Chloe Elliott

Em told me about the podcast, The Worst Idea of All Time.

Two Australian men watch Grown Ups 2 every day for half a year. They haven’t seen the first film and the first episode is mostly consumed with invocations against Adam Sandler and his “inexplicable not funny scenes” Throughout the podcast, the two hosts focus on different aspects of the film. One episode, titled “Ballet”, is indebted to the supporting work of Jon Lovitz, whilst another named “Godot” works the movie as an attempt at non-narrative. The general takeaway is that the film’s a bit agonising and probably not worth watching. Inexplicably every time I search for an episode, I tap into my phone “Bad Adults 2” which brings up a page on WebMD about adult nightmares.

Em and I wanted to choose something without really choosing. Someone once said to me, you don’t choose experiences, they choose you. They put a real emphasis on the you and it made me feel special, thinking of these nonembodied experience forms, orange jellied figures without names, typing my name into the Sat Nav and turning up at my flat. I told Em to pick three numbers and they chose 3, 7 and 21, we flicked through pamphlets, deciding in the end on Karen Downs-Barton’s Didicoy. I sent Em pictures of three poems corresponding to page numbers and Em replied to a slight four-stanza poem titled Dear Faye. We had found our piece.

We tried to text each other daily, but the readings soon pattered off into every two days, and then a maybe a few a week.

A lot of the texts were caveated with apologies, as if forgetting to buy milk for someone you really care about it. Dear Faye became a kind of touchstone, a four tableted passage, something like when I would watch my friends cross themselves when entering a church, thumb, index and middle finger gesturing toward a special kind of space. It changed colours at some point, moving between pink to ashy grey, like an exhibition I saw at Dulwich Picture Gallery on Helen Frankenthaler. The artist used a soak stain technique, pouring thinned paint directly onto canvas from above to create an expanse of translucent colour. Thin paint matters because it lacks opacity, creating a flatness in painting that is similar to watercolour. Noreen Masud writes about flatness, using it to term a style “in relation to confession or revelation” that “involves causing “gendered” trouble by refusing the labour of responsiveness to its reader. It can happen in a surreal way, through a blitz of detail, and also in what Masud calls a “setting up, then dissolving, of lyric potential” that ends in a feeling of disappointment. I think this is what happens in Dear Faye, because what else happens to “a blown rose”? The petals expand and spread out like bread in the oven and then after a few days they decompress, as they start to wilt, falling into flatness, as the reality of the occasion nudges in.

The thing about reading a poem every day for two weeks is at some point the poem goes from being a poem to the poem, and then it starts becoming other things like a breakfast food or relationship fodder or reasons to go back to my OBGYN and then it does a full circle and goes back to being a poem.

Poetry as a flat space but also poetry as a round plane, one you can fall off the edge of and end up on the other side like those spiders that manage to escape the cup-trick. I had this moment in a funny kind of way in the middle of May. As part of the New Poets Prize, Poetry Business very kindly offered me a spot on an Arvon Residential of my choosing. I chose Lumb Bank even though I had spent Easter in Hebden Bridge two weeks prior, because my friend Alex suggested the course (he could drive us there) and because the tutors (Pascale Petit and Will Harris) were, and still are, some of my favourite writers.

I had never been on a writing course and felt a bit anxious to do so – ever since starting a new job, I felt like my social battery had reached an all-time low. My only reference point was a series of summer camp jobs I took at university, teaching English to Polish teenagers – often involving aerobic icebreakers and daily enforced speaking sessions, back to back.

Alex and I were one of the first arrivals at the house and were shown to our rooms, his a beautiful double with Georgian windows overlooking the spring-bloom garden, and mine, the room above in the attic, featuring sloped ceilings and a high view of the sloping hills and grazing sheep.

Once we settled in, we poured into the living room and met the other participants. I slotted myself into a space between two women, one in a floral dress with a kind smile, and the other with glasses, a contagious laugh and an opulent ability to tell stories. It wasn’t until we were in the dining room, sat on the long wooden dining table that I looked more closely at the latter woman, this time not from the side, and recognised her. I looked to the girl next to me in the floral dress, my eyes widened. I cursed, and motioned Fuck, that’s Karen. The kind smiling girl nodded.

I caught Alex’s eyes across the table, felt my face screaming, as I tried to gesture in some kind of way that this was the poet that me and Em had been consulting every day for two weeks, that this was the person who had so tenderly assorted watercolours and flowers and dog biscuits in a poem I had read to sleep.

Part of the reason the poem stopped being the poem is because I met Karen and frankly because she is one of the most wonderful, funny and astounding people I’ve ever met (as were all the residents on the Arvon). When she tells a story, she talks about blushing, recounting I could feel myself blushing, feel it rising to my cheeks, as she neatly pats her cheekbones whilst detailing a story about her daughters, a ringtone or an audacious experience involving towels. The thing about Karen is that she also used to be a professional dance teacher. I started learning tango sometime at the end of last year, having moved to a new city. I had trialled a class in Durham, and the teacher had told me if there was one thing to continue, it was dance, and I hugged him and laughed and tinkled off to York. Eight months later and it’s pretty much my midweek highlight. On the last night of the course, Karen and I danced together. She hadn’t done it in years but closed her eyes, brought me into close embrace and we spritzed across the oak barn floor. Colours flashed past in spokes of blue and white, flat and rounded. We burrowed into each other in a funny anecdotal way.

Everything I had ever written and said about the poem felt wrong.

Derrida writes about the dead – saying what is left is only recognised to be “in us” or “between us” – us being the living. When we say “in us” or “between us” we speak so painfully of an inside and an outside. The experience of reading demarcates a similar boundary state – that is we can’t call on the book or the poem, we can’t address it, to do so would be like calling on a thing that cannot respond. The address reflects, boomerangs, toward the poem in the self. We only have the dead, or the poems, as images, representations or impressions “for us”, not at our own disposal. I’m thinking of the picture of Walt Whitman from the inside of Song of Myself. In Leaves of Grass he envisions himself literally in verse,

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of an evening
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Whitman is only talking, however, because I see the image of him doing so – as I construct the image. But I will always interiorise a dissymmetry in the “concept of the dead, living in me.” Nothing can touch the dead in what he terms an “infinite alterity”, or the other that does not allow itself to be translated. When I think of memory, and of writing, I have to think of it through ghosts. I write about it in Dreamtheory from Encyclopaedia:


I am fearing my own coldness, I mean the parts 
of myself that are resolute, are hovering inside 
of me like plasma. Derrida says infinite alterity,
the completely other, the dead, living in us. 
Like issues of chia seed. Ghostly cell walls, 
translucent to the point of purple, a fraction 
I cannot cross. I can’t begin again. 
I’m so sick of newness. Give me the beehive, 
the piecebag, the quilt. I carry you with me
wherever I go. 

The dead and memory and poetry as these whitewashed stones living in and between us, containing a buffer shell, a kind of membrane where total interiorisation can never be complete. The poem is not ours. Dear Faye wasn’t mine or Em’s, but an evasion precisely from law and obligation. That’s what the poem’s about afterall. (Sort of. It’s also a love poem and should be read with the other Dear Faye poems from the collection. Go buy it and read it).

When I met Karen, it felt like me and Em had been caught, like two children eating dog biscuits under the table.

We had been calling on it, the only way we knew how, breaking it into uneven pieces and sharing the crumbs. We’d dissolved the poem and used the soak-stained technique, blurring it out until it became a kind of Rorschach test. I’m saying this was so much joy. In a way, I thought, maybe the poem wasn’t even Karen’s. In this way where the poem can resist a reader’s gaze, can trapeze itself outside of the plastic cup and walk off with eight legs into the heat, knowing it will perform its own routine. Em’s right, we don’t need to know hundreds of poems. One or two sustain us for a lifetime, because they are so sustainable.

They swing into our lives and introduce us to people and words that change and write and dance with us, skipping up again and again like dice or wild cards. The way we hold them is unbalanced because the way they affect us is unbalanced. I suppose something always coheres and something always doesn’t, and our job as writers is to try and make sense of that. To not try and decode what sits between and in us – but to know that there is a labour at hand in sharing.

Click here to read Chloe Elliott and Emily Prichard’s collaborative piece on ‘Re-reading Dear Faye

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