I’m Working Here. Collected Poems

Anna Mendelssohn

Shearsman Books, 2020. ISBN 9781848617148

Reviewed by Howard Slater



It’s quite a rare occurrence when the death of a British poet merits obituaries in the anarchist press. Anna Mendelssohn who died in 2009, garnered her unwanted infamy by being one of four people convicted for the Angry Brigade bombings and agitations of the early 70s. Giving hours and hours of testimony in her own defence as did the other accusees, she nonetheless received a sentence of 10 years; convicted on a fingerprint. On her release, Mendelssohn, using the penname Grace Lake, devoted her life to writing and ink drawings. However, she needed the encouragement of her friends to publish her work which appeared variously as fly-sheets and as small press collections. Now, her work, which was included in 90s anthologies of what was called the ‘British Poetry Revival’, has been collected together by Shearsman Books. 

When we turn to the writing itself other anomalies come to the fore. Mendelssohn’s writing seems to take its cue from what the editor of this collection, Sarah Crangle, calls the “vanguard aesthetic” of the European avant-gardes (she took this as far as working on translations of Nâzim Hikmet and Gisèle Prassinos). Her writing has also been described by her friend Peter Riley as “outrageously ludic in the surrealist line.” One could add to such shorthand contextualisations of her writing that Mendelssohn also summons forth for me the writings of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and in particular Bruce Andrews and Lyn Hejinian whose dislocation of syntax and copulative conjunctions of language have an almost anti-literary impact that, outside of such ventures as Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum, are very much at a distance  from the concerns of mainstream British Poetry. Unwanted and marginal really.  

Of course, the more visible articulation of experimentalism in British poetry seems to come hand in glove with a kind of off-putting academic snobbery that seems synonymous with a Cambridge in which Mendelssohn lived out most of her life. But, this said, Mendelssohn, with her roots in a politicised Northern Jewish family and being a passionate lifelong defender of libertarian communism offers, through her writing, a kind of intimate approachability (witness her 1971 interview on World in Action which, in its disarming refusal to retract her own politics, to condemn the milieu from which the Angry Brigade sprang, may have sunk her further into the prison system than she wanted to go.) So, in the midst of shattered, staggering metonymies, syllabic clusters and stop-start break-flows, there arrive incursions of personal history, of political opinion and philosophical musing, of synchronic banalities and reflexive outcrops. There’s a kind of in-break of quotidian concerns and disconcerting memories that temper a writing that could be seen as academically obtuse. 

Perhaps her reluctance to publish, to push herself forth, is revealed in the line-drawings that often intersperse her poetry. These are more like intricate and extended doodles that not only mirror the unpresupposing tone of her writing (its abstraction becomes concrete so to speak), but reveal her close embrace of a creativity that is in no way autonomous from her life as it can well be for professional writers whose persona, in its need to be constantly visible, comes to weigh heavily as what Jacques Lacan termed “I-cracy” (Je-cratie). We see this in all forms of celebrity culture and Mendelssohn seems to have more than shunned this. One of her co-defendants, John Barker, remarked: “She could easily have had followers of one sort or another, and quite rightly she obviously made a clear choice not to.” So, she could have made more of her notoriety, but this would be to pigeonhole herself (as marketable) when her writing seems, on the contrary, to be a practice of persistently honing a sensitivity, becoming someone other, individuating herself through a language that presupposes us all.

If language is an “internal exteriority” as Lacanians assert then the act of writing can craft whole worlds as can be witnessed in such works as Finnegan’s Wake. Mendelssohn’s world is not a million miles from Joyce’s ‘scribicide’ and like him her work can be hermetic, enigmatic, cryptic; burying personal material through a process of self-objectifying scrambling; hinting at questions that can’t be answered (the ‘unthought known’ as a by-word for avant-garde poetry?) But like Joyce her immersion in a language that outstrips us as it meets a lived-in-life seems to offer an infinity of possibility. Not least amongst these is the possibility for language to become unconventionally communicative, a suprasensual thing to adopt Marx’s phrase. 

It seems apt then to, at last, cite Mendelssohn herself: “It is stupid to write for so many people whose position of authority now desensitizes their use of language” (72) This almost discursive in-break into one of her poems rings true to anyone who has had a line-manager or has watched prime-time TV. It is illustrative of its inverse: for Mendelssohn it is a matter of becoming more and more sensitised to language or, we could say, sensitised to what language, at times, compels us to do. This is not so much an art-for-arts-sake, a loss of control, an apology for automatic-writing, as perhaps a hangover from her articulate oratory in an Old Bailey dock. Where did that get her? Maybe Sean Bonney picked up on this in his appraisal of her work: “In the face of those who would have ‘silenced’ her, the response is to speak a language to which they have no access.”  

This could well be applied to the reasons that street slang, patois, creole etc are created, and it is to Mendelssohn’s credit that the sheer insistence of her poetic experiments, her belief in a form of literary montage, makes it possible for a kind of occlusive poetics to be greeted as commonly intelligible and not elitist. To be an elitist there has to be a steady sense of self and Mendelssohn’s writing joins in with a current for whom writing figures as a destabilisation of such I-centric notions. As a working-class woman of Jewish descent she did not partake of any path towards identity politics and its presupposing of the narcissistic subject; a self-image so necessary for the functioning of an economic system she abhorred. How could she partake of identity politics? For, at the core of her work, it could be said there is a kind of non-representational impulse, a real abstraction away from person-centred discourse. And besides, and best of all, there is a kind of jouissance to be gained from the voluptuous intermixtures of language that runs rife through this collection which could have been titled with a word she coined: plaesthetics.


Sean Bonney (2022) “‘Minds do exist to agitate and provoke / this is the reason I do not conform’—Anna Mendelssohn”, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 14(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/bip.9254 

Anna Mendelssohn (2000) Implacable Art, Folio-Equipage (aka Salt Press). 

Anna Mendelssohn 1948-2009. See https://www.katesharpleylibrary.net/9w0wq9 

World In Action – The Angry Brigade (first Broadcast in 1972)  See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDp_ceJQtP4&list=FLkYNWzbjl-VaiyJO1RkTyCg&index=15