Tuesday, 27 February 2018

CONCERT NOTES: Clementi, Nono, Eastman

[A couple of brief notes here on some recent concerts -- wanted to write more about the Rose Wylie show at the Serpentine, which I saw on the last day, bursting with colour and scale and joy, seriously good, but the momentum behind what I wanted to say has gone a bit. The picture below will have to compensate: my notes from the exhibition, wandering around the space in circles, near delirium, even, certainly delight, scribbling down thoughts as they came. Also wanted to write about Feldman and Lachenmann performed as part of an excellent new lunchtime concert series on Borough High Street -- but for now, Nono and Julius Eastman will have to do.]
Nono, Fragmente-Stille...an Diotima (plus Clementi, Lely, Molitor)
Bozzini Quartet

(As part of Principal Sound (Nono / Feldman), St John’s Smith’s Square, 17th February 2018)

I went to this to see Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, his string quartet written after Hölderlin, taken by some as his ‘retreat’ from politics but to me absolutely a political piece. (And doesn’t the bourgeoisie love to point out the ‘hyopcrisies’ of artists with commitment, and the ways that commitment gets tested and figured in the changing grounds of defeat and of the texture of the work itself? As the liner notes to the Arditti’s recording put it: “some [were] disconcerted by Nono’s ‘turnabout’ from a revolutionary to an apolitical stance, others yet claiming with guileful joy that the worn and tired rebel was now crawling towards his cross”.) A totally masterful piece, I think, and masterful not in the way the term ‘mastery’ would imply the whole canonical value judgement that Nono’s work undermines from within, or elsewhere, in its whispered bow scrapes and sudden moments of taut, shivering, shimmering ensemble noise, but in terms of being a touchstone, a piece to return to, again and again, to refresh and to remind of the alternatives it proposes: as Nono put it, “other spaces, other heavens”. The first half was a rather disappointing comparison, and, if anything, I’d have preferred to just see Fragmente-Stille: excerpts from Otto Frammenti by Aldo Clementi, a contemporary of Nono’s whose strange and hard-to-place music the Bozzinis have championed on disc, John Lely -- a short piece called ‘Doubles’ -- and Claudia Molitor, a longer work, maybe 20 mintues or so, departing, though in ways I couldn’t quite catch, from a line of Rilke’s (Und laB Dir jeden Tag geschehen)So first, the Clementi, which at the time I found immensely frustrating, but am still intrigued by, if not convinced, whatever that would mean. But that question is important -- to be convinced of Clementi’s music, what would one have to be convinced of? What elsewhere? I need to hear more Clementi to make these judgments, I suppose, and am talking about its placement on the programme, particularly given my expectations around the Nono, and the way the other pieces sat rather awkwardly separated from it, not only by the interval that divided first half from second, but by something that on the evening at least seemed more profound, more significant. Simon Cummings at 5 Against 4 notes of Clementi’s piece Madrigale -- where the sonic palette of instruments is more unusual, more open, perhaps -- 
I don’t hear the piece as yet another bland illustration of the ubiquity of decay—on the contrary, Madrigale is surely more positive than that: the way the pianists persist undaunted in their rotating patterns of musical material irrespective of the work’s gradual grinding to a halt is rather poignant; would that all things could continue with such focussed determination towards their inevitable ends.
For sure: but the need to use terms like ‘poignancy’ or ‘undaunted’ or ‘positive’ and ‘focussed determination’ seems to me emblematic of the way that to talk about this music requires a humanisation of what otherwise seem purely formal exercises -- the stuff of composition classes elevated to the concert hall platform itself. But I can only really talk about the pieces performed on the night. And of these to say: Clementi’s canons, as if often remarked, are studies in decay, or delay. They are obsessive, but contained, melancholy, but with no overt emotional markers: music as something approaching the notion of ‘pure form’. But of course art can’t do that, things slip in from the outside, and the melancholy of these pieces is perhaps both that things slip in and that they can never slip in enough, and so the pieces build up a shell, a cage, a self-enclosed space which is nonetheless communicated in public. Clementi often said -- presumably thinking of composers like Nono here, for whom music and political commitment had to be connected -- that all art could do was to describe its own ending. There’s a risk here, of nostalgia for some closer connection between community and aesthetics, not to explode this wall as so many experiments in utopian living, utopian art, did, or even in the fragile realisations of Nono’s own late works -- those where he is most truly political, contentiously, perhaps -- but to lament or just to re-iterate the ending. As Clementi himself put it in 1977:
Not anymore is the musician a beacon that guides the whole of humanity, as in the beautiful Romantic era. Mankind does not seek art anymore but only comfort, practicality, pleasure and entertainment. One has to have the courage to admit that there is no more need for art”. (Quoted here)
This notion of the beauty of the Romantic era, and of the role of the musician -- in which the word musician takes on a necessarily limited sense, that of the composer -- as beacon for the whole of Humanity, rests on universalist assumptions whose partiality we can all too easily question, particularly when it ignores the vital social role played in any other number of traditions than that of Western Art Music, by music and the musician (thought of in a collective sense -- as groups of musicians, integrated into community, rather than as individual artist, providing music to be played in the bourgeois concert hall). The inverse of such a conception, the melancholy fixation on its loss, does not, however, lead to a formal or political conservatism, but to somewhere elsewhere -- though it is by no means the political commitment (in all its complexity) of Nono’s music. As Michele Zaccagnini writes in a thesis on Clementi:
Clementi [...] subtracted teleology from the Adornian equation metaphorically – thereby sealing Pandora’s box before Hope could come out. Compared with the high stakes that Adorno put on the role of the modern composer, Clementi saw his act as fundamentally useless: an utterly decadent, almost inglorious practice of fiddling with remnants of a formerly glorious art-form.
Focusing on craftsmanship and artisanship (the latter his term) rather than art of artistry -- the creation of discrete objects that yet, unlike that of many artisan products, had no function as such -- Clementi’s conception comes to seem something like the Romantic notion of “absolute music” entirely stripped of its mystic purism. Though they were friends, and Clementi late in his life wrote a musical tribute to Nono, their work took different paths in relation to the dilemmas of art and political commitment faced by Nono, Lachenmann, Henze, Wolff, Cardew, and the like, Clementi never retreated into the mysticism of Stockhausen, and his formalism is so extreme as to push to a limit more comfortable experiments would not have the boldness to accomplish. Yet listening to the Otto Frammenti, especially when set alongside Nono’s own fragments, one couldn’t help thinking that, if art describes, and can only describe, its own ending, not in its realisation but simply its cessation, or decay, perversely, it simply becomes more trapped inside itself, repeating itself in the act of ending in a manner that leads to a kind of pristine stasis, beautiful but cold.

Or perhaps that was just my mood. But the other pieces on the first half of the programme, by John Lely and Claudia Molitor, enacted a kind of watered-down version of that Clementian repetition, their cycling structures spaced-out in comfortable alternations to leave a melancholy flavour that spiced but didn’t disturb the space of concert hall, of contained listening within limited frame. They were at times pretty, spiced with enough extended techniques to render them ‘avant-garde’, but not enough to suffuse the entire piece as structure of rupture or new language, necessary language, to evade while inhabiting and in dialogue with the whole history of, in this context, western art music -- as Lachenmann, in the ‘Serynade’ I heard at the Borough New Music series the other week, a study in piano resonance, piano decay, the virtuoso tradition, the physical resonance of the piano and the history that cements, concretes -- or as Nono, here. Instead, in Molitor especially, extended techniques risk becoming mere appendage, just another tool to deploy along with the virtuoso tradition or the frankly bland ensemble sound of much string quartet writing. They are merely effects: the concept of ensemble is not troubled, the relation of parts to whole, individual to collective. These pieces didn’t have the stakes of Clementi, become pure neo-classicism and formalism without extending that to discomfort in the way Clementi’s granite fragments do: like pieces of a statue, puzzling in themselves, parts of a whole that are whole in themselves but demand the reconstruction of an impossible totality.

Thence to the second half, taken up in totality by the Nono: a sudden focus, but a focus slow and patient and fragile and at times intensely difficult. Fragmente-Stille: fragments in stasis, in silence, but many of them, so that event follows on event, not - in terms of listening - obviously in the clear demarcation in the division of movements or sections, but as whispers of material sounding out of silence - the secrecy by which the musician’s meditation on Hölderlin text fragments which are printed in the score, but which the audience cannot see, engages (if not dialectically) with the hierarchies of the tradition of western art music -- and that signifier in particular of bourgeois culture, the string quartet -- and with the silencing of the artist driven away, driven apart, reaching a core of social situations in solitude (Hölderlin), the exiling and the suppression of revolutionary hopes, on the dawn of the 80s -- all of this encapsulated in the Hölderlin fragment chosen by Nono, “yet you do not know this”. Unlike the pieces on the first half of the programme, which could feel simultaneously too rushed and too sparse, too smooth, too calculated, with almost no space for silence -- Nono’s is a piece which excludes neither silence nor physicality - of performers, of the physical bodies of the instrument, the breath of a musician in engagement with the sound-producing capacity of that instrument sometimes sounding even over the musical ‘note’ produced by the instrument itself -- openness, to the outside. Hear the breath of the bow, the instrument extended to its limit in quietness flecked with noise at the edges -- all that’s excluded from the tradition of Romanticism, of virtuosity, of the whole-made ensemble and the well-held note. For Nono, ensemble is not a disciplined block, but fragments in discord, fragments in discourse: Nono thinks about the divisions (of group / of audience / of individuals within ensemble), doesn’t soften it or convert it to regressive splintering. No note can be sounded straight -- this is a piece absolutely full of fermatas -- notes held on the brink of silence, extended almost beyond the point of audibility then juxtaposed with sudden chatter, or sounded with edged harmonics, decay and loss and event following event, no settling through “reduction” to repeated flurries of old forms. It quivers, its shudders, it whispers, it quietly screams, it sighs. It never intones pacifically or chugs. In stillness there is movement, in silence, sound; there are stakes. Noted snuffed like candles, and the ritual of ending in -- bow slow suspended on string -- and then the musicians sitting for a near-minute, meditating on Hölderlin’s texts, no sound emerging, holding the moment before applause brings back the world of bourgeois concert hall and contains anything that might explode that -- the eternal dilemma faced by Nono’s work -- all this a moment of intense drama, while yet refusing the drama of ending, in the cello notes becoming progressively more inaudible, then the silence that final held pose. In his composer’s note, Nono talks about “weak moments”: fragments, not as aphorisms, complete in themselves and united as ‘synthetic moments’, nor by what he might see as ‘synthetic movement’, but conflicting moments not subsumed to a dialectical goal. His note describes the fragments as “always open”: aphorism etymologically relates to being ‘marked off by boundaries’. Ring-fencing: of pieces in programmes, of performers on stages, music in social contexts, the dilemmas of music and political commitment -- Nono doesn’t pretend to erase these fences, but at least he sees a world outside them. Without noise, without furor, Fragmente-Stille is a whisper from somewhere else that you can hear sounding now. It can’t be packed away, leaves its traces still.

(As an afterword: Before the concert, on a freezing evening, we walked past Parliament Square and Millbank tower, Tory Party headquarters overshadowing the Tate, bland and huge; and thought of how the Millbank building was broken into and occupied by students, and the defeat of that movement; when the square was full of kettled protesters, charged by police horses, as the tuition fees bill went through the seat of Power inside the close walls of Parliament; and of Nono and defeat and commitment. And in the concert I thought about what these other pieces lacked, sounding out contained as the building now is just another London facade on a water-front where the power of government (the eternal flame of the police department, of the Tory party) sits over the water from the power of finance and the art establishment. Nono’s music hates that, its reverence is for an elsewhere, and reverence not indifference, in the cold of the church it has no comfort save the saving grace of whispers from elsewhere not even sounded, the musicians reading Hölderlin’s poems to themselves, that barrier of alienation and distance that’s embedded in the format of the bourgeois concert hall, the deconsecrated church, descralised sacrality of art, inhabited and literalised, pushed to edges of audibility. As Nono himself puts it: ”multiples fragments and silences from other spaces, other heavens, to rediscover differently the possibiltiy of not saying farewell to hope.” Would that the programming -- and the performance was, needless to say, very fine -- had given it that respect.)

Julius Eastman - Femenine
Apartment House
Cafe Oto, February 20th 2018

A week or so later, and a very different concert: Julius Eastman’s Femenine, the single work on the programme, performed by Apartment House. I saw this about a year after seeing Eastman’s utterly exhilarating four-piano pieces performed alongside a very moving performance of Rzewski’s De Profundis by the composer as part of the LCMF. I wrote about Eastman a few years ago
, having discovered him quite by chance, and since then, when he was almost virtually unknown, the dedicated work of supporters such as Mary Jane Leach has led to the publication of a book of essays, the discovery and release of new scores, new recordings, the proliferating performance of his music around the world. Of these, Femenine has particularly taken off, its hour-long sprawl offering a comparison to the longer works of the likes of Reich but almost totally opposed in spirit and conception and execution. This was performed at LCMF the other night, and I was eager to see it: I didn’t love it on hearing the rather grainy and distorted recording by the SEM Ensemble on the CD release, but the recording of that LCMF performance totally converted me. If asked to characterise its general mood, one might even venture to say that it’s the gentlest of his pieces -- not the brash scalar trumpets of ‘If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich’, not the motoric joy of ‘Stay On It’ (which was performed at Oto the previous night), not the chugging fervour of ‘The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc’ -- but as ever with Eastman, there’s no aural wallpaper, the tension between concentration and relaxation a constant throughout, even as foot taps or head sways also throughout. This tension exists for listener at least -- this is a hard, hard piece to play, especially for the vibraphone player, who has to maintain the same, steady repeated figure all the way through the piece, even as the other players adjust tempos and swirl round, this figure both opening and ending alone, over the distorted, rhythmically slightly off-kilter mechanised sleighbell recording that plays as the almost invisible breathing, or heartbeat of the piece). At times the performance, in all its dimensions, reached passages of prettiness (particularly in the dialogues for flutes) that risked being a little cloying -- and I presume the score contains elements of improvisational openness which mean these decisions are made by the players in part, and are open to change on every performance -- but most of the time there was a quiet ecstasy, an earned and beautiful calm that functioned a shifting centre constantly metallic and jagged around all its edges.

In his re-appraisal of Femenine, written after re-listening to the performance given at the LCMF in 2016, Tim Rutherford-Johnson notes an “erotics”, against a hard-edged, machine-driven tendency in Reich, Glass, etc. I’m not so sure of this here. Perhaps the term ‘erotics’ gestures at the title’s double-edged queer refusal of gender -- the “men” put into the mis-spelled “femin/femenine” aiming to destabilise the association of gendered behaviour from the interpellative categories of biology -- and to challenge the association of minimalism itself with a kind of culturally-appropriative hard-edge (or bland wash of sound) used to sell cars, TV performances, whatever. But however we characterise the emotional or physical spaces it conjures and inhabits, the piece cannot be refused. It begins with the sleigh bells, meant to be motorised but performed now on a recording, playing for at least five minutes, or so it seemed, as the musicians (vibraphone, piano, two flutes, violin, cello and synthesizer) took their places from the audience. This meditational preparation, ritualistic and establishing the seriousness of the piece: then the aforementioned vibraphone part, then slow ensemble tones over the top, riding with this, before a kind of counter-melody gets introduced: as the piece slowly unfolds (not the right metaphor), I distinguished something like three ‘sections’, which recur and refuse any notion of ‘progression’ or ‘climax’ (even as this is frequently played with in a series of ecstatic but also hilarious ‘false climaxes’): the initial riff plus long tone harmonizing on top which then becomes main focus then countermelody gloriously surging and also piano chords bit as punctuation as false climax or one of many and also what seemed to be sections of group improvisation (or improvisations in groups, within the group as a whole) which are also sectional: filigree piano, flutes and strings duetting. Under it all, vigraphone as both melody and timekeeper, sleigh bells as both timekeeper and noise. Highlights: some fantastic octave-chordal work from piano, passages in which the piano poundsin, out, in out of sync, but also the exhilaration of ensemble suddenly coming together in rousing octave chords, all sounding the same before drifting back into beautiful unsynchronised motor that the piece makes its territory. (On the role of improv, I’m not entirely sure -- Mark Knoop’s snyth at least seemed to be mainly improvised. It added a real lower end to the bottom, though the flashes of higher end keyboard sound didn’t quite fit (was there a synth in the original?)) As I say, bits felt a bit too pretty, going into delicate scales, at times with the flutes a bit too melodic, in the sense that melody sat over rhythm, establishing a foreground / background that most of the time didn’t exist, though throughout, melody is rhythm and rhythm is melody -- some echoes of jazz, inevitably invoked because of Eastman’s work with his brother Gerry in a jazz ensemble, also present, generally in the piano part, and generally more successful. To take the title of another Eastman piece, everyone staying on it, the vibraphone part, playing the same repeated phase over and over for over an hour, the sole instrument to start and finish, quite a feat. Eastman’s pieces, in all their varied ways, establish a complex but purposeful emotional tenor full of formal interest and with a core to sustain and be returned to on repeated listenings as a kind of cleansing, a balance, a beautiful and shining example.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

SPLINTER Magazine Second Issue

Available from here.

Poetry from Tom Allen, Helen Dimos, Edmund Hardy, Laura Kilbride, Will Rowe, Naomi Weber; reviews by David Grundy (of Will Rowe's Collected Poems) and Danny Hayward ("Transgression for Anti-Fascists: Verity Spott’s Click Away Close Door Say). Look out for further announcements -- SPLINTER readings, new books from MATERIALS, &c...

Saturday, 14 October 2017

New from MATERIALS: Bonney and Marriott

Two new books now available from Materials: GHOSTS by Sean Bonney and DUPPIES by D.S. Marriott.


“We were talking about prophecy, about defeat and war, about how nobody knows what those words really mean, and what they will come to mean.” 

“Grime is late shift, zero hour, it makes a beeline for bare life, but what it lays bare leaves everyone cold. Grime is the thread that links afro-pessimism to afro-futurism, but its role proceeds without ties or duplicity.

Both available from http://material-s.blogspot.co.uk/

Thursday, 24 August 2017

SPLINTER Magazine Out Now!

First issue of a new, bi-monthly magazine edited by myself and Gizem Okulu. Poems from Janani Ambikapathy, David Brazil, Christina Chalmers, James Goodwin, Rob Halpern, Rosa van Hensbergen, Justin Katko, Sara Larsen, Luke Roberts, Alli Warren, John de Witt, and a review of Tim Thornton by Joseph Persad. Available now, here!

Monday, 24 July 2017

Ryan Dobran – Story One (Self-published, 2014)

Errors, Patterns & Repetitions from Jacqueline Arias on Vimeo.

Ryan Dobran’s Story One exists only in a fugitive, self-produced edition, though there should be copies left if you ask him. (The publication accompanied a gallery collaboration with the artist Jacqueline Arias, of which Arias' portion can be seen above, as part of a show called 'Former Islands'. The show also had wall posters of Dobran's poem "Fantasy Index", published in Cordite Review.) Following on from Dobran’s previous books – Your Guilt is a Miracle (Bad Press, 2008), Ding Ding (Critical Documents, 2009), Confection ((c)_(c) Press, 2011), Shouts from OK Glamour (Barque Press, 2013), and Remote Carbon (Critical Documents, 2014) – it’s gnarly and difficult work, characterized by a particular biting tone which certainly approaches sarcasm, but it offers an explicit and immediate directness distinct from his previous work. As its title indicates, it has a quasi-narrative framing, centred on the domestic preparation for work and the work that is done in the work-place itself. Beginning “at the beginning”, the tone, ventriloquizing as it does various familiar discourses around office work and its frames, is often brutally direct. It’s very quotable – there are killer lines on most every page. But, despite the narrative and the presence of a central first-person speaker who functions as something like a ‘character’, its narrative doesn’t resolve or offer closure – it is a perpetual present characterized by incremental change which doesn’t change anything but merely repeats, an implicitly cyclical and easily-recognisable structure of routine whose exaggerations occur in the telling. Though the numbering of the title suggests that this is the first of many – a start, if not a new one, it also suggests a singularity, both unique and utterly familiar. This is it. Importantly, it’s a story in which not much actually happens. Banal events are stretched out into luxuriantly cynical description – the moment of waking, showering, slicing a fruit, parking a car – while environmental change, globalized warfare and the workings of international capital become larger frames which can’t be afforded the same narrative clarity, appearing to provide an alarming shift of scale which is nonetheless at every turn related to these minutiae, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Dobran writes (in personal communication):
It’s definitely a departure in terms of clause structure at least and I was going for a pseudo-narrative that keeps restarting. I was desperately trying to be funny, and I often think about the link between the desire to laugh and the intractable and putatively ineluctable position that one can feel beleaguered by when locked into a job whose hours one counts. I think it must be some kind of “cruel optimism” that sets the restlessness along with a middle-class upbringing whose creators conspired to make their children think that holding open possibility for what may come--and indeed what should come provided enough hard work--is itself a form of necessity. But on the other side of cruel optimism is beneficent pessimism, whose feeling of immobilization is linked to the same social reality but whose manoeuvring is without any desire at all.
That final sentence references Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), a book which explores how European and American fantasies of the good life and of a work-ethic based doctrine of achievement (what Berlant calls, "conventional good-life fantasies – say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work”) are still held to even after it has become clear through periods of crisis that liberal capitalist democracy cannot provide them. Such a relation to the present continues despite being disproved, centred on various intricate modes of adjustment. For Berlant, “a relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” The continuing process of survival – staying afloat – involved in sustaining some sort of relation to this object of desire, this fantasy of fulfilment, even when it is clearly unattainable becomes so total that “the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it, and vice versa.” These methods of coping (what Berlant calls “norms of self-management”), then, do not remove the initial desire but sustain it.

Dobran’s ‘beneficent pessimism’ instead embraces this immobilisation and removes desire. Both relations involve a certain pose of cynicism, but this doesn’t mean they’re total – as, in Dobran’s poem, the speaker treads a gamut between a kind of numb, almost thoughtless physical functioning and outbursts of sadness in love or brutally comic competitive violence. This is itself a means of adjustment, but one whose mode of survival doesn’t aim at the sustaining of the desire it knows is blocked. The speaker doesn’t expect the kinds of sustaining relations – to work-place, domestic partnership, etc – that still motivate Berlant’s cruel optimists. Instead, lack of belief is what allows the worker in the poem to fulfil their tasks as if they believed in them. Such a lack might, in other context, be the grounds for attempting change – rebellion, rejection, nihilism or politically-transformative collective action, as it might manifest in life-style dropping-out, work-place sabotage, organizing, protest, etc. Perhaps it’s too fanciful to suggest that the book’s red and black cover might jokingly hint at the political tendencies associated with those colours – communism and anarchism – to suggest their near-total absence in the world and mind-set the poem so convincingly and rigorously inhabits. Pessimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will. Now carry on.

The poem occasionally shifts its focus to imagine cosmic scenarios of destruction which are nonetheless almost entirely filtered through limited and limiting perspectives, the modes of mediation they would seek to reach beyond in sublime transformation. At one point, Dobran writes: “I don’t think any of us / has the story we most want / to fulfil the proud suggestions / from EARTH.” The shift from singular to plural here suggests both the supposed ‘universality’ of ‘the story’ that is desired and its miserable limitation to a failed individualism. What none of us have is what each of us want, separately, even if the particular scenario desired seems like the most personal thing. The capitalized “Earth” itself comes up with all sorts of helpful suggestions which cannot be made to fit a narrative frame which would contain and fulfill them. Choose your own adventure. However, as in Berlant’s cruel optimism, even the contained and stereotypical story of effort and success, centred on work, the nuclear family, and a libidinal investment in a particular economic model, cannot be fulfilled.

The ‘adjustment’ to the working day described in the poem sometimes veers to statements of patently false enthusiasm – “the beauty of the globe is real”; “I await / the greatest day” – though it’s worth noting that such instances of beauty occur precisely at the moment of destruction, of negation, the moment when the earth explodes in nuclear holocaust and the light is registered on the “beatific space station”. On the other hand, there is cynical description of continuing routine, void of any connection to the sublime beauty of cosmic destruction within “the stupid days” of the work routine. Adjustment to work routine must negotiate between the modes of forcibly internalised enthusiasm conventionally said to lead to promotion, betterment, and the like, and a relentless cynicism which must nonetheless operate almost entirely within the frame of that which it criticises. What is outside work in the poem is only “wasted free time” and the promise of last night (associated, perhaps, with desire, fantasy, dream), which is itself dismissed – “Everything that last night meant is shit.”

Dobran’s poem, with its ventriloquism of the masculinist logics of patriotic imperialism – “nuke this motherfucking coffee”, “inhabit the dude without lifting the brow” – sees the toxic masculinity that might be found in an office space as inseparable from the logics of violent, patriotic imperialism, as bolstered by an economy churning along on a good life mentality (both ones of simultaneous suppression and release). In this sense, the speaker of the poem may find links along a collective fantasy of violence, national identity, gender identity, class identity (or aspiration), but these are ones which will not allows any real solidarity to emerge, which are defined and perpetrated on violence of various kinds against others, even colleagues. Thus, the joke about beating up someone who “comes round to take my spot / at the sink basin”; or, “I will use your face to destroy / the manager.” This is not worker solidarity, even if it is posed against some manifestation of authority (albeit a localized one). The speaker uses two other people to destroy themselves for his own advantage, perhaps in order to replace the manager. If that is the implication, destroying them is not a destruction of the structural position that the particular person in this case designated as ‘manager’ fills and represents; it redirects to personal antagonism a broader (let’s say, class) analysis. (Though it’s worth noting that such talk of the ‘structural’ might risk a kind of fatalistic purity of investigative method. For a recent work that insistently and even obsessively explores the dynamic between a cartoonish, personally-based antagonism and a structural approach – one which might be said to characterise different trends in contemporary U.K. and U.S. political poetry and theatre in various ways – see Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon’s David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife Songs (Shit Valley, 2015); also Danny Hayward’s review of the same in Hix Eros 6).

In any case, the promise of “us[ing] your face to destroy / the manager” is something of an empty threat. The future-tense injunction has something of the character of an earlier and yet more ridiculous injunction in which the speaker barks out: “Give me pleasure, shower.” This injunction is a rhetorical pose which suggests power even as it knows the mechanized comfort-givers associated with the good life bestow only a limited horizon of actual comfort and power. If the animate holds no promise, the inanimate must substitute. The shower’s pleasure-giving both has the structure of an exploitative demand and acknowledges the speaker’s lack of agency which the statement of command attempts to disguise.

As I’ve suggested above, the poem’s title brings up the relation of story, routine, agency and patterning. In telling their own ‘story’, the poet here merely attests to the crushingly and fatalistically pre-determined narrative which labour forces most everyone to accept, all the way from the shower to the desk. As a fragment from Kafka’s journals which is (twice) set in devastating form in György Kurtág’s 1987 Kafka Fragments has it: “Slept, woke, slept, woke. Miserable life.” There is nothing unique about this narrative content, and neither does it reflect collective or instructive values: it is at once particular, alienated, individualised, a cell, and crushingly familiar, skewed into repetition at both ends of the scale. It is a condition presented as unchangeable and permanent and yet also permanently subject to anxiety, lack of safety, the threat of losing your place even within this crushing process, the motions you will not any longer be allowed to go through. So this story, the first and the last, will be just another template, yet also one which self-destructs, just as work routine is locked in cycles of starting and re-starting that don’t necessarily ‘progress’ – though progress that (in meagre drip-feed fashion) is the aim (the discourses of self-betterment, promotion, and the like; sell yourself more, sell yourself better, devote your whole life to the task, for everyone’s good).

More broadly, this might also relate to periodic financial crisis and recovery, boom and bust, as part of a neo-liberal economic consensus, or a purported, forced and manufactured consensus, which is imagined to have finished with narrative for good (ends of history), but in which the constant recurrence of crisis, collapsing, recovering, re-starting, collapsing, recovering, etc, constantly belies that narrative end-point. The story, from beginning to end, can never end, even as it is said to have already ended: it will always repeat, with its minor fluctuations, crises and supposed resolutions, with everyone playing the role of the characters whose actions, whatever their motivations, must always conform to the same predictable patterns.

Likewise, the notion of effort and self-bettering is no longer manifested in (certain kinds of) physical labour, given that those physical elements of work have reduced in visibility and importance, present only through the distance of time and space. Thus, the shift from blue-collar to white-collar, from assembly line to desk, the shift in ‘the west’ from industrial to tertiary industries as the result of the mass out-sourcing of industry to places abroad where labour is cheap and protective regulations less present. So that there is a kind of indifference or apathy set off by a sense of that global positioning within systems of exploitation, which must also figure with a sense of one’s own exploitation – reckoning with different levels of privilege which the discourses of American Maoism might term ‘labour aristocracy’, working through that global and specific class dynamic in which: “I continue to thrive as a result / of my steadfast commitment to / servicing the petite-bourgeois / home improvement / industry.” (Note here how the job itself, which aims at a balance with the domestic sphere necessary to complete the circle of the well-contained good life, loops back into the domestic whose raison d’etre it is to bolster.) The office workers eat their lunch: “Everyone just sits there in a vat of space / starving the poor. Keep your fucking / text focus, poet-broker.” Being in the vat, it seems like they themselves are being cooked and eaten. The injunction to keep focussed suggests that the dramatic-bathetic statement ‘starving the poor’ is not the proper domain of the enclosed text-object-poem. It is not the deal or contract with the reader, with the demands for action it might make, that has been agreed. Of course, by ventriloquizing that position, the poet goes against it, even as the poem itself consciously sticks within certain limits. Such moments of underplayed extremity manifest a humour which is sometimes as violent as that situation, and sometimes as apathetic, which perhaps amount to the same thing. As Dobran puts it: “Humor is neither / defense nor protection, but stimulant. / The possibility of action is simply too / ridiculous.”

*         *          *

As any good story should, the poem begins “at the beginning”, with reference to a “plastic cradle” which is the flesh. The worker is re-born each day, progressing from the infantilism of waking (“more drool / than ga-ga”) to the ‘maturity’ necessary to accomplish the tasks of work which, perhaps, replaces the mother. Indeed, the text as a whole is notably male in its environs, even if the cast of characters beside the speaker remains something of a backdrop, barely even delineated in terms of physical description, let alone characteristic. Here, people are their role, whether that be in the job or in usurping the speaker’s place at the sink, a moment which leads to a bleakly comic outburst of responsive violence. Only towards the end does some element of what might be the traditional subject of the “lyric” that the poem at one point seems to name itself as – a love relation.

The book’s opening is reminiscent of Creation narratives: “at the beginning, at the left / off light” has something of the Book of Genesis about it, not only in its opening phrase but in the faint echo of God’s generative command, “let there be light”. The light here, however, has been switched off at some point (implying that this is not the first ‘beginning’, but one of many involved in a daily routine). The flesh-cradle is felt as an exterior shell, one that is synthetic rather than fleshly, or at once synthetic and fleshly. You sit in your flesh almost as if you sat the desk; it contains you, as your total environment. Detail is precise, but this leads, not to an attention to the object and its production, but to the entirely unexceptional: the “firm, / but not hard, plastic bottom” of the slippers, the page-long description of cutting a grapefruit in minute detail. “There is nothing less than ordinary / details configured in surprise / arrangements.” The phrasing here is subtly unusual – we might expect “nothing more”. ‘Nothing less’ suggests some sort of achievement, or grandeur, or, indeed, surprise. Expressing it in this way only reinforces how none of these things apply: for the surprise must not be too surprising. It must be predictable, within a certain field of expectation. The speaker goes on to talk about changing the alarm sound on their phone every day, in order not to fall back asleep: “the threat of behaviour / and any remarkable achievement / of habit”. Yet these are not things that can be perfected – or, their perfection is in their acknowledged imperfectness, their highly-functioning inadequacy as coping mechanisms and ways of living and surviving.

Once the alarm has gone off and the speaker is properly awake, they are able (in the second person) to assert the following: “You affirm at 06.34 ante-meridian / that the beauty of the globe is real. / and that your place on its fine. Just / or merely, don’t care.” ‘Fine’ can, of course, be both a term of particularly esteemed quality and the base-line of survival – not especially great, but I get by. It’s the common answer to a common greeting-question – ‘How are you?’ – whose connotations are determined by the inflection of the answer – ‘fine’. Similarly, ‘just’ is not here ‘justice’, but ‘nearly’ or ‘merely’. ‘Don’t care’ could either be an injunction, the speaker speaking to themselves or to the reader, as with the second-person of ‘you affirm’: a kind of negative mantra which nonetheless possesses a kind of self-help function. Beneficent pessimism – because you don’t care, you can get on by. 

On the same page, however, the speaker “begin[s] to care, / because there is plenty of time to care”– a care itself produced by “boredom”, but one which might be different to the “care / that you thought of / that time, at the edge of it” – the deictic reference, which could mean a care thought of at the edge of boredom, or of care itself. Care is both to look after something and to give a fuck – to care for (someone) or to care about (something). It would seem that the care that arises from boredom is the former, the care at the edge perhaps the latter – but the terms are deliberately vague. In a work routine characterized both by uber-specificity and amorphous vagueness – we never find out the exact details of the job; the ritual around it is more important that what exactly is done, what the job is ostensibly ‘for’ – you don’t need to care for anybody else, in some kind of loving relation, though you might need to ‘take care over’ your work, which isn’t exactly the same thing as caring about it.

Care might be taken as a positive which mitigates a negative – you have to take care of someone because they cannot take care of themselves – though, in its noun form, it originates as something profoundly negative in feeling. The affirmation involved in waking is a negative one – “Just / or merely, don’t care” – as is even the care which emerges from boredom or beyond. Likewise, we later read: “the life of lyric is a sad / fucking ministry of vapid / negation”. Lyric poetry – as this poem both is and isn’t a ‘lyric poem’, excluding in the main as it does the subject and address of love and passion – might, in this formulation, thus be construed to affirm, in the face of evidence otherwise, that the world really is beautiful and that ‘you’ fit into it quite comfortably, bolstered and encouraged to carry on as you are but your relative comfortable position of waged precarity. This is not traditionally what lyric does. But what Dobran terms “the crust of deformation” might be both the deformation of an alternative possibility of social life accomplished by the structures of wage-labour and their affective ‘crust’ – a merely ‘vapid’ negation’ – and the deformation of what is by which it is de-formed, destroyed, transformed into something else. This crust “waits upon the magnetic / personae” – waiting upon them like a servant, or waiting for them as the speaker “await[s] / the greatest day” (a phrase I’ll come onto in the next paragraph). The personae are magnetic, perhaps in the sense that they are charismatic, or compelling, or that anything can be stuck to them – they are personae that are waiting to be deformed, blank canvasses or shape shifters, not touched by a fixed particularity. Yet the crust which will stick to them, like a mask covering a volcanic explosion, the crust of the earth, or a dirty remainder, does so within “the infinity / of the singular” – both what is utterly reduced to an endlessly reproduced and common individuality of negation and – as Tom Allen suggests in a review of the poem for Hix Eros 6 – that which negates this negation, in which the singular and the common are neither falsely reconciled nor at odds.

This passage occurs after the following sentence, which again plays between the notions of beauty and the day being just the same as any other – particularity and sameness, newness and repetition: “Ready for beauty, I await / the greatest day.” An eschatological expectation seems to raise its head – the great day which shall surely come and which shall be infinitely stretched beyond the bounds of repetition, routine, sleeping, waking, living and dying, disappointment and loss. This is in itself the good life fantasy which Berlant discusses and which, I would argue, Frank O’Hara partially satirizes in his great ‘Ode to Joy’: “We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying.” That ‘we’, with its “cocktail bars” and “supper clubs”, is one determined by class exclusion. Here I argue for the opposite of Michael Clune’s reading of the ‘Ode’ in his book American Literature and the Free Market (pp.64-6). For Clune, commerce and desire here are consummate: “the desire of the collective blows through the priced objects of everyday life, infusing them with its aura.” Yet, contra to Clune’s notion of entirely fulfilled desire, Hazel Smith notes that “no more dying” could also be read as the end of sexual satisfaction (Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara, p.78). At first glance, it may appear, through a carefully-judged set of antitheses focussing on love, death and life, which are forcefully combined throughout the poem’s three stanzas, that everything that happens here, happens “that love may live”. Yet the “symbol acknowledge[d]” in this new mode of living privileges “vulgar materialistic laughter / over an insatiable sexual appetite”, and the model of eternity advanced occurs as much through tedium as excitement: “not once but interminably”. Labour itself is removed: “buildings will got up into the dizzy air” as if they simply erect themselves – with the sexual pun intended – yet poverty rears its head through a gruesome image of intravenous feeding: “and the hairs dry out that summon anxious declaration of the organs / as they rise like buildings to the needs of temporary neighbors / pouring hunger through the heart to feed desire in intravenous ways”. Desire here is paradoxically ‘fed’ or sustained through a hunger connected to these “temporary neighbours” – perhaps suggesting the temporary sociality of the city, geographies of cruising, a queer space breaking out the repressive mould of the second stanza’s “heat-hating Puritan.” Yet the flipside of such a sociality, growing as it does out of the city’s contingency, is a class-based precarity potentially resulting in the very death the poem insistently and apparently denies.

The title of O’Hara’s poem is of course borrowed from a totemic ode to the new forms of social life named as humanism, or universalism, in Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem. This ode excludes as much as it includes. As Theodor Adorno wrote:
It is peculiar to the bourgeois Utopia that it is not yet able to conceive an image of perfect joy without that of the person excluded from it: it can take pleasure in that image only in proportion to the unhappiness in the world. In Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the text of the Ninth Symphony, any person is included in the circle provided he is able to call ‘even a single soul his own in this wide world’: that is, the person who is happy in love. ‘But he who has none, let him steal weeping from our company.’ Inherent in the bad collective is the image of the solitary, and joy desires to see him weep. Moreover, the rhyme word in German, ‘stehle’ [steal], points rightly to the property relationship. We can understand why the ‘problem of the Ninth Symphony’ was insoluble. In the fairytale Utopia, too, the step-mother who must dance in burning shoes or is stuffed into a barrel spiked with nails is an inseparable part of the glorious wedding. The loneliness punished by Schiller, however, is no other than that produced by his revellers’ community itself. In such a company, what is to become of old maids, not to speak of the souls of the dead?
Theodor Adorno (trans. Edmund Jephcott), Beethoven, The Philosophy of Music, pp.32-3
Bearing this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that Schiller’s ode recurs today, in Beethoven’s setting, as the anthem for a political project – the European union – whose battering-down (for example) of Greece exactly captures that logic of inclusion, exclusion, sacrifice. By contrast, in O’Hara’s formulation, there is perhaps still a utopian expectation which isn’t entirely circumscribed by that which it knows it is the ideological manifestation of. The desire it expresses – which isn’t necessarily the one it can seem to express – is consciously bound up in that which inadequately releases or deflects it.

Yet the only way by which infinity (or desire) can manifest itself in Dobran’s poem is through an ouroborotic temporal relation very much connected to that which ‘the greatest day’ would seek to redeem, and without a trace of utopian aspiration, longing, or belief. “Today will be the same as today was.” Today will be – future tense – the same as today was – past tense – though ‘today’ itself is presumably present. In relation to such temporalities, we might consider a number of comparative instances from the poem, some already quoted. “Ready for beauty, I await / the greatest day”: beauty is that which will come, which is ‘awaited’, though it is unclear in what objects this abstract beauty will inhere.“You affirm at 06.34 ante-meridian / that the beauty of the globe is real”: beauty is affirmed in the present tense, as manifest in the globe itself. “We are the beautiful ones. / Everything that last night meant is shit”: beauty is again present, current, and, somewhere between the two previous examples (beauty as abstraction or beauty as the globe), has become the attribute of an unidentified collective subject. In the latter instance, the past is firmly rejected, even as the formula with which this paragraph begun, in which today will be the same as it has been, implies a folded-in encircling by the past. But if ‘last night’ promised some sort of temporal break-out, even one circumscribed by its placement in relation to the day – night as the time of (sexual?) release, or merely sleep, the escape of dream – it must be rejected. Beauty is not here connected to desire; it becomes an empty substitute for something perfected in the presence of manifest imperfection, something which stands in for referentiality, valourizing the (falsely) general over the particular, and coating it with an aesthetic sheen whose distance from the drab realities of office life lends at irony with which Dobran’s precisely plays.

This is “the auto-worship of the present”: a worship which is automatic, or a worship that takes itself as its object of devotion. Depending on how you read the hyphenated formula, this worship is done either by the celebrants who presumably include the poem’s speaker and others like him, or by the present itself which, like beauty, both attaches and refuses to attach to a specific referent. We celebrate the present and we are it, even as it denies us to ourselves. The present at the moment of speech must be the day, the poem’s emphatic temporal location, and day itself comes to seem to be the thing that both “disclose[s] / and exploit[s] the bodies / whose metabolic shifts / comprise” it.

Metabolism, a word deriving from the ancient Greek for ‘changeable’, is that process which allows organisms to grow, reproduce, excrete and in various other ways respond to their environments. In Dobran’s poem, this process of constant adaptation allows something like (the working) day to remain fixed – as in the endless small adjustments required by relations of cruel optimism, here rendered as a natural process. ‘Metabolic shift’ might also pun on shift work (itself another process of adaptation, availability, readiness); or, indeed, on John Bellamy Foster’s coinage ‘metabolic rift’ to describe Marx’s theorisation, in the third volume of Capital, of the means by which capitalist production and the growing division of town and country lead to an “irreparable rift in the interdependent processes of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” (See Foster, http://monthlyreview.org/2013/12/01/marx-rift-universal-metabolism-nature/)) Capital must use up natural resources to sustain itself, without the balancing of intake and outtake that metabolism itself involves; likewise, it uses up the workers on whom it relies, supplementing their intake only to the extent that it pays them enough to feed and live, or with the good life fantasies that promise something else, however deferred. Cruel optimism partially realizes – ‘disclose[s]’ this – and leaves itself open to be ‘exploit[ed]’ by it, even comes to desire such exploitation. The process is one of simultaneous clarity and concealment, perfectly balanced.

How to get out of this? In his recent review of Dobran’s book for Hix Eros 6, Tom Allen writes “There is no direct moment of rupture that I can locate in Story One.” Yet he goes on to identify in the poem what – though he doesn’t use this term – we might name a mode of Realism that is not simply a report on conditions as they are – though it is nothing if not that – which, in reporting on and inhabiting those conditions and contradictions, is not a settling for less; which, in apparently offering itself as a fait accompli, at the deferred and repeated beginning all over again, forces an implicit protest, however sarcastic and aware of its own limitations. At the conclusion of his review, Allen focuses on a section from roughly the middle of the poem. Dobran’s “The shell of the commute / is not the whole answer” is spoken “to myself / and to my listeners / in the back seat”, and the reason for this (“because”) is given as the fact that “the spirit unfolds in a slimy mass of visionary potential”. Yet this present unfolding occurs only “when I slide into my icy spot / in front of the building / adjacent to my office.”

It’s hard to read the tone of this characterisation of ‘spirit’ and ‘potential’. Spirit is uncapitalized and prefaced by the definite article, which at once particularizes it and refuses to give us a theoretical framework – say, a Hegelian one – into which we can definitely place it. The ‘slimy mass’, meanwhile is like a diseased, malevolent goo or virus, the alien Blob from the 1958 Steve McQueen drive-in classic (one of whose original titles was apparently ‘the mass’). It might also ventriloquize the traditional tone of class-hatred which disdains the greasy proletariat and sub-proletariat – after all, as noted earlier, the class-specific cruel optimism of the worker who “service[s] the petite-bourgeois / home improvement / industry” sustains itself by being, however drably, positioned in a better situation than those who have to perform other forms of labour – or indeed, than those who, being unemployed, are unable to sell their labour power at all.

Certainly, that would be one way of reading Dobran’s line, yet to describe this ‘mass’ as possessing a ‘visionary potential’ – where vision is not only the ability to see what is, but to see something else beyond it – is a direct juxtaposition which leaves some room for manoeuvre. The ‘shell’ recalls the ‘crust’ of deformation on p.10 - a container which is, perhaps, breakable, and out of which an as-yet-undefined magma or mass could emerge. (‘The crust of deformation’ further suggests a pun on ‘crustal deformation’, the changing of the earth’s surface by tectonic shifts within the earth’s crust which cause earthquakes.) Of course, the amorphous shape is exactly what the individuality of the individual worker is converted into in the capitalist structuring of work – the amorphous is not the negation of the closed-off and the singular, but what reduces humans to gallerte. In that sense, ‘potential’ might simply be exploitable labour-power, and one could see such undefined homogeneity as simply created by the apparent particularity of the office routine the poem describes; yet the spirit’s slimy, visionary mass, however much the poem guards itself against an optimism that might simply be cruel, does suggest something else. Yet to say this might seem to go against the way the poem itself actually seems to work, to make the kind of familiar critical manoeuvre or demand by which one is told that something which seems to do one thing actually does something else, usually something with a vaguely-defined political potential. But it is not the poem itself that will tell us what the ‘something else’ might be. Rather, as Allen suggests, looking back on Story One from a different situation – itself not a thought it is necessarily possible to properly think – might reveal to us the unanticipated kernel within its workings that it does desire.

Monday, 15 May 2017

New from MATERIALS: Prynne & Kruk

A sequence of ten poems by J.H. Prynne.

“Oh strike the light, float the boat, for
sake of common peril they are fallen away
as gathered up in sight of lamentable in-
difference and will go down against us”. 

16 pp, card covers (blue), saddle-stapled.

Also announcing the opening of the German wing of MATERIALS, MATERIALIEN, run from Munich by Lisa Jeschke. First publication, Stecknadel, a German-language translation of Frances Kruk's Pin by Koshka Duff.

More info on both here.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Pocket Reviews

New Books

Nine Drugs (Face Press, 2016)
[By Ulf Stolterfoht, translated by Lisa Jeschke, with a short introductory piece by J.H. Prynne included as a separate sheet. Available at: http://face-press.org/.]

First thing to say is that, as with any of the steady steam of books made in recent years by Ian Heames, often with virtually no publicity (though the Face Press website is now operational once again, as per the link above), this is beautifully made and designed. The title font sees some sort of swirling whirlpool swimming in dark blue and white inside the letters of that title, perhaps a kind of useful analogy for the poems themselves, which serve as ironically sober descriptions of a series of different drugs taken amongst bohemian poetry communities. Reading this from outside those communities, it can be hard to place what’s going on: rather than the inside reference of coterie achieved through naming (though there are a few names, of the nine drugs which form the poems’ ostensible topics, of poets and musicians and locations – including T.Rex, Gary Glitter and Hans Sachs), we get a sense of community much stranger for not being clearly defined. (Perhaps the poem would become libellous if it did name: the sequence’s most memorable line, the curse “may their work rot unread.”) In any case, the obscurity into which small poetic circles might fall reflects at the level of form. Some of the poets here write poetry that they cannot understand themselves. This is perhaps analogous to the experience of a trip, the way that a drug experience might oscillate between a sense of collective being, of social and even universal connection, of the capacity to understand hyper-complex connections in a simple, singular flash, but might also provoke alienation, paranoia, total enclosure in self, “always close to / absence”. The same with writing. The sense of being at the edge of something: either a breakthrough, whether political, social, on the level of ‘consciousness’ or poetic form, or of total collapse. “nutmeg: before taking a whole nut, push your poetry to / an end. then however you like it: collapse or lethargy. / sink to your knees, pray.” The stakes here might actually be life and death: “in case of an overdose, / a topos position itself right in the middle of the sentence, obstructing / rhymical progression.” Drug-induce “aporia” the cost of ‘finding one’s voice’, alien in the poem. “what luck for their poetry, how devastating / for their soul. all in all, heslach has thus far delivered / eight exquisite poets. deep dark night covers twelve others.” The poem as a transaction between “recipient” and “supplier” reaches a stage of “full dissolution” and “melt[ing] together into a poem thing” – perhaps as a manifestation of narcissistic delusion. Poem as analogue for trip, for process of ego-formation; or vice versa. The term ‘self-reflexivity’ just doesn’t cover it.

It would be easy, perhaps, to dismiss the poems based on a summary of their ‘content’ as some sort of post-Beat drug binge, but that is precisely not the experience of reading them. These are gnarly and odd like nothing else I’ve read recently. In part this comes from the way the poems temper any tendency towards a self-valourizing autobiography of bohemian community as moment of collective possibility retrospectively used to boost fading careers and failing creativity with speculations on precisely such trajectories: and function as factual reports, somewhere between descriptions of physical symptoms prompted by the particular drugs and various narratives of the context in which the drugs might be taken and the significance for the composition of poetry. The speaker’s tone is located somewhere between affection, nostalgia and a caustic satire of bohemian life. So that when he says “for young white drop-outs poetry / and improvised music were the only way out of the ghetto”, we read genuine desire and possibility alongside, or perhaps through, the bathos of retrospective near-sarcasm. Concluding that perhaps “the best drug is a blank sheet”, the poem’s prosaic delirium is “resounding excellent song.” Lisa Jeschke’s hard-worked translations do an excellent job in conveying the tone and form of scrupulously off-centre precision which, from my almost entirely absent German, I presume inheres also in the original.

Luke Roberts, Pocket Song (Self-published, 2016)

Luke Roberts’ latest self-produced book is a small pamphlet which, as title suggests, fits away neatly wherever you put it. Something to carry around, rewarding return visits, small doses sinking in. A short lyric sequence, like a palette cleanser, after the politicised pastoral and the surrealist pastoral and the filtered birds and landscapes of the preceding TO MY CONTEMPORARIES and SORBET, in which the poet finds themselves in the city, breath and treading lightly under the gently loving cruelty of the winter sun and the filtered shadowy glare of Brexit: “Europe the sun and my hangover.” The lines are gentle zingers, zingingly gentle, of a particular quality with which the poet could run and run, but lets themselves run on just enough, no more,  with enough of a kick and a reversal (not quite a sting in the tale) to ensure that things don’t run too smooth, too sweet. Perhaps not wrong to detect shades of Peter Gizzi in the melancholy falling cadence; maybe because I just picked up his chapbook THE WINTER SUN SAYS FIGHT from my shoebox full of pamphlets (poems subsequently collected in ARCHEOPHONICS, the prime lyric product of Gizzi’s 2015-2016 year in Cambridge as the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellow: I hope to return to and write something about this soon). Or OK, another coincidence, but the American pianist Ran Blake’s ‘The Short Life of Barbara Monk’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tlWitva3Z0)  is a composition based on a pattern of two parts, the first a rhythmically light and lilting memory of childhood skating, the second of life taken away too soon, the realisation of this break. A play with time, repeating the circuits of loss and hope, always ending on the hope, or you hope it will. And you can always press play again. Returning to Roberts, if, as the citational citation of the final poem in the sequence has it, the possibility of “collective life” is stymied, and art contains the promise of collective life, the poem holds up a negative mirror, goes on despite itself, but its fluent and fluid urge to song is not delusional. Roberts’ poem has its movements, its moments. The cover design suggests train lines, or movement on foot. Perhaps you’re waiting at a stop, or lines are running through your head, a rhythm both within and against that of the flow of labour around the city. A pocket song is something small that you can take out or put away, small change. It’ll unfold if you want it to, will compress just as easily. “In the city sincerity flew.” Climbing to the building’s top floor, descending again. The poem’s first person feels more integrated and comfortable with the possibility of speaking in and to the second than in previous work, an earned reward, yet not a resting laurel, declaring its own funeral in the moment of its achieved consummation. This is how poets keep their ear in, or is it eye. And this, too, is how we as readers can be carried on by the words the poet writes. “We love the urgent sun / in its emergency”. Essentially: “love unbroken by the sun” is a killer closing line, and the poem earns it.