Book Review

Continental Drift (Sheila Black and Michele Marcous)

Review by Janet McCAnn

Continental Drift, by Sheila Black and Michele Marcoux, is the print version of an challenging experimental exhibition presented at Patriothall Gallery in Edinburgh in March of 2010. It combines startling verbal and pictorial images which evoke a host of reactions to its subjects, mothers and daughters, men and women, violence and resistance against that violence. This book (and the exhibition it represents) is a fine marriage of words and art–a true collaboration of genres, not an illustrated poem or a typical ekphrasis.

The paintings by Michele Marcoux are shadowy, suggestive minglings of color and shape, which take different forms for different readers, but they suggest a woman's world of curves, fabrics, overlapping figures. Their sweeping shapes almost conceal women's figures hidden in the background. To me they are ominous as well; dark patches seem to threaten to swallow the light. There are also combinations of words and images.

The art heightens the experience of the poem by Sheila Black, which provides two women's voices, a mother's and a daughter's, identified as "First Voice" and "Second Voice." The earlier (or "second") voice is set in 1968 somewhere on the New England shoreline, and the later one is in Paisley, Scotland, in 2007.

The "Second Voice," the mother, gives a vivid understanding of mid-twentieth century American middle class women's lives. It is Sylvia Plath's world, and Plath's visions and words mingle with those of the mother as she tries to find some way to be her own person in a time and place which does not recognize such a need. Plath expresses better than anyone the claustrophobic nature of the time; the mother shares the limitations of Plath's life, and through her interest in Plath the parallels are clarified.

The "First Voice," the daughter, is also Plathlike in her vision, even though she is in a wider world. She goes back and forth between images of her marriage and recent current events, particularly the attempt to blow up an airport. Glasgow airport bomb plotter Bilal Abdulla was born in Britain into a privileged Iraqi family but he became radicalized and turned against Britain, attempting to blow up the Glasgow airport in 2007, the time period of the daughter's reverie. She thinks about how the young medical student might have changed into the terrorist he became:

Twenty-seven. Studying to be
a doctor.

At what point does he begin to transform

into a man who when he closes his eyes,

sees not blackness but conflagration. Crushed mint
a memory,

flecks of rice or coffee, the ten flavors of
bread or wind?

I can enter at odd moments his story:

Say he waits in line at a convenience store.

Tesco or Sainsbury's
or M & S.

Outside pavement, shuttered window,

a sidewalk of empty crisp packets.

A café with metal chairs and formica tables.

She sees through his eyes. At this point there is a shift as the poem returns to the second voice, the mother pulled between her husband's demands and the desire to read Plath-Plath the unsatisfied, the lonely mother, the woman without a man.

You are reading again, he says. He doesn't
say any more. He doesn't have to.

I am slow as the world, Plath says in the
beginning of the poem. And later:

These are my feet, these mechanical echoes.

Plath and violence are two major elements of the collection. Another important component is the poem "Wulf and Eadwacer," an Old English poem in which a woman's voice laments the departure of her husband, this ghostly abstract voice perhaps providing a history of the relations between men and women. "I'm not starving but my mind is hungry," says the woman. Eadwacer is deserted and lonely. She wants, needs Wulf, who is more concerned with his life...probably as a warrior...than with her. The line applies to Sylvia and to both women, mother and daughter. It surfaces as a motif in the poem, as do plums, cooking, the sea, and other images related to the theme.

The three elements suggest an impossible conflict between women's and men's desires and evoke the human impulses to nourish and to destroy, to give birth and to deal death. The issue that arises is, how much has the world changed since Plath's time? Is Plath still relevant? Shared images from the mother's and daughter's perspectives suggest that to this poet she certainly is. The nature of power and the definition of power as a masculine thing seem to persist through time. This complex mixed-media exploration of age-old questions is a delight to experience. Its answer to the Plath query seems to be, the world has changed tremendously and it has not changed at all.

Contiental Drift is available through Poetry and Art. Query Michele Marcoux, 18 Bryson Road, Edinburgh EH11 1EE,