Early in her essay collection, ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost,’ Rebecca Solnit invokes the motif of ‘terra incognita,’ that blank unexplored space at the edge of things. Solnit tells us that, “not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the ‘terra incognita’…lies a life of discovery.”
Lydia Unsworth, in her stunning debut collection, Certain Manoeuvres, enacts a circling, tightly controlled journey into this unknown territory: the only halfway-certain landscape of urban Amsterdam and the murkier interior geography of the traveler. The result is a profound and often confronting work exploring memory, home, liminality, technology, lack, and connection. It is above all, however, an ode to the urban playground and an achingly apt mapping of a corresponding interior psychogeography.
The collection is arranged as a cycle of prose poems with the recurring titles, ’68, Effect, Attachment, On, and Master (Stream). The ’68 series are themselves excerpted from a 1960s guidebook that paints Amsterdam in buoyant, painterly tones (the city’s “surprising spirit of harmony”, where “the sunlight is reflected on copper weighing scales”). Unsworth thus deftly lays down a recurring foil for her deeply nuanced, and at times, troubling offering. “We are all treated with the same guiding handbook”, we are told and this indeed acts as the springboard for an exploration of the sharper corners encountered in both the city and one’s own interior ground.
Motifs of lack recur: disaster, disease, homesickness, boredom, isolation. Their devastation is at times absolute: “They found him when his direct debits stopped transacting. Until then nobody noticed the smell.” There is isolation: “I try to smell like dead meat so the beetles come and sleep on me. I miss company.” The awareness of individual human fragility is arresting: “You cannot imagine anything lasting, enduring any kind of future.”
And yet to emphasize only this figuration of lack is to neglect the wry wisdom and vibrant dynamism masterfully offered up through these pages: the gleeful delight of wordplay and of child play; a devilish relish in handling heavy mythos (“[h]i Mum, check out the size of this egg, this bone”); a kind of comfort to be found in ruin and decay (“[r]ust in Dutch means peace”, we are reminded); and the movement towards being satisfied with life in its present locality. There is, moreover, a beautifully conceived, earnest, constant seeking for home and for human connection, even if this remains only glancingly achieved.
Unsworth offers up a further kind of wisdom in her handling of negative spaces: “One breath must be sacrificed to make way for another; that is how rhythm works, music. Life is full of negative spaces.” It is a theme to which she returns repeatedly. Localities of absence confront the reader time and again; they demand negotiation, integration. Bodies move in and out of negative spaces, there are “eyes to be avoided…the wind around a shuttlecock.” Buildings are demolished and maps are made obsolete. The terra incognita of Solnit’s rendering is not, therefore, beyond the sea in unknown lands but right here, being re-formed through negation and run up against in the urban setting on a daily basis. One poem, for example, handles the sudden appearance of a sinkhole: “the hole isn’t on any maps, doesn’t exist.” A proposed but, one suspects, not wholly satisfactory response to so much negative space, more often than not is to Instagram the lack: “Us and the hole!”
Unsworth further negotiates these negative spaces by performing a compelling form of via negativa, employing “not this” descriptors—as if this is the best tool with which to probe inner landscapes: “you are better out than in, you are better not at home than not away.” The concept of home, in particular, is powerfully constructed by means of this apophatic impulse: “You left so you could feel that true-home feeling…. you must always retain your connection to the place you are not. The other place has to exist, has to be superior. Or this will once again become the only place there is.”
The effect of all this negotiation of space is powerfully disorienting, derealizing—this in itself being a trope of early travel literature more generally, and one in a series that Unsworth handles with effective tongue-in-cheek. There is liminality in all this movement: transition and transaction at the edge of places. Polarities abound and are held in tension heightening the reader’s sense of dissociation. It is, needless to say, not a comfortable book and there were times when I wanted to slam it down.
There is weariness in these pages. With the imperative of transnational living, the imperative of travel and exploration. The speaker wanders the snail-like route of Amsterdam daily and it is reflected at the very level of syntax. Quantities of long winding phrases conjoined with volta-like commas and semi-colons that imitate this turning and rounding back: “You can only walk away from your base for half the day, the other half is for walking back again.” And while the snail metaphor is not new, Unsworth adds fresh meaning to what is being signified: in traveling bravely outward into the world, the speaker is daily forced also to travel back inward (read also, in on oneself). These daily confrontations add up. In the end we are told: “There is no discovery. You live life like an elastic band looping back towards itself… snapped, worm-like, unable to clarify at which end you still, if you still, keep your head.”
There is a ubiquitous and certain connection with technology despite, or perhaps because of, all this transnational movement, this exploration of the unknown landscape. In a particularly striking passage, Unsworth conflates these two preoccupations, terra incognita and negative space: “We travel to the edges of computer games. We want to see where the mesh runs out, see where the coders traded trees for grid…. We push our avatars into every unseen could-be-a corner, because maybe.” There is a kind of futurism here, although writ small—more as an inevitability than anything.
Interactions between lovers, accordingly, become nothing more than Instagram ops: “The way we hold each other’s heads. By the chin. We are holding them up to face the camera.” Unsworth astutely places pressure on the difference between human and technological connection: “You’d think, in this day and age, that there would be more connections. I hardly ever bring my hands and face to visit you anymore.” For indeed, this is a world where human connection is oblique. A world where there are barriers—thin, often nearly transparent—between people. Where plastic wallets keep things safe from rain. Where even in bed “we keep our socks and knickers on so as not to spread disease.” This is “a city where we all carry around our own personal plastic surround shower curtains for spontaneously screaming behind. “ Just behind the pages lurks that existential solitude, that quiet little scream in the bathroom before walking out of the house, hitting the pavement.
It is perhaps telling that by the last few poems the speaker is still trying to negotiate these near-connections and not quite succeeding. Connections with the city, with others: ”I want to tell the city that we have something, me and it but…[y]ou cannot miss collective imagination.” In the final lines, the speaker is told by a child in arms that the two of them “are not the same thing”. She turns to scan nearby faces, as if trying to map out new connections, new territory, but then the imperative to keep moving edges its way back in and it’s nothing more than “[a] ten-second break before the cardio re-begins.”
Certain Manoeuvres is published by The Knives Forks and Spoons Press and can be found on Amazon