Reflections on movement and witness haunt Ella Frears’s debut, Shine, Darling. ‘I Knew Which Direction’, the prologue poem that offers a roadmap for our movement through the collection generally, also introduces the book’s metaphorical patron saint: the moon. The poem begins with its speaker on a shore, drawn to that moon ‘tilted toward the sea’ like the waters near her feet. But the speaker’s attention then shifts downward, moving quickly from prayer to the answer all prayers seek:
Pray now, whispered the sand and I fell to my knees thinking:
moonlight, moonlight, moonlight ————
until it was no longer a word but a colour and then a feeling
and then the thing itself.
It is only through the act of mental repetition that the speaker moves from the word to the ‘thing itself’, the thing desired, a move that cannot help but recall Wallace Stevens’s own attempt to reach a ‘new knowledge of reality’ in ‘Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself’. But where the speaker in Stevens’s poem – an identified ‘He’ – had his ‘colossal sun’, Frears’s speaker has her moon, ‘the old “heave-ho stone”’ assigned in ‘Moon Myth’ to women and ‘by women I mean allegories’, Frears writes; women turned into stories to expand the boundary of their definition, perhaps, but also women bound to those stories and the strictly-matched symbols all allegories bear. Shine, Darling is an indictment of those symbols; it is also a reassignment of their meanings.
The book is carefully plotted, allowing the individual poems to stand alone and adhere when necessary through frequent repetitions in form and theme. There is a sense of something building through these repetitions, a gravitas earned by such intentionality. The force behind this movement is desire, both sexual and spiritual, and Frears approaches each of these with directness and humour – sometimes wicked humour. Desire is a suitable term, but Frears might prefer another, this one from a title: ‘The Overwhelming Urge’. Here, a speaker observes a character from some distance, a ‘she’ sitting in nature, the sea in view again, contemplating the kinds of urges that come or have come before: there is violence (‘Stabbed in the arm with a compass. / Stabbed in the side’); there is sex – wanted and confronted (‘He wants to show her something / by the metal farm gate. / She, nodding, surveys it from a distance, / files it under: / penis; moonlit’); there is delinquency (‘on the supermarket roof / throwing moss at passersby’). But each of these excited, amused, or bored urges are satellites orbiting the deeper urge revealed thereafter:
She has the overwhelming urge to jam
her tongue into a plug socket,
swing an axe
at her legs, swim out, out, out,
she’s itchy with it.
This incessant itch to escape, to ‘swim out’ like the sea’s itch to leave this world for another, propels many of these poems. The itch for sex as a vehicle of that departure is common: consider this early demand from ‘Fucking in Cornwall’: ‘The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow / over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top.’ But the mind’s response to that itch plays a greater role. Like the early movement from word to colour to feeling to the thing itself, many of these poems are interested in moving beyond sex to the mind’s response to it. Here is the speaker in ‘The (Little) Death of the Author’ with a meditation on sexting:
How many times, aged thirteen or so, did you send a text
saying I’m in the bath . . .
in reply to a boy you liked
asking you what you were up to?
And how many boys made you blush,
rosy and excited, by replying . . . Can I join you?
‘The bath / was a vessel into which you placed the idea of your blushing // body’, Frears continues, an idea which may in turn produce a physical response – a desire for more ‘full-bodied’ responses in the future – but an idea nevertheless, one that required no actual nakedness. The physical response to that or any text, the speaker argues, is solely the responsibility of the recipient: ‘his blush / was on him’.
Even menstrual blood, the literal and allegorical burden of it described in the terrific ‘Magical Thinking’, is addressed in terms of the mind. When the speaker’s mother takes a cushion she had bled on during a party, the speaker describes the stain as ‘brown, the ultimate Rorschach test’, and only in the end reveals what she interpreted: ‘A storm cloud. A brain. That’s what I saw.’
To see is to witness; to witness is to bear the burden of testimony. To the moon, Frears’s speaker admits ‘I will be calling on you, to testify.’ Thus the moon becomes a confidant, the only constant as the poems move from figures unashamed by their desires, and figures also calling on that higher power to stand for them when desire leads to actions of questionable intent, result, or harrowing memory, as in the astonishing long poem at the book’s center, ‘Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity’. Originally a published pamphlet, this poem/prose hybrid ostensibly shaped to recall the speaker’s ‘near-abduction’ as a ‘freckled ten year old’ also braids in narratives familiar to both halves of the book it divides: wanted and confronted sex, their aftermath, folklore and the folk figures of home, the terror of pretending, and ultimately the ‘something new’ that grows in young women asked to hold the burden of both victim and witness:
Baby, I want to say, hold the moon a second
I’m already carrying so much.
For all the intimations of violence and the actual violence imagined, described, and sometimes enacted; for all the stains desire leaves, and the beauty we see in their shapes; the moon is watching – that ancient cartographer of our earthly passion. That Frears records these visions in Shine, Darling not with the moon’s ‘half-closed eye’ but with both her eyes open is a gift to her readers.
Mario Chard is the author of Land of Fire (Tupelo Press, 2018). An inaugural fellow for the U.S. Emerging Poetry Critics program and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Buy Shine, Darling by Ella Frears from Offord Road Books.