All in a Day's Irony: Mary Coghill's Designed To Fade


Paperback, 120pp, 9x6ins, £8.95 / $15, 2006
ISBN-13 9781905700059; ISBN-10 1905700059, Shearsman

Reviewed by Abena Sutherland


A debut volume from Mary Coghill, Designed To Fade is a poem about "the city", centring on a loose narrative of a day. Coghill takes on the styles of other writers – Thomson (B.V.), Auden, Allen Fisher, Scalapino – and sets out to write a "women's poetry of the city". From Coghill's afterword:
My central concern was to explore women’s place on the A-Z. The poem puts forward different styles and forms so that we can test out our city voices. I discovered that we are definitely outdoors not indoors, involved not distant. We do not express ourselves merely as geography of the body or topography of the city.
Who does? This is one of the elements of the book that just made me cringe. Is it a joke? What women? Me? What cities? I’m glad that there’s somewhere that "we" can test out "our" voices. Take two emblems of modernism – "the" city and the day – and add the switching of styles. An idea from the classroom where a little more "thinking the form" (as it is sometimes put) needs to have taken place.

The work is monologic while continually making claims and gestures to the contrary; it puts forward an idea of the "city experience" which has a tendency to over-ride any actual experience or place. Coghill has been time-travelling, "I went back to the classical Greek city-state as a source of inspiration and information on the origins of attitudes to women in city life. I have used what I found in Plato’s Republic to provide a basis for our own development and use of city space." The formal writing is often inept (the closing couplet of a sonnet
We hear musician’s errors, dare we mock
or do nature’s faults our humility unlock?
which works if deliberately bad); the "experimental" passages too often revert to broken-up sentences which are like someone's idea of consciousness in the 1920s. Many of the poems are bad in the sense of being over-determined and under imagined (e.g. city as organism in mock scientific-alien tones:
Here is a cellular structure of a most interesting kind.
Does it bare the fingerprint of reproduction within its scaffolding?
There are sections which in many ways exist without recourse to other cells.
). Yet these dissatisfactions – greatly sharpened by the claims the poem makes for itself – don't sum up everything in the book; descriptions of the doors to a workplace, thoughts on working late, on needing to buy some lemons, the slow pressurised crushing of a low-grade job, these things are here too, and are in a few places subtly evoked. As is the clicking over of a single woman’s slight paranoia in public places. And there are individual poems within the larger one which stand out, if not entirely, then in part – 'Annual Lunch', perhaps, and 'Manhunt',
Then a blood up yell of cheerful
triumph got him he’s here! here!
piercing animal shriek trapped man
I see no bushes swaying snapping
cluster of struggling arms and legs
he’s gone quietly now shadows loom
they lead him round the corner
a van door opens clang metal
slams metal a sickening thud
unique sound of human skull
bone hitting metal at speed
though quoting this brings out weaknesses – "shadows loom", as threatening shadows too often do, and the narrator’s distancing is awkwardly signalled with "unique sound", into the quasi-thought of "bone hitting metal at speed".

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