Fran Lock reviews C+nto, by Joelle Taylor
When I talk about Joelle Taylor as a “wordsmith” I do not choose the epithet idly. Having read with Taylor numerous times, I have been fortunate enough to hear several of the poems in C+nto during the formative phases of their development, and to witness how she uses the stage as a kind of blacksmith's forge, working and reworking the white-hot stuff of the poem through the pressure of performance, before it is finally ready to cool onto the page. I have followed Taylor's trajectory through contemporary UK poetry for years now, and this still strikes me as a remarkable feature of her practice. More remarkable yet is that the poems on the page seem to condense, rather than dissipate, the sheer physical intensity of their performance. Discussions of Taylor's work often describe her as a compelling “spoken word” or “performance poet”; while this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions tend to elide Taylor's vigour and innovation within the body of the printed text. I do not use the word “body” idly either.
I mean by this that as a protean and charismatic reader of her own work, Taylor's poetry is embodied to a high degree. Taylor has a background in theatre, so it is not surprising that she understands intimately the relationship of her words to breath and to gesture, as sound and as substance. The effort required to produce those sounds, to force air from the diaphragm, to take long irregular breaths, to twist the tongue around a particularly sinuous phrase exacts a toll from the poem's speaker. In early ‘choreo-poems’ such as Naming (Oval House Theatre, 1994) and (w)horror stories (Oval House Theater, 1996) Taylor rejects the conventions of narrative and dramatic realism to make meaning from the rhythms and sonic texture of verbal language. These pieces combine spoken, sung and chanted language with pre-verbal and non-verbal sounds, body-language and silence to shape her performance. The tactility of those early performance pieces is still very much an element of relish and risk within Taylor's work: she is an uncanny and joyous manipulator of live language, but behind the sensual pleasure of the words there is an ever-present anxiety that they might exceed or exhaust the body of their performer; that they cannot be accommodated or contained; that they will not be controlled.
The body is also Taylor's most vivid subject. More accurately, the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: to gender and to sexuality. The bodies of women, and the bodies of lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them; systems in which the bodies of women are both the argument for and the evidence of their subjugation and abuse. Throughout Taylor's large poetic corpus, her texts seem to store the scars of this accumulated bodily experience. I would also suggest that they often stand for the living human bodies whose integrity is violated by various kinds of violence and trauma.
In Taylor's 2017 collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor uses a mixture of oral testimony, found text, and personal experience to bear witness to the trauma of her own sexual abuse, but also to confront the chronic and ongoing sexual exploitation and abuse of women world-wide. In ‘Songs of Survival’, roughly midway through the collection, Taylor's lyric text is suddenly intercut by two copies of the Department for Work and Pensions form NCC1 4/17: Support for a child conceived without your consent. On the left-hand side an unmutilated copy of the form, the stark and almost unbearably banal cruelty of which forces a sudden interruption in the reader’s fluid interaction with the text. On the right, portions of the form are obscured or redacted in a simultaneous inversion of and comment upon the institutional erasures of women’s testimony. The copy reads 'Support... rape... through... this... mean... detailed... coercive... and controlling... form' (92-93). The insertion of this profoundly unmusical piece of state apparatus into a work of performance-led poetry functions as a critique upon the narrative demands of witnessing imposed on the victims of rape by governments, societies and systems. It demonstrates the way in which the intimate territory of the body is interrupted, administered and diminished by these same systems.
Visibility and Voice
It feels important to note that Taylor's work is not merely about rendering difficult or occluded bodies visible, but asking questions about that very visibility and its complex interaction with voice. Visibility and Voice could well be seen as the twin tensions that underpin C+unto. Taylor begins by providing a definition for the word, and its Latin root in the verb 'Cuntare', to narrate, tell, or to recount. Taylor also provides a glossary, which includes words belonging to a variety of different lexises: from the coterie argot of LGBT+ occulture, through scientific, legal, and cinematic terminology, to Taylor's own invented slang. Against this concern with the origins and precise meanings of words, there is the highly visual framing of the poems themselves, which deploy the language of cinematography or stage direction to create their 'scenes'. In the preface to the poems Taylor describes the central conceit of the collection in the following way:
Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. They come in the shape of snow globes, fish tanks, jars, crystal music boxes, vivariums, bottles, and grand music cabinets. Each case holds a different scene (13)
There is such a complex fragility contained within this image: the glass acts as a barrier between the scene's subjects and the outside world, but also between the subjects within different scenes; this makes poetically and hauntingly manifest the difficulty in apprehending any sense of continuity, history, or community for LGBT+ people in general, and for butch lesbians in particular. On one level, the glass cases serve as a metaphor for the small pockets or revelatory moments in which LGBT+ history is experienced and communicated. This history has been erased, repressed, and not suffered to be inscribed upon civic space; it becomes impossible to identify oneself within any coherent system of “belonging”. You are present but apart. You live in stilted, looping moments, ultimately exiled.
These cases function as both inadequate shelter and inescapable prison: the glass is a brittle and ultimately doomed protection for the exposed subject. Outside the box, the ever-present threat that contours LGBT+ relationships with the cities beyond. And here Taylor nails the contradiction at the heart of being a butch lesbian: you are missing within both the archives and the architecture of official history; you are excised from cultural representation even within LGBT+ cohorts, and yet you are visible in all the wrong ways: an obtruding target for ridicule and violence, a medical curiosity, and a sideshow spectacle. Your visibility is punitive (punished?), politicised and policed. You are, to put it simply, supremely, dangerously visible, but rarely ever seen. 'There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world.' Taylor writes in the preface. A statement with which it is impossible to argue.
But against this willed lack of perception, Taylor creates C+nto with a lyric and militant tenderness. Her subjects feel alive, fully realised and present, and the language with which they are held performs an elegiac cherishing. Dudizile, who: '...speaks difficult/ rivers knowing too/ many bois are lost/ in them those rip/ tides of sudden belief/ the undercurrent of/ language she speaks...' (87) Taylor's poem catches the cadence of thought and tongue particular to her subject; the skittish undersong of a mind revved up and ready to go. Or Jack Catch, 'in her houndstooth suit / oxblood brogues / knitted tie / sharpens the air she walks through...' (77). Or Angel, standing at the centre 'of her own ring', for whom 'bare knuckle fighting is a kind of birth' (92). These are not “characters” but people. The richness and originality of Taylor's lyric phrase-making gives them substance and voice. C+nto is a collection that understands that the most we can offer the dead is our unstinting vigilance, our attentive and loving witness.
C+nto is also an elegy for place. The bars and squats, the clubs and stomping grounds that breifly held Taylor's protagonists in common. This is not nostalgia for a vanished time and place, this is a work of grieving. These sites were not “safe” spaces – not for their patrons, or from the brutalising predations of social cleansing – because nowhere was safe. Rather, let's call this a lament for a sacred space: not merely somewhere to go, but somewhere to be and to become. The scenes where Taylor describes Maryville feel among the most ambitious and exciting in the collection, offering up indandescent prayers in a melancholic but enervating 'psalm'. This poem is both an evocation and an invocation, it has the power of a spell behind it:
o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us / let us drink too much / & awaken in each other's mouth / o Maryville / let us be ugly / let us unwash / let us language... (55)
Within the pages of C+nto the book seems to create the spaces that it mourns: a place, however hedged, however partial, however temporary. The gold cover glows like a beacon of hope, a hope that is almost undermined, at least complicated, by the redacted 'u' of the title. The offence contained within the word 'c+nt' becomes metonymic for the “offensive” and unwanted presence of Taylor's subjects, a rejection with which Taylor is herself intimately familiar.
This is not a “happy” book. It is, in places, celebratory and triumphant, but it is celebratory and triumphant in the teeth of a world that still refuses to acknowledge its author as fully human. Joy is abundant in C+nto, 'bursting' as Tayor writes in 'Legend of the First Butch', at the seams, but it is a hard-won joy, and a joy that knows itself to be fleeting. Throughout the collection, this sense of bursting into existence or becoming is everywhere signalled, but the moment never seems to arrive. There's so much energy here, so much purpose and potential, but it's never allowed to coalesce, to form communities of destinies that are recognised and enduring. Taylor refuses to shirk the often fatal consequences of daring to experience this joy, historically and presently. And at a cultural moment when the rainbow signifiers of LGBT+ “pride” have been adopted by neoliberalism as a hollow consumer brand, an easy, purely gestural way of accumulating cultural cache. I often wonder when doing my shopping in Sainsbury's just exactly how the supermarket is supporting me as a bi woman. Will staff come to my rescue next time I'm being harassed or threatened for my shaved head and unmade face. This feels unlikely. Within this context, Taylor's work is especially important.
In 'Black Triangle', Taylor describes the patches lesbians in Germany were forced to wear as a symbol of their antisocial nature, a symbolic scoring out of the c+nt as anything other than a source of sexual and reproductive labour. It is also a poem about the cost of being the wrong kind of visible, of living your life surveilled not just by the state but by anyone who might be watching. There are three sides to a triangle, says one of Taylor's subjects, 'your lover, yourself / & whoever is watching...' (104).
'December' is also a poem about brutalising and fatal homophobic violence, but it feels mournful and exhausted. In the final line there is 'a rainbow flag thrown over a coffin', an image that captures the true risk, weight, and meaning of “pride” (112).
'Eulogy' is also a litany: names compressed into stark columns, compressed and barely contained within the form of the text, and within the sorrow of the speaker (113) This is the multitude that C+nto contains. These are the book's grieved-for subjects, and its truest audience. C+nto is a work of memoir, a work of fearsome imaginative and creative reach; it is also a work of patient and dedicated historicity. As with Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor rigorously researched this collection. That is the true measure of her empathy and discipline as an artist. It is not enough to conjure voices out of air. It is not enough to merely write your own story. To be the witness and the storyteller these histories demand is to be the unblinking archivist to generations of pain. That Taylor does this work with love and with elan; that it reaches us as sonorous and soaring poetry is a testament to the alchemy of her craft.
Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.