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Fever Hammers by Iain Sinclair (Face Press)

Fever Hammers by Iain Sinclair (Face Press)

Fever Hammers it probably doesn’t have to be stressed is a peculiarly strong and resolute title for a collection of prose poems. The general effect of reading through this I thought was that the writing is crisp, accomplished and taut and there is an abiding tough mindedness, making few concessions, driving it along.

Sinclair presents the material in three clearly delineated presentations, red, yellow and blue, each with a charged and resonant epigraph. The first is from William Faulkner’s Light in August speaking of ‘a ghost travelling half a mile ahead’. I don’t know that I can entirely marry this up with the general progression of the text, but it is pungent and affecting. 

The titles of the pieces actually draw on and reflect the material of the text. The first piece is ‘Dogs on the Lawn’ and this reflects a turn of phrase in the piece itself,- ‘The dogs on the generous public lawns are sniffing at small pegged portraits’ (p7) as well as ‘licking drops of their own piss’. This perhaps bespeaks an astringent satire, and dogs in that sense of being vociferous, never mind loyal. 

This first piece has its surprises and a bit of inscrutability, name checking Santiago, Arizona and New Mexico. ‘The village cobbles’ he writes ‘are so many blind eyes of the interrogated’, ‘where exit stratagems are absent’, whose force of expression perhaps does not need too much further scrutiny. However if ‘the interrogated’ is meant as part of a larger narrative it is not entirely clear where it goes. One can conjure up images of fierce resistance, but then who is doing the interrogating, from which exit stratagems are absent? The tendency perhaps is to think of strong resistances, of persecution and oppression. And indeed, are the ‘hammers’ directed against this. This could be very bracing, and yet it is not entirely spelled out, as if instead it was some kind of piercing dystopia, one with little prospect of escape. Is this a barbed satire directed against the prevailing way of the world?

I need hardly add that the text holds up well to rereading, plainly well thought out besides its forceful conviction. The closing piece is ‘Solid But Expendable’, wherein again the words show up in the text,- ‘Bernard Lee/ solid but expendable as ever’ (p27), Lee probably best known for portraying M in the earlier Bond films. The final line is ‘or footnote of prophecy in a twice reprinted volume’ and the penultimate ‘that ghost as sad as cinema’ after invoking Orson Welles and The Third Man. We have something of a conflation of media here, words/texts as well as cinema, although some semioticians might wish to designate everything as a text, an entity, a corralling of memes. Might the fever hammer be a resistance against expendability. 

A minor quandary might be trying to grasp where the colours theme fits in here; it doesn’t seem to me to be foregrounded. What one is left with is that peculiarly gripping if not intense turn of phrase, ‘Mr Orson Welles…another planet entirely’ (p27), although one notes that the endpapers are red.

Is a point reached where the foregrounding presentation doesn’t seem wholly indicative of the material of the text? This of course is not entirely unusual. One can be carried along by processes of emphasis and tone. Lawn dogs and reliable spies. I suppose I might suggest that this very capable text needs room to breathe, and that the design features emphasise matters that are elsewhere unresolved. And what is it about colour;- the reds of youth and the maturity of blue, the purported cowardliness if not naivety of yellow. 

I’d have to say the textual presentation is very coherent stylistically, affecting and expressive. About all that might be lacking is a sense of where this narrative leads and what it is trying to tell us, outside of ‘sad cinema ghosts’ or as the epigraph states on page 21, ‘directed by ephemeral voices’.

All told, I think this is strongly expressed and very relevant. There may be quibbles about connecting together the text’s themes, but there is much there to chew on. I am reminded that we often don’t know what we’re going to say until we’ve said it, and then of course try to deal with the consequences.

This then is a very notable contribution from Iain Sinclair, who is certainly recollected as editor of the quite vital Conductors of Chaos poetry anthology, with an enlightening introduction. Colour perhaps remains inscrutable, tied up perhaps with notions of qualia in philosophy. I can’t help but feel too that if the endnote is solid and expendable this says something to the merit of solidity, albeit that we must deal also with the ghostly or prophetic for those who might perceive it.

Clark Allison 20th November 2021

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