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Review: Natural Chemistry, by Michelene Wandor

David Harmer, Orbis, Nov 2013

Right from the get go, there is a confidence with language and form here
which sparks the imagination. Each page is turned with anticipation. The first
'natural chemistry' interleaves two narrators, one in italics, so that two poems
grow together and inform each other. Its opening is assured, lyrical and
technically interesting:

Citta della Pieve: a chill hilltop
hands touch closed blooms, holding bright red pistils
at dawn in the chill
my love

Wandor moves on to expand her vision into articulate, enriching sequences;
'snow and sewers in Berlin' has four tightly worked sections, 'Silk Thistle or
how the vote was won', is a collage of verses and voices carefully arranging the
rhythms and the words over spaces, leaving gaps and leaps of white paper but
never once losing control of the form, never leaving us in any doubt as to the
specific struggle it details and the more general battles that seem perpetual:

five months for a window worth three pounds
hunger strike thirst strike hot and cold shivers
paces the cell
crouch kneel pace footsteps wardresses
clutch a shoe they close in on me the shoe falls
fling me back on the bed hold me by the shoulders.'

The technical skill is clear. The poem does the work; it mimics the event and
pulls us into the thoughts and feelings of the victim. We are placed there, in
that cell, that 'steel instrument' of force-feeding is 'pressed' on our gums too.
It is any prison, anywhere.

From women's suffrage, the 26 sections of 'illuminatus' examine the ethnic
cleansing of the Jews of York in the 12th century, and in a documentary
manner reminiscent of Olson, continues to explore the problems that rulers
find with the beliefs, complexities and diversities of their people, until Oliver
Cromwell appears to reconcile matters. The verse is jagged but compact; the
examination of absolute power, forensic. The voice of Marvell speaks a section,
and the horror of mass destruction is compounded by the evenly measured
logic of tone. The whole piece is a powerful example of poetic understanding,
using sparse verses to reveal a wealth of meaning.

Other, less ambitious sections, also succeed. I liked the more personal 'Los
Angeles', as well as individual pieces like 'burning sage' and 'Esther's book (or

The book ends with 14 meditations of Ophelia. Again, there is a richness to
the language and a delight in natural imagery combined with a controlled
experimentation with the form itself, so that Ophelia in section eight becomes
a mermaid, gradually disappearing as the lines themselves slowly vanish, dropping
the word 'mermaid' letter by letter until it is gone.
paces the cell

What marks this collection out as extremely interesting and well worth
investigation is the combination of highly crafted verse placed with clarity and
determination in a rhythmic structure; one which is equally happy in conventional
lines and chunks and then apparently scattered over the pages with the candour
of Ferlinghetti. Of course, nothing is being scattered, everything is deliberate.
The network of lines and words holds down enticing passages of lyrical imagery,
often counter-pointed with flat, prose-like passages of textual information. It
is accomplished and neatly done. Read this book.