I said in my last post that I’d be posting a sequence of my own poems, each of which assumes (I think that may be exactly the right word) a female persona. It may be deliberately ventriloquial …a dramatic monologue, I suppose….or more oblique and ambiguously written in the second person. Of the latter I’m never quite sure whether it’s A Good Thing, because it lends the narrator a degree of distance, or a Cop-Out..unwilling to put its money where its mouth is. The question I’m asking is this:
do you recognise this as ‘the male gaze’ or is it more simply a human gaze?
I thought it would be appropriate to start with a couple of poems which try to understood two women who have, it seems to me, been reified by history, by photography, by journalism, documentary and by art. Myra Hindley and Winnie Johnson. Winnie who died a couple of years ago never gave up her search for her son Keith Bennett, assumed murdered by Brady and Hindley, and whose body has never been recovered. Someone asked me why I’ve not written about Brady. I think it’s because he is simply not interesting, in the sense that it’s impossible to make any human or imaginative connection with him; because in some way he’s not human. Just a thing.
Three things bothered me about Myra…or “Myra”, if I think of her as a character I intend to play. One is that over time she has gradually been reduced to that strange, unsettling staring face. The second is the portrait/installation by Marcus Harvey; an image collaged from thousands of photographs of children, and an image I say is unremittingly judgemental and objectifying. Which may be right. The third thing, the thing that’s always bothered me is Myra’s claim to have discovered a saving Christian faith. I think they all feed this poem, though I was thinking of none of them at the time. It was written very fast in a workshop, and not much changed afterwards.
You look at me
and I know
what you think
you think that I know
where the dead are buried.
and I tell you what
I dream of cottongrass
its million white heads
its tender flowers
like the blood of Jesus
like the love and mercy of Jesus
white as forgiveness
white as the rainy wind
and there are no bodies
if there ever were
they are gone in the whin
in the bracken
and you think I know
where the bodies are buried
but I know I can look in this mirror of steel
and I do not know for a second
the woman who stares back at me
Winnie is a poem that has taken much much longer; it started maybe 10 years ago after an especially gruelling TV documentary about Winnie. A singer/songwriter friend wrote a song afterwards. Dark skies. The key image is of a white sliding moon in the dark skies over Saddleworth Moor. It’s a haunting song. It must have been in my head at a Writing Day in Huddersfield, when a very rough draft appeared and then got forgotten for ages. It’s one of a handful of poems that really took me a long time to write, and I’m inclined to distrust them. Still. The issue is similar to that of Myra. Winnie had been photographed so often in all weathers, with those dark moors in the background, it’s hard to think of her indoors, with the curtains drawn. The images from TV at the time, of searches of peat-hag gritstone moorland in sopping vile winter weather are simply unforgettable. When I tried to write Winnie in the 1st person, and it simply felt crass, intrusive, wrong. Why this should not also apply to Myra is beyond me.
You dream of cottongrass
of threaded ghosts of baby’s hair,
white water spilled on blackstone grit.
You know that you will never know
where your boy is, has been
this forty year and more;
you know this as you know
the iron and salt of hot rare meat
the smell of his skull, his skin.
Thin winds pick among the rags
and bones of brittle heather,
sunken jaggers’ roads;
trouble dammed black waters,
the sour weeping of turned turfs
that won’t give up what’s held
where men in raincoats walk
in ragged lines with long white rods
testing the depth and smell
of the peat the way a shepherd
probes drifted Pennine snow
for buried sheep that eat their own fleece
You knew such things could be,
breathed vowels. Air.
Now you know nothing else —
the texture of a house
this pale moth-knowing
in a shadowed room,
ringed by black moors, dark humps:
tumbled cairns that mock
the lost, that will not show the way
[Both poems from Much Possessed . smith|doorstop 2016]
So there you go. Male gaze or just “gaze” ? More poems coming up.