- “How Art Works on the Pain Spectrum”Ekphrasis and Trauma in Recent Poetry by Pascale Petit and Carol Rumens
The Speech of Wounds
There is broad agreement about the extent to which trauma has become a major element in Western culture over the past thirty years. Roger Luckhurst outlines the features of a trauma culture by tracking “the affective transmissibility of trauma . . . across virtually every arena of discourse, whether scientific or cultural, professional or amateur, high or low.”1 Similarly, Philip Tew’s study of British fiction since the mid-1970s, The Contemporary British Novel, features a chapter, “The Post-millennial, 9/11 and the Traumatological,” that explores “an emerging aesthetic of cultural threat and upheaval, a collective economy of repetition and symbolic return similar to that described by Cathy Caruth in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996).”2 This converges with Neil Astley’s introduction to Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002), which offers poetry as “a great source of nourishment to many more people who are trying to make sense of a new age of information and double-speak, technology and terrorism, of war and world poverty.”3 Astley evokes the shadow side of the world portrayed by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney in an earlier, unconnected anthology, Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (1996). They argued that greater knowledge about everything from [End Page 95] “the outer reaches of the universe and the distant history of life itself” and the rise of life online made it “inevitable” that “poetry should be written which makes free with the boundaries of realism.”4
Astley’s sketch of “unreal times” has the effect of proposing poetry as a bridge across a wide range of affective realms and arenas of discourse. For Shapcott and Sweeney, poetry is particularly responsive to the accelerated change that characterizes the contemporary scene. Poetry, specifically two recent examples of contemporary British ekphrastic poetry, is the focus of this essay. In what follows, I want to suggest some possible connections between trauma and contemporary ekphrastic poetry. I will begin by looking briefly at the relation of images and trauma in a recent novel by William Gibson, and I will then examine how ekphrastic criticism and some canonical ekphrastic poems can be said to converge with a wider trauma aesthetic. Finally, I will discuss recent poetry by Pascale Petit and Carol Rumens that seems to me to treat ekphrasis as a species of trauma-tological narrative.
I have chosen to begin with William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2004) for two reasons. First, its trauma narrative is developed in an explicit way that might almost have been designed to demonstrate trauma’s affective transmissibility.5 Second, it powerfully suggests a convergence of reading for trauma with reading images. It might be argued that the differing formal relationships between and within narrative in fiction and narrative in poetry make this is an odd start to my argument. However, Gibson’s novel does more than just demonstrate trauma’s affective transmissibility within contemporary culture. It shows how the reading of images tends to demand a narrative that bridges a range of affective realms and arenas of discourse and, as a consequence, to a large extent elides and even collapses distinctions between those realms and discourses. As we shall see, this is something that happens in the ekphrastic poetry of Petit and Rumens discussed later in this article. To return to Gibson, his protagonist, Cayce Pollard, a “‘coolhunter’ . . . a dowser in the world of global marketing,” whose father went missing in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, finds herself on the track of a curiously addictive online film known as “the footage.” She finds that the film is made by Nora, who was injured in a Russian Mafia bomb attack on her family and is cared for by her twin sister, Stella. Before the bomb, Nora had had a sixteen-minute short film shown at Cannes; after the bomb, she edited it down to a single [End Page 96] frame: “A bird. In flight. Not even in focus. Its wings, against gray cloud.”6 Nora self-harmed after seeing the attack on...