Joelle Taylor, the 54-year-old Lancastrian and poetry slam champion, is a fighter on the page. C+nto, the bold, combative and moving winner of the TS Eliot prize, is a passionate reconjuring of 1980s-90s butch lesbian counterculture in London (there used to be dozens of lesbian bars in the city; now there is only one). This is a dramatic narrative that does not reflect any improvement in attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ society; its context is turbulence. In her preface, she declares: “There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world” and reminds us that 72 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships and that there are “11 jurisdictions that support the death penalty for lesbians”. She believes the loss of face-to-face encounters in clubs and the divisive nature of the internet have unravelled gay unity and her poetry is a rallying cry to put that right.
Once you have heard Taylor recite on YouTube, looking sharp in her tweed suits, her poems on the page seem unattended without her. There is swank, swagger and firecracker protest in her writing and the ideal is to hear her perform. The book’s title is from the now obsolete Italian literary verb cuntare (to recount) and much of it is divided into “rounds” as though in a boxing ring. But the past is also envisaged as a series of vitrines, their stillness in contrast to Taylor’s pounding blood. Nostalgia’s first cousin, it turns out, is rage.
She introduces four characters – composites of real people encountered “on the scene” – all dead now: Dudizile, Valentine, Jack Catch and Angel. Valentine is a stud, “a black masculine presenting lesbian”. The first poem in Valentine’s name is about invisibility, the need to be “where the road cannot reach us”. Like many of the poems, there is a sense in it of the combustible: the story will end in tears or fire.
Occasionally, there is a hint of Jeanette Winterson (from a comparable working-class Lancastrian background) to the writing. The reliquary of dead women, one of C+nto’s finest stretches, could be read as a companion piece to Winterson’s novel Written on the Body. With pugilistic grief, Taylor treats each bone as an exhibit: “this femur belonged to the first boi who over-extended her stride… ” and continues:
When breath eddies the dust, we are
all born again, my pretty Pompei, settling
into the shape of a street fighter
her petticoats snarling
That “snarling” is great – Taylor glories in garb as language. She can be flamboyant yet can also write with efficient economy. A man’s unwelcome attention is succinctly described when he “stubs his kiss out” on a cheek.
But there were moments when I felt undecided about C+nto’s intended audience. When you suspect someone is not addressing you directly, it can feel rude to stare (heterosexual readers might feel like wallflowers). At the same time, it could equally be argued that it is this access to her world, this invitation to watch her fight her corner, which makes the book powerful.
What I particularly admire is the way Taylor allows undressed lines to surface, such as: “I can’t remember the names of all my dead friends.” And she ends with an extraordinary poem about the names of dead strangers – murdered lesbians across the world. The searing effect of the recitation of names is not new but what Taylor pulls off is a fresh desolation: her poem is register and receptacle. She carries each woman within her and draws grief out, decants it into cantos.
Born right body
wrong day, Valentine
flicks her lighter
in the corner of the club
& white women flutter.
Tonight, she has dressed
as the inside of a mouth
a handsewn suit excised
from a cured night sky
black leather has its own skin
care routine it listens
to its mother I have heard
it said some girls give birth
to themselves on the back
of motorbikes invent the wind
let the road uncurl from between
their legs, the infinite motorway
something British & unbidden
i know why we are drawn
to the corners it’s where the road
cannot reach us. Every part
of a woman is a weapon
if you know how to hold it
Valentine says. The corner
flicks a Morse & in the dark
white hearts beat like moths
against a headlight.
• C+nto & Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor is published by Westbourne Press (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply