Mary Coghill, Designed to Fade. Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2006. £9.95 144pp 978-1-905700-05-9
Mary Coghill’s ambitious, innovative narrative poem explores the experience of living in London, through a series of poems that cover twenty-four hours of life in the Capital. At one level it can be read in terms of the particular places and buildings encountered by the narrator in her poetic “A-Z/encompassed by literal measurements” (14), such as the “Giant Gherkin”, Maida Vale, Hackney, Goldhawk Road, Chiswick High Road, Kentish Town, the Hungerford Foot Bridge, and “the gothic horror of standing at a bus stop outside the Bank of England at 10.35 on a cold November night in gusting wind and rain when there is no-one there” (76). The “Dedication” affirms that
I have loved this city
still love this city
measure my years of growth
seize my catalogue of achievements
by this city. (9)
Despite this opening declaration, it is difficult to see ‘love for London’ as the dominant mood of Designed to Fade; most of the poems are powerfully critical, sombre and disturbing. They can also be witty and erudite.
The narrator travels from a night of remembered and overhead domestic violence and police chases (“She Died in Her Bed This Night” and “Manhunt”) and the early morning consciousness of a “chill dim dawn” with “lorries accelerating/over the manhole that has clanked unlevel for years” (29). Designed to Fade describes the tube journey to work, street scenes, the arrival at the office, problems in the workplace, lunch with workmates, and the “Rush Hour” road traffic accident victim glimpsed on the way home, “his black gloved hand/ . . .palm upwards/beckoning”. After the journey home, and the paying of the baby-sitter “I hand her the . . .money while she puts on her coat/’thank you’ ‘thank you so much’ ‘that’s fine’ ‘see you soon’ ‘yeah’/’take care’ ‘goodbye’ ‘goodbye’, the sequence ends with the narrator drowsily giving warm milk to a fretful baby, then waking to the sound of a slamming front door (“it’s gone two”) and the provisional coda of “this whole world shutting down/with an intake of breath”(113).
This brief summary does not do justice to the way the poem invokes historical, literary and philosophical co-ordinates. The mischievous dialogues with quoted passages from the Republic and Symposium, which occur throughout Designed to Fade, and in particular within the poem “Reading on the Tube”, suggest how inadequately Plato addresses a contemporary (or even Ancient Greek) woman’s experience of city life. The ironic voice performs a feminist critical reappraisal:
how glad I am you mentioned women a few times in your Republic
we are pleased to be here
to be recognised as having some function in your great plan of things
mind you I notice that you rather skate off in another direction
in a not too organised manner
which means that you just lost interest after a few pages
how wonderful that you found so many other things more important. (36)
Mary Coghill responds to the Republic by setting out a contemporary woman’s sense of city space — which often involves a sense of vulnerability. One word from the book’s title, “fade”, recurs at key points, including the final lines, highlighting a sense of impermanence or insignificance. This ‘fading’ is set alongside vivid local impressions and conversations — for example with builders or police expressing their derision of older women on the streets (and in some cases getting back more than they bargained for). Coghill also traces the history of courageous and publicly-engaged women, and has them inhabit the poems through allusion and quotation. The death of Mary Wollstonecraft from puerperal fever at 29 The Polygon, Somers Town, Kings Cross in 1797 is one such temporal and geographical landmark; another is provided by the career of Pippa Strachey, founder member of the Fawcett Library and prominent figure in women’s suffrage organizations. As a result of Mary Coghill’s research at the The Womens’ Library, the modern incarnation of the Fawcett Library, Pippa Strachey’s own words are movingly woven into the poem.
While Designed to Fade is postmodern in its uneasy, shifting voices, fluid free verse form and polyphony, it establishes links with a number of key modernist texts about the city. Hart Crane’s The Bridge is suggestively interwoven into the poem “City Crane”, where each stanza begins with words from Crane’s “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge”. Crane’s brilliant, memorable phrasing overlays references to contemporary urban culture with an older, more reverential poetic vocabulary—contrasting pages “of figures to be filed away” against his apostrophe to Brooklyn Bridge as a “harp and altar, of the fury fused”. “City Crane” does homage to The Bridge whilst at times seeming impatient with its poetic mode, seeing the harp as a “clichéed symbol for aspiration” and replacing Crane’s homage to the bridge with the attrition of “crowds and dry, static heat” (65). The Waste Land is not cited directly, unless the repeated quotation from Spenser’s “Prothalamion” (“Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song”) can be seen as an acknowledgment of Eliot’s poem. Nevertheless, it stands as a somewhat problematic pre-text which, for all its difference from Designed to Fade in terms of class and gender politics, prefigures the scattered conversations, specific locales, allusions and melancholy of this collection. Mary Coghill’s overt literary references are less obviously canonical: Mina Loy, Barbara Guest, Spare Rib.
Designed to Fade is conceived on a grand scale, but it also focuses on startling particular instances. At times the discursive, expansive qualities of the poem threaten to overwhelm the most memorable lines, and make the total effect less effective than it might have been. Mary Coghill has built into her poem a riposte to the critic and reader, quoting from Sara Mills’s textbook Writing in Action just at the point where they might feel the need for more of her sharply observed vignettes, and fewer discursive generalities: “(and the reader said/these are generalities/ ‘Have you included some point of detailed focus?’)” Yes, I was that ‘reader’ who enjoyed the points of detailed focus, and appreciated the overall design, whilst feeling that some of the writing could have been less diffuse.
To Cite This Article:
Chris Ringrose, ‘Review: Mary Coghill, Designed to Fade’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 2 (September 2007). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2007/ringrose.html. Accessed on [date of access]