This review first appeared in The Glasgow Review of Books (22/02/17)
QUEEN OF HER OWN UNIVERSE: TRACEY HERD’S ‘NOT IN THIS WORLD’
Tracey Herd Not in This World (Bloodaxe, 2015)
On the 10th of June 1987, American actress Elizabeth Hartman threw herself from the window of her fifth floor Pittsburgh apartment. Haunted by depression, she was just forty-three when she died. It is Hartman’s face – young, smiling, impossibly fresh – that beams in triplicate from the cover of Scottish poet Tracey Herd’s third collection, Not in This World, a work inspired by Hartman’s struggles as well as Herd’s own experience of clinical depression.
Martin Colthorpe described reading Herd’s second collection, Dead Redhead, as ‘an intoxicating experience, in which you become thoroughly immersed in her world and her obsessions’. Not in This World is no exception, with Herd’s continuing ‘obsessions’ plotting a dark psychological landscape populated by doomed movie stars, broken girls and powerful racehorses, filled with images of blood, snow and wreckages.
As in Herd’s previous collections, the figure of the girl detective makes an early appearance as the speaker of ‘What I Wanted’ sets out:
with my magnifying glass
and pocket torch to follow
the tracks that led off as far
as a child’s eye could see.
In ‘Dreams of Lost Summers and Found Lines’, ‘old green and cream Penguin novels’ (detective stories) appear, as does Miss Marple in ‘The Living Library’, and in ‘The Case of the Inconvenient Corpse’, a Miss Marple narrative is retold from the perspective of a callous male figure. Fairytale heroines also return, with a raging, righteously bitter Snow White narrating ‘Nobody Home’, spitting out thoughts of the woodsman: ‘as if he hadn’t already fucked me over / by leading me into this foul, dark place’. In ‘Reverie’, Cinderella is once more evoked as the speaker refers to her bleeding feet: ‘Glass slippers were never made for dancing’.
There is also a Herd-esque profusion of Hollywood icons: Vivien Leigh, ‘her green eyes slanting in the fire’s feline rage’; Norma Shearer, ‘one eye cast about in a delinquent / skew that parodied beauty’; Joan Fontaine, to whom Alfred Hitchcock ‘casually let slip that the cast and crew / hated’ her, and who Laurence Olivier ‘had no time for’; Olivia de Havilland, whose ‘quiet strength’ pervades; Louise Brooks, her eyes ‘cool and sane’; Mae Marsh, ‘the girl with the bee stung lips, / bee sting, gentle bee sting, blonde, beautiful, bee stung’; and Clara Bow, ‘dancing her frantic Charleston’.
Other pop culture allusions abound, from James Dean and Buddy Holly to The Great Gatsby and the Titanic. Like a poem by T. S. Eliot or a song by Morrissey, these provide the delight of recognition, as well as the desire to Google topics – like the life of Hartman – that require illumination. Indeed, one of the most affecting poems is the final one in the collection, ‘Calling Card’, about Marina Keegan, an American writer who, in 2012, died in a car crash aged twenty-two, five days after graduating from Yale. Knowing the facts makes the poem all the more poignant, and more beautiful too:
Your words couldn’t protect you,
but they never left you,
swirling around your body like moths.
Recurring motifs create a strong sense of unity: champagne; flowers, especially funereal lilies and fairytale roses, their colours mirroring the blood and snow that lace these poems; cuts; ice; glass; mirrors; vehicular crashes; graves; stars; hearts; God; old movies; children; jewels; bullets; and violently removed skin. Indeed, so prevalent are Herd’s icons and so distinct is her voice that it would, quite often, be possible – à la Larkin and Plath – to identify her poems even if they were stripped of her name. This is what Sarah Wardle described as Herd’s ‘strong and singular voice’, and it is arguably the poet’s greatest asset.
However, there are notable departures from broken girls and dead film stars, and, in fact, a wide variety in terms of ideas and perspectives. ‘The Afternoon Shift Are Leaving the Port Talbot Steelworks’, an ekphrastic poem based on a photograph, presents the steady stoicism of these ‘anonymous men’, ‘their tread, heavy and tired, but their heads unbowed’ before the unceasing machines. The titular focus of ‘The Fortune Teller’:
…misquotes Macbeth with gloomy relish
running a ragged nail along lines that speak
of witches, massacres, wild-eyed horses
– foretelling miscarriage before holding out her ‘dirty hand’ for payment.
No matter how arresting the subject matter, Herd’s technical expertise should not be overlooked. Her adept deployment of first person perspective gives a directness and immediacy to poems, even when they take faraway figures and places as their focal point (many are set in America, with references to New York, Vegas, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Idaho, North Dakota, Iowa, Eisenhower, Southern belles and diners). In ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Herd-as-Hartman laments: ‘I am left behind, a failed actress, / holding the script – which is in tatters’, her pain palpable despite the gulf of decades and miles.
Herd’s use of rhyme is also skilful but unobtrusive, as in ‘Vivien and Scarlet’, which maintains its a/b/a scheme throughout and ends with a couplet, juxtaposing structural tidiness with the decidedly non-fairytale ending of the actress’s life. In ‘Leaving’, the regular aa/bb/cc scheme of its two-line stanzas creates a greetings card effect, encapsulating the simple but profound pathos of its subject: ‘the bow of a ship sailing out into evening. / Somewhere, someone much loved is leaving.’
Herd’s use of repetition, such as the phrase ‘eyes of the palest blue’ in ‘Norma Shearer’, is also artfully handled, with the internal rhyming of ‘white’ and ‘light’, ‘knew’ and ‘skew’, as well as the alliterative ‘sexy suffering in satin gowns’ and ‘Retire a rich woman, / royalty of sorts’, creating a musical soundscape that is both jaunty and strangely unsettling, evocative of the dark underbelly of old-school fame.
In ‘Five Seconds’, Herd deploys a conversational tone that belies the horror of the sheer bad luck of Ritchie Valens dying in the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly (Valens, a support act, won a coin toss for a seat on the flight, a flippant gesture that determined the teen’s fate): ‘Funny how five seconds…never mind’. Continuing this theme in ‘The Music Men’, Herd’s arresting imagery takes centre stage:
Out into the dark, star-laden night,
the snow piling up like gambling chips
all over the state.
Buddy’s horn-rimmed glasses merge with the unseeing eyes of oculist ‘Doctor / T.J. Eckleburg’, the looming billboard from The Great Gatsby which gazes blindly over the soul-sapped inhabitants of America like the God of Mammon.
Herd’s greatest strengths are, perhaps, also her greatest weaknesses, depending on how one approaches her poems. Her strong narrative drive can occasionally feel as if plots are being retold, as in ‘The Case of the Inconvenient Corpse’ or ‘Joan Fontaine and Rebecca’, in which the events of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca are described at length, albeit from intriguingly skewed angles. Her persistent ‘obsessions’ with dead girls and forsaken icons mean that some readers may feel at a remove from the poems. Andrew Neilson commented of Dead Redhead that Herd too often wears ‘the mask of personae’ and that ‘it would be nice for its sequel to feature a little more of Herd herself.’ Any reader hoping for a radical departure from the themes of Herd’s earlier collections will be disappointed.
However, it could also be argued that every poem betrays something of its creator, no matter how veiled in persona that poem may appear, and Herd’s own experience of depression suggests that she dominates these poems as surely as Hartman does. A poem like ‘The Unicorn Seat’ has a distinctly personal feel, written as it is ‘for Elsie and Lucy’:
…I have one little hand
in each of mine and you both stare up
at the arching evening…
So, too, does ‘Just One Request’, whether the figure who walks
slowly out into the waters of the Mar de Plata,
the malignancy blooming for a second time
without cease, as unstoppable as spring
is known to the poet or not. Either way, the figure’s grace and stoicism in the face of illness is just as powerful: ‘There is a dignity in knowing when to leave’.
Not in This World is further proof of Herd’s enormous talent, her ability to draw her readers into the hinterland of her fascinations and surprise, challenge and delight us with the blistering force of her perceptions. Dark they may be, but these are poems that are a joy to savour, beguiling enough to bear repeated readings, each one throwing up fresh ideas thanks to Herd’s keen wit and kaleidoscopic knowledge of popular culture. The most potent element of the collection is the solidarity between Herd and Hartman, uniting as it does these artists from different worlds. The closing lines of ‘Cemetery in Snow’ are eerie and sad but ultimately redemptive, encapsulating Herd’s power to simultaneously unsettle and console:
Somewhere, I think, someone has lit a fire.
The warmth comes from another world entirely.
Hold my hand, friend. We will not be lonely.