Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Frances Presley, Lines of Sight.
Shearsman Books: Exeter UK, 2009.



In his history of archaeology, William H. Stiebing, Jr. suggests that the science can be traced back to “Renaissance humanism, interest in biblical history, the emergence of a scientific understanding of the world and its universe, early ethnographic and ethno logical studies, and art appreciation, among others” (Stiebing, Jr. 1993, 22)
Archaeologist, Christopher Tilley, adds, “This sense of the past, cumulatively building on itself since the Renaissance, marks a new consciousness in which humanity becomes both object and subject of knowledge.”
(Tilley, n.d.)

While, as a “hard” science, archaeology begins with seventeenth-century English geologist Robert Hooke, and Italian physician Nicholas Steno, both of who identified fossils as the remnants of once-living creatures, as opposed to remnants of a biblical flood, I would trace archaeology’s roots back to the modulated voices of ancient bards who sang of civilizations older than theirs, such as Homer’s Iliad, the epic tale of the destruction of Troy.

Lindsey Clarke, a modern bard, tells of the hero Odysseus and his men leveling the walls of Troy. Finding a “vacant skull” in the rubble, “overwhelmed by a black sense of the futility of human endeavour,” Odysseus thinks:

“Who could now tell how much wit and love and courage might have flourished inside that cup of bone before its owner came to fight and die beneath the walls of Troy? And the Troy at which he had fought was older than Priam’s Troy, probably older than Leomedon’s too. So how many wars must have been fought hereabouts over how many centuries? And must another Troy rise one day above the rubble of these walls only to be destroyed in turn as some new army raised its might against the city? Did nothing change?” (Clarke. 2006, 111)

Although modern archaeologists zeroed in on measuring and carefully documenting the past, “listing the attributes of a house, a pot, an axe or a grave does not allow one to arrive back at these things. The textual embodiment of material cultural is always partial, a reduction of complexity. It also goes substantially beyond the pot, etc., because it transports it into an entirely different medium, a medium which then sets to work on it.” (Tilley, n.d )



In this her sixth book, Frances Presley finds inspiration from women archaeologists like Dina Portway-Dobson, but especially Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, who worked on “Exmoor’s special puzzle.” (Eardley-Wilmot, 1983). Presley explains:

“For those who don't know, what is unique about the stone settings is that they are not the familiar stone circles, longstones or stone rows, but they are a variety of roughly geometric shapes, and sometimes even apparently random. These characteristics make them particularly appealing to a contemporary poet and the curiosity of these strange configurations is part of the pleasure of being puzzled. The puzzle of the Neolithic stone settings is only one of the puzzles which I explore in the sequence, and it is the framework which opens out a whole series of associated concerns, which form the layers of debris and complication, both on site and in the archaeological texts.” (Presley, 2006)

For this review I will exemplify Presley’s more conservatively designed poems, such as “Stones above Porlock.”

lent against
finger reach
smallest in front          peeled stone

cuve out?
       curve out
carved down

Words as unworked stones, what Japanese Shinto calls “true rocks,” which “must not be retouched by human hands…for (their) purpose is to express the world just as it is, and its very essence.” (Berthier. 2000, 44) Placed mainly in the Britain’s Early Bronze Age,(2100-750 BCE), these lines and circles of stones are “small explosions on a calm surface,” (Presley. 2006) that “became the image and symbol of being.” (Eliade. 1962. 44) With language that’s spare and green as Exmoor’s countryside of “heather and bracken, slopes and valleys, dangerous bogs…but quiet moorland, not jagged, almost somnolent” (Burl. 1993, 88), the poet literally sets out, “with the sheer physical pleasure, or discomfort, of exploring the layout of the stones, not to mention the sheer frustration of not finding them.” (Presley, 2006)

She visits Porlock Circle on a blustery Spring day:

blown over with a ripple
declension of fractals
finding its lake in the dipping stone

Dark clouds scudding across the sky, cold rainwater fills and spills over the stones’ shallow beds…

this natural geological
recumbation travelator

Here stones torque into a linguistic turn. Is her thought of how an escalator's steps swallow each other in a recombinatory illusion?
As I ponder this,

wind heave lifts paper
lifts plates throws rain
scatter across the page

There is the problem of holding a poem together, especially on a windy day, and the temptation to let it fly. She continues—

             concrete poetry

across the page
and that may be the problem

Concrete Poetry, or “shaped poems,” were made famous in modern times by French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire. Although in several poems, such as “Stone settings” (13) and “Stone settings x 3,” (15), Presley parses and “scatters” words “across the page,” they aren’t shaped, as are many concrete poems, but remain linear.

After an obscure pun, Presley concentrates on what’s at hand—

hold pad down with difficulty
follow sheep into the hollow
or crater
of bog reed bottom

Presley alternates between cognitive flights and pragmatic notations, all of which are interesting in her development of an archaeologically-driven poetry. As Christine A. Finn says, “there are problems for the pragmatist applying scientific rigors to reach one conclusion or interpretation, but increasingly less so for archaeologists open to the suggestion that the interpretative process is active and contingent.” (Finn. 2003, 79)
Even when she is less than original, obviously imitative and incorrigibly playful, with her erudition breaking out like hives, her feet may be planted in boggy ground, but they also rise to run at the sun’s shadows. Or is it the upright stones themselves? In fact, what makes Presley not just a good poet, but an important one, is her picking up a thread dropped after the Romantic Period (1770-1830), when “many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.” (Dyson. 2009, n.p.)

But Lines of Sight is more than just a book on the stones of England’s Exmoor (whose name is a coincidentia oppositorum; that is, more of what has expired, a name suited to the practice of archaeology!), it also contains a section titled, “Female Figures,” based on “the rare presence of female figurative statues in public spaces and their significance. They can also be seen as a modern version of Neolithic longstones.”(88) They can also be seen as political statements. So, Presley has two poems in this section on England’s former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher: “Thatcher at the Guildhall”—

your pupils are hollow

between the eyebrows

       marble nose job
       lost in a nostril

         an ear hole
tucked under the coiff.

  muffled by the perm
         anent wave

And, “Thatcher in the House,” on which Presley notes, “There are two statues of Margaret Thatcher, both intended for the House of Commons, although normally statues are commissioned after a minister’s death.”(88)

Although Presley is inspired by women archaeologists, her work doesn’t fall into the postmodern category of Feminist Archaeology, which, according to Marie Louise Strig Sørensen, means “that the process of generating knowledge, and how gender plays into this and is actively utilized and incorporated into that process, is seen as just as significant as any knowledge claim that may result from it.” (Sørensen. 2005, 116)
Of course, as a poet, she would ply her own course, splitting words as if sledging rocks, honing stones to their cloudy roots.



I will end where the author ends, with a poem titled “Two Flames.” It was inspired by Julian of Norwich, an anchoress and author who lived from 1342 until sometime after 1416. We don’t know much about her life, only that her cell was attached to the parish church of St. Julian, from which she took her ordination name, somewhat like Chinese Zen Masters took their name from the mountain they “opened.” (Heine, 2001). “The cell,” wrote Frudo Okulam, “which the anchoress entered upon enclosure was a small house attached to a church, chapel, hospital, or monastery. Usually it had two rooms, a bedroom and a parlor, and two windows, one looking into the church and one toward the outside.” (Okulam. 1998,16)

Presley’s poem is dedicated, “for Alina who is one.” In Greek, Alina means “beautiful.” I will begin in the middle, where—

the plot begins
before the Madonna and child
before plot lifting
or shop lifting
it begins with thinking
what is she thinking?

Julian was one of several mystics of the Middle Ages who saw “the motherhood of God.” Indeed, according to Caroline Walker Bynum—

“The idea of God as mother is part of a widespread use, in twelfth-century spiritual writing, of woman, mother, characteristics agreed to be ‘feminine,’ and the sexual union of male and female as images to express spiritual truths; the most familiar manifestation of this interest in the ‘female’ is the new emphasis on the Virgin in doctrinal discussions and especially spirituality.” (Bynum. 1977, 257)

Two flames, then, can be two sexes?

two flames    twins
one strong and tall
the other smaller and reflex

           self container
 mine the pushing sucking
          oxygen seeker

Two sexes self-contained. Julian of Norwich lived when, in the words of Thomas L. Long, “medieval discourse allowed the trope of a female gender God paradoxically at the moment when misogynist discourse and practice were becoming more severe, a repressive practice based in part on hierarchical distinctions of nature.” (Long, 1995) So, Presley looks back to when “gender fluidity” in the Christian tradition; indeed, in Monotheism itself, had a little more room to breathe. But who is Alina? I remain puzzled.

Built of stones, the walls of Julian’s cell return us to Exmoor and its extraordinary stones, such as Culbone, Triscombe, Caratacus, et al., that Presley set to verse, brings us to another question: If someday Exmoor’s stones disappear, would Presley’s poems allow us to see them again,
as Homer rebuilt the walls of Troy in our imagination?

“A work can be ‘psychological’ or ‘visionary’ in either recording the collective conscious of its age, or by being profoundly traced by archetypal, sublime influences.” (Rowland. 2005, 209) However, deeply thought out poems such as Presley’s seem to be both psychological and visionary, as they contain the fluidity of their age, yet can’t escape the stony weight of their archetypal implications.



Berthier, F. (2000) Reading Zen in the Rocks. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Burl, A. (1993) From Carnac to Callanish. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bynum, C.W. (1997) “Jesus as Mother and Abbot as Mother: Some Themes in Twelfth-Century Cistercian Writing.” The Harvard Theological Review. July.
Clarke, L. (2006) The Return From Troy. London: HarperCollins.
Dyson, F. (2009) “When Scientists & Poetry Were Friends.” The New York Review of Books. August 13.
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Eardley-Wilmot, H. (1983) Ancient Exmoor : A Study of the Archaeology and Prehistory of Exmoor. Exmoor: Dulverton.
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