Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet
250 pp., Threed Press, £9.25.
I first encountered Cameron Conaway’s work just over a year ago, in the course of reviewing Turbulence, a Hull-based literary magazine. His poems stood out for me as by far the strongest in the issue, and I made a mental note to follow his future writing endeavours. (Incidentally, in January 2012, Conaway will be releasing a poetry collection, Until You Make the Shore, through Irish publisher Salmon Poetry.) So when I came across Conaway’s tweet a couple of months ago, looking for people to review his new book, I knew I had to volunteer for the job.
The drama surrounding the publication of Caged almost threatens to eclipse the writing itself. Originally picked up by Tuttle Publishing, the book contract was ultimately cancelled due to a lawsuit threat from Conaway’s stepmother. Now published by Threed Press, it is currently only available through Amazon (where said stepmother has left an acerbic one-star review, and to which Conaway’s sister Courtney has in turn provided an even-tempered rebuttal). A good deal of the acrimony appears to stem from the unflattering portrayal of Conaway’s father in Caged, which forms part of the family dysfunction that Conaway does not shy away from depicting in the opening chapters.
Given the traumatic childhood experiences covered in these chapters (e.g. watching his father throw his sister at a garage door), it would be tempting to lump the book together with the glut of ‘misery lit’ that has flooded the publishing industry in recent years. However, that would be too reductive, since Caged is not content to simply wallow in the unhappiness of Conaway’s childhood, but consciously moves beyond it to work through the implications it has had for his adult life. From the outset of the book, it is made clear that his parents' divorce was not amicable. Neither Conaway nor his sister enjoys being around their father during court-mandated visits, so his father's violence towards Courtney leads Conaway to effectively disown him at the age of 13. The rest of Caged is about how Conaway channels this anger towards his father into physical training, particularly mixed martial arts, and how his time at university writing under various mentors allows him to forge his identity as a warrior-poet and come to terms with his experiences.
In this regard, I found the book’s structure particularly interesting. While there is a chronological flow to the narrative, in the sense that it begins in Conaway’s childhood and eventually catches up with his present-day self, most chapters also function like self-contained essays. Part of what I suspect will keep readers turning the pages is the unpredictability of content from one chapter to the next, as each one meditatively unpacks more moments and ideas that have shaped Conway into the person he is. There is the sense of being invited to join the author on a journey of self-discovery, but Conaway never makes the mistake of offering trite and easy epiphanies. When they do arrive, they are shown as having been worked for and earned through the discipline of the fighter, of the writer.
Caged raises questions of masculinity and ideas of what it means to be a man today. At the end of the moving chapter, ‘Crime and Astonishment’, written in the form of an open letter to Conaway’s estranged biological father, the author frankly admits, ‘I don’t want to see you and I don’t want a relationship with you right now’, only to temper that statement with the acknowledgement, ‘You’ve provided me with everything I’ll ever need to be curious, grateful, humble, and successful in this world. For that, I love you.’ This seems to demonstrate a level of emotional honesty that makes it practically impossible to take the accusations of Conaway’s stepmother seriously.
In a later chapter, ‘Post-Debut Living’, Conaway recounts drinking alcohol for the first time during a study trip to London, and fending off the advances of an older woman. She says, ‘You’ve told me you’re a virgin and proud of it. But real men have had sex. You’re not a real man until you have sex. I want to be the one to make a man of you.’ Conaway’s conflicted reaction (‘I directed it [anger] at her even though it was mostly about myself’) evokes the sort of double bind that men today face, where the equation of sex and masculinity is pushed on them whilst at the same time being told that women should never be objectified. Interestingly, this section was also featured as an excerpt on the website of The Good Men Project, which describes itself as ‘a community of 21st Century thought leaders around the issues of men’s roles in modern life’, ‘challenging confining cultural notions of what a 'real man' must be’.
If I had to use one word to describe what Conaway has produced with his debut book, it would be ‘balance’. Throughout, he is quick to draw comparisons between the life of fighter and writer as he has actually lived it to this point, and also to show the reader his experience of the contradictory impulses to be a participant versus being a spectator. By the end of Caged, he resolves the tension between these two aspects of himself in a way that allows him to begin the next chapter of his life with the security of a hard-won self-knowledge that should serve as an inspiration to the reader:
I let go of the negative experiences that have held me up over the years. If this causes me to fall hard, I said to myself, so be it. I’ve learned to fall like the BJJ player, to protect the body through controlling the distribution of force by slapping the mat with hands open. With hands open. Hands open. Open. O Pen.
Ian Chung is Fiction Editor at The Cadaverine. He is an English Literature and Creative Writing finalist at the University of Warwick. His work has appeared inQuarterly Literary Review Singapore, Angelic Dynamo, Six Sentences, Foundling Review, The Cadaverine, Poetry Quarterly and Dr. Hurley's Snake-Oil Cure, among others. He was nominated by Camroc Press Review for Sundress Publications' 2010 Best of the Net anthology. Currently, he reviews for Evolve Journal, The Cadaverine and Sabotage. Since October 2010, he also edits Eunoia Review, an online literary journal.