‘The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx’ is a song to feminism. It’s not a paean as such – it’s too subtle for that in its messages. It feels fresh and surprising even as it twists and turns and puts the reader through a mangle.
The opening poem ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx’ is playful in the character’s defiance and of course in the subject matter – it’s comic that Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, who imitated Emma Bovary’s death by ingesting poison should make reference to psychoanalysts.
“I’m not going to tell you anything
That my psychoanalyst wouldn’t tell you.”
References to Flaubert’s Emma Bovary reoccur through the collection and the six different translations in the phrases of ‘The Giving Away of Emma Bovary by Several Hands’ is enlightening in its use of language and where the emphasis on active pronouns and possession lies. The title of ‘Are you Looking?’ is a reference to the very first words she speaks in the novel and this poem is an interesting study of the character and the drama that surrounded her. Of course a woman who “showed them all her la-di-da” would be seen by society as a villain. Not that Bergin expresses this directly of course – the poem is much too subtle for that, which makes pointing out the misogyny all the more potent.
Not all the poems are so cutting. There’s a poignancy in ‘To Dream of Horses’ between the first line “For a young girl to dream” to “and fortune will play her false.” By placing the mirroring of Emma Bovary’s tragic situation by Eleanor Marx centre stage, Bergin is creating a dialogue around the inevitability of a woman’s fate in a patriarchal society.
It’s not always done in an abstract manner. There’s possibly even more power in the poem ‘The Hairdresser’ when Bergin recounts the stories her hairdresser tells her. By pointing out her youth, she makes her seem more vulnerable, but the opening stanza makes a statement that everyone is worth listening to, no matter their age or status:
“My hairdresser is young
and she tells me things
no one else can.”
Bergin does this again with ‘The Hospital Porter,’ giving everyday, usually invisible characters centre stage. This is what poetry is meant to do – give voice to the things no one else notices. In this poem, her language is devoid of decoration, but there is a haunting sadness in phrases that draw attention to the mundane detail with such devastatingly simple language:
“From then on, each time he worked the night shift
she places another item in her suitcase.”
It’s the way that she puts the everyday under the spotlight that gives her poetry such life. The final image in ‘A Rented Room above the Registry Office’ is at once brutal and poignant:
“sometimes I find a tiny heart
stuck on my grubby sole.”
This is not the easiest collection to read. There is a lot of strangeness in the poems – particularly in ‘Dying’ where the symbolism of the blue wooden hand is both alien and unsettling yet also feels strangely relatable. Although there is a lot of energy in ‘Rehearsing Strindberg’, despite the immediacy of the emotional reaction it triggers, it takes a few reads to really get to grips with the messaging about power. Similarly, the exploration of power in ‘Wedding Cake Decorations’, whilst effective is also bizarre.
But is poetry meant to be easy? Perhaps these messages and images are all the more powerful because the process of interpretation gives us more of a sense of ownership. Yes, they may take some work, but the fact that Bergin plays with the idea of the process of writing poetry within these challenging poems is very post-modern and entertaining in itself.
‘In Memory of my Lack of Feelings’ is haunting and vicious. It’s also metapoetry. “I go on vaguely composing something weak.” There’s a sense of brutality and self-revulsion here which is mirrored in the phrase “I wasn’t a poet then” in ‘The Workmen and ‘Ode to the Microphone’. However, I think my favourite experimental poem in the collection was the hilarious ‘Notes from the Arboretum’ where she sends up the idea of poetic form and the process of drafting and editing by claiming it is “not an actual poem.” But if it’s not, then what is?