Thursday, 15 October 2015

Notes on Stuart Calton – LIVE AT LATE DILATED ILEUM (Manchester: Drentpaper, 2015)

The poem Live at Late Dilated Ileum was composed between October 2014 and May 2015, and put out by Calton himself through his ‘Drentpaper’ imprint. A5, un-paginated, with green paper covers, stapled, with a neat cover collage in which a shrouded head – its top half, seemingly that of a corpse, is mixed with an impossibly open mouth spewing a Colgate toothbrush whose end is submerged in a splodge of black ink which it appears either to have spewed or been sucked into. As with Calton’s previous chapbook, 2013’s The Torn Instructions for No Trebuchet (reviewed here a year or so ago), Ileum unfolds in unbroken stanza form, with shorter tabbed lines offsetting the generally left-aligned text at various points across each page – continuous, linked movement, build-up of modifying and shifting phrases and locations, with the emphasis on seemingly descriptive presentations of numerous transforming things, shorter sentences, sometimes only a single word, providing pauses or rest points that are hardly pauses, machine-gun bursts of punctuating build-up. ‘Some visual disturbance.’ ‘A/ glass eye on the gravel’. As has generally happened throughout Calton’s work over the past decade or so, the language of internal feeling and phantasy intersects in complex construct with a world of domestic appliances, electronics, pubs, social spaces, generally at night, with a preference also for exotic or unusual animals and sea creatures, and the language of left-wing political organising always there as a critical undercurrent – though the latter is less to the fore in this particular case. The poem’s settings are various and shifting, not often dwelt in – apart from the hydra chorus’ live performance – often late-night places, pubs, chemists, service stations (cf. The Torn Instructions). I suppose this is a night world, a dream world, but the specifics of its descriptions make it very much also a realistically-chronicled space: or that’s the basis for its flights of imagination.

The poem is what one might call ‘flashy’ in a different way to the Torn Instructions, and less specific in its conceptual framework, though certainly dextrous in its shifting through scenes and guts and a carefully but daringly deployed set of recurrent figures – marmosets, leeches, martyred saints, and femoral hernias, to name some of them. Of The Torn Instructions, I noted the near-obsessive hovering around “say, five areas of concern”, and something similar happens here. Within the limits of image-range and formal manoeuvring that the poet has set up, and which are, it seems, the generative mode of composition, there is much capacity for dizzying shifts and links – the question of transition between different blocks or units is key to the poem’s formal workings. There’s a play between the poet letting themselves go, through the skill of a near-instinctive capacity for skilled prosodic composition, as the title has it, live and urgent, playful and alarming, sucker-punches and pressure points squelching around the intestines, enclosures and exposure, containment and claustrophobia, language at full fever-pitch ramming itself up against self-appointed walls in a pleasurable play of stricture and selectively deployed release.

The gendering of the poem (in terms of who is speaking, who they are speaking to, what and who they are speaking of) is unclear – part of the same body and of different bodies are mixed up, internalized, covered over, the face surrounded by hernias, the head in the bowel, a world of reversals, replacements, exchanges, transferences. The loved object is one thing, or another, or another, or the speaker themselves, multiplies and doubles, not so much through punning but through the sheer build up, through the technical jargon of psychoanalysis or medical procedures, to more conventional adjectival forms, description in some detail of situations possible only in phantasy re-arrangement. The question of identification. The poem does locational things that you couldn’t do in, say, a film – i.e. the whole thing is set inside the bowel where my head ‘fills with piss’, but also in pubs, off-licences, stages, lakes, islands and so on – with simultaneous wild and manic or joyful invention and a detailed precision. Or see the descriptions of various musical compositions – the particular inventive pleasure of an ekphrastic description of something that does not exist. The speaker wants to stab out their fucking eyes – St Lucy of Syracuse actually does so, or, in some versions of her legend, has some them gouged out by others (more on St Lucy below). St Anthony, St Theresa and others also turn up, but their names are not announced. Even Jesus – or the locations of the Passion – makes a cameo appearance. The discursive frame and image of religious suffering is deployed, not so much for argumentative purposes, still less for theological ones, but for the force of its (e)viscera(tions), its images of dedication, its masochism, its stretching of a body to limits of inner and outer, agency, the loss or formation of the subject, death drive. Likewise, the ‘trending marmoset’ which functions as St Lucy’s attendant and whose eyes replace her eyes is chosen, almost at random, from a mass of digital date, image assault. There has to be space for the arbitrary within the initial realm of poetic choice, which can then be, not so much ‘dressed up’, but made to work poetically, rather than according to a prosaic argumentative logic, within the space that the poem delimits for itself. Not always – at one point Calton semi-parodically comments on why the leech is a perfect image for orality and anality, with both its head and anus sucking mechanisms, taking in and expelling. But the schema is not mathematical, or scientific. It has to do with an affective element and an element of quixotic word-choice and image-range that works on its own (unconscious) axes, almost beyond explanation.

That said, what follows is mainly based on notes taken while going through the poem again, several months after doing so for the first of multiple times, in advance of a reading given by Calton in Cambridge last night. These are not so much glosses as attempts to read along with it, to chart what that experience is like.

[Section 1]

Your anus closes up on my tracheotomy. The question of address – immediately a ‘you’ who the ‘I’ is speaking to – with the ‘I’ who is being closed up by the anus of the ‘you’ pleading with them to ‘speak to me’ and ‘trill to me’, inside one of the complex, multi-line piles-up of adjectives and nouns that Calton virtuosically thrills at –
in a cluster of wracked upper partials a
phlegmatic head […] live in gut wall acoustic
baffle stocking mask anechoic black box mono
limp balloon in the open mouth
The control or power seems to lie with ‘you’, but this shifts as ‘this is a concept I thought up’ describes the previous virtuosic build-up, and we now follow with instructions to ‘replace’. We might think of the by-now famous lines at the opening of Hot White Andy, its ‘now swap / buy for eat, then fuck for buy, then ruminate for fuck’. But replace is more than just ‘swap’: replace is both re-place – re-arrange –and substitute, more than simple exchange. There’s a focus on anality straightaway – ‘your anus closes on my tracheotomy’ – the body is immediately mixed up, parts closing in and sucking up and being divided in unusual ways – anality and orality – the windpipe and the sphincter – a tracheotomy is an incision made into the windpipe to help with breathing. The voice which would speak to ‘me’ occurs within a head or an anechoic chamber / black box theatre space / balloon, but then also the ‘open mouth’ (see the front cover), with the ‘in’ of  in a cluster of wracked upper partials suggesting either ‘inside’ or the way that you might speak to me, the manner in which your voice manifests itself, as ‘a cluster of wracked upper partials’, an upper partial being a set of dentures for the top half of the mouth, though upper partials are also what creates overtones, different registers combining to provide a third. A urethra is replaced with an ear canal – piss and ears – there’s also play here on mono and stereo, perhaps connecting to sexual differentiation (see below – ‘The sexual division / of pitch’). ‘My’ head is now inside your bowel, filling with piss. ‘Swan song’ – swans are supposed to sing before they die, this being the final song. (The poem’s final lines juxtapose rebirth and ‘terminal’ as end point and beginning. The poem’s title is both ‘live’, present, and ‘late’.) Things are itemised – the ‘decimilisation of perversion’. More virtuosic descriptions and switches, this time using ‘replace’. Dentures – the upper partials – are of course replacements for what is no longer there. Loss of teeth in dreams as castration anxiety. Biting down, taking in from the outside, destruction and internalisation, finding out what the external object is by potentially destroying it, making it a part of you.

‘Speak to’ comes back on the second page, but now as just a two-word line (read by Calton in performance as a fragile near-whisper), not to ‘me’ but to another complex arrangement of rocks and bladders and intestines tied together, to die with water and graves, swans, the bladder, rectum. ‘Speak to’ as a refrain now. The ‘clinical waste bin’ is both a particular technical term for waste disposal and perhaps a reference to clinical analysis. The inside of the body itself is producing strange electronic music relating to the machines for the treatment of disease or bodily malfunction that it’s tied up to. Poetry itself is referred to for the first time – this doesn’t happen often in the book, but it provides some sort of anchor to filter the rest of the associated and built-up images on, if you want to see it that way. 
                    [...] the desperate lyric
compulsion of an inner urge. An inner
urge which you cannot understand, and from
which you shall never be free.

Now on page three, prolonging the appearance of a halo, a dying star. Request to drip poison into my ear, nose, and throat (Hamlet) – the speaker pleading now for aggression to be done to them, masochism. ‘Organ of domination. Organ of / perception’ (the eye, which will later be torn out by St Lucy). What might elsewhere be named as Lyric Interiority (or urge, or drive) is here semi-parodically literalized as being incorporated inside the actual organs of the body, digestive, incised, blocked off, (over)flowing. Now (page 4) the speaker seeks a word ‘breathed down to me’, down the ‘blowpipe’, ‘to no-one else’. This ‘you’ is not a ‘general reader’ so much as seemingly a specific person, it’s all too cramped and deliberately uncomfortable, but also abstracted enough in terms of the semi-narrative that’s appearing and the constant replacements and displacements of organs to evade any clear trajectory of address and location. Now the mouth can’t open. Political discourse comes in – ‘Attention. The deficit. Reparation’ – though obviously the main inflection here is Kleinian-psychoanalytic. 

Calton, in a recent email, mentions, as well as Klein, the importance of Bion, Herbert Rosenfeld and Betty Joseph to the concerns of the poem. More so than Trebuchet, he sees Ileum as pertaining to the real (and often the phantasised) experience of certain emotional states in their full confusion taking precedence over the specialised terminology of psychoanalytic and mechanism-centred theory itself - though that pours out almost by name in the third section, as a kind of a parody of that jargon, the rabbit-out-a-hat quality of psychoanalytic explanation.” This combines with an attempt at a
riskier, flashier surface for the language [...] a lot of little parlor tricks and circuses, dead ends and little flashes of idiocy, again to outwit the drive to speak theoretically, to keep that as an underlying force whilst splashing around above it. I wanted to move to a place where almost anything could be said and made to function profitably. Or at least where I could seem to be saying “anything”, in a game of bluff-calling and trust-testing with the reader.
So that notion of bluff-calling and trust-testing would seem to fit with the notions of address above. As reader or listener, you’re drawn into this helter-skelter ride through ambivalent and ever-shifting emotional states, barely able to theoretically frame them in a way conventional (psycho-)analysis would, inhabiting them, though they’re not you’re on, but you’re not the analyst, the positions keep shifting, there’s a dizzy pleasure in following and not being able to follow, and you sense that the poet, though technically very much in control, has a quasi-improvisational flair for letting themselves go off-piste, though always coming back to the ‘track’. The scene isn’t set up, it begins in media res, in the mouth and bowel and anus and windpipe, and it’s only later that particular locations – the disco hall, the various fake names of shit music pubs – start to come in, going outside the obsessively interior grotesque body.

A series of negations now – ‘ineffectual, unrecollectable, un/governable, unelectable’ – attesting to a failure for particular ‘conceptual perceptual’ frameworks to capture this experience, also again with a political inflection: the ‘un/governable’ as the majority of the population who exist below a certain threshold of wealth, in right-wing media-politico discourse; ‘the unelectable’, as descriptions in that same discourse used to smear the Labour Party if they ever veer too ostensibly towards even the centre-left; then ‘the bosses’. The sentence ends with ‘the / birth dream of the sterile obturator’, an obturator being a plate or disc that closes up an opening, generally used to describe something used to fix a cleft palate. So this again has to do with speech and openings, inside and outside, communication. Birth as opening out, expelling, while the obturator seals up.

Now a scene with people ‘petting’ and doing ‘hickeys’ ‘in the fictive treehouse’. This moment of intimacy doesn’t feel intimate, because who these people are is unclear, they are not named, and the scene soon goes away again. Gethshemane comes in – gardens, trials, the father, the weeping of blood. This is the first inkling of the tortured medieval saints framework that will come to play quite a large part in the poem. The fifth page: the throat now becomes ‘vaginismus’, muscular contraction which prevents the vagina from ‘accepting’ penetration. Things closing up. Now the poison that was dripped in is sucked out. ‘Rorschach test of lyric abandon’ – cf. the desperate inner urge as lyric compulsion which ‘you’, as either the one uttering this (the speaker) or the addressee will never understand and will never be free of or from – here it’s tested in relation to perception, the possibility of abandonment, the transferring of feeling onto different replaceable objects. Wound dressings are replaced. Its unclear what exactly ‘enzyme fetishism’ might be. The first of the fake pub names or gig venues come in – ‘live at’, as in the book’s title.

The sixth page: names of five faces emerging from ‘defects in the containing wall’, to each of which the poet ‘give[s] a voice’– Hesselbach – who pioneered hernial operations (cf. the text’s obsession with femoral ruptures (‘My face is the best irreducible femoral hernia you’ll ever have’) – Velpeau – also associated with hernias, the Velpeau bandage, and believed that pain-free surgery was impossible – Laugier, Serafini and Callisen-Cloquet – more names for types of (femoral) hernia. [There is also an architectural theorist, a Jesuit priest by the name of Laugier, who laid out what he saw as the ‘faults’ in Renaissance architecture and came up with the theory of the ‘primitive hut’ as the model for all architecture, but that resonance is I think unintentional.] These five start to sing like a chorus in harmony, and will come back in a later section, following the disappearance of a twelve-part hydra chorus form the stage. The seventh page: the speaker wishes to go back through ‘your defect to / where I belong’. A femoral hernia is an uncommon type of hernia, mainly occurring in women. The process of tracking down all the allusions in the poem, to be properly exhaustive, would be exhausting, and is perhaps not central or necessary to an experience of the poem, though it could be. Re-spawning (albeit into the wrong place) – rebirth. St Lucy comes in for the first time.

[Section 2]

The first section begins with a single line: ‘Then she was wounded, so that her bowels fell out.’ This is from Aelfric’s Life of St Lucy – after her bowels fall out, she carries on alive and praying to God. Lists – ‘that you’ make this and that complex renunciation– replacements. ‘The sexual division / of pitch’. ‘Tongue me into lyric’. This becomes self-willed ‘ontological fraud’, infantile, ‘ecstatic self-effacement’ – cf. the saints’ death ecstasies. Wieners’ ‘Cocaine’ turns up– what’s this, deliberately inappropriately, doing here? ‘The / concessions demanded in this horse are unjust. It is / senseless to try.’ Mandates, quorates, voting, failure of electoral politics crops up every now and again, generally only in a word. Leeches and horses now. Lots of coloured Os and asterisks spelling out something we can’t see. This happens ‘live at the / Late Dilated Ileum motorway service station / amusement arcade.’ Ileum is the third portion of the small intestine. Dilation is, biologically, widening or, metaphorically, writing at length upon something. Stomachs and food and swelling or shrinking, intestinal ruptures (cf. earlier where the speaker suddenly becomes very small after the five faces of the hernia chorus emerge and start singing. This section ends with an apology for unintentional transphobic satirical remarks made in the opening of Calton’s earlier book Three Reveries. Its placing with the poem is starkly delineated, as prosaic statement, and a move that might risk seeming sarcastic or in bad faith: but which to me bespeaks a laudable willingness, not so much to revise or to cover-up, but to admit error, rather than justifying or explaining it away.

[Section 3]

Now the marmoset comes in, as St Lucy’s attendant. The ‘spirit’ (or is it the ‘wiffleball’?) as ‘a prototypically lidless / permeable form identified with the / analyst and the perforated / eardrum of the subject’. St Lucy’s face is ‘paranoid’ and ‘infant’. Her face leaks and swallows, is an ‘unreliable container’ – this container leaking and being sealed, wounds and mouths opening or speaking, closing or being sealed up. A joke to (or on) the reader about what the objects in the poem are doing, what symbolic function they have in its economy. Not seeking their assent but asserting the poem’s right to its imaginative capacity as it rises to a fever pitch: 

You question the function of the marmoset: back off.
[...] From the depths of the poem rises a murmur
of ascent. I’m out to
                                   get you and I know what
I’m doing.

The marmoset becomes ‘a binary mouth/anus with its head up / its arse identified with an envious undifferentiated / hermaphroditic early self […] a living part-object’ with merges sadism, anality, orality – here’s the parody of the psychoanalytic jargon building up. Sudden switch of register – ‘Burning grass. Let the whole / city be destroyed for this vile action’. (This is from the Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla – Thecla an aristocratic woman who, like St Lucy, renounces riches and sexual advances in order to follow a Christian vocation.) Now pedantically specifying that this is specifically St Lucy of Syracuse, not other St Lucys (the effect of which cannot help but seem like comedic special-pleading, given that the poem is so much about transferring identifications and morphing people or objects). Again the vocabulary of votes and democracy – the tongue ‘must / be sewn up like a vote, plugged like a drain’. St Lucy’s mouth is sealed up. Politics meshes up again – ‘the counter-terrorism of a / penetrative / libidinal echo.’ The leech has multiple brains like a committee ‘re-electing itself’ (this a not-so veiled barb directed at the SWP’s central committee). St Lucy plucks out her own eyes. We’ve moved from the first part where it’s seemingly inside the speaker that all the replacement and sealing and so on is taking place, to specifically the scene of St Lucy, changed here to be more directly about phantasy and violence than in the second section where she first appears.

[Section 4]

Golgotha comes in after Gethsemane and Calvary earlier. Though these are only single words, this nonetheless sets up the crucifixion narrative, which fits with St Lucy’s martyrdom and / or the psychoanalytic sense of replacement, removing the bad object, going back inside, etc. The marmoset is now being sawed up, a hydra-choir appears on stage with you, twelve of them for twelve tones, ‘you’ are cutting their heads off, ‘broken up for parts’. The ocean or the sea comes in occasionally – as, earlier, ‘above the waves, under the sea’ - here, a ‘swimming float’ connected to the earlier (swim-)bladder tied to the rock (possibly also a pun on bladderwrack). A desolate lake. The five femoral hernia singers come back, or at least some of them. ‘Fucking drone music’ – earlier there’s been drone footage of destroyed cities by the lake, though the drone here functions instead as part of a succession of jokes about music in the scene of the hydra on stage, as the twelve heads sing a song by ‘Seal (b.1963)’ for pan-pipes, wind-chimes and a flame-thrower, to the salterello, an Italian dance form. Now the eyes can’t open (cf. St Lucy tearing hers out in reaction to the gaze thrust upon here, rather than tearing out the eyes of her persecutors, in the previous section). The marmoset’s face has become, ‘finally’, bigger than your own – the ‘you’ in these last few sections seems not to be the person addressed by the speaker at the beginning, but, rather, to fit the use of the second person to refer to that speaker themselves. ‘Pierce my very entrails’ – again, masochism, penetration, martyrdom, phantasy, damage, surgery.

Now the poem ends, by telling the ‘you’ which might be the speaker or the addressee, ‘what you are’ – ‘You are the nutcracker at the / rebirth of your own terminal fundoplication’. A fundoplication is a treatment for gastro-oesophageal reflux, which is when food goes back up the foodpipe, along with the stomach acid which breaks it down, rather than down to the intenstines. A nutcracker is designed to break something open. The operation which treats food coming back up instead of being digested is said here to be ‘rebirthed’, but also to be ‘terminal’, and it occurs at the end of the poem. Its hard to unpack this one, probably deliberately so. But, in any case, what this means is that we end with more medical, intestinal jargon – words most people most likely won’t be familiar with, will have to look up and even then have trouble retaining in their heads, not least in the midst of all the poems proliferating images. So its an odd ending, not really flashy, certainly not like the political love appeal at the end of Torn Instructions. Calton noted after his reading that the word on which the poem ends is deliberately one that can’t be easily forced into a symbolic function, either in its particular local instantiation or within the poem as a whole.


So, after it’s over, to sum up, what I admire most about this poem is its unswerving dedication – like that of Trebuchet – to a formal precision which, more than virtually any other poetry that right now I know, leaves space and thrives on, for its compositional realisation, an improvisational openness which doesn’t flail around in an already-available stock of what amount to clichés, readily to hand in the prevailing air – as bad improvisation can do, the ever-same in the ersatz guise of the always-new – but actually uses them to drive on its adventures of thought and word – a physical wrenching, in and out of bodies and locations which reminds me just why I started listening to and reading ‘this kind of’ music and ‘this kind of’ poetry in the first place. This has something (something!) to do with narrative, certain shifts in tempo which have to do with syllables and consonants and lineation and stanzas and all those shifting filled rooms in a way that can be difficult to get an adequate descriptive handle on. Suffice to say, the questions of virtuosity and timing and things absolutely musical (OK, so it’s easy to say this, given that the poet of this poem is a musician too), to do all things that the music and the poetry that has most fundamentally seemed to change and shift my life in recent years has done. In that sense, I still think back to Calton’s duo with Roger Turner at a Cambridge Miscellaneous Festival of years past as a treasured memory whose jittery liveness (as opposed to literary jiveness) puts the lie to any account that would turn it into a laying up of treasures in stock, simultaneously reduced to past nostalgia and deferred to future reward, all those accumulated golden crowns in heaven weighing the sanest of heads down, hardy laurels gleaming. More like, right now, recollected in no tranquillity as, with Autumn definitively upon us, I sit at the computer in the freezing reading room, the poem’s lines whirring through my feet and hands and ears and eyes and brain. Probably my small and large intestines too.

At risk of a strained comparison, a shoulder all out of joint, I think of the scene we all remember from Haneke’s Benny’s Video, when the camera stays fixed and the prurient desire to see the all-too-disgustingly-important action happening on screen is teased and, by its absence, teased out into the open – but this equivalent, in Ileum, without Haneke’s didactic castigation of an all-too-easily-available bourgeois audience, frissoned by the guilt he launches upon them as teacher-auteur. Who knows how far that comparison goes. I won’t push. But, suffice to say, there’s nothing of that high-minded yet fundamentally inactive teaching going on in what Calton is doing. I mean, fuck it, there’s a joy as well – as much as joy, uncompromised by whatever gumpf and guilt is attendant on it, there can be in reading poetry. And this can thrillingly remind us just why we spend so much time doing that.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

“As life is to other themes”: Ian Heames’ Sonnets.

[Been neglecting this blog for a while: more to come soon, hopefully, on Ryan Dobran's Story One and on the first issue of Asphodel magazine. Stay tuned...]

[There are six books of Sonnets so far, all published by Face Press:
[1] June 2014 [red cover]
[2] October 2014 [navy blue cover]
[3] January 2015 [pink cover]
[4] February 2015 [grey cover]
[5] May 2015 [black cover]
[6] August 2015 [silver cover]
(also, ‘Seven Poems’, 2014).
The first book uses material by Jonty Tiplady (constituting roughly half the sequence), and a couple of lines from Tiplady appear in books 2 and 5. Given that all the pamphlets are simply titled ‘Sonnets’, I’ll refer to them by the colour of their covers in order to delineate between them – e.g. Black Sonnets, Red Sonnets, etc.]

Something like a veil is placed over the experiences in these poems; they are reports, or descriptions, of actions (“walking earlier tonight along the motorway / beside the science park”, Black Sonnets, 1), or observations, of emotional states: these often seen through a screen, whether that of the cinema to which the speaker goes to at night, alone, or of a computer game, an internet search, or the history of poetic reference itself – resonant figures such as the ocean, tropes of death, mortality and poetic immortality or afterlife, love poetry, loss, the heart. Cultural references to Lars Von Trier, dubstep, Villon, Keats and the like may seem to stand in for something they gesture towards, ciphers which could be mined for meaning but which also point to the provisionality with which their placement imbues them. Current and past history is figured through Versailles or 9/11, an atmosphere of industry or technology – the recurring power plant, the motorway, the computer game. The poems are above all about the cultivation of a precision of atmosphere, but not really as objectivism: what is there (the ocean, the power plant, the cultural artefact, even a particular feeling apparently easily named through conventional tropes) slides into something else, the levels are not clearly delineated; this often happens through puns, palindromes, and the like. Thus, in the first sonnet of the blue book, the cave in which the internet is “most weak” refers to broadband but also perhaps, as John Bloomberg-Rissman suggests in his recent review, to Plato’s cave: the shadows on the wall. Actors, puppets, shadows and ghosts, arranged by the poet with power and precision but also a self-effacing awareness or presentation in which that poet (as persona) seems not to be fully in control, doomed to obsessive repetition and tweaking, reaching for inadequate speculative or assertive descriptions of both grand geo-political events and the workings of love: climate change, the militarisation of the police, technology, warfare and the like.

The poems also conduct something that is not exactly a polemic or a sustained argument with trends in the poetry scenes of the last decade or so from which their poet has emerged, but which is, nonetheless, one of the ranges of reference or concern, as a kind of satire so diffuse as to remain fairly oblique: as, in the earlier ‘Gloss to Carriers’, “the white hot temples / Of Capitalism and Love / Its dismal optic carbine”, or, here: “We both write language-critical lyric poetry / without meaning. We both speak without meaning to.” (Red Sonnets, 9). In the latter instance, “language” could be both language itself – a lyric poetry that, though itself made in and of language, reaches for the familiar trope of a feeling exceeding the bounds or bonds of language that yet structure it, and allow it expression; or, in a specific context, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and its perceived depersonalisation, its removal of the bourgeois lyric subject for a more open mesh of discourse. The fact that this poetry, whatever it is, is “without meaning” reflects a familiar criticism of what gets called ‘innovative poetry’, though it’s somewhat modified by the following “meaning to”; poetry as containing meanings that might go beyond intention, if we read ‘meaning to’ back onto the initial ‘meaning’.

If, according to one reading of the above lines, this poetry rejects the apparently critical function of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing for a still-sceptical lyric address, such an address nonetheless does not come from a place of subjective stability of authority. The first sonnet in the first of the books contains the lines: “I think I am in danger / of becoming someone else.” The poems are often insistently first-person, but this first-person is ‘the poet’ or ‘the speaker’, (generally) doing believable things, preoccupied with familiar themes, characterized by a particular attitude towards experiences, yet with slippages – the use of found text, the wider registers of geopolitics, etc. The lines above sound like something from any kind of cheap melodrama, though they also, of course, by their placement, play on age-old poetic tropes of persona and identity. But in fact, how much in the poems is this actually a ‘danger’, the compromising of the integrity of the poet as a person? Rather, might this slippage between self-contained or coherent person or personality and the ranges of discourse they deploy be a central operating mechanism?

From the third sonnet in the same book: “You […] want to say / you are not really the sort of person who spends their time / alone at night, eating a lot of food and admiring the internet.” This is put in the second person, though it could equally refer to the speaker. It also claims that ‘you want to say this’, which implies that you haven’t already said it, and perhaps won’t, or can’t; that, consequently, you worry you really are this sort of person. In any case, you would only be ‘not really’ that sort of person – there would still be an element of that in you, and in what you do. From the fifth sonnet: “You (the entity receiving / the above)”, which parodies the idea of the idealized love object, the insistently real, though distant person, or, indeed, the ‘common reader’. The addressee becomes merely an ‘entity’, perhaps not even human, though ‘receiving’ implies that a message has been ‘sent’, presumably with the intention of transmission and communication (even as the following parodically suggests an extreme solipsism – “Nothing is as interpersonal as being alone” (Black Sonnets, 5).

The poems, then, frequently work on address – ‘you’, ‘we’, ‘I’, but the object of address (often, as in lyric, apparently a love object) is infrequently specified, and might be just as often a fantasy, a celebrity – “My love for you is like everything I said to Jena / Malone in private” (Red Sonnets, 5), “Natalie” who has “dark eyes” in ‘AI in Daylight’ (preceded by the line “Ilium is toast”). These celebrities function like the idealized mythological or literary figures that ‘Ilium’ suggests: as muses, as convenient (dis)placements into poetic history that both allow and conceal the emotional weight with which they are freighted. (Red Sonnets, 7: “All of us / build inhabited worlds around impossible objects.”)

Nonetheless, the gendering of the sonnets is in general less problematic than it has been in some of Heames’ previous work, where the association of an unnamed female figure with a fetishized technological apparatus, as well as a mendacious militarized force (the latter association perhaps deriving principally from Prynne’s ‘Her Weasels Wild Returning’), was a recurring theme. Here, though, as we’ve noted, there is something of this (Jena Malone), the love object tends not to be specifically named or gendered, and we even find lines which (perhaps) suggest some sort of utopian escape from gendered norms and gendering, even as they also suggest the highly individualized, competitive and, again, often militarized world of computer games which again threads its way through the work: “In my dreamworld, where genius / is genderblind” (Black Sonnets, 3).

In this regard, the love poem might also suggest, not just a two-way or otherwise intimate relationship, but games of strategy and alliance, whether in computer games or political systems: from ‘Seven Poems’, “like a love poem / to the other side / this is to toy with.” Indeed, the same is true of enmity and hatred (though Heames doesn’t really seem interested in hatred as an emotion). The poem might name ‘enemies’ or ‘opponents’, who are not definable political entities (as they might be in the contemporary work of Sean Bonney, Lisa Jeschke & Lucy Beynon, or Verity Spott, however much the formulations of such attacks challenge the fostering of violent feelings or strategies onto a particular person, rather than to the system they represent and embody) or those who have wronged the poet (as they might be in Villon), but, are, rather unseen players on an internet game: “You have opponents on the internet you don’t see. / You can’t see the joy on their faces / driven off by flame.” (Blue Sonnets, 7).

Politics thus uneasily meshes with love and hate, displaced as a possible horizon of activity from the poet, observed through the sceptically-viewed frames of internet and television reportage. Thus, lines from the fourth sonnet in the black book – “Freeing us / to protest as holograms” – refer to the hologram protest devised to circumvent and draw attention to legal clampdowns on public protest in Spain earlier this year. The way it occurs in Heames’ poem is not, however, as political possibility, but another distancing effect in which protest can only occur through technological displacement, as a kind of stand-in for the movement of bodies on the ground. Protest or mass movement is hinted at in the poems, but what generally appears is the image of the apparatus of its repression – helicopters, the White House, the police, and so on. “Suddenly the poems were full / of riots shields and a cool intelligence” (Red Sonnets, 4).

The poems sometimes seem to throw up their hands altogether, in relation to the possibility of love, hate, politics, knowledge, of holding on to and examining any object: “no trace anywhere / except / lost it now” (‘Seven Poems’). Indeed, one might ask if these are poems characterized by a melancholy acceptance, a desire to find beautiful though self-critical affect within a horizon of defeat, loss, an inability to totalize or systematize, merely to play with the pieces of the puzzle that can never be wholly defined: a derangement that is sensual, and with the affect of rationality, but more often felt as arrangement (‘Arrangements’ was the initial title of an earlier project reworking some poems by Jonty Tiplady). The nearest definition to what ‘we all’ are is “some general ferocious longing” (Blue Sonnets, 3).

Certainly, one of Heames’ primary interests here is how particular systems or ranges of affect – often, computer games, cinema (“like snow in Von Trier”), certain forms of music (“melodic dubstep”) – function, what it is like to inhabit their worlds, which mesh with the real world of history, contemporary reference, walking around, dreaming, looking at things, deciding whether or not to speak. A frequent feature is the use of found language (“I like this Trebuchet” (‘Array One’), “Someone flew / a drone through Chernobyl and the result is haunting” (Pink Sonnets, 10)) for its particular affect and how that affect can be changed by displacement and re-placement within the poem. Heames I think values this language for its affective qualities, rather than (or as well as) using it to make some sort of culture-industry critique – hence his interest in the work of Will Stuart, its use of pop songs, not for ironic reasons, but as markers which are re-inscribed, away from their familiarity, into the context of an avant-garde theatre piece where they can be revived as actually containing particular hopes and expressions (individual responses) of how to cope with the world. (In a paper on Stuart’s work given a few years ago [], Heames argued that Stuart’s deployment of JLS’ ‘One Shot’ might cause us to question what ‘sympathy’ we could have the range of different feelings the song might prompt in individual listeners, feelings that cannot be disentangled from the song’s forms (or, indeed, their material frames of production), leading to something like a feedback loop of sincerity and depth.) In the Sonnets, the poet is somewhat distanced from these forms, or they are distanced in the poem, considered as textual objects but not for a laboratory examination, a sociological survey, a cultural critique, etc; they are allowed their own integrity. Such forms might often be ameliorative, might mesh with economic set-ups that discourage dissent, but for Heames, they are not entirely conformist, are not merely methods of coping with a politically-flattening affect or effect.

‘Seven Poems’, from 2014, is not part of the Sonnets sequence, but handily encapsulates many of its concerns. Here, we find political references which, though oblique, are obviously related to contemporary situations – in this case, the militarisation of the police in America, and, to a lesser extent, the UK (Boris Johnson’s purchase of water cannon) – “war gear flows to police departments / you still heart”. “Heart” here functions perhaps as verb, via the literalisation of the facebook emoji in which ‘love’ is replaced by an icon of a heart, and subsequently translated into ‘hearting’ something (where ‘love’ tends to means something more like ‘like’) – though the line breaks which surround the phrase make its object unclear (perhaps the police departments of the previous line). The fact that ‘you still heart’ – that you have a heart, are still capable of love – might thus be placed against the fact of militarized police forces (the book’s original title was ‘Stuffed Toys in Patrol Cars’), yet it might also suggest that you still love the police (or the following “team that wins”) despite evidence as to the fact of their mendacity. Or heart might again be a noun – “you still heart” – suggesting death, the stopped heart (the poem opens with an injured ‘tsar’ lying in “the palace of human purpose / of the human heart”). Hearts recur in this sequence – the pun on “widely red [read]” in the first poem, in which a heart that can be ‘re[a]d’ by a single person only functions as tool of intimacy, or the putting of lips on the heart in the second, a visceral image of love, or of giving voice to the heart’s most intimate concern, followed by a line from Wieners’ ‘Supplication’ – “take this curse off of early death” – as if giving expression in this way might, as Wieners supplicates poetry to do, provide the poet with all they lack in life.

From the first sonnet of the blue book: “poetry that we experience as heartache.” Heames’ interest in a poet like Wieners, who makes enormous claims for poetry saving his life, with poetry as that which filters yet might also exacerbate experience almost too painful to be lived – homophobic and class-based persecution, institutionalisation in mental hospitals, the living through of a paranoia that has very real causes in police violence and the like – is one that gives credence to, or at least admires in some sense that amping-up of emotional effect (a result very much of lived experience, and patently not false). However, the sonnets never do this themselves without deploying some sort of diversionary strategy, an ironic deflating move which might be characterized as self-protective. Such self-protection might arguably both allow, or enable, the flow of these sonnets, in books after book, and limit what they can do. At the same time, the sonnets rely on the particular affective register of almost haiku-like lines which often centre on familiar tropes associated with emotion, as we might find in Wieners – the heart, love, loss, weeping – which chart what happens when individual or shared self-protection falls away, yet which, framed as a retrospective story, almost akin to the opening structure of a fairy-tale, still maintain some measure of distance which Wieners generally and painfully avoids. “Once when we were entering a universe we were yet to love, / our eyes welled, tender from the freak event of being open”. (Silver Sonnets, 2) Poetry itself can replace the person who writes it: “Some poems want flesh / to replace them, / mine just want somebody to come round / to the accident of their being. / Poetry begins to hurt.” (Silver Sonnets, 3) The poems are both fascinated by and sceptical of “taking your own inner life seriously”, and hence that poem, the third sonnet, immediately moves on to computer games, a sphere of displacement for an inner life – “some people just want to hate god and collect gemstones.” The process of desired replacement attributed to “some poems” (rather than, as one might expect, ‘some people’) allows a dance between poem and person which relies both on craft and ‘accident’. Poetry itself ‘hurts’ as if wounded, but ‘hurts’ as a verb could also be active – that it is poetry itself that is hurting someone, something – perhaps the reader, or the poet themselves.

Coming now to the lines from which I’ve taken my title, from the first sonnet in the blue book: “Text is to whole conduct / as life is to other themes. Love that / corrects nothing.” This seems as good a set of lines as any to take as a possible dictum for the poems’ method or concern, their scepticism. Text – the poem – relates to ‘whole conduct’ – an ethics? – as life does to other ‘themes’ – everything reduced to ‘themes’, and again folding back to text. The ‘love’ the poem might express ‘corrects nothing’; poetry does not have an educative or ameliorative function. (See, of course, Auden and Spicer.) This seems to be amended or expanded in the silver sonnets book, the latest of the six so far, with the fifth sonnet, which concludes: “Poetry is just / a beautiful simple way / of being wrong.” How are we to take this? At face value, as something of a guiding principle; or as ironic and ridiculous; or as some measure of both? The tone, as it is throughout, is intentionally hard to place and judge.

In this regard, the fourth of the pink sonnets has: “Trying to suggest tone / without claiming either / there is truth, but there is much more, / or there is healing pain”. The syntax is pretty knotty here, but we could parse the alternatives as being the fact of there being truth, but also ‘much more’, or the existence of ‘healing pain’ – in which healing could either function as an adjective in a paradoxical construction where the experience of pain heals, or a verb in which pain is healed. In either case, it’s unclear how exactly the two are contradictory. The sentence comes across, again, as a meta-commentary on the poems’ own processes and concerns. Tone is suggested, but not inhabited – indeed, such cautiousness and self-reflexivity is itself a tonal move.

Such folding-in in happens a lot, and not just in terms of tone – rewriting a history of language and poetry as it relates to the world, in counter-intuitive and sometimes deliberately provocative ways: “Language arose, / at least in part, / as a response / to an aesthetic / modernism.” (Silver Sonnets, 5) What might be a self-confessed weakness in poetry – its wrongness and inability to correct anything – is also, potentially, for the poet of these poems at least, a strength. From the first sonnets book: “At least you can say that / in poetry you are less sure”. Poetry here is a necessary ground or sanctuary for uncertainty (tying in with the desire “not to breathe / my thesis over anyone” (see below), ‘beautiful’ and ‘simple’. The line-break here inflects the meaning: another way of reading the lines might be, “at least you can say that [somewhere else, but] in poetry you are less sure”, which perhaps amounts to the same thing – poetry, again, as a space of greater uncertainty, whre the only thing you can say is that you are ‘less sure’ about what you’re saying. Poetry, then, offers, not scientific clarity, but a space to examine contradiction, complication, complexities of feeling.

Yet at the same time, it might dictate exactly what those feelings are. “Some of the things said dictated / what you could love” (Black Sonnets, 9). Language modifies the object onto which various feelings are put – which could be, as we noted earlier, an object deliberately chosen for its abstraction or spectacular / removed nature: a celebrity, a historical muse, a poet whose surname stands for what they have said in their poems rather than the person Keats or Villon themselves. Rather than allowing the poet to find out and work through what it is possible to love, the poem has set up the field of what can be done in real life, and in that sense functioned as an imposition, rather than allowing a mode of access to knowledge – whether self-knowledge or knowledge of others and the world (the two of course connected). This statement of apparent doubt is itself modified by comic deflation, in a phrase with the metrical set-up of a well-turned out poetic line but one whose reference is the apparently banal and inappropriate one of a game of football: “with no keeper to round” (cf. the more obviously comic “I will buy he in FIFA”, or “Injuries have been a plague all season”). ‘Keeper’ could of course have the double sense of ‘a keeper’ – a term used to describe someone with whom a romantic relationship could and should be sustained – in which case ‘round’ becomes hard to read: whether to ‘go round’ (the sense it has if we read the phrase as being about football), or, perhaps to ‘shape’. Because this follows on from the lines about what one can (and by implication, cannot) love, this suggests an absence. What has been said has shut off the possibility of the ‘keeper’, of a sustained relation, and the poet is left with the shifting field of objects of attention onto which they fix their attention with a self-critical eye, even as this range of objects often works on the logic of a kind of obsessive repetition and recurrence (though not usually transformation). When transformation or expansion does occur, it deliberately overreaches itself: “my love for you […] is a way of life / and has allowed oceans” (Pink Sonnets, 8); “breathing in / the polis of a billion years” (Pink Sonnets, 5) (the pun, or at least the sonic prompt here would seem to be on polis and pollen).

Similarly, the tenth and final sonnet of the grey book begins: “So, / if I ever die, / I will write you / such a decent poem / that the plant melts / and becomes / heart-shaped. / I will call it Anglophone / poetic practice / as a way of feeling”. The absurdity of “If I ever die” (cf. “I’m not going to die” (Red Sonnets, 9)) is further destabilized by substituting the italicized acadamese of “Anglophone / poetic practice / as a way of feeling” for ‘poetry as a way of feeling’. The abstraction of ‘poetry’, as well as the claims so often made in its name (as they are, albeit sceptically, throughout these sonnets), is changed into something more like a research or conference paper proposal (or, indeed, a doctor’s practice, a healing possibility – cf. “or there is healing pain” (Pink Sonnets, 4)). One might expect ‘way of life’ here, certainly implied as a contrast to death: in any case, the lines suggest that feelings denied or shut off to one ‘IRL’ are allowed to blossom within the poem (cf. “Simplification is at the heart of real life” (Red Sonnets, 4). Poetry contains a transformative aspiration – the melting of the power plant into a heart shape, a kind of parody of swords into plougshares or something of the sort – but one that also risks cultivating the notion of a somewhat abstracted ‘feeling’ and elevating it to a poetic pinnacle where it is perfected and removed from life, more so than being generated by or responding to life.

Something like the converse of this, though, occurs in the fourth sonnet of the silver book, where the poet writes: “I don’t want to breathe / my thesis over anyone”. Thesis, in its Greek etymology, relates to ‘putting’ or ‘placing’: so that while the poems are insistently concerned with placing and (re-)arranging various new or recurrent tropes and (often vaguely-delineated) speakers and addressees, they do so, not from an intended position of power or manipulation, but in order to leave a certain openness to the reader with whom they make their contract, leaving their images or the particular intonation of line-broken phrases open for interpretation. The poems in general perform few of the radical deformations of syntax often associated with avant-garde poetry: they are often constructed through propositional, grammatically-coherent statements – theses, if you like. It’s the links between these and the absence of an overarching narrative – one exacerbated by the constant hints at and promises of narrative, which are generally borrowed as fragments from other, familiar storylines, whether the news reporting of 9/11, global warming, or the presence or absence of the lover – that cause complications, that aim to make the process of reading a pleasurably elusive task. For the speaker not to breathe their thesis means for them to apparently abdicate, and certainly to distrust, their own position as someone with something of worth to say, because they are a poet, or because the thing is in a poem; not as a political or utopian model of democracy, consensus, etc, but as a working-through and setting-up of various constraints.

A thesis has to be proved against counter-attack, and must thus set itself out strongly. One could propose that refusing this perhaps closes off the possibility of counter-argument, that the poet’s apparent self-removal might thus also seem like an evasion. But we should also understand the term in relation to the fact that Heames is currently working on his own Ph.D thesis – the poem must not become merely an illustration of something for academic point-scoring, must be its own, independent entity. Finally, thesis, in its original, prosodic sense, means the stressed syllable in poetry or music, by which one sets down the foot or lowers the hand in beating time; the fact that the syllable is stressed connects to the strength of assertive proposition that the word has more generally come to signify. The poet’s breathing of a thesis is thus part of a sounding of the poem too, but poetic stress and stress of argument aren’t meant to batter the reader over the head with skill or virtuosity: if the analogy is to be musical, we could take Satie (that combination of glacial, stately movement and surface and some sort of melancholic emotional pull) as opposed to, let’s say, the strenuous bombast of certain variants of nineteenth-century Romanticism.

The poems, then, aren’t meant to be ‘decoded’ – “The secret impresses no one” (Blue Sonnets, 3) – even as they also aren’t meant to be clear, propositional statements of position (theses) – or just ‘atmospheres’ “without meaning.” Instead, they frequently dwell in a “dreamworld”: an alternative region which, in the history of poetry, has, of course, often functioned as a space to make veiled political critique, as well as to speculate on the origins of poetic inspiration and the tasks of the poet. Without the cosmological frame available to Chaucer or Langland, though, dreams must appear slightly differently; there’s less stability. Thus, it’s hardly comforting that it can sometimes feel as if the speaker is wandering through a perpetual waking dream. From the tenth sonnet of the silver book: “I had dream / things to do”. I’ve mentioned activity, and here dreams themselves become active, a list of tasks to be accomplished. In certain religious or mystical traditions, the thinker deliberately dreams in order to find the solution to a problem, to access a higher realm of knowledge; psycho-analysis, meanwhile, might suggest the dream as a means of finding self-knowledge, albeit one which is socially shaped, and has social consequences – and one which is, moreover, not self-discoverable, but must be expounded, admittedly through one’s own talking, to the analyst as a necessary added presence. Surrealism’s use of dreams for social critique would be an obvious frame of reference for modernist poetry, but that particular strain doesn’t really seem to be part of the tradition Heames is working within. In the tenth sonnet of the red book, “knowledge is itself” described as a “collection of strange dreams / used to describe feeling”. One might expect the formulation to be reversed, at least if the poem were operating according to a scientific model by which dreams and feelings (and, by extension, the sphere of the aesthetic) are often left alone because not discoverable by evidence-based methodologies. But this is a poem, and, while it’s interested in problems of knowledge, verifiable data, and feeling, it appears to trust neither empiricism nor a reliance on the strength of emotional feeling rhetorically pulled off to make the poem ‘work’, to be persuasive or moving. In that sense, the sonnets move across the two halves of the statement – the one thing used to describe the other thing, whether dreams or feelings or knowledge – as their operating territory; themselves, probably quite deliberately, coming across as ‘strange dreams’ in which feelings and knowledge (whether bits of found language, quasi-argumentative statements, assertions, etc) are certainly invoked, if not always described in detail.

This might even have a utopian dimension, if we consider lines from the third sonnet of the blue book: “That the dead obsess / in their own fractal proto-socialist dream time / is their own / terrain.” (Blue Sonnets, 3) Yet there seems to be a negative or critical inflection here – the dead are obsessive, their socialism is only a ‘proto-socialism’, more akin to fractals’ infinite reproduction of the same forms on various scales than to a complex social arrangement concerned with a more just society, and it is their business whether or not they obsess, not ours. Indeed, immediately following is the sentence “Come to grief”, which might suggest what has happened to the dead, whether or not through their obsession; or, perhaps more likely, allowing us to retrospectively re-read ‘obsess’, not as the action of the dead over an unspecified concern, but as your or my own obsession over the dead, placed in a passive construction in which that obsession is framed as if performed by the dead. In that sense, ‘come to grief’ could refer to the speaker or addressee’s fate if they become too concerned with the ‘dream-time’ of the dead, or to what happens to the dead in ‘their own terrain’; or a means of avoiding obsession through the working-through of mourning, in which obsessing over the obsessive dead might finally be moved on from (even as such obsession is so often the work of poetry).

In an (unpublished) introduction to a reading Heames gave in Cambridge late last year, Lisa Jeschke describes his work as containing images “which make you laugh on the inside, but, because the image is so forcefully contained, restricts your ability to laugh on the outside, or at least restricts your ability to laugh convulsively on the outside.” I wonder about laughter here – that perhaps part of the atmosphere of these poems, what I’ve called their veiling, or screening, or filtration, has to do with presenting material with the structure or quality of a joke (“I will buy he in Fifa”, “O mate I do”) but without allowing one to laugh, leaving one uncertain, not only as to the intended effect, but to what exactly this means for the experience of the poem. This forceful containment could be, as Jeschke believes it to be, a mode of useful rigour, a refusal of the easy punch-line, though laughter (even ‘convulsive’, ‘outside’ laughter) itself – as much as it can reinforce cruelty, community self-definition by exclusion or in-group homo-social smugness, ‘getting it’, etc – is not always a bad thing. Jeschke goes on to use the phrase “openly repressed”, which is nice – not so much because it suggests the neat argument it would be easy to make, where repression in the poem reflects repression in social, economic (or, predominantly for Heames) affective relations, but because it captures something of the poems’ tonal qualities, their simultaneous ease and uneasiness with that ease. For Jeschke, Heames’ poems “do not use media and games jargon in relation to the war on terrorism or the financial crisis as a declaration of something like the world-as-simulacrum, but, on the contrary, as a declaration of the fully material relation between language and the real world.” This insistence on formal containment – or games, veilings, filtration, repression, etc – puts “pressure” both ways, between poem and “outside world”, so that what appears to be “formal perfection” actually turns out to be “the representation of perfection”, one which “ultimately presents an image of absolute error and mistake: ‘just when I thought / I was perfect / I find this big weird mistake.’” So, once again, Jeschke here argues, not that the poetry reflects the unreal perfection-repression of the world as constituted by global capitalism, but that its containment as textual object –as poem – moves in and out of that world, taking bits with it.

This might relate, though it seems a little different in emphasis, to what Heames himself writes in a 2010 review of another sonnets project, that of Geraldine Monk: “words will have and go their own way.” We could parse this as something like the social unconscious of language, we could bring in Voloshinov; words, though they seem to act in transcendent fashion – or as other organisms, other life-forms we can maybe set in motion but can’t quite control, that, in fact, control us – are also socially determined, but can be worked through and with. That might not sit quite right, with either that statement, or the poems, but no matter. More work can be done on that later.

OK. So I’d still venture that there may be limits to these poems. There is so much one could write about them, and they encourage this. The methods Heames has found to generate and arrange material seem potentially inexhaustible – the sonnets could just go on forever within their discrete units, offering a wealth of material for close-reading and for what I earlier described as the cultivation of atmosphere. Both formally and in terms of statement, there’s a thoroughly built-in self-critique and sceptical handling of material. For instance, in terms of the sonnet as medium, there’s much play with intensely varied line lengths. The sonnets don’t appear to follow a discernible rule controlling this, though, like much of Heames’ poetry, there does seem to be some sort of private compositional system governing them, which is there more for the purposes of the writer than the reader – in a similar fashion to what Jeschke half-seriously calls the “pedantically numbered” system of ‘AI in Daylight’ (or indeed, ‘Array One’ and ‘To’, the other books which, with ‘AI’, combine to form the sequence Arrays). Yet this potentially limitless generation and questioning of material perhaps risks being unable to fully trouble its own premises. The open-ended gestures, in which the poet refuses to “breathe [their] own thesis on anyone”, also mean that argument itself remains diffuse, poetry reduced to being merely a “beautiful simple way / of being wrong.” Is this enough? The poems are certainly accomplished, skilful. And form is never more than extension of content, etc – but, beyond accomplishments of form, I guess what I’m gesturing towards is the sense that poetry might importantly allow something between, or elsewhere to these particular poems’ focus. Thus, on the one hand, the near-obsessive concern with the filtrations of what constitutes ‘daily life’ (in certain cases, for certain subjects with certain horizons of concern and activity – “the sort of person who spends their time / alone at night, eating a lot of food and admiring the internet”); certain cultural practices or references; particular affects of alienation; the academic and vocational interest in poetry. And on the other, a different kind of view of the polis and of poesis, where – and here I’m borrowing phrasing from the introduction to Robert Duncan’s Bending the Bow, itself borrowed from Olson, which has recently been helping me to frame the work of a very different poet, David Brazil – the “boundary” between poem and world, or town, or ocean, or power plant, or computer game, or whatever, sits slightly differently. Life as more than just another ‘theme’. In any case, the question I just asked, about whether ‘this’ is ‘enough’, is perhaps absurd – the demands placed upon poetry, and addressed in these poems themselves, cannot be singular, and the critical move of enlisting the textual object under examination for a particular aesthetic-political project has its pitfalls. I guess what I’m trying to get at is how I personally respond to the sonnets, what use I feel I can make of them – even if that doesn’t appear all too clear itself in this review. Needless to say, this will differ from reader to reader.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

David Brazil - The Ordinary

David Brazil, The Ordinary (Oakland: Compline, 2012 (reprinted 2014)) Paperback, 230pp. $15.00)

What follows is a slightly revised version of a review which, in its original form, first appeared at Shearsman Review last year. The piece, which is something like a brief introduction to the book’s scope and concerns, was written after a visit to the States during which I spent a bit of time with David in Oakland, and out of an attempt to transmit some of my own enthusiasm for the work – which I’d first started properly reading in late 2013 – but it seems appropriate to start with some more recent thoughts about David’s poetry in general, even if this risks piling up one introduction on another.

One of the things that’s striking about Brazil’s project, I think, is how it relates, or doesn’t relate, to the relegation of learning, of study, to an academic position – at least, as the academy might provide an ideal of some sort of scholarly community devoted to pure learning, in itself, while remaining wilfully ignorant of the class hierarchy with which that entwines. (Neither is the poet a researcher, in the sense that word might assume within the models that increasingly predominate over and compromise even the tainted ideal of scholarly ‘purity’, tallying up points for the Research Excellence frame.) I don’t here want to make the sort of spurious anti-academic move all too common amongst academics – what’s worse than a self-hating academic, after all. But these are, of course, objective contradictions which must inevitably be central for transatlantic poetry communities which so often exist either within, on the fringes of, or in parallel relation to the academy, whether enthusiastically or oppositionally – and generally it’s a combination of both. Certainly, poets do not and have not ever existed without some sort of relation to institutions – no one has. Indeed, that fantasy of independence is precisely the kind of idealisation that the anti-academic critique itself risks reduplicating. Perhaps what I mean in relation to Brazil’s work, then, is ‘institution’ rather than ‘academy’, though attempts in Oakland to develop institutions of a non-official or semi-official nature are undoubtedly vital to it– the model is certainly not of entire, hermetic separation. (I’ll return to this issue below.)

In any case, it’s a project very much about learning, and archaeology, excavations of and against the tradition of dead generations (“don’t you know / there aint no grave” (‘Praxis, Apostles!’)), tracing histories of thought and the ideological underpinnings of the western world through theology and revolution – one which aligns with the academic work done by Badiou and Agamben and others, but which never feels like a mere illustration of current trends. A book like The Ordinary might encourage us to perceive the quality or the scope of epic, though the division into clearly separate chapbooks, maintained in the collected edition as sections which each possess a distinct identity, as well as Brazil’s publishing and writing practice in general, should, I think, disincline us from such a characterisation. Thus, while a project of great scope, it’s neither academic, nor really Olsonesque (or Whitmanesque): the poet themselves may pose sometimes seemingly assume a near-vatic tone, but generally discourses in more modest spaces of poetic address. For instance, in the sixth poem from the chapbook Holy Ghost, we get what appear to be bits of arguments and discussions on a street-corner or a social space, sometimes fractious and oppositional (“antagonism in the social fabric’s just what you expected, / go to work and ask about it there, check out the / pamphlet at the bank, ask your black neighbour is / racism over, or motherfucker just ask me”), sometimes offering a reinforcement of shared vocational goals amongst a community of poets and friends. From the same poem: “How / can we keep making art is just another way of saying how / can we live in the world, now answer the question with your own valiant works and consider your debts to your forbears / in making, you owe them big for everything you are, the / other name for everything you love”.

Brazil frequently works through fragments and compression, though these fragments sprawl, and, as journal-like entries, could be part of a process that goes on infinitely, depending on the circumstances of the poet’s life with which they are insistently entwined (though not for purposes of either lyric self-aggrandisement or self-chastisement, which can be two sides of the same coin). I’m thinking here mainly of the first few sections of The Ordinary. In whatever case, though, this isn’t Maximus, nor, really, is it any of the similarly large-scale projects emerging from San Francisco during the 1950s and 60s – Jonas’ Exercises for Ear (or, more accurately, the unfinished project Orgasms/Dominations); Duncan’s Passages and Groundwork; and, outside San Francisco, the attempts at a Maximus-type work by the likes of Robert Kelly (Spicer’s serial poem are a different case I think). It doesn’t build up instructive fragments as part of a cumulative and accumulative project for total knowledge; though, like Maximus, it does combine a large-scale historical reach with an insistent focus on a particular place, albeit one whose politics are far more sharply delineated and unavoidable than those of Olson’s Gloucester. In that sense, then, one could still usefully place it in the currents of poetic work done in San Francisco and Oakland over the years, from the circles round Spicer and Duncan to others.

Indeed, the following sentence from the Introduction to Duncan’s Bending the Bow seems apposite: “The commune of poetry becomes so real that [the poet] sounds each article in relation to parts of a great story that he knows will never be completed.” Completion and expectation, working and unfolding, are very much horizons for Brazil’s work, particularly as they relate to questions of time, of kairos, the fitting moment, the dialectical refusal of a solely linear model of history and the way that might manifest through the kind of dialogues between living and dead with which poetry is so often concerned. For Duncan, the interplay of private and public – as it relates to his homosexuality, to the cultivation of a sustainable and central domestic partnership with Jess, and to the volatile history of San Francisco as a city built, as he notes, on earthquakes – is one in which what we might call the civic, or political voice of poetry is ultimately subsumed to a polis which exists in the ‘commune’ of the poem itself, where what enters are “only words.” Thus, on the one hand: “Everywhere, from whatever poem, choreographies extend into actual space. In my imagination I go through the steps the poet takes so that the area of a township appears in my reading.” Yet, ultimately, “the boundary lines in the poem belong to the poem and not to the town.” (All quotations from the Introduction to BTB, One suspects that Brazil, while constantly aware of the poetic as a particular mode which is none other than itself and cannot be otherwise subsumed – and this is not, it should be noted, an argument for the ‘pure text’ artefact, to be read and re-read at will, or even with a scientific exactitude, as if it were a laboratory specimen sealed off from the world – might not go so far as Duncan along that line of argument, given the deliberately messy and attacked nature of the poems that appear in The Ordinary – certainly in their visual appearance. (Though the revisions and excisions of the book’s earlier part do remind me of the footage of Duncan composing a poem live on camera in the recently-unearthed Poetry U.S.A. documentary from 1965 dedicated to his work – a documentary with a beautiful coda in which Duncan accompanies John Wieners to the now-derelict Hotel Wentley, the film agonizingly fading out in the midst of a Wieners’ recitation from the Wentley poems).)

In any case, whatever parallels we might find with Duncan’s theorisations of poetry (perhaps some parallels in the use of rhyme too), The Ordinary very much has its own thing. The fragments herein could be shards of lyric, of rhymed verse, of quotations from Marx and the Bible, of notes towards essays, working by a process of deletion (the blanked-out words which sometimes drastically reduce the size of a poem by half or more). Perhaps there are countervailing impulses, between those deliberately worked and attacked deletions (nonetheless marked by dating, by the visible evidence of hand-written revision, so that these are not instances of a perfected textual object, but of the process of working and composition itself, in all its messiness), and the essays or poems with longer lines which stretch and bend the ‘boundary lines’ between poetry and prose (particularly in the section entitled ‘Economy’).

This development of something in which poetry and prose mutually inform each other and sometimes overlap is an important aspect of the work, yet the use of metre and rhyme also strikes a consciously insistent note. Examples in this respect would include ‘To Romans’ and the just-released Praxis, Apostles!, which alternates rhymed sections, often in iambics, with ones whose prosody is more irregular, freer verse forms with irregular line lengths. These more regularly rhymed sections seems to come in part from song refrains, which are often quoted (Destiny’s Child’s open the chapbook Holy Ghost); or see Brazil’s use of singing at readings: as here, where he sings ‘Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning’, a song whose reference, in some renditions, to what is generally known as ‘the time’ but sometimes ‘the work’ might refer both to time, to the apocalypse, but also to the cessation of labour. (“Keep your lamp trimmed and burning, / The work is nearly done [or, The time is drawing nigh]”.) Rhyme isn’t associated here with a stultified and stultifying academic verse, but with an alternative, popular tradition of song, whether that be found in contemporary pop music itself, or in the resistant strains of African-American spirituals, where religious hope and revolutionary consciousness blend and entwine. The language through which Paul’s work is filtered – the combination of modernised and archaic vocabulary, the use of vernacular American English (‘y’all’ appears frequently, a regionally- and class-specific elision which insists on the inclusive nature of the second-person address) – doesn’t appear as translator-ese, as a gimmicky trick of forced updating: it’s too insistently weird for that, and yet completely at home and at ease within the discourse-range it’s set up for itself. Instead, Brazil’s practice is characterized by a recognition of the historically-determined, yet malleable and vulnerable contingency of poetic form. As he puts it in the ‘kairos’ section of The Ordinary: “having lost the forms & faith / in forms // we have only / prosody, // a houseless / meter” (p.xvi). (Cf., perhaps, J.H. Prynne’s 2008 essay ‘Huts’ in Textual Practice.)

Such range is pretty much throughout shaped by an overriding concern with theology, a concern that might surprise some, given the often stringently materialist mindset of transatlantic poetic communities. Something of this is registered in a comment Richard Owens makes in a blog post from a few years ago, in which he describes ‘To Romans’, in its original stand-alone pamphlet form, as: “Like seminar notes toward a more thoroughgoing biblical exegesis halted midway by — what — maybe the constraint of time or our collective inability to reconcile an ecclesiastical imagining of love with a desire for social justice.” Whether or not one one’s self believes that such a reconciliation is a necessary or present horizon of concern or activity – opinions will, needless to say, differ – Brazil certainly does; the reasons for which we might begin to adduce from a 2010 letter to Brandon Brown on the concept of kairos, in which he writes of:

something among us which if not transcendent may at least be described as super-personal — the collective symbolic existence — which the language of theology often seems of value to describe — or, I should say, to understand, since that collective existence is materially inextricable from the histories of which have formed its basis, all of which have been explicitly Christian for millennia, and which even now, secularized, bear their theologic traces.

So the interest in theology is not motivated by and does not lead to an escape from history and politics, but from an attempt to go to their root, even as it also comes from a strong position of actual belief. Brazil’s church is broad; it is of the outcasts, the activists, the poets, is not an institution as such. That said, the latter word’s Latin origins – the verb instituĕre as it transforms into a noun form – include ‘begin’, ‘arrange’, ‘establish’ and ‘teach’, suggesting something active, rather than ossified: the moment of establishing, rather than the establishment itself. In this regard, see Brazil’s comments from 2011 on the Pauline notion of pistis, generally translated ‘belief’ or ‘faith’, as active, as something done, “a sort of performative” which “happens in the human world as a rhetorical situation and a rhetorical transaction” (‘On Michael Cross’ Haecceities: A Group Review and Sourcebook’, Little Red Leaves Press, 2011, p.27). And, even if we understand ‘institution’ in the more fixed or negative sense by which poets have often understood it, one could still frame the term as applying to something more like the Bay Area Public school or the intensive reading groups held in Brazil’s house which prefigured that broader activity – what Laura Moriarty in her review of The Ordinary calls “a sort of anti-institution” (Moriarty, ‘Being Happy with The Ordinary, Part 1’, The Poetry Foundation); as a term, that is, based on the latencies in the original Latin rather than on what the word has come through repetition to mean. Some sense through all this, then, of clandestine activity, as with early Christian meetings under Imperial persecution – the parallels with political activism of certain kinds. Secrecy and revealed knowledge; revealed, not through a moment of exterior inspiration, but through one’s own work and study and activity. All this, as a risky move, taken over and over again; and one which manifests, in Brazil’s work, as a total, but contingent aesthetic.

[What follows is the review itself]

The Ordinary is a big book, lovingly made. It consists of six, pamphlet-length section, and it feels like something of a statement: in a note of acknowledgment, Brazil thanks Michael Cross – whose publications, through Compline Editions and, previously Atticus/Finch truly are some of the most beautifully crafted small press objects being made at present – and without whom “this book, both as concept and object, would never have come into existence.” Indeed, that balance between the apparent grandiosity of the project and the often lo-fi aesthetics of the poems themselves is one central to Brazil’s particular brand of religious communist poetics. At one point he writes, “my prosody’s from here” – here being, primarily, his home-town, Oakland, CA, whose environmental pressures and socialities are figured through a highly-developed auto-didactic acquaintance with ancient languages, and with political, economic and theological history – see, elsewhere, his bibliography on revolution, the appendix to Lisa Robertson and Matthew Stadler’s Revolution: A Reader – and through the detritus of language and material out of which the poetry’s shaped. Thus, vernacular usage will come up against, or alongside, words in ancient Greek, theological concepts, Marxist economics, and records of conversation-as-community, marked by an insisting first-person naming of friends and fellow poets – sometimes all within the space of a few, closely-placed lines. For Brazil, these are all part of the process, part of the field of economy which is his field of study, his social situation. “there’s no other place from which to write what we must / say than FROM INSIDE THIS SHITTY LIFE.”

Such concerns again crop up in the work of Brazil’s close compadres Evan Kennedy and Jackqueline Frost – with whose Terra Firmament (Krupskaya, 2013) and The Antidote (Compline, 2013), respectively, The Ordinary has been presented as a kind of trilogy of shared concerns. All three books emerge out of the political organisation and activism which reached a peak during the activities surrounding Occupy Oakland and the Oakland Commune, and all emerge as a record which must in some way reckon with the ultimate defeat of that movement, “in the caesurae between struggles” figuring its lessons and retaining its hope. “hope pours forth / from out the fault, the / one at uproar / withinside itself”. Throughout, a faith in poetry itself and in the unique work it can do – however much this faith is racked and split – is never lost, as it can sometimes be in instantiations of a militant poetics. Poetry here does not end up in ironized self-recrimination, nor is it exaggerated in propagandistic claims that can never be lived up – what Brazil in a letter to Thom Donovan from December 2011 calls “the crust of reified sloganeering and narrative claims trying to make a fit matter for the spectacle”. As Brazil writes in a letter to fellow Bay Area poet Alli Warren published at Donovan’s OTHER LETTERS project: “It continues to be revolutionary to remember, to insist, to stand up for. To be an agent of a very fragile cultural transmissions.”

There is a crucial sense here of community – all three poets will often address, or record conversations with, the poets with whom they are in regular dialogue, memorializing a context and setting up what does not imagine itself to be able to tap into, say, a mass movement, but which is, nonetheless, very much political in its pursuit of a field of shared concerns which often intersect with broader activist struggles. This community, or communities – “strange communities that are an aggregate of such strange selves” – is, of course, “a profoundly enigmatic form of sociability”, yet, for Brazil, it might nonetheless figure itself as a “contingent alternative to accepting the regime of atomized economic life, nuclear familitude, and all the rest of it”. It is not an “empty hedonism in the face of catastrophe,” a nihilistic retreat, but precisely where, through the practice of poetry and attendant friendship, the ethical might be figured in a way that necessarily must inform political practice on a broader scale: “we will not have the political we need until we can meaningfully renovate our social being.” (All quotations from letter to Warern.) (On this, see also Frost, in a recent BOMB magazine group interview with Brazil and Kennedy, on Kennedy’s attempt to formulate an ethics (which he designates bonohomie) that is “less sterile than solidarity and more radical than friendship”, which “flies in the face of Nihilist-Leftist perspectives that cannot even utter terms like ‘goodwill.’ This with its counterpart in Frost’s own “negativity […] compatible with the anger of the subjected.”)

For Brazil, poetry and its attendant and informing speech are “a form of talking in diaspora […] a prayer that we can / say only in quorum”. There is here also an actual belief in vocation – about which Brazil has delivered a talk, full of the dense deftness which manifests itself throughout The Ordinary, for the Poetic Labour Project. What is meant here is not the hierarchy of class election and fetishized specialisation, the abstraction which divides intellectual (or artistic) from manual labour, akin to Blake’s figuration of the “Priesthood” as a cult which “abstracts the mental deities from their object” (itself, for Blake, the usurpation of a project which is initially poetic). Rather, in a usage whose lineage derives in part from St Paul, Badiou and Max Weber, we have the formation of a “small band of militants” existing in opposition to the atomized subjectivities required for the formation of capital and the de-formation or still-birth of group identities and modes of organisation that might be posed against it. In poetic terms, this is the ambition to “do you work irrespective of impossibilities”, to study, to “unconceal – to show forth a hidden thing,” and even to see if you can speak history – through etymology, theologicy, economics – “political truths […] but also truths of the imagination […] or thus about how we live and feel, truths of the heart.” (Letter to Warren). These ‘truths’ are not the class interests and predilections of the court or the bourgeoisie disguised as universal, eternal verities; they must rely on the material truth of the existence of those excluded from symbolic and economic orders, that ‘waste’, seeking to “harmonize”, to speak within and from, the condition of being a “chrono / choked prole”, trapped within “prole tempo”. Proletarian here meaning: “We are the “surplus populations” spoken of in contemporary political economy. We are cast out, cast off, traduced and abjected, left with no history.” In the face of this, to speak that history. “[T]o be a writer is a calling, but to be a proletarian is the state in which we are called.”

Three of the The Ordinary’s first four sections – ‘Kairos’, ‘Election’, and ‘Descort’ – consist of shorter poetic fragments, often including crossings-out and corrections in pen which sometimes radically alter the shape of the original, type-written poem; the third, ‘Vierges’, contains uncorrected, though still lo-fi, typewritten poems; and the sixth, which might initially the most surprising, is a metrical and idiosyncratically modernized translation of St Paul’s Letter to Romans, a latter which, according to a tradition of interpretation stretching from Jacob Taubes to Badiou and Agamben, forms the foundation of a politically emancipatory theology predicated on the rejection of law: whether this law be that of the Torah, the rule of the Roman empire (predicated precisely against the Jewish people), or of law more generally, as instrument of class and State oppression. These more overtly ‘poetic’ parts constitute the majority of the book; the fifth section, entitled ‘Economy’ – parts of which were previously published by Little Red Leaves Press – manifests what is often a more essayistic process, taking the form, in a mixture of prose and poetry, of a kind of diary of thought and hope. Its approach to the notion of ‘economy’ comes from various theoretical angles and as a journal-like working-through of the practice of writing itself. Individual poems, here, as in the first and second sections, are dated in pen and written on scraps of paper found on the streets of Oakland – advertisements for church services, housing forms, surgical procedures and the like. Such scraps are the detritus of those so poorly provided for within the management of economy – understood, contrary to its etymological origin (oikos), as that house which is most certainly not a home; those who suffer “the deleterious effects upon body, psyche and interpersonal relation” that are “the life of the oikos considered generally”. These daily, structuring forms of violence at times manifest themselves in images of extreme and direct – often gendered – suffering: “stop the girl / kid’s mouth with a cock / lest she utter an / irrevocable curse.” Here, nonetheless, is the possibility of a curse that can’t be called back, against tormenters, against the “retro hetero werewolf […] dual hetero foil to your head”: the possibility of that resistance necessary for survival.

As Brazil puts it in the BOMB magazine group interview: “All waste also actually talks. Being struck in the face by history it has no choice. Economy was an attempt to discover the contingent prosody inside of the intersection of objects, days, a space (Oakland) and myself.” (Or as the recent Praxis, Apostles! has it, “from out the wreck, / the wreck of my / particulars, my / placenames”.) These scraps of non-human detritus also find their analogue in those human beings symbolically and materially cast aside within economic processes. St Paul’s “we have become the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things until now” (Corinthians 4:13) finds its parallel in the wretched of the earth, the proletariat, the “preterite part” excluded from the fatalist-Calvinist ‘elect’ of capital. Economy’s method, then, is a process of composition by incrementation and erasure, as in the ‘redacted’ parts prevalent in the first sections of the book as a whole. “[W]hat congealed / to force his pro-/duct […] forms / a house of waste” : the transformation of living substances to dead ones, the substitution of material labour and labourers by what Alfred Sohn-Rethel would call the ‘real abstraction’ of exchange, that which is given material form by its unconscious, lived basis. These are theological, or, let’s say, metaphysical concepts which are still lived by and through: “we’re all walking around with theology in our mouths”; “Cash, I told Dana’s, a negative eucharist.” Against them are posed models of polis which instantiate different models of law, ethics and economy: the nomos that must underwrite and, perhaps, reconfigure, oikos. “[T]he ethical body must / incessantly repeat / the spiritual act of its upsurge, / must always be reborn, / must always recall itself / to its name and its / freedom” (p.lxxii).

The sixth and final section of The Ordinary, ‘To Romans’, is the culmination of the book in that its concern is with law –“law law law law, what’s law, what’s the law, what’s the relevant law” (p.cxxiii) – and with the universal. In an earlier poem considering the role of the judge, Brazil expands outwards from a local instantiation of that role – the judge from “Iowa” who “reads thrillers” on his break. The comic disparity between the human manifestation of the structural role (Brazil has to “ask Lord” what that judge does in their spare time) leads onto a broader consideration of ‘judgement’ as such, in which “every day” might be “judgement day”, the instantiation of a practical ethics through daily action and negotiation. So that this poetry is supremely ethical; it is a poetry where ethics must and can only be constituted in ongoing contingent negotiation and struggle; and it is a poetry full of detritus, waste that speaks back, “waste as muse”. The Ordinary is not exactly ‘social realism’, nor is it a celebration of the magic of the unjust order that is, but rather, the strenuous hope for its transformation and overthrow: “the future […] legible in the lineaments of the present [which] mingles with those liberatory shards of past history whose light blazes to us all across time with the message of a liberated humanity” – and the endlessly complex figuration of how this might manifest itself in practice.


Talk (on Vocation) at the Poetic Labour Project.
Correspondence with Alli Warren, 2010, at Thom Donovan’s OTHER LETTERS Project.
Letter to Thom Donovan, December 2011, in Donovan (ed.), Poetry during OWS (p.20).
Bomb Magazine Interview (with Donovan, Jackqueline Frost, Evan Kennedy), April 2014.
The Ordinary and Holy Ghost at Compline.
Antisocial Patience at Roof Books.
Praxis, Apostles! at Materials.