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.