On All Things Said Moratorium by Marianne Morris
The subject seems to be the battleground of contemporary poetry. If Language poetry often, and conceptualism always vaunts the erasure of a subject-creator speaking themselves and prioritizes well, language and concept, its polar opposite dominates other magazines and scenes: the lyric, first person poem of recounted experience. This division is not so neat of course. It cannot contain, for example, Lynn Hejinian. But experimental poetry, or at least the kind that has come to dominate critical discussion, particularly in the States, has long been suspicious of the subject, the domain of the confessional. This is old news.
However, the news stays news, we keep writing about it. In her 2007 book Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions, Maggie Nelson says:
In his 1993 book After the Death of Poetry, for instance, [Vernon] Shetley compares the chilly poles of New Formalism and Language writing to conclude that poetry’s cultural reputation has been lost, and can only be restored if it manages to strike some kind of balance between the two extremes – that is, if the poetry of the future can ‘bring together the au- thority of skeptical reflection with that of experience. Neither is adequate by itself ’ (191).
Some feminists’ she says, ‘might scoff at this fuzzy, seemingly outdated dichotomy of “reflection” vs. “experience”’. I would say they are not the right terms, as would Morris, whose countering of Wordsworth’s concept of poetry as emotions recol- lected in tranquility in ‘The Mutilation of Irony’ says as much:
A pinprick. Languages
sing in their dictionaries, the covers shut, considering
the soft fervor moments take on once they have passed
and it is safe to rewrite them. One says, on reflection,
that was such and such a moment, and perhaps
another will agree. But at the time no such thing
and in this way we are all authors.
However, Nelson says,
a similar split continues to run through feminist conversations about women’s writing. The 1999 Barnard conference, for example, hopefully titled “Where Lyric Tradition Meets Language Poetry: Innovation in Contemporary American Poetry by Women,” ended up mostly under- scoring the divide; as Frances Richard later observed about the event in the event in the spring-summer 2000 issue of Fence magazine, it was as if ‘the poetic spectrum had collapsed to navel-gazing lyric or egg-head- ed language and the twain could never meet’ (87). In another statement published after the conference, the organizers (Rankine and Cummings) asked almost plaintively, ‘Might the issue between object and represen- tation be addressed in other, less combative terms?’ (126)
Negotiating this split is vital. In The Idea of the Postmodern, Hans Bertens describes what he sees as the weakness of postmodernist theory as such:
Following [Ihab] Hassan’s lead in connecting postmodernism and post- structuralist, a generation of newly converted deconstructionists brought postmodernism within a deconstructionist orbit in which there was no place for a politically motivated promotion of presence or for an existen- tialist subject’.
The subject is important. It is important for feminism, for any political writing. Whilst the rift may have seemed impassible in 1999, 2015 looks rather different
– partly because of the success of Nelson’s own writing, and Rankine’s: Citizen’s political affect and agency comes from registering the affect of racism, of language and its relation to political structures, on the subject. There seem to be many writ- ers, particularly female writers, but more generally writers interested in political agency who are negotiating this rift. Morris is very much careful to place her work as engaged with what would once have been seen as these two poles. The book’s back cover, rather than containing enthusiastic blurbs by other poets – something Morris would have had no problem obtaining – declares
As the documentation of culture, as the source material of history, and as a medium of resistance, we know that words have the power to shape us. The way that we speak to people shapes the way that they treat us, they way that we speak about ourselves creates certain permissions and impos- sibilities in our own lives. Therefore the specific, intentioned, and pointed use of language may also constitute an attempt to change certain ideas
– political or otherwise – that depend on language for their perpetuation
Whilst clearly deeply engaged with similar concerns around language to the Lan- guage poets, this language is intersubjective, ‘we speak to people’, and registered as affect and agency by a subject – it shapes us, using it has the power to create per- missions, to change ideas, and in the poems very clearly having its effect on, and emerging from a speaker called, in one poem ‘M. M.’. This speaker is not detailing her life as such, though there are details of her life, along with surrealist details that are not from what might be in any traditional sense described as from a life
– though the previous quotation from ‘The Mutilation of Irony’ serves to question precisely what this distinction is. What the speaker is doing is articulating limita- tions, creating possibilities for surpassing them and for being a female subject in contemporary capitalist society. Language and subject are brought together again and again: “This is the / new language. This method is / not personal it’s just dif- ferent to yours, ok” (‘Cassette Tape in Anonymous Envelope’). It is not personal in the sense of being self-enclosed, speaking only to a self, but it is, importantly, the articulation of a specific subject, ‘different to yours’ – a you who is explicitly being addressed.
She is constantly ‘picking lyric apart’ (‘Compose Message’), its possibilities, per- missions, impossibilities:
love is the thing that I need, broadly speaking, though
it can easily be affixed, broadly speaking, for example to the fronts of things, to their lexical surfaces, in a
taupe ballerina dress worn by the anorexic that the guys say is hot that
the girls say is anorexic that
the designer wants for the runway that the South American fucks winningly let’s not go into it
suffice to say it can be easily affixed.
Bloody spray in the crest exploding over the top of a hypothetical ocean
of your choice, with fear, and bark, and possibly bovine mince.
Why did you say it that way why
did you not tell him that it was a fire in your heart, acanthus.
The last line, without wishing to universalize beauty too far, is to me obviously beautiful in a way that the lines about desire, fashion, anorexia and bovine mince are not and it is of course said by not being said, just as those lines before are not scrubbed out. It’s not possible to say the last line without the critique of love of the former, not possible to reach anything that might be called depth without slough- ing at the surface. This last line too, is more complicated than its traditionally lush surface might suggest, acanthus could be the nymph Acantha turned flower flee- ing Zeus’s attempt to rape her. If so, then what we are not getting, of course, is any easy narrative of how capitalism has destroyed love, the work is not nostalgic, but historically situated.
The poems are intricately (as she says, pointedly) rearticulating themselves. Later, in ‘Your Eyes are Sort of Pretty’, Morris will say
It is giving me a transfer from the company payroll. It is my head plugged into the socket. It is my child plugged into my breast.
It is my gender plugged into my heart,
behind which leaps a fire behind which leaps its tongue of loss, its flap of need
which I have no qualms about raising, why should I.
Love, again, as a female subject to capitalism, is a constant theme that rearticulates itself, struggling to be spoken, and thus fis elt and enacted between the poles of tenderness and abuse. Of course it is tenderness one wants, but with normative cultural shaping of sexual and gender relations being what it is (“[i]t will / be great. You’ll / be great in bed and / someone will write a song about it. It will be called
‘Jism Me Calm’, by the Beat Busters”), it is important not to take tenderness for granted, speak it too easily. These things must be rearticulated pointedly, carefully, and specifically rather than assumed as ahistorical or natural constants. It has to be fought for.
Morris here, as in her critical writings, engages, from a feminist perspective, with the work of fellow poet and critic Keston Sutherland, most clearly around ideas of how subjects disempowered by capitalism can articulate themselves. The most obvious reference to this comes in ‘Untitled’, where she delivers an interrogation of her poetic project:
I do not know how to make a poetic thought. I do not know how to make a poetic thought instead of envisioned. See dahlias and birch trees, want to say ‘fighter pilot’ and ‘ribbon’.
Confuse inspiration with alchemy, politics with promiscuity,
small comforts with abuse, what’s the use of poetry, Keston, I ask, to think yourself
into a language that makes you live your life differently, he says, everything I want I have, I think, but
you’re a man and I’m a woman, I say,
maybe things are different for men and women. Maybe, he says. Some things are the same though Like peeing, I say.
Yes, he says, like peeing.
The trees stretch their tendrils into blue heaven. The birch is a forgotten prize. I am too high up to really get at the dahlias.
I am wary in this of deferring to a male authority figure to ‘explain’ Morris’s work. Her work does, insistently though, ask us to think about Sutherland’s poetics (as does her theoretical writing: see for example her writing on revolutionandorpo- etry.wordpress.com), but I would wish to frame this as tender argument, as inter- subjective dialogue or collaboration, and as ‘His Silence Poem’ makes clear, though it is not clearly, indeed is not, about Sutherland specifically, about a necessary questioning of male authority by a female writer:
Just back from the past. It’s not even a real place. I got lost
there to undo
that there ever was a man who knew better than I how I ought to write and whether he was dead or alive,
and whether we made love or not, and whether we were related or not, it doesn’t matter. There is never a war alone.
Now I’ve been alone. I’d prefer awar. Years and bodies. all mine, and in every series, one cautiously clapping abdominal set. Right where I want you. It’s true I did once
have my eye on the world. Now I’m the topless recipient of my own love.
At least I know what I like.
As Eleanor Perry reminds us in her review of this collection, ‘“[T]he point,” Mor- ris tells us in ‘All I Have is the Body To Go On’, “is not to comfort or console, but to know how to approach living in the / eye of a permanent storm with as much grace and ease as can be / summoned”. This is not an individualist retreat, it is always focused on living intersubjectively, and one pointedly, deliberately, neces- sarily lives ‘in the /eye of a permanent storm’, and this grace is not easy, O’Hara’s
‘grace to be born and live as variously as possible’, and his interest in consumerism is loved and critiqued often, as in ‘How I Came About the Coat
it was a consolation
present to begin with, a joe’s jacket for the one who doesn’t make it. Who isn’t touched by the same grace.
Grace has to be made, it won’t just touch you. This collection is dense (I have read it many times now and I’m still getting a handle on it), and important, funny, and serious: ‘You think’ Morris says in ‘Harmony Inc’, ‘because it’s poetry it’s / funny, well it isn’t, it’s fucking serious’. She’s funny enough that you might not want to take this statement seriously, but she is absolutely serious.
The following introductory comments by Nicholas Johnson should have preceded Philip Crozier’s article on page 149 of the current issue, number 60. Please print out and insert for the fullest picture. We apologise both to Nicholas and Philip.
David Caddy & Ian Brinton
Born twenty years after Andrew Crozier, I was lucky indeed to have heard him read his poetry, and that Colin Still was there to film it. It had been said that he had renounced public readings, but, perhaps only the presence of Carl Rakosi, over from San Francisco in England in 1997 to read from The Earth Suite, made him momentarily deflect from what he had foresworn. He began his reading with ‘The Beasts’ after Rakosi, and two of the four other pieces read were deft yet internalised interpretations of ´Free Running Bitch’. Crozier then gave, without notes, a detailed and precise introduction to Rakosi´s poetry. I have never heard an introduction to a poetry reading as complexly argued, vivid, precise, which captured Rakosi’s achievement for the lay reader.
Andrew Crozier´s last public engagement was a talk on Basil King and Harry Roskolenko, at the Arnolfini in 2005. He declined the reading he was also offered. He also declined my offer to publish a chapbook of poems. But he did agree to introduce the programme of readings, and thereby state his views on etruscan books.
Eight years later I asked four poets, all connected with Andrew, to read his poetry. The poet and historian John Seed had advised him in his research on the East End that John Rodker would have known as one of ‘The Whitechapel boys’. Crozier had travelled from Sussex to Staffordshire in 1993 to hear John Hall give his first reading for ten years at the Six Towns Poetry Festival. He had been a close friend with John James from 1966, had collaborated with him and had included his work in A Various Art; he had also had a long and close association with Wendy Mulford, who had published his Printed Circuit and High Zero at her press, Street Editions.
This event was called Loved Litter of Time Spent after the debut collection of Andrew’s and was part of The Black Huts Festival in Hastings. The four poets read; Colin Still presented a rough master of the 1997 reading, and recorded the afternoon reading, which had a gale running against the windows. Loved Litter was introduced by Andrew´s editor, Ian Brinton, and woven into the afternoon were two other components: a short, and well received film, Sussex Posy, by Catharine Leathers, and a memoir of their early life in Hastings, ‘Slots in Arcadia’ by his brother the painter Philip Crozier. It is that memoir that is reproduced here.
A CD-DVD of the two readings, 2013-1997 is available from Optic Nerve, distributed by etruscan books, price £9 including p&p
http://www.e-truscan books BLACK HUTS carries copy on Crozier by the 4 poets
arms, elbows, letters folded into envelopes
my hair unbrushed
silence flows across the wall
thin river renewing its path with rain
shadows from clouds
sheds the poems vertical song
glitters with wings
the color of tourmaline
shines unsteadily on the floor
a hoop of light,
in the land between my palms
Unseen at night
we held a conversation
about shared things.
Slow quiet tide.
Alone on the strand
standing on the strand
memory shows tide
because of sound’s self
sound of the current
playing with the ebb.
Under dark sound
shows tide as memory.
Tide dock wasteland
memory’s last boardings
leaving the kiss
of departing sea.
Buried in the earth
of a coat against cold
with nothing seen but only
felt there’s only this ice
in the wind along strand.
Awake at the light
and surprised as always
to be here memory’s night
sound still there from
the slow tide’s ebb.
We held a conversation
about things shared
although I was sleeping
and you were dead
at least one of us
awake to hear
steps on the wharf
a closing door at four
no one there waiting
only the resumption
only daylight hiding
the mourning only
the mourning sound
of old broken ships.
Pass this on or post it up
Day 2, page 4:
(from Gk. ‘turning point in a disease’)
the Peers and other galleries
Domestic situations vacant
Saklatvala in the dock:
‘No reasonable man could have any doubt
that the speech in question was a seditious speech
more mischievous considering the circumstances’
— Will you accept the word of a British Gentleman
And outside, Cambridge scabs, YGs
out from Oxford in Bentleys
stood dinner and champagne
with dreams of driving trains
Coming down to
miner, that doubling word,
though the rot and worm belong to one
Good innings by Mr. Jardine
was Smith’s line
These men overturned trams
These women threw piss out of windows onto the police
These people live here
The Paris Commune: Piercing The Houses
It was so unlike you:
Lock the doors and open the fucking walls, Philippe,
we’re in for another rollicking, you said
piercing the houses, and I said to myself
I would also be a better man. Ballrooms filled
with the wounded, the wait for wealthy donors
was over: the recent past still glossy
but like old magazines, and though a little
was left upon the air (you don’t need
to sacrifice your waistline in the search for love)
this big-titted wallop in the face
of soi-disant gavage finally brooked no idiocy.
Rising and converging. It’s still there.
It just says “Take me,” gallantly.
in the Irish cottage, dopey roses loll
on the wallpaper, nod to each other in corners
magic candles lick yellow into shadows
the room unsure of itself, holds at bay
a blanket of salt, and magnified
she is working still, pounding, with early-day energy,
tea-cloths, sheets, setting to at midnight
to deflower clambering mould just this last job
moon throws a walkway across the sea, cousins don’t
disabuse me when I ask does the tide turn to sand at night?
yes, that’s right, walk right out
to the island
later I get a thought that my parents will die
and run to their bed
millions of stars in a sore hollow, fresh-cut
creaking black wood
my mother gives the baby his eggs and bacon
Father purses his smile
Vs elbows behind his head
grey purrs across landseasky
and mastered for now
squire night tosses his head and swaggers, keeps his
Tender as ten good men, but sword-chewing and tenser.
The temple guard salutes you, though his temple is suburbia
with a run of garages to house your noses like red phalluses—
louse-philanthropist-louse—all the way down the street.
Mackerel-fearing, fond of flambé, you’re a card and a harpy and a
-ess. Comet. Kite.
In Japanese, Ten-gu. In Osaka, in a cracked-open garden at dawn —
red cranes screaming in maple—
and a gem of a girl found lost, stencilled with blood, gleaming at men
who’d stripped the place to find her,
garnet heart tearing up tarmac, swearing at sky.
One man found a nest of eggs, sweet as a peahen’s,
but poison to those of shorn tongue.
Tengu – in Anglo Saxon, Tengu.
In letters, Renga; in South American dance, merengue, tango.
Maybe I’ll let go of her in verse, the shrew, her grab-ready hands and her pinched
chin, her volley of quick-picked cavils, jabbed from needle-tongue.
Sleep-sparing, night-flying daybird, I’ll disembarrass her. Her face
always close to mine, reading my thoughts. I’ll loose her.
Like in a lucid dream, I’ll imagine I’m gifted to rinse myself in citronella
shake my shoulders and head for the shore.
In Chinese, Den-gu. In nursery English, Ten-gooey. In primary colours, tangerine.
In prime numbers, ten-minus-3-gu; in Kazakhstan currency, tengeh.
Peremptory priestess, you hold your own service at the foot of the mountain
face cut from red sofa-leather, plush,
you have ten million waiting, but you look like you’ve forgotten the words
you stir up a typhoon with your feather-fan
and it fills your robes with thunder
and your nose drips
the heart you had views your body’s machinery
from a distance
can’t sleep on gold, curls away from the light
you trickable spirit
you lame apostrophe to an Old Master.
Your nasal singing – tone glue
rends the temple
In Australian, Ken-do
*Mythical Japanese flying creature, associated with spirits of priest and nuns, neither damned nor blessed, offering false images of the Buddha, typically with long nose, and reputed to dislike the smell of mackerel…
from Hariot Double
Now get back
between brown prongs
up to Maida Vale or St John’s Wood
a bullseye greeting, Peccadillo descent
by rolling ribs
to read, what only
a night-creeper does
one alone where thousands slide
with screwed brightness
this is hell’s sink or else some palace
in a felt hat rambles
that idea to a gut noun
cundid cundit pre-polite
conduct (as said)
in a crystal shaft
down grubby nerve tunnels
Pepsodent (You’ll wonder where the yellow went)
Party Travel (Ride an elephant)
Ideal Home (Hold two the roof above)
a figured heart, how much
over slow sweet hum
as panels stroke the chartered entrant
into coils of squeezed air
green/cream tiles, a crave
for fruit and nut, one long passage
to love or sleep
screech along bends of ochry night
kissing shadows, sway
still (a brass stare)
with a phalanx of uplighters
Too late, the gates are locked—
fluffers drag skin and hair,
gangers tighten bolts,
deep ahead, metal is matted with moss
a cab shared, last dough
will bring you home
Bottle comrade, what a crow’s croak
you venture, as a Tudor rose frames mine.
Who is English, a lion roars in the Tower,
grhhr, gurrh, fusky music tearing
off stone. So jars and tins sing
for an absent mate.
Your gown is my skin. This sunburn
you purchased over the main
shot convulsive through foam
to find grapes and cedars. I followed back
to make good, stayed to plant in reverse
a sort of twisted wire.
Brought the thing out of its frame
letting my fingers go. Collied, luned
your creature could climb a ladder
to dangle marks on a napkin
or think a friend into being
as island sol strobes into island fog.
We step down the Strand by doorways
that hide great gardens. A rush of figures
see nothing, no master face, no mimic grin.
Any seeker off the plain table fades
from the record and waits for another
to crossruff space.
As feared, I was made literary executor for Johannes Boanerges in the summer of 2003. My longtime friend and nowtime nemesis finally checked out of ‘the great game’ at the age of 104, having lived through the mass slaughter of two world wars and countless other conflicts and genocides (which, as we know, my friend did attempt to count sometime in the mid 70s, Calling Evil to Account). A chaos merchant himself, his papers were (are) in chaos. Nor do we have the saving grace of a systematic thinker – there is no steady progression of ideas in Boanerges, no gradual enlightenment or Damascene moments to which I can discretely attach his many outpourings; rather, a lurching from one grand idea to another throughout the twentieth century, a ready convert to the newest, shiniest, most provoking expositions, critiques, theories and dénouements the last century had to offer. And yet, and yet, at each stage he was often the most brilliant of exponents for these fads which have on occasion lingered into our present. When challenged for his inconsistency he would quote Nietzsche, his favourite creative writer: If I contradict myself, well, I contradict myself. He was happiest when promoting anti-philosophy, following in the footsteps of Lucretius, Montaigne, Nietzsche, and, on occasion, Rosset, urging us to see truth as nothing more than an army of metaphors on the march, a veil cast over the unpalatable real. And yet, and yet, we know all too well that if there is one constant in Johannes’ life, it is his desire to eke out the truth, objective, eternal, universal Truth, in the face of the nay-sayers such as myself who, without relent, relish uncovering the arbitrary nature of all things (I make no bones about it). Having been made this man’s executor, who would in their heart of hearts relish sifting through and making sense of eighty years worth of passionate lucidity (more if we take into account the juvenilia), foisted on the world in his many voices, the many pseudonyms Johannes insisted were the only way he could ‘tell it as it is’, as the Americans like to say? In his name-playing, game-playing, anti-philosophy, with its target TRUTH, we can see that Monsieur Boanerges was indeed closer in spirit to Kierkegaard, yet I have not found one mention of the troubled Dane in all the boxes, in all the published work (hence the occasional charge of plagiarism; but how much credit does Heidegger give Søren, I ask you?). Again, I ask you, under such conditions who would relish the sentence of having the duty in their remaining years to organise what cannot be organised, represent what is beyond representation, in the hope that amongst such sift the pearls of wisdom which may yet save you, me, the planet, are to be found. The real Johannes Boanerges I am convinced will ever remain a mystery – for we can know man, but not any single man (Rochefoucauld). But the biographical details are unimportant, Johannes’ attempted suicides tell us nothing. We have the texts, and a few accomplished doodles, and in them, I believe we have much more than the facts of an extraordinary life, that was, if I may be permitted the hyperbole, the twentieth century encapsulated.
I have taken the opportunity of this essay title – just to remind ourselves, ‘Is the human species special?’ – to attempt to at least pull something together from JB’s work, even if this organising fiction may have to be abandoned at a later point. ‘Better to travel than to arrive’, springs to mind, but you, dear reader, may object. If we do not follow the question through to a conclusion as soon as we can, or, as I would prefer to say, follow through to a compromised reconciliation that refuses to face THE TRUTH, then there will be no arrival, merely the death of another species, our own, special or otherwise (the question before us).
Johannes had much to say on what it is to be human, although not quite as directly as we might wish. I am still at the early stage of ordering and cataloguing his materials, as I have said, so really the request for this essay, which I have take upon myself in his name, comes at an inopportune moment. Another ten years of my substantial scholarly endeavour will offer firmer foundations on which to build a substantial, duly considered response, in dialogue with B’s work. Nevertheless, it does provide an opportunity for me to experiment with some thematic strands on which to hang the novels, poetry, pseudo-memoirs, theatre script, libretto, emails (Boanerges – an early advocate), public and private letters, and other ephemera. JB remained open to new forms throughout his life, right to the end, what fortitude!, what stamina!, and would, I am sure, be tweeting, facebooking and blogging to his heart’s content at this minute. The diversification of media, the possibilities of many-to-many communication heralded by the brilliance of the Internet, he foresaw as an untrammelled force for good (it always took him a decade to move on to the next big thing, so he had yet to lose his enthusiasm for electronic interconnectedness, as I had done early on). Our arguments around this were more general. He told me that different media facilitated a more rounded representation of TRUTH, not different truths, just as his resort to textual ventriloquism aided him in seeing the TRUTH from all angles. But we know this to simply be false. Did not the telescope and the microscope – new ways of seeing – tell us that the world was different from what we believed? These did not add to the sum of human knowledge, but changed our view forever. We keep changing our views, changing our media, changing our metaphors. There is no constant truth, no TRUTH. I would fling it in his face. After such passion he would take the calm attitude: ‘You, my friend, are wrong’. I would have no choice but to leave, our arguments forever irreconcilable, but not our friendship, most importantly, for he would inevitably call me forth to dinner, prepared by his well-treated (contrary to popular opinion) companion and amanuensis, Victor(ia).
As part of this preamble I should perhaps forestall what you might see as a natural resting point. Could we not skip his life’s work and turn to the back-page, glance at his last sentence, to see if our endeavours are worth the candle? At the age of 104 surely he had intimations of mortality and was intent on bequeathing to humanity what was wisest and best in a conclusive, hopefully pithy, epigram. It is true that he attempted to keep a separate set of notebooks, hidden from Victor(ia), a kind of double-accounting which only came to light after his death (did Victor[ia] know; surely s/he must have, but s/he says s/he didn’t). Blind for the last fifteen years of his life, the secret books are barely legible, and written more often than not in his native Livonian language. When he died, there were fewer than twenty speakers of Livonian (one of the Uralic languages), although Boanerges always maintained that only he was alert to its subtleties and the others might as well be deceased for what they could bring to our understanding of the language. In one of the secret notebooks, not dated, but which I calculate to be the last due to the manner in which some pages are virgin, the Livonian suddenly gives way to English: ‘We are no[*] dead’. [*] indicates a missing consonant. I dismiss Victor(ia)’s suggestion that it is merely a smudge, as one might expect from someone blind attempting to write in manuscript hand, and that, as s/he asserts, the outburst is none other than a sentence in the Scottish form. It is true that on occasion my friend would attempt the Scots dialect, which he had tried to connect with the Uralic language family, but there is no evidence that this found its way into his writing. No. The missing consonant is either a ‘t’, ‘We are not dead’, or a ‘w’, ‘We are now dead’. It is infuriating that we cannot ascertain with certainty his final judgement. Knowing Johannes Boanerges as I do, as nobody else does (certainly not Victor[ia], faithful though I grant s/he has been), we know it could be either interpretation: it could be that the human spirit is triumphant, ‘We are not dead’; or it could be that humanity has failed, ‘We are now dead’. To translate it into the theme of this question: ‘We are special’, ‘we are not special’. Johannes, of course, would never have been so direct. That is our loss. But we must interpret, we are homo verto – interpreting, seeking knowledge – not homo sapiens, ‘wise man’, ‘knowing man’, as if we are already in the promised land of being know-alls. (Victor[ia] suggests that if I must insist on inserting a consonant for the smudge, then Johan could be referring to the death [or not] of the Livonian language, or Livonians. I have told her/him that I do not think the fact s/he shared the man’s bed guarantees his/her interpretation of his writing. I have no truck with biographical underpinnings. However, I must continue to be pleasant to Victor[ia] since s/he has squirreled away the private letters, memos and notes he sent to her/him. S/he will hand them over, s/he has promised, when I have finished work on the bequeathed literary materials. I trust by that time any new information coming to light will not affect what I have to finally say about the man. Victor[ia] says that I am not a scholar in any ways capable of interpreting ‘marks left on a bedsheet’; an Estonian saying, s/he assures me. I hold my tongue better to profit humanity. S/he also questions my Latin. I will give her no more text time here.)
And so, let us begin with his reflections on animals.
Always – on this he was insistent – he hated them. From a young age he ate as much meat as he could. We know of his religious upbringing (later rejected) and how he felt in his very marrow that man truly had been given dominion over the earth, over animals. Man’s unique place in the order of things ordained by God, that man was licensed to do as he pleased. Man – more than animal, less than an angel in the Great Chain of Being – Man – Semi-Divine – chomping his way through the animal kingdom. This, Johannes maintained, God had decreed. I can only see this as a species of sarcastic pride – Socratic pride, daring by his actions to force God or the animals to retort. Even his brief and only spell in India, there as a journalist reporting on the Beatles, did nothing to convince him of the spiritual merit of vegetarianism. But I concede Victor(ia) may be right at least on this point. How are we to read him and his behaviour in relation to animals and the name that signifies their very death and our great superiority, ‘meat’? Of the many references to animals in his writing, we here relate just two items.
The first item, as is well known, is his pig-husbandry. He kept pigs and never ate the ones he reared. Sure, he would taunt them with the waft of bacon emerging from his kitchen, and brazenly eat his beloved BEST in front of them, and this may seem to some of us cruel. But for Johannes this was man communing with animal, offering the chance for the most intelligent of animals to speak, to indicate where man’s arrogance was unwarranted. At the end of each session he would rise from his favoured wicker chair (think van Gogh) and rising say ‘The pig speaketh not’. He would turn to walk away, then suddenly turn back to see if they were talking about him, to see if they had conversation, culture, ideas. But nothing. He would give them the best of his thought. But nothing. ‘The pig speaketh not’. There is a yearning in his pig diaries (covers made out of pig skin! written in the finest of artist’s brushes derived from pig bristles!) to discover elements of the human, to give the animal world the chance to speak back, to enter into dialogue, to demonstrate in fact (in the language of this essay) that humans are not special. But without language, culture, abstract thought, the will to power, the ability to hold sway over the universe and bend it to its needs, the animal kingdom as exemplified by Boanerges’ beloved pigs proved beyond doubt that humankind is special (JB began to adopt ‘humankind’ in place of ‘mankind’ at the start of the 1980s, after the American controversy around his probable bigamous past, as well as related accusations of systemic misogyny; see below). And if there is no God, or Gods, and no angels, reasoned Boanerges, a position he came to like many others after knowledge of the nature of the Shoah crept up on an unbelieving world after 1945 – is this what it is to be human? is this what humans can do? no other animal has achieved this – then there truly is nothing like the human. There followed his period of despair, exacerbated by a continued attraction to the tenets of Sartre and his crew, but all the time in the background of his mind, tempering his despair, his sneer that ‘this is what makes us special – genocide’ – tempering this was the belief that if there is the capacity for infinite evil there is the capacity for infinite good. ‘What if’, he started to muse, ‘what if our difference from the animals is our ability to do infinite good, our ability to progress, despite these setbacks, to know what good is and to reconfigure social, political, cultural and economic orders to achieve this?’ It was the Enlightenment project viewed as a discontinuous but nevertheless upward trajectory. As we can observe at this distance, such questioning was the background to that major unfinished opus, What if? Although he had started to look elsewhere by the end of the 1980s, turning away from all Enlightenment heritage in favour of a brief flirtation with Gaia, he formally declared the ‘What if?’ project ‘dead and buried’ in July 1994 with the Rwandan genocide of almost a million people, while the world watched and did nothing. Nothing! I know that Victor(ia), who had just come into his life in 1991, attempted to apply some racist excuse, blaming it on a backwards Africa, to jolly him out of this renewed slough of despond and fourth suicide attempt. And it is true that for a while even the events in Rwanda did not quite end his belief in a discontinuous but positive outcome to the project of Enlightenment; he held his judgement in abeyance. But then came Srebenica the following year and the slaughter of 8,000. That was it. The arguments over a certain moral equivalence between perpetrators and victims simply reminded him of the ongoing arguments over the Armenian genocide of a million plus people. Holocaust denial – Armenia, (Nazi) Germany, Rwanda, Srebenica – the pattern repeated. Nothing could bring him back to the philosophical/anti-philosophical tradition after that. He would have to look elsewhere. At the end of some notes on these holocausts he scrawls, in English, ‘exterminate the brutes’, in mock recognition of his own human status and complicity by species association, and in echo of Conrad’s death-knell for Enlightenment, with Kurtz maddened at the end of Enlightenment projections.
The second item relating to animals is the image (sound) of snow monkeys in winter. David Attenborough can be heard describing the look on their faces as they wait for the winter ice to melt. They are waiting, not in an intense predatory way, as a creature attends upon its prey, but just sitting around waiting. The word that Attenborough uses to describe the look on their faces is boredom. Along with ideas about ‘nothingness’, what Boanerges had taken from Existentialism into other areas of thought was a notion that ‘boredom’ was the essence of the human. An animal could not be bored in its animal existence Boanerges once wrote. And here they were – nothing to do with their ability to pass on knowledge of potato-peeling, an earlier Attenborough film that had impressed Boanerges and many had taken as evidence that culture – the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next – existed in monkey world – here were bored monkeys. His pigs had never been bored in their animal existence. But these monkeys lived a life of Beckettian ennui, they couldn’t go on, but they had to go on (living, I mean). These monkeys knew about the nothingness at the heart of human existence, the nothingness that only humans know.
As an aside I should say that the changing attitude towards what did and what did not constitute the animal and the human did not affect Johannes’ meat-eating in the slightest. He may have shifted from a position of human arrogance to one of appreciation for the larger mammals and primates, but all that happened was his justification (when I pushed him) shifted: to eat an animal is to respect it, to take it into your body is to merge with the animal. Did this mean that we were no more than animals? ‘We are part animal’ he declared, but didn’t elaborate. A child of seven could have told me this. He seemed to have gone backward in his thinking. And I maintain that the fact he continued to eat meat until his final successful suicide attempt showed a continuing hatred of animals. I’m not taking the moral high-ground here, more of a mid-table plateau, since I eat fish.
One of the themes that undoubtedly will make it through to the final cut is Boanerges’ meditations on nothingness. Here, I think, he rivals Sartre, although the late arrival of The Empty Bins in 1963, twenty years after the appearance of J-P’s magnum opus, has led to inevitable accusations of ‘derivative’. Yet Johannes reinscribes Heidegger’s ‘time’ into Sartre’s account of being by considering the nothingness in the consciousness of the newborn babe. Sartre has nothing to say of child cognition and neo-natal consciousness. Does the newborn babe have what we would recognise as ‘consciousness’? Is the new-born babe fully human? (Johannes did not think it his place to tackle the issue of foetus consciousness, so I leave it to one side, though some contradictory evidence is extant). This was the question JB posed, likening our ‘early time’ and our ‘late time’ (senility) as eras of consciousnesslessness (an inelegant term which did not help Boagernes’ cause; yet there is a current move to instate Thomas Hardy’s ‘existlessness’ as viable – are you kidding me?). ‘What of the spastic, deaf and dumb three year-old?’, Boanerges continues, in the revised edition (later removed when such categories became unacceptable). ‘They are without language, thought, communication, consciousness – for Sartre they are not human’. But were they human for JB? In truth, he shilly-shallies. ‘It depends’, he begins in response to his own question, ‘upon what you mean by “human”’. This is the master in his worst rhetorical phase. What redeems the book are his lyrical descriptions of moments of nothingness, when the despair of loneness overtakes him and he contemplates suicide, the only serious question, according to Camus, that philosophy needs to concern itself with. ‘Why not kill your self?’ Most people don’t, Camus says, not out of deep thought on the subject, but out of a kind of ‘going on’, perhaps rather in the manner of the snow monkeys.
In one passage he places the gun on the table and stares at it until it becomes an emblem of existence: nothing happens unless he acts; who is he to act?; he could shoot the next person to come into the room if he chooses (this would have been his second or third wife, most likely, although he doesn’t mention the fact), or, better to profit humanity, he could shoot himself. For what good is he to the world? Will the world be any the worse for his extinction? He thinks not. He has done nothing but try to be clever and write down his thoughts, many of them negative, many of them nihilistic. Will the world be better for his going? Most likely, for he will not be able to pour more despair to add to the sum of despair that already exists. But, he goes on, this is only what he is thinking. It is his feelings that overwhelm, that the world would be better without the human race, and that if he has no right to kill others, he at least can set his own lands in order, set an example, accompanied by a perfectly rational, coolly argued suicide note. He mentions Sartre, that it is only through human consciousness that the world comes into existence: neither element pre-exists the other, it is a mutual event, the existence of the world and the existence of the human consciousness. (Sartre just says ‘consciousness’, for it is presumed animals do not have consciousness). As my good friend Johannes Boagernes caresses the pearl butt with the tips of his fingers, bringing death and nothingness to his own consciousness through the fine wires in his hands, arms, neck, cerebrum, he understands it integrally as an ethical consciousness, something Sartre failed to do. He understands that it is only with human consciousness that evil is brought into the world. If we eliminate human consciousness, we eliminate evil at one stroke. Everything becomes as it was, everything returns to the thing in itself, not the thing perceived, for there is no longer human consciousness to bring things into existence. At once Johannes understands the beauty of the nihil. There is something about the beauty of the gun, its potential for death, its potential to rebalance the universe in favour of the universe if the gun is turned against the human self, that is inspirational. Johannes feels an uplift in his heart. At last! One act that can mean something, that can make the world a better place. He sits down to write the note before killing himself, in order to explain that he is ‘emptying bins’, and that this is all any of us can reasonably do.
As he starts to write the note he thinks of 1 Corinthians 13 and the difference in interpretation between the King James Version of agape – ‘charity’ – and other versions – invariably ‘love’, because he wants to write that this is ‘a final, true act of love’ or, more simply, ‘an act of charity’: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love/charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’; ‘Love/Charity suffereth long, and is kind’; ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity/love, these three; but the greatest of these is charity/love’. In what he would have recognised as his own unoriginality, he wanted to sign off with some allusion to this well-worn passage. But if the word were interpreted as ‘love’ then it were a lie, the lie all writers and philosophers and artists had perpetuated. He would be kidding himself. Hadn’t he always kidded himself that the human race was better than it truly was? ‘Love’ was an invention covering a multitude of sins, many of which he knew he had committed. But if the less likely, the less accepted interpretation were accepted, if KJV was right, he could live with it, he could live with the idea that charity trumped all, because here was true selflessness, here was something a man could commit to, here was not nothing (‘love’ he knew was chimeric). A commitment to charity was a leap of faith that he believed himself to be capable of, it was an engagement with the world on positive terms. It was something he could do. And the longer the suicide note became, detailing these quibbles of interpretation, expounding on the nature of ‘charity’ as the antithesis to ‘nothingness’, the more the possibility of his suicide receded into the distance. For now, Johannes was to live on, although, famously, he refused to take up charitable causes, arguing that they helped nobody but the servants of capitalism. It is here, I think, we might draw on his earlier political writings.
Illustrations of Political Folly
Originally designed in the format of a comic book to appeal to adults and children alike, Boanerges reverted to pure prose when he had finally to admit to himself that draughtsmanship was one skill he would never master. In the thirties, having moved back to London after the heady Paris salons of the twenties (he was a favourite of Gertrude Stein) he was inevitably taken hold of by the necessity to be political (his hatred of Freud remained throughout his life, so only one of these gods were his to worship). The simple tales were designed to bring Marx to the masses, to show why capitalism was a failure, although he had the intelligence never to subscribe to communism tout court. Again, some of his most lyrical passages deal with the nothingness that haunts the human. Here it was in the alienation that machinery had created in man’s condition, it was the alienation that capitalism had induced. He was able to simply and effectively describe the mind-numbing monotony of industrial capitalism, how the workers had nothing but their labour and their hands. He pitched the reader headlong into the horrors of the Victorian factory system, paraphrasing Engels and Dickens. Unfortunately, he was also swayed by another of those thirties idols in the face of capitalism’s crisis – the need for a strong man at the helm. And indeed, it is his most popular tale which best reveals his thinking at this time.
In the story of ‘Captain Peter’ we have an elemental town in which Mr Symes’s cotton mill dominates the Lancashire landscape. Symes is not a bad Master, and the Men’s wages are certainly sufficient to keep them reasonably well-fed. He is concerned for their welfare, and will sub a man (up to a point) when laid off sick. The cynics say that he ploughs back into his workforce just enough of his profits to ensure that future generations of workers can be reproduced and committed to his business. The workers do not see this, however, blind as they are to the true conditions of their existence, so there is no immediate reason for the workers to rebel against their lot, especially when they compare their own conditions with those conditions across the Pennines (a hill formation that separates the county of Lancashire from that of Yorkshire). But then, as JB writes it (under the pseudonym of ‘The Rattener’) two more mills are established on the edges of the same town, in direct competition. The following years are unsettled: sometimes the owners collude in keeping down the wages; at others they engage in skullduggery and commercial espionage. Both of these, ‘The Rattener’ makes clear, are accepted as modes of capitalism, in the early days, ‘monopoly capitalism’ and just ‘capitalism’. The government is brought in and is placed in the role of policeman, judge, jury, enforcer. However capitalism decides to promote itself, the nation state agrees to underwrite its follies.
Where ‘Captain Peter’ differs from this usual Marxist analysis is in its criticism of the way liberal democracy – a political system – is enmeshed with capitalism – an economic system. Fed up with their lot under the vicissitudes of the three captains of capitalism, the listening government gives all the men the vote (women are not mentioned in this text). The first system of democracy they attempt awards votes to the party with the largest majority. In the first election the winning party has 51%, the losing party 49%. Although the two parties have diametrically opposed manifestoes, the supporters of the losing party must submit to the dictates of the winners. This is tyranny of the majority, and comes to be reviled by all, since at some point everyone suffers the life of a loser. The system then moves to alternative voting. The problem with this, as they soon come to see, is that political arrangements reflect nobody’s preferred outcome. The third democratic system they try is proportional representation, but by this time there are no fewer than twelve parties, and the sight of twelve largely contradictory ideologies attempting to agree on a strategy as the Second World War looms is not edifying. The tale is so convincing, so plausible in its display of the failure of democracy that the reader is desperate for the solution. Enter ‘Captain Peter’. He has scaled K2, discovered the largest cave system in the world in Papua New Guinea, and helped stave off the encroachments of America into a number of Latin American countries. It is clear that only a man of his personal charisma and capacity can save the day and make things work. Taking his cue from the anarcho-syndicalists, and putting all governance in the hands of the workers, Captain Peter will ensure that capitalism is overthrown and each worker gets his due rewards. When the system is stable, Captain Peter will melt back into the rank and file. Only when we are truly equal as workers, only when we have overthrown the dehumanising effects of capitalism, will we return to our fully organic nature and system.
At this point in his career, Johannes couldn’t have been clearer about human nature. Capitalism obscured what we could be as humans because at base it is exploitative – only by somebody losing can somebody win. Get the economic system right, and you get ‘the human’. Get the economic system wrong and you get the ‘less than human’. If consciousness brought evil into the world, as he later argued (see above), capitalism brought the human as subhuman into being. Johannes was adamant: capitalism cannot be ameliorated. Throughout that part of globalisation that Mr Boanerges saw in the latter part of the twentieth century he argued that he was essentially correct, that the cheap goods of the developed world were at the expense of Bangladeshi children. As soon as there was nowhere in the world that agreed to work for peanuts, capitalism would collapse. Although Boanerges managed to keep up his left-wing rhetoric throughout the rest of his life, his critics always had at hand his failure to see how Captain Peter was none other than Uncle Joe Stalin to come. How much did he truly subscribe to marxian economics, and how much of it was an adopted pose? I believe he truly thought that it was in humankind’s hands to make itself human through correct application of socialist theory, and he believed that you could not ‘add on’ an economic system to ‘the human’. Bad systems made for a subhuman species. Only by creating and sustaining a system that allows every single individual in the world to participate in beneficence can humans truly be called ‘human’; only then can we say that as a species we have become ‘human’. Otherwise the ‘human’ will have to remain an idea, thwarted by the numerous exploitations the world’s inadequate politico-economic systems enforce under the managerial mantra of ‘the least worst’.
Some of this thinking found its way into another book he planned, first as a novel, then as a political tract, finally as a narrative poem, provisionally entitled Why Not? He said we needed the world to stop for a week (other than emergency services) so that we could reflect on the best way forward. ‘Why not?’ becomes the refrain in all these versions. He was working toward the yoking of the demise of capitalism with the revivification of Gaia, but the notes are too tentative to be included here. I may develop them elsewhere, perhaps integrated with our duty to bear witness, both to our atrocious behaviour and to our need to attend more fully to our place in the organic realm. It may be that ‘nature’ is as much the ‘face of the other’ as our fellow humans, and that we need to embrace the asymmetric I-thou of this relationship. But that would be me talking, not my friend Johannes, and me talking in a good mood at that, as you no doubt surmise.
I have not spoken much about Johannes Boargenes’ life, although I have hinted at its extraordinary nature. What does it benefit us to know that he may not have been born in Finland, but rather in Smyrna, and removed to Scandinavia some time around 1905? It might make him seem more cosmopolitan, but what else? And what of the now-established fact that, as was rumoured during his first American lecture tour in 1966, he had left behind in Italy in 1929 a Jewish wife and two children. They survived by making their way Eastwards – Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines. True, the evidence shows he sent numerous remittances to them, even when he married and remarried (without ever having divorced Rebeccah), but he never once openly acknowledged their existence. Was the protection of Victor(ia), who knew them, some kind of penitence, some kind of atonement? But again, what have these biographical details to do with the man’s ideas? Would you reject the cure for cancer because it came from a man who kept slaves?
I conclude (provisionally, of course – this is a work-in-progress) with two unrelated items, which, if there is such a thing as ‘the human’ in the sense of ‘special’, may yet be connected at some deep level. (If it were left to me I would leave you with another saying from Rochefoucauld: ‘No man is wise enough to know all the evil he does’, but this is not about me, and what do I know?)
When Johannes fled the October Revolution with some Romanov hangers-on (his aristocratic tendencies were still intact then), he took with him an unfired clay head, originally from Aï Khanum in Afghanistan, and over 2000 years old. The face is serene, eyes blind or just closed, the mouth relaxed, certainly not smiling, but perhaps with a laconic understatement hovering at the lips. This, Victor(ia) assures me, was amongst the effects he bequeathed her/him, although s/he will not let me view it (I have only a photograph). Victor(ia) also tells me that this relic was what Joho (his/her name for Johannes) aspired to; this was what he wanted his death mask to look like. I saw an exhibition by the Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa (2011, Yorkshire Sculpture Park), which included large alabaster heads. We were not allowed to touch these delicacies, despite their size, as if the sculptor had imbued them with a newly-minted double millennia of fragility. They had the same look, across twenty centuries, the same look, I swear.
But is it boredom on the old face and the new ones, rather than a knowledgeable serenity? What would Johannes have said? That they are not human? The human cannot be here? Nearly human? Not human, not yet, not yet? I doubt it. He would have mischievously, viciously even, dependent upon his mood, have referred us to the phrase he most dreaded, the phrase his first son greeted him with every morning:
‘I’m bored. What are we going to do today?’
 verto: to turn, turn around, transform, turn up, to put to flight, rout, to turn into, transform, to flee, interpret, understand, upset, overthrow
 BEST = ‘bacon, egg, sausage, tomato’
6 Petrarch Sonnets
It’s not all that clear why you’re asking me to submit my poems to another
online London garden party with wine posh fonts & a gap full of nibbles
I’ve never won the Garabaldi prize
been nominated for the Ritz award
had even a sniff of that Backwards thing or been put in or up for a Bourbon
you’d be better off among the in-crowd those cooing over fleeting fads who think bardic is a bleach for cleaning toilets
go & ask the hacks & novelty acts whose only conception of the Laurels is a fucking gastropub in Putney
me & love are like this (fingers crossed)
late night paralytics treading the decks
of a stone-floored room which starts to buck & roll like a tramp steamer in a tsunami
but it’s good to see you back on your feet swallowing the bitter taste of sunrise
dazed & blinking evacuated air
beyond the densely packed ghosts of your mind
you felt trapped in the hold of a tanker
but now you’re up on deck where bitter winds whip away your words before they’re spoken
a curving V of wake keeps disappearing
into the distance but is replenished
by your movement forwards into strangeness
tears in the fence 31
no milk-float trundling through the aftermath of last summer’s riots ever made it
back to the depot with greater relief
than I feel in your new buoyancy
like a prisoner on death-row hearing word of some inexplicable reprieve
you seem to walk back out into the world shrugging off the shackles of convention
rinsed clean of others’ expectations
& left with no attachment to the past you come back to language like a stranger
attend to these meteors & apples
water trickling through an old garden hose to resurrect the body of your mind
I wait in a bar behind the harbour
until the flags & marching bands have gone although the TVs will show replays
long into the hot restlessness of night
again the unemployed are trained to fight for the freedom of the wealthy to get richer in a relaxed environment
in accordance with the wishes of God
now as then it’s a question of good taste a matter of hats & propriety
maintaining old traditions with new guns
a few remains are flown home to become paperwork but the vast majority
are bulldozed into pits without music
the closer I come to my own dead end one crate of pain – return to sender –
the more I feel the car of time break down & dust the void with rusted flecks of hope
as when some happy camper in flip-flops carries four cornettos down the cliff-path ending up lost on a hot beach with two hands superglued into permanent fists
by the melted residue of pleasure
(& ducking a jiggling halo of wasps) we are steeped in futility’s juices
we wallow in oceans of emotion
from which we learn nothing as it turns cold the tide goes out & daylight starts to fade
I walk that lonesome road until it ends in scabby paddocks rank with thistle vacancies of unregarded salt-marsh
& hissing shingle slopes down to the sea
this is how I steer clear of the locals (plus lost doggers & ornithologists) who could easily feel the mad heat beat below the pallid surface of my skin
which is essentially what the sky does
not to mention haunted heaths & beaches saline meres & eerie headlands
but however bleak & God-forsaken
this place is – however wild & goosebumped – I never find myself distant from love
Mistress of the Harp
Behind the sandalwood fan her smile takes back the night. The shape of the harp and its hungered strings beg for her unredeemed promise of erotic mysteries. Within its raw silk cocoon, mulberry leaves are the feast for her darkest fruit, she holds a clutch of butterflies that explode with color when she releases her fingers. Under the fiery circumference of the moon, her face a pale oval, reflects the night’s most precious confessions: ripples of notes floating in liquid pace, a dreamlike sequence of melodies. Her last breath is stolen from time’s stash of secrets, some more costly than others. In her frenzied throat a thrush flutters, captured, dying, under the ardent gaze of evening’s sky, whose lunatic mirror sends endless reflections that rise, curve, travel, fly over limitless space. Singed nerves split apart a meridian; her ginger and spice fingers burn a wire of flame. Broken strings are no longer enough, any cure would consist of complete amputation of the heart, re-strung for greater resonance.
Registry and Leg
At the airfield continuous rain lashes the windsock. The unsecured corner of a Cessna’s tarpaulin pops. Local breeze effect, with orange ripstop nylon. A scrawny man in a doublet and hosiery with a magnificent hat shaped like a strawberry impugns the sky’s intent, querulous and naïve. A local nuisance, a royal pretender royally countenanced. Torn books in heaps. Pointless avidity vying with poignant detachment: ‘Keen as the arrows / Of that silver sphere / Whose intense lamp narrows, &c.’ Somewhere a killdeer’s high thin registry of alarm—k’dee-dee-dee—quashes the supremacy of melody. Like the broken winged convert Eliot saying ‘I no longer strive to strive towards such things.’ A royal ass. A tiny snouted weevil the color of a Carthusian liquor makes an indifferent journey up my skittish leg. Asa Gray’s grasses bust the tarmac in a staid divergent array: Natura non facit saltum.
Wont and Innuendo
The eye smarts up according to its wont and through-put, or dulls down unintelligible and blank. A dentist’s drill is powered off and hung up, frank steel pinched by fat fingers. Squint of a scabbard. Cramped calligraphy of a solitary beetle’s traversal of the Linoleum’d reaches. Sight is a dizzying congenial bricolage of brute innuendo and retrieval: implicit is its scat, helpless is its song.
is staggerwort, warp-weft with ivy and tree root
is six whips’ width of phlegm, stringing up air-tubes is blackout-blanket rolled inside stiffening duffel
is dead tissue sounding full when tapped
is solid-dollopped baby ducks of clotted cream
is his back thick with hair
matador’s muscles jumping and knotted
not letting in light
is unanswering glance from one
who should be lover
From Cycling After Thomas And The English
from Chapter Nine
As the Barley Mow pub, dating from 1763, by the green was closed I cycled on in search of South Bank Cottage, formerly Gorse Cottage, where Henry and Kate Salt lived from 1884 to 1893. Like walking, cycling is a way of thinking and I wanted happier thoughts. Henry Salt (1851-1939), a junior classics master at Eton College, married Kate, the chaplain’s daughter and moved here to live in a labourer’s cottage, without servants, to grow vegetables and write. This move shocked their families and fellow Etonians, who had been worried about them since they began riding bicycles. Salt was a committed vegetarian, ethical socialist, pacifist, nature conservationist and man of letters. He founded the Humanitarian League, a forerunner of the League Against Cruel Sports, in 1891. Henry and Kate’s brother, Jim, another Eton master, were part of the wide circle of thinkers, writers, artists and musicians that attended William Morris’ meetings in Hammersmith. I must confess that I had never heard of the Salt until recently. Henry, though, was the first person to advocate animal rights as distinct from welfare in 1894. This significant epistemological break from previous thinking in Animal Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress was ahead of its time in acknowledging that animals have a distinctive individuality with a right to a life that should not be subordinate to human interests. Salt’s A Plea for Vegetarianism (1886) and his Life of Henry David Thoreau (1890), provided Mahatma Gandhi, as he acknowledged, with the moral argument for his vegetarianism and faith in passive resistance. He wrote books on Shelley, Jefferies, Tennyson, James Thomson as well as wild flowers, the heart of socialism and the creed of kinship. He wasn’t much of a nature writer, poet, translator and playwright and yet his devotion to finding better ways of living in the countryside is clear. He was a prototype of the peace-loving, alternative living beatniks and hippies of the post-1956 period. He provides an interesting contrast to Gilbert White, who lived at nearby Selborne and made significant contributions to the study of birds and gardening. White, who had no problem with shooting birds and animals, stayed in one village most of his life and is forever associated with Selborne. In contrast, Salt moved on from Tilford, was rootless and never wrote a book celebrating nature in one place. His writing was dispersed in essays and studies. White left us his journals where he continually recorded the natural year and his efforts as a gardener of flowers, vegetables, huge melon beds, homemade follies, wild flower patches and the ways he heated his greenhouses. White was in his way quite unorthodox and wrote a classic work in the development of our view of nature. Coleridge made notes all over his copy of The Natural History of Selborne, Darwin reckoned it was the reason he became a biologist and Virginia Woolf said that it left a door open through which we hear distant sounds. In essence, White offers a human engagement with nature. Salt never wrote a major work of nature writing that integrated his thinking. His work on Shelley is significant in that clearly establishes the poet’s thinking on natural diet and ecology and it is now regarded as a forerunner of ecocriticism. He took readers through Queen Mab (1813), A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813) to The Revolt of Islam (1818) and contributed to a fuller understanding of the poet’s moral and philosophical position. It is from Queen Mab that the link between meat eating and ‘All evil passions, and all vain belief, / Hatred, despair, and loathing in his mind, / The germs of misery,’ is made and established as a justification for natural diet. He helped found the Shelley Society in 1886 with radicalism, feminism and vegetarianism at its core.
Salt was particularly successful in attacking the fur and feather trade. He coined the term ‘murderous millinery’. It was out of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk, women who refrained from wearing feathers in their hats, founded in 1889 at Croydon that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds developed and ornithology grew in popularity. The Fur, Fin and Feather Folk took a pledge to ‘refrain from wearing the feathers of any birds not killed for the purpose of food, the Ostrich only exempted,’ the exemption rule being a fine example of Englishness. Gandhi met Salt and joined the London Vegetarian Society, many of whom were Fabians and Shelleyan, in 1889. It was through his reading of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, inspired by the Peterloo Massacre, that Gandhi’s thinking on civil disobedience and passive resistance reached its maturity. Salt was an effective conduit of powerful ideas that are active today.
Salt attempted to live a simple life outside of the narrow conventions of respectable society according to the ideals of Shelley. Salt was a man seemingly prepared to accept all sexual attitudes and activities. He may have been inspired by Tolstoy’s belief in sexual abstinence. However, his marriage to Kate was never consummated, as she did not want to be touched by a man. Kate, a spirited suffragette, musician and socialist, made a deep impression on Shaw and Carpenter, who became her ‘Sunday husbands’. The platonic, intellectual companionship with Shaw flourished until 1898 when Charlotte Payne-Townsend replaced her as his unpaid secretary and became his wife. Shaw never consummated his marriage to Charlotte and dropped Kate entirely from his life. The Salt-Shaw friendship continued on a less intimate basis until Salt’s death. Kate’s relationships with Salt, Carpenter and Shaw provided the material background to Candida (1894), a play about what a woman desires from a husband. Interestingly, it is Candida that is responsible for her husband’s success, a man with similar views to Carpenter. Kate’s deep affection for Shaw grew and he was probably the only man that she might have had an emotional attachment with. Her love for Carpenter was more idealised and, of course, never likely to be consummated. She may have given Shaw the idea for the comedy of errors, You Never Can Tell (1897) and in particular the character of Gloria, a modern woman, working for women’s rights, and with no interest in love or marriage. Despite having affairs with women, Kate stayed with Salt, living as ‘friendly strangers’ and providing the backbone to his life. She broke the convention of her class by working with her hands to clean and cook, no longer regarding manual labour as degrading but rather an engagement with life. She used her connections to support to the struggle against the slaughter of birds. However, it was her restless nature that led to their movement from one country cottage to another. Another close friend of the Salts was (Lord Olivier) Sydney Olivier, a Fabian civil servant and uncle of the actor, (Lord) Laurence Olivier. His four daughters were part of the Neo-Pagan circle of friends prominent in Cambridge and Bloomsbury with Rupert Brooke, Ka Cox, Darwin’s granddaughter and Vaughan Williams second cousin, Gwen, Geoffrey Keynes, the Blake scholar who married Margaret Darwin, and Jacques Raverat. Olivier, who became Labour’s Secretary of State for India wrote the introduction to The Heart of Socialism (1927) noting that Salt’s humour and irony were perhaps too subtle for the general reader.
Salt, even more than Carpenter, is a forgotten figure that took an ethical view of living in the world and had faith in the Romantic imagination to create a new and better world. He had from all accounts a happy life that involved an animal friendly, simple and ecologically aware life. His humanitarianism and espousal of the ideas of Shelley, Thoreau and Jefferies contributed to thinking about alternative living and a reminder that simplicity and unorthodoxy have their own virtues. Salt, in essence, is the archetypal sandal wearing Other Man. His work against the slaughter of animals and birds provides a cultural context to Thomas’ purpose in writing about the bird shop in Merton Road. Here ‘linnets are rushing ceaselessly against the bars of six-inch cages, their bosoms ruffled and bloody’ and goldfinches were making sounds out of place. A six inch long goldfish squirmed in a six inch diameter globe. It is here that the Other Man purchases a cock chaffinch in a paper bag and cycles towards Morden station releasing the fluttering bird near a garden. The symbolic freeing of the chaffinch is thus not simply the manifestation of Thomas’ alter ego. He is associating himself, albeit at a distance,with the militant side of the animal and bird rights movement.The Salts were keen cyclists and part of the wider vegetarian cycling movement from the 1880’s onwards. Indeed the Vegetarian Cycling Club began in south east London in 1887, becoming the Vegetarian Cycling Athletic Club in 1909. The Club was formed to prove that vegetarians could equal carnivores in ability and stamina in competition. The Club continues today. Thomas’ Other Man is similarly by association suggesting that vegetarians have as much cycling stamina as anyone.
I couldn’t find South Bank Cottage and cycled towards the Alice Holt Forest. As ever, my map reading was useless and I was using my sense of direction to find the right lane to cycle. Young Philip Marlow’s litany, ‘the oak and the beech and the ash and the elm’, came to mind as I whizzed passed more trees. There are no elms, though. Alice Holt, ancient oak woodland, was enclosed in 1812. Conifers and pines, introduced in the second part of the nineteenth century, dominate and suck the wood of its old nature. The Forestry Commission acquired the wood in 1924 and it has effectively become a park with cycle ways and wide tracks and paths. The research station works on climate change, sustainable woodland management, evaluating woodland resources, biodiversity and protecting trees and was established in 1946. I found the solitary oak, George’s Lonely Oak, named after a devoted forestry worker that has become part of the cycling and walking experience of the forest.
Hunting forests, such as this one, were subject to harsh Forest law, imposed by the Normans, with punishments of castration and mutilation. Indeed the word ‘forest’ was originally a judicial term meaning land that had been placed off limits by royal decree. By the twelfth century there were 66 Royal Forests and 70 private chases controlled by strict Forest law. Here the King and other nobles had the right to keep deer, wild boar and other prey. ‘Forest’ also carries within it a meaning of being outside the public domain and it is this meaning that poets have utilised. Forests and woods are potentially where the world is turned upside down, as in Shakespeare’s As You Like It or A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It is a place of sexual discovery and assignation, danger and deceit, where pagan spirits can take over a man, such as Falstaff, as in The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is a fugitive world where lovers meet as in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel that I read as being as much about hidden aspects of being English and all its divisions as sexual love. In poetry from Shakespeare through Milton to John Clare, the wood is not merely a place of sanctuary, as in Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, and testing of conflicting virtues and vices but also of potential regeneration. Deforestation has spoiled Alice Holt. It is devoid of wildness and lacks otherness. I hope that land is acquired for the oak to return. I have nothing against parkland like this. It is simply not an oak wood anymore.
I cycled through Buck Horns Oak, Blacknest and Binstead in an effort to re- align my journey with some of the lanes that Thomas meandered along towards Chawton and Arlesford. Like Thomas, I saw some rookeries but on ash rather beech.There was no sign of any gypsies around here or any part of my journey.The absence of gypsies and other wayfarers along the lanes is only something I realized after the journey. Anglo-Romany Gypsies arrived in Hampshire to live in the forests, especially the New Forest, in the 1630s, having migrated originally from India through the Middle East to Egypt. Many worked in the hop fields, picked strawberries and did other seasonal work. Gypsies were outlawed in England until the second Egyptians Act (1783) and only recognized as an ethnic minority in the Race Relations Act of 1976. They have an almost hidden history and their strange upside down behaviour can be the source of humour for the English.
Gypsies started giving up their close to nature life, with its reliance upon herbal medicine and folk cures, in the early part of the twentieth century. In Thomas’ period their brightly painted horse drawn wagons and carts made them stick out. Thomas, fascinated by their culture, noted their presence whenever he saw them. When I was a child they still wore bright colours, earrings, worked as smithies, made baskets and sold clothes pegs and lucky heather.They lived in or near woods, where they traded in horses, told fortunes, sold daffodils and went rabbiting. They cast spells both for and against the ‘evil eye’, had a fear of cats and thought horses sacred. They decorated their Showman’s living wagons and flat carts with gold leaf wheels, ornate ironwork, engraved mirrors and outside cooking box according to their wealth and status. Our understanding of this aspect of Gypsy culture was enriched by Jack Hargreaves on Out Of Town, Country Ways and his subsequent Channel Four series based on his own wagon travels. Since the decline in agricultural work in the late Sixties many have found alternative housing or moved onto permanent sites and work as landscape gardeners, motor trade workers and scrap metal dealers. As the gypsies gave up their decorated wagons they were often taken over by New Age Travellers that motorized them in the Eighties. In more recent time, some horse drawn wagons and carts have made a comeback.
In the late Eighties I was poet in residence at a school in Tadley, north Hampshire and was amazed to discover that the village had effectively started in the 1900s as a gypsy settlement on the common. The original village had been deserted sometime in seventeenth century. The gypsies had made their money from scrap metal in London in the Twenties and Thirties. The children and staff at the school were incredibly happy. Tadley, deficient in several amenities, seemed to be modern ribbon development out of the brush and heathland and had a distinct ambience. Tadley is the centre of besom broom industry, producing witches brooms for the royal palaces. I stayed at the Fox and Hounds, a traditional pub owned by the gypsy family. I gave a reading in the lounge on my last night and sold several books and left a happy man.
At 87, it’s hard to believe,
but I simply have no complaints.
I’m a pretty healthy old fellow.
Of course, I’m a New Yorker,
and we reel off our symptoms
to anyone who will listen.
So I listen, and cluck in sympathy,
unable to add to the stewpot of misery
with my nothing aches and pains.
What’s to complain about?
I have a great apartment,
with a tree embracing it.
I live with someone I worship.
Looking at him — after fifty years –
still makes me smile.
I go on writing my poems,
and even get attention from my fans.
And money? I have none — well, okay,
the monthly government handout
that pays the bills.
I have enough of my mind left
to know how lucky I am.
I could even solve the world’s problems,
if only they’d ask me.
Or if they’d read my poems.
And with all that to celebrate,
my dick and I are still talking,
or rather, jousting.
Even at the alarming age of 87,
and even if it all goes downhill from here,
as it must, eventually or tomorrow,
I’m the man with everything.
Does she mean that cloud? Get robins on the list. He follows me around, digging out proclivities, spying what I like, making notes. I went to have a look around the new place. Very white. A corner-room, away from the main drag. Picture-windows on three sides, but plenty of building, solid brick, behind, so I felt secure. Not overlooked. But I could overlook. Little kingdoms of cabbages, and daffodils with yolky bodices and petticoats; shimmery plums with shining frilly foliage. Life going on in spades but me not having to engage, unless I wanted to. No mirrors. Noises off: kids’ voices; flutes. A long wide writing desk, on the unwindowed wall. Sheaves of floating-off paper, lightly weighted with pyramids of a certain kind of pen. One slid across a page without impediment. Time. No clocks. A breath of wind.
The Burning of Beslan
Because of what happened in the sports hall-
the shouting, the lining-up,
the intruders tying their bombs
to the basketball nets-
she makes pictures.
Always the same pictures-
intruders that are men, intruders
that are women.
She outlines them in pencil.
She colours them in.
When they are whole,
when they have their grenades,
she lights a candle-
every day she does this-
when they have their grenades
firmly in their hands,
she lights a candle,
then feeds the intruders, men,
women, into it.
Every time she pulled a wishbone, this was what she asked for: that the dead, each year, be woken up and welcomed back to join her and, furthermore, that they should come and celebrate with dance and song, with drink and cake. Each time she cut a cake at birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, this was her only desire: that she might scale tomorrow’s tower and, furthermore, whilst up there on the summit, run her fingers down the Milky Way’s bright spine. Each time she saw a shooting star she wished on its tail that she might always be so grounded on the earth, to come into the garden through tree-fall and log-rot, through fruit-burst and, furthermore, the sweet corruption of mushrooms that bud within the shadows by the well, their gaze raised skyward. And every time she tossed a penny in that well, she always asked for this and this alone: long life, good health and love and, furthermore, a heart to fly the stubborn birdcage of her breastbone.
It takes one to know one and two to tango, three to make a crowd and four to square it. It takes a village to make a square, with its pub, shop, market stalls and castle ruins. It takes a crane to build the crane that lifts the bricks up to the castle’s keep. It takes two floors to make a storey there. It takes a story to make a king and place him in the castle with his queen, his dogs, his courtiers and his fool. It takes no fool to see it takes a hero to take this castle in a siege. It takes the siege to make them ration food, as when there are no eggs after Easter. It takes an egg to make a hen, and a hen to make an egg. It takes two eggs to make a cake, and a cake or two to make a party. It takes a party to elect a leader, but a leader to take all the credit. It takes a banker to take the credit period, or simply to be on the take. It takes a nation to swallow that pill and a poll to take the nation’s temperature. It takes an editor to heat it up so we can take the Sunday papers. It takes guts to take the news without crying. It takes tears to make a crocodile, and a crocodile to make us run at the double. It takes a double to be taken for someone else. It takes someone else to point these small things out. It takes the small things to put the big things in perspective. It takes perspective to establish the vanishing point. It takes a point to make a critic, but a poet to take the praise as criticism, the sniping comments as praise. It takes a sniper to take a sniper out, a dentist to take out a tooth, and a tooth to bite the bullet. It only takes one bullet to start a war, a war to make us value peace, and peace to make us one. It takes one to know one.
Strictly Illegal: John Wieners with Gilbert and George
Strictly Illegal: Poems by John Wieners, Art by Gilbert and George: selected and introduced by Jeremy Reed, compiled by Patricia Hope Scanlon, Artery Editions, 2011 £18.95
Patricia Hope Scanlan has been producing distinctive ‘compilations’ through her Artery Editions since 2004. These are usually curated assemblages rather than conventional books: they bring together – not necessarily as full collaborations – poems and art works and in some cases also an audio CD. Spiral (2004), for example, combined a poem by Fanny Howe with music by Ken Edwards and collages by Tom Raworth; and Gifts Received (2007) , a sequence of poems by Lee Harwood with images of the ‘gifts’, art work by Francis Wishart and a soundscape by Birdie Hall. Strictly Illegal, her latest, combines poems by John Wieners with art work by Gilbert and George. There is an introduction by Jeremy Reed, who selected the poems; some further introductory remarks by Scanlan; notes and commentaries from Anthony Rudolph, Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood; and a (historical) bibliography on Wieners by George Butterick.
Wieners, who was born in 1934, died in 2002, and is best known for his earlier poems. Many of us first encountered him through Donald Allen’s context-changing New American Poetry (1960) and then acquired The Hotel Wentley poems (1958) as soon as we could. After that there were The Ace of Pentacles (1964), Pressed Wafer (1967), the tellingly named Asylum Poems (1969) and Nerves (1970). In 1972 Jonathan Cape brought out a Selected Poems. And at this point the Butterick ‘check-list’ stops being helpful. Butterick died in 1988 and must have prepared this ‘check-list’ between 1972 and the publication in 1975 of the markedly different Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike. Raymond Foye edited two selections for Black Sparrow Press: Selected Poems 1958-84 (1986) and Cultural Affairs in Boston: Poetry and Prose 1956-1985 (1988). In 2007 Bootstrap Press brought out A Book of Prophecies, a 1971 journal.
By no means all of Weiners’ writings made their way into these published collections and a full collected works would present considerable editorial, if not legal, challenges (Andrea Brady’s essay ‘Making Use of the Pain: the John Wieners Archives’, gives a good sense of the former). Reed tells us in his introduction to Strictly Illegal that he he had access, through a job with Red Snapper Bookshop, to ‘a swatch of stapled seventies magazines’ , from which he was able to ‘pull’ the poems here assembled. I have not been able to check carefully but I would say that this enthusiast’s selection includes several poems – or versions of them – which have already been collected along with those whose only previous previous appearance has been in fugitive magazines. reed describes the selection as ‘an assemblage of randomly dispersed poems’ and expresses a certainty that Wieners would have approved. In that same final paragraph of his introduction, he refers to ‘JW’s lawless contributions to poetry’. ‘Lawless’ could be taken to refer to either or both of ‘laws’ of poetry and the established laws of the federal state. On the former, many of Wieners’ close friends and associates were involved in heady discourses on poetics (discourse on the laws of poetry, often with a view to changing them) and he himself spent some time, in its last years, at Black Mountain College, whose last rector was his chosen mentor, Charles Olson, an impulsive if idiosyncratic law-finder. Frank O’Hara, whose ‘Personism’ is much closer to Wieners’ actual practice than Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’ (or indeed his grand-scale historical and anthropological projects), was a friend. Wieners saw the role of poet as special, as sacralised and sacralising. As with the rituals of roman catholicism, his home religion, this required attention to the liturgical rites of poetic behaviour. Indeed the first poem in this book starts:
Oh listen to my words for I am wise
I am like a lily fruit
blooming in the wilderness (p.17)
The Authorised Version is clearly audible. This may not be so different from this, a few poems later:
He was her man
But he done
left her roaring heart playing
sour and dry (A Love Story, p.21)
Here the important scriptures are those of popular song, in much of which, of course, love goes seriously wrong. Every reader, I assume, will be engaged in supplying the missing ‘her wrong’ at the end of the second line only to be brought up against the ‘dissonance’ that is also a ‘digression’, and which anticipates the ‘atonal kisses’ of the next stanza. There is a difference between ‘lawlessness’ and the lawfulness (awe-fullness) that can loom over and inflect knowing transgressions, inciting the need for confession, forgiveness and redemption. Wieners was caught up for most of his writing life in this contradiction, which provides the atmosphere of many of his poems, and which may well have been one of the factors leading to a number of incarcerations in ‘asylums’.
It would be almost impossible to discuss Wieners’ poems without talking about the mixture of pleasures and pained transgressions that make up their subject matter, for it would seem that for him there was at times no difference between the life lived and the poem. At an extreme, some of the poems attempt the feat of writing the present of their production and sometimes that present is acknowledged to be the act itself of writing, which thus becomes a reflexive sacred task (‘I write the same words again, sitting here with Charlie Parker … ’ p.17).
Some of these transgressions are playful and are situated within his very specific poetic context: Olson’s Bibliography of America for Ed Dorn, for example, has as I recall nothing to say about the Hollywood gossip pages that Wieners so obviously read and loved. But the two transgressive activities, both of which were at the time illegal and that are openly recounted in his writings, are drug-use and gay love and sex. Their illegality, together with Wieners’ marginal economic status, encouraged him to adopt the precarious and at times paranoid role of the social outsider, leaving him vulnerable and sometimes dependant on those he felt most threatened him. He has been much celebrated for this ‘outcast’ status, not least in this new selection, and is usually seen as in a line of poets both doomed to and choosing forms of dérèglement as poetic being and destiny. Jennifer Moxley has an essay in Jacket 34 which considers Wieners’ poem Billiein the light of the contrast – and relationship – between Rimbaud and Verlaine. Wieners is more likely to present derangement as naturalised than heroic; it is the candour, and the skilled artifice through which his candour appears to speak without artifice, that is heroic and often at once both joyful and painful to read:
To explore those dark eternals
of the nightworld: the prostitute, the dope
addict, thief and pervert. These were the
imagined heroes of my world: and the orders
of my life. What they stood for, how they
lived, what they did in the daytime were the
fancies of my imagination. And I had to be-
come every one of them until I knew.
Until I knew now that they are only depriv-
ations of the self, not further extensions
of its being: manifestations of want, denial
(Address of the Watchman to the Night in Agamemnon, p.44; I have retained the lineation from Strictly Illegal, though there may be no need to do so.)
The other illegality that might be intended by the title of this collection is the one relating to copyright. The introduction includes this: ‘Strictly Illegal, which acknowledges no copyright …’; and Scanlan’s end-note refers to a ‘legal wrangle’ over Wieners’ work, ‘that is only now righting itself’.
In that note she also refers to Gilbert and George as ‘ “outlaw” artists’ and suggests that Wieners’ poems in this selection are ‘perfectly complemented’ by their art work. As I write this, Gilbert and George have a major show of recent work across three of London’s White Cube galleries and have for some time been in the permanent collections of national galleries. They seem to have achieved that strange, wholly legitimising status as national treasures.
Most of the works included here belong to their category of ‘charcoal-on-paper sculptures’ and have had to be very severely reduced in scale to fit the 21 cm square book (there are two pull-outs allowing for horizontal expansion). All of these earlier pieces (two sets, both from 1970) include text; the central panel of ‘To be with art is all we ask’, which appears on its own on p.66 and again with its two outer panels in the pull-out following p.108, includes three columns of text, thus declaring itself as writing. The original is 2.8 metres tall and so adds to this declaration that it is monumental writing. The reproduction in the ‘general edition’, which I am discussing here, is 12 cms high, too small to be read with ease, and so offering itself neither as monument nor as poem to be read in textual interchange with the poems that surround it. (An ‘art edition’ of Strictly Illegal, including two of the images and a selection of the poems, is printed on A0, which would be perfectly legible.) In the Gilbert and George text, ‘Art’ is addressed as a kind of divinity, in a tone established from the opening:
OH ART, what are you? You are so strong and powerful, so beautiful and moving. You make us walk around and around, pacing the city at all hours, in and out of our Art for All room. We really do love you and we really do hate you.
This kind of irony is not applied to the figure of Poetry in Wieners.
The other 1970 set, ‘The Nature of Our Looking’, takes the form of drawings based on photographs of the couple on a visit to the ‘countryside’, in a walk that was obviously an episode in the ongoing collaborative performance of being Gilbert and George. The rural scenes could not be further from Wieners’ ‘nightworld’. The figures are suited (or similar), one has a walking stick, and they are very much an urban couple (of friends?) – possibly Edwardian – visiting the ‘country’ for a day. This is a wittily attenuated comment on an aesthetic that saw a rural walk as source of special knowledge. These are the living sculptures of Spitalfields, temporally transplanted. The title suggests a chiasmus with one of its strokes – ‘the look of nature’ – missing. As with ‘To be with Art …’, the paper has been worked so as to give the images a sepia effect and to point up with an affectionate irony the stylised anachronism of the occasion.
Having in mind the Robert Lavigne drawing in The Hotel Wentley Poems, and the scrap-book collages in Behind the State Capitol, I had been apprehensive about the pairing of Gilbert and George with Wieners. The complementarity Scanlan finds is presumably to do with cultural performances of sexual identity. If so, the differences may be more striking than the similarities. Despite all this, the combination works well enough, perhaps because of the contrasts. It is also possible that the popularity of Gilbert and George will bring new readers to the poems. And there are some fine poems in this book.
Of Tradition & Experiment VII: Becoming Visible—The Struggle to Circulate Radical Poetry
‘To be widespread—isn’t that the aim of every artist?’
—Vanessa Place, Les Figues Presse
Vanessa Place’s half-joking question provokes those who believe avant-garde writing is only avant-garde because it is not (yet) seen by the mainstream. It’s not advertised to them, distributed easily to their doorsteps or lauded with prizes. As Joshua Clover said:
‘Avant-garde work… is nothing if it’s not a refusal of the very protocols which are preferred by mainstream venues and sales channels. If the work doesn’t set out to fuck up the gears of that mechanism, it simply isn’t avant-garde by definition. Yes, some of it will be recuperated by commodity-life later on, but only later on, by which time it is (tautologically) no longer avant-garde.’
The question not only of being a poet—thus already naturally marginalized—but being a poet who is trying to push whatever is left of an envelope into a space of ‘the new’—i.e. avant-garde experimental hybrid writing—is one filled with debatable issues, issues which circle around the invisibility and visibility of that writing.1 Is being left-of-center, thus the odd misfit observer with a sharp new sense of the society he/she is unable to partake of, synonymous with being unseen? Endless banter on writer social networks and chat groups attempts to grapple with this question. For some, the issue is to or not to publish. For most, it is when, where and most importantly how to publish and be published.
To examine not the perspective of publishers or authors, but that of poets who are both publishers and authors2, I carried out a series of interviews with ‘avant-garde’ Anglophone and French poets from two generations who run their own small presses. Issues explored include receptivity, invisibility, distribution, collectives, book buying and reading habits, the capacity of authors to be seriously considered for literary prizes of a national and international stature, eReaders and eBooks, and the sense of the avant-garde as further marginalized by limited access to mainstream, recognized venues for their works as in on Amazon or in Barnes & Noble, FNAC or Waterstone’s.
The twenty-six responses received thus far fall into three main categories: poets with small presses, poets with significant online magazines and poets who are not publishers at all. In the first category, I received responses from fourteen poets who have or recently had a small press (some jointly) publishing print books. Of these, eight responses were from women and six men, all Anglophone (12 American, 1 Canadian, 1 English) who had authored a maximum of seventeen full-length (48+ manuscript pages) books, four minimum. However, in the publisher-poets category, the number of books authored by these poets more than doubles if one adds their translations and anthology editing works. As for their presses, they publish on average 3-4 titles a year (max 7, min 1-2 annually) at an average print run of 1000 (max 1500, min 200/250) and at a sales cost of around $14-$15 a book (max $24, minimum $12). The majority of these presses also run a chap or art book series, though only two run press-related magazines (one online, another print). Surprisingly, given the USA annual average, two thirds of these small presses include translations among the books they publish—averaging a third of their overall print run—ranging from Cole Swensen’s La Presse which is 100% translation to Lost Road Publishers which includes only 5% translation among its published titles. (Some of the presses represented here include: Ahsahta, Counterpath, Corrupt, Les Figues, in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Subpress, and Litmus.)
The other poets surveyed, who make up categories two and three, includetwelve poets who are not book publishers—though some have online magazines (such as RoToR or Drunken Boat), have worked on editorial boards, or are part of collectives. Of these, five are French, one is English and six are American; including nine women and three men3. The most books published by one writer in the authors-only category are twenty, and the overall average was six. This average does not include two of the responses, which were from poets who have significant journal publications and chapbooks but who are still attempting to get a first book out. I encouraged them to respond because I felt it would be interesting to include young authors’ perspectives of publishing options, especially when reflecting on new kinds of writing.
Of these twelve poets, ten would like to see their next book appear with a small—or, as Joe Ross renames them—‘serious about literature’ press, instead of a large, mainstream, ‘commercial’ press. Though I did not ask the publisher-poets what kind of press they would like their work to appear with, it is evident from their reasons for publishing that they, too, would prefer to go with a small press or—as Laura Moriarty suggests—‘a poetry-focused university press’ should that opportunity arise. For some, this is because of the ‘flexibility’ of such presses since, as Paul Buck said, ‘Major presses are a disappointment as they interfere and try to rewrite from either a commercial perspective or without any understanding or interest in the literary work itself.’ Most authors cited reasons for preferring small presses that parallel those that motivate the poet-publishers to run such presses—community and the nature of the kind of writing being welcomed at and by the readers of those presses. Jean-Michel Espitallier puts it clearly4:
For me it’s linked to the nature of the book. A poetry book—an experimental book—will have more opportunity to encounter its specific public through a small press publisher who is better equipped than a ‘big’ press to activate the networks linked to their universes. The book will almost naturally find the public it is, a priori, destined for. The location of a book’s publication also gives it meaning, thus gives it an additional value, political, aesthetic, etc., value (and I’m referring here to Gérard Genette’s book, Seuils, (Thresholds), and this notion of paratexts, of thresholds [/doorways] of reading).
The radical poets interviewed main motivations for publishing also tended to be intellectual camaraderie and, as Forrest Gander said about his and CD Wright’s decision to create their press, a ‘sense of activist community, the opportunity to champion work I admire’. Forming a press has, for some, also been about filling gaps, getting books into print that might otherwise never exist. Cole Swensen started La Presse because she was fed up with the American noncommitment to translation. La Presse exists, she explained, ‘to address that gap in relation to the one tiny corner of literature that I happen to know.’ Similarly, Dylan Harris established Corrupt Press to give voice to Anglophone authors living outside the publishing circles of their native countries, authors he felt were marginalized and silenced. He later widened his publications to include writing in English by non-native speakers—especially Swedish and Danish—who write in ways that go unseen because they are linguistically unusual. Wanting to do something together, Julie Carr and Tim Roberts formed Counterpath Press instead of a journal5 because ‘this just seemed bigger and brighter. We were aware of a lack of venues for innovative work and for translation and wanted to help fill that gap.’Janet Holmes said that she also, in taking the job at Boise which put her into the position of running Ahsahta Press, ‘chose to publish work of merit that was not being taken up by the mainstream small presses or the university presses.’ She was quick to point out, ‘My authors are eclectic, which is to say I am not promoting any single branch of the avant-garde nor any one aesthetic.’
On the other hand, E Tracy Grinnell’s press Litmus arose out of‘An interest in participating in the San Francisco Bay Area writing community where I was when I began working on Aufgabe [her annual print magazine]and a desire to add something to the conversation happening through small publications.’ She adds that, ‘it [Litmus] essentially began as a social gesture—I was developing all these affinities through writing and reading and … working on a publication or small press created opportunities to engage the community and initiate intellectual and poetic exchange.’
This does not mean that all small press publishers are great community champions or devoted to poetry as a social service. For some it was simply, as Vanessa Place noted, ‘an aesthetic project’ taken up in her case as a kind of game, a ‘stupid challenge, and thus irresistible’. On a more terre à terre level, Joshua Clover explained, ‘I got a job, and it seemed like a good thing to do with money’. Joe Ross says simply that being involved in SubPress, a collective, ‘allows me to engage as a publisher as well as author’.
Community and involvement in local life are often cited as the primary motivation for participating in experimental writing collectives, where ‘intellectual involvements’ (Paul Buck) were a constant benefit, along with ‘FUN. Life. Community’ (Bhanu Kapil) or ‘community and exposure to others and learning about lots of new poets’ (Michel Noteboom, dittoed by Virginie Poitrasson). This said, some poets surveyed reject opportunities to be part of literary collectives because, as Laura Mullen said, ‘there is a pretense that it’s all about the individual’. Here she is not speaking for how she feels personally, but rather why she thinks American authors shy away from joining collectives6. Her impression is confirmed by Janet Holmes who admits, ‘I see them [collectives] mostly as self-marketing ploys rather than aesthetic allegiances.’
This fear of forced and thus at once inclusive and exclusive aesthetic allegiance, especially when one speaks of being part of an avant-garde or experimental movement, strangely motivated E Tracy Grinnell’s involvement in Laura Moriarty’s “A Tonalist Feature” in Jacket, Magazine. Grinnell explains:
‘Her A Tonalist movement is a sort of anti- or non- movement movement, which is why I was happy to be included. Her conception of what an A Tonalist is works for me because you’re as in or out as you want to be – even if she does outline general poetic characteristics. Movements and aesthetic group formations are interesting historically, but they are not neccesarily as interesting to me contemporarily because they can be aggressive and anti-social.’
In short, social space dictates many small press publishing practices, both from the author and the publisher’s perspectives, be that social connection or taking of a stance outside the social space proffered to them. As E Tracey Grinnell sums it up, everything she does is for ‘community and art’.
Partaking in a collective and book publishing go their separate ways when the issue of distribution comes up. For all of the publishers interviewed, finances are tightly intertwined with the constant minefields of distribution and promotion. For some, the concern with making the effort to get past the distribution/promotion barrier has pretty much been abandoned—their books get passed hand to hand via friends (Swensen’s press mostly works that way. Clover suggests such handoff from one to another is promotion that ‘…may just be a way of saying that our model of promotion is not the same as what the big dogs mean by the term.’) As Place said about Les Figues, the press just does its general best, trying for ‘promotion, which includes encouraging the authors to self-promote and encouraging those we know who know these things to look at the work and speak about it promiscuously.’ By which she is hinting at the books-getting-reviewed issue, but also implying that commercial avenues are not her press’ main focus. She explains: ‘I think it’s useless to engage in a Barnes & Noble or Amazon comparison or to think of SPD as anything but a distribution center; we’re living in a Facebook age, an age of dialectical and self-sculpted capitalism. It’s word-of-social-networks that sells avant soap.’
The ‘word-of-social-networks’ is currently the keystone of small press book promotions. Of Litmus’ book promotion methods, Tracy Grinnell explains:
‘We use as many free or cheap avenues as possible – social networking sites, website & email list[s]– and we recently started a YouTube channel and have posted an interview there with Jeffrey Jullich, author of Portrait of Colon Dash Parenthesis. We reach out – by phone and by mail – to a targeted list of independent bookstores across the U.S., and we help our authors plan readings as much as we can. We send out review copies, postcards and catalogs, and place ads in very targeted publications. We also host or co-sponsor readings, panels and release events throughout the year.’
This is pretty active on the part of the press. For Counterpath, also an active promoter, using ads, email blasts, FB pages, finding readings and reviewers for their authors, ‘the most difficult thing, is building a trusting and committed readership. We want people to buy the books because they know and trust our press, even if they don’t yet know of the author. That just takes time.’ Building trusting readers has been central to many small press’ establishing annual subscription drives where their readers can purchase an entire year of books in advance. This—along with Kickstarter—have been two of the key funding drives for small presses, who depend on the same people sticking with them, attending their events, pre-ordering books, spreading the news for them about their fundraising or book sale specials. Again we find the concept of community at the core of the press—its power, its motivation, its livelihood, its audience, and of course the place from which spring its new authors.
That said, some of the poets spoke of a sense that they are somehow not able to see or reach the works they feel a need for. How does a new author emerge in these communities and publishing circumstances? Contemporary readers, even those who write, are not prepared to go purchasing books wildly on blind faith—they want a peek inside the cover. So they miss out on discovering new texts and authors because these works are not available in stores in the States. Some would argue that SPD fills this hole. However, as Michelle Noteboom says ‘SPD is great, but you have to know what you’re looking for. You don’t just get to walk into a shop and browse and discover some exciting new experimental work, because Borders and Barnes and Nobles won’t carry stuff like that.’ Noteboom’s perspective is also an interesting one, since she is here in France where small bookshops still flourish. She remarks ‘Again, in France, it seems different. [There are] lots of small independent bookshops with good stocks. You can just go in and discover things, often.’ It is also not uncommon to see bookstores in Paris with poetry books in their main window displays. Julie Carr paints a picture of her own dismay about the bookstore situation in the States, saying she does feel that the avant-garde is being even more marginalized by the commercial bookstore monopolies. She adds, ‘I think the Internet (social networks especially) is making it easier to get the word out. But I very much wish the bookstores still existed (they hardly do) and that the ones that exist would stock avant-garde books. I get really depressed in bookstores now. They used to be heaven.’
The bookstore, distribution and promotion questions are intimately linked to the issue of readership. Who is reading these works, and how did they become interested in them? For many mainstream readers, they picked up a book because Oprah promoted it, or it won an award or ended up on the NYT bestseller list. For many of the authors surveyed, finding their favourite small press poetry collection on the NYT bestseller list would be synonymous with selling out. Vanessa Place argues: ‘To win a national and international prize seems to me to replicate the very apparatuses that promote and perpetuate the kind of work I find deeply uninteresting.’ By which logic I could argue that if everyday Joe had access to experimental poetry because it got advertised and marketed to him, so he read it, and, more importantly, bought it, then got on an award panel and rewarded what he read with a Pulitzer or a Booker Prize then that makes the writing less radical or surprising, makes it too commercial. In which case, many experimental poets and publishers who were so pleased—as I was—about Rae Armantrout’s, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrops’ or Alice Notley’s awards over the past few years should have shuddered in fear that this marked the end of their edginess. Which of course is ludicrous—the reception of the work did not change the work itself—a great example is that of Christian Bök who received the Griffin Prize in Canada at a moment when he was only beginning to get going as an edgy, radical writer. Yet, for many of those surveyed, Vanessa Place’s statement sums up their own sentiment about awards—and so they often do not apply for prizes. The prize networks, like the commercial bookstores, are—according to most of the survey responders—functioning on a whatever-is-already-familiar-to-us-base. But Place goes on past her original sentence to add, ‘Rectification—perhaps less hoary work will be discovered by these mainstream venues by way of the above alternate forms of visiblity/distribution.’—where her use of ‘above’ refers to social networks, and online resources.
For Joe Ross, the fame and readership issue is also linked to efforts that he expects to be made on the side of those who judge literary value, i.e. contests. He says: ‘I would also argue that it is the “job” of those who run and judge literary prizes to seek out works which may be difficult to find. It is after all part the work of the prize to raise the recognition of superior works hidden in obscure places’. He is among those who wanted to change the predominance of mainstream poetry receiving the major prizes, and argued for placing more experimental poets on prize boards, and for education playing a role in changing reading trends. Laura Mullen adds another angle to this when she says:
‘Now I think it is better for me to be worried about reading others than to be worrying about others reading me, and when I get the “Nobody loves me” feeling I make it a point to love somebody. As the rap song says: “If you WANT respect, you have to GIVE respect.” Too many Americans seem to feel that community (love) should flow the way they feel it to flow/see it flowing in terms of “fame”: one way street. Traffic is key.’
For Mullen as well as Clover, finding a wider readership has a potential link to dangerously compromising the principles that make the avant-garde what it is: ‘Gabriel Orozco (and Proust) are very smart about the way radical art changes the field of vision. It’s a break with the past, it’s a break with the social contract! In what world does it make sense to want to change the field of vision and expect to be “popular”?’ says Mullen. When asked what the greatest obstacle to the diffusion of her own works is, she responds by asking whether it is:
The fact that poetry is not a money-making proposition?
The fact that I want to write books that do not resemble other books?
The fact that my community affiliations are various and constantly under revision?
The fact that we are seeing the demise of higher education and with it a certain field of reference and open-ness to exploration?
The fact that there are so many competing kinds of media?
(Really, a lot of our ideas of what should happen to/for books seem based in a pre-computer moment.)
Mullen’s statements find their echo on the publishing side when T Grinnell explains:
‘I think it’s also important to talk about why we embark on this crazy publishing path in the first place and to keep a balance between supporting and promoting the books and authors as best we can and not being convinced that we should be operating as small versions of big publishers. Funding and award winning is important and validating but can also come hand-in-hand with expectations of organizational development and “professionalism” and can begin to affect decisions one might make as an editor. I just think it’s important to keep it in check and not worry so much if we’re not patted on the head by an establishment of any sort.’
Mullen’s reference to the computer moment and its role in all of this leads to one of the most significant issues for all concerned—the future of the book in an era of the eBook, and how this changing reading method ties into an international avant-garde and an international readership of experimental works.
To start off, Forrest Gander noted that although ‘…international avant-garde communities tend to find each other… most international writers are exposed only to U.S. poets who publish with larger NY presses, those presses that have literary agents abroad and actively sell translation rights.’ For him, this could be solved if ‘U.S. avant-garde presses might more actively engage presses abroad to both publish foreign writers represented by those presses and sell rights for translation of their own authors to those foreign presses.’ But he also notes that the eBook format as an alternative to the print-book option is opening up work to those international readers, such as in Japan for his co-translation of Kiwao Nomura. Similarly, Moriarty and others mention that most of the international exposure for their works has come through online rather than print magazines in France, Australia, England, Germany, Switzerland and Canada. Moriarty mentions the domestic benefits that it may have for SPD and sales of more small press works to universities that already account for 25% of SPD purchases. However, most of the publishers and poets feel eBook and print formats are entirely different species, different kinds of reading experiences. For those publishing, the page format obstacles of, for example the Kindle which blocks all poems into prose paragraphs, remain a barrier to their expansion into eBook trade.
For the moment, most publishers like the poets surveyed still prefer an old-fashioned book. Yet, as Clover said, ‘They [eBooks] are easier to give away’ even though they are ‘a bit less pleasant to read’. As Swensen—almost an ePhobic—says ‘I don’t publish ebooks and am not interested in doing so. I think, for me, there’s something crucial about the materiality of the book, and about its portability.’
Carrying a book, taking it from one place to another, I return to the notion of the “circulation” of avant-garde poetries. The term ‘circulation’ is ideal for the avant-garde/experimental authors I surveyed—who generally choose to be part of, publish with or run small presses because they ‘are a conversation much more than big presses are’ as Cole Swensen said or, as Bhanu Kapil put it so wonderfully, ‘I would choose a small press [for my next book] for the community invitations that accompany such publication—to coastal cities, primarily, where my peers live. And where the next work comes from and towards, in a way.’ Thus the book circulates from its point of departure, the writing, through a publication process back to invitations to read and share that book.
And I shall leave it to French author and RoToR7 founding editor, Anne Kawala, to conclude: ‘The best kind of promotion remains constant work combined with the pleasure of encounters.’
1 Where is the spirit of invention in all of this, and how much of the question of who gets seen where is simple economics?
2 This said, I also have included some writer-only responses for comparison.
3 These responses and thus reflections are currently skewed by gender—many male authors have promised to respond but have yet to do so.
4 In my translation here.
5 Though their press has since added an online journal component.
6 Despite Americans abroad being some of the greatest champions of the collective—such as Susana Gardner who keeps the spirit of a collective alive with Dusie Press’ Kollectiv chapbook project, or, stretching the notion of what a collective is, Megan Garr’s Versal Magazine out of Amsterdam with a strong community spirit and collective editorial board and process in place.
7 My translation here, and RoToR is an online collective magazine with a print-it-yourself format.
Jennifer K. Dick
what in its coming
is denied is in its making
based as always on the palms
and associated majesties along the beach
nothing controls the fire malign singular
your voice became its dissipation
there are those who come to me across the hostile centuries
lies and the same fruitless sowing
achievement balanced between the lip
and stanchion of the table
the streets are not yet empty
the embankment of the river
dismal though it is
sparkles in the light
describe no more of it
is this the bathroom
where it happened
are the stains truly without significance
no such claim is possible
But we’ve talked about this before –
why can’t you keep it in your head?
You wonder at the way I gasp,
as if struck new. You know this,
you say – you know that I love you.
If you tell me under the chestnut tree
I can tilt my face to yours, ask: Do you?
Do you really? Then I can hear it again
for the first time; never before in such light,
the sky downloading its gold into our eyes.
This is new as the ancient honeysuckle
I swear is blooming its first summer
in my backyard – or the Bach Overture in D
I pull off the road and stop the car for,
convinced I haven’t heard before.
It is my first view of the market square
I didn’t cross that year in sudden rain –
it’s the way I see my screensaver
of Christina as new each day; the shadows
grown longer, her arms thinner than before.
And if you sit here, by the window,
then surely light will fall once more
across your cheek in streaks of lemon sky
and I will gasp and sigh with wonder –
smile my first smile to see it shine.
Limits of Control: Steve Spence Penned in the Margins, 2011, pb, £8.99
Clouds and fish, robots and job applications, anxiety and bankers, climate change and fallen empires vie for attention and converge in Steve Spence’s second collection. As was the case in Spence’s Forward shortlisted debut collection, A Curious Shipwreck, Robert Sheppard and Tony Lopez are obvious influences. I could also draw parallels with other Southwest poets – Tim Allen in particular. But Spence has embraced and developed the possibilities of montage poetry unusually deeply and specifically in this latest work.
The cover image of a robot is apposite; there’s an objective, dehumanised, robotic quality to Spence’s writing. From the first poem, ‘Voices of the dead’, onward, we’re assaulted by a barrage of blunt questions, views and facts:
Knowing how to feel is more important than what you feel.
This surely depends less on the robots than on the quality of
the humans who design them. Should beauty be painted with
her head in the clouds?’
I felt a real sense of urgency in these poems – it’s impossible not to respond. They demand to be read quickly and repeatedly but in small doses; spending too long with them can make you feel as though a lunatic has commandeered your cognitive processes. It’s an intense effect that Spence cultivates; neuroses are a theme as well as a symptom of reading for too long.
Spence controls his subject in this way throughout the collection. The poems are far more than the randomly generated montages they might at first appear to be. As with much montage poetry, a sense of coherence emerges from what initially seems incongruous but Spence makes this a central theme as well as an effect. In ‘The language of clouds’, chaos theory appears amongst ‘next year’s colours’, ‘a cod’ and a ‘creative genius’. Spence writes that ‘those of us who are not scientists may have a different response. We can’t even predict the next drip from a dripping tap when it becomes irregular’. The average individual is incapable of seeing the pattern within the disorder; there’s a sense of the self being lost in the overload of information like a single fish in a shoal.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, swarm theory also runs through the collection. In ‘The voices of doubt’ we’re told that ‘pigeon flocks are governed by a kind of democratic hierarchy’ while in ‘That’s the way to do it’ it’s people who swarm: ‘In mass society, ways of thinking become as standardized as ways of dressing’.
As the book’s title ‘Limits of Control’ might suggest, Spence is interested in the power of structures. This is evident in his use of images but also in his choice of form and it’s here that the collection most sets itself apart from A Curious Shipwreck. On the page, the poems themselves look like swarms. Each poem is a solid block of prose comprising between fourteen and eighteen lines of unconnected ideas. Put together, the collection itself is a swarm of these poems. Again, the content and its form are self-similar. I had an uneasy sense that the further I looked into this collection, the more it would seem to mirror and replicate itself as a microcosm of contemporary collective and individual experience. In my view, this in particular marks it out as a truly notable achievement.
This is not a poetry overladen with political agendas or doom, despite the frequent references to crises, natural disasters, economic turmoil, war and mental disorder. I was often surprised and relieved by a dry, sardonic humour that jostles with the more serious ideas, as in this section from ‘The surveillance state’:
To do well in robotics you need to be a jack of
all trades but you don’t want to stick your hand
into a cow’s derriere if you aren’t totally sure what
you are doing! Avoid cycling or excessive exercise
for several hours. Surface slicks may account for
as little as 2% of the oil now spilling into the Gulf of Mexico’.
Hope is also offered, most notably through references to the sky. Clouds are possibly the predominant image in these poems and the one that most lingers. Spence’s voice is particularly insistent when writing of them: ‘When did you last go shopping for clouds?’, ‘Clearly, our mission to persuade the world to look up and notice the clouds is far from over’ and ‘his sky is always filled with clouds and places like this represent a healthy future for us all’. The act of looking up offers refuge but strangely – and cleverly on Spence’s part – so does the act of reading about it.
I was frequently put in mind of Berman’s book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which takes its title from Marx’s Communist Manifesto. It’s perhaps an obvious context for Spence’s collection – our dislocated modern lives, full of frustrations, suggestions, aspirations and even poems, mix with the solid worlds around us and ultimately disappear into nothingness, like lost civilizations. I was both surprised and pleased to find that Spence quotes the title of Berman’s text in his final poem. At the same time, I’m not sure how helpful this is – it does feel a little like hammering a signpost, giving a name and direction to something which had previously been beautiful in its own right. Spence’s writing is so intelligent and fresh that concluding with a deliberate contextualisation felt a little too convergent. But it does provide the open conclusion I’d thought impossible, almost offering a ‘further reading’ suggestion.
Rarely have I read a work that manages to represent the complexities of contemporary experience so completely and truthfully. More than that, the experience of reading the collection mirrors its content – I felt anxieties, uncertainties and relief not simply because they were described well but because Spence knows exactly how to weave disjointed ideas into a semi-coherence so unnerving that it lingers like a horrific, beautiful vision. Anyone with an interest in contemporary poetry should buy this collection.
Glacial Stairway, Peter Riley Carcanet Manchester 98 pp pb 2011 £9.95
‘In the summer of 1956 John Stanley, the art master of Stockport Grammar School, led a group of boys, including myself, then aged 15, over a mountain pass in the Pyrenees, from Tarascon-sur-Ariège in France into Andorra, by a little used route which he had somehow discovered. The distance walked was about fifty kilometres horizontally and one kilometre vertically.’ So begins the headnote to the title poem of Peter Riley’s latest collection, his third from Carcanet; and very well done, Mr Stanley, you have to think. ‘The Glacial Stairway’ is a large scale (twelve-page) meditation in compelling, long-lined paragraphs (one in prose), woven with quotation from earlier, beguiling poetries – Foc te ardâ, lume-amarâ, which are generally translated or glossed (‘Let fire burn you, bitter world’), but not always precisely identified.
The daunting pass that the youthful Grammar School party followed in 1956 had been negotiated by so many others – shepherds, merchants, smugglers, Cathars in flight from the Inquisition, later by Jewish refugees and Resistance fighters. The route was also one of those that had served as a conduit for the Arabic and Troubador songs and texts which ‘kick-started European poetry’ (8). Peter Riley’s walking meditation, made arm-in-arm with his companion, ‘two experiences conjoined’ (7), evokes this Pyrenean landscape and its history, together with its flowers and birds, in what the Elizabethans would have called ‘chorography’, a text intimately combining geography and topography. This is a genre that the poet explored as early as The Linear Journal (1973), a work that is also summoned by ‘The Glacial Stairway’. But more than a dwelling on landscape and history, the poem necessarily confronts the passage of time, from its first line, ‘This is me 48 years ago, this is 48 of my years’, and the poet’s defining ambition to articulate a moral perspective on ‘the world’, a category of the largest scale that has impelled his writing from the very beginning: ‘A good is possible. I am entitled to make elisions / between geological and moral structures’ (10).
The poem is haunted by the memory of ‘the dead of seven wars’ who were killed during this passage of forty-eight years, and by the insistent but embattled thought that Un mundo mejor es possible, ‘A good is possible’. These pressing concerns are maintained throughout a notation of the changes inflicted on even this seemingly remote region by material development during the intervening half-century. This too is a very characteristic perspective in Peter Riley’s poetry, as modernity and consumption make their mark on the pre-existing order: how far this agonized lament can ever be more than just that depends on the writing itself, as here:
and the news places a sciatica across my frontal dream, a burning thing,
a mask. We look up to the conciling seeds, the invisible day stars
as the ground plunders our energy and the path vanishes into a stream. (8)
Not many writers have deployed the verb ‘to concile’ since it was first recorded in the time of Chaucer, a close cousin of ‘reconcile’ and ‘conciliate’, but here somehow intending more than either of them. Peter Riley’s particular way with diction is one of the pleasures of reading his work; his coinage ‘ospita’ (my spellcheck is getting tetchy already), standing for ‘some kind of healing structure, or the will to one’ (97), had me fooled for several years, — ‘Ah, yes, a late medieval romance language term, no doubt’, I opined. This lovely invention recurs, tellingly, near the close of ‘The Glacial Stairway’:
and across the plain, to Toulouse, and dinner. I notice the word Ospita
contained in L’Hospitalet as I sit at a pavement table with cassoulet.
It concerns me. How could the world think without its soul? Always if
you look for it there is something curative, the words held in the seeds
scattered on the mountain slopes, far away, waiting patiently for winter. (19)
‘The Glacial Stairway’ seems to me to be remarkable for its sustained attempt to speak from Riley’s particular moral/poetic perspective. These are indivisible values for him, one imagines: ‘The aesthetic supports the ethic and bears it further away / from God’ (‘Weddings of the Gypsy Flower Sellers’, 62). Therefore ‘The Glacial Stairway’ has minimum recourse to strategies of textual dislocation, paratactic statement, or argument by way of deeply metaphorical image – though these are present, and do contribute in their complex fashion, as, perhaps necessarily, at the climax and conclusion of its sustained attempt:
Music released by stone. Fully declared whatever the options.
The threshold of the Arab world, if Lebanon could be saved.
Ordinary and orderly, acts and failures, tipping the heart cradle. (19)
For poets and readers averse to consecutive narrative, ostensive argument and cohesiveness in post-modernist text, Riley’s voice in a poem such as this could be critiqued as merely ‘humanist’, a compromised and moralistic lament – always ‘something curative’ for example? I’d rather argue that it is, precisely, humane, in its nuanced observation, calling up the spirit of Roger Langley (who is specifically invoked in ‘Bits and Pieces Picked Up in April 2007’), by being attentive to the meaning and value of what is precisely observed. Peter Riley’s poetry has always sought to position itself with a necessary, even if compromised, awareness of the world’s immeasurable suffering and political failure. As I’m writing this review, the ‘Nature Notes’ column in the Saturday Guardian comes from Ariège, presumably not far from the track walked by the Stockport Grammar School party. Jim Perrin also celebrates the diversity of the flora and fauna of that region, and ends, ‘In Wales were meadows like this, years ago. One pre-agribusiness farmer I knew called them Caeau Ysbyty – ‘hospital fields’. He’d set workhorses to graze them and self-medicate.’ Perrin’s column chimes exactly with Riley’s angered sentiment: ‘Now drug companies take the farmers’ money. The flowers and butterflies are gone. They call this progress.’
Peter Riley has always been a very deliberate poet, in the sense that he quite consciously plays with themes and variations in his writing, constructing different kinds of compositional structure to explore how any poem might be developed; Riley is therefore a more varied kind of writer, more consciously artful, than most of the contemporaries with whom he might be compared. He is a musician-poet, literally, but also in the sense of writing as if he was a composer in different kinds, and The Glacial Stairway includes a variety of impressively distinct works for this reason. These varied forms include sustained meditation in the title poem and the one that follows, ‘Aria with Small Lights’; ‘Fifteen Ekelöf Incipits’, the final section of ‘Best at Night Alone’, inspired by opening lines from the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf; ‘The Twelve Moons’, variations on lyrics by Li Ho, now styled Li He (AD 790-816); and fifty-nine prose paragraphs that notate ‘a journal of travels in August 2007’, departing from and returning to Las Vegas, through the deserts to Yellowstone via Montana and Nevada (passing lightly over a horrific incident that might have come straight out of a Road Movie Gone Wrong, para 51): fifty-nine small poems then ‘gloss’ the journal entries as a distillate of the American experience.
Another way of trying to characterize what is distinctive in this work is to notice, not only the varied formation of the poetry, but also the genuinely impressive cultural range of reference that is implicit in the writing: Hispano-Arabic-Provençal, Scandinavian, Chinese, French, Roma/Gitano and Cuban, mid-Western … none of this is a merely eclectic ‘showing off’, but properly informed and informative work, which is an encouragement to follow the leads, read more widely oneself. The locales are also varied (more than a touch of envy on my part here): the Pyrenees, Tuscany, Haute Provence, Havana, Romania, a refuge in Argolid Greece, Montana and Nevada, (and then Stansted, Ambergate in Derbyshire, and the Euston Road!) … Is the lyric-ethical statement and ambition of this poetry in any way qualified by its apparent need to be uttered from rural fastness, remnant landscapes and cultures of increasingly outmoded agricultural practice? Does the aspiring moral-political perspective therefore depend on the unearned and inevitable pathos that derives from the distance between the as yet underexploited sites of song and the rapacities of late-modern life from which it somehow hopes to be exempted, precisely in order to speak? Similar questions surely gather round the work of someone like John Berger (and I write this from the far Northern Isles, experience exactly these issues and qualms in my own fashion – and in significantly worse weather).
A poem that seems to be troubled, the most unsettled poem in this collection, is ‘Aria with Small Lights’, which follows ‘The Glacial Stairway’, perhaps a qualification of the title poem’s sureties, certainly a difficult interlocutor. It too is of some scale and scope, thirty-two nine-line stanzas, which for me are somehow haunted by the writing of Doug Oliver – something of the same vulnerable persona, hounded by some of the same questions and anxieties: ‘harm’ is a word that Oliver made his own, out of its origins in Beowulf, for evil, hurt, injury, damage, mischief. Harm haunts Riley’s lines in this ‘Aria’, and I like to think that it goes some way to resolving those concerns about what might be the compromised nature of this poetry’s particular ambitions and specific discourse by actually confronting them:
… boldly we face the band
in the triumph of our time on earth to have and hold
the music that sits across pain, curved with the earth and as loyal. (25)
A profoundly moving and, for me, entirely successful poem is ‘Shining Cliff’, written to mark the thirtieth birthday of the poet’s daughter, Kathy, which was celebrated with a group of twenty friends ‘in an isolated hostel in Shining Cliff Wood, near Ambergate, Derbyshire’. In thirteen versets the poem considers ‘questions of future trust precipitated by the occasion, questions that are normally difficult to reach’, and genuinely finds ‘A voice, a message, a promise, / … a future / moving in the forest at night / towards a conclusion, and an end to oppression’ (32). Another single, quite perfect poem is ‘Cuban Nights’, which surely distils many of Riley’s most heartfelt commitments to the sociableness of human music:
But we live where we are and inhabit
our lives like a warm scent in the air pursued
through the streets towards guitar music and singing,
the voices edged with age, always saying goodbye. (59)
The lovely cover image, a detail from ‘Glacier Knot’, by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1978), is perfectly chosen and consonant with this involved, convolved love/strife writing.