Issue 29: James Davies
James Davies review: Greg Thomas, from im and not this (Spam Press, 2021), and Greg Thomas,
particulates (Timglaset Editions, 2022)
Published in 2021 and 2022, the Spam collection from im and not this and particulates from Timglaset Editions demonstrate Greg Thomas as an important voice in the world of poetry and in particular as a specialist in minimalist and concrete poetry.
Readers of minimalist poetry are asked to participate and use their imagination in order to find meaning in poems. It’s rare for minimalist poetry to relay overt messages. The reader is at liberty to pick and choose what to think, with varying degrees of aid from the author. Thomas’ work not only asks us to use our imagination but is concerned with imagination itself. As Jacob Bronowski, in The Ascent of Man suggested, the use of our imagination is what sets us apart from other animals. When we are conscious of our imagination we are directly investigating the human condition. Another way of saying this is that when we are highly conscious of thinking we are more aware of our existence and its potential. As Lila Mastumoto puts it in her endorsement of from im and not this in Thomas’ work we are engaged in ‘cerebral flexings’.
It’s no co-incidence that the first poem in from im and not this, ‘lk’, has been chosen to start the collection:
Whilst saying that there are no overt meanings in most minimalist poems here we are surely guided to the imperative to ‘look’ – almost as if this is a preface to the other poems. But look how? ‘Look’ –observe the world; a general manifesto for any age (viz our phone gazing era). ‘Look’ – here I am, letters on the page, self-reflexive and without meaning. Or ‘Look’ – I’m not even ‘look’ really I’m a clipping of ‘silk’ or ‘hulk’ or ‘balk’, or ‘like’, accompanied by a drawing of a pair of binoculars below the title, created by the owes that are joined together.
‘swims|smiws’, the totality of the opening untitled poem in particulates, doesn’t quite stress the imperative to look as much as ‘lk’ does. Nevertheless, the poem immediately asks us to look closely and also to look again and again. Cute on the page, not quite palindrome, not quite mirror image, it’s one of many fantastic language games that run through the two collections. On your own, try navigating boustrophedon in from im and not this:
If you’re not getting anywhere with this poem then Google the title and it will make sense. The majority of poems from both collections, however, don’t require any research to decode. An untitled poem from particulates illustrates this and conjures a beautifully simple pastoral where we witness our walker climbing the hill:
Readers will no doubt find that some of Thomas’ poems, perhaps more so in particulates, are trickier, perhaps impossible to untangle. Where this is the case readers can always treat the poems like ambient music. If nothing else minimalist poems are usually calm and quiet, due to low word counts and consequentially significant amounts of white space. Words in minimalist poems seem to float on the page, in space:
In addition to sound imagery, the regular use of Courier font, as well as words with matching letter length, creates harmony through typographical symmetry.
One could ask what do we learn about the human condition from such games? The answer is quite clear; we remember our conscious self, we turn off the autopilot. As a receiver in life, pay mind. Notice a bird, a person, a building. As creator, make music, paint, cook a stew, bat a ping-pong ball up and down in different ways. Whatever makes you use your imagination; whatever is truly creative, do it.
Reminiscent of the pliability of the work of the great minimalist poet Aram Saroyan not only are the poems highly successful but the range of formal play makes both books real page-turners. For aficionados of minimalist poetry, and its neighbour genre concrete poetry, there are licks and riffs aplenty. To recall boustrophedon,for instance, we find the trace of Saroyan’s famous untitled one word poem eyeye. With its family ties to The New York School, mail art and Fluxus, another way minimalist poetry refers to its history and community is by name-checking friends and allies. For Saroyan, an instance of this was scattering the name of his friend Ted Berrigan multiple times in a poem that reads ‘Ted Ted Ted Ted / Ted’. Likewise, Thomas writes to Adam in particulates (Saroyan?), as well as Saskia and Colin in from im and not this:
night-run (after Colin)
Here, and elsewhere, a common minimalist trope is employed, with a single-line functioning as a punchline to its title, emanating affection and warmth.
The untitled one-word poem, in from im and not this, which reads ‘/barrow \’ is more laugh out-loud than night-run (after Colin). Thomas is surely riffing on William Carlos Williams’ enduring proto-minimalist poem so much depends. The poem makes one guffaw in the knowledge that although there are already a number of amusing remixes of Williams’ poem there are yet still more to be unearthed. Through the discussion of canonical texts such as so much depends, and Thomas’ charming versioning ‘/barrow \’, we are reminded of what the imagination can achieve and what the human mind has already accomplished.
Less well-known but much celebrated by readers of minimalist poetry is the work of Robert Lax. In particulates Thomas’ remixes Lax’s untitled, spare poem ‘one stone’, a reflection on conscious looking and heightened awareness. In Lax’s poem stanzas like ‘i lift / one stone / and I am / thinking’ appear in various iterations, with Lax consistently meditating on one stone. Here is an excerpt of Thomas’ versioning:
Having the visual appearance of the sonnets of Carl Andre, Thomas’ version of Lax’s one stone, is a block of prose that fills the page, where the phrase ‘one stone’ is repeated over and over without punctuation.
In contrast to Lax, we might read Thomas as pointing us towards multiple stones. Imagine any pebbled beach, pebbles in a driveway, stones on a building site. Count. How curious and wonderful it is that we can alter perception in a second. Such art speaks of finding extreme bliss in the infinite.
[ James Davies’ writing includes stack (Carcanet), a book-length, minimalist poem that explores experimental walking practice, as well as the collection Plants (Reality Street), a set of conceptual poems. A new collection, consisting of 201 minimalist two-liners, out now from Pamenar Press is called it is like toys but also like video taped in a mall. He is also the author of two novels. The Wood Pigeons (Dostoevsky Wannabe) is a tale of a night-in where chapters are slenderised page by page, and When Two Are in Love or As I Came To Behind Frank's Transporter (from Crater Press, written in collaboration with Philip Terry) is an Oulipian psychedelic romance. His latest prose is the short story The Ten Superstrata of Stockport J. Middleton (Ma Bibliotheque), ten rewrites of the first page of Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. There’s more at his website www.jamesdaviespoetry.com]
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