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Alan Baker

“The Sex of Art” by Frances Presley, pub. Shearsman Books, £9.95. 96pp. ISBN: 978-1-84861-594-6

Frances Presley now has a major body of work behind her, soon to be available in a forthcoming Collected Poems from Shearsman Books. Presley's recent work is centred round ecology and modernist-pastoral, often in collaboration with other poets such as Tilla Brading and Harriet Tarlo. The book under review is therefore of great interest, as it's her first collection, published in 1987 and now re-released by Shearsman Books as part of their new "Shearsman Library" series. The work in "The Sex of Art" is remarkably fresh and contemporary for something written thirty years ago, and could in fact have been written now. It shows Presley starting out as a poet with a clear interest in modernist poetics, with a sharp political edge, and as an observer of people.

There are a number of prose pieces in the book, and these contain some of the most acute political observations and delineations of character, while maintaining a slightly out-of-focus, dreamlike quality, not unlike similar pieces in Lee Harwood's work (Harwood being an important early influence on Presley). In "The Ezra Pound Papers" there's a stinging critique, not only of Pound, but of those who were dazzled by the glamour of the man and his reputation, delivered through the monologues of the people involved:

"Only once did I see him personally get angry with a visitor. It was when a woman brought her Jewish friend without first asking. He didn't tell her to get out exactly, but..."

Among the other prose pieces, there's the wryly humorous "The Attraction of American Express", and there's an account of a conversation on a train with a young soldier fresh from the Falkands War in which the brutality of his descriptions is reinforced by the deadpan delivery. There's also a powerful prose piece called "Birmingham, Alabama" in the first section of the book, "America", which dissects the racism of the American South using, as in the other prose pieces, reported language without comment.

Although this was Presley's first full collection, it seems likely that each of the five sections of the book were published as individual chapbooks. Nevertheless, there's a consistency to the book, and repeated themes, an important one being gender politics and relations between women and powerful men. In the prose piece "Portrait of a Writer" we are told

          He wrote for women, always for women.

And after a woman rejects him:

          ...the critic tells us the author survived this period of despair, partly due to more successful sexual           relationships.

This piece was, we are told, "written from memory in French and translated", giving it a Borgesian feel (we aren't told who wrote the piece originally, or who the "author" was). In a different, but related vein we have a poem dedicated to the French poet Yves Bonnefoy. In the late 1970s Presley obtained a scholarship to study French poetry in Switzerland. She studied Artaud, Breton, Éluard and Reverdy. She tells us, in the brief autobiography on her website, “I also wrote about the contemporary poet Yves Bonnefoy, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with his poetics – their essentialist and quasi-metaphysical use of language. Rexroth had called him the ‘cul de sac of modern French poetry’.  In the short poem "The Contemporary Poet in Paris" she pokes fun at the Great Poet who by then had become prominent member of the literary establishment. Bonnefoy's apartment was on the Rue Lepic on Montmartre hill:

          medieval gypsum mines
          have left the poets' hill a hollow
          to be collapsed by new construction.

Later in the book there is a poem titled “Free Union”, which is a version of Breton’s “L’Union Libre”. Whereas Breton’s poem is a single stanza of rhetorical verse, repeating the phrase “Ma femme” followed by the attributes of his female love-object, Presley’s more relaxed free verse is addressed to a man, wittily sending up the po-face Breton:

          With your hair of wire borrowed from no man’s land
          of a forest at the onset of night
          of a fakir’s bed
          with your beard of burnt paper
          ever curling away from its own expansion
          with your beard that threatens the mouth of your cherry liqueur
          you mouth of dye-water from a Grantham factory

          with your back of a bus
          moving out into city traffic

In other poems, we can see that Presley has a knack of pinpointing a situation or scene with a few words, and in the poem "Orgreave" (a name which has again become topical) there are the lines:

          "They're running through a corn field
          and now through a field of barley"

          The miners from the police

          Such precision from our war correspondent!"

Some of the strongest writing in the book is in the prose pieces, which range from sharply satirical to poignant and nostalgic. The shorter poems often seem, by comparison, to be more reserved and cautious in their use of language. But indications of the adventurous linguistic usage to come, pointing to Presley's future work, are evident. This is especially true in the section "The Sex of Art", in which the language seems vital and compressed, and, because it's ekphrastic, it's freed from the sometimes literal language of some of the other poems to achieve a dynamic quality. This section focusses on the work of three artists, including the French-American painter and sculptor Nikki St. Phalle:

          Saint Sebastian or portrait of my lover
          Short with nails banged in
          Head dart board, with darts thrown in

          If you do that
          If you knock the nails in
          If you shoot the rifle
          If you hold the rifle, butt hard against your shoulder
          If you shoot the plaster
          If the worst meal you ever had pours out
          Pow pow pow

This reflects the dynamic and extravagant nature of St. Phalle’s work, and has an energy that continues in the rest of this poem and the others in this section. The “Sex of Art” group of poems lead up to a poem called “The Dinner Party” which continues the theme of gender politics and satirizes polite dinner-table talk:

          Vagina! Vagina! What kind of word is that? he said

Later in the same poem we see the type of textual play that becomes more important in Presley's later work, in a riff on an Emily Dickinson poem:

          And that White sustenance - despair"
                    and that white
          and that white
          And that White Sustenance
          Despair -

There aren't many signs in this book from thirty years ago of Presley's later interest in nature poetry, ecology or what almost amounts, in some of her work, to visual poetry. But it must have been clear at the time that this was a poet of tremendous potential, and while at times, this book gives an impression of a poet testing the ground, sometimes tentatively, before setting off in a specific direction, overall it’s a remarkably accomplished first collection which it's good to see re-published by Shearsman Books.






Copyright © Alan Baker, 2018