Quick notes on editing ‘New Boots’

(Eek, it’s been a while since I posted here! Still struggling with the unresolvable first section of my Mexican post, with the actual intro for New Boots and Pantisocracies just gone to the publisher, this is a few notes I made to myself to sharpen the wits on the way down to the Poetry Book Fair last Saturday. I was on a panel with Choman Hardi, Ron Villanueva, and Sophie Mayer, hosted by Fiona Moore, discussing political poetry and poetry politics.

Appropriately on the 200th anniversary of the publication of the Lyrical Ballads, there’s a whole further note to be finished about my ongoing problem with Coleridge’s attitude toward Fancy, and how the Biographia seems to hint this was a problem for him too, rather than a clarifying model for the Romantic Imagination. But there’s that small matter of the impending semester to deal with first…)

The crisis you encounter as an editor of a daily blog of political poetry is the same as the one you face as a writer of poetry at all: how do you escape the confirmation bias of preaching to the converted, what Facebook has conveniently identified as your circle? How do you burst the poetry bubble of people who already do that sort of thing?

Most of us – poets especially – find ourselves irresistible. Our ego loves our beliefs, and thinks them all both reasonable and good. Some of us have Opinions About Things – in which case we should remember Wilde’s remark ‘Most people are other people’, ie are you sure that opinion is actually yours? Some of us have marvellous systems which answer all our questions for us while allowing us to display our knowledge of said system – mansplainers, Londonsplainers, Marxsplainers, alike, all have answers a-go-go, usually to a different question from the one you asked.

What most of us share is a passive relationship to an active if frequently unarticulated ideology. Poetry is one of the ways we wake up to that.

When I was speed re-reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for my intro to New Boots, one sentence from his discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’ caught and held my attention: ‘The reader is forced into too much action to sympathise with the merely passive.’

Coleridge is making a point about how a good poet dramatises the act of reading poetry, so that it’s not just hard work, but engaging and energising as much as it is immersive and persuasive. He’s opposing this to just that opinionising or systematist aspect of the self, if not also to a consumerist, ‘entertain us’ attitude in the reader. This rang a loud familiar bell for me.

The lyric poem like the song from which it derives, often seems inadequate to the demands of the political because it encourages precisely that passivity, the act of overhearing something perhaps a little too familiar – yeah, yeah, you love/hate him/her/it. We know. Its mode, if not always its content, discourages us from independent thought, as though it were the PowerPoint of poetic discourses.

What we found we were opposing to this still dominant mode in poetry in English was a kind of editorial polystylism, an acceptance of a whole series of rhetorical tactics that, collectively, dramatised the act of reading the blog.

One day might be a found poem based on the Smith Commission’s report on Scottish independence, another might be a pastiche of a Poundian economic canto, another might be – yes – a lyric poem. Every day became a way of considering Hugh MacDiarmid’s interesting assertion ‘…all poetry that is not pure/propaganda, is impure propaganda for sure’.

Elegy, squib, ephemera, parable – we were assembling a set of rhetorical categories that could be political. Now, the idea that this expanded taxonomy might replace the consensus that a poem is a lyrical, personal, anecdotal, epiphanic event might be pretty utopian, but at least it gave us something to build on from day to day.

Poetry, we realised we were asserting, is a way of, first, wakening up to and, second, resisting your own inherent and inevitable ideological standpoint.

Why? Because of its intense focus on words themselves, their opacity in terms of rhythmic, musical, imagistic texture, their etymologies, their cultural and historical and political specificity. The act of moving back and forth from this microcosm to a macrocosm, looking across a range of poetic modes, causes writer, editor, and – possibly – reader, to reconsider in political as well as cultural terms the key question asked by the Scottish poet W.S. Graham: ‘What is the language using us for?’

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Stop! in the Name of the New Unsettlement

4 (of 4)

So the public art proposals I’ve been posting on Strawberry Duck on Tumblr for the last few years aren’t exactly that; they are partly simple enough ideas which could actually be done (and at relatively little expense, I should add!) and partly things which could and perhaps should never be done – impractical proposals, the very impossibility of which is part of their purpose. This second category constitutes the public art of a virtual Dundee, then, and it is largely up to the reader which proposal belongs to which category.

When I was making stuff like this up before, I ascribed it to an arts collective that didn’t exist – the conceptual art wing of Informationism, if you like. They were the Institute for Incremental Anarchy, or the IIA.

Of course the border between the invented and the fictional is incredibly thin (and certainly a lot more porous than that between art forms, so that the literary and the art world rarely align). One might say that the difference between the two is that invention is an event, whereas the fictional is a narrative composed of a succession of events – and it is the element of necessity in that succession which turns any narrative into an actual plot. The IIA, though they were cast as a conspiracy, never really had a plot – indeed I rather lost their plot in the intervening years, along with those of various other projects. 

But time has a way of impelling us to impose our own narrative interpretations on events, as Brian Wilson was eventually able to do with Smile – although, as the musician and writer David Toop has suggested, perhaps being never-realised was actually its most appropriate form, conjuring labyrinthine alternative histories of late twentieth century music while not actually possessing its own definitive form. 

Perhaps the most influential form of Smile, then, is that almost-absence which compels us to create our own versions, just as the demolished buildings of Dundee force us to create our own virtual Dundees. 

It therefore seems reasonable to assert that the following seven proposals constitute the latter-day activities of the Institute for Incremental Anarchy in a Virtual Dundee which, as we can see via such phenomenon as the Cardboard Arch, really does touch on the real Dundee at certain key points. 

(It further seems reasonable to say that if anyone should wish to join the Institute of Incremental Anarchy (Virtual Dundee Chapter), I would be very curious to see how that could actually happen…)

1. Winterlightbridges

From St Andrews Day to Burns Night, searchlights placed in Broughty Ferry, Tayport, Dundee, and Newport at the points of embarkation for the Fifies will be switched on each evening (river traffic permitting), creating bridges of light across the River Tay.

2. Storm Fiend Stylites

Statues of eminent Dundonians, including William Wallace, Robert Wedderburn, Grizell Jaffray, Bonny Dundee, Frances Wright, William McGonagall, Mary Brooksbank, and Billy Mackenzie, will be placed on the stumps of the old rail bridge. 

These will be carved from limestone so that they erode over time under the effects of weather, but exact replicas will be kept in a nearby railway shed.

3. McGonagall Mural

A prominent feature of the new railway station greeting new arrivals to the city will be a mosaic of ‘The Poet McGonagal Presenting His Poetic Gems to the City of Dundee’. This will follow the design of Domenico di Michelino’s ‘La commedia illumina Firenze’ but be executed in a Byzantine/Socialist Realist style like the work of Soviet artists in the Moscow Metro.

(At the opening, an elaborate hoax will be played on the assembled dignitaries in which a grisaille version – actually an exact scale print – will be unveiled by Muriel Gray. As their faces fall, she will then unveil the actual mosaic in all its technicolor splendour. 

The print will then be torn up along predesigned perforations, and shared out among the attendees.)

4. There, There, All Better Now

This project consists of making and applying giant elastoplasts for and to stone and bronze. Placed initially on the knees, elbows, and bridges of noses of public statues, the sticking plasters will grow larger until they begin to ‘heal’ monuments and buildings across the city and, in the wake of elections and referenda, the country or countries.

5. Solar Alphabet Walk

Little solar panel footlights along the esplanade in Broughty Ferry and in other sites throughout the city will be redesigned to form letters of the alphabet. 

After an initial stage with just the Roman alphabet, this will be extended to include the Greek, the Arabic abjad, then Georgian, Hindi, key characters in Chinese, and the Kanji syllabary, etc. 

It will eventually be possible symbolically to walk the world from the Stannergate to the Rail Bridge.

6. Hungry Mary’s Food Art

An ongoing series beginning with the Moc Gonagall Chop – a metal mould enabling Dundee’s chip shops to produce mock chops in the shape of McGonagall’s profile.

Also available for the Land o’ Cakes are cupcakes with a single letter on each spelling out the utopian sentiment CAKE IS OUR FRIEND, to be displayed in key bakers, and replenished throughout the day as each cupcake is sold.

(To accompany the Solar Alphabet Walk, tinned Greek Alphabet Fish Soup, Hebrew Chicken Soup and Chinese Character Hot and Sour Broth will be produced and sold in a single resurrected branch of Willie Low’s.)

7. Anne Stevenson Tayport micro-residency

A writer will be rowed out to the Old Pile Light each morning, deposited safely, and retrieved again at night (tides- and weather-permitting).

Each writer remains there until they complete a piece of work which can be published in an ensuing anthology, so the residency takes on the air simultaneously of a retreat and a custodial sentence. 

(Will require the interior to be made weather- and wifi-proof.)

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Dial the New Unsettlement!


It is as an opposition to this mindset that I welcome, rejoice in, and kick myself for missing, the construction and demolition of the cardboard Royal Arch by Claire Dow and Olivier Grossetete. Such fond, culturally-informed and – yes – absurdist approaches attempt to dismantle simplistic and parochial definitions by evoking the pleasure principle.

There is a formula in this that I recognise myself groping toward over the addled decades: a type of unsettlement practised by artists and writers as diverse as George Wyllie, Leonora Carrington, Ivor Cutler, and, latterly, Grayson Perry or Mark Waldron, that appears to be comic but cannot be entirely defined – and thus, for many people, dismissed – as such. It works by blending continental confrontation (épater le bourgeois, Dadaism, Situationism) with disarming Britishness (nonsense and whimsy, Carroll and Python).

Similar to the workings of stiob, it requires an active engagement from us – positive or negative – to make sense of it at all. Confronted by the unsettling we find ourselves asking ‘Is this a real thing? Are they serious? What am I supposed to do? Is this still funny? Who allowed this to happen?’

The other week, I was visiting the sundial in the Geddes Quad of Dundee University, enjoying the intermittent sunlight that passes for early summer in these parts, when I realised I’d made a mistake which, in a small, incremental way, encapsulates this unsettlement.

The quad itself is easily accessible just off the Perth Road, just before Airlie Place. The sundial provides a faceted point of focus to an enclosed space of small lawns, flowerbeds and hedges – exactly the sort of shrubbery that McGonagall and generations of municipal postcard photographers got off on – and buildings which carry significant traces of their history in incised text, commemorative plaque, or technical signage.

I’d been told about the sundial perhaps back in those same nineties, and I’d misheard its title. It is, technically, an analemmic sundial, meaning its construction relates to the variable position of the sun in the sky relative to a stationary observer. At some point, however, I’d confused the terms ‘analemmic’ and ‘analeptic’. Despite my ongoing self-proclaimed curiosity about Greek, I hadn’t even checked what ‘analeptic’ meant (it means ‘restoring’).

Back then I’d vaguely thought the viewer was, if they positioned themselves correctly, the gnomon, as is sometimes the case with an analemmic sundial, but no. Of course, not knowing what ‘analeptic’ meant, I hadn’t had to think how being the gnomon to a sundial could possibly be restorative. (Exposure to vitamin D?) So the visit was not just to the actual sundial, but to the folly of my imagined sundial – it was an encounter which unsettled that certainty.

As I stood waiting for the clouds to permit the sunlight to fall upon the brass curve of the actual dial (when it did, I saw that, analemmatically speaking, it was an hour slow), the invented term ‘analeptic gnomon’ began to take on a new interpretation. If I was the gnomon, and my own daftness the clouds, then the correcting light which fell had indeed had some clarifying, healing function.

Something in that moment of meaningful misreading would seem to suit the anthropocentric holistic thinking of Patrick Geddes, who wrote in Cities in Evolution (1915) ‘“Local character” is …no mere accidental old-world quaintness… It is attained only in course of adequate grasp and treatment of the whole environment, and in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned’.

He was also opposed to the concept of urban clearance which Dundee, ironically, as a place which hosts a Geddes Institute, has particularly suffered from, not least in the loss of the Royal Arch, describing it not only as ‘unsparing to the old homes and to…neighbourhood life’ creating ‘worst congestion in other quarters’ (translation: demolish the Overgate and build Whitfield), but as conceptually ‘conventional’, i.e. intellectually provincial in its failure to solve problems, opting rather to reproduce solutions from elsewhere.

(In this context, however, we shouldn’t forget how a disgruntled Dundee student characterised his teaching: ‘Forget the silly notion that I’m here to teach you botany/ and never come to me for facts because I haven’t got any.’*)

*I am indebted to Erin Catriona Farley for sourcing this couplet.

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Stiob! It’s the New Unsettlement

(I’ll try to post this four part piece daily across this week.)


One social phenomenon which illustrates this neatly is the late Soviet satiric mode of stiob*. According to Dominic Boyer and Alexei Yurchak, who produced a study comparing stiob to more contemporary satiric programmes in the US like ‘The Colbert Report’, it was ‘a particular mode of parody…that imitated and inhabited the formal features of authoritative discourse to such an extent that it was often difficult to tell whether it was a form of sincere support, subtle ridicule, or a peculiar mixture of the two…’

(Illustration by Andrew Gardner)

The UK had its versions of this in, famously, ‘The Day Today’, and, in a similar way, in the use of documentary techniques in ‘The Office’ – and indeed in the unsettling edge introduced to his actual documentaries by Louis Theroux. Sacha Baron Cohen and Charlie Brooker have also developed techniques we could compare to stiob. In such cases it is as though our culture has been so suffused with irony, that it is not until some party – be it a participant or a viewer – is in actual doubt or is unable to establish the veracity of what is being presented, that irony can be said to be operating at all.

In a sense, this aspect of engagement and personal agency relates to the new political dispensation we see in post-Labour Scotland, and indeed in the turmoil of the EU referendum and the US presidential campaigns. Just as a rejection of mainstream and establishment political certainties means we are either controlled by ridiculous demagogues, or we turn to more idealistic (and more idealised) dark horses of the left, so too we are in the position of actually having to make our minds up about culture.

In the numb-to-irony position we occupy ‘post’-postmodernism, if we aren’t challenged into having to determine whether and how something is parodic or sincere, then we could argue that the satiric event can no be longer be said to have taken place. We are all, therefore, critics or dupes. (In this respect, supporters of Trump have taken the old cliché about Americans’ blindness to irony to terrifying new depths.)

Moreover, this may mean our approach to parody, pastiche, and imitation, in short, to the copy as version as opposed to replica – a little like our response to translation – is now the marker of our engagement with the arts in general. If we are not thrown into a similar type of crisis of interpretation, our responses may only be stock, pre-theorised for us as part of the universal commodification of late Capitalism, which naturally includes theories about late Capitalism.

Under such a dispensation, as ‘Nathan Barley’ prophesied, those who suppose that by presenting themselves as ironic they can be seen as hip, self-identify as the new dunces.

One could argue, now the nerd and the geek are allegedly cool, that the last bastions of dysfunctionality and loser-dom are becoming commodified too. But is it only by being too weird for fish that anything can get done? To be outside without zealously striving to be an outsider sounds too Zen a discipline for most of us to attempt, so must we be content with simply failing to fail better?

One of the defining characteristics of Informationism, the pretend literary movement I pretended to be part of back in the 90s when my interest in the virtuality of Dundee began, was its engagement with undermined discourse. We were as interested in the vainglorious discourse of the manifesto and late Modernism as we were in the controlling discourses of the media, of the cultural historian and the literary theorist. But, much as it sounds like it ought to be, this wasn’t a simplistic postmodern flattening of affect.

Then as now the struggle was to get complex, to preserve a Scottish literary genealogy and cultural history we saw as overlooked, misread and underrepresented in mainstream accounts. It was because, despite this effort, we ourselves had significant issues with that alternative, discontinuous, post-MacDiarmid tradition, that our approach was ironised, not because we thought certain types of literary discrimination no longer mattered.

This could be read as an example of Isaiah Berlin’s analogy of the Fox and the Hedgehog as a description of how we frame concepts. Borrowing from the decidedly spiky but also rather cunning Greek poet Archilochus, Berlin famously characterises the Fox as taking many approaches; while the Hedgehog sees only one way to go.

Our concern was we saw a homogenising notion of Scottish writing as fitting neatly within the narratives of Northern Ireland and Northern England – the Harrison-Heaney-Hughes triangle that nets Dunn, but leaves MacDiarmid (and Bunting) cast adrift. Faced with the Hedgehog of Anglo-Irish Poetic Hegemony, we favoured a Fantastic Mr Fox-like diversification of approaches and provocations, all tunnels and channelings. That worked out great for us.

In general, the sort of group thinking which governs reviewing, awards, and festival bookings, tends to favour the hedgehog over the fox. Bureaucratic structures often struggle with complex models, let alone with communicating them, and people confronted with areas in which they lack expertise will find a simpler breakdown however distorted more acceptable. (As Berlin admitted, the clear binary of the fox and the hedgehog was itself one such simplification: it might be more accurate to say we may consider issues as foxes, but we tend to draw our conclusions as hedgehogs.)

What is at stake here is a reversion to essentialisms of aesthetics commensurate with the essentialism of identities we see on the political stage – a new provincialism which rediscovers old bureaucratic mindsets, or a new philistinism seeking old ways of controlling culture by cronyism and naysaying.

Provincialism may seem an odd term to use. What does it really mean to be provincial in an era where everywhere is (sort of) connected to everywhere else, where the most extreme periphery can be accessed almost as easily as the metropolis?

But might provincialism be, wherever you are, not to attempt to assess the value of your culture, except as commodity, fashion accessory, status symbol? Might it be not to synthesise or even syncretise – thinking across fields of production, across geographies, across eras – but rather to lord it over your patch, your lustrum, your ‘thing’? Might it be not to be unsettled: in short, to think stolidly of culture for what it gives to you, rather than what you give to it?

*I’m indebted to Kate Fox for pointing me in the direction of this abstract.

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Smile! It’s the New Unsettlement

1 (of 4)

I was intending to be in Dundee last weekend for a project that strongly appealed to my imagination: the reconstruction and subsequent demolition of a cardboard effigy of the Royal Arch.

cardboard arch 1

With my usual, firmly xenochronicitous grasp on reality, however, I forgot I had bought, several months earlier, a ticket to a Brian Wilson concert. (He’s doing Pet Sounds, people. That’s the Losers’ equivalent of the Book of Psalms.)

There is a certain irony in being absent from a spectacle intended to make us aware of an architectural absence, especially in order to attend a concert given by the profoundly withdrawn Wilson – or, indeed, as someone who has, as I have, been writing about precisely this theme for some time.

The imaginary reconstruction of demolished aspects of Dundee first started manifesting in my work in the nineties, so I was delighted to see it reflected in the desires of Dundonians gathered together for the City of Culture bid in 2013, and naturally incorporated them in my inaugural poem as Makar:

Let culture inscribe on its banners
we hold these desires to be Deep Sea Dundonian:

…that the Fifie be brought back like the mammoth from extinction
that the City Arcade be reopened beneath the Caird Hall

…that the Royal Arch be rebuilt
the Overgate restored

…that the spire on the top of the old Chamber of Commerce be completed
that the cobbles in Strawberry Bank be replaced by actual strawberries

Since then, on my Tumblr site devoted to Makaronic recipes of one sort or another, coincidentally called Strawberry Duck, I’ve suggested, variously, that the Royal Arch be reconstructed in corned beef tins, that it was, momentarily, reproduced as an assemblage of chickens, and that it was actually destroyed by Daleks. Clearly I’m pretty serious about this.

Dalek arch 1

But I have also been ruminating recently here on the reasons why Dundonians are haunted by the demolished symbols of their city, and speculating on what role the powers both temporal and cultural in our society – those who demolished or recorded the demolitions, and those who maintain control over what may now be created – have in the construction of the narrative of place.

This is partly because I’m picking up work on a public art project in Darlington, Westpark, where for fifteen or so years I’ve been coordinating an arts strategy with a local builder, the borough council, a school, a hospital, and numerous businesses, and thinking again about who tells the history of a place, and how that history is told – especially when the place itself is not perhaps seen as part of the big important narratives of capitals, industrial centres, or places of established artistic reputation.

Before I took up the Makarship, I worked on a piece in South Road, Lochee, with the sculptor David Annand, and I hope to extend my engagement with public art to other work in the city. But at this point, while I’m balancing my role in Dundee with my role in the North-East of England, I’ve confined myself to a series of virtual pieces – ideas that might or, more usually, might not be practical.

I’m very interested in the borderline between the practical and its antithesis. Not least because those who define it tend to be looking for ways not to do something: to be ‘practical’ can be as much a matter of censorship as it is of economics. As MacDiarmid once remarked:

…The kind of poetry I want
Is poems de longue haleine – far too long
To be practicable for any existing medium…

The long poem MacDiarmid is perversely referring to as impracticable, Mature Art, remains unpublished, just as Brian Wilson’s Smile remained unassembled for decades. (Mike Love, like many British publishers, is eminently practical.) But we have long been within that period of self-reflexiveness we think of as late or post-postmodernism, in which ideas of the virtual have allowed us to conceive of the version – of poems, albums, or cities – in new ways, and experience a new nostalgia for types of the absent or much-missed original.

In fact it’s been quite a while since Baudrillard argued that such simulacra – like the cardboard Royal Arch – have effectively displaced the idea of the original, and with it, perhaps, such sureness about what is practical. You could almost feel nostalgic. Oor Baudrillard…

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Portrait of an Informationist, (or, The Kind of Found Poetry I Want)

(About 11 months ago, I did one of those Facebook ‘challenge’ chains – post a poem each day for five days; challenge five others to do the same – which are just an excuse to share new work. Most of the pieces subsequently reappeared or will reappear elsewhere, but I noted it was the anniversary of Satie’s birth last week, and remembered I had posted this piece. Coincidentally, we’d just done a seminar on found poetry that same week where Helen Tookey spoke about her adaptation of text from Virginia Woolf’s diary, published in Missel-Child, so this seems oddly appropriate. 

The subtitle echoes MacDiarmid’s late poem, The Kind of Poetry I Want, which continues to have a problematic relationship with the texts he collated and collaged to construct it, in proportions which continue to challenge our ideas of what authorship is or should be. I therefore give a link at the end to my source text, the brilliance of which led to this attempt at a variation on its themes. The subject of this portrait, then, is a construct in the sense that W. S. Graham spoke of the ‘implement’, or my informationist peer Peter McCarey uses the term ‘contraption‘.)

He dines only – or so he claims – on ‘food that is white:
eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals’.
His interests include: rare sea creatures, impossible machines,
forgotten local history, and the occult. He looks
like a startled owl, his hair swept back from
a glaring forehead, tufts around his ears, and eyes
wide open behind his pince-nez. He is evidently still drunk.
‘We didn’t eat every day, but we never missed an aperitif.
I remember a particular pair of trousers and a pair of shoes
that used to pass from one Informationist to the other,
which we had to mend every morning.’

He plays knuckle-bones on the island. There is
a circle of standing skeletons in the middle distance.
He crushes the bones, and puts the powder in an incense burner.
The smoke turns into cherub’s wings, which flutter.
He collapses. The air turns white. A beautiful woman appears:
‘It is the Church of Scotland.’ She throws aside her cloak
and stands there in a gold tunic, looking like Wendy Wood.
He throws stones at her which turn into furballs.
There’s a clap of thunder and the statues grind their teeth.
A volcano rises up in the middle of the island and spits stars.
When he comes to, he has a beard and his hair has turned white.
She keeps two cats to whom she feeds herring on Fridays –
she describes these as ‘good Catholics’ – as well as a goat
in Rangers shorts, who eats any poetry she isn’t pleased with.

He comes into some money in 1997, and immediately blows it
on seven identical chestnut-coloured corduroy kilts,
acquiring the nickname ‘Velvet Gentleman’ from his fellow poets.
Every day he walks the 55 miles from Drem to Croy,
setting off in the morning with his umbrella tucked under his arm,
and staggering back in the small hours. He claims
never to have taken the bus. He carries a hammer
for protection as he crosses the bandit-ridden stretch
between Dechmont and Torphichen.
When talking he will stop, bend one knee a little,
adjust his pince-nez, and place his fist on his hip.

‘”Facts about Sea Cucumbers” is the first of the suite
Scotland is Another Country Beneath the Sea,
which begins by explaining what eating a sea cucumber is like.’
– It apparently resembles chewing a tenderised eraser –
‘Ignorant people call them “hollow thuribles”.’ Later,
he describes the sea cucumber as ‘purring like a nightingale
with toothache’. The ninth part, ‘Golf and the Cuttlefish’,
describes a cuttlefish’s comeuppance on the sunken links:
‘The cuttlefish’s skin is a shocking tweedy green.
He chirrups he will be victorious.
His caddie, a haddie, follows him, carrying his clubs.
The lobsters are amazed.
The holes are all a-tremble: the cuttlefish is here!
And now he is playing his shot:
His muscular hydrostat flies into pieces!’
His last words are ‘Ah! The cows…’ Then
he takes off once more with small, deliberate steps.

It seems impossible that he lives in such poverty.
The man has literally nothing worth a shilling:
a wretched bed; a table covered with forks and knives,
golf clubs, and walking sticks of various sizes,
all clattering together in despair; one chair;
and a half-empty wardrobe in which there are
a dozen old-fashioned corduroy kilts,
never worn and almost identical.
In each corner of the room
are piles of old newspapers and old hats, softening
the noises of the cutlery, the clubs and the sticks.

Note: this poem draws in its entirety on an article by Nick Richardson on Satie.

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Patterned and Paired

(This review appeared in the Spring 2016 Poetry London. This is a slightly longer version – by two bonus paragraphs – with a proofing error corrected. (Instead of the lemniscate itself, ‘∞’, we read ‘[insert infinity symbol]’, which is in some ways an interesting title, just not for the work under consideration.) This was of course entirely my fault.)
Rebecca Perry, Beauty/Beauty (Bloodaxe), 87pp, £9.95; Jack Underwood, Happiness (Faber), 54pp, £10.99
What is the purpose of pattern, particularly symmetry, in a book of poems? Reflective structures imply parallelism may be as important as progression: like metaphor, they subvert hierarchy with an implied equivalence. This can be a kind of an antidote to narrative, to the idea that the only meaningful shape our lives and therefore our art can possess is the arc of a story. In just this way, both of these debut collections work with the tension between the event – including the apparently autobiographic event – and its aesthetic consequences. 
Both poets resist the idea that our self is like a character, defined and developing through its response to a dynamically paced succession of events. As Jack Underwood puts it in ‘Letter of Health’:

If I were in a novel you’d travel three days

by horse to see me. If you were in a novel

I’d die somewhere in these middle chapters.

Instead we find the suggestion that the shape we form in the poem is a choreography of our ideas of the self with our ideas of others, as well as with objects, moods, and ideas themselves, and that this shape has the potential to be symbolically if not emotionally complete in itself. One purpose of a book of poems, it follows, is to form a larger composition from the ordering of such shapes. 

In ‘Flowers, Love etc’, for instance, Rebecca Perry proposes that, rather than us being at the centre of our world, ‘All living things are busy imitating each other’, and the most exciting aspect of her work concerns itself with the unsentimental exploration of such a position.

This is of some importance in a culture where the story of the life is always threatening to usurp the life of the poem. We see it in poetic biographies which focus our attention on those few figures, such as Hughes or Plath, whose lives resemble or can be simplified into drama. It is also prevalent in the accounts of poetic careers which publishers prefer, in which, again, only a few writers can achieve pre-eminence, marked by the plot climaxes of prizes and festival appearances. 

In such spectacles, we are invited to read (or skim) the poetry as being illustrative of the life, or even secondary to it, in the way that readers may presume Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies to be about as interesting as Clark Kent’s journalism. Both of these collections strongly resist this idea by presenting their respective ‘I’s as figures in a landscape organised as much at the level of the collection as the individual poem.

The pattern is particularly striking in Jack Underwood’s book, where the first poem divides an onion, and, in an echo of Rebecca Perry’s mirroring title, ‘call[s] one half Perfect/the other also Perfect.’ Similarly, the book falls into two halves around the central poem ’13 Say’, with each half featuring a sequence of four poems, plus two poems in the same relative position with the same title, ‘∞’. This is, then, a version of expressive form: the positioning of certain poems foregrounds their possible thematic significance.

The subject of that central poem, death, provides us with the counter-theme that will jar through all Underwood’s careful capturing of his titular subject, happiness. A characteristic gesture is the lovely diffusion of intimacy into the context of that intimacy, as here:

There was the happiness of my mother as we sat on

a London bus, her having travelled alone to visit her son,

and she seemed more present which might have been

the luggage I was carrying for her that weighed heavy

as her happiness, or was her happiness.

The emotion is rendered bodily, and registered against that later moment where the poet is ‘staying death’. This embodiment of almost simultaneous delight and anxiety is played out in terms of both structure and subject matter, for instance in the distension of the moment through an act of syntactic focussing at the end of ‘Some Gods’: ‘God as a dead robin; God as the eye of a dead robin; God as your barely visible reflection in the eye of a dead robin.’

Similarly, recording all the subtleties of a momentary response leads Underwood into an echo of O’Hara’s sly use of camp (seen in ‘The Day Lady Died’ in the phrase ‘after practically falling asleep with quandariness’), as in ‘Inventory of Friends’: ‘…with a predictability/that would be cuteness if it weren’t honest first,/my thoughts turn to you…’. These responses are often wittily attuned to our acquiescence in our vulnerability, as in the pair of poems about guns and the bomb, which both end submissively: ‘I don’t think I’m a bad person when I admit/I lent down and touched my face against it.’ (The bomb)

But the point of this attentiveness, and indeed the patterning throughout, is to nudge us toward a realisation summed up at the beginning of ‘The Ashes’, that, often, what we think of as merely an approach to reality may be the only point of access we have:

…and a voice on the radio is describing

the atmosphere here at Lord’s without realising

that his voice describing the atmosphere

on the first day of the second test

is the atmosphere…

This is a collection which carries its subject with deceptive lightness, as in that central poem, where the dead are relocated to the Moon: the terrible weight of their loss is somehow mitigated by the relative lightness of lunar gravity – they ‘bounce weightless and bemused’.

It is also a collection which wears its awareness of antecedents lightly, mentioning a toad or a hammock without demanding that we recognise Larkin or James Wright. When there is an explicit allusion, as in ‘The Good Morrow’, we find Donne mock-translated into a register which plays surface against theme, exemplifying Underwood’s use of tone and patterning to undermine our more hopeful certainties:
I’m not sure I remembered what we did 

before we LOVED. Were we gherkins bobbing

in our harmless jars, with vinegar and seeds?

Or were we stuffed in a tube of sleep for years?

Probably; but that kind of life is carbohydrate.

If I enjoyed anything then it was feeling FULL.

Rebecca Perry’s collection is divided into seven six poem units, creating a sense of equivalence operating between these groupings, which is reinforced by the way motifs are sometimes returned to from differing perspectives. Just so the ‘Wasp’ of the first section, referred to by a series of unsettlingly intimate diminutives (‘little nuzzler, nuzzling a neck./little alien, little feeler, little zebra./little dinosaur legs…’) becomes the girls’ hands of another, ‘hovering/like hornets’ over their own swimsuited bodies, while in a third, ‘The last wasp is sinking through/the gloopy green water of a garden pond…’.

Images and their varying themes play out in these oblique series, relating to each other as the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor relate, but flipping roles as the poet’s focus shifts. That dinosaur allusion reappears as ‘a fossilised dinosaur dropping’ in a museum, ‘pink and grey like a pork pie’; in another poem the imagery flips: ‘an avocado on my desk/is playing dead and prehistoric’. Then, in the middle of the book, the dinosaur seems to become the subject of ‘Dear Stegosaurus’: ‘Bus-sized and gentle, you are master of peace,/diplomacy, berries, grass, perseverance, pace.’

One effect of such mutations of role is to question the primacy of one interpretation over another: we are left with a number of resonant symbols, the true significance of which we must assess by re-reading. This effect is reinforced by a number of poems where the series is the dominant structure: ‘Alabaster Baby’, quoted above, reiterates ‘in front of’ and challenges us to discover why each confrontation in each museum leaves the speaker ‘almost crying’; ‘immortelle’ uses the repeated phrase ‘at the time of writing’ to induce a sense of inescapable provisionality: ‘at the time of writing/the glasses in the cabinet have never been quieter//the writer is thinking of eating her own hands’.

Perhaps the most disquieting use of recurrence is the deployment of definitions which, instead of providing resolution, induce further emotional complexities in their unraveling speakers. ‘Pow’ carefully distinguishes between what words say and what they imply, particularly gender-specific terms. It opens up a gap between the literal and the figurative that enables Perry to conclude ‘Though I am listing flowers I am not thinking of flowers.’

In ‘A Guide to Love in Icelandic’ and ‘Kintsugi 金継ぎ’, the two devices come together in poems which use repetition – ‘When…’ ‘And when…’; ‘There is a Japanese word…’ ‘ There is a German word…’ – to create an oddly ecstatic helplessness, stranded at an equidistance between phenomena and meaning, experiencing affect without resolution:

There is a Cheyenne word for the act

of preparing your mouth to speak.

The months spent readying mine

tasted like metal,

food was unpleasant to chew.

As with Jack Underwood, Perry is allusive in a low-key but precise manner, allowing resonance to build up through the use of found text, principally from Tennessee Williams and Anne Carson, but also freely borrowing from online sources as in ‘The Year I Was Born’, where, in a delirium of the factoids, the random becomes recognisably her own:

May, blossoming month,

poor weather wipes out over half of Britain’s beehives.

From this month onwards all new phones

will have push buttons rather than dials.

A radioactive cloud

from Chernobyl reaches England.

Both poets find distinctive ways of rethinking the connections and disconnections between life and their art, both express that particular disquietude of existing between types of knowing, including the textual in all its manifestations, and the bodily in all of its. Both books, by eschewing narrative, achieve a compelling totality, as in Rebecca Perry’s striking image of her grandfather’s gestation: ‘It is not/a slow process of growth, but his bones coming together/like synchronised swimmers, slotting into place perfectly.’

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