New Cartographies for Old

(An edited version of this review appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Poetry London.)
Sandeep Parmar, Eidolon (Shearsman); Sam Riviere, Kim Kardashian’s Wedding (Faber & Faber); Tony Williams, The Midlands (Nine Arches Press).

These three collections in their different ways approach a single question at the heart of what it is to write poetry: how do we gauge that element of cultural significance which distinguishes the poetic from the prosaic? At the level of the individual poem, the collection, or the oeuvre, is it a matter of form, reference, tone, or of some unique formulation of these and other elements, say contemporaneity? Or is there no such distinction, nor any need to formulate one?

While Sandeep Parmar places this issue in the juxtaposition of classical myth and contemporary history – a gesture derived from the modernism of Pound and Eliot – Tony Williams locates it instead in the dialogue between discourse and setting, how place affects our heritage of phrasings and forms, and how we locate and relocate literary tradition. Sam Riviere, by contrast, refuses straightforward access to any of these types of signifiers regarding the status of utterance, effecting instead a confrontation of the poetic mode with found and manipulated content. Riviere appears therefore to present the question in its most radical form, however, both Parmar and Williams are engaged to greater or lesser degrees in similar acts of challenging the reader as to how they assess what they read as a poem. 

This challenge was, of course, previously explored in nineteenth century art and in early literary modernism, which, having explored social and psychological alienation through literary concepts like Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility, mustered aesthetic responses including Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or just a good old Dadaist épater le bourgeois. It was restated very variously throughout the twentieth century, in everything from Surrealism to the Beats, and from Situationism to Language Poetry, as writers and artists sought to find new ways of presenting the concept of alienation to a public which thought of itself as more alienated from modern art, music and poetry, than from either a globalised industrialised society or its mass media, which both encourages cultural passivity and, largely, excludes the artists’ terms of reference. Most people ignore most poetry because it’s easier to keep up with the Kardashians.

Moreover, the challenge itself has for some time now been part of the problem of engagement: how much longer can this issue appear sufficiently central to our experience of literature or art as to concern us over and above any other type of interaction with the poem or artwork? Once you understand you’re being exploited until you die and rewarded with the cultural equivalent of tranquilliser darts, does art really need to keep shouting ‘Am I “Art”? Well, am I?’? What if such gestures are now as peripheral to the poem as journalists like to declare poetry itself is from a politically responsible and culturally responsive citizen’s concerns?

Sandeep Parmar’s book is a fifty part sequence of reflections on the image of Helen of Troy, and, through Helen, how we conceive of the feminine, and indeed the ancient Greeks. The image is evoked via Whitman’s deeply suggestive if programmatic poem, ‘Eidolons’, and indeed the ingenious defence of Helen put forward in Euripides’ tragedy Helen, as explored by the great Imagist poet H.D..

For Whitman, the eidolon is the ‘life of life’ – how we imagine the world in which we live, a phantasm which enables us to conceive of that world beyond our senses. It is also a way of imagining America. For Euripides, it is the answer to the charge that Helen caused the Trojan War, with all its death, destitution and destruction: his play announces that she wasn’t there, but safe and separate in Egypt, while her eidolon, a double created by the gods, took her place on the battlements of Troy. By that token, of course, Helen or her double could be anywhere, and in Parmar’s imaginatively wide-ranging sequence, we find her very much in the modern world:

In her wine-coloured suit

and burgundy shoes

she asks the night manager

to make a reverse call

and he is struck

by her poise
in her hand

the receiver becomes some object

          cut loose

The apparent redundancy of following ‘wine-coloured suit’ with ‘burgundy shoes’ reminds us of the old canard about what colour Homer thinks his ‘wine-dark’ sea actually is, linking ancient literary epithet to Hopperesque nocturne. Then there is the curious atomisation of her hand holding the phone: we see it as almost separated from the rest of her body: the phone is defamiliarised as ‘some object/cut loose’ as if Harpo Marx has just wandered past and snipped the cable with his scissors.    

Anachronistic juxtaposition is used here in a different way from, say, Christopher Logue’s technique in War Music: figures from Greek tragedy appear on a Jerry Springer-type TV show not in order to shock us back into the contexts and consciousness of Classical poetry, but to relocate their tragic extremis among us and in our banal and scripted emotions: ‘Clytemnestra, what would you say if Agamemnon was sitting here right now?’

If Helen’s double can be anywhere among us, then, equally, her world can be doubled or reflected in ours, as when

Four US warships slink up from the coast of the Maghreb

                  toward Minoan water

their sleepless crew tally their charges

as did the Achaeans

Throughout, a parallel is made between the rapaciousness in every sense of the Greeks and American foreign policy and racist attitudes toward its own citizens. Of course for this kind of mirroring to work we must feel that something of significance is revealed by the reflection, or that, perhaps, some element of the uncanny is evoked by the haunting of present by past, of living women by a male construct, from a very distant era, of dangerous female beauty. 

The challenge for Parmar here is indeed to reclaim Helen, to explore the tensions between an unknown or unknowable individual and her endlessly reconstructed image. These poems question our readiness to seek out a person amid the refractions of personae, a readiness which is countered by their recurrent act of naming, as though the Homeric use of a single recurring epithet is no longer fit for purpose: ‘Helen, dispirited…Helen denuded…Helen fails…Helen falls…Helen dethroned…Helen in the cash only express line…’

However, there is sometimes a sense of recurrent contrast without much corresponding momentum, repeatedly pitting a borrowed materialist lexis against a lyric voice which in turn echoes the classicism of the Imagists as we remember it in Pound and H.D., as though the opposition of myth and materiality has induced a sort of stasis. In fact, one of the points where I found myself most engaged and energised by this book was actually outside the main body of the text, in the intellectual sweep of the Afterword, which contextualises the work with considerable brio.

One of the most successful pieces is the penultimate poem, in which an extended comparison is drawn firstly between LA and Troy, and secondly between the widows and bereaved daughters of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, and a mother and daughter attempting ‘to plant a Troy-tree/in our Californian garden’. There is a commanding, almost choral voice – ‘Let us be as a city upon a hill…Let us be as a city/on the stones of other cities…’, but there is also a personal tone which is as if not more persuasive in suggesting that something more is at stake in this relocatory planting:

no, it will not grow on my mother’s lawn

in an exile’s confusion of lavender,

red marigold and lily flower.

Tony Williams’ first collection, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, as its title implies, took locality and the sometimes ecstatic, sometimes eccentric specificities it demands, to a highly individual pitch. You might imagine The Midlands has pulled back a little on the Richard Dadd-like intensity, but in fact this volume is if anything diastole to its predecessor’s systole, a confident demarking of the outer limits of the same territory of quiet terrors and post-pastoral intensities:

The Midlands are crying, crying for haslet and bacon,

      Crying for bridges where railways falter,

Crying for sumpters no longer needed

      On towpaths of moss and built-upon pasture

And troughs of time-stilling water…
Here is neither one thing nor the other.

It is simultaneous funny, moving, and very odd. It establishes his home town of Matlock as the southern tip of a poetic triangle stretching perhaps from Sheffield to Mytholmroyd, and encompassing the Huddersfield/Barnsley scene associated with Armitage, Hattersley and McMillan, as well as a younger generation of writers including figures like Helen Mort, whose first book, Division Street, similarly performed through title an act of cultural positioning. 

Like the Rhubarb Triangle just to the north, famously alluded to in Harrison’s ‘Rhubarbarians’, there is something strange and compelling, if singularly unforced, about the work of many of these writers. It is marked by a surreal, reductive humour, and a keen ear for where the colloquial meets the supposedly higher register of poetry. In this sense, Williams’ work in particular gestures beyond, say, Ted Hughes, to the austere map-making of Auden, marrying saga to the landscape of the lead mines, or the primary Romantic gesture, Wordsworth’s re-visioning of the Lakes. In the opening passage above, we first register haslet as the local cold meat, but then we catch the pun on the great essayist of the Romantic period, Hazlitt (and his predecessor, Francis Bacon).

In this sense, he is engaged in a cartography of discourses, and like Harrison or Armitage, treats this simultaneously as an act of locating oneself within, and critiquing, a tradition. Notions of poetic register are always countered by an invigorating awareness of the prosaic, in the sense of a discourse open to politics and the particular, as much as to the quotidian. 

In ‘The OK Diner’, the status of the ‘diner’ is subjected to a fond critical gaze (‘What is the meaning of “salad”,/here in Ohio-on-Trent?’). Can this really be that aspiration toward an American ideal of commodified plenty beloved of postmodern theorists, with ‘the half-arsed A1 running by past the window to Retford and Donny’? The specificity of naming, the poising of the cafe on the point of closure, is set against a field where, absurdly and poignantly, ‘the donkeys sit down in protest/at rust as the answer and essence of all journey’s ends’, before concluding of the waitress, baffled by guacamole, that ‘Her accent redeems it’. Voice, in other words, momentarily triumphs over false consciousness.

This crux is enacted throughout the collection by a combination of tactics: landscape is defined as simultaneously literary and post-industrial, simultaneously profoundly English and reaching north into types of otherness, simultaneously a topography and a phantasmagoria, by oxymoronic gestures like the phrase ‘The Rural Citizen’: 

I emptied the flask in the river, dropped off my rucksack

As shrine on the roadside, buried my boots

In the mud by the gate where mud-coloured cows

Had thronged to be fed or to die since enclosure,

And set off in trainers and jeans for the commonplace hill.

Poem after poem pushes beyond the mild anecdotal epiphanies of the conventional lyric into this borderland space (as defined by Farley and Symmons Roberts), where the ancient landscape, disrupted or deformed by historical change, is abandoned by modernity, and revisited by the poet almost as the Anglo-Saxons revisited the sites of the Romans, as sites of dissociative or transgressive revision. 

Here it is possible for a seamstress to fall in love with a mole (‘His name is Wudower. He carries a silver watch,/each tick a mole-year…), and, as with the waitress, her voice compels us to believe: ‘A thimbleful of cider is a lot/for a girl like me. I’m perfectly serious.’ Here, Jack Woolley from The Archers, lost to dementia, paradoxically renders his fictional world more real through dream: ‘It is the vale of lengthening shadow, the bridge/which takes each soul beyond its Am.’

Poems enact this extension by literally going over the page, out of the space of the conventional lyric moment, or by performing anaphoric developments of theme (‘Fox prints’, in its recurrent ‘We lunched…’, reveals a gluttonous appetite for transformation as much as digestion – ‘There was not much we thought unlunchable’). They distend time, as in ‘The Photocopier’, where the small miseries of technology mount up into an image of the office as Tartarus, a place where lives are eaten.

Williams works, then, by a layering of discourse with carefully marshalled cultural references, setting this against that type of perceptual strangeness that always threatens to unsettle the intellect with our embodied frailties:

the way of moving stirs

     and I remember me

the shadow of arms and legs

     continually sneaks

behind the brain…

History (and theories of history) feels like an inhabited space, but one haunted by suppressed voices and the discomfort of irreconcilable detail. The poems therefore always seem as on the move between instabilities as their restless protagonists. Their moments of poise come, if at all, as at the end of this composite portrait of another female icon wreathed in over-interpretation and uncertainty, Anastasia, with a decidedly ominous note:

A young girl sitting at a white piano, doing her knitting, asquint

at the edge of a frozen lake, naive, as the clumsy photographer

lets his own shadow intrude on her lap as he shoots.

A carefully poised act of framing allows us ingress into Sam Riviere’s depiction of the dizzying surface of our culture, seen as a species of cool delirium with its millimetre deep portraits of celebrity and its micro-seconds of baffled introspection. At the end, unusually in a single collection, but borrowing from the paraphernalia of the collected poems, two indices are included, one indicating the objects, subjects, places and people who appear in Kim Kardashian’s Wedding, the other listing the titles. 

From this we perceive both the very relative equivalence and the frisson of incongruity implied by placing a cat next to Noam Chomsky, that great gazer at Capitalism’s kings, or indeed by following George Clooney with a cloud. Equally, alphabeticisation demonstrates that there is a precise system by which terms are recombined to provide the different titles. This reinforces the impression given by the contents page, which lists a make-up routine from primer to gloss. The book is demonstrably concerned with the laminae that make up image, and if meaning can be conjured by the limina of systemic juxtaposition, it seems to ask, why is further comment necessary? Indeed, wouldn’t further comment fall into the same vacuous category as the media which surrounds Clooney or Kardashian or, via the sort of designer anarchy we see on T-shirts, Chomsky?

All this would suffice to lead us into an interesting cultural debate if not necessarily into a book of poems, but for a phrase which precedes all these, thanks to Faber’s placing of the blurb on the inner flap of the dust jacket:

‘…the process of enquiry involves the composition method itself…in poems that have been produced by harvesting and manipulating the results of search engines to create a poetry of part-collage, part-improvisation.’

Here, of course, we have to determine how much status to accord to the phrase ‘and manipulating’, and how much weight to give to the apparent equivalence implied by ‘part-improvisation’. Because the rest of the book appears to be wholly generated, as the indices imply, by discovery, selection, and juxtaposition:

You may be wondering how I learned the title.

I’ll tell you how. I have a very annoying problem.

With practised skill I play several hours

And the screen itself…I can’t.

(infinity dust)

Disconnections that suggests a deeper connection, broken off phrases – the underlying intentionality of collage is evident here, as is the discovery made by MacDiarmid in his (avant la Lettrism) use of found or, in his day, plagiarised, elements: that the borrowed material can always be read metaphorically, and that reading occurs most easily in a self-referential context. This was summed up by him in the long poem, The Kind Of Poetry I Want, in which the unacknowledged work of others was filtered to produce a series of analogies for a poetics which was actually being embodied in the poem itself, ie the kind of poetry MacDiarmid wanted was a poem by MacDiarmid about the kind of poetry he wanted. An echo of that Droste Effect occurs here in the first line’s reference to ‘how I learned the title’, especially once we realise all these titles have been generated by a particular method.

So the question of what form this manipulation takes, and to what degree these texts are part improvised, must continue to influence our reading. (‘Improvised’ in particular is a charged term, opening out a referential frame that includes jazz and comedy.) We can never fully give ourselves up to an idea of the free play of registers because Riviere has used the structural apparatus of the slim volume itself to undermine the status of these poems as simply ‘found’. This was something implicit from the outset in the more immediate antecedent to this mode of composition, Flarf. By refusing authorship of found pieces, you affirm an authorial role through selective manipulation:

…They taught me how

to dodge and lie to hide my codes.

Cut and paste the here and there.

Forget what the intentions were…

By focusing on the apparently unpoetic in terms of subject matter, you emphasise that there is a poetic you are constantly alluding to and therefore critiquing by enclosing such a subject matter within the frame of the poem. Crucially, as speakers of estuarial English can already hear, there is an element of entertainment and specifically the comic in this: at the core of Flarf is larfter (‘We’re spreading smiles every minute/with lyrics and jokes for your personal use…’).

Key to this is a kind of textual pareidolia which is at the heart of the lyric gesture. Just as we relentlessly identify faces given the slightest of visual stimuli, so too we respond to the lyric ‘I’ – and especially the lyric ‘you’, the addressee of the ubiquitous love poem, as though they must be a) the poet, and b) an identifiable actual subject – ‘Helen’ in Sandeep Parmar’s terms – and, simultaneously, ourselves: the ‘shadow of legs and arms’ in Tony Williams’ phrase, which responds to its pronoun as a dog does to its name. 

We are very reluctant to think of the ‘I’ as Rimbaud insists we do – ‘Je est un autre’ – and we are always ready to believe that we are at one and the same time eavesdropping and being addressed. Thus we keep trying to ascribe sentiments and opinions to the author regardless of the evidence to the contrary, and part of our aesthetic engagement with this book rests in precisely this area of unsettled reading:

Some years ago, it was.

I just ate some of those

things that make sour

sweet and my blood

powered a plain necklace.

I am trying to locate

variety and a feeling…

You’ll love the feather

tattooed on my flower.

One of the more substantial pieces occurs towards the end, in a position we recognise as the significantly near-penultimate poem. ‘the new heaven’ borrows from, it would seem, the type of rhetoric handed out in the street or posted on social media by evangelicals, in which a voice with the transparent agenda of conversion purports to explain something neutrally, only to reveal its agenda by the end:

This is our final ending in the Lord. following the

     judgement of the great white

throne depicted in the closing verses of chapter 20,

     John’s attention 

is next directed to the The New Heaven & The New 

     Earth’s official profile,

including the latest music albums, songs, music videos

     and more updates.

This is, evidently, another level of revelation from that presumably intended by its possible sources, but it is one which, as much as Parmar and Williams, displays voice through gesture. The conflation of an interpretated eschatology with an announcement of latest products places the irony we presume to be operating here as elsewhere on a certain plane of significance. It’s hard, for the reasons given above, to read this as affectless rather than satirical. This is writing organised with a subtlety of ear and design to demand a response from the reader we can’t help but give, but then must experience difficult in conclusively analysing.

In that, Sam Riviere’s work aligns itself with Tony Williams perhaps more than Sandeep Parmar in that it seems to be reaching less for a poetics, engaging as Parmar does with the major poetic forms of the Classical past, and more for a prosaics, a mode of bringing the poem into confrontation with the major shifts in discourse not just of modernity, but of the last thirty years, marked as they are by technological and cultural decentering, seeking not so much an authority as simply a method of addressing readers who no longer need to be shocked to recognise the new:

You have stalked this blog,

you must really like me.

Message me anytime

even if it’s just to talk.

I blog about whatever I want.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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