Book Review

Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity by Ella Frears

good, serious, accessible poems

Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity by Ella Frears is the penultimate pamphlet1 in the set of four published by Goldsmiths Press a couple of months ago. In contrast to the pamphlets of Dizz Tate and Abi Andrews, this is poetry rather than prose, however the focus of this collection – or poem sequence – is similarly internal, though – for me – much more emotive than in the previous two.

Frear’s poetry is uncomplex, linguistically, tho incredibly ambitious in terms of structure. Rather than a collection of pieces, Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity is intentionally a collagelike creation that binds and loops and connects multiple threads and ideas to weave a dense and impressive whole. The pamphlet opens with a thematic call out to a significant narrative event, and is then followed by a striking image that recurrs through the piece. The narrative event is a “near abduction”, the details of which are revealed in gentle, horrifying steps as the verse goes on, while the image is that of a pair of shoes that – despite initially seeming comfortable – slowly change the shape of the wearer’s foot until they are unable to wear any other shoes and then have their posture and their toes, feet and legs withered by the leather.

As well as these two motifs, there are also several words about a housemate with serious mental health issues, as well as the suicide of a friend of the narrator’s when at college. Inserted inbetween the suicides and the abduction and the shoes are several ancedotal pieces – thematically tied to the abduction – about the narrator, a young woman, acquiesing with reservations to sex with men who may or may not be conspicuously lying to her.

Lying recurrs as a theme, as well as the idea of the absence of truth as a lie. The narrator does not tell their shared driving instructor of the death of her friend; the narrator does not identify the man who tried to abduct her; the narrator does not respond to the final text of the collegefriend. The unwell housemate tells the rest of the house that she had sex with the narrator, which the narrator claims is a lie, even though the details, the details, match up with the details the narrator later gives of a different sexual encounter. Truth blurs, truth blends: the narrator is addressed as Ella by the man who tries to abduct her, but not by anyone else, anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the events of these poems happened to the Ella who wrote them, or to a fictional – or fictionalised – Ella, the pieces slot together, mesh together, in a coglike verse clockwork that provides an emotive and powerful collagelike whole.

This is great contemporary poet offering pertinent discussion of male presumed ownership of female bodies, as well as their aggressive sexualisation of women and girls at moments – and ages – when they did not want to be sexualised. These moving extracts, for example, very close together in the text:

For years after my near abduction,
I told my mother I could smell him, still,

because that was easier than explaining

that it wasn’t so much him I could smell,
but something new in me.

[…]

Things develop […]

my breasts […] won’t stop growing,
(the reminder of a possibility I refuse to measure)

The horror of not only not owning ones own body, but simultaneously not owning the way other people treat it, is powerfully evoked here, and is an important idea for men2 like me to pay attention to.

So, to conclude, I thought this pamphlet was particularly powerful, though perhaps my positivity has been swayed quite strongly by refusing to read the series description at that ends each of these ‘Goldsmiths Shorts’. The only thing I didn’t like about Frears’ piece was the fact that I have literally no idea what the word “acclivity” means and I am 100% certain I have never seen it before this pamphlet’s title. I have stopped feeling self-conscious about the limits of my intelligence recently (which is a treat: I recommend it), so I decided not to look it up and hoped that the content of the pamphlet would elucidate3 me. The word, however, is never mentioned in the text, and as a result of that I don’t really understand the full import of the title, though I very much understand the key significance of the other two words, so maybe I should look it up. I’ll do it once I’ve posted this, though, as I wanna leave it, proud in my ignorance, unashamed of who I am.

Will end this with Frears’ most cutting lines from the book, referring to those man-destroying shoes:

I ask myself if I’d ever give you the shoes.

I decide, that in those moments
that I want to hurt you,
it’s a lightening bolt I’d like to send,
not an undertow.

Buy the pamphlet as direct as possible via this link.

Watch Ella Frears on my 2017 web series, #TotNTV:


1. By “penultimate pamphlet”, I mean in terms of my reading them, there is no prescribed order given on the texts themselves and I don’t think the texts are intentionally meant to complement each other. Though there are some similar themes raised by all of these pieces, I don’t really see a problem with it, as the manners in which these texts engage with sex and the passive sexualisation of the female body – themes shared by Frears and Andrews – and socioeconomic inequality – Andrews and Tate – are sufficiently different and successful in each case. These are also zeitgeisty issues, timely issues, and I don’t think literature that addresses the present should be disregarded. In fact, I think it’s important that it does. Fucking hope my poems come out before this crisis of masculinity is over! (Lol that’s a joke: I predict ZERO societal progress.)

2. When I write about ways in which male behaviour needs to change I am of course of course of course also referring to my own behaviour, which I have never claimed is perfect and I think the tone of my writing about male behaviour would be very fucking different if I thought I was perfect. Why would I write about “wanting to be better” if I thought I was perfect???

3. I only know what that word means because of The Jungle Book. The Disney cartoon, not the book.

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