In this deft and lyrical debut pamphlet, Joanna Nissel explores the beginning of 2020 as seen from Brighton. Throughout these poems, Nissel dances with grief and the sea, as well as the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unexpected and intense moments of colour: both in the literal or physical sense, and the psychological sense.
Nissel makes eclectic and dynamic choices regarding form. The pamphlet opens with a poem fluid and beautiful with its frequently recurring refrain: ‘every morning the beach’. The prose poem form also emerges throughout the pamphlet, as in ‘Now More Than Ever’ and ‘Meantime’, in which Nissel tackles found poetry, using social media posts recorded between the 4th and 5th April 2020. These posts then comprise prose poems, with each post separated by virgules, allowing the posts to come thick and fast as they did when they flashed across our screens, and to make surprising, often humorous, combinations regarding mood and tone: ‘In lieu of / privileged little cunts / lord bless some of the real ones / the nice weather’. Nissel uses white space not only to establish pace and tension, but to physically create interludes between images and ideas. For example, in ‘The Night Lockdown Came In’, the white space between could be seen to play on social distancing measures visually and allows us moments to rest and absorb each facet of the onset of the ‘new normal’, as well as what has remained of what we already knew: ‘A dog walker ekes out the minutes’; ‘Orion levitates above the sea’.
The speaker’s voice is complex and layered. In many of the poems, the speaker is a vessel for their surroundings and the world many of us knew during lockdown. The speaker is an artist of sorts, commenting on a scene by painting – writing – it, giving it to us on the page independent of opinion or interpretation: the lesbian couple spotted walking the beach at dawn, the ‘looped hills and pathways’ of a residential crescent, the ‘low vibrato of scraping of chair legs’ heard from upstairs. These concrete images are immediate and vivid, as well as comprehensive – the smaller details create a three-dimensional sense of lockdown Brighton. However, there is also a confessional aspect to many of the poems – a sense of the artist stepping back, so that we can see inside their own mind, giving us greater context on why they are painting that picture. We brought our individual traumas into lockdown with us; Nissel’s speaker is no exception. The speaker is grieving their father, revisiting their childhood to remember other times in which they witnessed abundant handwashing – to enter a hospital room, to scrub hands of blood – and is visited by their unborn child, whom they ask to ‘please stay here with me… don’t look out to the sea’s heat-hazed horizon / don’t notice the gulls calling you home’. Throughout the collective suffering, it was our individual hopes for our futures that carried many of us through. This speaker’s connection with their unborn child allows them to envisage a life beyond the painful present. Is this a ‘guerrilla brightening’ in itself?
More generally, the pamphlet’s ‘guerrilla brightenings’ are moments of colour found among the bleakness: ‘the runners / slipstreaming around each other like fish / on the promenade’, forests ‘infiltrated with fairy lights’, wiping dust from the leaves of a plant to discover a bud, ‘David Bowie in tight leather trousers’, ‘Noel Fielding prancing – sparrow-footed – into a land of discoballs and rainbow shards’. We also see the darkenings of the 21st Century contrasted with them…a particularly prominent example ‘the new vegan pizzeria…doing its best to signal rejuvenation beside the sleeping bags stowed in the alcoves’. It is up for debate as to whether these poems are highlighting that, even in the darkest moments of the times in which we find ourselves, we must take strength from the ‘guerrilla brightenings’ to be found all around us, or if these brightenings are in fact what we use to deny collective trauma and hide from harsh realities – or perhaps both. One thing is clear, however – as the speaker finds written on a concrete wall ‘Found on the Seafront’: ‘WE CAN’T GO BACK / TO BEFORE. BEFORE / WAS THE PROBLEM.’
Olivia Tuck 21st April 2022