TIN CAN WHITE GOWN by Alison Graham is the most recent release from PYRAMID Editions, a UK-based publisher of small pamphlets that prioritizes “poetry of formal experimentation and expression.” Graham’s pamphlet is comprised of three poems that simultaneously seem carefully curated and deeply unorthodox, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The poems are inspired by the Berlin Wall, and Graham told me that all of the poems were written while listening to the dreamy, hazy song ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, so I’m writing this review while listening to it.
The first poem in the pamphlet, Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen (Let them come to Berlin), is rich with intricate images like “and all I know of borders are hemlines” yet pierced with declarations that catch me off guard: “I do not fear the way I should.” The contrast reminds me vaguely of Plath in Daddy and Lady Lazarus but also of something else entirely, like a song I love but have never heard. This feeling culminates in the final stanza with these two lines:
I am from behind riot gear and do not. I do not,
do not say I do not say ever at all I love you.
Though Graham is referencing the Berlin Wall, her poetry transcends that specific moment in history and takes on an immortal quality, ageless and relevant to yesterday and today and tomorrow.
The Wall will be standing in 50 years, the second poem in the pamphlet, skips between the years of the Wall’s creation and destruction, 1961 and 1989. With the question
Time is quite
the fascist, don’t you think?
Graham uses the diction of politics to illustrate our lives, and it works beautifully. She writes of “the lines we were born the right side of,” pointing out the absurdity of nationalism. Every line is a tender, conscientious dismantling of borders.
The final poem, Zeitgeist blues, is brimming with soft violence, beautiful anaphoric lines like
I do what I know how, I burn
and serve the water
I will do what I know how I will
Smoke to the memory of you, idle, on the rainy days
The rhythm of Graham’s poetry takes on a singsong quality that contrasts strikingly with the threat of war and fire and burning and smoke that fumes just beneath the surface. I read her poems aloud and as I finished the collection my voice was caught in my throat, as if stopped by a wall.
Graham’s strong knowledge and care for the topic she explores makes me feel like it could easily be expanded into a beautiful full-length work, but it also works in this micro-collection as a flash into the history and present of the Berlin Wall and everything it represents.