Vicky Sparrow introduces the poetry of Anna Mendelssohn, imprisoned for her association with the Angry Brigade, and discusses how its 'attentive concern' rescues objects and people from the processes of capitalist commodification and impoverishment of meaning that are typical of capitalist culture.
The poetry of Anna Mendelssohn (1948-2009) is both empathic and uncompromising. Politically charged, explosive moments in her poetry are patterned within shifting images that register a profoundly sensitive lyric subjecthood; it is a poetry of struggle in which political work is never divorced from the minor confusions of everyday life. Writing, for Mendelssohn, forms part of the struggle against the closing down of what is expressible within the narrowness of capitalist culture. (William Rowe’s poetic thinking - in a poem republished for Culture Matters, is similar here: poetry ‘names/what can | no longer be said’.) Similarly, in 1963, the Situationist International wrote of how capitalist power ‘presents only the falsified, official sense of words [...] it forces them to carry a pass [and] determines their place in the production process’. Mendelssohn’s poetry plays with these linguistic pass cards, seeking to resist such impoverishment of meaning.
Mendelssohn began publishing poetry after serving a five-year custodial sentence from 1971 for her association with the political activist group, the Angry Brigade. Although never straightforwardly autobiographical, such experience leaves its marks on Mendelssohn’s writing – which variously explores what it means to live beneath imbalanced systems of power, what resistance and justice entail and what role language performs. In 2000, Mendelssohn published her largest collection Implacable Art – from which ‘A man who snatches a ring’ and the accompanying ink drawing are taken. I’ll offer here some notes to be placed alongside the poem, but by no means seek a definitive reading.
A man who snatches a ring
by Anna Mendelssohn
A man who snatches a ring will always have snatched
the world of poetry & my solitaire silver
directions are not given in poetry one day caught
By crowded brains, apart from any who, concerning themselves
With satisfaction hold throbbing unconscious surfaces
To shore up their ever appealing inadequacies,
My attentive concern for stolen time
I cannot sever my body from its multiplicity of
Longing for words that lasting longer are being rendered null
No, I should not be here alone with political obsessives playing for broke.
Is the economy mysterious or isn’t it a matter of a lost card game?
Half of the family gain the other half lose. Half go to Oxford the other half
are shunned. Half own racehorses the other half play boogie woogie on
a clapped out old piano. Half take up the room the other half are filed out
by pathologists. Someone comes across the idea of loss. Wastes a few
minutes before latching onto both. Will one of them tell me why everyone is
talking about money? Tell me why you won’t let my father into your
camera museum? He knows more about silent films and the 1920’s than
you do. Yes, well it was always like that. Buying and selling property increases
property prices. I’m not suggesting that any of you are landlords–only–
we are very different & I read Gogol from that position. How many operators,
was it all one rush for the unbeatable biography resistant to auto, closed door,
abbreviation fever, throwing away no book, beating down bar lines, a clock set,
clock within a clock, a nest of clocks & set in the heart of the intricate mechanism
a heart. a clock in the shape of a heart. the exquisite birthday present: a
poem of objects that live by magic.
from Anna Mendelssohn, Implacable Art (Salt Publishing: Cambridge, 2000), p. 9.
In the first two lines of this poem, a man ‘snatches’ a ring; an event closely connected with the stealing of ‘the world of poetry’. Then ‘my solitaire silver’ appears: the stolen ‘silver’ ring with its ‘solitaire’ diamond could also be ‘solitaire’ the card game; its diamonds are concealed in the pack. Already in the opening two lines, Mendelssohn introduces multiple themes: value (represented by the ring) and its contestations; poetry’s worth (and how this could be snatched away); male violence alongside social regulation of relationships (the engagement ring); and gambling and chance (card games and diamonds).
The next line is a characteristically Mendelssohn-ian formulation, which speaks directly to a reader wondering how these connections fit: ‘directions are not given in poetry’. In Mendelssohn’s verse, encountering opacity and allusion that doesn’t calcify into statement, is part of what generates poetry’s resistance to the narrowly defined values of instrumental language. The refusal to give directions is also a form of non-compliance that serves to block out those who are sifting through Mendelssohn’s work for incriminating evidence. Mendelssohn writes of ‘My attentive concern for stolen time’ – ‘stolen time’ is alienated labour, and might also hint at time in prison. The two potential interpretations of ‘stolen time’ implicitly mouths the inter-dependence of capitalist hegemony and state incarceration, while only ‘attentive concern’ is able to perceive such connections – the kind of attention demanded by a poem that resists dictating directions.
A tone of resentment surfaces too: ‘I should not be here alone with political obsessives playing for broke’. The question of who pays when people play for broke remains implicit, as does the accusation that Mendelssohn’s incarceration was a legal scapegoating for collective action. At times, Mendelssohn’s work is a response to what happens when collective struggle is played out within the economy of the individual, and becomes a documentation of damage; tones of accusation, defensiveness and hostility colour her texts. Her writing is both at pains to reject the hypocrisies of bourgeois society and pained by the brutal realities of being shut out from its social norms.
‘[P]laying for broke’ is also the scene of a poker game, and the next line playfully asks us: ‘Is the economy mysterious or isn’t it a matter of a lost card game?’. A ‘mysterious’ economy nods towards those secrets of the commodity and of capital’s irrationalities that Marx exposed, as card games and their stakes return. Mendelssohn next presents her own walk-through of modern economics, its prejudices and its inequalities: ‘Half go to Oxford the other half | are shunned. Half own racehorses the other half play boogie woogie on | a clapped out old piano’. That the economy is based on an aleatory card game suggests the inhumanness of random market fluctuation, and also the wealth of the few who gain it by the chance of birth. The repetition of ‘half’ also implies another chance of birth, that of gender, alluding to women’s particular economic exploitation – invoking again the diamond ring, as the guarantor of marriage’s unpaid domestic labour.
The poem then shifts from thinking through distribution of wealth to distribution of access: ‘Tell me why you won’t let my father into your | camera museum? […] Yes, well it was always like that’. Mendelssohn’s poems frequently speak out against the constraints of racism, sexism and classism; she was of Jewish origin and her father was active in the Labour movement in her hometown of Stockport. Here, the card of the ‘lost card game’ transforms into an identity card, dealt at random: some are pass cards granting access that come laden with riches; others signify debts and closed doors. Mendelssohn continues: ‘Buying and selling property increases | property prices’, and then, more teasingly, ‘I’m not suggesting that any of you are landlords–only– | we are very different & I read Gogol from that position’. If for landlords, the inscriptions on identity cards and credit cards signify something different to what they mean for tenants living on the breadline, then the same is true of Gogol. Reading, like writing, is fundamentally shaped by the material conditions of living.
The final passage contains a striking meditation on alienated labour as Mendelssohn describes a ‘closed door […] a clock set, | clock within a clock, a nest of clocks & set in the heart of the intricate mechanism | a heart. a clock in the shape of a heart.’ The heart fused with the clock mechanism uncannily describes the entrapment of human labour at the centre of all manufactured objects. The ‘closed door’ could possibly be a prison door too, behind which the heart languishes, beating out time. The ticking clock might be a wristwatch (with its jewels, perhaps diamonds, concealed within) inexpertly hooked up to sticks of explosive found in the remains of Angry Brigade bombs; explosives found also in Mendelssohn’s 1971 shared London home. The punishment for resistance to the clock-watching alienation of wage labour is the weaponisation of time through incarceration. Lived time becomes a trap, marked out by birthday cards, when the smooth running of time pivots on the jewels of value.
The objects in Mendelssohn’s poem (from the ‘solitaire silver’ to the ‘camera museum’ to the ‘nest of clocks’) are constantly contested in terms of value, access and meaning. No object is neutrally deployed in this semantic field, and all resist being enfolded into lines of argument; they are in a sense, stolen, over and over again, removed from their world of pass cards and snatched from their economic constraints, even from referentiality, and re-positioned in a poetry where their meanings can be re-imagined. The snatched ring that stole with it the world of poetry at the beginning, becomes the stolen scene of poetry, working outside the margins of economic imperative, yet nonetheless shaped by the conditions of writing and reading; shaped by poverty and being compelled to steal that from which you are barred access.
It’s not about winning the card game, revealing the diamond – Mendelssohn is suggesting – but about re-reading the inscriptions and reordering the cards; about perceiving the hands and face of the clock; and realising that the real stakes of the card game lie in trying to steal time back from ‘stolen time’. We’re not playing for broke but for wholeness. What is unreadable in the objects of capital and the language of law, might become legible through the kind of ‘attentive concern’ necessitated by this poetry, so that we can sense how objects and people once wrested from immiseration, are able to – as Mendelssohn concludes – ‘live by magic’.
Poem and ink drawing reproduced by kind permission of Salt Publishing and the Anna Mendelssohn Estate.