Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter, with an Essay by Rosemary Hill

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Reviewed by Harriet

I was a slow starter where Angela Carter was concerned. I was given what I now think of as her masterpiece, Nights at the Circus, sometime in the 1980s, and didn’t much like the look of it. In fact I started reading it twice and gave up both times on page 2. I’m not sure what made me turn the corner, but eventually I persevered and got completely hooked. When I started teaching in the 1990s, Carter’s novels, short stories and essays featured in important ways in modules on 20th century women writers. But, like, I suspect, many people, I wasn’t aware that she had ever written poetry.

Admittedly, she didn’t write very much of it, and that over a very short period. Most of the poems in this small volume were written between 1963 and 1966, and published in small, long-forgotten magazines. Her first novel, Shadow Dance, came out in 1966 and The Magic Toyshop the following year, and Carter evidently felt she had found the genre that suited her best (though there seems no way of knowing whether she continued to write poetry but not publish it).

Rosemary Hill first discovered that Carter had written poetry through her husband, the poet Christopher Logue, who died in 2011. She knew he’d admired her poems, and after his death discovered, among his treasured possessions, a ‘stapled, roneoed’ copy of her poem ‘Unicorn’. As she wrote in a recent Guardian article,

In it I saw, as if in bud, the ideas that grew into the extravagant, sometimes sinister blossoms of her later work. The poem reconfigures the myth of the lady and the unicorn, subject of a million tapestries and table mats. Carter rearranges it almost literally, as if playing with characters in a toy theatre. “Let us cut out and assemble our pieces,” runs the first line, and later the reader is told to “bend the tab, slit in slot marked ‘X’”. At 23 it seems that Carter had arrived, as if in a single bound, in the mysterious forest that was to keep her supplied with ideas for the rest of her life. She saw at once how myths and folk tales offer a kind of narrative flat pack, pre-existing characters and stories that can be restructured according to the tastes of each generation.

It was this discovery, added to the knowledge of how much it would have meant to Logue, that led her to seek out what remained of Carter’s poetry, which now appears here together with a couple of essays by Hill herself. While the essays are interesting, it is the poems themselves that will lead readers to this book, and they should be essential reading for anyone who is interested in or an admirer of a novelist who made no. 10 on a list of the best writers since 1945.

‘Unicorn’ is the first poem in the volume, and you will need to read no further to see that all of Carter’s later preoccupations were already in place before the novels and essays brought them to fruition. It’s a poem in three parts, and here’s how it begins:

                      As with the night-scented stock, the full
splendour of the unicorn manifests itself most potently
at twilight. Then the horn sprouts, swells, blooms
in all its glory.              SEE THE HORN
(bend the tab, slit in slot
marked ‘x’)

The poem enacts the classic story of the young virgin, put out in the forest to lure the unicorn, but enacts it with twists that will be recognised by anyone who’s read Carter. The virgin is ‘raw and huge and her breasts are like carrier bags/the only virgin to be had’; she has been provided by strip club agents and the whole event has been staged theatrically for the drooling voyeurs. In the third section (‘Lights, Action’), the virgin ‘sings, tunelessly’, and proves to have more to her than our first view of her would suggest:

I have sharp teeth inside my mouth
Inside my dark red lips,
And lacquer slickly hides the claws
In my red fingertips.

Among other things this poem shows Carter’s fascination with rethinking myths and legends, which is such a feature of her later work (see especially The Bloody Chamber).  ‘Through the Looking Glass’, another, very short, poem, rewrites Alice in Wonderland to witty effect, and ‘Poem for Robinson Crusoe’ deconstructs and pays tribute to that novel, with a Brechtian twist its tail. The longest poem here, ‘Two Wives and a Widow’, is a modern version of  a Middle Scots poem by William Dunbar in which three women discuss the shortcomings of their menfolk in extremely honest terms (though as Hill points out, Carter actually holds back on some of the sexual frankness rather more than Dunbar’s original does, perhaps because the poem was destined for publication in The London Magazine).

The final  three poems in the volume date from her important and formative period of living in Tokyo at the end of the 1960s. There’s a tenderness in these poems which is largely missing from the earlier ones, no doubt a result of the love affair she had while she was there. I particularly liked the third poem, ‘Only Lovers’, which reminded of a short story Carter’s on much the same theme, the name of which I have completely forgotten. It describes what I assume is a Japanese phenomenon, a hotel room that can be hired by the hour for lovers. It’s far from seedy, rather sweet, in fact, with tea and ‘very small sweet cakes’ provided by a neatly dressed maid. Here’s how the poem ends:

Ah! Now I understand
This is not an illicit bedroom at all.
It is the safety-net in which the death-
defying somersault of love may be performed
with absolute propriety.
That is the custom of the country.

So, despite its regrettably short length, this book is a must-read for anyone who loves Carter, and indeed anyone interested in poetry of the 1960s. Well done to Profile Books for publishing it.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Unicorn: The Poetry of Angela Carter with an essay by Rosemary Hill (Profile Books, 2015). 978-1781253618, 108 pp., hardback.

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