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Cluysenaar, Anne (Alice Andrée)

CLUYSENAAR, Anne (Alice Andrée)

Nationality: Irish. Born: Brussels, Belgium, 15 March 1936. Education: Trinity College, Dublin (Vice-Chancellor's prize, 1956), B.A. (honors) in English and French 1957; University of Edinburgh, diploma in general linguistics 1963. Family: Married Walter Freeman Jackson in 1976; three stepchildren. Career: Reader to the writer Percy Lubbock for one year; assistant lecturer, Manchester University, 1957–58, and King's College, Aberdeen University, 1963–65; lecturer in general linguistics, Lancaster University, 1965–71; senior lecturer in language and literature, Huddersfield Polytechnic, Yorkshire, 1972–73; lecturer in linguistics, Birmingham University, 1973–76; senior lecturer, then principal lecturer in English Studies, Sheffield City Polytechnic, 1976–87. Chair, Verbal Arts Association, 1983–86; active in National Poetry Society Poets-in-Schools workshops. Formerly general editor, Sheaf, and regular poetry reviewer, Stand, Newcastle upon Tyne. Tutor in creative writing, University of Wales, Cardiff, and freelance song writer and librettist. Address: Little Wentwood Farm, Llantrisant, Usk, Gwent NP5 1ND, Wales.



A Fan of Shadows. Manchester, David Findley Press, 1967.

Nodes. Dublin, Dolmen Press, 1969.

Double Helix, with Sybil Hewat. Manchester, Carcanet, 1982.

Time-Slips: New and Selected Poems. Manchester, Carcanet, 1997.


Introduction to Literary Stylistics: A Discussion of Dominant Structures in Verse and Prose. London, Batsford, 1976; as Aspects of Literary Stylistics, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Verbal Arts: The Missing Subject. London, Methuen, 1985.

Editor, Selected Poems, by Burns Singer. Manchester, Carcanet, 1977.

Editor, Of Sawn Grain: Poems 1993–1996. Abergavenny, Collective Press, 1997.


Critical Study: "'So Truth Be in the Field': Milton's Use of Language" by Colin MacCabe, in Teaching the Text, edited by Susanne Kappeler and Norman Bryson, London, Routledge, 1983.

Anne Cluysenaar comments:

(1985) I consider Double Helix the best I have done so far. In a review of Double Helix in Writing Women Linda Anderson caught exactly what I had hoped would be the effect of the book. In particular, she sees my mother's memoirs, together with other family documents, letters, and photographs, as providing "an eloquent record of family history reaching back over three generations." My poems seek to interpret this in terms of "the boundaries of self and others." They are "meditations & on precisely those gaps and silences where lives meet and separate, where writing begins and ends." In writing the book, I was attempting to set down only what appeared to me to be literally true and to find poetry in such reality. Without, of course, believing that this is the only way in which poetry can be written, I felt the need to assure myself that poetry is not so much a sophisticated fiction as a simple, everyday experience shared by everyone if not always recognized for what it is. I hoped Double Helix would be receivable as this reviewer received it: "What the reader experiences is the repeated sense of overlapping subjectivities—not just what can be created and told of another life but also where that understanding ends. The gaps, absences, differences between the various texts create space for the reader and necessitate a kind of collaborative reading experience, the meeting of our own subjectivity with that evidenced by the text," so that the reader's realities come to enrich those whose traces survive on the written page.

(1995) Certain dimensions of family history that I explored in Double Helix were to lead me into human prehistory and geology. Again, I was concerned with crossing the boundaries of self and others but in wider terms. By this time I was living in the border country of Wales, where landscape and ways of living inevitably take on political and linguistic implications and are especially moving to someone like myself who in the last World War lost both her original language and her original country. The resulting sequence, "Time-Slips," is the title sequence of my forthcoming new and selected poems (Carcanets, Manchester, England), which will also contain a sequence of poems exploring personal experience in the context of a reading of the seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan, who lived nearby and suffered during the British Civil War. In particular, "Vaughan Variations" attempts to relate the pressures of personal and social coincidence to those "quick vibrations" (Henry's phrase) that may seem to connect us less haphazardly to our natural surroundings.

*  *  *

Anne Cluysenaar's earlier poetry belongs to the school of Valéry and Beckett. Her poems evoke formally what it is to be human—the perceiving center, constantly changing, of a universe itself in a constant state of flux. A Fan of Shadows is a collection of models of the human condition, explained in appended notes as figures of "continuous creation" or "radiations from an occasionally moving centre." In "Figures" the image of Derwentwater is "love's point of balance" between opposites—stillness and movement, presence and absence, love and solitude, liquid and solid:

   The variant self awakes
   To hills, fields, open water
   Newly aware of their stillness.
   Between a kiss and the stillness
   Of lonely thought, water
   Off balance on a stony shore.

In "Sea" the stillness of midocean is complemented by the moving tides; in "Petrarch" the "still pool" is speechless and knows itself only in its overflow, "river-song." The sameness of experiences is underlined by the accumulation of archetypes of desire—Orpheus, Laura, Balder—and by a repetition of words, phrases, and whole verses that in several poems dictate the entire structure. The love lyric "Sea" falls into two near mirror halves; "Epithalamium" opens as "the rings of the sun rise" to close on an echo: "The rings of the winter sunrise." The details of the differences are what make the present moment, which Cluysenaar seeks to flesh out, charting, in the words of "La Belle Otero," what she calls "the strangely similar gaze in two chance moments."

The changes in the quality of Cluysenaar's perceptions of the present are what distinguish her development and progress as a poet. In her earlier work she does not always successfully cross the divide between eternal verity and dead cliché. Her landscapes remain abstract, shot through by mind rather than sensuous matter. In its separate moment a poem like "Figures" can pinpoint an interesting and self-defining interpretation of thinker and perceived world:

   A slim wave's shadow
   Sinks into the hammered gold
   Of dry stone creased with water.
   Fish become concentrations
   Of light, on which waves wind
   Tongue-rolls of clear water.

But the vein it works is limited, and the strain of avoiding the twin evils of banality and preciosity constantly shows through. In later works there is more warmth, and a personal voice finally makes itself heard. "Maker" recognizes the poet's problem—the distance between the vivid color of the real world and the abstractly arid version on the dead paper before him. "The May Fox" solves the problem through a surprise confrontation with death (the narrow escape of a fox caught in the car's headlights) that turns into love, a moment of shared human and animal warmth that dramatically reenacts the exchange of meaning between man, nature, and the ideas and objects of man's creation.

Double Helix is a blend of letters, photographs, family documents, and poems that raise all human experience to the level of lyric. The voice of "the unnecessary poet" ("In Time-Lapse") blends with others, past and present, in a celebration of human community where "I" is no more or less than the individual inflection of the "universal experiences," the "natural signs," of all daily life. To be human is to re-create from the abstract flow the sensuous detail of reality, "the stream/whose tiny, illegal trout/come to fingers patient with memories" ("Resting the Ladder"). In "The Line on the Map" the line "has become hills, trees/A place not a direction." This place is not circumscribed, and its expanding ripples reach out to include whole literary traditions (Milosz, Housman), cross the frontiers of class, nation, and politics, and abolish all limits, even those of death. Where private possession is abolished by community, as in "Resting the Ladder," there is no loss:

   Watching, this first year, the swallow
   change to a silent icicle
   over the stable door,
   and knowing this will be the view
   of my old age, I warn myself
   we shall never own this place outright.

Cluysenaar's poetry reserves its anger for the merchants of loss and destruction, the authors of the concentration camps, the atom bomb, unemployment, repression. Against these her closing pages rise to a dignified rage that twists syntax but not sense, linking indissolubly poetic, personal, and political value, as in "7 September—Ready to Leave":

   What duty can we meantime fulfil
   other than that which has always been ours?
   To grow with such persistent angry will
   that what is to be killed is worth dying for?

Whereas Double Helix draws on the strength of past lives, Cluysenaar's later poems, which are experiments in sonnet form, look to the future. The child of "Double" reveals the real terrors concealed by the familiar language and rituals of everyday life. "In the Midst," with its schemes of mirrorlike patterns constraining writhing, broken rhythms, points to the destructive nature of abstract and abstracted adult language, "the lip nice/on shattering syllables," for which the sole remedy is the baby's primitive scream: "It cries, and their mimed fear/Is as nothing to the real, modern horror./It cries, we laugh. We catch our breath."

—Jennifer Birkett

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