Saturday, 5 November 2011
Last night’s reading at the Judith E. Wilson drama studio – one of what seems right now to be a weekly embarrassment of riches down Cambridge-way – promised fine poets reading serious work, but what transpired was more than that, I think, in its totality: different writers, with different projects, each giving a reading with totally believable but different modes of delivery and intensity, each sustaining thought in critical fashion as felt engagement and as poetic investment.
Tom Weber’s mode of delivery is trembling hand on paper and head aslant as if looking at the poem out of the corner of his eye was the only way he could read it: essential that he not look at it straight. But these poems have a directness too, shorter poems, with extended or connected thought running across them – read as a piece the words recurring, like ‘heart’ again and again, celeb names or sports dates perhaps invested with something or otherwise in there as shadow puppets, ghost targets (now I think about this, that’s something that Weber and Tim Thornton do share, though in very different ways, as I’ll get onto in a minute). I don’t know how much more I can say, to do justice to these – I would like to hear them again, to read them on the page (they’re forthcoming for publication).
Interval period. And now Timothy Thornton launching ‘Jocund Day’, the inaugural publication of Mountain Press (whose difference to Grasp, from what I can gather, is its determination to print extended or book-length collections rather than just two-a-penny pamphlets: JD collects work published over the past few years in a variety of little magazines, etc, and, as Thornton explained in his introduction, has some gestation in work written as far back as 2005, when he was briefly at Cambridge). Neil Pattison’s spoken introduction had it that there are two types of poems: those you believe and those you don’t – which as a framework could have some value, I think, and Thornton’s poetry, his delivery of it, had that belief written all over it. As a musician, his poetry is concerned very much with intricacies of sound resonance and echo – but this was sound pattern not as decoration, as be-jewelled cover for lack of substance (masquerading as glittering substance in itself), but as a means of poetic thinking. Here, sound is cut or choked, rhyme (more often half-rhyme) is a texture suggesting further layers of meaning, or a kind of concealed meaning between the spaces on the page, between the words (as when, in reading, Thornton made the Freudian slip of ‘whipped’ for ‘wind’ in one of the book’s ‘Tattoos’). (Or see Mike Wallace-Hadrill’s notion that Thornton’s punctuation “bullies” the language it works with and against and alongside.)
Maybe that was a quality of the reading itself – Thornton was clearly nervous before he read, an energy which translated perfectly into the spasmodic, manically and desperately humorous modular poem/ dossier ‘TRAILS’ (as published at Deterritorial Support Group), a work-in-progress which, in this version (previously presented at this year’s Sussex Poetry Festival), combines responses to the news coverage of the April riots protesting the installation of a Tesco supermarket in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, with visceral-political responses to the education protests of late 2010 and early 2011, and with a tactic also deployed by Keston Sutherland, in which an object unworthy of the attention given to it becomes a kind of manic focus, a phantom figure onto which all sorts of obsessions and connections are projected, under which it can not stand. (In this case, that object, or subject, is ‘Nigel Pargetter’ from the Archers, a character killed off after being on the show for a couple of decades.) I wouldn’t say that this is a smoke-screen effect, though I wouldn’t say either that I knew precisely what it was it is doing (Sutherland says (in the ‘Naked Punch’ panel discussion published earlier this year) “I like testing the capacities of poetry and my own interpretation by seizing on a very improbably specific detail of consumer society and trying to make from that some image of the whole”) – also, perhaps, the displacement of unbearable or limit-battering love mingled violence into the humorous bearability of Lenny Henry or TL61P, or Nigel Pargetter. That latter’s not quite right – these figures are not just ways of sugaring the pill, lightening the load, joke as distraction rather than as central to argumentation; yeah, I don’t think, in any case, or in Sutherland or in Thornton’s cases, that this humorous perversity betrays the urgent spirit of the rest of the poem – in fact, it heightens it –
as when activist Jody McIntyre, dragged from his wheelchair by police during the March protests in London, then savaged by a BBC journalist for ‘intimidating’ the cop into having to drag him from his dangerous, from his menacingly-wheeled wheelchair, here is conflated with housewives’ favourite darling comedian, Michael McIntyre – to whit, “I’m proud of the BBC (quote)“Hello is that Michael MacIntyre hello? Mister MacIntyre how/ did you feel about being pulled from your wheelchair” (unquote)(quote) “I thought you were a quote(uncunt)(quote)(unquote)CUNT” –
as when “PROFESSOR BRIAN COX” collapses into “Alain / de Botton or Alain ‘de’/de Botton”, twitter feeds and rolling news as the hateful levelling-out of all discourse into flat celeb-g(l)oss tv-professor banal-piety, sound-bytes biting off the heads of those running headless chicken down Stokes Croft (so the clucking news would have it), de(-ar)rangement of bodies on streets, a sex-violence fantasy-fear (those dark, sexy rioters) simultaneously enhanced by being denied and derided (hence the “cop pissing into my happiest mouth”). That kind of visceral, personal, sexualised – and satiric – reaction to riots (of which the Stokes Croft instance was an early prefiguring of August’s more widespread urban action) strikes me as a very honest and usefully aslant way of examining the current political situation without losing a sense of one’s individual body and its slotting into the cogs of the machine, or throwing itself onto that machine’s gears. This is neither knee-jerk liberal condemnation resulting from a kind of accomodationist pacifism (viz. the response of the 'official' left to destruction of private property), nor cautiously-stated liberal solidarity for some concrete action, which yet stands individually on the fringes of the crowd and its smash-heart-of-glass, nor the even more passively brutal tactic of simply ignoring what happens outside your own territory (“placidly claimed to be / a few hundred miles from other things”) - this is the night terror or the manic hysteria high of riots and smashing at limits inscribed within and without our deepest person – this is simultaneously a mind made and shaped by media and a mind that seeks to think outside that poetry of capital with its own desiring poetry, turning barbs and love and self-harm in equal measure against the flat-screening process of Auntie's news mediation. ‘TRAILS’ is a virtuoso piece in the sense that virtuosity allows you to do something, with all your resources of technique and personhood and poetic history and their intersections, that a calmer voice would not – at once going out of yourself, being swallowed in a spasming language (Thornton emphasising this in his notated stuck-judders, jack-hammer stammers (“Alain de Alain de”) and his delicious thrusting up to the limits of what he could say, as if willing himself to the border of inarticulacy), and coming from the very deepest inside-out of our hurts and wants and needs, something, some things, “that actually happened.”
Yeah, something happened in that reading too - "an actual thing: I have seen it." You better believe it.