Monday, September 14, 2015

Notes on Andrea Brady's "Export Zone"

"Export Zone" is a poem by Andrea Brady in Presenting, the second collection within Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street 2013)

An earlier version of the poem appeared here:

Invisibly Tight Institutional Outer Flanks Dub (verb) Glorious National Hi-Violence Response Dream (lifegangdocuments, March 2008) (hereafter Invisibly Tight)

The earlier version capitalizes Burundi, UN HCR, Venus, ABCDE, London Lite, Salt, Basra, and Eastern. (Some of those are helpful clues.)

There are some more substantial differences, too.

 Line 6: "imports unsold trickling over" (Invisibly Tight), "imports unsold sweating" (Cut from the Rushes)
Line 17: "sole citizen" (Invisibly Tight) "sole beneficiary" (Cut from the Rushes)
Line 26 "hold my breath" (Invisibly Tight) "hold breaths" (Cut from the Rushes)
Line 29 "convince me, and the easter" (Invisibly Tight) "convince the easter" (Cut from the Rushes)
Line 31 "the doctors" (Invisibly Tight), "Doctors" (Cut from the Rushes)

The paragraphing is different in the later part of the poem. The paragraph starts are: Invisibly Tight: "purchase on one life" (28), "their sex" (33). Cut from the Rushes: "to the end of sacrifice" (26) and probably "Doctors refuse" (31); I can't say for sure about this one, because line 31 begins a new page, but it seems relevant that in Cut from the Rushes (but not in Invisibly Tight) line 30 ends with a full stop.

There's no reason to suppose a single motive lies behind all these revisions. Those in 26 and 29 seem prepared to blur what had formerly been more direct.


Title ("Export Zone"). The term is not simply denotative in itself. It recalls the Agri Export Zones or Export Processing Zones set up in developing nations to enable making money through exports; the latter are free trade zones which are tax-exempt and often deregulated (allowing sweatshop labour). A refugee camp could be compared (ironically) with the penning yards of e.g. Kenya's "livestock export zones".

Line 2-3. ("burundi" "un" "hcr"). Burundi has been a long-standing source of refugees, the latest wave in 2015. The UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) is active in Burundi and in neighbouring countries.

The refugee camp, a location implied here and perhaps too in line 14, is too important a feature of our world to pass unremarked. The average stay of a child in a refugee camp is said to be 17 years. Life does not, of course, stand still. The PLO took form in the late 1960s in the refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon.

Line 3. ("is that enough milk") One of several intrusions from the typical exchange in a chain coffee-shop. Burundi is poor in natural resources and coffee accounts for 93% of its exports (Wikipedia).

Lines 5-7 ("exotic imports" "bushmeat" "extinction"). In 2003 it was reported that 100 of Burundi's 300 hippos had been killed to sell as bushmeat (considered a delicacy in the cities), a trade driven by poverty.

Line 14 ("abcde"). Possibly the protocol for assessment of clinical emergencies such as patients with multiple traumatic injuries or acute illness (Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability, Exposure).

Line 28 ("matching gifts programme") An arrangement, common in large corporates, whereby the employer matches the employee's donation to an approved charity (thus doubling its value).

Gareth Prior has blogged about the poem. 

Showing the slit across the thigh, she anchors
the erotic by which burundi girls buy un
hcr relief. Is that enough milk
foaming venus blood shot through narrow arteries
sewn up with grass and thorn. Exotic
                 imports unsold sweating
bushmeat, a race for extinction won at the starting
gun. Every tactic is neurotic, down to the wire

"Export Zone" appeared in the Forward Book of Poetry 2015. It was Highly Commended for the 2014 prize, perhaps (as Ken Edwards mused) by Jeremy Paxman, or possibly Vahni Capildeo. [Intercapillary readers might like to know that also Highly Commended were poems by S.J. Fowler, Lee Harwood, Colin Herd, and Marianne Morris. Denise Riley went one better and was Shortlisted. In the past the Forward anthologies have been regarded as typifying the most mainstream of the mainstream but evidently it is not as straightforward as that now.]

Nevertheless I feel like there's a wry appropriateness in its being this Brady poem, in particular, that flickered before the eyes of poetry's larger readership. Maybe that's because Costa Coffee sponsor a major literary prize of their own. Maybe it's because the ingredients of the poem, salted and whipped, the plight of Burundi refugees, violence against women, free trade deregulation and smug enjoyment of exported coffee, inadequacy of charitable donations, dubious value of writing poetry, seem at first to compose an argument that's rather too easily digestible; already pre-digested in fact.  In a miserable, grisly kind of way, We know all this. So far as the opening of the poem is concerned, you can say that it shadows forth a sort of Political Poetry Lite.

But that's where the poem begins, not where it ends.

"Before the noon bulletin / I’ve sucked off two enemies and crossed / my arms over my mouth" (9-11)

It's reasonable to suppose that "I" is the Burundi girl refugee of line 2.  Reasonable, yes. But then that provokes a further question, what kind of voice is this? It's neither mimetic of a personal spoken narrative of horrible experience, nor is it gravely impersonal in the way that an emblem may be given a speech-bubble in which to announce its significance. It's emotionally neutral, but not in a traumatized way, but rather in a totally inappropriate mundanely-chatty way. (The present perfect tense has a lot to do with conveying this impression.) As if somehow the cafe had merged with the refugee camp and the lines were only saying "Boy, I've had a really busy morning and gotten a whole lot done."

Pronouns here are unstably connected to dramatis personae. Even in the opening sentence:

Showing the slit across the thigh, she anchors
the erotic by which burundi girls buy un
hcr relief.

Is "she" in fact a Burundi girl herself? Maybe, and maybe not.

What about this?

I sat in front of the terminal bowed by
happy news. He's coming, down the basra
              highway the eastern mainline toppling regime

Another mini-narrative is shadowed forth, but it seems to have a new cast-list. And once more, we're aware of a vague inappropriateness in connecting anything happy with Iraq's highway to hell.

To generalize, the poem seems reluctant to maintain the firm separation between the coffeed-up westerner and the abused refugee upon which the irony inherent in the hypothetical Lite poem seems to depend.

This might be the right moment to survey the text before us rather as if it were a Prynne-style poem from which the reader-tactic of construing syntax is excluded. Among other things we might notice: (1) In the first stanza, the chiming of "erotic", "exotic", "tactic", "neurotic". (2) Duplication of certain words in different contexts: "relief", "sucked", "bowed", "salt", "whipped", "pink"; or pairings of related words such as "buy"/"purchase". (3) Violent imagery of sexual wounding and repression. (4) But notably, a marked absence of such negative words such as "violence" or "horror". Instead (inappropriately?), a marked presence of positive words such as "happy", "relief", "coming", "intimacy", "pleasure", "celebrate".  (5) The progression "sacrifice", "easter season", "celebrate time".  (6) A rhetorical pattern in which the closed question "is that enough milk" comes to be replaced, in the second half of the poem, by four open questions based on the word "how".

Not Why or What, but How. It's the least radical, the most pragmatic, of question-words, because it doesn't question the objective (at least not openly) but only the means by which that objective is to be attained. Increasingly, the questioner becomes more identifiably the poet herself, and the poem ends:

Doctors refuse to look at a local sample, even these
lines sucked tight as zippers betray
their sex with pink flapping. How to feel
pleasure when writing is a work of repressive
sympathy, how do you celebrate time?

(Interesting then that the pronoun becomes "you". Can indeed be fully accounted for as the normal sociolinguistic reluctance of educated people to say "I" when "I" is really what they mean.  Desire to reassure that the question is of wider relevance. Could also place the question as part of a conversation with other writers.)

What the question does not say: 1. It doesn't repeat Adorno or Celan. It's in dialogue with them, maybe, but that's true of most modern poems.  2. It doesn't ask what good is writing, or what use is writing, but what pleasure is writing.

That risks being thought distasteful or shallow or solipsistic, in the context. Brady takes that risk.

I'd argue that emotion, the "pink flapping" of line 33 (specifically its place in a political life and in relation to suffering) is the topic at the heart of the poem.

The composite question could shortly be answered, decidedly in the negative, by proposing an apocalyptic/activist poetic. Feeling pleasure, we could answer shortly, is irrelevant. Celebrating time is by no means an essential requirement for poetry;  only indeed in the  post-Romantic nineteenth century did it begin to seem so, when the bourgeoisie began to live longer. Time in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry was likely to be regarded as an enemy, nothing to be celebrated.

That thought brings into consideration the chain of Christian references in the poem. I would say that the poem takes seriously the Christian framework for thinking about suffering (e.g the theology of sacrifice and the conception of Christ suffering with us as well as for us) but does not accede to it. If line 4 of the poem distantly recalls "See see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament!",  then Christ has been pointedly replaced by Venus.

The poem is not there to supply answers, but it seems apparent that the line of thought stubbornly insists on assigning greater importance to personal emotion than is permitted by the apocalyptic/activist one, or mediated by the Christian one.


Re "1 Will Be Back At Nine", Arethede, literally ere-thede = past people. Appears only in the Middle English phrase "in arethede" (among people of old, in times of yore). (MED)



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