Jemma L. King, The Undressed, (Parthian, 2014), £9.99, 83 pp. ISBN 978-1-909844-80-3
Reviewed by David Clarke
[Originally published in LP6/7, Jan/Feb 2015]
Jemma King’s second collection of poetry, The Undressed, is a book of ekphrastic work based on a collection of photographs of nude or partially clothed women, taken between the 1840s and the 1930s. With the exception of two poems showing us the perspective of historical male figures who concerned themselves with female sexuality from a moral or medical perspective, King names each poem after an individual woman. These previously anonymous images are given stories and experiences, as imagined by King, thereby restoring a voice to women who have been photographed, and silenced, for the titillation of the implicitly male viewer. Although King begins her collection with a quotation from Roland Barthes’ meditation on photography, Camera Lucida, an unnamed theoretical background to this enterprise is surely that strain of feminist cultural theory which critiques the representation of women that is formulated through the male gaze.
King sets about her task with gusto, creating diverse back-stories for the women in the pictures, which are also reproduced in the book itself. Quite often, the points of view expressed in the poems restore these women to a position as desiring subjects, as opposed to merely desired objects, and many of the characters created seek to undermine the supposed power of the men who seek to exploit or manipulate them. So, we meet an unrepentant prostitute with a healthy cynicism about male authority (‘Mary’); a young countrywoman who takes as much erotic pleasure in being photographed as the photographer does in the process of making the image (‘Isabelle’); a girl who recognises in her photographer’s “odd tensions” a desire to make her morally responsible for his own sexual hang-ups (‘Karla’); or two women relating a lesbian encounter from different perspectives (‘Élodie’ and ‘Sabine’).
The interpretations which King draws from the images are always surprising and make the reader look at the photograph again in new ways, often questioning their initial impression of who this woman could be. In this sense, King’s book is a master class in ekphrasis: far from providing merely decorative description of the image, she lets us see it anew. Although very occasionally the characterisations may tend towards the one-dimensional (for example in the description of the femme fatale ‘Sheba’), at other times King shows herself capable of producing psychologically complex portraits of these women. My particular favourite here was ‘Ebonine’, a poem about a young woman whose motivation for allowing herself to be photographed speaks of a desire to be free of the moral limitations of her father’s strict Christian values (“All eyebrows and Godly disapproval”). Yet she also realises that she is being exploited by the photographer’s desire to use her tentative pursuit of freedom for the pleasure of others. The painful awkwardness of her attempt to dance for the camera as instructed (“gambolling around / and waving my dress like a flag signalling”) is very well conveyed here.
The urgency with which King addresses these unheard female stories is reflected in her formal choices. The poems are not neatly divided into regular stanzas, nor are they metrically regular. Instead, stanza and line length seem to follow the needs of the story, the poems often becoming denser at moments of emotional intensity. For example, in ‘Edith’ a Welsh woman imagines her lover who may be lost at sea, bound for the colonies. The poem is composed for the most part of tercets, but the lines become longer as the woman’s imagination conjures up the details of her lover’s fate, creating an almost claustrophobic effect. In ‘Elizabeth’, on the other hand, the short, almost staccato lines create a sense of the emotional dislocation caused by the subject’s abandonment by her lover, her discourse finally breaking down into single line stanzas. Clearly, although King rejects the need for regularity, her choices of form are carefully considered and resultantly effective. Only occasionally was I wrong-footed by a relatively weak line-ending on an article, a preposition, or a demonstrative or possessive pronoun, which seemed to draw attention to itself to no great effect, as in the first line of this stanza:
All men are weak. They throw their
bloodhound senses towards
the promise of horizontals […]
There are also times when a good final image is separated out into a couplet or single line for emphasis in a way which feels unnecessary, as if the reader would not ‘get’ it without this formal underlining.
King’s language is rich and vivid enough to maintain the reader’s interest over the length of the book, and she more than meets the challenge of lending each poem its own ambience in terms of time, place and character. Her details are carefully chosen and, appropriately enough given the nature of the photographs she is responding to, the poems are often characterised by a heightened sensuality. So, for example, in ‘Olive’, a poem about an early and now forgotten silent movie actress, we find the following evocation of the cinema:
The synchronisation of orchestra and muted gestures,
the pianist’s fingers,
tracing the ascent of arched
eyebrows, the coconut-shell
hooves of horses
the struck-metal shake
Or, in ‘Élodie’, the speaker describes her first attraction to ‘Sabine’, transforming the scene in a crowded bar in terms which are both corporeal and fantastical:
I wanted silence to throw
its soft aura around the
skin of my thoughts,
so I could fill it with her
dyad features, girlish giggle and skin
as soft as a mermaid’s underbelly.
In summary, then, The Undressed offers much for the reader to enjoy, not only in terms of what we might call its political project of restoring a voice to these silenced women, but also through its carefully judged intensities of expression, which allow King to evoke many different worlds convincingly and compellingly. A word of praise must also go to Parthian for this lovely hardback edition, which not only reproduces the photographs very well, but also places them in a design format which echoes that of the decorative album in which they might once have been at home.