-Reviewed by Jennifer Edgecombe–
This Is Not A Love Thing by Victoria Bean is a book that contains a six verse poem based on William Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress, the story of a young girl arriving in London and her life as a prostitute in 18th Century London. On receiving my package, I was presented with a brightly coloured handmade book with each page featuring photocopied words cut up directly from the tart cards that used to be (and sometimes still are) found in phone boxes to advertise prostitutes, the poem printed out onto A4, and six black and white pictures presumably depicting general scenes from 18th Century London or possibly illustrations of the characters from an edition of The Harlot’s Progress. With ‘Italo Calvino!’ screaming in my mind, I immediately liked this premise and hoped that the exploration into these cards, words and pictures resulted in a work that provided not only experimentation but a thought through concrete poem.
I was not disappointed in the least. My initial thought was how the book (with one of two words printed largely on each page) felt like flicking through a catalogue or a directory. The text is jazzy and modern, it flits between fonts -Western, Art Deco, American. This suggests an ironic ‘pick and choose’ feeling. There is further irony within the sentences. The last line, written after the young girl, has died oozes with bitter irony; ‘Relax Venus / and enjoy the rest.’ implying that the pains (or pleasures) of her job will not even end in Heaven.
With cut-up techniques, you have limited word choice but praise must be paid to the poem constructed here, despite how exciting the book looks. There are six verses that tell the story of the prostitute’s visit to London in 2014, and what happens to her when she is apprehended by the law. The narrative flows easily and the first verse demonstrates the tone for the piece:
Boy have you been a lucky girl
new in town and everybody’s
darling: love, desire and a tender
touch always has the boys high
for candy kisses, little miss.
I particularly like the rhyming in that last sentence and the alliteration throughout the verse. It shows how Bean has put together a limited choice of words thoughtfully and poetically. By lifting the text from the tart cards Bean also highlights how shocking the subject is. The words are very evocative and sensual in isolation but within the context of prostitution, words like ‘cherry ripe’ and ‘ouch!’, and phrases that she has cut together like ‘pleasure princess’, show the very seedy story within.
There are sometimes stars that separate and punctuate the prose and this, along with the brash language used, hints at an over the top patriotic tone. By completely dismantling the tart cards and applying these specific words and symbols to this subject, Bean manages to produce a book that tips over the edge of satire. Prostitution becomes a brightly coloured and masochistic, chaotic circus, not least with the lines, ‘A young mistress, tamed and trained’ and ‘Bow & show repentance’.
The subtitle of the poem is ‘The Harlot’s Progress 2014’ whereas the lexis has an old-fashioned tone with words like ‘mistress’ and ’English rose’. However, the tart cards themselves provoke a sense of the 1980s when phone boxes were in popular use and advertising for prostitutes was rampant. Although the text doesn’t necessarily discuss anything particular from 2014 (the poem’s neutrality could mean the narrative could come from either century), I think that by highlighting the modern advertising strategy of an age-old industry, Bean successfully shows how the subjectification of (mainly) women and its wording hasn’t changed from the 18th Century to the 21st.
For ease, to type this review, I have been reading the poem printed out onto A4. But I love that the real form of the poetry is the book itself and the story disguised within the words on the original tart cards – just as each card found in a phone box would have a story similarly dirty, pornographic, abusive, or fun hidden behind the words.
Victoria Bean creates experimental poetry and book art. I think it would be interesting to see how This is Not A Love Thing would appear as a trade publication, whether the images and full printed versions of the poem would work integrated within or outside of the tart cards and whether the essentially home-made quality and ‘catalogue’ feel would stay or disappear. Ideally, I would like to see a whole collection of Victoria Bean’s work presented for I can imagine she has many other ideas and forms to manipulate and stretch into poems and prose. The book is due to be exhibited as a concrete poem in a gallery in April which is promising news – it would be great to go and see this exhibited as well as see further work from her.