A recurring dream about speechlessness, the visage of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, the sight of voices without sound—these elements were the genesis of a recent poetry book, Silents, by Claire Crowther. Finding herself intensely moved by Falconetti’s overwhelming performance, which she stumbled onto on YouTube, Crowther became more and more interested in silent film. As a poet, she was especially drawn to the absent voices of those on the silent screen—the close-ups of their faces, the way actors sometimes seem to be “wrestling with a locked mouth”, the way speech is pronounced but not heard. Perceiving “something particularly vulnerable and haunting about those silent mouths”, Crowther wanted to allow speech to emerge from these characters. Her project is not motivated by any sense of deficiency in silent film, but rather aims to use one medium to illuminate the psychology of another: “Poetry and film have always looked to connect”, she writes.
I should admit that poetry is a medium I know little about. As such, writing about it is difficult; not only do I not know the terminology, it seems reductive to try to describe or explain the delicate web of connections and imagery that Crowther has generated. For example, in the first poem, The Inflammatory Properties of Celluloid—for Oscar Micheaux, she works with ideas on the star/light/screen axis: movie stars, stars used in intertitles to blank out slurs, the star of the nitrate edge symbol; film projection, the darkness of night and the theatre, a digitized film, the screen of her mobile phone. That’s an astonishing density of imagery in just fourteen lines, in a poem that also opens with a nod to Crowther’s central theme of voice and speech:
If I were as dead as all these stars are, in the warm dark,
velvet-lined, I’d mind
an audience peering into my mouth to see what
silence makes of words.
Among the characters Crowther brings to life are Shamakky Joe, a travelling shadow-play entertainer; Femuncula, Crowther’s imagined female homunculus; Joan of Arc; a sisterhood of witches inspired by the Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922); an unnamed cinemagoer. Not all subjects are people—one poem seems to be written from the perspective of Nell Shipman’s camera (The Future of Silence), another depicts the molecular potential of the projection wall (Edison Plays God in the Parlour), and one is about a stretching tree—an organic instrument of torture imagined by Crowther after watching A Fool There Was and Häxan.
One of the poems I particularly liked was Panchromatic, Metropolis, an ode to panchromatic film stock. Early on, film stocks were not sensitive to all of the colours in the visible spectrum; orthochromatic stocks were sensitive primarily to blue and green light, which is the reason why some people’s eyes look milky in early films. Crowther imagines a woman working in the sun-glazed, monochrome Library of Quiet—a silent film version of Borges’ Library of Babel?—and a new girl who is “not my colour but she is my shade”. Another of my favourites, The Landlady Suspects Her Lodgers, uses the motif of sewing to indicate movement and sensual desire:
When I asked to see Kiss in the Tunnel
I was made to sew perfect stitches instead.
All day, threads floated from my hem,
loose, long, children under suspicion.
There is humour, too—I laughed out loud at the playfulness of Germaine Dulac Explains Why Antonin Artaud Called Her a Cow, in which several possibilities are evinced:
Because he’s mad!
Because his film script is mad but He Sees!
Because my film clearly shows Animal Nature is Cultural Definition as far as Women are concerned …
Because Surrealists are Despots!
Because he hates milk?
All credible explanations! (I, too, hate milk).
Crowther plays with words as well as ideas. The subject of The Cinemagoer’s Dream fits a blind to their window; the use of the word ‘stop’ in this poem works on multiple levels, evoking not just blocking light from coming through a window, but also the idea of stopping down a camera aperture (or indeed the widening/narrowing of a pupil—it is not a coincidence that the facing page shows the famous eye closeup from Grandma’s Reading Glass, UK 1900). In Homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer, there’s the hanging ambiguity of a couplet like “while I don’t know / why one device rather than another will make me”, encompassing both the ideas of induced existence and missing action—to make me what? In one case, Crowther dispenses with language altogether: the wordless eloquence of The General or, The Achievement of Kisses—a silent sonnet for Buster Keaton is worth the price of admission alone.
Crowther explains her formal approach in her introductory essay “The fragment and its relationships”: in Silents, she uses syllabic verse, which entails a fixed number of syllables per line, and often a set stanza pattern. As I found out from trusty old Wikipedia, syllabic verse is common in many languages, but in English, poetic verse typically relies on accent—the number of stressed syllables per line, rather than the pure number of syllables in each line. Crowther, therefore, follows a rhythm that is more free-floating metrically than accentual verse, but more tightly constrained than free verse – “a handcuff on every line”. Not all of the poems follow a strict structure, but many do: for example, The Stretching Tree has four syllables per line, Jehanne d’Arc and the Angels of Battle is written in couplets of 15 and 4 syllables each (reversing order each couplet), and Screamers in Intertitles follows a pattern of 11-8-9-6 for each of its three stanzas. Crowther is an incredibly concise writer; all of the poems have fewer than twenty lines. These are short sensory impressions rather than extended meditations, but they say everything that they need to. I won’t say that every single poem grabbed me, but quite a few of them did, and several stuck deeply in my mind.
As the images of the book spreads show, Silents is a beautifully presented book—the elegant design of the book is integral to the experience of Crowther’s verse. She has selected images from the Ronald Grant Archive to complement her poems, encouraging one to read her texts in relation to these photographs. Two of my favourite juxtapositions: Shamakky Joe is faced with a still of shadowed claws from The Cat and the Canary (US 1927); The Song of the Stretching Tree is faced with a still attributed to René Clair’s Entr’acte (FR 1924), of a woman being clasped into the body of a tree. (Shown above. Wonderful image, but I don’t recall this image being in Entr’acte, myself—does anyone know about its provenance?) As with Silents overall, this poem and image capture the familiar-made-strange or uncanny sense that one gets with certain silent films.
Yes, film’s made of light. Silents is a very conceptually tight work, beautifully executed.
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Silents by Claire Crowther. London, UK: Hercules Editions, 2015. Go and buy a copy here!