Oliver Reed as a feminist discussion

Phoebe Clarke reviews Oliver Reed (Montez Press, 2020) by Hannah Regal. We’d like to apologise for the delay in sharing it, it was lost between poetry editors.

You may remember Oliver Reed as the English actor who played Bill Sikes in the 1968 film Oliver! He has the good looks of a 1970s footballer, hirsute and hyper-masculine. Wikipedia tells us Reed was ‘known for his upper-middle class, macho image and “hell-raiser” lifestyle.’ [1] Further reading reveals he was a Thatcherite, had problems with the bottle, became permanently disfigured after a bar brawl, and at the age of 42 married a sixteen-year-old dancer he met on set. To be explicit, this book has barely anything to do with Oliver Reed, though there is a tender poem in this collection dedicated to him, a toast to the actor’s photo glimpsed hanging in a bar: ‘Oliver Reed/ Face of the Old Game, birthed/ in the crochet of rape/ […] I lift a little finger/ and taste the Merguez juice from my chin.’ 

Hannah Regal’s first collection is a [deeply] feminist, experimental text, reading more like a conceptual poem-cycle than first collection of poems.  The protagonist of Oliver Reed is in fact a woman named ‘Sorry’ who might be an artist, an actress, or a juvenile delinquent — likely all three. Sorry is the chief personae through whom Regal speaks, although the identity of the speaker is not always clear. Regal has cut-up and incorporated multiple sources in Oliver Reed, the book is moreover heavily ekphrastic, citing visual art, cinema, Instagram and Hollywood biographies.

The reader’s job is to bear witness to Sorry ‘becoming-woman’ —or ‘Sorrys becoming women’, since Sorry is a multiplicity of selves. Sorry must negotiate her place in the male-dominated art world and a barbaric culture industry (‘a boardroom full of men with/ the logic that all people want to see is stilettos in horse shit’).

The trope of the horse is recurrent in Oliver Reed. Obviously Regal sees equivalence between the equine signifier and female oppression. Sorry comes of age like a horse is broken in — she’s groomed and ‘hooved’, primed for the dressage of femininity:

The feet of adult women make impressions in corridors

Little girls want shoes that go clack  

A child does not relate the image of it,                                    

hooves, as the echo of shame

we bask in their wrong future 

We boil things with hooves,

we sit on them and ride them and make them glue,

we put them inside tracks, shoot saliva at their cash hearts 

There is something gleefully deviant about Sorry. Regal’s personae doesn’t embody female apology, she’s more an apologia: a written defenceof female deviance. Sorry is really then ‘Sorry-not-sorry’,  which makes for entertaining reading as she  bullies little girls into saying Ass and Bitch, and makes sausages for men out of dog food.

There’s a ludic surrealism to Oliver Reed’s episodes, at times the text reads like a deranged screenplay. Hollywood looms large in the imaginary of Oliver Reed, providing source material and inspiration: ‘Elizabeth Taylor’s posture/ now that is a big fuck you question mark/ Her curling shoulders, they just mean it/ like whiskey. Steal a mink/  write No Sale on the big mirror’, Regal meditates, transcribing Butterfield 8. The methodology of filmmaking is a good analogue for Regal’s process   she cuts from image to image, and concept to concept, relying on montage to generate meaning and establish moods.

Initially, I was struck by how ‘unemotional’ Oliver Reed felt —  it seemed high on wit, low on affect. Multiple readings yield a consistent tonal and emotional range, sustained throughout. Regal’s voice is cool and poised, sometimes arch, and quite detached. She is particularly good at capturing an exhausted, ultimately self-aware, millennial ennui:

I buy a skirt because I am uncertain


about my position in the world


the skirt changes nothing and I return it

arguing small difference into ash

I am too expensive for my life, psychic life 

moving coolly from room to room

in what is always

someone else’s house

[…]

Has anyone congratulated me today? My father                                                                     

asked if I was Still Making Art


no I am not. The dream I have not proven


has effaced being faithful

A generational struggle to be ‘Still Making Art’ is evoked humorously but perhaps not insincerely in this book, as is the problem of heterosexual female desire: ‘the grand fallopian tragedy’ of all straight girls, as Regal sardonically has it. Tenderness for masculinity lies enfolded with  a savage critique of patriarchy, as Sorry’s desire flickers with her debasement.  Surely this is the metaphor of Oliver Reed (actor), that on-screen ‘smouldering mobile furnace’, whose brutish physicality and rakish charm triggers the contradictions of Sorry’s desire — evoking wariness, curiosity, and lust. In some senses, the text reads like a swan-song to a disappearing masculinity — obliviously toxic — which lingers with us representationally and problematically captivates.

Regal’s ideological argument is implicit in the formal qualities of their poetry. They are not an especially melodic poet, although their voice is elegant, attributable to a fine sense of measure. Strikingly, Regal disrupts conventions of syntax and the common sense of words— what Pound called the logopoeiac function in poetry [2] — to  produce abstractions that are arrestingly sensuous:

Bright and neat like origami                                                                                                                 

that folded life approaches mine

She is approximately
young
without opposable target
a morsel dream inside a blowout

Careful —

This poem is exemplary of Sorry’s phantasmagoric mind. The metaphor of the opening couplet is recognisable enough: that of an artful, perfectly ordered life.  After the line break however everything  deteriorates: the couplet’s metre (iambic tetrametre) dissolves; the crisp image of origami morphs into something barely approximate; and the metaphor produces luscious nonsense: ‘A morsel dream inside a blowout’ is grammatically correct, but semantically non-sensical. As the image of life’s perfection approaches her, Sorry relinquishes all objectivity. She fractures in the apperception of a psychosis that might be her’s, or the psychosis of any woman induced to labour after ‘her life’s perfection’ under patriarchy. Hence Regal’s ominous, final warning:Careful —’.

This strategy in Oliver Reed — poetic abstraction as defiance of the logos of language, is saliently political, since the logos historically belongs to the father, to patriarchy. At points Regal makes this agenda explicit: ‘The subtle domination of a well-told anecdote is the/ language of the father.’  Regal wants to break logos, (‘Destruction is a civic responsibility’, decries Sorry) while wryly knowing logos is unbreakable, since our systems of signification depend upon it:

Crack it

Against my commitment to servitude, how I love it                                                                            

Against my bad education, the one I wear
Like a hat of lard

Crack it and then you will see                                                                                                                         

If you find the way to

If you find the way, then you too can be a father
But only God can be God.

Oliver Reed is as cerebral as it is louche, sprawling but genuinely innovative. It requires a willingness to deal in abstractions and to labour for meaning. There’s a rich theoretical plaiting at work — I had to go digging through Regal’s sources (an interview with Lindsay Lohan in the New York Times; Ann Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’) to get one of the best jokes in this book — a collocation between a point made by Carson (via Aristophanes) about the fuckability of great talkers [3], and a vile comment about Lohan made by Donald Trump [4].  Ditto several of the cinema and fine art references. Likely Oliver Reed would have benefitted from a more comprehensive source list (the notes in the back are surely not exhaustive of material being referenced or appropriated), since Regal’s book also works retroactively, as witty and polemical critique of the artefacts which it cites.

Oliver Reed requires, if not directly anticipates, a specific feminist readership.  There are competing ideologies at play, as well as exploration of irreducible problems — of personhood, power, performance, and desire. For readers who want quick and easy emotion, ideas, or politics it will prove disorienting, maybe repulsive. My preferred way of experiencing Oliver Reed: a wild semiotic installation, requiring immersion, backtracking, and multiple loops around — pausing frequently for closer inspections.

Endnotes

[1] Wikipedia. (2020). Oliver Reed. [online]

[2] Pound, E. and Eliot, T.S. (2007). Literary essays of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions

[3]  In ‘The Gender of Sound’ Carson quotes a line from Aristophanes’s comedy, the Assemblywomen. The feminist leader Praxagora explains to the female activists, “You know that among the young men the ones who turn out to be great talkers are the ones who get fucked alot.” (Carson, A. (1995). Glass, Irony, and God. New York: New Directions Book.) 

[4] Donald Trump, live on air on the Howard Stern show, remarked of Linday Lohan: “She’s probably deeply troubled and therefore great in bed. How come the deeply troubled women, you know, deeply, deeply troubled, they’re always the best in bed?”

(‘You Can’t Hurt Lindsay Lohan Now. (2018). The New York Times. [online])

Phoebe Clarke is currently living and working on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. She pays her respect to Elders both past, present and future. Sovereignty was never ceded.

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