A Review of What Girls Do in the Dark by Rosie Garland
Saskia McCracken is a writer and editorial advisor at Osmosis Press. She is completing her doctoral research, on Virginia Woolf’s Darwinian animal tropes, at the University of Glasgow. She is interested in environmental and generically unstable writing. Saskia’s debut pamphlet, Imperative Utopia, is published by -algia press and she is currently working on a poetry collection about botanist and photography innovator Anna Atkins. Her work has appeared in Amberflora, Datableed, Zarf, Spam, and others, and she is a member of 12 collective.
Rosie Garland’s gorgeous poetry collection orbits questions of astronomy, queer physics, and ‘how to deal with heavenly bodies’ both within and beyond Earth – how to embrace your ‘right to glow.’
I don’t normally think of physics, planetary movements and comets when I think about nature poetry or queerness. A lot of my favourite contemporary poetry focuses on the natural world, on creaturely encounters along coastlines, or other spaces and animals that call for our attention as the environmental crisis deepens. A lot of my favourite writing that explores queerness focuses on the here and now, interpersonal relationships, the body. These are sweeping statements of course, but there’s something in them. This collection is on another scale, relating the micro to the macro, the ‘extinguished’ individual to extinct species, girls to comets, humans to nonhuman queerness (in the broadest sense of the word queer). Garland’s poetry bursts from the atmosphere careening towards the freedom of outer space whilst being drawn to, and resisting, the allure of ‘immolation.’
There is a tension, throughout the collection, between confinement and suppression on the one hand (in a goldfish bowl, a cage, a garden) and release on the other, between following a prescribed orbit and veering off kilter into outer space, as a comet, a sun, a planet. In playing with this tension, these poems celebrate difference on an astronomical scale. Consider the opening lines of ‘Eczema’:
In this tectonic vision, ‘she’ is molten rock from the earth’s core, a liquid solid, a paradox, suffocated by her own lava. She longs to ‘unpeel, escape’ to ‘shrug off’ her ‘whalebone cage.’ Her jail, we sense, cannot hold her much longer. Each staggered line gives form to the fractures Garland describes. Then in other poems, the speaker is stratospheric, ecstatic. In ‘Planetary wobble,’ for example:
Earth refuses to draw clean circles. In a seven year itch,
she shimmies round the sun with an inbuilt deviation
from the true. But what is truth? Not colouring inside the lines,
nor the fine print of little laws. Her fractal swing delights
in shapes swerving off-kilter
The laws of physics are queer here, swerving, delightful. In other poems, as in ‘Self-Portrait as Halley’s Comet,’ the speaker ‘mistakes flight for healing’ and, like comet, drags debris which ‘leaves a filthy trail,’ ‘unable to achieve escape velocity.’ This is not to say that all, or indeed any of the poems, are about outer space. Indeed, many of the poems do not use astronomical conceits at all, but tell stories of foxes, quicksand, phrenology. Garland is interested, rather, in the ‘tilt’ of astrophysics as both metaphor and evidence that ‘there is no straight path through the universe.’ Natural laws do not follow heteronormative patterns, they cannot be contained. She is preoccupied with planetary bodies which ‘break the law of what it and isn’t a planet’ – for ‘there’s nowt so queer / as Pluto.’
So what do girls do in the dark? Caroline Herschel observes the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a sister sneaks out at night without sharing her secrets, Saint Catherine answers back and winds up dead. Mostly, though, they heal. Both physically and emotionally. There is a sequence of hospital poems where ‘each wound finds healing / in the opposite of itself.’ (Garland also has a pamphlet, Everything Must Go (Holland Park Press 2012) on recovering from throat cancer). Elsewhere we learn that ‘Comets are not victims of their orbits,’ we ‘learn fire / that is not immolation. Stand up. Dance.’ Healing is a messy, necessary process.
Ultimately, there is not (and nor should there be) resolution to the tensions I have outlined, between the micro and macro, individual and species extinction, containment or suppression and release, immolation and dance, hurt and healing. We follow the tilt of Garland’s poetry as she orbits these issues. As she puts it:
[The coastal environmental poets I am thinking of include Jen Hadfield, Isabel Galleymore, Susannah V. Evans, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and Anna Selby, while those who pay attention to other creatures include Pratyusha (birds), Ae Hee Lee (bears), Cheryl Pearson (menageries) and our very own editor in chief Briony Hughes (rabbits). The writers I am referring to here who explore queerness include Isabel Waidner, Maggie Nelson, P. B. Preciado, and Gail McConnell.]