Atoms is a free flowing pamphlet-length prose poem, a sinuous sweep through the first quarter of the 21st century as it lurches into and out of lockdown. I’m reminded of Carl Jung’s essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses in which he refers to the work as a cosmic tapeworm. Jung initially wants us to see this as an insult, characterising writing he saw produced as much by an autonomic nervous system as by an aesthetic intelligence. But something in Jung’s writing feels conflicted. It’s as if he almost admires Ulysses for its parasitic processing power. And as it turns out, he does. He says of the book:
There is life in it, and life in never exclusively evil and destructive…it wants to be an
eye of the moon, a consciousness detached from the object, in thrall neither to the
gods, nor to sensuality, and bound neither by love nor hate, neither by conviction nor
by prejudice ‘Ulysses’ does not preach this but practices it—detachment of
consciousness is the goal the through the fog of this book
Atoms is a tape worm. It is the 21st century eating itself. It has an internal logic this way, it has aesthetics this way, and in this way it is alive. You don’t feel the sense of the poet behind the poem, generating the old A level questions, what is Gresswell thinking? what does he mean? The writing can do that for itself, thank you. It’s a clever worm, a socialist worm, a worm that frankly has to stomach a lot when it comes to eating history. Deep down it’s probably quite glad to be a worm, that it doesn’t have to retch, or stop to demonstrate its outrage. It can leave that to the reader, maybe even its author, but it won’t care about that. The best writing has long since ceased to care for its author:
Some of the atomic figures were fictitious. The prime minister instilled a sense of
calm into the proceedings. More zygotes wrapped themselves around the institutions.
They bled racism into the walls of their buildings. Hurrah for common sense and the jaws of death. (p.6)
Try and figure out the series of ironies here, finishing with that ‘hurrah’. That last sentence is like the ghost in the machine—who says this? The are aspects to the writing that look programmatic, or like a form of cut-up or fold-in, splicing different words and phrases against each other. Here you can imagine the ‘atomic figures’ and ‘zygotes’ could just be dropped in from the discourse suggested by the title of the poem, but in another way they just feel literal, like the sentence between them (except, of course, when has our prime minister done this, really?). And that’s it.
The language of atoms and zygotes keeps breaking the surface, as if a submerged and subversive force, pre-sentient, questioning us as to who is in charge. The political, the social, undermined by the real drivers, particles, cells, chaos theory:
No more night flying caffeine cells to dispute wages dismantled by atomic discipline and wiring. (p.11)
Foot-first though the frostbit forest. Matriculation in the atomic sequence. No one
here to captivate an audience. (p.16)
Still pumping hard a faithful heart draws blood rushing crucifixion to the art of
capital atoms. Capital letters adorning wisps of lager clouds. (pp.27-28)
The connection between the senses of ‘capital’ here isn’t metaphoric, it’s literal. Something in Atoms wants to tell us that nothing is metaphor, everything is contiguous, metonymy.
Atoms is angry. Who is it angry with? Trump, Johnson and Starmer are named targets, but across the whole piece it seems plain that Atoms is angry with an ideology, a neo-liberal ideology underpinned by the return of humanism. It is angry to know that beneath everything, humanism is not humane. You can see the influence of Sean Bonney in this poem, but with one major difference. Bonney’s work takes things personally, and there is a subject position to suffer it all for us. Here Gresswell’s text presents no subject: if you feel the abjection consequent to its violence, there is no proxy. You take it. You have to live here:
Recalled and on pianos in destitution unfurled by Universal Credit music. Fashions come and go in times of rigor mortise. (p.35)
Keith Jebb 12th March 2022