Fondue by A K Blakemore, Offord Road Books, July 2018.
‘If you are a woman, writing about your experience of being a woman, you are part of one of the most avant-garde literary movements there has ever been’, asserts AK Blakemore in her manifesto ‘The flower will forever be my captain’ for Poetry Review. Blakemore, in her second book Fondue, is part of this movement. Her collection interrogates the condition of being human, but also the intractable and complicating circumstance of being a human who identifies as female. Later in the same manifesto, Blakemore writes, ‘Everything that happens in this poem is your fault’; you, the reader, are subsumed into this accusation, imaginatively challenged to consider how it might feel to be a woman writing about being a woman. Fondue seeks to discharge the taboo, the ‘fault’ around writing about the condition of womanhood as a poet in a female body. The poems in Fondue present reconfigurations of how to write about this experience, as Blakemore strives towards a demystification of female sexuality in verse that is stinging, compendious and unafraid of confrontation with the repellent. In doing this, Blakemore overhauls the language and images of female desire in poetry, and succeeds triumphantly in creating a collection of poems that delights in a resistance as defiant as it is appealing.
Throughout Fondue Blakemore’s poems, in language forensic as it is graphic, upend the traditional, threadbare poetic motifs and metaphors of femininity that have acted for so long as the strictures within which women have been allowed to write about themselves. Blakemore explodes these with poems like ‘fondue’, in which she promises ‘i will teach you what it means to live /without fear of contaminants’. The line break here is masterful; not only will the poet teach us ‘what it means to live’, but what it means to live in the realest, rawest, most un-cutsey way, which is presented not as oppositional, but almost coterminous to the condition of womanhood. In much of her poetry, Blakemore confronts the emetic with an acceptance that verges on celebratory. In the poem ‘a body’ we encounter the corpse of what was likely a fox but is decayed beyond recognition. Blakemore ends the poem like this:
i hoped no one would remove it
i wanted to show it to you.
The coy adverb ‘sentimentally’ attaches itself neither to the speaker nor to the conditional figure who may ‘remove’ the corpse, but lingers, capturing the exquisitely delicate balance of tenderness and brutality that suffuses the poem. The corpse may be ‘hideous’ but nonetheless it is something to share with the unnamed addressee of this poem as a display of feeling. Blakemore here is generating new symbols of her ‘sentimental[ity]’, as well as her sexuality. There is something disturbingly erotic suggested in the description of the corpse as ‘slung’ across the ‘orthopaedic mattress’; the corpse, disintegrating, the mattress, domestic.
Again in her manifesto, AK Blakemore writes:
Sometimes I come home from work after dark and strip lights in my kitchen will not turn on straight away, but instead flash abortively, and I stand in the hallway turning the switch on and off as my black cat walks across the linoleum floor, and is visible only in these flashes, a few strides further at each gasp of the light that will not work.
This is Blakemore’s advice on how to ‘move’ through a poem, and an example of the brilliance and precision of her metaphor. This suggested way of reading is applicable to Blakemore’s own poetry, if we take, for example, the poem ‘my sex’, whose disjointed strangeness contrives to defy containment. In lines of the poem, like, ‘enter my sex like act not gender’ and that ‘when/ i found out there was a fetish for everything sexuality/ seemed like a great leveller’, Blakemore seems interested in what it means to be a sexual being rather than a woman. This is an idea she probes further throughout the collection in poems such as ‘dandelion’, writing
you have no very deep understanding of what
it means to be human
but you damn well know you’ve got to play
But of course, a woman’s experience of ‘[being] human’ is inextricably bound to her gender, our actions always affirming or subverting our womanness. Throughout the poem a cast of characters enter, performing the stereotyped acts of female sexuality, reinforcing gendered constructions of desire. First, ‘enter girl with manacles’, next ‘enter girl who looks plaintively at porcelain/ salt and pepper shakers’, then ‘enter girl who applies the cooling gel’. We cannot be sure of her identity or identities because they are not underpinned by a stable presence in the poem, rather they enter, then morph away, like ‘gasp[s]’ of light. In ‘mephedrone’, another poem that requires the reader to move through it lightly, accepting its twists and inconsistencies, Blakemore writes that ‘i was interested in how/ girls construct themselves again’. This ‘again’ is ambiguous, falling as it does at the end of the stanza. Perhaps ‘again’ as in, endlessly recreating themselves in the same way that Blakemore as a poet offers a different interrogation of womanhood with each poem, a new subversion of the prescriptive norm. Or, perhaps ‘again’ as in, after the precarious, pseudo-invincibility of girlhood has been toppled, after the lecture from their parents, their teachers, their friends that
no responsible person would walk
down that street alone at
Just like the cat who glides through the darkness, nearing the poet with every shock of light, so too are the women of Blakemore’s poems dynamic, shifting. The condition of womanhood is perhaps inescapable, but our experience of it is always in flux.
Blakemore’s verse seizes and celebrates a new schema of language and metaphor to sculpt her own topography of female poetic desire, always pushing against patriarchal structures/strictures of power. In the lines ‘i realise nothing/ and do so hate to explain/ i know i don’t deserve to be hurt’ (‘when my boyfriend spanks me my inner feminist weeps’), Blakemore engages in a negative resistance, where the refusal of explanation, and the inherent worth of the body, for all its trauma and imperfection, is asserted as defence enough against patriarchal forms of power that desire to encroach upon it. Again, in ‘samaritans’ Blakemore refuses to speak: ‘and i never saw the point in talking/ when truth/ is just a sharp thing you stand on in the night’. Blakemore seems to suggest that speaking can be exhausting and futile for how even ‘truth’ is systematically misconstrued and weaponised against women. These poems exist as complicated, contradicting pivots of resistance; they refuse explanation, assured of their inherent validity – a response, perhaps, to the onus of justification always being placed on women?
Blakemore is a poet who understands what it means to have something to say and how, if what one is saying is important, it can quickly be appropriated, taken by ‘other, larger hands’ (‘Andrea Dworkin’) and used in a way that is not sanctioned by, nor beneficial to the one whose experience it is. In May, Blakemore published a statement on her Twitter (@akblakemore) regarding her sexual assault by Penguin poetry editor, Donald Futers, which occurred in 2015. She wrote, ‘I haven’t spoken about this publically up until now out of a desire to avoid reliving a traumatic incident – and to avoid having my work, or person, reduced to it. But it has become clear in light of recent developments that silence is no longer tenable.’ In July, Blakemore posted on Twitter again, a screenshot of her first book, Humbert Summer, marketed with this strapline by her publisher: ‘AK Blakemore: one of the key UK poets of the #metoo age’. Blakemore expressed her frustration and disbelief that her publisher could be ‘complicit in the reduction of [her] work for their own putative gain’ without her consent. Blakemore’s concern about her work and identity as poet being ‘reduced’ to the status of a survivor of sexual assault had been realised by her own publisher, raising concerns about how the literary community, including reviewers, treat the details of a poet’s private life made public to us as informing how we write about their work, without falling back on the facile and gendered concept of women’s poetry always being confessional, and the commercialisation of trauma. Indeed, while much of Blakemore’s poetry is about female desire and sexuality, and some poems discuss violence and trauma, Blakemore’s poems are not always personally confessional.
Blakemore’s verse proclaims an affinity for anatomy. Body parts arise throughout the poems of Fondue, teeth and gums, intimate and contaminant, feature heavily, but perhaps most interesting is Blakemore’s attention to hands. Hands are the physical interface between the personal and the public, the body and the world. In the exquisite poem ‘Lilith’, Blakemore writes,
there is no intellectual pleasure.
i caught the large moth
with my bare hands –
The hands in Blakemore’s poems are important, actual and symbolic, as communicative but also manipulative. In the poem ‘Andrea Dworkin’, hands play a different function:
so much of what has happened
(molested by the unknown, internally examined)
seems like it would be treated as a metaphor by other,
Here the hands are aggressive, wrenching away lived experience from the speaker and abstracting it to something that ‘seek[s] to reassure us’, but fails. The poem seems to challenge the titular figure, Dworkin, an anti-pornography feminist, proclaiming ‘i can do it in a room alone/ and nobody can stop me’. Dworkin, known for confounding pornography with rape for its violence against women, is challenged in this poem, as the erotic, the pornographic is the speaker’s imagined image of ‘you/ at the bar from behind’. Blakemore’s verse reclaims experience of assault from the hands of those who seek to intellectualise, distance it into metaphor. In ‘golem’ hands are ‘bare, beautiful’, instruments for creation, like the hands of a poet. Fondue is a collection wrought in just such a pair of hands that are assured in their ability and singular in their style; proof enough, if it were needed, that Blakemore is a poet who defies reduction.
In an interview with Artefact magazine, Blakemore revealed that she began writing poetry after reading Carol Ann Duffy in school, declaring it ‘rubbish’ and accepting her teacher’s challenge to write better. Fondue is a collection that speaks triumphantly of the rigour and quality of a new generation of young, British poets and cements AK Blakemore as a forerunner amongst them. Energizing in the vitality of its voice, Blakemore’s poetry fillets open old tropes of female desire in poetry and infuses them, remoulds them into poems that feel necessary and refreshing.