Poem of the week: Ellipsis by Deryn Rees-Jones

Babies and lost books feature in a poem that provocatively elides thought and sensation


And there I found myself, more truly and more strange.
Wallace Stevens

I had started to think of the skin ego,
of Women, Fire and Dangerous Things,
the lost books, fluttering, opening their wings like veins …


Perhaps it was a false start, the veined blue
remembering of a breast, the scent of milk
in that photograph, the coil of your double crown as you fed.


But words like bandages were slowly unravelling …
and somewhere I was becoming the dreamwork of my life,
every room in the house now blunted

to an irrational fear of knives, maybe,
the glittering wage of the umbilicus,
the navel of the dream.


And the blue heartstopping pulse at the wrist
was insistent as a rhyme
unstitching itself…

the red stain of the past
on my improbably stretched-out hands.

I am not sure whether this poem makes books and babies rhyme, but it certainly elides thought and sensation in a provocative way. Contemporary poets often have day jobs as critical readers of texts, and, in the first line, the speaker seems to be recollecting how a poem was born of psychoanalytical theory: “I had started to think of the skin ego.” This term describes a concept from the work of Didier Anzieu, and is also the title of one of his books. The sentence goes on to cite George Lakoff’s study of linguistic classification, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Vividly image-packed in themselves, these titles are suggestive, even if entirely freed from the anchorage of content.

The art of losing books (or not finishing them, or not even beginning them) isn’t hard to master, as Elizabeth Bishop almost said, and the notion of “the lost books” has a forlorn pathos. But the sentence evolves beyond pathos to spring a surprise. While books have been imagined as birds before, these particular ones “open their wings like veins” – a simile that refutes its own “flying” metaphor and introduces a more dramatic sense of the verb “opening”, to suggest suicide. Books and concepts touch vulnerabilities safer left unexposed. The fragile parcel of skin around the self may not be left intact.

Like a rhythmical multiplication of cells, the poem evolves more and more connections. Those “veins” mutate mysteriously into “the veined blue / remembering of a breast”. Now the speaker seems to be murmuring tender, lustrous words to a baby being breast-fed (“the scent of milk / in that photograph, the coil of your double crown as you fed”). The “you” might of course now be an adult, or the snapshot might be imaginary. The query about the “false start” may imply that there was no live birth, and that this milk-scented image of the feeding child with the coiled double crown is what the speaker will later describe as “the dreamwork of my life.”

The image of the double crown is picked up and darkly unpicked with the “slowly unravelling” coil of language and bandage. The idea of rooms being “blunted” might suggest perception through a haze of narcotics, yet the blunting of ordinary, friendly environments becomes another kind of sharpening, since it leaves exposed “an irrational fear of knives”. Sensation seems focused on the cutting of the umbilical cord, and that “glittering wage”, bright as blood and steel, might imply life for the child or the mother but not for both. Perhaps it simply stands for the trauma of that first but final cut of separation.

The single stanzas have now become pairs, an interesting mimetic effect. A live birth is implied by “the blue heartstopping pulse” – with blue echoing the breast’s “veined blue” in stanza two. The cessation of that pulse, though, is envisaged in the comparison with a rhyme, “insistent” but “unstitching itself”. The reflexive verb recalls a favourite device of Sylvia Plath and hints at the body’s own refusal of further process. It seems likely that “the red stain of the past” connotes menstruation, as remembered by an older, non-menstruating woman, rather than miscarriage or suicide. The mother’s arms at the end of the poem are clearly empty. But a reading of “the change” as a birth into a new selfhood is appealing, and encouraged by the choice of epigraph, from Wallace Stevens’s wonderful Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.

The poetic blurring of categories and stereotypes leads back to Lakoff, who studied the indigenous Australian language Dyirbal and its system of classification. The list classified by the noun balan includes women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fishes, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc. These phenomena are linked on the basis of “domains of experience”. “Myths and beliefs are domains of experience that are relevant for categorisation,” Lakoff writes. Though they appear in the same list as “dangerous things” and “fire”, women are included through such concepts as the sun-goddess. The hairy mary grub is included because of the similarity of its sting to the sensation of sunburn. Thus women and fire and birds (and grubs!) enter the same class.

This week’s poem articulates a branching, myth- and experience-based making of feminine identity that allows the overlapping of dreams and fertility, menopause and rebirth. It originally appeared in Deryn Rees-Jones’s 2012 collection, Burying the Wren, a volume dedicated to the memory of her husband, the poet and critic Michel Murphy, and is republished now in her Selected Poems, What It’s Like to Be Alive. The whole collection, like this week’s poem, is an elegy-haunted celebration of the rich interchangeability of concepts and images – a field where, I suspect, poets played in happy unconsciousness long before the arrival of the linguists and philosophers.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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