The apparatus of capital, sexual intrigue, notoriety and death, and the City of London echo through the taut and visceral musicality of the sonnets that are at the heart of Chris McCabe’s Speculatrix. Written from the perspective of characters in Jacobean plays and set where the play was first performed, they offer a commentary on the chaotic, threatened and threatening world of early modern theatre. A ‘speculatrix’, meaning ‘she that spies or watches’ or female spy, introduces the idea of being watched and watching with the sense of anxiety and tension that accompanies such activity. The poems adequately convey that twitchiness and probe deeper.
Each sonnet is prefaced by a short introduction on the character, which speaks, when and where, with the implied undercurrent coming initially from the play’s sub-text. Thus the Duke of Brachiano from John Webster’s The White Devil at the Red Bull, Clerkenwell, in 1612 ‘who visits the home of Camillo’s wife, Vittoria Corombona’ where Camillo is killed by Brachiano’s secretary in what is staged to be a vaulting accident. Vittoria is put on trial for Camillo’s death and sentenced to a ‘house of convertities’. Whereas criticism mostly views Vittoria as the White Devil, and the Duke her seducer, the narrative spins off into the world of the audience and actor where ‘all / that is left behind is to make our bodies act out the desires / they now have words for.’ The speaker gives rise to doubt as to whom is the white devil, who is in charge of whom, and where purity may be found. McCabe echoes Webster’s concerns with sexual intrigue, the configuring of the double negatives of the flesh, and financial power within a chaotic and disturbed world.
Vindice, whose wife is murdered on their wedding day, from Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy says:
I’ve seen skulls with better teeth than this excessive
in death as an eunuch’s archived Playboys
after the extraction the black sock in the ditch of the
mouth a debit of bones cindered in corsets as
Southwark’s abscess drains green in the
The sonnets mostly eschew the vernacular of Jacobean drama for a taut and spiky contemporary language use, with claws, worms, zombies and maggots to indicate decay, which probes the role of gender and the City in both the early modern and our own period. When the Duchess from Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi speaks she says: ‘you imagine me wanting / you watching this who’s watching who? / Speculatrix’ and the narrative immediately quotes from the play, ‘Now there’s a rough-cast phrase to / your plastique’ bringing the matter of how language is used to frame gender relations and definitions into play. Beneath the narratives are the cloak of disguise and subterfuge, and the constant threat of discovery, labelling, imprisonment and death.
McCabe tackles the theme of contemporary social unrest in London, with a poem about the August 2011 London riots, ‘Teenage Riot, Daydream Nation’, commissioned for a Sonic Youth tribute and inspired by the music of Louis Zukofsky’s “A”, which ends ‘In these acts there are no skies, there are only bricks’. Other poems in the collection concern the artist, Francis Bacon, poets Rimbaud, Barry MacSweeney, and Tim Allen and the Plymouth Language Club. This collection is one of the poetic highlights of 2014. McCabe gave an intense and exhilarating reading from Speculatrix at the Tears in the Fence Festival in October and at the book’s launch at St John’s Priory crypt, Clerkenwell. It is well worth reading.
David Caddy 19th December 2014