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Poets Nuar Alsadir and Ahren Warner reveal intriguing habits of perception

New books from the two writers reject the conventional collection-of-poems format.

Two new books of poetry, by Nuar Alsadir and Ahren Warner, reject the conventional collection-of-poems format in favour of something more expansive. Many of their pieces are set as prose and it is not always clear where one ends and another begins, so the reader must learn to read across genres including lyric, aphorism, notebook jotting and prose poem, without allowing any one conceptual frame to close. What makes this approach to form so intriguing is its promise to show not so much the writer’s finished thoughts as their habits of perception and processes of composition.

In Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted, his third book, Ahren Warner travels around Europe taking photographs (these make up half of the book), quoting philosophers (including “dear Hegel”), and writing poems. The poems are mostly about unpleasant things (stray cats sniffing at bags of shit) and first-world irritations (BuzzFeed, click-bait). For all the distance covered, not a lot happens: in one country a girl borrows his lighter and he looks at her arse as she walks away, sneering at her for buying expensive jeans; elsewhere he is solicited.

If those examples sound a bit rum, I should say that the book’s most striking characteristic is the blatancy of its misogyny: men think and do; women are and suffer. Rape, murder and pimping prostitutes are typical activities for a man; whereas, when we finally see a woman doing something, she is likely to be serving the poet food, or giving him a blowjob. (The blowjob incident is quoted from a CK Williams poem also about visiting a prostitute.) In one short poem Warner compares his beloved to a kitten, a porpoise, a dormouse, and a camelid. Some sort of irony is probably intended here, since the poem ends with the image of a man murdering a child because he had “watched his mother/being raped”; but elsewhere women are likened to blossom, buds, petals, and jewels, so it’s hard to be sure.

There is an imaginative flabbiness at every level in the book, from the metaphors (“the black bullseye of the pupil”) to the sources of the lengthy collage-poem, which are too easily identified to gel into a new context: The Waste Land from TS Eliot, “Briggflatts” from Basil Bunting, “Daddy” from Sylvia Plath. To enliven proceedings, Warner thinks about tortures and atrocities perpetrated on and by Johnny Foreigner, drawing banal conclusions: “old powers settle back into their old ways”. The odour of gap-year chauvinism is overpowering. To excuse it, Warner strikes a self-aware, self-loathing attitude: “How do you feel that the distant pity you felt as a child for the severed limbs of children in Gikondo was a form of historical luxury?” he asks himself. He doesn’t answer this question, but presumably he feels fine about it, since he repeatedly exploits it in his poems to manufacture an air of seriousness. In an elegy for CK Williams (“So yes, he’s dead./It sucks, doesn’t it?”) Warner credits Williams with teaching him “how to think”. This is self-flattery.

Fourth Person Singular bears a superficial resemblance to Warner’s book, but Nuar Alsadir uses new form to discover new content rather than rehearse familiar poses. Her range of references is broad, suggestive of genuine intellectual curiosity, and she engages with her antecedents instead of simply name-checking them. For example, in the opening untitled sequence of aphoristic lyrics, observations, and vignettes, Alsadir considers topics as seemingly unrelated as anxiety, public transport and Coca-Cola.

Only gradually do patterns emerge. About halfway through, she cites Heidegger’s idea of “a hammer seizing its actuality, revealing its form, only when broken”, and wonders: what if the same applies to human subjectivity? Can we, too, only seize our actuality when broken? If so, Alsadir is caught in a paradox, since she is a mother and a psychoanalyst with an interest in Lacan.

According to Lacan, a pre-verbal infant is fundamentally dependent upon external objects, of which the mother is the most important. This leads Alsadir to the startling pronouncement, “Like a mother, an object in use is phenomenologically transparent”. A few pages later she applies these terms more specifically to lyric subjectivity (“What was formerly a mere object becomes an object-to-subject relationship, lyric”), and then – in a brilliant associative leap – to the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, whom the soldiers would name “according to the functions soldiers associated with them (‘Taxi Cab Driver,’ ‘Rapist’)”, thus rendering the detainees objects once more: de-actualising them. The movement from philosophy to personal experience, poetry, and atrocity, is intuitive yet careful, and without voyeuristic flânerie.

At first glance, Alsadir’s project may seem like a celebration of the fragmentary, with its untitled sequences and its multiple poems titled “sketch”. One sequence, for example, is the result of the poet setting her alarm for 3.15 AM and, upon waking, scribbling the first lines that came to mind. This results in short, suggestive pieces like the following: “The moment will be shaken/like a snow globe, a sand globe,/world in eye.” But we should remember the last word in her book’s title: the challenge for both writer and reader is to grasp all of these ideas and experiences as a singularity, rather than pretend that they occur in discrete categories labelled “reader”, “mother”, “analyst”, “city-dweller”, etc. As she puts it: “Part truth is untruth, the way multiplying a negative number/with a positive gives you a negative regardless of value”. Rejecting any easy distinction between poetry and poetics, Fourth Person Singular is a fascinating examination of the drive to construct subjectivity, and the shame that can attend it. 

Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted
Ahren Warner
Bloodaxe Books, 128pp, £12

Fourth Person Singular
Nuar Alsadir
Liverpool University Press, 73pp, £9.99

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist