This review is taken from Stand 235, 20(3) September - November 2022.

Clare Shaw, Towards a General Theory of Love (Bloodaxe Books, 2022)

In Louise Glück’s essay, ‘The Forbidden’ (1994), she considers five poets dealing with trauma, and praises one who ‘cleaves to no fixed perspective –  this is a single speaker, eccentric, various, rather than a spokesperson’. Clare Shaw’s speaker in Towards a General Theory of Love is fittingly eccentric and various. There is rage, playfulness, despair and yearning in this quest for an understanding of our need for attachment at all costs. These are poems of a driven curiosity rather than instruction. The trauma is implicit; its effects are revealed subtly in the relationship between the speaker and the character of ‘Monkey’, described by Shaw as ‘a survivor of [Harry] Harlowe’s experiments who elegises his cloth mother and rebuilds, from scratch, his capacity to love’.

Harlow was famous for his mid-twentieth-century attempts to define the concept of ‘love’ and infamous for his determined pursuit of psychological data at the cost of animal welfare. He studied attachment in experiments with infant monkeys and cloth surrogate mothers, and then studied despair by denying his subjects the objects to which they’d become so connected. His findings contributed to the development of Attachment Theory and radically changed the way human infants were treated, especially in institutional settings.

On my first reading of Towards a General Theory of Love, I wasn’t familiar with Monkey’s origin story beyond the brief reference to Harlow on the back cover. Yet – with his yearning, his fears, and his implied history of damage ...
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