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Review: ‘Girlhood’ by Julia Copus

There is a theory in earth sciences known as the Gaia Hypothesis that propounds that the earth and everything upon it (though, crucially, perhaps not including ‘us’) acts as a synergetic, self-regulating organism. The idea being that the earth acts as its own immune system, but also as its own ‘reset’, so to speak. Dangers are tempered, predominance contained.

Girlhood, Julia Copus’ new collection acts for me as the poetic equivalent of the Gaia Hypothesis, as final lines of the last poem in the book point out:


Their laughter was made of the same



air that moved as a breeze across you, & the dew likewise

was bits of sky, nestling where it could, & all of it



though you could not touch it)

was part of you, was what the summer night contained.



(‘Stories’)


It might at first remind the reader of Mary Oliver’s geese, or Alice Oswald’s rivers, and that would be enough, but there is more. Gently, but unwaveringly Copus is here eschewing like-for-like metaphor and simile and driving towards a sense of the described as part of the descriptor too. Here is a book of renewal and rebirth. In another writer’s pen it would be tie-dye hippy schtick and tedious. Here it is clear reimagining and reshaping.

This reshaping extends to preceding poets. There is a gentle and firm clearing-out, so to speak, of Dylan Thomas in this book, though with no obvious malice. Fiona Sampson correctly identified several years ago that where a male poet’s outdoor verse, post-Hughes, can be termed ‘psychogeography’, women on the other hand write ‘nature poetry’, and a rejection of Thomas seems to have taken root (sic) as a way of battling this bias (not just in Copus, but elsewhere). Copus launches no attack, but instead writes on several occasions in this book as a fresh expression of something hackneyed by Thomas – when she remakes the opening of Under Milk Wood, for instance:


To begin somewhere other

than at the beginning, to begin

in that last summer of the ’80s, with the tutor –

his wire-wool beard, his sotto voce slights



(‘A Thing Once it has Happened’)


That same sense of wonder and sensual exposition that Thomas overdid so often is here clear, nimble and playful. Metaphysics serve a purpose and never collapse under their insupportable rhetoric. ‘Fern Hill’, this is not:


In days where you were not, I went as the crazed

but duteous bee goes to its tasks, my words were moths

caught under glass, my thoughts fleet as a spring

and you were nowhere, not in all those days

when I as a long-limbed girl started from school

for the witching hour of home



(‘Creation Myth’)


Again, there is wonder here, but its joy is neither dreamy-eyed nor antic,
expressions either of which would prevent Copus from reaches into a sharper, darker tone:


Rage.

That bad things happened there.

That they are happening still.

That sometimes it seals itself up, will not

be got into. Other times, the opposite.

It opens and spreads, so that to move

around it requires a greater

elasticity of dreaming.

And all the locks are broken.

The bathroom and the loo.

Your bedroom door.

Yes. And that. But it doesn’t

stop me returning.



(‘Some Questions for Later’)


There is a rapping here, as if at one of these unlocked doors, and the freer moments such as ‘Creation Myth,’ oddly prepare the reader for this staccato, these intensities.

I’m almost definitely not the only person who, upon getting a new Copus collection, glances around the room before going through the book looking for the pieces written in specular form. The guilt of doing something so obvious is dispelled almost immediately by the how did she do that that accompanies the reading of the first of these PushMePullYous that you come across:


[…] Hell-bent, you might say, all hush-hush we’ll creep with you

into the narrowest neck of the woods. We’re

hovering, watchful, on hand to lure you.

Whenever you look up, there shall we be.



Whenever you look up, there shall we be.

hovering, watchful, on hand to lure you

into the narrowest neck of the woods. We’re

hell-bent, you might say, all hush-hush we’ll creep with you […]



(‘The Great Unburned’)


It must be at least as difficult to write as it is to read, in both senses. The constant re-purposing of the language lures the reader into a complex intellectual engagement with the poem that paradoxically makes the subject and syntax resonate. Its not that you have read the same poem twice, as the two ‘halves’ are different poems. But their concerns are mutual, and thus the reader receives them doubly. On another level, this poem in particular (subtitled ‘We’re the witches you forgot to burn’) brilliantly, blazingly restates the themes of the witchy and divine feminine in the darkening landscape. We’re in an important and brilliant witching hour in poetry at the moment (Camille Ralphs and Rebecca Tamas are also at it) and Copus’ combination of both the threat of what a witch may do and what a witch is leaves a distinctly hexy feel in the air, in this poem and elsewhere.

The second half of Girlhood consists of a sequence taking as its subject Jacques Lacan’s patient, Marguerite Pataine. The sequence’s achievement is to effect a seismic shift in the attitude of the reader as much as the poet, mirroring Lacan’s own change in approach and theory following his encounter with and treatment of Pataine. The control dynamic is fascinating here, with control moving from doctor to patient and back, and then back again, with the words and silence of both Lacan and Pataine becoming weapons of power and liberation. This dynamic informs the rest of the book retrospectively, with different life inhabiting the earlier poems once the later ones are assimilated (no quotation would be sufficient here to demonstrate such an over-arching change and achievement as is effected in the Marguerite sequence).

The book ends with a final reshaping and reimagining, with a synthesis of all within the book and about it. Yet it begins with the moment of jolt or break, recast as discovery:


At length we leaned what it is to ‘come to’ grief.

As if grief lay in weight for us all along,

a barricade or boulder in the road. […]



[…] And when I say we…

Look out into the street – we are everywhere:

on bikes, at bus-stops, among the crowds

of those who have not happened yet on grief.

We steady our own like an egg in the dip of a spoon,

as far as the dark of the hallway, the closing door.

Some of us are there even now, in the dusk

that gathers behind doors. We are catching our breath,

convinced we won’t be joining you again,

surprising ourselves at the last because we do.



(‘The Grievers’)


There’s a sense here of the rewound film, the surprising familiarity of grief. Copus’ skill with words is to never make it look like, when combined, words can only be used in one way. This is perhaps most obvious in her specular forms, but it is true here – the double meaning of ‘joining you again’, provides the reader with both sides: repair, but also reminds us that such as they are (whether the grievers or the dead) so we will be. Girlhood is a remarkable and teaching work of synthesis where we are all included and sustained, but changed and reinvigorated as part of a poetic ecosystem beyond ourselves. An exceptional book, but one of absolute welcome and inclusivity.


Buy Girlhood by Julia Copus from the Poetry Book Society website.

If you’d like to review for the Poetry School, or submit a publication for review, please contact Will Barrett on will@poetryschool.com.

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