Rachel Fenton grew up in Yorkshire in England and now lives in Auckland. Throughout a trip to visit libraries in New York, Charlotte Brontë becomes an invisible companion, a means of keeping a young Yorkshire woman grounded as she discovers troubling news. The opening poem, “New York”, sets the scene.
“New York, cold as discovery
on the Friday morning my mother’s text
informs me my father had a heart
attack—-we are estranged;
what is to be done about that?”
The language is plain, unsentimental and as direct as the text message seems to have been. The hard ‘t’ sounds and gap between ” heart” and “attack” give a sense of finality. There’s also a hint at fragility. This is new territory: a strange city and a distant, sick father. “The Berg Collection” is reminder that the narrator is a stranger,
“But first, Joshua repeats instructions
for what to bring to the table, leave
in the cloakroom where women
do not speak regardless of how much I smile.
It’s cold where they work beside the revolving
Joshua is a librarian and guide. Later the library HVAC engineers are warned the humidity is threatening the collection of books, potentially damaging the manuscripts the narrator has come to see. Charlotte is hinted at but first appears in “Referencing the Collection”. A earlier poem mentions Martha,
“Charlotte, how do you feel, here
among the brownstones instead
of Helstones? That ‘lump of perfection’,
Rose York? What can be said in longhand
next to your rushed slant? Cursively,
we are not alike, as Martha to Mary
Taylor. Not sisters but friends,
merely miles by moorland in one respect
though continents, nay worlds
apart where we will end.”
There’s homesickness: Charlotte Brontë is asked how she feels in a different landscape. This becomes an acknowledgement of differences between Brontë and the speaker. A commonality of Yorkshire landscape links the two as friends. But the differences seem to be measured in miles, not time. There are more differences in “Reprographic Orders”, where Charlotte’s son, who “In my arms, he is as light as a ghost, and as heavy/ in my mind” and refers to the speaker as “Tanti”,
“Only afterwards, when alone in the hotel room that looks out onto
………………broken heart script
of fire escapes and discarded syringes, where last night I heard
………………screaming and this morning
men’s voices accompanying a knock on my grey window, I look up
………………the meaning of his name
for me. Tanti means auntie in Romanian, his mother’s tongue. In
………………his father’s Hindi, it refers
to one of a tribe of weavers, of the Dalits, formerly discriminated
………………against in India
as ‘most backward classes’ and I wonder, who he will take after.”
This seems to be fantasy. Charlotte’s unborn child died with her and its father was her English husband. But this son who calls the speaker “Tanti” creates an ambiguity: in one language she is an aunt, in another, the lowest class who suffer frequent discrimination. It’s as if he’s sensed the speaker’s lower class roots, an echo of Charlotte’s.
The focus shifts from friendship back to books. The books in “Sherman Fairchild Reading Room”, are kept behind glass,
“book thieves are least
of these. The words
you took and told
to someone else
as if your own
to give, impress,
undress, were mine.
I’m betrayed by
my thoughts, my mind.”
The books are a window, but it’s also questioned who the words belong to: the writer or the inspirations for the story? How does the reader fit in? How does the writer tell the story? With honesty or for an audience, to impress another?
The time in New York comes to an end at the airport, “John F Kennedy”. In part III “Gate 8”
“I can’t stop transcribing, can’t shut off
the lines. I’ve read
text like a tapestry
Seahorse Ranch [underlined]
Underneath I transcribe:
solo energy & global energy
I’d like to pick your brains
brainstorm with you. Charlotte Brontë
has left me her bottle opener, WhatsApps:
already it’s snowing in Maine.”
Here the speaker and Charlotte Brontë go their separate ways. The speaker back to Auckland, Charlotte to Maine. But there’s still a connection. Typically Charlotte’s already figured WhatsApp: a writer’s need to message and connect is motivation to overcome any technological developments.
Rachel Fenton’s Charlotte Brontë is the best friend anyone could want: someone who is there, who doesn’t judge and understands the drive to write and love of books. She’s a sounding board, someone you can run seemingly-daft ideas past and get useful replies. Someone to share a beer with. The poems explore the nature of friendships, how we make family when our actual relatives aren’t available (for whatever reason) and the need to communicate and share stories to make sense of our worlds. The poems are engaging and hold their charm.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook. Emma will be reading poems from “The Significance of a Dress” at Leicester’s Central Library from 7pm on Wednesday 6 October 2021 (image below shows flyer).