The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx, by Tara Bergin, Carcanet, 88 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1784103804
The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is Tara Bergin’s second collection. It deftly and confidently presents lives both infamous and ignored, whether historical or fictional, in a vision of entrapment, diminishment, and inequality that also manages to draw on elements of gallows humour. Framed by the factual history of the death by suicide of Eleanor Marx (Karl Marx’s daughter) is a core of poems based on – among several things – theatrical monologue, folksong, and an astute knowledge of European history and literature. This intellectually adroit interplay between disciplines is not something often evident in poetry in the Anglophone world, nor indeed the sense of a writer connecting to the dramas of major figures in politics or literature. Granted, it occurs in Kate Tempest’s public performances, but Bergin is writing poetry, not airing polemic. She has read Ingeborg Bachmann, absorbed Flaubert and Madame Bovary, and excels at seeing patterns and connections (among them the fact that Eleanor Marx’s death imitated Flaubert’s heroine, Emma Bovary) in the search for experiential unity.
The book proceeds with “The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts”, an approximate account of Marx’s death by poisoning, in a tone which is both humorous and bleak. The final line, “Nearly all of this is true,” is one of the defining truisms which characterise Bergin’s poetry: there may be facts, but then there are after-facts; and possibly, some things are not true at all. They may even be fake, as we have come to know and love the word.
Many poets write as if their poem’s subject offers a Ding an sich quite independent of observation, involving a search for essences which remain unquestioned, along with an aesthetic striving which eschews an ethic of poetry. Bergin does none of this, adopting a stance which invites the reader to think against absolutes. It is this sense of the “relative” which makes this poetry intriguing, because it pushes the reader to adopt a quasi-philosophical stance and in this manner to enter into dialogue with the clamour of fractured voices that inhabit the book.
The poems lay bare one understanding of reality while simultaneously asking the reader to reconsider everything, trust nothing, above all to treat the past as a series of riddles which forcibly diminish women, and by implication, the bedrock of what we call knowledge. Women are up for grabs both historically and otherwise. In “The Giving Away of Emma Bovary by Several Hands”, a six-line poem of statements, the verbs “to give” and “to have” are used to interrogate the objectification of Emma Bovary by all who encounter her. Woman is to be bartered. She is a gift, an object, a light bauble to be passed hand to hand. The final resolution can surely, it is implied, only be death.
Bergin demonstrates chameleon-like qualities, and in “Bachmann’s Warbler” mimics the poetic style of the great Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, creating a sense of heightened doom and drama in a tableau that suggests power misused at the expense of the young, the female, and the impoverished:
Now, answer me:
Who changes the currency?
Who stamps the receipts?
Who says the gesture of authenticity
is also an aesthetic gesture?
It is interesting to this reviewer (as a translator of Bachmann’s poetry) to hear her voice in the style and language of such questions, the urgent interrogation of moving beyond an easy acceptance of “currency” and “the gesture of authenticity”. Bachmann questioned history and invasion and diminishment, having experienced it as a traumatic event at the hands of the German invaders themselves. So too with Bergin, who takes the idea of a revolution of the heart, one which she says “no one has heard for decades”. And, like Bachmann, the idea of “lips of salt” is presented.
In the poem “Talking to Anne-Marie after the American Election”, the dichotomies that persist between current and private histories are heightened via the idea of a “catastrophe”. This hyper-funny poem – in which the speaker asks the Anne-Marie of the poem her views on the election, only to discover that Anne-Marie is more concerned with her own local story, the misrepresentation of her name (she is really “Anne”) – underlines the stresses that exist between the empowered and the powerless. As “Anne-Marie”, she may be in control of her life (if not happily so), but as “Anne” her life is in fragments and, irony of ironies, she may be heading to a psychiatrist in the heartland of reactionism, Texas. So the question for Bergin may be: if the gendered unequal is to be restored, by what route? And can history and fiction actually teach us anything we can viably translate usefully to our lives today? According to these poems: arguably, no.
But perhaps the poem which most clearly identifies the dilemma and interplay of power and powerlessness is “Poem in Which I am Samson and Also Delilah”. By splitting the self, by taking on the characteristics of both characters – the virile Samson of the flowing hair, the seductive Delilah – the speaker provides a perspective in which the assumption of any position is rendered virtually useless. Samson – masculine, active – gets drunk, kills a deer, then discovers that bees have made honey in the carcass. A luscious image of wholesomeness mediates the scene. But Delilah, unhappy, later enquires: “What is sweeter than honey?” Then, playing Delilah again, the split self adopts its traditional role, and we encounter a female whose subverted power leads her to flirt with the bank manager, for example, and to bribe the barber. It’s all about the cutting of Samson’s hair in the end, and the reader is led to an indecisive denouement that feels like the gallows and not the uplifting air of human liberation: “My right hand grasps the scissors. / My left hand twists them loose.”
Written in the kind of accessible language that many readers will enjoy, these darkly fabular poems function nonetheless at multiple levels of discourse, and this is what makes Bergin’s work so interesting. One might be tempted to say the collection is almost too clever, except that it’s not. It offers an original vision of presence and erasure from history, fiction, language, and suggests that unity is not easily achievable. Nor equality, either of gender or class.
Mary O’Donnell is a poet and novelist.