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Jessica Mookherjee reviews Brain Fugue by Claire Trevien

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I forgot what a fugue was when I started reading Trevien’s pamphlet of 24 poems all well presented and designed, published by Verve Press. I assumed it was a psychiatric term for temporary amnesia and ran through the poems in Trevien’s pamphlet one after another with this in mind. I was struck by the deftness and the sonic play Trevien is master of, the rhythm and control she executes and was marveling on how she weaves control and being out of control so playfully and only much later – when I encountered the title poem did I laugh to myself and realize that Trevien has out run me, of course, the Fugue is music – the same musical theme circled by different voices and I was delighted. As that is exactly what she has done. I kissed Claire Trevien’s brain and I liked it (sorry Katie Perry).

As a poet with an echo of languages lurking in my hippocampus and amygdala I was drawn to Trevien’s multi lingual and layered imagery. “Do I sweat French?”
What impresses me is the deftness and mercurial quality the poet brings both to the subject matter’s jammed metaphors and the control over the language and form. I feel, despite the nuanced and darting subject matter, in safe hands. This is because Trevien is adept in translation. She translates herself from page to page, she translates herself into a brain, a city, a garden, a tree, a computer, a home and tells us carefully, loudly, to be careful because she is still running, fast both with us and past us, though language and through trauma and through life. ““Say this opening is unhollow, say it is an opening,/ say open, say low.” (From ‘Brain Hard as Hares’).

Trevien’s skill as a poet is evident at the speed at which this pamphlet can be read and the coherence it as – just like a piece of music. This is no mean feet given the subject matter. Trevien announces the pamphlet in her first poem “Sick or Sad” and tells it as it is, these are poems of language, the body, consciousness and the need to run towards and from something that can not be spoken in anything other then the language of poetry “Here is my stomach full of rams fighting about fleeing”.

Trevien is a British-Breton writer and currently living in France and it would be too easy to wax lyrical about her roots in surrealism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Where the word, meaning and consciousness are interwoven in desire and body and that meaning is seductive and illusionary and elusive. Yes, Brain Fugue is all that, and like those old French philosophers of consciousness, Trevien’s work is very clever. However it is more then that. In her pages I am also in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and in the Welsh Mabinogion, a series of changes and transmutations and translations where the goddess chases the poet and he becomes a salmon, and she becomes an eagle and he becomes a hare and she becomes a fox and so it goes in a race for becoming, coping and surviving. In the “Brain at Home” Trevien writes “the street sits in the bathroom the bathroom sits at the crossroads”. Like quicksilver Trevian’s “Brain as Forest” takes my breath away. I loved this poem. It’s amazing first line “the collective noun for a tree isn’t forest; it’s a flooding.” captivates, and was so convinced me I had to google it to see if it was. It is here that Trevien shows us the brain is part of the organic world and as such wild and full of “ you are spelling MOUTH with brambles/ broom, heather, sessile oak, hawthorn./ your tongue is teeming with insects/”.

The small collection of poems belies their importance. There are clues inside, small hints that become bigger and bigger of what the Brain Fugue is masking, coping with. “I understand your situation, you are your mother” and ““you dance like rusty scissors, moving closer”. One of the most ‘chilling’ poems is Brain Freeze where the melding of a tight staccato rhythm, simple language and alliteration “bar to beat/ sea to switch” and “cold container of a car”, the assonance of the last lines “the right levers to move, to drive, to way” all make me hear the beauty, logic and art of a poet in control despite the subject matter. It makes Trevien’s skills in honing play all the more unnerving when the conclusion of the pamphlet is reached.

There are so many delights in this collection of poems. Ruth Padel calls it “Playful, beautifully curious” on the back of the pamphlet. I think of the poem “Air Brained” where Trevien brings us back to the fugue as memory and loss “my memories have vanished”, and she is in an organic city of thoughts “my questions are sending questions to each other to pass the time”. She brings us menace in the “chipped ceiling” where she abandons herself. The poet changes substance – from air to water, “I want you to know, if you are reading this, that I am trying to drain the water.” But she also trusts that the healing will take place on its own, as a plant grows. She switches also between organic and machine so she can choose which shift to take next, which direction to turn and how she translates truth in the final devastating poem. Brain Fugue is a beautiful, musical collection demanding to be read and translated into the reader’s brain and body as a work of art.

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Jessica Mookherjee is a poet of Bengali origin. She grew up in Wales and now lives in Kent. She has been published in many print and online journals including Agenda, Interpreter’s House, The North, Rialto, Under the Radar and Antiphon. Her pamphlets are “The Swell” (TellTale Press)And Joyride ( BLER). Her poems appear in various anthologies including Best of British and Irish Poets 2017. She was highly commended for best single poem in the Forward Prize 2017. Her first collection is ‘Flood’ (2018, Cultured Llama) and her second Tigress by Nine Arches Press 2019. She is one of the three editors of Against the Grain Poetry Press.

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