Mark Waldron’s first collection The Brand New Dark is described on his publisher’s website as ‘a book about sex, eyes, eggs, dogs, death and sausages’, which are the six best subjects a book can be about. Shouldn’t someone commission a book of essays called Sex, Eyes, Eggs, Dogs, Death and Sausages? This piece is mainly going to focus on sex and eyes. Or, to be more specific, sexual objectification. There will be one mention of an egg.
Some of my favourite poems in Mark Waldron’s two collections are the ones featuring a character called Marcie; there are four in each book. Each poem is a kind of meditation on Marcie as she appears in a particular place or mode, and on the speaker’s plainly lascivious intentions towards her. Certainly, there is something delicious about Marcie: ‘She betrays the soft odour / of something beautifully wrapped and then unwrapped // and smelt and then wrapped up again’. When I was little I was given a marzipan pig which I treated in exactly this way. Waldron is incredibly good at making physical or sensory things uncannily tangible in his writing; I can’t think of any way of explaining this except to say that his poems feel al dente. That is, they are cooked so as to be still firm when bitten, like Marcie’s ‘tasty, reversible shout’.
Marcie is a perfect cipher; in ‘Marcie Outside’ the narrator makes the following pronouncement about her:
I say she has the atmosphere of a small hole stuck in paper with a pin,
a hole that’s been made and made and then made and then made etc.,
as though the maker had been
each time thrilled to pieces with his work…
By putting Marcie in eight different poems the maker/narrator/poet does indeed make and then make and then make her; she is an empty vessel into which the various desires (sometimes gleeful, sometimes guilty; usually sexual, romantic or both) of the speaker are poured. (If I had read Lacan on the relationship between desire and lack I might reference him here, but I have only read the Wikipedia entry.)
Marcie appears in different guises throughout the poems, seeming to fulfil several fantasy tropes: sex doll (‘Oh, say it! I watched your body, / a scented buddy to yourself, your self’s pork dolly’); retro pin-up (‘WWII Marcie’); sleep-tousled ingénue (‘She is tugged up part way to wakefulness, / just half-topped with charm and light’); femme fatale (‘Marcie in the Dock, Up for Being Juicy’). Here are some ways in which Marcie is described: she is ‘hopeless[ly] loving’, ‘scented’, ‘smart’, ‘comely’, dreamy (and dreamed about), often naked and/or sleeping, childlike, ‘fuckable’, ‘tasty’ and unpindownable. Here are some of the things Marcie says: nothing. (And by the way Waldron uses dialogue or reported speech fairly often in his poems.) The few actions ascribed to Marcie include: 1) Waiting; 2) Loving; 3) Standing; 4) Wearing (her body as if clothing); 5) Sliding; 6) Squatting; 7) Dreaming; 8) Sleeping; 9) Turning. In other words Marcie isn’t so much a subject as an object – knowingly so, it’s important to note, on the poet’s part.
The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy defines objectification according to a list of precepts proposed by feminist philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton, which include ‘instrumentality: the treatment of a person as a tool for the objectifier’s purposes’; ‘inertness: the treatment of a person as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity’; ‘violability: the treatment of a person as lacking in boundary-integrity’; ‘reduction to body: the treatment of a person as identified with their body, or body parts’; ‘reduction to appearance: the treatment of a person primarily in terms of how they look, or how they appear to the senses’; ‘silencing: the treatment of a person as if they are silent, lacking the capacity to speak’.
There is a long history of the objectification of women in art (a recent statistic showed that while less than 5% of the artworks in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were by women, 85% of the nudes were female), and male poets have had their share of inert female muses. Waldron’s objectification of Marcie, though, is self-aware: it is pushed so far as to intentionally render the notion of the muse absurd. Marcie is not a real woman rendered into an object, she was an object all along.
Viewed as a series the Marcie poems present a mode of looking in which it’s not just the woman at their centre who is sexualised; everything around her is too. So in ‘Early this Morning’, ‘the flushed, embarrassed darkness / in its totally explicit nightie // is discovered hunkered down in the bushes’ while in ‘WWII Marcie’ a nostalgic vision of ‘Historical Marcie’ dissolves to a, yes, ‘slightly viscous wet’ overflowing the buckets of ‘serious, helmeted men’; and the sleepy Marcie in ‘Marcie is Half-Woken’ is said to be ‘as committed to preparedness as as semi-on’. We get close-ups not of genitalia but something which in the era of easily accessible pornography is maybe more obscene or at least unseen – Marcie’s mysterious inner workings:
Marcie wears the pressed uniform
of her comeliness over her ludicrous blood
full of its minute wheels.
She wears her smart body over her pocketed self,
her words under her scent,
her breath beneath her clothes…
In case this all seems like an absurdly phallic/Freudian reading, I refer you to a more recent poem of Waldron’s, ‘Collaboration’, anthologised in Best British Poetry 2013, in which an erection takes centre stage during what seems to be a discussion about creative process. (If I had read more about Freud’s theory of sublimation, ‘the process of transforming libido into “socially useful achievements, including artistic, cultural and intellectual pursuits”’, I might discuss it at length here – but again, I have so far only read the Wikipedia page.)
In ‘My Friend Marcie is on the Insensate Beach’ the libidinous energy that runs through these poems seems to reach boiling point, though, ultimately, an anticlimactic one. Here we have Marcie giving off the ‘scent of the sun’, which itself is depicted as a blazing, naked woman. The heat she generates becomes the agent of her own objectification as she ‘burns off her very own bikini, // … underwear, a business suit and overcoat / quicker than she can summon them’. This vision of the sun/woman as a kind of scorched landscape (‘She’s up there, bare as you like, her hair blazed to ash / and ash itself, in this blank heat, flared back to scratch, //…The alopecia sun…’), stripped of everything, even her own body hair, seems to hint at the destructive power of objectification, whereby the hold Marcie has over her male narrator comes only via her abasement.
If this is a poem about desire, it is about the failure of desire, or the sorry failure of objectification. The speaker’s response to Marcie is somewhat muted; there is a sense of desire truncated or aborted, or simply burned up too quickly, his ‘self-cremating angel’ having done her work ‘before a damp and follicled root could jibber, blinking, into life, / before the quick initial sting could even muster / to the judding pole of self’. This is not the most transparent of Waldron’s poems, but neither is it the least suggestive, if you consider phrases such as ‘judding pole’ and ‘quick initial sting’. Although these lines seem on the surface to refer to Marcie’s embattled hair, burned off at the root before it can even break through the skin, there is something undeniably phallic about the language, albeit of a somewhat disappointed kind. In the end, the spectacularly depilated Marcie inspires only ‘soft dreams’ in her narrator, hinting at some inadmissable conflict between sex and romance – a ‘soft’ dream, after all, is not a wet dream. Even the setting, the ‘Insensate Beach’ of the title, is unresponsive.
As the poem concludes Marcie is still more abject, ‘squatting in her protest’, paradoxically impotent (she is after all, the sun), her anger perceived as blasphemous – ‘her hollered rage at me, // her blasphemy’ – towards her creator. As though to reinforce his masterliness the speaker at one point adopts an almost Shakespearean turn of phrase to express a modicum of shame about the situation:
my immolating, self-cremating angel,
who turns my coal-black words to molecules of slag,
whose salted tears cannot even jig as spit upon a frying pan.
But all this heat burns itself up, leaving nothing, just ‘the shine on the magazine […] bouncing up all over Marcie’ – her objecthood perhaps now melancholically apparent.
The Marcie poems seem to problematise desire (in this case male heterosexual desire), because it struggles to exist without objectification. In ‘Without Me, You’re Nothing’, the final poem in the quartet that appears in The Brand New Dark, the speaker appears to apologise to the fantasised Marcie for the lack of agency ascribed to her – ‘Oh Marcie, Marcie, / trust me when I say I made you out of love. // Your body may be your own dream but you are mine’ – but the object of his creation remains out of reach, something that can only be viewed or imagined:
…and forgive me if I watched you turn and,
Oh, say it! watched your body,
a scented buddy to yourself, your self’s pork dolly,
dreaming its own fuckable dream.
Even the imagining of a private world for Marcie, her dreamlife, becomes an act of objectification – the dream might be off limits, unknowable, but that only makes the speaker’s desire stronger. It’s a manifestly futile situation, recalling the ‘small hole stuck in paper with a pin, // …that’s been made and made…’.
In the last Marcie poem, ‘Marcie is Half-Woken’ in The Itchy Sea, she slips from the speaker’s grasp the way a dream does as one awakes, the ‘semi-on’ fails to rise to the occasion:
she owns that same chill torridity that pops
bang off in the middle, just as one far-off day
the clunking Earth will cup in its core
a fading hub of warmth smaller than an egg.
No matter how hard he tries or what seedy scenarios he conjures up the speaker never quite manages to get his hands on ‘Marcie’s essential goodies’. It’s worth noting that the disembodied statement of the aforementioned title ‘Without Me, You’re Nothing’, attributed to no one, could just as easily be voiced by Marcie as the narrator. If Marcie exists only in the narrator’s fantasy, ‘a tool for the objectifier’s purposes’ – ‘Without Me, You’re Nothing’ – she doesn’t really exist at all. But if it’s the narrator who is nothing without Marcie, then, since he’s the one putting words in her mouth, we might begin to see quite how much he has got invested in her. And, in his continued failure to really get hold of her, the way she ‘slid off [his] purchaseless love’, how little he will get in return.
“I guess there’s a pleasure in making a world and then closing it in on itself, not letting in the light from outside. It’s a pleasant claustrophobia. You avoid the inevitable bathos of the real world.”
The weather was inside.
/ The branches trembled over the glass as if to apologise; then they thumped and they came in.
/ And the trees shook everything off until they were bare and clean. They held on to the ground with their long feet and leant into the gale and back again.
/ This wa ...