Where does the shame go?
by Helen Charman
A review of Sophie Collins, small white monkeys (Book Works, 2017)
Traumatic experiences have their own chronology. Trauma theory, an area of Western scholarship that began in the 1980s alongside an increasing interaction between psychology and the humanities, intersects with the study of memory: understanding these instances is by definition retrospective, yet the process of remembering and articulating them is temporally recursive, not chronological. In Sophie Collins’ small white monkeys, a significant injury is the catalyst for the psychic re-emergence of a sexual assault experienced six years prior.
I read this book – an amalgamation of essayistic writing, poetry, and images – in the middle of the first wave of ‘Me Too’ allegations, a cultural moment that performed its own kind of disruptive chronology. Increasingly, it felt like many of us were living at the mercy of the news cycle, waking up each morning under the threat that your day would be thrown off-course by another story of painfully relatable experience. It is strange to begin to think of yourself as a victim so long after the moments where violation occurred. For all the panicked assertions that the campaign went too far, that women were running wild with unmitigated power of accusation and retribution, it doesn’t feel anything like freedom. Part of the problem may be the hemming-in that occurs with victimisation: as soon as you acknowledge yourself to have suffered, you lose definition. You believe her, of course; but the cost of believing her is the realisation that you must begin to disbelieve the convenient narratives you have told yourself.
Both men and women can be the victims of sexual assault, but there’s a particular link between the sexual assault of women by men and the kind of self-expression with which small white monkeys rigorously, seriously engages. At its heart is the question of complexity: who is allowed to be complicated? Fearing that you might be flattened out like so many others before you, against the landscape in which masculine difference is permitted, and masculine wrongdoing is complex, forgivable and variable, while the female binary oscillates only between madness and safety – fearing this, you have previously always hedged your bets and chosen the only option that might allow you to be serious and/or loveable. To assert your identity and strength as a woman – and the world does require assertiveness, and strength, whatever we might think of those values – you must deny your own ability to fall prey to that victimisation. It’s internalised misogyny: the same kind that makes it easier not to listen to what women who testify against likeable men are actually saying. Moira Donegan, the writer who started the ‘Shitty Media Men’ spreadsheet, which provided an anonymous space for victims of sexual harassment to identify the perpetrators, wrote, after her identity was revealed, about the burden of testimony: ‘this is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: it can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all’. Donegan describes herself as naïve because, once the document was made public, ‘I thought that the focus would be on the behaviour described in the document, rather than on the document itself.’
small white monkeys is concerned with this paradox of testimony: to write about your experience is to accept the possibility of being defined by it. The fact of articulation might count more than what is being articulated. Denise Riley’s theoretical work on interiority, identity and shame provides a touchstone for Collins throughout the book, and particularly crucial is the difficulty of telling: ‘Shame can thus attenuate the subject’s sense of self to a fatal degree, which is what makes it practically impossible, in the first instance, to discuss the traumatic event and its fallout in any conventional, comprehensible way’. The form that small white monkeys takes, by turns fragmentary and discursive, seems to be a practical response to this failure of chronology, and also a way of sidestepping the trap of definition. The images, poems and mantras dividing the more conventional ‘chapters’ of the book allow for a kind of intersubjective voice: the ‘I’ that provides the lyric word-games and ‘Ways of Self Love’ is not necessarily the same as the prosaic voice we recognise as Collins’, who in turn is not a face in any of the photographs, nor the eye (or should that be I?) behind the camera. Taken together, they give a sense of the scale of the issue: the transhistorical sweep of the narrative reinforces the continuing need for women’s rage while documenting the ways and means of its expression.
It’s useful to return here – as Collins frequently does – to Riley, this time to a passage from her essay ‘Lyric Shame’ that imagines literary writing as a way of not-speaking, or at least not speaking personally:
Why make such a bother about it, though, when anyone would naturally expect that the sense of shame would simply keep you quiet? That line of thought says it’s implausible and perverse to make a noise out of the feeling of shame. However, if your shame is such that you can’t manage to speak, you might be able to write instead. Literary writing may function, for some, exactly as a means of not speaking – of avoiding face to face speech all together.
Here, then, a text exists as a kind of non-temporal document, one especially familiar to the lyric mode, and which serves, in part, to protect the identity of the teller. But this is an impossible paradox, something to which Riley herself frequently returns in her poetry. Take the assertion in ‘Dark Looks’, for instance, that ‘who anyone is or I am is nothing to the work’, and its contradiction a few lines later, in ‘the poet with her signature’ who ‘stands up trembling, grateful, mortally embarrassed’. small white monkeys is an active text, engaged in the creation and assertion of communities of female expression. In the face of the isolation and inarticulacy of sexual violence, this formation is a radical act: ‘consider how this disaster links you in a deep and irrevocable way to many other women’. Part of the book was written during Collins’ residency at the Glasgow Women’s Library, images from which appear in the chapter that focuses on the women’s self-help and therapy movement. If shame is something that can stop women writing, small white monkeys faces the terror of replacing the second person with the first, while insisting that a woman giving her testimony is never fully alone. Referencing Simone Weil’s notion of attention as ‘the rarest and purest form of generosity’, Collins writes of a message she sent to a friend: ‘I take your book recommendations seriously because I love you’. After reading this, I sent a photograph of that page to several close friends; I gave two of the people most important to me copies of small white monkeys for Christmas.
Part of this community-building project is textual, and the variety of references – Anna Mendelssohn, Ana Mendieta, Elena Ferrante, Jamaica Kincaid, Vahni Capildeo, Artemisia Gentileschi, and more – structure and strengthen the case that Collins makes for the radical possibility present in women’s writing. This is a kind of archival work, a redress to traditional masculine modes of canon-formation. In a recent interview for The Poetry Extension, Collins detailed her ‘atypical route’ into Anglophone literature:
I think this comes, in the first instance, from my educational background – being in an international school, rather than a British school. The first thing about that is that poets like Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Craig Raine (etc), as examples of poets a lot of British kids study at secondary school, weren’t as big a presence in our curriculum. When I went to university and met other students studying creative writing – some doing poetry, some doing prose – they had this awareness of what they might be writing into or against, in terms of a tradition. I was writing into a void, in a sense, because I didn’t have any preconceived notions of how my work would be positioned, or what it might be compared to.
Later in the interview, Collins clarifies that this wasn’t enough to escape the gendered canon, saying that, until she began to read Jean Rhys, her own reading and writing operated along familiar patriarchal paradigms:
When I went to study creative writing at Goldsmiths, I wanted to write prose. I was really into dystopian fiction – Aldous Huxley and George Orwell and Anthony Burgess. I had that thing that Elena Ferrante talks about so eloquently – that internalised misogyny that often plays out in your reading and writing habits as a young female adult. I didn’t read any work by women at that time, and I definitely wrote work with misogynistic sentiments.
Part of the project of writing through and about shame, rather than around it, is discarding the embarrassment typically generated by female self-expression, deviation from the norm: this is something familiar from the fetishisation of ‘confessional’ musicians like Joni Mitchell, rather than the universal wisdom attributed to their male peers, and from the establishment reputations of the writers that Collins mentions. The most pertinent example is Plath, defined too much and too regularly by her marriage and suicide. As Collins’ natural coupling suggests – ‘Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath’ – Plath’s corpus, particularly her lyric poetry, gets read as a straightforward autobiographical account that really relates to Hughes or her father – or her depression, but that’s then conveniently linked to one or both of the other two. The recent revelation of Hughes’ domestic abuse of Plath during their marriage, coupled with his censorship of her letters and diaries and the editorial power he held over her poetry, proves this point: even when Plath is known as the poet she always fought to be, she isn’t. The ‘internalised misogyny’ mentioned by Collins is crucial, too. I grew up in the UK, within a curriculum that re-married Plath and Hughes, where Sylvia Plath was a byword for the kind of writing that, as a woman who wanted to be taken seriously, you had to openly eschew, even mock. The risk that your work would be taken as just another mad girl’s love-song was too high. In her memoir Love’s Work, the philosopher Gillian Rose recalls an afternoon spent with her sister Jacqueline, who was writing a book about Plath at the time; exhausted, the latter said ‘I have had enough of mad girls’. Haven’t we all?
Shortly after small white monkeys appeared, Faber & Faber published Collins’ debut poetry collection, Who is Mary Sue? This is not a review of Who is Mary Sue?, and it’s important to heed Veronica Forrest-Thompson’s warning of ‘bad naturalisation’, which is central to Collins’ discussion of other texts, and refers to the desire to derive a comprehensible story, or ‘message’, from poems. There are important links between the two books, however, that illustrate the power of the kind of interrogation that Collins advocates for in small white monkeys: through questioning all received wisdom, it is possible to make something new. The ‘Mary Sue’ of the other book’s title refers to the trope of a fan-fiction character being a ‘thinly-veiled’ version of the author, and the titular sequence features a series of quotations from women about the tendency for critics to read their own lives into their work; there’s a significant crossover between the writers that appear here and those who feature in small white monkeys. Collins has spoken about the conflict between ‘the need or desire to assert one’s identity through existing means and, at the same time, to self-abnegate, because of the clear faults in those existing means’, and emphasised that it’s a major concern in her poetic work; in Mary Sue, these contradictions are held in productive tension with each other and with Collins’ intertexts. In the Poetry Extension interview, she said that
there are assertions made in the book’s title piece, “Who is Mary Sue?”, that are subsequently undermined or challenged by the last piece in the book, on Story of O, and I’m definitely drawn to poets and theorists whose work exhibits similar ambiguities or paradoxes.
The collection places longer sequences and prose poems alongside more conventionally ‘recognisable’ lyric poems, but to suggest the boundaries between these forms are rigid would be reductive: the collection functions simultaneously as a cohesive whole and a series of individual texts that constantly forge and break connections with the others alongside them. Resisting formal boundaries even as they submit to them – self-expression is a key concern here, too – Collins’ poems are alive to the political urgency of the lyric first-person, something too often overlooked in contemporary work that assumes a detached ironic tone (‘all identity is a construct!’) without asking who our constructs serve, and who they harm.
At the very beginning of small white monkeys, Collins writes about the long poem ‘The Engine’, which appears in Mary Sue, and says it’s a text that, although she didn’t realise it at first, is ‘the story of my life until now – or quite recently’. The most important concept in small white monkeys may be shame’s potential to be repurposed as productivity: ‘I feel my own shame hardening into an anger that will power me indefinitely’. Anger is figured here as a kind of opposite to shame, an external rather than an internal force, and also as an alternative to the harmful repression of traumatic experiences in the service of a fiction of forgiveness, reason, or happiness. Sara Ahmed, on whom Collins draws, has offered a ‘feminist critique of happiness’, arguing particularly for a black feminist consciousness, one that acknowledges what you lose or give up in following that socially-conditioned pursuit. It’s a critique, in Ahmed’s words, that hinges on ‘disturbing the familiar’. small white monkeys finishes with ‘a final affirmation’ that quotes Forrest-Thomson on Plath: ‘a woman who suffers can relieve her suffering by becoming the mind which creates’. The use of ‘the mind’ rather than ‘a mind’ here is crucial: this is not about individual opportunity so much as a collective female reshaping of what the creative mind has hitherto been allowed to be.
[Forthcoming in the Cambridge Humanities Review, Issue 17.]