Review: Anne Kellas' Isolated States (Cornford Press 2001)

Two weeks after the World Trade Center's Twin Towers fell to rubble on the morning of 11 September 2001, I took my children to the Disney Studio film, A.I (Artificial Intelligence). Towards the end of the film, set thousands of years in the future when New York had been mostly flooded by a rising sea, the hero visited the city and flew past the city's skyline. The twin towers of the Trade Centre stood there, monuments to the twentieth century's civilisation. It was a weird moment, throwing every assumption the film made about the future not just into doubt but into a terrible uncertainty.

A few days after watching the film I read a poem called, 'From the City of Alice':

I have eaten concrete.
It is bitter, tastes of money.
I became as tall as a skyscraper
and sent out a parachute
because my world had failed.
And I would land beyond the cinders
and I would not crack the eggshell of the world.
I phoned the press, the TV stations, and my mother,
and told them all to watch the building's headlines.
I told them I have a parachute 59 storeys high,
that I could fly.

The poem seems to be infected with prescience, even down to the phone calls being made and the presence of television at this event of cinders, skyscraper and flight - though of course it is only possible to see all this in hindsight. Dostoevsky used to read the papers expressly to find reports of events he had already written about in his novels, and critics have claimed Max Ernst and Rene Magritte painted the future. Anne Kellas has written a poem that does something she could not have intended, for she seems to be describing through a kind of dream the events of 11 September 2001 in New York.

The thing about loss is that it shows us what was there. In missing it, we know we had all along missed it. The irretrievable mistakes that make up life on this planet - what is the solution? Exit? Or what is sometimes found in poetry?

The poem about the building's headlines was in Anne Kellas's second collection of poetry, Isolated States, published twelve years after her impressive Poems from Mt Moono.

The themes of alienation, exile, island life ('an island near the Pole'), women's condition, and African landscape and politics continue from her first book. In miniature this book takes up the kind of apolocyptic vision of Doris Lessing. Kellas expresses these themes now with a stronger, more assured and more flexible poetic voice. There are fewer of the short impressionistic poems so plentiful in the Mt Moono collection; in their stead there are waves of substantial poems that grow before our eyes and make whole worlds in themsleves: the 'Lucy England Poems', 'From the small green galaxy at the end of the stars' and 'The gunship hat poems' are some examples of these longer poems or suites.

There is still, though the sense of a voice hard-won against the odds. The longer poems tend to grow by accretion, resisting a repeated fall into silence, a couplet at a time, each image holding itself steady before the next unpredictable lines:

The dawn is happening
very far away

and the birdsong
echoes down the street

to the forest in my head
where the iron trees

trap wires,
and swing doors slam.

mine song.

Venn diagrams of pain
intersect briefly.
(from 'Iron green poems')

Anne Kellas has grown in confidence enough to flaunt the surreal edge to her sensual and erotic style, giving her poems a brillian-brittle surface - giving her lines the touched logic of a poetry that knows it need not come up with answere when the questions are so much more important to get right:

She wanted to eat daisies and know all the answers -
'You can't know all the answers', he said,
'They impoverish poetry.'
(from 'Red Riding Hood goes overboard')

and, from the 'Iron green poems', these lines show a mind moving through that strange process of seeing one thing and thinking of another:

Dawn birds drive holes in the silence
of night.
Angels wait for souls.

The moon waits.
The bridal day
comforts the sky.

light, and be happy.

Kellas's poetry moves under the provocation of loss, catastrophes, injustices and strong emotion, but at all times her poetry keeps to its method of focus on images, attention to rhythms and alliteration; and takes the opportunity poetry offers for puns and other wordplay. Kellas has an ability to bring both wit and deep seriousness to her poetry. This is one of those books where the poems form a strong bond with each other, the voice of the poet growing throughout.