The Post-Postgraduate Review by Hannah Whaley
★ A MISSION STATEMENT ★
Poetry is for the people and of the people - it wants to be understood, to be read, and read again. But the idea of poetry has the tendency to alienate, perhaps because we think a special education is needed to enjoy it, or that it doesn’t align with modern expression. In a university seminar I distinctly remember the lecturer beginning by telling us that there are no wrong answers in poetry… and then in the weeks following telling us, in no uncertain terms, that our interpretations were wrong. It seems to me that the rise of ‘instapoetry’ hasn’t enriched relations between poetry and the people, either. Despite being an art of its own, it too often indulges an idea I can’t endorse - that poetry must be simplified to the level of something you might get in a greetings card in order to be accessible.
The idea behind this review series is to approach poetry with humanism at heart, and examine collections from modern poets while ignoring popular opinion in both accolades and academia. Instead, my words will come purely from organic thoughts on these poems. I hope to encourage connection to poetry without pretension, or fear of getting it wrong.
I hope to encourage you to read, and see what speaks.
Charlotte Van den Broeck is a Belgian poet and Chameleon is her first collection, published in 2015; the edition I read was translated from Dutch by David Colmer. Van den Broeck is a prolific performance poet, performing her work in both English and Dutch with an emphasis on a natural delivery, as though talking to a friend - I would definitely recommend watching some videos of her readings.
The poems of Chameleon are separated into three sections, offering a natural progression in reading. Generally I will read a collection from page one onward, deferring to whichever kind of journey the writer wants you to go on. With Chameleon, Van den Broeck sets this up quite clearly with Parts 1, 2 and 3 (or if you like: beginning, middle and end). There is a distinctive driving voice throughout the collection - but with subtle nuances between sections - something I didn’t pick up on initially, but that I traced back through the poems on a second reading. In all honesty, I struggled to connect to the poems at first and couldn’t put a pen to my feelings, however, I began reading a second time. Feeling more familiar with Van den Broeck’s style of address, I started tuning into the economical nature of her words. Little is wasted in her construction of lines, metaphors are chosen with careful specificity but sometimes take a little thought to unpack. Her comparisons and compositions are playful, bouncing between the serious and the sentimental, the fierce and the foolish. At times she hides behind a mask of naivety, at times she faces us in full honesty, questioning the quiet dream she has at other moments believed in.
What runs consistently throughout the collection is the projection of a woman’s experience, from girlhood to maturity; however, far from pressing any specific idea of womanhood or femininity onto the reader, what we see is snapshots from a personal album. Van den Broeck works in shades, not block colours, somehow finding a balance between the individual and the collective experience.
There is a sense of a voice at odds with itself... a dual perspective that at once acknowledges fragility and cruelty; the innocence of a child that watches ants burn under its magnifying glass.
Part 1, ‘The Red Cross on the Treasure Map’, starts with the individual in ‘Bucharest’: a memory of looking at an atlas with her grandfather. There is a sense of longing, a desire to return to an idea of innocence, a time before ‘borders and grandfathers turned out to be relative’. Later, in ‘Sisjön’, there are first cigarettes and tentative touches, and a sense of the new tenderness of early sexuality; then ‘Charlotte Cake’ is a send up of the ‘idiotically romantic’, the sickly sweetness of immature love that can only be learned from, not avoided. Ideas of childhood and play dominate the imagery, though growing in the background is a sense of weariness, attributing a jaded edge to the soft voice that sees a world drawn ‘with clumsy swipes of crayon’. This edge sharpens, as self-awareness cuts across the briefly established dreaminess, almost as if the innocence of the earlier poems was never truly believed in, was always a mask. ‘Diagnosis’ openly questions this, and discards the idea of a perfect suburbia, a place ‘so quiet, as if no one… ever pulls hard on a leash/ to choke a dog’. This barbed sarcasm pervades quietly, acting over the reader before they are aware - the way Autumn stalks into Summer in stages, instead of all at once. Van den Broeck’s stark weariness is at its best in ‘August’, when she asks: ‘does the cellophane of our skin melt/ from the heat of the sun or is the warmth we feel/ a rotting from the inside out?’ There is a sense of a voice at odds with itself in Part 1, a dual perspective that at once acknowledges fragility and cruelty; the innocence of a child that watches ants burn under its magnifying glass.
The second section of poems sees Van den Broeck’s tentative constructions of young sexuality peeled open. The voice in these poems seems sure of itself, asks for what it wants and doesn’t hide behind the earlier, comfortable naivety; what appears to concern the voice of the middle poems is the search for intimacy and connection. ‘Discovery Channel’ is an apt title for Part 2, considering the focus on physical love and interaction, aligned with animal imagery. The first poem: ‘People Who Watch Wildlife Films to Better Understand Themselves’, sets up this conceit; Van den Broeck, now the ‘sexually mature female on the savannah’ watches a wildlife film with a lover, as ‘on the sofa we plan an educational trip/ from one body to another’. Then ‘Grand Jeté’ takes us closer into the body (‘this pliant house of skin’) made with tangled ‘limbs’ and ‘bones’, until individual borderlines become blurred.
We leave these poems with the feeling that certain wisdoms need to be learnt from experience. Only after hunching for so long do we feel the power of our height.
Sex consumes the poems here, images of clutching bodies laying closer over each other until it becomes difficult to break free and draw breath. There is a sense that Van den Broeck is inviting this, and willingly suffocating under the weight of physical love. Intimacy becomes the ‘pale tentacles/ of a nameless monster’ in ‘Whalespotting’, whilst in ‘Felidae’ (a two part poem), cat-like sexuality becomes a calculating, almost vicious force. The eponymous Chameleon poem (also in two parts), uses the image of the chameleons changing appearance to explore transitional love, describing a relationship gone stale and calling for a new freshness; old habits and sentiments not expressed see scales growing and tongues rolled up in a closed mouth, prompting the hope for a renewal: ‘I want you to say me again’ and ‘maybe we will occur to each other after all’. Van den Broeck’s confessional self-awareness further establishes itself in the poems of Part 2, reflecting on a time before the maturity and assurance that we meet in ‘Discovery Channel’. We feel her regret in ‘Seraphic Light’: ‘All the times I didn’t stand straight I was wasting inches’ and yet we leave these poems with the feeling that certain wisdoms need to be learnt from experience. Only after hunching for so long do we feel the power of our height.
As the title ‘Origin’ suggests, the third and final section of poems explores themes of birth and motherhood; Van den Broeck recalls childhood as in Part 1, but this time her lens is focused on the matriarchal - the mother, the grandmother, the potential for a next generation. The voice of these final poems has the same open, confessional nature as the earlier poems, but is underpinned with accusation; the poems are as hurled stones - thrown with emotional carelessness, and the intention to make impact. Poems like ‘Bulls Head’, ‘Netezon Laundrette’ and ‘Ausflug/Auszug’ deal with the strained relationship between Van den Broeck and her mother, from difficult childhood recollections to reconciliation, and mutual understanding in adulthood. ‘Bulls Head’ paints birth as a betrayal, leaving the mother ‘gouged’ and empty after the exit of the child - from there the distance grows between Van den Broeck and her mother, until they have ‘fossilised into two separate creatures’. ‘Netezon Laundrette’ glances at her mother’s mental health with a characteristic light touch: ‘I grew up with salt rings in my clothes’.
Van den Broeck highlights the transitions we undergo through experiences with others, and suggests that while this might be a safe option, we can lose who we truly are under the camouflage.
Similar to the voice in Part 1, the poem speaks of childhood experience from a perspective of older wisdom. It acknowledges: ‘For a long time I thought it wasn’t fair that I had a mother who cried’. There is a sense of resolution when we come to ‘Ausflug/Auszug’, where a holiday together begins a mending process: ‘for a moment my mother and I can be each other’s everything’. Part 3 is where Van den Broeck’s voice is at it’s most certain, where her observations resonate the furthest; birth seems to occur as an unavoidable cycle, passing down generational pain through the women in her family. In ‘Council Flat’ her grandmother has ‘learnt to reconcile herself/ to the semantics of silence’, the quiet of her life entering its last chapter with the repetition of a sewing machine: ‘taking in, letting out, taking up, letting go’.
Chameleon has a delicate touch with these kind of lines, never pushing a sentiment too hard; they come, not as heavy gut punches, but light jabs that take us unawares. What the collection left me with was a feeling of nostalgia not just for my own past but for a past I have never experienced - that of Van den Broeck. There is a thin layering in the construction of the collection, so that regret is overlaid with hopefulness, desire with neglect, reflection with playfulness, in equal helpings. Van den Broeck’s dissection of key relationships in her life (grandparents, mother, lovers) invites us to turn attention to our own interactions with the people we care about; it feels as though, by being painfully transparent about her own interpersonal histories, she is encouraging us to look closer, to understand more about our own.
As the eponymous chameleon changes its appearance to blend with the environment, Van den Broeck highlights the transitions we undergo through experiences with others, and suggests that while this might be a safe option, we can lose who we truly are under the camouflage. This resonated with me and had a large part in shaping my response to the collection as a whole; the line from ‘Seraphic Light’: ‘All the times I didn’t stand straight I was wasting inches’ stopped me in my tracks. Although Chameleon is (at times) bitter about lessons that have been learned, there is an undeniable triumph there that makes the poems read like trophy inscriptions.
Reading Chameleon, and subsequently writing this article, ended up being a re-learning exercise in the way I respond to poetry - this is what inspired the approach to this whole series. I was a little frustrated to begin with, and felt like I didn’t quite “get” Van den Broeck’s style or what the poems were trying to say; it’s hard to let go of the conditioning literature degrees install in you. I want to do away with the idea that you have to have a certain prescribed technique to experience a connection to poetry; after all, we don’t imagine that seasoned food critics are the only ones that can appreciate a good meal.
Hannah is a writer from the South West. Having loved, studied, and written poetry for years, she champions content over context, and enjoys rock climbing in her spare time. You can keep up with her adventures via her Instagram here.
Find out more about Charlotte Van den Broeck, and purchase her collection reviewed here