Atha is part of Sally-Shakti Willow’s PhD in Utopian Poetics, and indeed reads more like a practical experiment than a poetry collection. The volume begins with some explanatory pages which could have been taken out of a literary theory textbook, explaining Utopian Poetics. The idea is that Utopian Poetics is a medium of meditation ‘in which one encounters one’s embodied and intersubjective self’, which I understand as experiencing oneself, as in a mindfulness or yoga routine. Willow calls this ‘non-alienation’, and the poem ‘performs and anticipates the possibility of non-alienation, whilst operating within the alienation of this world’. This thesis itself rests on more familiar territory for the post-structuralist: ‘Poems need readers to live. Poems need writers to give them form’, essentially a ‘Death of the Author’-esque reader-response theory about the sovereign control of the reader.
The poems, sometimes stimulated by an image, wind in and around the theme of the body, branching out to the external matters that surround the body and penetrate through the mind. The poems resemble a yoga routine in that they attempt to ground their musings in the body, in an attempt to process and then expel or internalize broader topics. One poem repeats the question ‘how to metabolise this’, foregrounding the idea of a bodily digestion, a literal stomaching of the outer world. This conceit works well, and matches the theme of meditation, questioning the possibility of how we live, thrive off, and in that sense ingest the outer world when its iniquities might otherwise poison or corrupt.
Unfortunately, often these poems swiftly turned into the author’s personal tract against specific, perceived evils of the world, singled out with strange selectiveness. War, or violence, or the manifold crookedness that we see in ourselves and individuals as much as in the world around us, does not get a hearing. Meanwhile, fracking, immigration (and Brexit, of course) are presented as universal evils and goods. It is ironic that a poetic mode whose purpose is be a ‘non-violent’ place of ‘non-oppression’, supposedly a ‘function of openness and multiplicity’ ends up being heavily contrived, controlled and didactic. This descent to a sugar-coated attempt to aggrandize one’s own narrow political interpretation certainly sticks in the throat. The result is that, unless you are perfectly aligned with the poet on what is good and bad in our immediate socio-political climate, you will probably struggle to reach Willow’s utopia, which rather undermines what is meant to be a poetry of inclusiveness. Moreover, despite borrowing techniques and concepts from the East, the poems ended up being very Western-centric. The multiplicity and openness of the poetics is thus let down by these spasms of self-righteousness. It is a shame that the arts world has come to expect, and accept, such pompous tunnel-vision.
The general conceit showed promise of an interesting and refreshing insight into the way subjects interact with the world, reconciling mind with body and then mind and body to the outer world. That this collection frequently resembled a confused and inaccessible train of thought, and failed to fulfil its own ethical criteria, makes one question whether Utopian poetics, let alone utopia, is ever attainable. It is perhaps true that both will remain a theory, at best partially embodied in created forms.
Yvette Dell 5th June 2020