CW: Explicit Language

What do we want from poetry? I ponder this in classic Oxford pretentiousness. The answer depends on time, place, and levels of loneliness. I probably read poetry mostly for its validating qualities, its ability to reflect my feelings back at me and declare them human. Beyond that, I read poetry to listen and attempt to understand experiences that aren’t my own. Empathy and learning are critical parts of a poem’s function, as well as holding up a mirror to my own emotions. For now then, I’d say I want poetry to make me a kinder person, more compassionate to myself and to others.

C+nto & Othered Poems is a poetry collection by Joelle Taylor, published in 2021 and winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize that year. In its preface, Taylor describes the work as “a book of silences”, and its main themes centre around butch lesbian identity, particularly in late twentieth-century London. The book is both “maze” and “personal history”, as well as an acknowledgement of “the crimes against the LGBT community”. It is both political critique and memoir: sharply historical, and yet at the same time deeply introspective. The intertwining of self and other, and self as other, is something Taylor has achieved in the most devastating way.

The collection is in four parts, entitled VITRINE, C+NTO, VITRINE REPRISE and O, MARYVILLE.  The first and third are distinctly linked to each other, but all sections are interwoven through lexis and, in particular, the recurring themes of “face / eats / o / fist / body / lemniscate.” The physicality of the book, especially the centrality of the body, turn the poems into bones of the same skeleton. The body itself is “always falling” through the lines, under “hormonal seas”, or repeatedly surfacing “out of the wreckage”. This physical intensity stays throughout the collection, fluctuating across urgent defiance and utter vulnerability. The necessity of this is something Taylor punctuates from the preface to the last word: the constant struggle to feel safe in a world with men, who could  “explode when you least expect it.” 

Beyond the immediacy of the book, there is also a narrative grounded in historical experience. Taylor provides a glossary for the work which demonstrates just this. She not only lists the meaning of a variety of slang terms, but also specific locations rooted in her memory. This includes The Lighthouse – a London based centre and hospice for those with HIV or AIDS (opened in 1986 and closed in 2015). It also encompasses the names of London lesbian clubs and bars prominent during the 80s/90s. On top of these localised terms are definitions for Taylor’s own slang, such as ansisters  – her own term for female ancestors. Through this careful attention to memory, the body of the book is placed in a known reality. Taylor’s characters (also based on real people) do not inhabit  imagination; they exist in found spaces. They are born, broken and rebirthed in “old’bars, cruising grounds”, “fallopian corridors” and “Old Compton Street”, just as much as they are on the page. 

Though all the sections break new ground, I am particularly moved, challenged, and inspired by the section C+NTO. This is in part due to the way Taylor performs the piece. As spoken word, it is even more earth shattering than the text. The title of this section is a play on words (drawing on cunt as a reference to female anatomy), as well as holding literary meaning. Furthermore, Cunto (as defined at the beginning of the book) is an inflection of the Latin cuntare, meaning to narrate, tell, or recount a story. I absolutely love this crossover. It centres the female body as the origin of story, birthing language and thus holding an immensity of power. In fact, this entire section runs thick with potency. From the violent entitling of each new verse as a “round”, to the stark images of “Christmas tunes looped in nooses”, Taylor spares nothing to capture the feeling of being othered. The section ends in sparse pages, with even more sparse and searing language, but I suggest watching her in performance for her heart-breaking variation upon these final words.

In summary, Taylor’s collection is an essential piece of work that celebrates community, even in the midst of its tearing apart. The agony is vital and its rawness unwavering. What we want from poetry is always in flux, but in terms of what we need, it is certainly Joelle Taylor. 

Further Reading:

C+nto and Othered Poems

In Conversation with Joelle Taylor 

C*NTO – Excerpt