Natalie Ferris

The Wireless Voice

Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.

Christine Brooke-Rose is not known for her poetry. All that exists is a cluster of drafts from her student years, the twenty-one poems that surfaced in the pages of magazines and journals between 1956 and 1963, and a book-length poem in 1954, ‘Gold’, her first published work. After 1963 she abandoned the writing and publishing of poetry in favour of fiction and literary criticism, publishing experimental books that deliberately challenged the form of the novel, blending languages, abandoning certain tenses or grammatical structures, and introducing dizzying typographical layouts. The poems of her youth, however, written during and shortly after the war, are worthy of pause as they reveal a literary imagination animated by the encoded, by a notion that would remain with her throughout her life – that language is something to be drawn [quote] ‘out of the air, intercepted, decrypted, translated, transmitted […] listening to a silent voice, capturing, translating hazy notions and sharp impulses into words and rhythms’.[1] There is a sense that these poems permitted a space in which she could give voice to an experience that she had signed away to silence upon entering Bletchley Park. The majority of the poems are short, of no more than two or three stanzas, and economical in expression: line lengths rarely extend beyond three or four often monosyllabic words, effecting a clipped procedural insistence. Several of these poems, such as ‘Credo’ and ‘Gospel’ explore religious themes, clearly influenced by the devotional lyrics of her Polish catholic second husband, whom she married in 1948, but others are far less clear in subject or address.

The poem ‘Symbols’ was incorporated into one of Brooke-Rose’s longest poetic sequences, published as ‘The Island of Reil’ in an Italian literary magazine in 1958, but written as separate fragments throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, while she read English at the University of Oxford and completed a doctorate in medieval literature and metaphor at University College London. The sequence of nine parts describes a hinterland of long-past vistas and half-remembered terrains, over which echoes boom and specks of matter thicken the air. The narrator appears to be under acute psychological strain, struggling in each stanza to make themself plain, blending memory with present action, language with landscape, and confusing the senses so that printed systems like braile whisper, while sentences ‘tremble’, a searchlight ‘drawls’, the eye has an inward tongue, a ‘trumpeting’ call climbs the walls. Curiously, the poem is dedicated to the medical condition, ‘aphasia’, with the following note:

[quote] The Island of Reil is the name of the triangle of convolutions in the brain linking the speech-centre, the hearing centre and the visual centre. Various forms of aphasia can affect these centres in different ways, so that words are understood when heard but not when seen, or can be taken down to dictation but not repeated or copied, and so on, while the power to recognise symbols declines generally.[2] [unquote]

Aphasia is a scrambling of the signals between the written, aural and vocal nodes of the brain, a disorder of symbolic formulation and expression, whereby the patient may no longer connect the sound of a word with its meaning, or the look of a word with its sound, or the meaning of a word with its action. Words and sounds are lost, scatter, collide, or part ways. The condition began to receive increased attention from physicians and theorists in the years following World War Two, confronted with the high number of veterans that were displaying a myriad of complex language disorders, as the result of physical or mental trauma suffered during service. Defined as a ‘new disease’ in 1866, prominent physicians such as Dr Henry Head had tried, in the early twentieth-century, to encircle its broad range of symptoms:

[quote] ‘variants of aphasia include the preservation of speech combined with a total loss of the ability to read or write or both; loss of only part of the vocabulary; loss of comprehension of some concepts; loss of the ability to draw or copy, to tell the time, to recognise faces or to repeat what was just said. Sometimes the faculties lost and retained make a bizarre mix; for example, someone quite unable to speak a word may still be able to remember and sing snatches of opera or recite poetry.’[3] [unquote]

Brooke-Rose made extensive, detailed notes on aphasia, collating not only the medical vocabulary unique to the study of the brain – such as ‘cortex’, ‘cranial’, ‘lobes’, ‘hemispheres’, ‘commissures’, and the ‘sylvian fissure’ – but also producing meticulously rendered diagrams of the different operational centres at work in the brain and the ways in which they transmit and receive information.

[1] Christine Brooke-Rose, Remake (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1996), p. 107.

[2] Christine Brooke-Rose, ‘The Island of Reil’, Botteghe Oscure, no. 21 (1958): 101–5.

[3] Aphasia, or speech impairment at a stroke. Dr Tony Smith.The Times (London, England), Friday, Sep 09, 1977; pg. 10; Issue 60104.  (994 words)