Review: Notes from a Swing State – Writing from Wales & America is a sane corrective for our troubled times
Ohio is one of those bellwether US states that can swing one way or another, voting Republican or Democrat on a whim and thus a sought after prize by politicians of both ilks. It is also home to the poet Zoë Brigley who was brought up in Caerphilly but now teaches at Ohio State University.
This volume of fine, troubled and ultimately reassuring essays connects both places, comparing the incredible skies of the Midwest with those of Wales, ‘where the sky is a flat lid and the sky bends round like cupped and comforting hands. But here the sky is a down-turned bowl, and we are so small underneath it.’
The opening essay ‘Arches’ is, on the face of it, an account of a visit to the wind-sculpted Delicate Arch, a beautiful geological feature eroded from sandstone which stands in the empty land west of Utah. But it also takes loss as its theme, as Brigley ruminates on a recent miscarriage and how the empty desert spaces around her resonate, suggesting ‘maybe it’s just that emptiness conjures the spaces that most need filling in our lives. Those things that we most desire and cannot have… Perhaps above all, it is lack made beautiful.’
The essays range freely when it comes to the subject matter. One focuses on a visit to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris with her father, the two of them pausing to look at the naked woman in Courbet’s The Origin of the World. Her parent’s unembarrassed reaction to the sexual image offers her comfort as she had yet to find pleasure in her own body. Meanwhile ‘Frankenstein and Reproductive Rights 200 Years On’ is a superb rumination on attitudes to maternal bodies and giving birth and suggests the heart of Mary Shelley’s classic is Dr Frankenstein’s ‘fatal dalliance with reproductive power’ which might serve as a warning relevant to modern debates about reproductive rights.’ One of those very heated debates is happening even as she writes this book, namely the wranglings over the Alabama Anti-Abortion laws.
It’s little wonder, perhaps that when she looks for a central metaphor for the USA today it isn’t Disneyland, as explored by the French philosopher Baudrillard, but rather the Fright House, referencing a local theme park which features simulations of appalling violence, arranged as entertainment for the punters. In ‘Nine Stories With Guns, and One Without’ Zoë Brigley compiles a sobering compendium of terse tales about recent guns crimes, the history of the semi-automatic firearm, the massacre at Sandy Hook school, the gunslinging sequences in American movies and novels and songs such as the Beatles’ ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ which was inspired by a magazine article about a father and son bonding over shooting.
Collectively these snapshots add up to a tight, edgy portrait of a country where good parenting and concern for the well-being of children runs up against seemingly libertine gun control enshrined in the Constitution.
Throughout this collection Brigley is challengingly open about her own life. Which turns out to have had its challenges especially because, as a young writer she found it hard to write about personal material, which she described as a ‘writerly shyness.’ As a young woman she found herself in an abusive relationship with an older man. So the essays prove she has overcome both and now faces her fears head-on.
These ‘Notes from a Swing State’ are written with an openness to ideas redolent of Rebecca Solnit and a pellucid clarity which brings to mind the essays of fellow poet Kathleen Jamie. Brigley’s description of a train ride out of Bridgend leaves you wanting more: “On the map, the straight railway line runs alongside the River Llynfi tangling this way and that, snarling like string around a metal wire. The Llynfi, a river that nearly died after the mining era, abiotic until it was nursed back into health, but it did come back, just like slag heaps have grown over green, and there is little to mark the spot where the dark, spidery pitheads once stood.”
Brigley is especially good on the world of creativity, not least when she challenges the idea that creativity is incompatible with domestic life and makes the case for making a productive and rich writing life as a mother, despite all the time challenges. She also engages with letters, such as the exchanges between the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and the artist Georgia o’Keefe as well as those of the Welsh soldier-poet Alun Lewis and his wife Gweno and mistress Frieda and other writers such as Robert Graves and Lynette Roberts, mistakenly described as a ‘Welsh novelist.’
Elsewhere, in a stimulating account of ‘Craft and Art’ Brigley looks at dream-work and Freud and visits an art exhibition which featuring images of Victorian womanhood and costumes from the period. As she looks at the artifice of the hairpiece, the crinolines, and corsets on display she asks ‘can we really say that the modern-day is so different with our botox, padded bras and Spanx?’
This a short book which brims over with ideas, craves protection for the vulnerable, and enters a civilized and civilizing voice into the debate about violence, suggesting that poetry might be a powerful voice for disenfranchised groups such as black women or individuals facing homophobia, especially if it embraced the idea that human beings are born into uncertainty, a fact ignored by a culture that argues the other way, ‘creating certainty in nationalism, or in being a native, or a man, or in being white…’ and so on.
In just under a hundred pages this is a sane, wise corrective for our troubled times, spotlighting some (more) of the idiocies of Trump’s America and making the case for art which gives voice to those silenced by threats of violence, violence at home, on the street, or, most worryingly in the case of the United States, in the classrooms and corridors of their schools.