moment one steps outside of it:

                              Minds or persons roam
                              at their own risk. It’s no place
                              for walkers, with its scarcity
                              of pavements, its six-lane highways …
                              [‘From the Best Western’]

Then there’s the reception by her brother’s former colleagues:

                              Straight away they clocked his face on me,
                              emerging from Arrivals on that unreal night,
                              crumpled, like a damaged photocopy,

                              the more disturbing for being almost right.
                              [‘Double Act’]

The unforced but beautifully evocative “crumpled, like a damaged photocopy” is immediately held in check by the vernacular Englishness of “clocked” (i.e. recognised), setting up a dialectic between Limburg’s cultural heritage and her brother’s subtle assimilation of his adopted home, not to mention her private grief and their public tribute, and – by extension – his death and her role as survivor. The poem ends with Limburg delivering an address in tribute:

                              … accepting the honour as his sister,
                              I had to say, ‘And I thought it was only
                              a career move for poets.’ Laughter,

                              at this, was slight, and centre stage was lonely.

As the sequence progresses, Limburg’s incursion in the Midwest sets up a counterpoint to something infinitely more personal: a delving back into the display cabinet of memory in order to try to make sense of the present. ‘Notes to an Unwritten Eulogy’ is simplicity itself: a litany of memories/confidences, hitherto known only to brother and sister, while ‘An Offering’ is a list, in short paragraphs, of shared objects:

                              A set of Trivial Pursuit, another of possible genes; a pear
                              tree, a tortoise, the ants in the garden; sick and silly jokes,
                              a satellite to bounce them seven hours ahead and back

Here, Limburg is savvy enough to realise that the dispassionate, prosaic quality of the list poem is what is required to convey the heaviest of emotional freight without tipping over into the lachrymose.

It’s an understanding that she applies to the book’s second – and titular – section, but instead of using deliberately unemotive tropes to explore her undiagnosed Asperger’s and how it affected her childhood, she co-opts Lewis Carroll’s defiantly individualistic heroine to act as her stand-in. If Limburg breaks your heart in the quietest and most dignified way in ‘The Oxygen Man’, she manages in ‘The Autistic Alice’ to transmogrify what must have been a misunderstood and frustrating-as-all-hell childhood into a sequence that will make you laugh as often as it makes you think. The opener, ‘Alice’s Un-Birthday’, is perhaps worth quoting in full:

                              Alice is three and she knows it.
                              She’s sitting face-to-face with daffodils
                              underneath the washing-line
                              which is a roundabout for clothes.

                              Her mother pegs some clothes up,
                              gives them all a ride and pegs again.
                              Alice feels like trying something.
                              ‘I’m four,’ she says.

                              ‘No you’re not,’ her mother says,
                              ‘you’re three.’ She picks Alice up
                               and pegs her to this rule,
                               it isn’t saying it that makes it true.

From hereon in, Alice whirls a merry-go-ground in which her perceptions are increasingly blurred in how at odds they are with the scattershot and often incomprehensible world that surrounds her. Along for the ride are the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen and a pack of demented playing cards, but for the most part Limburg gives us Alice alone, struggling to make sense of the supposedly normal world. So we observe Alice in an art class, put on the spot by a teacher to explain her painting (“The answer they want / isn’t what it is – it’s what it isn’t”), Alice on a walk in the country (“if you sometimes had to run keep running just to stay in place”), Alice trying to make sense of her own face (“It’s a piece of clothing she can’t figure out, / can’t line up or fasten”).

Elsewhere, there are perceptions of Alice, such as in ‘The Alice Case’ wherein the Mad Hatter and Humpty Dumpty take turns in mansplaining to the point where you want to slap the pair of them. Or ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’, in which socially acceptable bitchiness is blown wide apart by Alice’s absolute lack of an internal filter. I could quote from the poem – and at length – but it deserves to be discovered (and applauded) by the reader so I’ll say no more.

The final set of poems are unconnected, and permit the reader a cushioned landing. To a degree, anyway. There are a still a few nettles as one plummets back to earth: such as ‘You’re Not My Dad, John Inman’, a juxtaposition of family dysfunctionalism against ’70s pop culture; the three-dozen word sting of ‘Mammogram’; the barely suppressed admixture of civility and rage that informs ‘The Bus Riders’ Creed’; and the devastatingly quiet requiem of ‘Hospital Psalm’.

“Joanne Limburg wears comic camouflage to stalk serious subjects” reads the blurb on her debut collection Femenismo, published in 2000. Seventeen years, several collections, a memoir and a novel later, Limburg is still stalking the serious, only she’s now doing it overtly, in full view, irony and humour snuffling along in front of her like gun-dogs.



Copyright © Neil Fulwood, 2018