Alan Buckley and Charlotte decided to frame their sample Understory Conversation as a ‘poem exchange’: they each chose a poem of the other’s to respond to. Alan chose Charlotte’s poem ‘Corners’.
Corners Once he’s done she makes him up a nice bed for the night. Takes sheets and blankets, neatly folded, from the linen cupboard outside her bedroom and carries them down the stairs. While he enjoys a final cigarette and scotch in the small walled garden, she smoothes the sheets out on the put-you-up mattress, then tucks them tight in hospital corners. Early next morning she cooks him breakfast: tea, orange juice with bits in, soft boiled egg, two slices of white toast and marmalade, sweet black filter coffee boiled on the hob. She walks him to the station, allowing plenty of time for him to buy a bar of chocolate and a newspaper, and still be comfortably on the 9:23. It’s only after his late train pulls out, and a passing friend, concerned, touches her back gently, that she bends double on the pavement outside the station, and cries out. Charlotte Gann, from Noir, HappenStance, 2016
Alan Buckley: The devil, they say, is in the detail, and this is a poem of such precise, perfectly-executed detail. I was going to say exquisite detail, but actually it’s more excruciating. And what’s revealed so powerfully in it isn’t so much a devil, as something far more disturbing.
I think it’s a brilliant example of how a poem can be both plain-speaking (one of your hallmarks) yet also simultaneously restrained / allusive. There’s lots for the reader to do, but they’re given all the tools they need. And I’d argue that them having to do that work is what creates the profound impact of the poem, an impact that just wouldn’t be there if everything was spelled out. That approach might well have generated a shock, but for me shock in poetry is often a bit like a firework – its effect is huge but momentary, and doesn’t create a lasting impression, whereas (to extend the metaphor) a small but intense flame can literally burn itself into our retinas.
The act at the centre of the poem is right there, up-front, in the first line. But it’s just three words – ‘Once he’s done’. That reference to a bed for the night – a nice bed for the night, the word ‘nice’ already establishing something key about the tone of the narration that’s to come – points me immediately to what’s just happened, although that’s only confirmed by the gentle back touch and the crying out at the end of the poem. (I say confirmed, but of course in one sense nothing is confirmed here – and this speaks directly to the idea that the man and the woman in this poem almost certainly have different recollections, and evaluations, of what’s just occurred.)
The detailed description that follows on from the ‘nice bed’ is one I can hear being delivered through a throat as tight as the tucked-in sheets. Everything is calm and orderly – the sheets and blankets are ‘neatly folded’ in the linen cupboard – and everything is completely normal; that ‘final cigarette / and scotch in the small walled garden’ the natural conclusion to an evening. But everything is not calm, and orderly, everything is not normal, however much the woman in the poem ‘smoothes / the sheets out’ (along with her feelings).
I was part way through writing this when my friend Polly (who’s a psychosexual therapist) rang up for a chat. One of the things we discussed was one of Esther Perel’s podcasts, in which a guest was talking about the different ways that men and women typically respond to narcissistic wounding. The summary was that men rise above the low self-worth resulting from that wounding by aggressively imposing their will; women rise above it by compulsive acts of caring / healing. This seemed relevant to both parties in this poem, but particularly the woman – the care she shows the man (the ‘hospital corners’ immediately summon up an image of a nurse at work) feels utterly believable, though deeply unsettling.
But what also emerges through the description is a sense of the man as being not just cared for, but cared for as one might a small boy, who is given a breakfast that wouldn’t be out of place in an Enid Blyton story:
tea, orange juice with bits in, soft boiled egg,
two slices of white toast and marmalade,
sweet black filter coffee boiled on the hob.
The woman doesn’t walk with him to the station – she ‘walks him’, that transitive use of the verb reinforcing a sense of infantilisation, as does the woman allowing sufficient time ‘to buy a bar / of chocolate and a newspaper’. Perhaps making the man a little boy is part of the woman’s survival strategy. But it also suggests something really significant for me about the psychology of the man. When a man committing a sexual assault in a poem is presented as a monster, it’s too easy for me to distance myself, to say ‘that’s not me’. But here there’s no large and looming figure – just an angry, humiliated boy asserting his will in a monstrous way. This boy and his aggressive impulses aren’t simply uncontained by the supposed adult the boy inhabits; he is seemingly forgotten about, his actions split off into some other part of the psyche, as the adult man sits in the ‘small walled garden’ (there at least there is some containment) and ‘enjoys’ – the use of that verb made me wince – his drink and his smoke. This man is not a monster; he is someone much more recognisable, someone much closer to home.
Charlotte Gann: Thank you, Alan – and for choosing this poem! A strong and challenging one for me – and I concur with all that you find there. Rather than ‘simply’ (though I know there’s nothing simple about it) writing about sexual assault I found myself in this poem trying to explore some territory around it.
At the time I wrote it, when I was working towards my first full collection, Noir, I often used an adaptation of Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ to get started on poems. This involves sitting quietly and turning one’s attention inwards, into the body, to locate what Gendlin calls a ‘felt sense’. I find it a containing way to ‘stay with the discomfort’, as I think of it. At the time (Noir came out in 2016; so in the years running up to that), I was working hard to process difficult material around my earlier adult and teenage life. On this occasion, one particularly painful memory drew my attention. I also quickly discovered that this poem wanted to encompass a wider scope: something about the circumstances that surround so much abuse and indeed even enable it.
I think the poem tries to show how people – whole societies – can lock together around dysfunction; and, yes, specifically, in the world of this poem, how women may accommodate men and absorb the trauma of being misused without saying a word. That deep training – passed down through generations – to keep the peace, at the cost of stifling our own injured instincts – disturbs me greatly, although, of course, it’s a survival mechanism. I hadn’t heard that account you give of ‘narcissistic wounding’ and our respective gendered responses to it. It completely fits with what I found myself exploring in the writing of ‘Corners’, though – yes.
The ‘caring’ here, to me, is sickly and cloying (and yes, I agree, she tends to him like an out-grown boy from a bygone era), and certainly the woman’s experience of her self and her surroundings seems flattened. For me, the poem communicates this through its plain vocabulary with zero emotion, as she pours herself into over accommodating. The poem itself is a rigid container – following a strict ten-syllable line pattern (with the exception of the final couplet: coinciding with the arrival of the only emotive word in the poem, ‘gently’, and that friend at the station) – and a tidied-up structure of four four-line stanzas, although without the breathing space of stanza breaks.
I wrote the poem working around that one particular memory, then transposed the location, and let the characters and narrative emerge. I found the writing felt fuelled by a now-healthy anger at how much energy can be and is expended on maintaining a status quo that does nothing but harm us. I don’t want to be angry with the woman in the poem – I want to show compassion – but I am angry at many of the ways humans behave and abuse and mistreat AND accommodate each other. At times it feels such a clear responsibility, to disrupt this – including for safeguarding future generations. The energy behind the poem ‘cries out’ that this can’t be allowed to continue. And yet, with the horrible inevitability of this boxed-in poem, continue it does.
Can we (humans) really not help ourselves?
AB: Thank you Charlotte, for being willing to write so openly about the personal background to this poem, and the process of writing it. I’m struck how form is central to both our poems, albeit in yours it’s disguised. I hadn’t spotted that ‘Corners’ was in quatrains until you pointed it out, though I definitely felt a sense of rigid containment when reading it. And equally, I felt the shift in the final two lines, though I wasn’t consciously aware of the slight loosening of syllabics, and the fact that ‘gently’ really is the only emotive word in the poem. It’s a really good example of how form can work powerfully on the reader, without them needing to be aware of it.
Of course, form is also what helps us as writers get highly-charged material onto the page. Dealing with the challenges of form can help us – to borrow Ted Hughes’ line – outwit our ‘inner police system’, which is forever telling us what is and isn’t permissible to put in a poem. I’m very glad you found a way to do that outwitting here, Charlotte. It’s a poem whose message can’t be repeated often enough.
- Noir by Charlotte Gann is available from HappenStance