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Guerrilla Brightenings by Joanna Nissel (Against the Grain Press)

Guerrilla Brightenings by Joanna Nissel (Against the Grain Press)

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

Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier – March video poem by Joanna Nissel

The early stanzas of ‘Hove Lawns to Brighton Pier – March’ were written during the first Tears in the Fence online workshop on ‘Obsession’. We were asked to consider our habits, the things we return to, and repetition, both in our poetry and wider lives: objects, patterns of behaviour, landscapes, etc.

One element that particularly resonated with me was the concept of the repeated walk and the many perspectives, characters, mysteries, discoveries, and stories that can be revealed through the small changes and details that one may see on such a walk. As it happened, at the time of the workshop I was doing just that. These were the first weeks of lockdown and I was in the habit of taking long walks at dawn to the coast between Brighton and Portslade to avoid the crowds.

The complete poem will be published in issue 72 of Tears in the Fence. An enormous thank you to David Caddy and Louise Buchler for publishing it, and for encouraging me to keep submitting. In the weeks after composing the written poem, I augmented it into a poetry film using footage from my walks. I hope you enjoy it.

Joanna Nissel 4th September 2020

(Joanna Nissel is reading at the Tears in the Fence Festival on Friday, 11th September)

The Mesh: Tears in the Fence Festival Theme

The Mesh: Tears in the Fence Festival Theme

The Mesh is a term used in Timothy Morton’s The Ecological Thought (2010). Morton uses an analogy of a piece of mesh to describe how he thinks about ecology. His thesis is, essentially, that to understand ecology, you have to make connections between things that you may not expect to have anything to do with the environment. For example, there might be an eco-crisis brought out about by deforestation because a particular tribe, religion, or culture, make clothes out of a specific plant. To understand that environmental crisis, you would have to take into account the religion or the culture that contributed to it. His theory of the mesh encourages people to look from many different perspectives in order to obtain a fuller picture and broader understanding.

His approach to ecology, I think, offers a good theme because it involves finding links within the world and understanding relationships. We live in an age of divisions: from Brexit, to the far left and far right, and rapidly evolving technology causing generations to grow apart faster than they ever have before. It is useful and refreshing to hear about the relationships between things, rather than the divides.

The mesh implies that there is no simple right or wrong relationship implied within a given situation or state. A mesh is simply an interweaving of many different threads, pulling the emphasis away from binary standpoints and more towards a plurality of ideas that interconnect.

Similarly, Morton’s Mesh allows for an interesting approach to the poetry that might be generated as a result of the theme. I shall illustrate this Morag Kiziewicz’s poem, ‘Hi Tracey’ published in Tears in the Fence 65.

In the second stanza of ‘Hi Tracey’, Morag’s speaker discusses how she images her “hippy” worldview would clash with that of the artist, Tracey Emin. Morag sets up the two opposing views, only to juxtapose them further by introducing a third view, a girl wearing t-shirt reading, ‘GENDER FREE FUTURE’.

This unexpected ending creates connections between different factions of the left wing political sphere, the divergent perceptions of gender in contemporary culture, and the frictions (or joyful differences) between intergenerational worldviews. This is exactly the kind of interconnected thinking that Morton summarises in the mesh. There are no stereotypical left or right wing figures in the poem, only nuanced perceptions of the world and hints about the relationship between these perceptions. The perceptions of other people’s perceptions, if you will.

The piece also sprawls out to connect poetry to the concept of what can be defined as art by contrasting the t-shirt to Tracey Emin’s iconic bed installation and paintings by Francis Bacon. The t-shirt represents a form of art that, being mobile, crosses the borders of privilege set up by art galleries with high entry fees (and extortionate prices in adjoining gift shops and cafes). But the message of Morag’s poem is not simply THE FUTURE IS COMING. Certainly, the final image of the t-shirt does look to a future in which genders are reworked or dissolved completely. Yet the form of the t-shirt itself brings with it the associations of concrete poetry popularised in the first two characters’ youths. Therefore a cyclical pattern is produced in which older ideas are recycled and adapted to fit the ideologies of the burgeoning era. Nothing is a statement on its own. Everything is linked. While I may have been side tracked by a bit of close analysis, it is these kind of connections that summarise Morton’s idea of a ‘sprawling mesh of interconnection without definite centre or edge’. (page 8).

Since the mesh discourages the reader (or writer) from following a binary trail of logic, this could bring about surprises in poetry. Some of the best poetry surprises us by turning away from the expected ending, ultimately drawing out an undercurrent within the poem, or widening it to a larger plane of meaning. So, writing with the mesh in mind can strengthen our work.

To summarise in a sentence. The mesh involves looking at things from multiple perspectives or having multiple viewpoints present in the same poem, which can improve poetry because it creates surprises by diverting away from the expected to achieve a wider plane of meaning.

I hope this generates some really interesting discussion points, as well as poetry at this year’s festival.

Joanna Nissel 19th February 2018

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