The quilt’s a ragtag syzygy
of everything I’ve been or done,
a knotted spell in every seam,
the stuff that pricks and pulls. The quilt
began in ’96. I scrapped
the blotch batiks and brocatelles,
each backward-bending paisley hook
that tied me to my town. The quilt
came with me when I packed and left
– a bad patch, that – you’ll see I’ve sewn
a worried blot of grey and black
to mark a bruisy year. The quilt
advances, in a shock campaign
through block-fluorescent souvenirs
of seedy clubs and bad psytrance
and peters out in blue. The quilt
came with me when I ditched the scene
and dressed myself as someone new
– or someone else, at any rate,
and someone better, too – I felt
a charlatan in borrowed suits,
and flower prints, and pastel hues,
but things had turned respectable,
and so I stitched that in. The quilt
has tessellated all of it.
Arranged like faithful paladins,
are half a dozen bits and scraps
from those who took a turn, then split –
the dapper one, the rugby fan,
the one who liked his gabardine,
the one who didn’t want to be another patch in your fucking quilt
but got there all the same. The quilt
is lined with all the bitter stuff
I couldn’t swallow at the time –
the lemon-yellow calico
I never wore again. The guilt
snuck into every thread of it
and chafed all through the honeymoon.
I scissored out the heart of it
and stitched it, fixed it, final, here –
with every other bright mistake
I wear, like anyone.
- From Jinx by Abigail Parry (Bloodaxe). © 2018 Abigail Parry.
Although patchwork quilts are familiar both as a rediscovered art form and a literary trope, the form, voice and vocabulary of this poem, from Abigail Parry’s first collection, Jinx, are intriguingly different from the stock revisionist celebration “women’s work”.
Linguistic zest is foregrounded. “Ragtag syzygy” flags up a rich metaphor for the quilt-as-biography, and is itself an example of syzygy (which shares a root with zeugma – the yoking of opposites). We can feel the different fabrics and textures through the sound and “thinginess” of such words. The auditory effect is often strong. A cluster of words beginning with “B” flies across the first four stanzas: “blotch batik”, “brocatelles”, “backward bending”, “bad” (repeated), “bruisy”, “block-fluorescent”. They belong to various lexical registers, and their gathering denotes the sweep and urgency of a life pushed on through obstacles, a fierce “shock campaign” of self-discovery. The “bad patch” pun fully earns its place. Then, after the “bad psytrance”, a new mood and colour (until now the only colours were grey and black) are denoted by a fade to “blue”.
The clothes theme becomes predominant: the progress of the life, therefore the quilt, is plotted through changing styles and fashions. The bohemian rebel tones it down in borrowed suits and pastel hues. The changes are faithfully recorded in the “syzygy”. “The quilt”// “has tessellated all of it.”
Perhaps this is a moment to mention the form Parry has devised. The last line of each quatrain features a caesura, followed by the subject of the new sentence, “The quilt”. Visually, it suggests the stanza as patch, squared off, but stitched to the next, a reminder that the quilt is not only a biography in patches but has “a knotted spell in every seam”. It furthers the concept of the poem as quilt. The exceptional stanzas, five, seven, nine and 10, substitute a rhyme or half-rhyme for “quilt”, preceded by a lighter pause, except in nine, where there’s an attention-demanding full-stop before “The guilt”.
The second line of the eighth stanza (“Arranged like faithful paladins”) shifts to the present tense and introduces the speaker’s partners/lovers, who, like pieces of fabric, have since “split”. Each is briskly characterised. The truculent objection of one of them, quoted, is shown to be overridden: he’s in the quilt and the poem, so there. The narrator demonstrates a ruthless art of cutting difficulties down to size.
Pain hovers around certain stanzas, but is particularly present in the 10th, with its bile-like “bitter stuff”, connected with an ill-omened honeymoon fused into the quilt’s lining, “the lemon-yellow calico / I never wore again”. At this point, the stanza breaks the seams of repetition and rhyme: “I scissored out the heart of it / and stitched it, fixed it, final, here – // with every other bright mistake / I wear, like anyone.” The liberation from rhyme and quatrain-structure normalises the life of bright mistakes to a lowered, more bearable intensity. While the colloquial tone has sometimes seemed a masquerade of insouciance, the voice now finds ease, “like anyone”. But the quilt remains unique, the poem’s vision of “everything I’ve ever been or done” – knotty, prickly, vivid, intractable.