A Review of The Woman on the Other Side in the Incubator
Stephanie Conn’s debut poetry collection The Woman on the Other Side is marked- as the reviews on the back cover have already noted- by a stunning sense of the visual, a striking contrast between interiors and exteriors and a trinity of inspiration drawn from the seventeenth century Dutch Golden Age, the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire and modern Australia. The loci of Conn’s wide-ranging imagination are to be found in Vermeer’s paintings, Tsvetaeva’s poetry and Tasmania Australia’s only island state, but that is not to say that she is unafraid to explore other territories and periods, and it is to her credit that her poetic realm traverses the globe from the snowy Canadian midwinter to the Tyrone Guthrie centre.
The first reading of this collection is one that is heavily imbued with the contrast between light and dark- a contrast strikingly reinforced by Conn’s immersion in the artistic tradition of the Netherlands. Anchoring herself in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, Conn can hence move between ‘Painting Light’ and ‘Blinking in the Dark’ with relative verbal deftness. In between, the poems seem to lay great initial stress on the simultaneously centricity and marginalisation of women within art history. The eponymous and opening poem of The Woman on the Other Side conveys the idea of a woman ill at ease in a foreign land overwhelmed by the strangeness of new circumstances and a new language.
This sense of epiphany and the revelatory surfaces in Conn’s poetic reinterpretation of Vermeer’s ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ and ‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’. Vermeer’s subjects are transmuted into an obsession with the textures of light and dark and the exposition of inner lives, and above all, a seeming desire to repaint the (female) subject outside the gaze of the (male) artist:
She removes her pearls
sets them on the counter
with her golden chains
to cool and collect dust (‘Painting Light’)
There is a cool and calculated ambition in this: both in the aforementioned desire and in the careful and methodical useful of language. Conn is sparing and at times brutally so in her use of language, applying a great deal of pressure on her choice of words. Her fascination for translating the visual language of painting into the verbal idiom of verse in turn leads her to ‘rewrite’ works by Hopper, Chagall and Naumov. Like Mandelshtam, her deft acuity of vision delights in the vivid contrast of colour and shade:
Tell me of the green fields mapped in your mind/
And the winding paths that always lead you back/
How your father held a scythe in his dark hands
Conn’s verse is also one of artful and surprising deception in which language conveys fruitful and unexpected shades of meaning For a collection so obsessed with the visual and the spatial, this is a collection that can quickly and without warning delve into the ambiguities and hidden depths of language itself- an aspect that lends Conn’s verse a sense of the treacherous and the destructive. This varies from a piercing and pain-filled exploration of uxorial jealousy in ‘I Hear Their Laughter from Another Room’ to a subtle questioning of the ostensible benefits of space exploration in ‘August Moons’- a poem that displays a clever ability to work on several levels:
The lunacy of man steps out from the cycle of hours, cuts through space at speed/
to soar above a ball of blue and white and walk on silver dust to speak measured words from his helmeted mouth.
It is hard to know which facet of the poem is the greater accomplishment: its own ‘lunacy’ or the linguistic richness of its title. In Gaelic August is ‘Lunasa’- the month of the moon- when the summer reaches its full maturity and where the idea of the harvest moon inaugurates more favourable auspices. Conn is apt to cast a sceptical eye on the folly and vanity of human endeavour in all its forms, whilst simultaneously believing in her own ability to construct art from it. Nonetheless, she displays the sort of comfort in engaging with scientific and mathematical discourses reminiscent of Lavinia Greenlaw and Mario Petrucci. There are poems about the elements (‘Sulphur Mining’ and ‘Mercury’), a preoccupation with all matters astronomical and celestial and their relationship to the material world:
Here, the stars’ position in the sky is fixed- clear Perspex,/stainless steel and cobalt glass cement a constellation (‘Travelling the Distance’).
It is imagery like this that demonstrates her easy mastery of the basic tenets of poetic artifice and her great skill in building a picture from seemingly dissonant elements. It is almost as if writing verse for Conn is akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, then standing back and watching the completed artifice transform itself into a self-sustaining animation. Remarkably for an Irish or British poet, Conn shows a great affinity for technical experimentation and for the transformation of form: ‘Absconders Beware’ is arranged in the form of a concave arc. This playing around with versification and visual layout is often a risky gamble, precisely because it can lead to accusations of shallow gimmickry at the expense of narrative and linguistic substance in the poem itself, and rarely has this reader found contemporary poets brave enough to travel down the Carlos Williams or Hollander route, and turn form into the primary axis of meaning. That Conn takes that risk shows both courage and adventurousness, and marks her out as one of the most uniquely distinctive voices to have emerged in Irish poetry in recent years.
In conclusion, the sheer precision and economy of some of the poems in the collection and their stark artifice gives the collection the feeling of an algorithm, or an algebraic formulation. Above all else, this debut collection is marked out by a powerful imagination that explores poetry’s potential to use the visual and spatial to make the reading experience into one that is truly transfigurative in nature. It is only really when the reader reaches the end of the collection that they realise that Conn has really all along sought to bring them to the other side(s) of themselves.