Silents by Claire Crowther review: like watching a silent film for the first time

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This book is the result of a powerful encounter that poet Claire Crowther had with a sublime silent film: The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Th Dreyer. The sadly prosaic truth of the matter is that Crowther’s first glimpse of Falconetti’s tear-streaked face was on YouTube, the result of typing “passion” into the search box, hoping to find an image to use in a poem. After seeing Joan, and being moved by it, Crowther set off on another search, however.

That YouTube moment sent Crowther on a silent spree, watching everything that she could find from cinema’s early years: from The ‘?’ Motorist to The Seashell and the Clergyman. Crowther was fascinated by the artistry of the films, by the mystery surrounding their production, and by the “gagged look” of the films’ stars.

“Some of the greatest silent film actors look as if they are wrestling with a locked mouth,” she writes in the introduction to her petite book of poems, Silents. For Crowther, writing a poem is a lending a voice, and here she gives words to the characters and makers of silent films, even the films themselves. The 15 poems in Silents are all written in syllabics, that is to say each line has a set number of syllables – but other than that they take very different forms. And the best of them are formed of a whole constellation of influences, as in the “stars” of The Inflammatory Properties of Celluloid (for Oscar Micheaux), which are celebrities (Paul Robeson), censorious asterisks to “silence race slurs in intertitles” and the hazard marking on a strip of nitrate film:

If I were dead as all these stars are, in the warm dark, velvet-lined, I’d mind
an audience peering into my mouth to see what silence makes of words

Crowther explores enticing links between disparate films, too. A poem entitled The Landlady Suspects her Lodgers might be assumed to be inspired by the Hitchcock thriller, and it may be, but the facing image in this illustrated book is from the final sequence of Pandora’s Box, and its narrator a young seamstress of an earlier era, for whom cinephilia is entwined with her budding desire for sex:

It’s true that once I swung my legs,
I played in open dirt not the dark.
When I asked to see Kiss in the Tunnel
I was made to sew perfect stitches instead,
All day, threads floated from my hem,
loose, long, children under suspicion.

And there’s a feminist message in these verses too, which are inspired by fragments of women’s truncated careers in the cinema as much as by the film fragments themselves. In A Silent Star Among the Hypocrites “a no pill medic prescribed for her at last/a no screen rest of life”. The facing image is from Alice Guy Blaché’s La Fée aux Choux, but the words recall a catalogue of other silent film-makers from Mabel Normand to Lois Weber to Clara Bow. Another poem, The Future of Silence, is illustrated by a photograph of Nell Shipman, and concludes: “one who shouldn’t say the things/normally disguised by silence/will mess up your happening”.

Silents by Claire Crowther
Silents by Claire Crowther

The most experimental piece in the book, The General, or The Achievement of Kisses (a silent sonnet for Buster Keaton) is appropriately devoid of language altogether. It is formed from spaces, scant punctuation and a sly emoticon instead. I quote wouldn’t do justice to it, but suffice to say, there’s dramatic tension in the pent-up breath of an expanse of spaces followed by a surfeit of gleeful exes.

This elegantly designed book is a heartfelt, original account of one viewer’s headlong tilt into silent cinema. If you love silent film too, it will stir your passions anew. And delightfully, it is just as rich in mystery and multilayered meanings as the best of early cinema. Thank heavens for YouTube.

Silents by Claire Crowther is out now, published by Hercules Editions, £10, ISBN 9780957273832

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