Ella Frears’ I Am The Mother Cat is number 48 in the Rough Trade Editions series, and was written as part of Frears’ tenure as writer in residency at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (England) from February 2021. Working in partnership with ArtfulScribe and their SO:Write project, the John Hansard Gallery were determined to “hold the space for a writer who could activate, engage and respond” to the unique set of circumstances presented by the extraordinary turbulent and challenging times of Covid-19.
According to Woodrow Kernohan, director of the John Hansard Gallery, Frears “became a watcher and immersed herself in our online talks and films before going behind the scenes and opening up new conversations with gallery staff, workshop participants and artists”. The work in I Am The Mother Cat reflects this, with poems as complex and layered as the life of the gallery.
The poems suggest that Frears was inspired by her experience of a variety of art in different mediums, including portraits (Sofonisba Anguissola’s portrait of Elena Anguissola – “The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun”; Anthony van Dyck’s Portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola), film (Morgan Quaintance’s “Missing Time”, Sam Laughlin’s “Falling wall, rising dust”, Oozing Gloop and NewfrontEars’s “Commucracy Now!”), and exhibitions and events (Lisa Watts’ project “My Crazy Family Golf”, Hetain Patel’s “Trinity”, Derek Jarman’s Queer Nature).
I Am The Mother Cat is prefaced by a quote from Don Quixote (“I know who I am”); Frears states in the acknowledgments that Miguel de Cervantes’ novel inexplicably “haunted” her work. Don Quixote (and not Sancho Panza) is however the perfect companion for a set of poems set in pandemic times, where the poet considers the nature of reality, and what is fact or fantasy.
The windmills of crazy golf on a work engagement day lead to Quixote through poem “Tilting at Windmills”, inspired by Lisa Watts’ exhibition “My Crazy Family Golf”. Frears’ poetic response is notable for its distinctive, idiosyncratic voice, with the poem a literary sitcom; the chaotic tone is supplemented by matter of fact, comic declaration – it’s “hard to know what’s real”, “life’s no crazy golf course”. This was perhaps provoked by the interactive nature of the exhibition; Frears comments in her accompanying notes, “People Looking at People Looking at Art”, that exhibition gallery assistants encouraged visitors to play crazy golf on a course made by the artist and her father, with the assistants also taking part and having their own crazy golf league table.
Don Quixote is there, both in spirit and as a reference point, in “Bambi Hunter”, a long prose poem and loose response to ideas about radical gardening and the right to green space discussed during the online event Derek Jarman’s Queer Nature. The poem is set in calendar-clearing lockdown, with the narrator attempting to make good use of the time by attempting to read the Cevantes novel – to be able to use the word quixotic “authentically” (further stated aims include writing a book and getting stronger arms through weight lifting). In the late afternoons the narrator runs a bath and takes the book to read, but instead gets distracted by Twitter, “leaving the book to curl in the steam unread”. By the last page of this eight page poem, the book is unfinished, due to the distraction of an intense online game.
“Bambi Hunter” considers the altered state of seeing the world commonly encountered by gamers; in the poem, objects encountered “in real life” are considered for pilfering for the virtual world, and the black handle of a digital thermometer is mistaken for the butt of a revolver. The digital word and lockdown produce an environment where time feels “weird”, with every day played equating to three days in “the game world”. Acts of violence and trolling seem casual, and eventually the narrator and their partner become “that which we feared most”. Since the poem’s publication, the press have reported that a Meta beta tester has said that she was gang raped in virtual reality Metaverse, and digital men groped and belittled her.
The world of I Am The Mother Cat is often surreal, intensified by the confusion of the online world intersecting with enforced isolation of pandemic times; a “long-distance grandfather, poorly lit” struggles with the virtual world in “The Submission”. The surrealism is intensified by an absent environment, extending to both physical and metaphorical holes – at the dentist in “Horror Vacui” or considering whether to use a “murder hole” (in the poem of the same name). “Hole Manifesto” contemplates whether the centre of a Party Ring (the hole in an iced biscuit) is consumed with the biscuit itself or whether a topologist (a mathematician who specialises in considering the properties of geometric objects) can dip her mug into a donut (this obscure joke, of sorts, is that a topologist cannot distinguish a coffee mug from a donut, as a sufficiently pliable donut could be reshaped into a coffee mug).
These are witty, playful poems. “Soak it All in” incorporates a waitresses mispronunciation into a running joke; “plum becomes “blam”, and as the poem progresses we hear about “dusty blams” and “blam juice”. “Murder Hole” finishes in childish glee after dark contemplation of violence with the aid of hot sand, tar, scalding water, quicklime, and boiling oil.
As part of the exploration into reality, Frears visits the trippy worlds within worlds of hypnosis in “Rabbit Hole”; the internet is “hungry for itself” as hypnotists and cult chiropractors perform online and the “reply-guy” strains “to kiss his own genitals”. The surreal “Light and Shade in the Manner of a Hypnotist” draws on different levels of hypnosis to evoke a dream-like state in which the reader is taken into the subconscious. One of the best sequences in the poem is a descent into social disaster, as we’re asked to imagine human personality being physically “dimmed” by means of a dimmer switch, with the poem’s subject starting “effervescent, dazzling a small group of strangers”, but with behaviour descending in stages, to talking about “the price point” of the wine, to “giving a man bad financial advice/while staring at his wife’s breasts”, to committing an indiscretion on a “fluffy white towel”.
I Am The Mother Cat can be characterised by its search for meaning and identity; the games tester in poem “Bambi Hunter” runs his avatar backwards to see what happens, and in a similar way the poet often turns ideas around to see what they look like at different angles. “Paint Me in the Garb of a Nun”, inspired by Sofonisba Anguissola’s sixteenth century portrait “The Artist’s Sister in the Garb of a Nun” (which is resident in the Southampton City Art Gallery), puts the viewer of the artwork and the reader of the poem into “the skin and nails” of the subject, with “the fears of a nun, with nun confidence/and nun pain”. Frears pushes the limits of form in the poem through repetition (we count ten “paint me”’s and 36 “nun”’s) as Anguissola is asked, implored, to paint the subject as she should be – with faith, inner peace, love, dreams, body language, gait, cruelty, dietary requirements, wisdom, hopelessness, anger, confusion etc. Nuns are often only thought of in terms of their calling, but this nun (and poem) are multi-dimensional.
Designed by Craig Oldham and Alice Fraser, I Am The Mother Cat is a limited signed edition released for National Poetry Day 2021, and includes a fold-out entitled ‘No Paintings, Sorry’ featuring five poems by John Hansard Gallery assistants (Amy Scott-Pillow, Jessica Willis, Piers Inkpen, Louise Burlefinger and Luke Shears). With its willingness to experiment and generous sense of humour, I Am The Mother Cat serves as a compelling poetic record of our strange 21st century pandemic world.
Notes: it’s been recently announced that Ella Frears will be the first poet in residence for the Dartington (England) Grade II listed gardens. Frears is also debuting a poetry show at Machynlleth Comedy Festival in Wales (29 April to 1 May 2022).
Publisher: Rough Trade
Publication Date: 09 SEP 2021