[14 May 2003]
The poetic voices in In Defence of Adultery, the second collection of poems from London-born Julia Copus, vary between a shoulder-hugging familiarity and an austere distance, and the poems themselves present worlds that range from intensely personal renditions of emotional memory to seemingly objective terrains of scientific fact. Each is rendered problematic, and each provides a springboard for exploration and analysis, for Copus is, above all, a poet of enquiry and careful scrutiny, using conceits of almost metaphysical intensity (in ‘Love, Like Water’ and ‘Glimpses of Caribou’, for example) to trigger the reader’s curiosity. This curiosity is in turn nurtured and expressed through an aesthetic that is conscious of how we rationalise our lives, making sense out of nonsense, meaning out of absurdity.
In this light, the opening epigraphs to the first half of the book, from Lewis Carroll and Louis MacNeice, take on particular resonance, Louis / Lewis offering, in drastically different ways, precisely the same advice to the effect that travelling is better than arriving, that we can never be entirely sure of our destinations, and that how we travel determines the quality of the journey. The final poem in the collection, ‘Chicken-Script’ returns to this reliance on the authority of contingency, our choices both determining and being determined:
The past is a vivarium
with a ticket on the fence
of each exhibit [ ]
For now it holds
like any other fence
is at the mercy
of the elements.
Parcelling up our lives in such a way, we parcel up the world (as Copus does, in the poems here that, like those that make up the sequence ‘Oubliette’, perhaps label and categorise her own memories). Our arbitrary classifications only hold in so far as we can guarantee their discreteness, their absolute relevance to ourselves and, by necessity, to those around us. Copus is aware that such guarantees are not always forthcoming—the slender differences between science, poetry and worldly objects become the theme of a poem like ‘Home Physics’, which draws on an almost surrealist sense of the vibrancy of the found object, its signifying potentiality:
Heat and Matter: dry cleaner bag rises to ceiling; wire sieve boat floats on water until alcohol is added; film loop: Irreversibility and Fluctuations (silent, 7 mins). Optics: standard colour blindness tests, box of coloured yarns; phantom bouquet: real image from a concave mirror; horn thermopile and mirror sense candle across room.
A note at the end of the book helpfully informs us that “The titles here are taken from a list of demonstrations used in physics lectures at the University of California”, but tells us nothing of the poet’s (subjective—and therefore arbitrary?) criteria for their selection, arrangement and formal presentation. We’re left guessing about these aspects of the poem as much as about the objects themselves (what is a “real image from a concave mirror”? How does it differ from an unreal one? Is there an embedded allusion to John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror here? If so, how does the reference work?).
Copus is happy leaving us to do the work of interpretation in such poems, but elsewhere she steps in, sometimes with a touch of heavy-handedness, as in the final stanzas of ‘Comet’, a poem that is beautifully convincing in its simplicity until its focus narrows to the personal and the specific, which is then forced home in less than subtle terms, no matter how they conform to the collection’s themes:
All of which takes place to illustrate
how little or how much exists between
the drift of what is and what might have been;
—the slight rhythmic hiccup in that third line testifying to the poem’s own moment of uncertainty. If it’s redeemed by the poem’s close (where history, memory and the trivial minutiae of a life momentarily coalesce in a rippling sequence almost worthy of Virginia Woolf), it remains as a vague sense that we’ve been spoken at, rather than (in the manner of most of the work here) to.
Elsewhere Copus is more composed, orchestrating theme and conceptual vehicle with assurance and, sometimes, flair. The sequence ‘Playing It By Ear’ relies on DB Fry’s reference scale for sound intensity to map a range of everyday sounds onto a sequence of remembered moments. The memories seem to belong not to the poet herself, but to a realm of narrated experience, which is here re-narrated and rendered in poems that, for all their formal dexterity, fairly tremble with suppressed emotion:
The first time they spoke they were standing a metre
away from each other - she out of shyness
and he from respect - on a street, in a town
just a train ride away from a place they would own
for a while on the opposite side of the river,
their small voices carrying, loud in the heat.
He chipped at a weed with the tip of his shoe
and they talked of the weather, perhaps, or the imminent
boom in the markets, the price of oil,
how it rose or fell, according to this or that.
The careful balancing of temporal and spatial shifts is here exquisitely handled, and the writing shifts gently between points of focus to delineate with care and sensitivity the birth throes of love. The pseudo-objective title of this part, ‘Conversation at one metre (60 dB)’, is both reinforced and undermined by the poem’s literal adherence to the metre-wide gap and its simultaneous insistence that the gap is arbitrary and easily overcome, and indeed has already been eliminated in time.
At her best, as in such moments, Copus is a poet of relationships, meditating in carefully crafted poems upon their trivial details and their grand designs with equal authority, and offering some important insights into how we make our ways through what Stephen Hawking, in another epigraph cited in In Defence of Adultery, calls “the dark stuff” of our universe.