A nest of rag and bone

Reviewing John Burnside’s latest collection Still Life With Feeding Snake earlier this week, I was drawn to two poems that frame the male gaze, ‘Annunciation in Grey and Black’ and ‘Approaching Sixty’. In the latter, the narrator watches a girl in a cafe in Innsbruck as she winds her hair then lets it fall down her back:

Poets: staring creepily at other people from cafes since 1953

…while I try hard not to stare:
a man growing old, with a touch
of sciatica, mild
and hypertension,
striving to seem a comfortable kind
of scarecrow, not so blinded by desire
as makes the heart a nest of rag and bone
and still, if she could see it,
not quite foul
just one of those
who knows what beauty is
and lingers on the ache
to stay alive.

The line break on ‘touch’ makes us linger on that word – creating a kind of ghost-touch in the narrative, emphasising the sense of longing. The other piece, ‘Annunciation…’ describes a man watching a woman mopping the floor in an airport. She believes she is alone:

….her lips still moving when she turns
and sees me, sees me right down to the bone
of hurt and lust, a thousand miles from home.

Reading these two poems in quick succession immediately put me in mind of Craig Raine’s infamous poem ‘Gatwick’, also dealing with lust in an airport lounge. In the poem, we find Raine (I’d usually say ‘the narrator’, but there’s a section early in the poem where he frames himself in the piece) admiring young women at passport control and in the departure lounge through a series of (deliberately) mildly-farcical rhymes (‘she is maybe 22 / like a snake in a zoo’).:

I want
to give her a kiss.
But I can’t.
Why is this
so marvellous?
So hysterical?

The poem prompted a series of parodies and complaints on Twitter (‘there once was a poet who went / to very great lengths to invent / an excuse for his boner….’) with an inevitable backlash and a strident defence from Raine himself. Raine argued:

“My poem is about border controls: the border between official and private; the border between imperious youth and docile age, apparently absolute, but actually porous because the ageing process is already in train – the young woman is already becoming her parents. Then there is the border between what one might think and what one can say. The very thing I am being pilloried for is actually one subject of my poem. My attitude to the young woman is kindly. The word “bust” is a term taken from tailoring. I like her big bust because she doesn’t. A form of redress. What I intend is joy – a kind of love for the whole world: the girl, her parents, Gatwick. The Greek word for hospitality, xenia, literally means love of strangers.”

Why, I wondered, did I find Raine’s poem so offensive (beyond the fact I often have a negative reaction to his work on a stylistic level) and Burnside’s so interesting? What makes one exploration of the male gaze troubling and the other nuanced? For me, it mostly comes down to a sense of ownership. In ‘Gatwick’, Raine presumes to know how the young woman feels about her body:

I want to say I like your big bust.
Which you try to disguise with a scarf.
You’d like it smaller by half.

Leaving the slightly inappropriate nursery-rhyme quality of this stanza aside, who is the narrator to presume he knows how the woman feels about her bust? Raine compounds the assumption inherent in these three lines in his defence of the poem – ‘I like her big bust because she doesn’t.’ The narrator is all-seeing, all-knowing, placed in a position of power. Later, he imagines how the woman will age (‘I choose to ignore her mother’s pelvis / large bore…’), assuming an omnipotent stance again.

UnknownBy contrast, Burnside’s ‘Annunciation in Grey and Black’ and ‘Approaching Sixty’ reflect as much on the watcher as they do on the object of the gaze. Both poems are self-aware, considering what it means to look, to be filled with ‘hurt and lust’. In ‘Annunciation…’, the ending foregrounds the idea that the watcher is also being scrutinised: the woman ‘sees’ him ‘right down to the bone’. In ‘Approaching Sixty’, there might be a hint of the all-knowing watcher in the line ‘one of those / who knows what beauty is’, but ‘one of those’ softens it somehow, implying competing visions of beauty. The narrator is battling with different impulses, ‘not so blinded by desire / as makes the heart a nest…’. The women in Burnside’s poems aren’t objectified in the same way the women in ‘Gatwick’ (including the mother) are.

At the beginning of this year, I tried to write a poem exploring the ‘female gaze’, about a woman looking at (and desiring) a man – possibly a delayed response to Stephen Fry’s notorious comments about female desire a few years ago. I tried to weave the idea into the poem that desire needn’t imply ownership or expectation, comparing this to how we can look at landscape (seeing a hill, for example, without feeling that we have to go there and climb it, noticing places without wanting to inhabit them). I’m by no means the first woman to write something like that, thankfully – not by a long way – and no doubt my piece was also more muted or understated than I thought. All the same, at the time, I mentioned to my friend Alan (incidentally, Alan’s a poet who always manages to write about bodies and the act of looking in myriad nuanced and thoughtful ways – here’s a piece of his about aerialism) that I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable publishing that poem and wondered how poems about the female gaze are viewed.

It only seems apt to finish with a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay that deals brilliantly and succinctly with desire. You can read it here.

You can buy Alan Buckley’s pamphlet ‘The Long Haul’ from Happenstance here.

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