Welcome to the fourth instalment of our Forward Prizes First Collection ‘How I Did It’ series. Once again, we’ve asked the poets shortlisted for this year’s Felix Dennis Prize to explain the process behind one of their award-shortlisted poems. Here, Abigail Parry discusses the history of a key poem from her collection Jinx. The Forward Prizes ceremony will take place on 18th September.
A disclaimer: I tend to resist reading poets talking about their own work. I worry they will explain their own witticisms, or supply constricting autobiographical info, or otherwise frogmarch the reader.
But I’m speaking for my own tastes here: on the whole, the more I admire a poem, the more inclined I am to usher the author gently out of the picture. I like a great many poets as individuals, but I find it a bit off-putting to have an affable, fallible human hovering around a poem, claiming to have something to do with it. Showing me all the ropes and pulleys. Suggesting how I might like to read it.
I’m about to fall merrily into all those pits I’ve just identified. The poem I’ve chosen to write about: I picked it in part because it was one of the last poems written for the book, so it’s a fresh kill, and in part because I know it’s one that aggravates people.
Robert Aickman’s short story ‘The Inner Room’ features a haunted dolls’ house, which is bigger on the inside than the outside, and which holds something very frightening that is never quite disclosed. The house, discovered second-hand in a toy shop, is gifted to a young girl called Lene, and arrives with nine dolls in situ. From the very beginning, the dolls make Lene uneasy: “Happy people, I felt even then, would not wear these variants of rust, indigo and greenwood.” What follows may be easily imagined, because there are a great many stories about haunted dolls’ houses. After a little amateur axonometry, the dolls’ house is removed by Lene’s mother, who knows or has guessed more than she is prepared to tell.
So far, so familiar. ‘The Inner Room’ reveals itself to be a ghost story when the adult Lene finds, after an interval of thirty years, that those close to her have been subtly but decisively manoeuvred away from her – through death, through absence, through change of manners. Her own life has been obscurely disappointing: there has been a mediocre career and an ill-advised marriage, and her hindsight is marked by a pervasive sense of loss and resignation.
Walking at dusk and straying into a wood, Lene is confronted with her dolls’ house; as in dreams, she knows what she will see before she sees it. The house – now the size of a mansion – has largely rotted away, and its nine occupants are in a similar state of dilapidation. The introductions are formal, but betray an undernote of longstanding resentment and hostility. One of the dolls, Emerald, gives Lene a small square of card:
It was a photograph of me as child, bobbed and waistless. And through my heart was a tiny brown needle.
‘We’ve all got things like it,’ said Emerald jubilantly. ‘Wouldn’t you think her heart would have rusted away by now?’
For several years I had a recurring nightmare about a hidden room in a house. The room had something really appalling in it, and the dream was always rigged in such a way that I would be slowly but firmly compelled towards it. I’m told this dream is very common.
In one of these dreams, the room was accessed through the back of a cupboard. On the floor of the cupboard was a handful of gemstones; when looked at from a certain angle, these gemstones lined up to reveal a three-dimensional passage where the two-dimensional back of the cupboard had been. An inch to the left or right, and the passage would disappear. I think about that when I try and perceive the sort of truth you have to hold very lightly – that is to say, the sort of truth that poems are very good at holding.
Aickman is very, very good at netting truth of this kind: contradictory propositions we know to be simultaneously true, which are also, in another sense, not true at all. We put a high premium on narrative, but narrative can be destructive, because it demands a strong chain of causality: it flows through and is halted by truth gates, which act like locks on a canal. This is where poetry comes in, I think – it puts us in touch with our natural capacity for dissonance and ambivalence, reminds us that the locks are artificial. Some truths are delicate, and won’t stand up to the brute force of propositional logic: they can only be held in view when looked at askance, in our peripheral vision. Lene recognises this kind of paradoxical thinking when she first dreams about her dolls’ house: “as often in dreams, I could see all four sides of the house at once”.
I read ‘The Inner Room’ in my early thirties – a time when I found myself prone to retrospective assessment and evaluation. I’d spent some time with those two lines of Nico’s stuck in head: Please don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them. Of course I have regrets. I worry bruises. Like anyone, I have a tendency to switch the rails and imagine what might have eventuated, had I made other choices, or if circumstances had been different. This isn’t a particularly healthy practice to indulge, but let’s be frank: a lot of the donkey work of writing asks for unhealthy habits of mind.
At any rate – at the time I read ‘The Inner Room’, I was particularly receptive (vulnerable?) to the idea of a hostile influence, running in the background, and having a deleterious effect on my well-being. Lots of things work like that – guilt, say – and we might as well call them curses. I believe there’s wisdom in superstition, provided we don’t over-literalise: we know that we can be cursed, or curse ourselves, and that there are things that can lodge in the heart, doing their sharp work.
Poems almost always begin this way, for me. Reading or seeing or hearing or otherwise encountering something that is vibrating at the same frequency as an alarm signal going off in me. I think this must be common, because the metaphors we use for inspiration have to do with formal congruence of this kind: chime with, strike a chord. Some harmony between you and something outside of you. It’s transitive, too – you want to make something that vibrates at a frequency that resonates with a reader. So I didn’t take on Aickman’s story because I thought it required a gloss, but because it lined up so precisely with my own what-iffery at that particular time, and because I suspected that other people felt something similar. The three harmonised, the gems lined up, and the back of the cupboard opened out.
We’ve all got things like it, says Emerald. As if each sister had punctured a different possible course life might have taken. That was the spark of ignition for the poem – the idea that not one but many possible lives had been put beyond reach by thin, sharp curses. The heart pincushioned with nine of them. Nine life-sized regrets. Touché.
Through the heart, though? It has an etymological mandate as our innermost core: if we’re to be compelled, that’s the place to land the spell. Cupid’s darts lodge in the heart – or in the pectus, if we go a little further back. I like this from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, too:
There’s a clockwork running in there, and pinned to the spring of it, there’s a bad spirit with a spell through its heart.
We inherit so many of our metaphors. We tend to think of our emotional life smouldering away in the heart’s engine room, while our reason strolls around on the upper deck. If we were playing pin-the-heart-on-body now, we might be tempted to locate the core of our being a few inches higher. In the subcortex, say.
I tic. I’ve known this since I was about four, when I discovered I couldn’t say the word wool without pronouncing it as a long, sleazy drawl, followed by a loud bark. Tics come and go, mutate and reappear, and I no longer bark after the word wool, or wolf, or Wolsey. I don’t say I love you to strangers, or hiss at them, and I don’t tell bunches of parsley to fuck off. I haven’t done that in years.
Ticcing is disruptive, and in its more extreme forms presents serious challenges, so I want to avoid being flippant. I’m fortunate: my tics are not extravagant, and I can camouflage most them. But to tic is to be continually pricked by absurd, peremptory compulsions: one-use spells, used on you. Language is mischievous when you tic, and this does have one obvious benefit for someone in my position: it encourages you to privilege the phonic signatures of words and phrases. Disarticulating them, striking all the consonants like a glockenspiel, wringing out the vowels. In his brilliant essay The Poetics of Tourette Syndrome: Language, Neurobiology and Poetry, Ronald Schleifer terms these phonological features redundancies, and reminds us that poetic language creates its effects by “taking up and using […] material redundancies of language in ways that make them essential”. Tic disorders, he writes, affect individuals at the core of their experience of themselves. Little compulsions, needling the heart.
Emerald’s sisters are Diamond, Opal, Chrysolite, Garnet, Topaz, Turquoise, Sardonyx and Carnelian.
Gemstones are wonderfully bizarre – they’re like little paradox engines. They’re naturally occurring, but we cut and polish them in a way that is highly artificial. They have no practical worth, but they’re incredibly valuable. They’re inert, but make light behave vivaciously. They are perfectly useless. I’m fascinated by them.
One of the really fun things about gems is that their names are so precise – they don’t participate in a great many metaphors, because they don’t really do much except sparkle and hint at wealth or rarity. They only really point to themselves. Take Chrysolite – that’s a strange name. It sounds very mineral, very inhuman. No one is going to tell you your eyes are like chrysolite; not when its alternative name, peridot, feels so much more homely. So it’s sort of stranded, linguistically – out on a distant arm of the galaxy of signification. This makes it an excellent candidate for having its semantic noise turned down, and its phonic noise turned up. Chrysolite. I think it sounds like an electroneurogram, or tinfoil between teeth, or crushed tinsel.
Nine regrets: nine lives you can’t have, and each one spied through a gem-lens. An overzealous optometrist has sat you in the chair, with all that mad apparatus round your head, and he is switching rapidly and inexplicably through the lenses. Clearer? Clearer now? Like this?
What does an alternative version of your life look like, seen through a carnelian filter? I had an idea that the details would have to be impressionistic, because this is only a glimpse – a series of quickfire sense-impressions. The little four-line stanzas in the poem are a result of this experiment, riffing off the colour of each jewel, the sound of its name. Most drafting is riffing, for me. Daft little skirmishes around a word or a phrase. Carnelian is a fox-coloured stone, and its name sounds fairly vulpine too – quite supple, in the way it undulates across those ns and ls and long es, and with that voracious carne embedded in it. A savvy, hungry fellow slipping under a fence. Foxes look a bit like violins, violins sound a lot like carnelians. Skirmish, skirmish, knit, knit.
One more thing about gemstones. The light that filters through them – it reminds me of various alcoholic drinks, seen through the thick, faceted glass of a fancy tumbler. This speaker here – she might have had many possible lives, but in every one she would have been a drinker. I can’t really defend that choice – it was just an accident of association. In gemology, I think that would be called an inclusion.
Oho. But I left something out. Nine lives you might have lived; really, these are all my life. Not in the sense that I (regularly) hang out in casinos or dance in graveyards. But I have experienced that thin, febrile elation of driving away from something, and I have sat in someone else’s flat, looking at the cracks in the plaster, trying to guess what it feels like to be them. Of course all made things are drawn from life really, even if the vision is a little bent out of shape. But I think it’s worth mentioning, because it’s a trap I’ve fallen into, when I haven’t waited for the gems to line up and have tried instead to go into a poem idea-first – if I don’t give a poem something I care about, it can end up a little sterile. Jon Stone has a really excellent way of thinking about this – he says you have to find something to give a poem a heartbeat. That’s quite right, I think.
 I’m excluding diamonds from this formulation. Diamonds are very useful.
The nine lives you might have lived, were it not for the nine thin spells through your heart
after Robert Aickman
Your sisters flash like jewels, bright as needles.
They’re threading languid reels in the ballroom.
Your heart is young and taut; your heart is strung
with sparkling futures. Put an eye up to each one.
Sixteen and juiced beneath the discoball.
Your pulse, a worried minnow. Repeating
rigmarole of knife and nerve, plastic cups.
Nitrous in the engine. Night-edge. Ice in gin.
City-mist, plaster-dust. An attic-flat with moths
erupting from espaliers of cracks. Moonbeams
over moon-things: tooth enamel, silver spoons,
flakes of eggshell. Milk blurting into vodka.
Acid coo of limelight, plundered gemstores,
shattered baubles. The evening leaking green
into the Bay. This whole town knows you’re a riot.
You’re a hoot. Barman – bring another gimlet.
Argon, blackout, aluminium. Kickback thrill
of ethanol, and sooty prints on naked skin.
The cowslick when the wick ignites, saltpetre
for a purple flame. Your lizard-brain, its pilot light.
Here’s swabbing alcohol, diazepam, and nibs
or needles. Streaks of ink. Here’s boredom,
languorous as bleach. The bad news breaking
through the skin in urgent, thixotropic script.
Another scene in the casino: shellacked black
of limousine or baby-grand, and glassy dice
and candied fruit. Oblong baize that prints itself
ad infinitum. Lime and mint conspire in a collins.
The map shows one last exit. And you take it.
Knightlike jink from 4th to 5th. The sky is cobalt,
coolant, curaçao criss-crossed with vapour trails.
Brand new blueprint: bright-lined superflux of now.
Blooddrop sun, and rust. Rasping teeth of the sierra.
Clever footwork in the graveyard, half in love.
Now Mr Calavera tilts a grinning glass of mezcal,
tips the wink. The maggot in the dregs: that’s for you.
A slug of single malt, and you’re match-flare, imp
and spark – a foxy twist of filament: pure mischief.
All the stars go pizzicato, and the city pulls a long
and lovely mewling from your low-slung violin.
Now look again: the past is drab as deadwood.
We’re rotting in the heap that was the ballroom.
The years are spent, and all your bitter sisters
shut your careless heart with rusting sutures.
Abigail Parry spent seven years as a toymaker before completing her doctoral thesis on wordplay. Her poems have been set to music, translated into Spanish and Japanese, broadcast on BBC and RTÉ Radio, and widely published in journals and anthologies. She has won a number of prizes and awards for her work, including the Ballymaloe Prize, the Troubadour Prize, and an Eric Gregory Award. Her first collection, Jinx, published by Bloodaxe in 2018, is shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2018.