Anna Mendelssohn, also known as Grace Lake, who has died aged 61 of a brain tumour, was principally a poet, and a poet like no other, but was also a painter, musician, actor and, earlier in her life, a political activist. She came from what she described as “a very strict working-class socialistic Jewish background” in Stockport, Cheshire. But what impelled her throughout her life was a 1960s spirit of radical revolt. At first it was political but, after a great turning point in her life, it was artistic.
She was educated at Stockport high school and studied literature at Essex University (1967-69), at both a brilliant and unruly pupil. In the early 1970s she had opportunities to go into film, but her fighting spirit drove her to become involved with the Angry Brigade. The exact nature of her involvement is unclear – her own account contradicts that of others. But she was one of the “Stoke Newington Eight” who were in 1972 brought to trial accused of conspiracy to cause explosions, and she received a 10-year prison sentence, of which she served five. She always maintained that this was a gross miscarriage of justice. Her impassioned and eloquent self-defence at the Old Bailey is still remembered with pride by her then comrades.
In about 1985 she settled in Cambridge, by which time she had three children. She studied at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, but most of her work was done independently. She now devoted herself increasingly to poetry and art as the central and exclusive sphere of her existence. All her judgments were founded on art and poetry, from her fierce contempt for technology and all forms of rationalism, down to the small practicalities of daily life, which she virtually ignored. At odds with society, and unable to establish a bohemian artistic circle around herself, she developed an increasingly hermetic way of life.
Her poetry ranged widely in manner but was fundamentally ecstatic and expostulatory, often in an angry tone concerning the harms that had been done to her, but also outrageously ludic in the surrealist line. She accumulated several thousand handwritten poems and probably a greater number of ink drawings. She showed little interest in publication, but one book appeared through the efforts of others – Implacable Art (2000) – as well as five locally produced pamphlets.
Anna’s legacy, apart from a room heaped to the ceiling with books, poetry manuscripts and drawings, lies in her unique artistic temperament, beholden to no cultural dictates, fiercely reclaiming her rights as a woman and a Jew, but partaking equally in art as a theatre of linguistic and visual delight.
Refusal is a key element of the poem’s communication: there are many to whom that communication is refused. At one point she [A.M.] mentions those who are “never to be allowed anywhere near this poem“, elsewhere she states unambiguously that “my poetry is not for them“, “I don’t talk to the police except never“. And more playfully: “I’m not suggesting any of you are landlords—only— /we are very different & I read Gogol from that position“. That position is outside, of both the judge’s sentences and the perimeters of the society he defines.
As far as Mendelssohn’s enemies are concerned, and these are many—not only judges but, variously, pompous poets, social workers, narrow-minded politicos and patriachal imbeciles of all sorts—it is a communication that only speaks to them in order to deny their ability to read, and to refuse them a place within the poem. It is an outsideness that also has nothing to do with the easy conformity of the poet as some kind of rebel. Mendelssohn is no rebel; the content of her refusal to communicate with her enemies is one that demands the possibility of communication, and of the reality of a community that can exist despite the accusations of its incomprehensibility and illegitimacy. In the face of those who have “silenced“ her, the response is to speak a language to which they have no access.
“Minds do exist to agitate and provoke, to make“—this, in “pladd (you who say either)“, is as much of a statement of poetics as anyone could need. Poetry can’t be merely oppositional—and thus the agitation and provocative stance of Mendelssohn’s poetry must be such that its intensity can make a ground, can take position. The poems will keep the judges, etc. out, but those same words must have people to whom they can speak. The anguish of any oppositional writing is the doubt, not so much that anyone is listening, but that there is anybody to hear. But the question then becomes how do these poems speak. If a poem has to have content, it is not the same content as, say, an agitational leaflet, or a piece of journalism. The poem’s agitation comes from elsewhere.
The poem’s content, as an interrupting voice, comes from just that convulsion, where the poem turns inside out, where the statement emerges directly from the rubble of poetic form, or indeed from institutionalised avant-garde politesse. The untruths that the language carries are pounded into garbage, are twisted out of shape, until the perpetrators of those untruths can no longer enter the language, and so that not new forms, but new statements can emerge. Or, as Mendelssohn puts it beautifully:“a poem of objects that live by magic“.
Never speak to another poet. Never breathe a word about your plans. Don’t be kind. Don’t care. They’ll only think you want something. If you have style, they’ll think you have money. They’ll stop you in the street and tell you to get the hell out if you don’t have a decent place to live in. They say they are permanently poor but they won’t understand why you are not on the phone, why your name isn’t in the book. You won’t tell other poets because they will be manipulating against you in another way. They will reinforce any old current theory. People with radical pasts are not invited to dinner. People will warn their children against you, and your children, they will also warn your children against you. You do not ask to be born therefore you do not have the right to live. Never voice radical opinions, you may be mistaken for an activist. A poet cannot be an activist. This is England remember. You can be gucci-voiced and you may get away with it, don’t jolt, don’t drive, don’t paint, don’t read, don’t bear children, don’t smile, you act.
Anna Mendelssohn, from What a Performance
A man who snatches a ring will always have snatched
the world of poetry & my solitaire silver
directions are not given in poetry one day caught
By crowded brains, apart from any who, concerning themselves
With satisfaction hold throbbing unconscious surfaces
To shore up their ever appealing inadequacies,
My attentive concern for stolen time
I cannot sever my body from its multiplicity of
Longing for words that lasting longer are being rendered null
No, I should not be here alone with political obsessives playing for broke.
Is the economy mysterious or isn’t it a matter of a lost card game?
Half of the family gain the other half lose. Half go to Oxford the other half
are shunned. Half own racehorses the other half play boogie woogie on
a clapped out old piano. Half take up the room the other half are filed out
by pathologists. Someone comes across the idea of loss. Wastes a few
minutes before latching onto both. Will one of them tell me why everyone is
talking about money? Tell me why you won’t let my father into your
camera museum? He knows more about silent films and the 1920’s than
you do. Yes, well it was always like that. Buying and selling property increases
property prices. I’m not suggesting that any of you are landlords—only—
we are very different & I read Gogol from that position. How many operators,
was it all one rush for the unbeatable biography resistant to auto, closed door,
abbreviation fever, throwing away no book, beating down bar lines, a clock set,
clock within a clock, a nest of clocks & set in the heat of the intricate
a heart. a clock in the shape of a heart. the exquisite birthday present: a
poem of objects that live by magic.
pladd. (you who say either)
nothing can be clear when knowing the associations
are read by unread people, exposées, exposures.
new poems for old. groovy. associations
and world societies of interactive growth.
groan. a place full of untrained actors
absorbing dimensions of cradling pain
securing test periods of temperature change.
sewing elbes to harare, scratch luck.
nothing matches the theoretical tuck.
nutmeg. primus stove. raised eyebrows.
work sharing. retreat into the forest.
the silver conifers. the crumbs. chums.
biceps & musical hairs, plaesthetics.
planna vanne. plin plor plon pladverbially
plodding along with a net in sturdy
boots, add a few bulletins, patrol.
centuries. narrowly missing. pointed
drop. matches stove. matches museum.
curves around a few hundred unsent
letters, all impassioned, no, perfectly
spelt, satirical tirades, benjamin constant.
adolphe who? painting his face whiter—
interview. tripping around in a chanterelle.
pulled. puppet. placed directly opposite.
the rhine in spine laced down the left, peace seized,
memory left. no one taught them the meaning
they think that they are naturally right.
i wait, i walk with life too great to beat,
out into the cold, out into the street, out
without a compact lap top, out without confirmation
of the memory of a less risky controversy,
that off offending the innate and incontestable
supremacy of those who forget that nothing
is lost by not hanging the innocent and clean.
that nurses are not happy to be garotted unseen,
that ignorance in the acclaimed borders on obscenity,
that those who love their own bottoms turn them
into their faces, rather than remember any human
sight, rather than make any effort to use their
power to help, racism is there, as ever, with
all its benefits and advantages for free booty
& plunder. It is nothing worthwhile. A few bumps
here and there. A few flash waves, a wild radar.
Minds do exist to agitate & provoke, to make—
who is clean cleaner and cleanest. All allies.
White thieves, white agents, appointments &
shields, pland plainte. all fun. all whoopee.
all practised straight faces. all useful for
fuel and surplus importants. Saints each one
self professing and deployed. Basking in
joy, blessed and unwounded and automatically
adjusted. Osip Mandelstam in England would have been
murdered too. Where there is no art. but the
american whine of a self pitying tart’s
immaculate shine. My son is waxen.
His mother has had her ears pressed in tight
her ears are turned inward she has ingrowing
ears. Plears. Péret (Oh not Péret. Oh not Cixous.
Oh not Derrida. Oh not Virginia Woolf.
Oh not Gertrude Stein. Oh not George Sand.)
‘Oh not Oh no I’ll go deaf dumb and blind.’
Serviette scrumpled. Napkin crumpled. Grey
Pabst Grille Dreyer Gris rubble bouclé fuzzy
smothering Juan, the grandmother tells herself
stories, sound split from sight, which time
am I living in? I can tell by reading.
I play too wide Yes? but I throw my own Oceans
Out into the Islands of Thieves where they stand
with their miserable greyed underpants
swimming around their plump sweaty knees
It would certainly help were my accent broader,
a Self that one is pullulating in on this
Subject of editorially infiltrated Capitals,
my years of care are not matched by much
other than steel and martyr’d hatred.
Ploy. The heavenly god and the heavenly voice.
A few, only a few. Am I far away from those
I love? Is this someone else’s?
Has anyone spoken to me today? A product of fears and phobias.
Who transcends immortality by killing herself before remembering
how much she loved the earth this life. To distance myself
From hatred I have nothing to say to inquisitorial people.
and so they call me mad and I watch them fume and stomp.
It might be football spectacular fever combined with detestation
of singularity in the female writer whose possession is a Muse
Invisible apart from approximate complement thrashing the waves
this place declares itself unbeatable, it rises higher and higher
in an oven of city proportions’ perfect bake, baking uniform cakes
to standard book size, coated in pink, peach, chocolate, toffee
And occasionally peppermint green, really the law should not encroach
Upon poetry. It is a different voice that rakes embers for clues.
Poetry can be stripped. Racketeers compromise advantageously
Unracked by the objects of their disquieted attention
Work is too much trouble to those who don’t love their subject
And literature is lost. lost to the word work, lost to the temptation
of gradgrind rectification and its concomitant collapse
The slow haul of never, dough won’t stretch quite far enough
In the shape of dough grey slipping into a dappled coat
the throat is ironed and cut down to size from the mountains
from the hills that dare to stretch a desire to walk in fresh air
Out of true for nothing in common where knowledge is blacked
Nothing in common when pockets are not being pulled out and left to hang
For the amusement of nazi girls with their viennese exclusion orders,
Massive attack in violation preceded by slowly progressive armadillos
Nose, superfluous aesthetic ha engineered passion in passing
Time constructs expansion beyond its means into endless advantage
that is blind yet assured before action divides into inviolable theatre
Who looks for the snake in this part of the world, as a matter of bilious
that there is law breaking. which filming
is not. that is not a question. filming
is not lawbreaking. there are peripheries.
time is one periphery. then it ends.
watching is not filming unless one
makes a conscious decision to
write a film. then there is no excuse
for approaching me on any matter
other than writing, on no other grounds.
no swiping my passport, having
swiped my childrens’. no knocking at
the door to demand flesh. no drunk
stinking mystical preaching, no
no missionaries for the secret perfection.
now ant-semitic practises have been learnt
i shall reply: there are no compulsory conversions
in this country.
This is the reason why I do not conform.
A smile is a formality. That is all that exists
between people who do not know each other.
It is irrelevant what one knows of anyone.
The torso. People without minds. Tenses can be
Rapidly switched. How does one know that
one’s pursuer does not intend to cause one
harm. A man can demand explanations.
A woman is accused of aggressive behaviour
for querying motive. One does not need to
Pursue anyone, one can be invited to live
in a house & find oneself being used
for servitude. And Interrogated, relentlessly
& remorselessly, until one is too weak
to move. This is peace as is death.
It is imagined that one is writing.
Why is it difficult to register Detestation.
The dangers in writing are inherent.
Why it is dangerous to criticize the Establishement
Openly. Why what amuses the Establishement
is the Bad Use of language and Sex.
Why women are discussed in terms of knickers.
Why it is important not to lose control
Of one’s own mind. Why Literature
Frames novices. Why Framing is a sociopolitical act.
basalt. basalt. two sculptured heads. hongrie 1956. tanks. fire. hatred.
disturbing the peace. It’s a filthy world. Archaeological perception reveals
gunpowder deposits & so-called insanity. A woman artist does not Need
the insidious interference of any woman who tells me what I know. Un
paléturier. The painting caused dismay. I question that dismay although
not in a protracted fashion, not giving birth to a mangrove, the confronta-
tion between the artist & the authorities of white needlework results in
the artist being locked up without paint, water & paper. It was only the
the site of a riot which I did not witness but which was famous for the
brutal & corrupt police in that area of West London which was being
gentrified. As Gentrification is creeping around with adopted republics.
Landowners paint as though they had known the years of freedom, but
they don’t have to know anything about freedom, they live everywhere as
though everywhere was theirs to ride their horses through streets & imag-
ine the population cheering it makes me feel sick. Apollinaire must have
heard the old people talking, despairing; he might have known Lenin,
What is to be done? heard Vladimir and somewhere Krupskaya was calling
him Vladimir. the baby’s nappy needs changing , for this—were meine
kinder deposited in the neo-liberal police force élite comprised of celtic
economists with the emphasis on the last syllable. There is no point point-
ing a finger at the Chassidim. The Celts don’t love Judaism & they stamp
down hard on a little child’s love for his mother. But listen, this will drive
you crazy. I don’t talk to the police except never, the solicitor calls in the
police because I do not want my house raided when I am alone with my
little children. but this goes down to the point, and is enmeshed in the
Nietszchean Will of the Baudelairean’s determination to declassify the
Jewess from the functioning economy in Academia and in the Arts, for
every secretary & receptionist looks Aghast at the Colour. This colour is
avoiding my decison making properties. Perhaps both decorate pastels
are neither, although it is lost. One was, and demented is losing one for
the other. Baudelaire makes flesh of it. He uses Hermes Trismegistus to
decorate interiority. Do you know how frightening it is to have one’s cover
spat back at one over a table fit for a king whose wives’ heads are propped
up in rosebowls—whose wives’ heads are mistaken for cats and who stare
back from their swathes of hair when you bend down to stroke the objects
that are nestling at your feet? I am alone here, the art school refused to
acknowledge that painting could be flawed. This was another perverted
tactic to exonerate filthy racism, to conform. It isn’t shocking, or even
remarkable. It is. Germanically inspired. What happened to me in
Germany? I was advanced on by a nurse with hypodermic needle. She
was directing it to my skull. I ducked. It is stupid to write for so many
people whose positions of authority now desensitizes their use of
language. It is true the reactions of the radical authorities have
confirmed their unwillingness to act promptly to stem racist abuse. The
Jew is the least protected. People simply start to speak in that mock-Jewish
way. “If you can take being in quod, you can survive anything.“ Thanks.
I have been made of no. n° certainly. no no
No one non person, anon, nothing, nada, & never,
Not now, numb, nit, nib in the air, a cold,
Dead from the start, absent, girl, nothing, not a boy,
The joy & the glory. a girl, fussing about
Cleanliness and pianos and poetry.
No. Miss no. a nanny goat, a ninny, winning for
Others but not for herself. an ass’s head, an nn.
off the cuff / some answers // my bracelets. psychology applied to nature in
ideology destroys my private wishes. emblematic. cobbled hills, streets …
thrown back into personal detestation of someone else’s desire for bijouterie.
dauhters of spain locked in / locked up / locked away from music.
Face. Any face. “Look straight at me“ No. Guilty before proven innocent.
Perverse pleasure in assessing misery. A chance to weaken me.
Points straight in the direction of the firing line. Refuses the mind’s existence.
“This was never France.“ “This is not spain.“ “This is not Russia.“ “This is not
Portugal“ “This is not the Paris Commune.“ “This is not Lithuania“
“This is not a mountain.“ “This is not a frying pan.“ “This is not a kitchen.“
“This is not a tooth; it is a beach.“ “This is a fog.“ “This is Theobald.“
My little radish, am I neglectful enough? You mean nothing to me now.
A wild blackberry & nettle “tisane“ sewn in to a lace handkerchief, c’est tout.
One teabag a piece. of cake, nothing. o kirsch torte something perhaps.
it’s the fingertips that feel it first. Cruel, heartless ability. I am
considering challenging Angelika to a duel. To give her a taste of Spain.
But I play differently. And I’m afraid it would have to be Swords.
On horseback. or Scimitars in the field. I feel sorry for this country with
You in it. But you are not a marxist, altough you assure us that
later you came to marx, after not being a marxist, you came late to
the field. The grass was already growing wild. And the buttercups scarcely.
we know it is wrong to talk
about imprisonment. the predominant theory is
still that people have more right to complain
for example about the imprisonment of the
woman in marriage, or the imprisonment by
harsh social conditions even when the
person has done nothing wrong. Because
there is such little chance to explain how
an individual can undergo severe punishment
which can extend beyond the more acceptable
forms of social punishment into the realms
of more socially unacceptable forms of social
punishment, I think that I might be justified
in writing down some of my perceptions.
They are disorganised and scattered. Some
are uninteresting to write, they are not
what I consider to be, in any way, imaginative.
They tell a story whose end is inevitably
tied to its beginning. There is a horrendous
resentment and caution in responses to
an imaginative treatment of Time. Having been
brought up by Orthodox Jews and Freemasons,
I have never understood why esoteric knowledge
should be man’s domain: I was forbidden to
learn the tonal inflections which are marked
in the Torah, yet I received first prize
in the last year I was allowed to learn Hebrew
from the Chief Rabbi, as the most promising
Hebrew scholar. People mess you about. There
are plenty of stupid rules. If people who
criticize me don’t have the guts to citicize
some of the rules extant they can’t expect
my appraisal. If they insist on using one
official interpretation of my past against me,
all I can think is that they are sadists who
delight in the thought of my death. Women
who hang out together like som many giggly
school girls, did they never have a chance to
be in a gang? Why aren’t one or two serious
friends enough for them? Do they really think
they are making good use of their time by
analysing for the umpteenth time stupid
womens’s magazines? Images and images: fit
for collage which shows the contradictions
and the CRUELTY of judging on the grounds
of Appearance. The shirt swallowed the rose.
Anna Mendelssohn | Implacable Art
Published by Folio and Equipage
Anna Mendelssohn | What a Performance
Sarah Crangle (University of Sussex)