This powerful new book is a mourning for the harm of abusive relationships, set in a fenscape the author sees as traumatised by over-farming.
Churned up by the machine
Elisabeth Sennitt Clough arrived at the name Abilene by a convoluted process involving web-generated anagrams. Her book opens beside a potato farmer’s conveyor belt:
“all day the belt tumbles along cavort cavort
its dirt settles in my pores
one day you’re a child cavort cavort
the next you’re carrying one”
Fig-leaves and leeway
For a flavour of the book, here are some titles of the poems in it that the author took to a recent reading: ‘the box of maternal recall’, ‘the village women and my mother’, ‘at night the savage plants sing’, ‘my name is abilene’, ‘abilene spreads manure on her roses while listening to power ballads’, ‘a road sweeper saves abilene’s life’, ‘well fyt john because i’m hanging with rexie again’. Many of the poems appear with a fig-leaf emblem in place of a title.
The reading heard that a lot of Abilene is Sennitt Clough, but they’re not the same. She likes the leeway that the use of a persona gives in exploring a situation. The book chronicles Abilene’s relationship with John, and its world of farms and gardens and social media.
And the Fens
Sennitt Clough left them at 16, and wanted to forget them. She’s lived, written, studied in five countries. But the Fenland poems came. She loves Paris, but she thinks a Paris poem is unlikely. The Fenland poems came. They’re still coming.
A verse novel?
The book My Name is Abilene is divided into two sequences: ‘before john’ and ‘abilene’. Cambridgeshire poet John Greening praised it as “almost a verse novel … powering forward at high speed”, and that is probably the best way to read it.
All those quotations from the book in lower case – no capitals even for names and titles – show a feature of its style. Only two poems in the book use capital letters at all.
The third poem from the end of ‘before john’ is ‘When I Talk About Codes’, a painful unpacking in ‘from a doctor’s note’:
“There are two codes at the top of my medical record.
I see them each time I order a prescription.
These codes are immediately followed by their explanations:
X767N rape and XaEFu physical abuse.
This undermines the idea of codes as secret or indirect.”
The final poem of ‘abilene’, and of the book, is ‘Your Receipt’: a summary of the costs and benefits of the relationship, structured in mimicry of a Post Office receipt, and ending:
“Total = a petrified exit (un)strategy
Please retain for future reference.
Sennitt Clough told the audience at the reading that this way with capitals was not any sort of comment on capitalism. But she saw the levelling lower-case as a way of removing obstacles and formality.
The reach of the sun
Some of Sennitt Clough’s earlier poems are in Places of Poetry, a web resource she admires for its fun and thinks there should be more of. But a line in one of them tells of “places the sun never quite reaches”, and her world is dark with those places.
My Name is Abilene was clearly a tough write, and it’s a tough read. We’re perhaps not to know how much of the darkness over Abilene was originally Sennitt Clough’s. We have to applaud the strength of mind that worked with it to produce a thing so well crafted and coherent.
My Name is Abilene is published by Salt Publishing.