Lydia Unsworth - Certain Manoeuvres - Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2017
At the beginning of Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space, referencing the mathematician Eugene Minkowski, Bachelard talks about "reverberation", rather than causality, as being how an image functions and has "a sonority of being". This comes to mind when reading Lydia Unsworth's collection of poetic prose, Certain Manoeuvres, a text about negotiations of space, about negotiations of people.
All the way through this quietly troubling text, I found myself jolted and squeezed, I found myself reeling back from getting too close for comfort, I found myself having to circle, re-read, to make space for it. This is urgent, demanding, rewarding poetry: poetry that grows and shrinks. It reminds me somewhat of a show I saw at the National Theatre last year, Bryony Kimmings' A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer, where there were these inflatable tumor like objects that at moments of the production inflated through the 'wings' and forced everyone on stage to negotiate them.
Sometimes the negotiations of space in this book are urban. Or as Unsworth puts it:
"You have chosen where you can stay most silent, where no-one is looking. In this way your confidence will come on in leaps and bounds. You pole- dance, flash, Segway your path around the centre and nobody notices."
The book is arranged into recurring sections, '68, Effect, Attachment, On and Master (Stream). These sections also act as an arrangement, as headings to negotiate. The sections from 68, which are excerpted from a volume "Famous Cities of the World", published in 1968 about Amsterdam. These sections seem uncanny and defamiliar, and perform a kind of spatial folding / origami of time: "the city-dweller does not find it strange that a centuries-old building, thus rejuvenated, should then be equipped as a television shop, for the city-dweller likes to play tag with time".
It is something like a game of "tag with time" that Unsworth enacts, because on the very next page are the sentences: "This is your time, this is your place. This could only be your moment. This could only be your moment. Your block on the bar chart is the one being scrutinised. The present spreads out, hot butter, tending to invisible."
These lines, and many others, seem to cue into a narrative of illness, of appointments, of 'droplets', of support groups, of the feeling of being "afraid that no-one will offer to help me", and the narrative is also characterised by exercise and exertion: "a ten-second break before the cardio re-begins" (is the last sentence in the text).
Sometimes, the spaces negotiated feel intensely intimate, spaces of the body, both outside and inside, and spaces of the mind. In these moments, Unsworth's text feels like it is exploring what Bachelard calls "intimate immensity", a spatial poetics that is hypersensitive to the intimacy of the world:
"I grow every hair on my body so the sun won't burn through me any more than it has already."
"I don't put my hands in my mouth anymore because I don't know where anyone else has been."
This is an emotional text, it confronts in places with the sharpness, shock and loneliness of the world, such as where in one section we are told " they found him when his direct debits stopped transacting. Until then nobody noticed the smell". Of course texts don't have to be uplifting, that's not what they are about, but there is something in negotiating the spaces Unsworth creates that I do find balsamic in some way: "Every time I step on a boat, I fall asleep. That's how the world should be: small and floating on a slightly bigger object."