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: three very 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. Simon Jarvis, first of the three, began with a twenty-minute poem on church history, part of the enormous ur-text of which such poems as ‘Dinner’ (read a couple of years ago at Queens' College, and published in CLR 4) are also part: the form here that of dialogue, with speech-song and prosody in rhapsodic digression from a single point or moment - a piling-up and extension of a thought and thread until it returns almost beyond the limits of memory. As Jarvis would muse, when does a rhyme cease to be a rhyme? Could one rhyme across stanzas, across pages, even across poems, as well as across just lines? So, here: how long can a thought be sustained, deferred by the nested parenthetical sub-thoughts/songs to which it gives rises, until one loses that original thread? It’s undoubtedly harder to keep up when hearing the poem read aloud than when engaging with it on the page – your mind slips for a moment and you lose the sense of the accumulating list that follows what you missed – and your own connections, your own word-associations, can add to that distraction too easily. Even on the page, of course, a poem such as ‘The Unconditional’, with its (nested (nested (nested parentheses, demands to be read, really, in one go, in one flow, teaching one-self to read it in a way that stretches at one’s capacity for comprehension and information in a kind of critical testing that is central to Jarvis’ mode of poetic thought and life.
In this particular instance, though, that song and that prodigious prosodic excess were perhaps held in check – or was it my lack of knowledge (and, let’s say too, time for) the intricacies of church history? It did feel as if there was some kind of measure here – in other words, excess wasn’t what was being fore-grounded, Jarvis instead voicing both sides of the dialogue, not by altering his voice, but by shifting his position to face different sides of the room, left and right, and looking straight ahead for the brief sections of narration. Perhaps the fact that, in contrast to the occasions on which I’ve seen him previously read, he had not memorised the poems (a quite staggering feat, really, in the case of ‘The Unconditional’), but recited from printed pages, contributed something to that sense of ‘measure’. Still, it's pretty clear that what was being attempted here was different to the, yeah, Dionysiac eccentricities of ‘Dionysus Crucified’ (the enormous pamphlet recently published by Grasp Press), of F0, and of ‘The Unconditional’. To be sure, Jarvis has always worked in several modes – often in the same poem: a kind of deferred and digressed narrative, often involving cars or travel around Cambridgeshire; a jumble of computer glitch and concrete/sound poetry style break-down(or up); and a kind of poeticised conversation, dialogue, also set within a narrative framework. I get the sense that the best of his work is that which encompasses all of these – ‘Dionysus’, for instance, moves from descriptions of the Dionysus legend to what appears to be a story about an awkward encounter in a café playing fusion jazz to passionate denunciations of the role of cash and of the current capitalist crisis (yeah, and mentions Cheryl Cole, for which “50 vertical miles above Schloss Burrell” in F0 is of course the delicious precedent). The church history poem read today didn’t, really, have so much of that variety or wildness - I don't mean wildness, maybe, but skewed-ness, a mixture of extreme control and poetic skill and what appear to be perverse or even whimsical choices (but which are all the more powerful for coming within that context of great prosodic skill). Nor did the shorter poem that followed (the genesis of which apparently lay in a bizarre incident a couple of years back in which Radio 3 commissioned a piece of seasonal verse, but decided that the result would have to be butchered to about a quarter of its length and read by Stephen Fry – from poem to sound-byte, neutralized out of existence). Yet that relative non-skewedness didn't feel like lack in this case: the poem's reflections on Christmas and the notion of gifts were often quite moving, filtered through a register personal in a way unusual for Jarvis (that reference to “hugs”). I'm not meaning to endorse this as some kind of too-easy Christmas sentimentality, but I do feel it as really felt there and in that context working: and then the amazing section in which all objects – the door handle of a car, everything one touches or sits on or looks at – are emptied of agency, Christmas presents, a toy car standing in for some love it cannot in the end encompass. And what was that line about a “Soviet of love”? Our hearts did a little jump. OK, so the combination of those two poems, wasn’t, I think, the best Jarvis reading I’ve ever seen, ever, OK, but that’s because he is one of the very finest readers of his own work around – and yeah, one of the very finest poets around, I do really think so.
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, not that extended narrative or extension of thought that Jarvis is so uniquely, perhaps, capable of putting into practice, but with extended or connected thought running across them, yes – 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 Jarvis and Weber and Tim Thornton all 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 (to borrow Jarvis' phrase). This thinking doesn't exist for Thornton in the same way that it does for Jarvis – 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.