Lisa Jeschke, The Anthology of Poems by Drunk Women.
Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon, The Tragedy of Theresa May. Cambridge: Tipped Press, 2018. 44pp. 5.50 [pounds sterling].
Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon, David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife-Songs. Cambridge: Shit Valley, 2015. 23pp. $6.
The first poem in Lisa Jeschke's The Anthology of Poems by Drunk Women begins as a romantic ode to masculine creativity: the mother of an "infant sun," a solar bundle of joy and phallic potential, sings the praises of her offspring. The poem then takes an abrupt turn: "She cut off the boy's tongue." The voice of masculine individualism, neutered, makes way for the collective, erratic voice indicated by the chapbook's title. This reverse Philomela narrative captures much about Jeschke's work, which is feminist, anti-fascist, often violent or obscene, and wincingly funny. Her verse, sometimes messy and troubling but never boring, aims not at transcendence but at the cringe and nervous chuckle. It finds the tender spots in gender, ethnic, and class politics and tweaks them raw. Jeschke's pedigree in both the Cambridge school and experimental theater lends her verse an unusual balance of tendencies, the recondite opacity of J. H. Prynne and company blended with an explosive, scrappy exuberance. With her theatrical collaborator Lucy Beynon, she has produced a scathing attack on each of the two recent Tory prime ministers, while Anthology, a solo chapbook out this year from Materials, demonstrates her lyric talents.
Many of the poems in Anthology fall under the shadow of the nationalist turn in European politics, particularly the June 2016 Brexit referendum and the surge of the fascist Alternative fur Deutschland party in the October 2017 German elections. (Jeschke is British-educated and lives in Munich.) Jeschke has a gift for political slogan, as in an untitled poem addressed to the AfD:
Rather groped in Cologne Than marry a man That's my New Year's Resolution.
(The reference is to the 2015 incident, seized on by the transatlantic right, in which groups of migrant men sexually assaulted women at New Year's Eve festivities.) This fierce poem takes aim at both spaces indicated by the word "domestic": that of conjugal coupledom and that of the ethnically exclusionary nation. Against the false choices proposed by the Islamophobic right, it raises a middle finger to both patriarchy and ethnic nationalism.
A poem called "Eurotrash" addresses the Brexit referendum in the Wordsworthian form of the poem of encounter. Walking in London on June 25, 2016 (two days after the referendum), Jeschke reports encountering "a monstrous maiden bumhole.. .clearly drunk, definitely from the EU." This foreign national (who, it emerges, is the Germandwelling Jeschke herself) offers a commentary on the recent political upheaval in the form of a proper British drinking song:
I want to drink with Boris, I want to drink with Nigel, I want to drown in the sea! Me! They would get some beers We would get the sea! See!
A longing for bar-side companionship with the good old boys of British nationalism transmutes here into the fate of all too many migrants vanished into the drink. During the European migrant crisis, the sea has reemerged as a terrible barrier between the Global North and South, whether in the form of the Mediterranean charnel house or the heavily guarded tunnel under the English Channel. Britain, blessed plot and island fortress, will keep its warm, flat beer to itself. The rest can drink brine.
Jeschke is at her most lyrical when attacking such nationalist chauvinism. "Neither to Swallow to Life nor to Death" is a debate with a "quite cool young / ID-Burger," someone "whose ID is acceptable / At border control" and "public bathroom," but also, evidently, an "identitarian." Against Herr ID-Burger's proposal to "make sure the future will be the pseudo-pseudo-pseudo past / At last," Jeschke counters:
yes, I do, actively, Want my arm to lie in the puddle over there, To be with others, including all brothers, And my throat elsewhere across this winter's desert In the place where I work To speak with other others And my torso to be stretched apart, yes I want that, To fall apart into parts, TO HOLD LIMBS RELAXED, HARD.
An other among other others, this gargantuan body sprawls across the landscape, including the "puddle" of, perhaps, the Channel, Mediterranean, or Atlantic. This strange image of vitality in decomposition, of hardness in relaxation, evinces just the kind of xenophilia we need now.
Not all of Jeschke's writing, however, is so inviting. Much of her poetry and drama engage in a tortured meditation on the idea of retributive political violence. In David Cameron: A Theater of Knife-Songs, Jeschke and Beynon offer a kind of cabaret of edgy political monologues, many of them exploring the poetics of revanchism. In a particularly difficult passage, Beynon muses about the possibility of responding to David Cameron's Tory ministry with a sexual assault, only to pull back: "So, to conclude, I don't think raping David Cameron would work. / Besides, I sort of love him. He's so clear. He's like, the Zeitgeist." In response to Cameron's politics of austerity, Jeschke and Beynon veer into exceedingly dark territory, trying to maintain a delicate balance between the fantasy of violence and its disavowal.
In a co-written poem in Anthology, Jeschke and Beynon take a similar line on Cameron's successor on Downing Street, Theresa May:
Theresa May is not a cunt Theresa May is not a cunt Theresa May is not a cunt Theresa May is a well-manned process which administrates to maintain all aspects of the total motionsensored death pledge. I can't describe how hard I want her dead. Not biology-dead (being JUST hardcoreficktion) but the death of the office her body is
In response to May's pandering to the xenophobic hard right, Jeschke and Beynon call for violence directed not at May's person but at the form of power invested in her person. In thus differentiating the prime minister's two bodies, they attempt to differentiate the threat of physical violence (present in their writing as "hardcoreficktion") from the threat of radical nonviolent change. The line they walk here is very thin. One does not necessarily leave a reading of Jeschke and Beynon's work thinking that bloody revanchism, however hedged, is the rhetorical mode the left needs now.
Jeschke and Beynon's most recent collaboration is The Tragedy of Theresa May, a Beckettian dialogue between Ute, a professional Theresa May impersonator, and Volker, her poorly paid employee and lover. ([dagger]) (The gender of neither character is entirely clear, but I'll refer to both as "she.") Theresa May is a more focused piece than David Cameron, and potentially minable for good political slogans (notably: "I am a woman and I need to eat"). The piece begins with Ute, played by Beynon, belting out Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man," and proceeds to dwell on the associated themes of intimacy, gender, power, and submission. The lovers' dialogue that follows is played with Ute upright and wearing a dour Theresa May mask, while Jeschke's Volker performs on all fours and occasionally whinnies like a horse. As Ute demands a series of theatrical performances from her employee, work, sex, coercion, and animalization blend into one another. (Theresa May, fortuitously, was published within months of the release of Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, another class-struggle-oriented farce in which--spoiler alert--working people are imagined as equine creatures.)
The play's climax reverses this situation with an act of rhetorical class warfare. Ute's questionable professional achievements ("I am a successful person, like, I am close to the top tier of impersonators, like, I am all but the real thing") come under savage attack from Volker: "you are ... you are ... you are ... a cheap imitation of Theresa May! ... For what? ... 1 Op more each hour and a little more power?" Ute defends herself with a cringeworthy professional self-importance that may hit uncomfortably close to home for many middle-class strivers: "I'M THERESA MAY AND I HAVE A GOOD JOB!" Volker carries the day, but there may be some question as to whether she has chosen the right target: "I've killed my slightly richer tired sister!" Having attacked the petit-bourgeois "mini boss" rather than the real boss of whom she is a "cheap imitation," Volker expires, unsure if she has truly liberated herself. Meanwhile Ute, in an epilogue, laments that she ever took the part of the ruling classes: "I should never have played May!" If Theresa May is a call to rhetorical arms, then, it is also a meditation on the ambiguity of class struggle in an age of white-collar downward mobility.
Jeschke and Beynon's work flags a potential path forward for political poetry. It is neither fully in nor fully out of the vernacular, and is somehow both crass and difficult. Against the ever-present Adornian temptation to think that poetry is implicitly political, Jeschke and Beynon seem to think that it must be made so. The genres that flourish in their writing are therefore the genres of political discourse: the slogan, the smear, the demand, the declaration of solidarity. Unlike some pundits, however, they know both how to throw a hard punch and how to envision a better world. As Jeschke puts it: "Toilets for all!! / NO BORDERS!!!"
([dagger]) Volker's name carries an inscrutable collection of associations: the derivation from das Volk immediately invokes National Socialism, and perhaps the contemporary German far right, but also identifies Volker as a stand in for working people. For American readers, at least, the name may also evoke the politically ambiguous figure of Paul Volcker, an early pioneer of monetary austerity in the Carter and Reagan administrations and a sharp critic of investment banks in the Obama administration.
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|Title Annotation:||Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon, The Tragedy of Theresa May; Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon, David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife-Songs|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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