- United Kingdom -
Joelle Taylor is the author of 4 collections of poetry and a novel. Her most recent collection C+NTO & Othered Poems won the 2021 T.S Eliot Prize and was the subject of a Radio 4 arts documentary Butch. C+NTO was nominated for the Rathbone Folio Prize, longlisted for the Ondaatje Prize, and won 2022 the Polari Book Prize. It was named by The Telegraph, the New Statesman, The Guardian, The White Review & Times Literary Supplement as one of the best poetry books of the year, as well as DIVA magazine’s Book of the Month, and awarded 5 stars by the Morning Star. She has completed a book tour of Australia including Sydney Opera House (March 2022). C+NTO is currently being adapted for theatre with a view to touring. A former UK SLAM Champion she founded the national youth poetry slams SLAMbassadors through the Poetry Society in 2001, remaining its Artistic Director until 2018. She is a co-curator and host of Out-Spoken Live, resident at the Southbank Centre, and an editor at Out-Spoken Press. She is also completing her memoirs for publication in 2024, and her novel of interconnecting stories The Night Alphabet will be published by Quercus in Spring of that year. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the 2022 Saboteur Spoken Word Artist of the Year.
‘we were all born grieving’: The Work of Queer Mourning in Joelle Taylor
I can’t remember the names of all my dead friends
but they are here now our grief a leather jacket
- Joelle Taylor, C+nto & Othered Poems
Joelle Taylor’s poetry is a site of numerous intersecting affects: feelings that are not without language, but somehow beyond it. Across collections, her poems roar and soar to bear witness to private longings and public un-belongings. They are testimonies, odes, praises, acknowledgements, records and reportages. They are celebratory and triumphant in parts, often in the teeth of a world that still refuses to acknowledge the existence of marginalised and occluded bodies who are maligned for their queerness and destroyed for their difference. But what lends Taylor’s work its unusual power is, I think, her particular and striking portrayal of grief and un/grievability: a negotiation with the kinds of grief – and grieved for subjects – that society does not want to look at. Across collections, she works and reworks the white-hot stuff of grief to interrogate it as a queering of the real, or as making strange of self and world to disrupt something at the level of thought and language. The labour of queer mourning runs as an animating force across C+nto & Othered Poems—Taylor’s 2021 collection that won the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry that year—but it is also negotiated through other poems and performance pieces across her oeuvre (Lock 2021). This essay is a reading of such texts that both respond to and inscribe the politics of mourning in ways that refuse a purely symptomatic reading and awaken the reader to the radical potentials of language and language encounters.
In many ways, it is the body that forms the centre from which the rich, interlocked anxieties of Taylor’s poetry radiate outward. In her review of C+nto, poet and performer Fran Lock writes:
The body is [also] Taylor’s most vivid subject. More accurately, the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: to gender and to sexuality. The bodies of women, and the bodies of lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them; systems in which the bodies of women are both the argument for and the evidence of their subjugation and abuse [italics in original].
Taylor’s 2014 collection, titled The Woman Who Was Not There, takes the recovery of such ghosted histories and institutional erasures as its central conceit. “So stand up,” Taylor announces in the opening poem of the collection, “speak free, exercise linguistic liberty/shut up and speak” (16, italics in original). In C+nto, the imperative to remember and preserve against gyres of violence appears even stronger. “It is important,” Taylor writes in the preface, “that we preserve our history” (16). If lesbian history is a history of silence and a “language of full stops”, then part of Taylor’s project is to actively write into that silence—communally, peripatetically, introspectively—to aid recovery and revolution (68). C+ntorevolves repetitiously around “the presence of absence”: bodies that exist in the gaps, creases, and folds of governments, societies, and systems (26). It is a scrutiny of the self-as-archive, of how trauma is remembered by and through the body: “maybe the skin knows/something about silence, see how it has turned/from itself” (28). It is an interrogation of the body as battleground and protest: “there are landmines buried deep underneath your skin” (35). And finally, it is an interrogation of trauma that loops, stutters, skews, ebbs, and resurfaces. Taylor’s collections generate a vocabulary—through their movement between different voices, lexis, and historical scenes—that can expose the continuum of loss, trauma and violence that persist in the lives of women. It also becomes, ultimately, a way of resisting or evading that violence. As she writes in Songs My Enemy Taught Me (2017): “this book is a run along a well-lit corridor. It is a parent with an open arm and a simple belief in me, as human, as here, as worthwhile. It is all the things that did not happen”. Taylor’s poetry forms a heterotopic space that can accommodate marginalised identities who are rejected by different maiming regimes. It resonates, as one of the poems in Songs My Enemy Taught Me intimates, as the “shriek of alive”—the scream of life—that marks a point of solidarity and resistance (148).
Yet, it feels important to note that Taylor’s poetry is not merely about rendering trauma and loss explicit, but also contends with the absolute necessity and impossibility of the task. Cathy Caruth, along with other Trauma Studies scholars Wendy Cheung and Shoshana Felman, have gestured to the narration of grief and trauma as “impossible saying” in their work: even though grief creates an imperative necessity to witness or tell, it exists in continuous conflict to the possibility of meaningfully doing so. Grief threatens communication and exceeds normative scripts of representation. It gives way, as Lock writes in an interview, to a kind of “relational uncannying”; it initiates a “troubling strangeness” within us, whereby it changes how we see and say, what it is possible to think and to know, the words with which and through which we apprehend reality. Across her collections, Taylor interrogates this dichotomy through the labour of queer mourning. “Every one of these poems,” she writes in The Woman Who Was Not There, “understands the limits of its page […]”. In C+nto, the work of queer mourning similarly plays out as an elegy of place: an elegy for the bars, squats, clubs that briefly held the four composite characters—butch lesbians—of Taylor’s collection in a “safe space” within which they could examine their lives (16). Queer mourning emerges also as an insurrectionary tactic that creates the spaces it laments: what it leaves behind, Taylor writes, is revealed as “more valuable/than what is taken” (30). Yet, there is complex fragility contained within this labour. It exists in stilted, looping moments throughout the collection, and is ultimately exiled. For, if language is a compromise, a kind of imperfect sieve for lived experience, then how can anyone ethically or adequately embody grief through poetry?
The politics of queer mourning allows Taylor to explore queer history, marginality, and social damage without reifying her subjects in a simplistic narrative of pain. Her complex meditations between the aesthetic, political and affective allows her to imagine her subjects—butch lesbian women with truncated histories—counter-stereotypically. Across collections, Taylor emerges as a rare poet who taps into quite a primal function of poetry: the work of patient and dedicated historicity. That her work reaches us as a reclamation and remembrance—a powerful celebration of an important history and culture—is a testament to the alchemy of her craft.