So Mayer on Margaret Tait

Heartbeat

Origins and Elements: On Margaret Tait’s Disappearing Trick

I. I Found a Book on How to be Invisible [1]

I discovered Margaret Tait in the dark: not in a bookstore, but in a cinema. At the Cinematheque in Toronto, air-conditioned in the dog days of summer, there were Orcadian visions of turf, sharing its tough fragility with and through 8mm film kept carefully in cans in a doctor’s disorderly study. It was only in 2004 that her short films, made between 1951 and 1998, were re-released into circulation, on an international touring programme curated by London’s LUX, who also released selected shorts on DVD. Prior to that, the films had lived in Tait’s house, painstakingly edited over decades into short films – yet they had also travelled, in the filmmaker’s lifetime, on a circuit that stretched from New York and Moscow. While the Orkneys are considered remote, historically they were part of a sub-Arctic shared culture trade route, something that Tait recalls in her resolute centring of herself on the main island.

Unlike Hugh MacDiarmid, with whom she made a film, Tait was not part of Scots revivalism. She concludes her long poem ‘The Trow o’ Windhoose’, which describes ‘the black jelly trow hanging over Scotland / Sense of sin / That kills nightly,’ by saying that

For the whole of Scotland I would like to kill that trow.
For the sake of the wholeness of people’s hearts
I would like to take an axe and kill that trow. (Tait 1959, 2; 3)

Margaret Tait, The Grassy Stores, 1960.

Yet her films and writing are steeped in Orkney: not draped in the nostalgic plaid of theme- park ‘tradition’ of the trow, but concerned with its cultural present as it includes both past and future. The Grassy Stories, a chapbook collecting stories written for her nieces, nephews and godchildren about Orkney, ends with ‘An End in View,’ in which the island’s adults realise that the youth both want, and need, to head to the mainland. It inverts the presumption on tradition usually attributed to marginal cultures. ‘“What you mak yoursel will be the latest,’ said old Timmo. ‘Couldna be newer than you have it when you’ve just made it’” (Tait 1959b, 30). In ‘The Song Gatherer,’ from her other short story collection Lane Furniture, a young musical ethnographer is disappointed when his informants on the island sing inferior versions of traditional airs, and prefer to sing jazz. Joseph’s insistence that folk music is ‘“ancient”’ disappoints his informants, who perform for him a song they’ve composed, and – when he dismisses it – conclude ‘“We hev to get wur songs fae some piece,” said the old woman, “or make them up wursells, for we haena any folk music”’ (Tait 2012, 140).

Folk culture as a constant process of transformation and invention is both the substance and subject of Tait’s writing and filmmaking; influenced by Federico Garçia Lorca, she refers to her work as ‘folk-poetry or blood-poetry’ (qtd. Neely 2012, 12). MacDiarmid misunderstands this when he concludes his account of visiting Tait’s studio with the thought that:

One of Dr Tait’s black-and-white 16mm films was commissioned by Orkney Education Committee and shown in a circuit of rural community halls…

Studios like Dr Tait’s [in other countries] work closely with Government and scientific research organisations and with societies for the dissemination of science. In several countries such bodies suggest topics, and give advice on technical matters, some even write the scripts. (416)

Margaret Tait, Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait, 1964. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

His desire to reappropriate Tait’s work for Scottish nationalism locates her as a public servant rather than an artist, a stenographer of local life. Tait did make a multipart series called Aspects of Kirkwall, funded by local government, which were screened in rural communities in the islands. MacDiarmid, like Joseph MacBayne the song gatherer, requires that Tait act as a vessel through which local knowledge might circulate within public fora, and scientific knowledge might improve rural locales; Tait’s films, on the other hand, form a kind of non-elite ‘coterie’ publishing, focused on a circulation within a community. And when Tait had an opportunity to make a short film with MacDiarmid, she portrayed him not as a national hero, but as a playful, almost childlike figure hopping along the Edinburgh pavement. Refuting an insistence on bringing the margins to the centre, ‘Tait films him on the very edge of things, and alively so’ (Smith 2004, 17).

Margaret Tait and Peter Hollander, Perugia, 1952. Courtesy of the Orkney Library and Archive.

Despite her interaction with the great man of Scottish letters and the circulation of her films during her lifetime, Margaret Tait is (portrayed) as forgotten – lost – invisible. The binary of margins and centre reasserted itself. Her (dis)location in Edinburgh and, later, Orkney, apparently removed her from the metropolitan cultural circuit centred on (and in) London, where her films were shown in the 1970s as part of the Poem Film Film Poem series at the National Film Theatre, curated by Peter Todd. Her first, and only, feature, Blue Black Permanent (1992), made when she was 74, received press attention precisely for the filmmaker’s age. In recent years, her short films have re-entered circulation, within the context of a renewed interest in both gallery-based artists’ film and video, and outsider art. Yet Tait’s work fits neither category: she trained at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia in Rome, where she was influenced by neo-realism; to portray her art as naive is underestimates her skill and training, or presumes that – as a woman, and as an Orcadian – virtuosity is not available to her.

Poet Rod Mengham, reviewing LUX’s DVD of a selection of her short films for Art Monthly, comments that:

Tait never used film as a medium for the transfer of information… The imagery is circular, with the same motifs reappearing in several works, yet is always held in place quite specifically on each occasion. What separates one work from the next in the viewer’s mind is the fundamental but elusive experience of rhythm and structure.

This structural emphasis takes a form that is found only rarely in film but which is familiar to readers of poetry… The poetic sequence offers the closest parallel to the way several of Tait’s longer compositions are segmented, with each component section being given its own title. The modular structure both relieves and sharpens concentration… [the camera] reflects the kind of experience of a particular place in all its granularity. (2007, 39)

Mengham’s observation at once highlights Tait’s skill in the application of poetic composition to cinema, and the interconnection of her intermedia practice.

Margaret Tait, Land Makar, 1981. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

One of her loveliest shorts, Land Makar, is almost a precursor to the grounded humour and temporal meditation of Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I. An apparently simple documentary about a female farmer, Land Makar shows an older woman riding a tractor in her fields; she reminds the viewer that there is an the older woman behind the camera and, in doing so, doubly redefines makar, the name given recently to the poet laureate of Holyrood (Edwin Morgan, and now Liz Lochead). Both the farmer and the filmmaker are makars, as they are both poets (poiesis, making).

Tait is a ‘makar’ in her direct physical connection to every aspect of her filmmaking, and in the way in which her practice is deeply embedded in her everyday life and in the landscapes of her homes in Edinburgh and, later, the Orkneys. The shift across domestic and artistic practice is reflected in a shift across media, and a different temporal scale of making. In composing her film of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’ she gathered film sequences beginning in 1948, ‘returned to now and again, and completed in 1955,’ as the credits say. This combination of patience and distraction is presented unusually honestly, foregrounding artistic practice as a collage, and as a way of thinking through itself. To say that Tait was a practising poet and short story writer as well as a filmmaker is therefore to dis-integrate a continuous practice. Although MacDiarmid encountered her as solely a documentary filmmaker, Tait’s career, richly attested in two recent collections – Peter Todd and Benjamin Cook’s Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader and Poems, Stories and Writings, edited by Sarah Neely – bridged film and poetry, documentary and invention, realism and allegory. She self-published three collections of poetry (the first of which was reviewed, ambivalently, by Edwin Morgan) and two of short stories.

Margaret Tait, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, 1955. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

As Ali Smith points out, Tait has never been anthologised as a Scottish, Orcadian and/or woman poet. Her interdisciplinary practice may be one reason; to be a woman moving between both fields was more unusual still: Neely compares Tait to Maya Deren, the American avant-garde filmmaker who was also a dancer, and who attracted Anais Nin to appear in her film Rituals in Transfigured Time by writing her a poem. Unlike Deren, who was both sociable and a socialist, participating in social networks as both a party giver and party member, Tait was distinctly unpubbable. ‘“All very nice and Milne’s bar ish and Abbotsfordish. I’m not up to it at present, not equal to it,”’ she wrote of a meeting with some Glasgow poets (qtd Neely in Tait 2012, 20). Although she set up an office for Ancona Film on Rose Street, close to the meeting place for the Rose Street Poets (including MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig), Tait preferred to spend time alone, driving around Scotland. Neely contrasts her with Stella Cartwright, who appeared in Tait’s film Palindrome, and also played the (expected) role of muse to the male poets of Rose Street, despite being a poet herself. Her lack of engagement bespeaks both an individual commitment to solitude and gendered barriers to full participation in the ‘scene,’ where women were expected to be wives or muses, not writers. Yet not to participate in the scene was to be excepted from publication, review and promotion.

Tait’s dissenting relation to artistic and personal relation to publicness is given a quasi-cinematic expression in ‘The After Memory Supplies Also Later Allusions,’ in which the speaker drives away from an inn on Christmas Eve, where one customer is taking tea:

The brightness of the bean was far too bright,
The darkness of the night received me and deceived me. The disappointed person in the empty room
Was too alone
The silence in the public place was too alert. (Tait 1960, 20)

It’s exactly this conundrum of ‘too’ that Tait addresses in her sole feature, Blue Black Permanent, in which she explores the vexed self-absenting of the woman artist from a socio-cultural network that implicitly devalues and excludes her experience, and attempts to define an alternative space for aesthetic practice, and imagine how it might achieve equal value (the film’s title, taken from the bottle of Quink ink on Tait’s desk according to Michael Romer, underlines the connection between writing and filmmaking [Romer 2006, 8]). Both Barbara, who is an artist making her way in 1980s Edinburgh, and her mother Greta, a poet writing in 1950s Orkney, are figures for Tait’s practice. Michael Romer notes that the film ‘allowed [Tait] to create her own descendants, and recreate herself’ (2006, 12). He also notes that it both conceals and reveals Tait’s own poetic practice, ascribing her poem ‘Storms,’ from Origins and Elements, to Greta’s hand.

Margaret Tait, Blue Black Permanent, 1992. Courtesy of British Film Institute.

Romer makes an awkward but interesting distinction about reading Tait’s work autobiographically: ‘Margaret’s work is characterised by artistic reticence rather than licence. Using her poems as sources of information respects her desire for privacy because a poet gives implicit permission to use any autobiographical elements in a published poem’ (2006, 8). In particular, Blue Black Permanent insists on this risky visibility, as a gendered issue, querying whether a woman can appear in public giving ‘implicit permission’ to be used. In her poetry, she determines a distinction between an ‘erotic’ nakedness — a visibility, whether sexual or textual, that invites the aroused gaze of the Other — and a nakedness for the self:

It isn’t entirely erotic the need to stretch and preen oneself.
There’s a wish for nakedness which is not erotic at all,
Limb-wisdom and a wish to face things squarely.
The wish or need is felt in the muscle and skin
And it’s to do with a necessity, deep in the soul,
For honesty. (O&E, 1959, 5)

Tait’s writing does ‘stretch and preen’ itself, but not for the other; as her direct address, colloquial tone and use of free verse suggest, her poetry ‘wish[es] to face things squarely’ out of ‘necessity.’

Her commitment to ‘honesty’ makes her a profoundly analytic poet – but not a theoretical one, in the academic sense, as her honesty commits her to thinking with vernacular language and materials. In, ‘Cave Drawing of the Water of the Earth and Sea,’ whose title is an evocation of vernacular practice as an ancient, but inventive, tradition, she asks:

What is all theory but an abstraction of criss-cross
Lines,
As the girl proudly said her painting was?
Who the hell cares about criss-cross lines?
An abstraction from a boat scene
With the boatiness gone
She described it as a ‘further development from her
working drawing’
But the drawing had been alive. (Tait 1959, 43; Tait 2012, 53)

Lily Briscoe, the final narrational focus of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, is here the subject of Tait’s scorn; the distinction between Tait’s enunciation and Woolf’s formal approach and heightened language in capturing ‘moments of being’ is evident, even though they are both fascinated by presentness.

Margaret Tait, Origins and Elements, 1959.

Tait’s spareness contrasts with Modernist influence persisting post-war, not least in the work of Edwin Morgan, who reviewed Origins and Elements for New Saltire 2 in a group review entitled ‘Who Will Publish Scottish Poetry?’ (Tait’s response to which was, clearly, ‘I will’). He refers to her poems as ‘sometimes prosaic and wilful’ and attributes the ‘scientific’ poems to MacDiarmid’s influence rather than her own training (1961, 51). His comment that she ‘still has to master the inner rhythmical life of a poem’ marks a resistance to Tait’s demotic delivery, and her employment of long lines to trip the reader’s thoughts – and her equal refusal of the revival of rhyme and metre by contemporaneous poets such as Sir John Betjeman. Without abstracting it, Tait’s poetry is searching for new relationships to time after Einstein – but also new, ‘wilful’ relations to language.

Her wilful prosaicness has led even Neely to treat her poetry as a sketch or rehearsal, as Deren’s seems to have regarded her work, rather than fully-formed artistic achievement sui generis. Whereas Deren gave up writing both poetry and short fiction once she began making films, Tait’s archive contains rafts of undated drafts and fragments produced after her chapbooks that, as Neely remarks in her introduction, may be observational poems or planned shot lists for short films, or both (Neely 2012, 12-13). Similarly, Tait’s chapbooks contain a number of epigrammatic fragments that may or may not be part of the longer poems that they follow: often distinct in subject matter and tone, yet untitled, these fragments are as distinctive a trait of her poetic practice as her descriptive shot wish-lists are of poetic practice. ‘Tait’s exhaustive listing is all part of the rough material with which she worked… but for Tait the process is as important as what comes out of the process,’ so the ‘rough material’ and finished texts could be said to have a similar status. (Neely 2012, 17). This intriguing form – the poem as both made object and trace or plan of making, and indeed oscillating between the two states – is both a key material practice and a symbol of Tait’s approach as a whole.

II. Find a Pinch of Keyhole

The published poems are a process in themselves, but also record of that process, in both cases hingeing on Tait’s dual training as a medical doctor and a cinematographer.
With this dual virtuosity, Tait’s poems think through the most comprehensive and (in that it is) constantly changing integration of vision and speech in British poetry since William Blake. Her poems often consider the scale of attention at which the invisible – for example, the atomic, or the archaeological – is transposed into visibility, and the effects of such a focus on the normative field of vision. ‘There’s a whole country at the foot of the stone / If you care to look,’ opens ‘The Scale of Things’ (Tait 2012, 85). Echoing Blake’s search for Heaven in a wild flower, she writes in ‘Now’:

I used to lie in wait to see the clover open
Or close,
But never saw it.
I was too impatient
Or the movement is too subtle,
Imperceptible
And more than momentary

Cinematographically
I have registered the opening of escholtzia
On an early summer morning.
It gave me a sharp awareness of time passing,
Of exact qualities and values in the light,
But I didn’t see the movement
As movement.
I didn’t with my own direct perception see the petals moving.
Later, on the film, they seem to open swiftly

But I didn’t see them moving open.
My timing and my rhythm could not observe the rhythm of their opening. (Tait 2012, 43-44)

Neely includes a note entitled ‘Time,’ which reveals that ‘Now’ is based on a cinematographic experiment Tait conducted; in keeping with her emphatic interest in process – and in process as an aspect of the everyday – in her account of the experiment, Tait notes that she was also able to make herself breakfast and tidy up in the gaps between setting up shots (Tait 2012, 149-50). She concludes this note with a self-deprecating quotation: ‘(Cf. T.S. Eliot ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.’ !).’

Both modernist poetry and the scientific method are thus domesticated, and gently mocked in this note, as they are in the voice of the poem. The conversational syntax and rhythms of the poem give it a transparency and simplicity that resonates explicitly with Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence,’ while the title is evocative of Gertrude Stein’s poetics of a ‘continuous present.’ There is a sense of a child’s perception of time, light and movement being recalled by an adult, wherein the ‘exact qualities and values’ of that remembered perception are at once layered under and filtered through the mechanical and technical exactitudes of f-stops and light metering that echo in the polysyllabic single word line ‘cinematographically,’ and the scientific qualia that Tait suggests in moving from clover to the Latinate escholtzia, the California poppy. Yet by placing the camera and the eye at a tangent mediated by her use of poetic language, Tait teases apart the lyric cliché of the poet’s heightened perception as expressed by Blake’s augury of innocence.

Attentive to the ‘atoms…exploding throughout our atmosphere,’ as the poem continues, Tait unfurls her filmic perception, which was rooted equally in her training as a doctor and a filmmaker. As the title Origins and Elements suggests, Tait was a natural philosopher, perhaps the first in British poetry since Samuel Taylor Coleridge; for her poetry, the film camera, telescope and microscope were ways of observing, questioning and measuring the world. Her key interest is in the nature of the visual and visible. As Mengham observes, the

measure and pace [of her films] are contemplative, which has the effect of transferring the responsibility of primary attention from the filmmaker to the viewer. Clearly, Tait is the one who has chosen the subject matter and who has positioned the camera, but the scope given to the individual viewer for subjective exploration of each scene is pivotal (39).

By looking within the framework of scientific precision, and by seeing its limitations, Tait shapes an individual style of looking, yet a trait of that style is that it moves beyond the self; or rather sees that the (seeing) ‘self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1988, 249).

III. Fold Yourself Up

Tait’s key interest was not in making her work or self visible (as the word visibility is used in contemporary cultural and identitarian discourse), but in engaging with visibility as a subject. The Imagists, too, on whom Deren wrote her M.A. thesis and from whom she devolved elements of her film theory, sought to capture the present in the vision of a flower; but their commitment to visuality is pictorial and rests on a stable sense of the

human as measure of (sublime) perception. UnRomantically, Tait’s poems refuse the separation and hierarchisation of observer and observed, wherein the observer’s intellection interprets and guarantees the visible world. Inquisitive and aware, they examine the relations – as altered by both quantum physics and new visual technologies – between observer and observed.

Her poems’ fascination with observing the process of observation creates shifts of scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic, as in ‘Now.’ As the title of ‘The Unbreakable- Up’ suggests, Tait’s poems insist that the micro and macro cannot be separated from one another. At the heart of the poem, she states that:

Human beings who form concepts in their minds
Are somewhere between those extremes of vastness
And infinitesimality. (Tait 2012, 47)

Her poetic process is, likewise, ‘somewhere between those extremes,’ and thus shifts the nature of the human subject and speaker, who is at once part of the class of ‘Human beings’ and set apart by her analytic mind. To form concepts in one’s mind (as the speaker does) is to recognise one’s intermediate, not to say indeterminate, nature: a being-in-process that echoes the shot list/poem overlap identified by Neely.

Tait called her chapbook imprint ‘Interim edition,’ citing her work ‘somewhere between.’ That lower-case ‘e’ is suggestive of a stage in the publishing process rather than the name of a chapbook press. Several of the poems in each chapbook had been previously published in Voice of Scotland and the Orkney Herald, but Tait’s Interim gathering-in has suggestive similarities with Emily Dickinson’s fascicles in their mediation of the private world of the notebook and public-ation. The Dickinson comparison originates with Tait, who write:

Emily Dickinson shut herself in a room
And wrote about her pain.
She wrote too about joy (Tait 1959, 5/Tait 2012, 35).
‘[J]oy’ has no possessive; nor does the room: while the pain is self-focused, owned and internal, Dickinson is neither Woolf’s bourgeois sister with ‘a room of one’s own’, nor is she entirely a confessional trauma poet. ‘She wrote too about joy.’ The privacy of that writing, and the joy in it (both writing and controlled circulation), may have resonated with Tait. When leading writer and editor Helen Hunt Jackson approached her about publishing her work, ‘Dickinson is purported to have replied to her, “How can you… [p]rint a piece of your soul!” ’ (qtd. Holland 1994, 139).

IV. You Cut Along the Dotted Line

Margaret Tait, Subjects and Sequences, 1960.

The cover of Subjects and Sequences, Tait’s second chapbook, refuses to separate poetry and film. It is composed of a number of strips black-and-white positives, confirming Mengham’s association of Tait’s sense of poetic and filmic sequence. Tait’s compositional process in film is associative rather than narrative, and her editing rhythmic, creating its own temporality to which the viewer is asked to assent. She refused to edit her film Orquil Burn when advised to do so by seminal documentary-maker John Grierson, who felt it was over-long. She refused to ‘make it into a tak-tak-tak natty little short film… It is a made thing, set like that on purpose, but its form is distant or unfinished perhaps’ (qtd. Neely 2012, 12). In refusing to cut the film, she cut herself off from Grierson’s support, and thus from the contemporaneous documentary and Scottish film-making community.

Despite – or, perhaps, more profoundly, because of – her emphasis on process, and her confidence in claiming unfinished forms for her work, Tait was also confident about finding a responsive audience, not only within the avant-garde circles in London where her work appeared post-1970, but closer to home. In 1954, she took advantage of the Edinburgh Festival to arrange nightly screenings at her Rose Street studio, where ‘the Rose Street children began to accost [her] daily in the street with “Is there any films tonight, missis?”’(Tait 2012, 157). She observes that it was only viewers ‘who had the upside-down sophisticated state of mind which [she] associate[d] with a certain type of suburban film society member, hack reporters, and the sort of smart alec who must always be in the know’ who struggled with her films (158). ‘It is,’ she concluded, ‘as if they had difficulty in understanding anything straightforward and clear’ (ibid.).

Margaret Tait, Orquil Burn, 1955. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

She insisted on the straightforward integration of her work with both folk and modern everyday culture. In Subjects and Sequences, she analogises herself as a ‘Pavement Artist,’ in a metaphor that overlays filmmaking and poetics as both being arts of framing (1960, 30-32/2012, 68-69).

I chalk it out on the ready squares.
Only the colours out of the box
Are available.
If you walk
And scrape your shoe on the finer lines
I do them over, with emphasis.
But a sort of blur
Is the result of too much walking
And, in the blur,
Exaggeration and some distortion,
Result of making too often the journey. (Tait 1960, 29/Tait 2012, 68).

The pavement, found space (as the page and the film frame are), offers her a scale and frame – but it is also a public space in which critical ‘scrape[s]’ can blur the poet’s ‘finer lines’. Encounters with audience can lead to ‘[e]xaggeration and some distortion’ in order to reach them better.

She escapes the journey by imagining herself as a ghost:
Spilling of the ink-pot,
Tearing of the page,
Intruding with blundering fingers
In the micro-picture gauge. (ibid.)

The rare outbreak of full rhyme rhymes her poetic and cinematic practices even as she gleefully threatens to wreck them, wrecking her amphibrachic metre with that blundering ‘blundering’. Prosaic, no; wilful, yes. Having become a ghost, she turns to and addresses her own ghosts, towards whom her will to make and show is directed. She addresses them within herself, inviting them to attend her cinema:

I am all of my ancestors

Doers and undoers
Lodge here under my high heath
Where I light my fire.

I lit the light-house for you
To guide you in the mirk.
You’ll see the regular flashing,

You’ll count,
And by the known timing,
By recognition of the formula once learned,
You’ll know it’s me

It’s myself, this mazy thing,
This unattachable me,
This floating, footless creature,
This last word in what shouldn’t be. (Tait 1960, 31-32 / Tait 2012, 69)

The regular flashing of the lighthouse establishes the cinematic interval – the gap of black leader between frames that enables the ‘flicker effect’ to produce the optical illusion of moving pictures. That gap allows the reader/viewer, who has become part of the ancestral crowd of makars, to ‘count’: to be valued, and to enumerate rationally.

Margaret Tait, Blue Black Permanent, 1992. Courtesy of British Film Institute.

Through this polymorphous, ancestral self, the poem suggests a new lyric I: indeterminate, multiple, at once inscribing and de-inscribing itself, absent and present, ghosted by its own ancestors. Film’s absent presence in the poem makes the reader aware that ‘I’, the enunciative source of the lyric and the hidden source of the film, is ‘the last word in what shouldn’t be.’ Silencing Grierson and other critics and ‘upside-down people’, Tait is determined to have, and to be, ‘the last word in what shouldn’t be,’ a complicated double negative. ‘Be’, the poem ends, after declaring that it ‘shouldn’t.’ That captures the paradox, not of Tait’s aesthetics or poetics, but of her poetics in relation to public-ation and audience. She lights her fire, not to draw the reader/viewer closer, but to warn them to keep their distance from the impossibility of a woman writer and filmmaker.

V. You Think Inside Out

Reading Mary Shelley’s story ‘The Invisible Girl,’ Sonia Hofkosh argues that Shelley writes herself into the story as the ‘invisible girl’ discovered by the narrator, who he believes must be either a ghost or fey (she is, in fact, alive and well, and saving herself from sexual disgrace). Women, says Hofkosh, are expected to ‘shrink to fit into a conventional narrative as if into tiny slippers’; if they can’t, they can only figure uncannily (1998, 6). Fascinated by the fairy tale and mythic exceptionalism of the queen, Tait rewrites – combines, deconstructs – both fairy tale and historical queens in The Hen and the Bees, her third chapbook of poems. ‘Queen of Fact and Story’, as she entitles the first poem in the sequence, undergoes a transformation (Tait 2012, 91-92). First of all, she ‘herself had eyes / Full of legends‘ rather than just being the subject of the gaze (92). In ‘Story-telling Queen,’ the queen assumes Tait’s position of telling stories ‘out of her ancestral memory‘ by the fire (92).

The very idea of queendom is dismantled in ‘Belief‘ in a way that echoes the Old English meaning of quean, derived from Old Norse and echoed in contemporary Scandinavian languages: ‘Women / Like other women‘ (Tait 2012, 97). Rather than being a status conferred by marriage to a king, Tait vocalises a chorus of men proclaiming:

‘As if there could be queens, we mean natural queens,
Women with possibilities of their own.
Don’t make us laugh,’ they said,
And laughed, just the same. (ibid.)

Without class and marital status, women are a subject for mockery. Tait’s poetry and fiction, written from the mid-1950s to 1960, is defiantly outspoken about gender politics, a necessary reminder of the oft-forgotten, or obscured by the Friedan mystique, continuity from suffragism through inter-war feminism to the women workers of WWII. She insistently locates the political in the personal, as in her story ‘The Sun and the Moon,’ where a female artist attempts to find an identity within an intimate relationship, yet she is also insistently aware of the comedic nature of this struggle. ‘“You don’t realise quite how much of a feminist I am,” she said, snuggling up to him.’ (Tait 1959c).

Tait’s poetics prefigure the feminist poetics of process by two decades, in which – as feminist filmmaker Yvonne Rainer names her autobiography – ‘feelings are facts,’ and the traditional affective material of lyric is regarded with a scientific detachment. In her elegy for her sister-in-law, Allison, Tait makes a series of shifts:

I can only lament.
I can only weep and wish she were alive;
And I re-examine,
Was there something to notice that we did not notice?
Could some positive perception have possibly saved her?

Until her last breath she must have been happy:
… Until the day the blood came pouring,
Tore placenta from the wall,
And Death leapt out from his lair in the dark,
Bytuene Mershe and Averil,
And lyht on Alysoun. (Tait 1960, 15-16/Tait 2012, 66-67)

A direct, simple statement of grief is followed, on the turn of a semi-colon, by an analytical statement, whose action – ‘re-examine’ – links philosophical and medical speculation. Tait’s questions, in her grief, foreground ‘positive perception’: although the poem goes on to re- iterate observations of Allison’s positivity – ‘She was always happy … / She had such a dancing spirit‘ (16) – the specificity of the penultimate observation of the cause of death suggests that ‘positive’ also means ‘engaged, active, using perception as a good.’

That it is not scientific positivism is evident in the shift from self-questioning about medical observation to a lyric perception of Allison’s ‘dancing spirit’ and the closing invocation of a canonical British poetics of death that merges the Christian and the elemental pagan. Tait’s frankness about sexual and reproductive embodiment, in a poem written in 1955, is well worth noting, but – emphatically and – in tandem with the ease with which she moves between traditional elegy (including its religious overtones), confessional lyric with its affective and domestic honesty, and an innovative, hybrid poetics of observation that articulates a new metaphysics. Herself a poet and editor of The Kirkwallian, Allison Leonard Tait was a frequent first reader of Margaret’s work (Neely 2012, 6). The closing couplet, with its invocation of an older poetry, locates Allison as the reader of the poem, recognising the women’s shared expertise – rather than their biology or affective live – as their bond.

In their direct address, refusal (or, frequently, deconstruction) of conceit, and almost meditative examination of both emotions and observations, Tait’s poems couldn’t be further from Eliot’s ‘felt thought.’ At the end of ‘Standing Stones of Stenness,’ which holds in tension the holistic spiritual ecosystem of the Neolithic culture that erected the stones and the literate, alienated intellection of modernity, she concludes

They are to blame for mistaking
brooks for books
and we, whom they became, for educating
all that is left of them to our worst conclusions.

Fusions
of thought and emotion are to be sought,
—perhaps found (perhaps not). (Tait 1960, 11/Tait 2012, 62)

Tait is no atavist: she is concerned with (and by) the ways in which human perception and belief determine experience. What’s necessary, she suggests, is neither education nor religion, each of which excludes the other, and excludes the seeking mind. ‘Fusions / of thought and emotion are to be sought’: the passive imperative is at odds with the passion for seeking, but the strangeness of the syntax is qualified and drawn out by the honest ambivalence of the final line. True seeking cannot be commanded in the active tense, but must slip the didactic framework of brooks and books in order to question everything. ‘Fusions‘ are not the goal, for all their dramatic isolation as a one-word line at the opening of the stanza; instead, ‘(perhaps not)’ is the poem’s conclusion.

Margeret Tait and Alex Pirie on the Isle of Wyre, Summer 1969. Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

In the following poem, ‘Alex’ (about her partner Alex Pirie), she continues to slip the commitment to the Enlightenment model of the stable, unified self, embodied in its mentation, as the measure of things, which has remained the dominant voice and framework for mainstream British lyric poetry. The opening lines offer almost a manifesto for Tait’s work:

I think nothing of your thought-out thought,
But value you thinking it.
The you-ness of you is other than that. (Tait 1960, 14)

Her poems are ‘thought-out thought[s]’ tracing themselves, fragments of an internal running commentary engaged in observation of the mechanisms of feeling; here, she suggests that the substance of the thought substantiates neither the poem, nor the poet, nor the reader’s experience of it. The value is in the process of ‘you thinking it.’ It rethinks the triangulation of I, you and the reader that’s central to conventional love poetry, effacing both ‘I’ and ‘you’, where the second person is both lover and reader. ‘The you-ness of you,’ she tells the reader, is more than your thought process about the poem; what’s valuable is that you think about it, not what you think. That is what crosses the boundary between self and other. Such inside-out thinking, refusing conventions that are structural and systemic, not just substantive, is the heartbeat of Tait’s work.

VI. And You’re Invisible

The final poem of Origins and Elements, ‘Ay, Ay, Ay, Dolores’ (Tait 1959, 48; Tait 2012, 58) defies its titular invocation of feminine vocal excess, ending:

But there’s so much to say that by the time

I fine it down there’s only one word left
And then that word has to go too, being inadequate,
And only my eyes are left
For saying it all.

Punning not, as is pervasive in British post-Romantic poetry where the subject masters the substance, on ‘I’ and ‘eye’ but on ‘aye’ and ‘eye’, Tait offers a ‘positive perception’ as her signature. She is intensely self-focused – in describing her internal and external observations – and self-effacing, in placing the process of observation, rather than the observing self, at the centre of the poems. They offer a record of thought in action, unfolding contemplation of the origins and elements of both language and the material world.

 

So Mayer, ‘Origins and Elements: On Margaret Tait’s Disappearing Trick’ (2014).

Originally published in POST, 4: Poetry as Process, pp. 17–32.


So Mayer is the author of Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2015) and The Cinema of Sally Potter: A Politics of Love (Wallflower, 2009), and co-editor of There She Goes: Feminist Filmmaking and Beyond (Wayne State University Press, 2010) and Lo personal es politico, an anthology of essays on feminist documentary (INAAC, 2011).

They have also published three poetry collections, Her Various Scalpels (Shearsman, 2009), The Private Parts of Girls (Salt, 2011) and (O) (Arc, 2015). They are a member of queer feminist curators Club des Femmes and campaigners Raising Films.

For more information, see www.sophiemayer.net and @tr0ublemayer.


[1] All section headings are from Kate Bush’s song, ‘How to Be Invisible’ (2005).


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