Poetry Book Society Recommendation
Moving from the violent to the erotic, Conquest describes women questing to rediscover their own desire. Split into three sections, the collection begins in the 19th-century England of the Brontë sisters, travels through the vast continent of the USA, and finally finds the answer to women’s longing in a walled garden in the decorous city of Paris. In America and Europe, the heroines struggle against the conquest of bodies and of place, facing issues like miscarriage, lost love and domestic violence. Consolation comes, however, by discovering their own desires and independence.
The collection begins with ‘My Last Rochester’, a sequence devoted to the Brontë sisters and their struggle to meet expectations of them as women, lovers and wives. The English Gothic gives way later to a story of American immigration in the title-sequence. ‘Conquest’ pans to the wide open spaces of the USA, where pioneering women still quest to satisfy the sweetness of their own longings. Such satisfaction is only unravelled by retreating to a walled garden in the final sequence, ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’.
Original in its use of form, Conquest questions the brutal aspects of Western society, especially violence against women and the colonial mind-set. Inspired by the tapestries at the Musée Cluny in Paris and the artwork of Victoria Brookland, the poems visualise women rediscovering their own pleasures, desires, loves. Bridging the personal and the universal, Conquest offers a compelling vision of healing and consolation.
‘Conquest is a fascinating study of women’s sexuality’ – Pascale Petit
Omar Sabbagh for Agenda
This superb collection opens on a heady, dizzying note, which is at the same time atoned by the formal choices made. Out of the shifting and sly juxtaposition of subjects and pronouns in ‘My Last Rochester’ – ‘She, her, you, him –’ we are faced with experience in medias res, what Sir Frank Kermode called a ‘middleness,’ and what one of the founders of modernism, Ford Madox Ford, called an ‘affair.’ The (disenchanting) last line of this opening poem reads ‘It was never you that she wanted,’ thereby suggesting what this poem, as a whole, effects, namely a corrective to an hackneyed and male portrayal of femininity. As opposed to the idea of some kind of ‘empty signifier’, where a woman is what whatever bad infinity is desired of her, we have in this last sentence a tonic; not to mention the assertiveness of lines in the blunt indicative like, ‘She’s writing after so long, sensible or not. / She’s not asking for anything, not ever.’ Another rewriting of masculine, skewed views of femininity, is offered by the formal pattern, which is by turns synchronic/contrapuntal and diachronic, of the first and third verses, and the second and fourth verses, corresponding – leading to the pursuant development of the last two verses. When Brigley writes, ‘you both made your way to the hotel in silence…’ what is evoked is not only intimacy, but also her ability to stand outside of herself, to not be a victim of her experience, but its shaper, both within and without the poetic space. [Read the rest of this review in the supplementary essays for Agenda’s Celtic Mists issue.]
Peter De Ville in Wales Arts Review
Zoe Brigley’s second collection has feminist credentials but not militantly so. In fact the central theme is that of seeking the significance of man in a woman’s world. The collection begins with a series of poems exploring the claustrophobic world of the Brontes. The pervasive note here is heavily melancholic, verging on the neurotic. There are half-grasped opportunities for normal relationships but the agonies of separation are both physical and existential: the tone immediately calls to mind Tennyson’s Mariana. The physical can be that of rape as in Behind the Looking Glass, almost a case-study, with its miserable revelation being ‘How she realised at last that not even love / could justify this, that no affection could, not ever. / Still, in the glass, she sees her own mouth, / opening and closing and silent as a fish.’ This is raw and painful reading and the poet almost certainly draws on her academic work into rape narratives. Of course, male rape also exists but the dominant cast of the collection is on the intrusive male’s lack of female comprehension. For this the female must cultivate inner resilience, acknowledging herself united to a sisterhood. In The Bell Confessing the poet herself, a note confirms, handles the small personal objects in the Bronte Museum and admits her affinity to these women, that sisterhood ‘… you and I, our silent closeness that is for me / a sweet, blank victory.’ – blank because, rightly, although inspirational it is not a living relationship.’ [Read the rest of the review on the Wales Arts Review]
Helen Mort for Magma
In the beginning, she was a passenger
and the first man she knew was a storm
that stopped her voyage dead in unknown waters…
So begins Zoë Brigley’s poem Passage, part of the atmospheric sequence that opens Conquest. It’s a poem of strange transformations; the female protagonist is first seized, then carried by the storm before finally escaping it to fly “like a wild goose over the ocean”. Exploring sexuality and politics with imaginative subtlety, Conquest is a book about pursuit and capture and the things that elude us in the chase.
The opening sequence, ‘My Last Rochester’ was inspired by a residency at the Brontë Parsonage Museum and riffs on metaphors of journeying. In the darkly-atmospheric ‘Behind the Looking Glass’, a woman “tries not to remember” the details of an abusive relationship:
How on the way home from the pub, her legs
collapsed beneath her. How she was so light
that he carried her home, not for love’s sake
but to turn her over and over in his hands.
Pursuit frames the book, whether Brigley is writing about the Brontë sisters, the shadowy figures in a tapestry or the history of America. Conquest’s women are pursued by men – in ‘Catskin’, the narrator tries on magical suits “to break the man’s advance”, from a dress of spun silver to a coat of beaten gold. Only in a catskin can she escape him – the man returns to find nothing but “two cats shaking their ears in the rain”. Elsewhere, in ‘The Love of a Husband’, the wife shuts doors and the husband opens windows – an idea that is reversed at the end of the poem and echoed in a later poem, ‘The Face in the Mirror’ (“when I close a door to him, he finds a window”).
What seems to interest Brigley most about pursuit is what is evaded in the chase. Her poems are full of references to the lost and the untouchable. In Love and the Orchid she considers how in “barren spaces” and in all we try to ignore “there flowers a slow choreography / of longing…” ‘All of which are American dreams’ also takes up this theme of yearning:
And all the lovers burning in the New World geography
dream, like you and me, of one slow, inevitable touch.
In the final sequence, inspired by tapestries at the Musée Cluny in Paris and the artwork of Victoria Brookland, desires are both discovered and frustrated. In ‘Don’t Touch’, a woman goes to buy marigold seeds and leaves thinking of “how women have always been outed / broken, dissected, grafted, transplanted.” This is a beautifully disconcerting collection, intelligent in its treatment of its themes.
Afric McGlinchey in Orbis
In her quest to challenge, like Emily Brontë, ‘the given’, and to explore women’s complex sexuality, Brigley journeys back to the 19th century, when secrets were kept and women were docile. Recurring symbols act as metaphors; the mouth and tongue are a motif throughout: ‘my tongue is syrupy / caked in my mouth, words wrecked / by what I cannot say (‘The Lantern, Dog and Thorn’).Birds are also a recurring image; the containment of an adventurous spirit intriguingly symbolized on the cover by the hawk caged inside a petticoat.
The ‘Rochester’ of the woman’s dream wears a coat, which ‘flaps its ravenous wings / beside the bead of your empty crow eye.’ She remembers him saying ‘I’ll have you for my own’ and the violence: ‘when you last punched her.’ And yet ‘there isn’t a day / that goes by that she doesn’t think of you’. Even this paradox is made more complex by the final lines: ‘for all that, it was never you at all. / It was never you that she wanted.’ (‘The Last Rochester’)
In ‘Behind the Looking Glass’, ‘she tries not to remember the things he did to her’; ‘how she wandered / the yard without eating, / pulling her sleeves down / over her wrists where he’d hurt her.’ Nevertheless, free of him now, ‘in the glass, she sees her own mouth, / opening and closing and silent as a fish.’
These cloying confines open out to a sequence of sea voyage poems, and younger women who ‘long for salt of saint-devouring storms’ (‘Night-sea Journey’), unlike ‘those…who are never to sail out of harbour’ (‘Passage’). Subsequently, we cross American deserts and mountains, before returning to a walled garden in the final sequence. In ‘Diptych for Pear Tree’, ‘the tongue finds carpel, seed and pip’, so that ‘the words are ‘swollen in me, the syrupy ink / dropping from wet blossoms’. Gardens, orchards, fruiting trees are evoked,making ‘Infertility’ all the more poignant. Brigley’s work is suffused with sensual language, and the objects she chooses are distinctive and evocative: bell, wheelhouse, tin soldier, clasps, brooches.
While many of these poems bristle with a lively, intelligent spiritedness, there is something very feminine about their energy, lush sweetness and sensuality.And love:
Because he knows the shape of her and how she likes to be touched.
Because he never, ever hesitated.
Because when she shuts a window, he opens a door.
[‘The Love of a Husband’]
Everything is threaded together using as inspiration the Brontës’ letters and artifacts, amongst other things, and the shared experience simply of being a woman:
But in midnight dreams,
they confess a word with every bell-toll
and beg me to recount it all –
to tell their stories, my story, and I do.
[‘The Bell Confessing’]
In this beautifully formal, excitingly imagistic and thoughtful collection, Brigley connects her story to theirs, to the story of all women across the centuries.
The Midwest Book Review
Who says love and war can’t coexist? Conquest is a collection of poetry from American poet Zoe Brigley who presents her own thought driven journeys into Europe and touches on everything violent and lovely and what’s in between. Enticing and recommended, “Conquest” is a strongly recommended addition to modern poetry assortments.