Coupling and Decoupling: How Form is Used to Deconstruct Love in Helen Charman’s support, support
To reason why the body is conjured so openly in modern poetry, criticism often analyses the physical as a consequential counterpart of what, at large, a poem sets out to do. More and more, however, are poets using the body steadfastly, not to question, but to answer, showing how bodies represent a way of being that is fulfilling enough, as it is. To proclaim ourselves, we must overlook the feedback we expect from others. We cannot need it, or want to trust it. We must know where we stand. How is a body allowed to speak, metaphorically speaking, if bodies themselves are analytically positioned into a poem in a way which fits neatly into the language, disavowing true physical proclaim?
To say there is a retaliation to this deemed sense of unworthiness when it comes to face-value dealings with the body, or of talking of it daringly, would be wrong. Yet, it is right to be reading new poems with a sense of expectancy when it comes to representations of the self, as a power in voice and an optimism for new visual portrayals of the body appears, gradually, to be confessed:
love other women
collaborate only with them
Helen Charman’s 2018 pamphlet, support, support, deems itself, from this onset, as a calibrated rectifier of bodily shame. Here, in ‘Instructions for waking up in the morning’, the tone straddles the conundrum between being radical yet colloquial, stating a rare solution without denying what, at least to the speaker, is the overt obviousness of it. For the poem, the ‘other’ is plural, gendered and a specific target for physical activity. Yet the corporeal slant briefly hinted at here is sensitively managed, altered by the verbs, ‘love’ and ‘collaborate’, which denote a tone of progression which carries in it sentiment as well as practicality. The fact the poem does not mention the body yet uses this latter verb to raise a potential for intimacy which, linked to the romance of the poem, may include corporeal resource, means the poem is capable of posing an image of the body which is not entirely present. It is the carefully navigated language, rather, which abstracts the self to make way for a suggestion of the physical, leaving it surely elevated, subtly lauded and void of any relation to brashness.
How the poem utilises form is also important. The fact the two short lines on their own make up the poem in its entirety means the poem is enacting the very thing it is proposing gets done. Here is a couplet, reminiscent of revolution, using its censored brevity to show how quickly concur and consent to devotion can happen. You could argue it would be going too far to make the link between couplet and couple, or to suggest the poem is utilising its chosen form to allow itself to set an example of coalition, commanding the very core of its functionality to do so, yet why is the tone so deliberately extrovert if not for the purpose of re-appropriating the spoken self, in lieu of lust, as the poem asks? What this couplet, commanding in tone, proves is that poems do not need to directly mention the body in order to do something about how it is seen or heard. Rather, to succeed in defeating or demystifying criticism which sees the poetic physical as unnecessarily loud, poems, in their own way, must allow their language to bluntly include the physical – even, at times, going so far as to allow the body to metaphorically become language:
you make a home for yourself in narrative
Again, form here does more than hold up the poem. As the concluding line, the prominent end-point allowed now is the suggestion that there is both a permanence and an impermanence in the way we affix our vying selves to things, the poem itself giving no more leads for the singular persona to find a settlement. This sense of habitation is reiterated, finding similar prominence, in the longer, flighty poem, ‘The inheritance’:
now I feel I have entered
into the permanent
Again, the defining ‘now’ sublets a pretence of action to the poem which the captivated speaker experiences only as a type of stasis. The oxymoronic irony of entering a permanency speaks for a wider irony of the self constantly needing to be defined as one, quotable self yet constantly in that flux poems will always know, and the fact the speaker can only speak from a position of emotion, given away in the ‘I feel’ of the acting line, reiterates the body as the stemming point, where affection, given prominence, affects the prominence of affection for the poem.
To affect language, or to govern it in the way a self, or a body, can, is how the self is unlocked in these poems. It is interesting, if not suggestive of a disgust for that type of collaboration the opening poem champions, to think of how the speaker of ‘Prosody daddy’ just wants ‘to live alone’. Or how, in ‘The Tenancy’, the speaker claims ‘I think of him as a house’ while a staid, unflinching voice in ‘Borrow it’ orders ‘Bury me in wood or language / I don’t mind which’. Speakers who don’t know what they want turn quickly into speakers who are able to speak for themselves, while the need to strive for purposeful habitation trails off. All too commonly are body and language merged, synonymous with each other for their sense of safe-hiding, or for their likely ability to provide guard against an onslaught of fleshly confusion. The body becomes a substitute for language itself, in the same way language becomes a type of body, or a space to live in. In short, for these poems, the body, whichever way it is looked at, is an agent, serving a continual purpose, or foraging for a means to an end.
So, too, does the development of the pamphlet enact a tension which destructs individualism in favour of a potent desire to be in sync with something, careless, often, for what that something is:
I want you to find
me out and not find me out at the same
Be it language, house, external setting, woman, body or verse, these poems, spoken from a position of discomfort at being of and in a body, seek solace in the other, afraid, at times, to be certain of their self as self. Man, their one decided contempt, is a force to reckon with, which, almost defiantly, is where the poems find their most playful and unabridged outlets:
Women and girls rule
It’s not radical it’s just
that masculine lack of
means I don’t have a
In ‘Prosody daddy’, via the pictorial duties of the poem, examples of exclamatory illusion are ripe, leaving the speaker teetering on a pressing edge of modesty and altered awareness:
he like me /
Strangely, in spite of feeling assuredly confident in their rejection of male emotion, the speaker still craves to be viewed, altered and admired by the ‘he’ of the poem. Here, selfhood is finally called to certify its place, as the speaker grapples with numerous clutches which all pose the potential to impact or create their own identity. Put bluntly, it is optimistic: the archetype of the body refused, of the rejected lover, made modern.
Yet, in rare moments, defiant acts of certification are permitted, as the more steadfast of the speakers are liberated, even in the turbulence of newfound self-recognition:
Not listening as such, more waiting to
speak, above all mark yourself, it’s so important to be
Here, though the speaker knows they are in a state of waiting, similar to ‘the permanent’ of ‘the inheritance’, noted earlier, they also know that their next act, ‘to speak’, is planned; an act which will both recount their presence and give them a sense of prominence as they retaliate without suffocating their gender. Again, however, the speaker leans in to the importance of habitation, still under the belief that to speak is sometimes to lose safety, or to lose the identity you had before any new words were said. To be self-aware in these poems is almost wickedly catastrophic. Only the speakers who defy their circumstances, forgoing dependence and reliance, find a way to explore their body, utilising, as they do here, reflection and patience to do so.
No longer, it seems, will poems have the body be de-sensitized, or seen as deficient and unnecessary in a likewise unnecessary power-play between body and language. Poems which begin to oppose gentle probing, making overt use of the body to summon how and why the self, in language, is inconclusive, channel a new use of form which presents the poem as a space to inhabit, where the texture of the self is deemed flexible in accordance with the living conditions the language makes available. To exist is to use language, and to use language is to quantify that existence in a way which destabilises the body, preferring, first, to raise and then speak, shyly, of the physical self.
And, yet, here in particular, the physical is an incentive, as it propels these poems into terrain where the physical is left unmodified, bare and blunt in its image:
I’d like to moon around a garden barefoot
Rarely does romance take any of these poems captive, yet, in this instance, the tradition of the blooming, pink-hued natural environment is employed, almost sarcastically, so that the poem seems to be making a mockery of anything tender or confessional. The poem fantasises about indulging in such fancies, but remains sturdy on its believed path of realism. Here is what language can really do, the poem seems to strut. Here is the truth about love.
Yet, for better or worse, the tone of this collection is inquisitive, insightful for its lack of insight into any contextualised set-up:
I have got too much time on my hands. I think of you as a
house and as an ideal. I do not think you should want to marry me.
Almost persistently, the speaker here is hedging their bets, trusting their mental renditions, too hesitant to say whether their reading of their own experiences is right. It is not hard, then, to see how, in the constant refusal to admit even a little confidence in the confessed assumptions, this work is trying to distort yet also clarify representations of love. At the very least, the body and the self are to be loved, but, foremost, attachment to a body must be formed in a different way to any attachment to language:
You should not
exchange a person for poetry but if
you must at least try and make them
The long-standing fulfilment of these poems, reiterated for the sake of the body, and the physical domain women in particular inhabit, is that, consent for the body, if it is going to be found, must at least be in harmony with a certain tempo, capable of keeping cadence to the rise and fall we generate against ourselves as we, in our pursuit for self-love, endure further exploitation. With rhyme comes reason, and with reason comes the ability to legitimise how we use language to proclaim ourselves, and, then, to allow our bodies to be confessed to others. Asserting our own worth means, eventually, we will find more tenderness. That, these poems say, is our solace.
support, support by Helen Charman is published by Offord Road Books, £5.