Justin Goodman Reviews ‘An Insubstantial Universe’ (eds. Alyal and Stockdale)

Reviewed ByJustin Goodman

‘An Insubstantial Universe’ editors Amina Alyal and Edwin Stockdale

Yaffle Press https://www.yafflepress.co.uk/anthologies

ISBN 978-1-913122-13-3, £11.50

Attempting to ‘reimagine a key Victorian figure from a twenty-first century perspective’ is no mean feat, but it is the feat that Edwin Stockdale and Amina Alyal attempt in ‘An Insubstantial Universe’. Sponsored by Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies and published by Yaffle Press, ‘An Insubstantial Universe’is meant to engage with George Eliot’s legacy on her bicentennial via poetry anthology. It’s a fitting approach to Eliot’s work which continues the cycle of influences – hers being the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, among others – and which fulfills the sympathetic imagination of her life’s work by turning these poets into ‘actual readers’ who are ‘audience to George Eliot’s imaginary audiences,’ as Rosemarie Bodenheimer describes in ‘The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans’. They become readers as observers of Eliot’s self-observation. When one talks of ‘twenty-first century perspectives’ though, what does one mean? Does it simply mean anyone alive after 2000, or is it whoever is most attuned to the now? Does it mean confrontation with the Anthropocene and its potential children: climate catastrophe, technological singularity, and nuclear winter? Does it mean tracing the shadow of the present until it’s a spindle at the feet of a Titanic human past? For an author as grandiose-cum-humble as Eliot, this feels like exactly the right spot to lay down the blanket and picnic at.

That‘An Insubstantial Universe’ chooses to let the poems speak to this question is not in itself an issue. Oz Hardwick’s ‘The Haunting of Silas Marner’ and Joe Williams’ ‘Notes from Notes on The Mill on the Floss’ reflect a direct indebtedness by recycling Eliot’s writing, while Gill Lambert’s ‘The World’s Wife’ embodies circularity in its rhyme and rhythm. Amina Alyal’s ‘Maggie Tulliver comme moi,’ Anne Caldwell’s ‘Dorothea on Marriage,’ and Anna Kisby’s ‘Transfusion’ works towards transmigration from character to poet or vis versa. Jean Taylor’s ‘Not Divided’ and Mark Connors’ ‘2019’ contemporize Eliot’s work through the immediacy of reflection. Temidayo Jacob’s ‘I am lonely’ feels like the most ‘twenty-first century perspective,’ however. Written by a ‘Sociologist who writes from the North Central part of Nigeria’ (reflecting the global nature of the contemporary) who had been a student in 2019 (and therefore likely one of the younger poets here), ‘I am lonely’ embodies the isolation and grim motionlessness of the contemporary in its AAB rhyme scheme and return to the image of dawn, concluding, ‘the sun dies again to rise at dawn.’ But does the ‘twenty-first century perspective’ on George Eliot amount to feeling this century is so hopelessly dead that all that’s left is a Sisyphean hope? This is the taut skin which ‘An Insubstantial Universe’ tries to break through into a modern notion, with mixed results. ‘Forwards, forwards – towards the new’ as Jo Brandon ends her poem ‘In Father’s Drawing Room.’

And poems like Ian Harker’s ‘Tight Lacing’ (which evokes Billy Collins’ ‘Taking Emily Dickinson’s Clothes Off’ without the overt sexualization) prod at this tearing skin of a fresh perspective. ‘George Eliot is waist deep in whale bone,’ he writes, opening the anthology, ‘George Eliot is held precisely in place/by a whale’s rib.’ To call it stodginess or stingy is too aggressive, too blame laying, and yet, ‘An Insubstantial Universe’smajor challenge might be that it holds Eliot’s legacy too ‘precisely in place.’ It has too much admiration for Eliot to be transgressive and challenging, to fully embody what Eliot was in her own time. Eliot was the conservative feminist, the Christian atheist, the moralist mistress, the author who wrote her own audiences into her books. To look on this complexity full of love and no reckoning feels like a missed opportunity, as if Eliot’s protagonists didn’t trudge through fault to find their glory, as if Eliot’s protagonists were ageless paragons of moral valor. Reread ‘Adam Bede’ in the twenty-first century and you’ll find a presumptuous benevolent sexist; read Sally Taylor’s ‘Hetty at the Pool’ and Paul Waring’s ‘Hetty Sorel Waits’ – the two poems that observe the object of Adam Bede’s obsession – and you’ll find firmly written but nondescript meditations on injustice and feminism. ‘An Insubstantial Universe’is torn on how to create a new language from this history.

While this may sound a bit like asking for a different anthology altogether, like an anachronistic take, it points to the fuzzy-feeling nature of ‘An Insubstantial Universe’. It’s as pure as a party ball full of confetti. Its criticisms of the modern world are familiar, safe, if even no less relevant than they were 50 years ago – or in Eliot’s time. And it stays true to the origin of its title, a passage from ‘The Spanish Gypsy’used as the epigraph. ‘Our nimble souls/can spin an insubstantial universe/suiting our mood, and call it possible.’ Stockdale and Alyal’s anthology does suit the mood of its publication, even committing itself to Reverend Professor Jane de Gray’s introductory claim that the poems ‘bear witness to what Anna Kisby sums up so beautifully: ‘Dead poets/live forever you know.’ The poets of become secondhand audiences to Eliot’s ‘imaginary audiences,’ and, for better and worse, leave Eliot immortal. They are Eliot’s last husband, John Cross, who Bodenheimer describes as ‘the loving retrospect, the action of repair, the conduit of her origins.’ There’s a whiff of formaldehyde amidst the roses. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with this, of course, for love needs its aloes as well as its stings. It just leaves the reader wanting transcendence in a collection that can only lead them to the border of ‘calling it possible.’