Rediscovering Angela Carter's poetry: Images that stick and splinter in the mind

Angela Carter’s reputation has had a switchback ride. She went, as she put it, from being “a very promising young writer” in the 60s to being “completely ignored in two novels”. Her critical status revived in the 80s with the reimagined fairy stories of The Bloody Chamber and the films The Magic Toyshop and The Company of Wolves, but she never enjoyed what she called “the pleasantest but most evanescent kind of fame, which is that during your own lifetime”. Since her death in 1992 her stock has risen. She has been called one of the 20th century’s best writers and Lambeth council has named a street in Brixton after her.

In 2012, when the London Review of Books asked me to write a piece on Carter’s work, I had mixed feelings. I was of the 80s generation that did not so much read as inhale her in my 20s, and what impresses you at that age doesn’t always bear revisiting. She did. I found her improved by time, having outgrown the categories – magic realist, feminist, gothic – into which she had been awkwardly crammed. I realised too that she was funnier than my earnest younger self had noticed, so I reread all of the work I could find. But I found no poetry.

I knew she had written verse because my first husband, the poet Christopher Logue, who died in 2011, had said more than once that her poetry was underrated. Constructing as best I could Christopher’s likely train of thought, I got his old school tuck box out of the wardrobe. Here he kept books he especially valued. Among the treasures, such as his letter from Ezra Pound, I found a stapled, roneoed copy of Carter’s poem “Unicorn”, published in Bristol in 1966.

In it I saw, as if in bud, the ideas that grew into the extravagant, sometimes sinister blossoms of her later work. The poem reconfigures the myth of the lady and the unicorn, subject of a million tapestries and table mats. Carter rearranges it almost literally, as if playing with characters in a toy theatre. “Let us cut out and assemble our pieces,” runs the first line, and later the reader is told to “bend the tab, slit in slot marked ‘X’”. At 23 it seems that Carter had arrived, as if in a single bound, in the mysterious forest that was to keep her supplied with ideas for the rest of her life. She saw at once how myths and folk tales offer a kind of narrative flat pack, pre-existing characters and stories that can be restructured according to the tastes of each generation.

“Unicorn”, like The Bloody Chamber, draws out what a post-Freudian age sees beneath the surface – the phallic unicorn’s horn, the virgin in the garden – draws it out, blows it up into imagery as lurid as a flashing neon sign outside a sex shop and then drops it bathetically flat at the end. This woodland’s “innocent and fragile leaves” conceal the strip-club agents who are using an unappealing virgin, “raw and huge … the only virgin to be had” to lure the unicorn. As Carter once said of Walter de la Mare, a writer she, surprisingly perhaps, much admired, these are images that stick like a splinter in the mind.

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