Nicholas Taylor-Collins in front of a bookshelf

Nicholas Taylor-Collins

Literary researcher | Creative reader

Dancing the night away: Joelle Taylor’s ‘C+nto & Othered Poems’

Joelle Taylor’s C+nto & Othered Poems (The Westbourne Press, 2021) won the 2022 T.S. Eliot Prize. It offers a searing history of butch culture in the 1980s and after, with both tragedy, epiphany, and liberation tracking across its 121 pages.

It is a collection that stores tragedy at its core, especially in the magisterial scene poem ‘O, Maryville’, an absurdist drama set in a lesbian bar that is, itself, a woman’s body. We witness the violent murder of Angel, one of the four main characters in the poem, a tragic death that is amplified by the celebrations that offset the violence.

Thus, whilst ‘The piercing in her eyebrow has been torn out & blood migrates, looking for a better life’, we are also presented with the ‘Inside’ of ‘the wound’ where there ‘is a young girl rocking’.[1] I want to think briefly about the ‘rocking’ lesbians in C+nto.

In particular, the celebratory scenes of dancing interest me. Dancing is rarely just an impassioned moving of body parts in time with music. For Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for instance, ‘the ghost dance is an attempt to establish the ethical relation with history as such, ancestors real or imagine’,[2] and I believe that this could provide a useful way of comprehending what Taylor’s lesbian personae achieve in Maryville.

It’s perhaps worth starting by looking at one of the verses in ‘Round Two’ of the title poem, ‘C+nto’:

our bodies are political placards we dance as
demonstration of independence we revolution in
the living room we uprising in the public toilets
insurgency in the suburbs.

‘Round Two’ of ‘C+nto’, Taylor, p. 38

Here dancing is playfully equated with political demonstration, revolution, uprising, and insurgency. Each of these terms—perhaps performing a crescendo of political disruption themselves—are explicitly linked to the fact of woman’s body and its insurrectionary potential. ‘Round Two’, the poem from which this passage is taken, is subtitled ‘the body as protest‘, and dance represents one of those methods of protest.

Later in C+nto, when we enter ‘O, Maryville’ with its corporeal stage and set, dance takes on another, celebratory hue. In ‘Heaven, 1995‘ it is plain to see:

vinegar this moment of belief.
club in a fish tank, riot genesis
a boi touches her fingertip
to a light beam & god winks
a wet eye. maybe the light
is an escalator to the afterlife,
or after party, or the part of her body
she checked in the cloakroom,
but tonight, all of the dead
will dance with her.
all of the dead are well
dressed this evening.
they solemn the escalator
descend to the dance.
how she reaches
toward the infinite.
this moment between.
how she sees
the ghosts of those
still alive.
how she conjures
life from life.

Heaven, 1995‘, Taylor, pp. 77–8

The energy contained in this night out at the dance club, Heaven, overspills the dance floors, allowing the dancer to reach ‘toward the infinite’, ‘conjur[ing] life from life, all because ‘all of the dead / […] dance with her’. Here is an obvious connection with Spivak’s ghost dance, when the philosopher theorised establishing an ‘ethical relation’ with ancestors.

In the case of C+nto, the ancestors are lesbians: both the ancestral lesbians of the 1980s for the 2020s readership, but also the ancestral lesbians who preceded Angel, Dudizile, Jack Catch, and Valentina—Taylor’s personae in ‘O, Maryville’. They are the ghosts, and are haunted by other ghosts.

Spivak describes the ghost dance as the moment when ‘You crave to let history haunt you as a ghost or ghosts, with the ungraspable incorporation of a ghostly body’ (70), and the effort of C+nto can be described as that paean to and memory of lesbian subculture from the 1980s onwards. But we’re invited to ask: Is it successful in C+nto? Does the text successfully create that ‘ethical relation’ with lesbian ancestors?

Spivak also writes that the end of the ghost dance ‘is to make the past a future, as it were—the future anterior, not a future present’ (70). This haunting from the past turns veneration of it into a ritual through which a future can be imagined and figured. The future in C+nto is confirmed in the final poem, ‘Trauma: the Opera‘ that ends with a Puck-like thanks to the readerly audience:

thank you for listening. lay a wreath where the two roads pleat. photocopy my photograph. return to me once a year. tell them a story

make me live.

‘Trauma: the Opera’, Taylor, p. 121

See how the ghost dance is reaffirmed insofar as the speaker is the ghost who can be made to live through returning to her and telling others a story. In fact, it’s a mutual haunting given that the speaker invites us to ‘return to me’, as if we are haunting her.

Whichever way you see the power balancing, there is nonetheless a hauntological relation at play. It results in an ethical relation with the past that leads to the future—a future that ends with story, but begins with dance.

[1] Joelle Taylor, C+nto and Othered Poems (London: The Westbourne Press, 2021), p. 91

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Ghostwriting’, Diacritics, 25.2 (1995), 64–84, 70.





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