Virtual Reality by Kathleen McPhilemy

Reviewed by Emma Lee

Virtual Reality is an unpaginated, £3 pamphlet containing one long sequence and three shorter poems, originally published in 1993. It opens with the titular sequence, which has nothing to do with a computer generated world (the more recent understanding of the phrase ‘virtual reality’), adding to my sense of a dislocated narrator:

I carry the jar of my not unhappiness
carefully; the least shock might rupture
the atmosphere of almost that surrounds me.
There are no messages and the whole business
of folding twists of papers into bottles
became too difficult, a waste of hope.

This is easier: resisting invitations
I draw my ghosts, inscribe my dancing partners
on the misty condensations of the glass.
I take the veil to make myself effective
myself enclosed, I can go into the world
the one-way time marked on clocks and watches.

Don’t be surprised if my answers seen disjointed
my eyes lacklustre; I’m tired dancing days
away in the occult kingdom. I’ve had more lives
than any cat could hope for; played my games
of love and pain with empty names of feelings
wipe successive partners from the glass.

This is a mood-piece, sustaining fragile stability – “not unhappiness” – carefully curating and striving towards neutral balance. The speaker would like to move forwards in time, but finds they can’t leave the past behind, so they are stuck in the present. The work carries a sense of dislocation, of a speaker observing her world but not entirely engaging with it. This atmosphere is sustained throughout, ending:

The unacknowledged ones whose lives are real
once only, set in danger, send us tidings
time-marked words that reach us as events
particular sayings we must listen to
stringently, answer, transmit, translate
underwriting our own names and the date.

There’s a note of irony in this listening and underwriting, a hint that the speaker knows her life is unacknowledged and her work unreciprocated. It’s left to the reader to decide whether she is offering advice, or telling others not to live the life she’s lived. Whereas impreciseness works in this poem – those “successive partners” the reader never finds anything out about, other than as objects to catalogue – it fails in one of the other poems, “Metaphysics as a Guide to the Oxford Ice Rink” (in which ‘she’ is the narrator’s daughter):

Peacock boys in gaudy hockey boots
are momentary angels scorching ice.
The panto star is dancing in the centre
dazzling in Lycra, nowhere else but now.
She practises a spin, she is herself entirely
light and heat, charged to her finger ends
she generates the patterns of the dancers
and reaches me and warms me, beyond the barrier.

I struggled to picture the scene beyond a general skating session at an ice rink in Oxford, because normally ice-hockey players wouldn’t share rink space with figure skaters. I couldn’t see “the panto star is dancing in the centre” since ice-dancers work in pairs and spread across the rink and I didn’t see a reason to use ‘dance’ as a substitute for ‘skate’. Perhaps my knowledge is getting in the way, but I wanted more specificity here.