Issue 29: Colin Leemarshall

Colin Leemarshall, ‘This Drowned: Floundering Figuration in Keston Sutherland’s “Sinking Feeling”’

For over two decades, Keston Sutherland has been exerting various kinds of schematic and tropological pressure upon his poetry. The warps and ruptures that result from such pressure imperil not only the singular topologies of Sutherland’s own writing but also the very notion of what poetry is and how it should resound. In Sutherland’s early works, the pressurised language can sometimes be as unpalatable as it is dazzling. However, as the poet has moved further away from the hi-tech idioglossia of his former years and closer towards some kind of poetic agora, his writing has become more thrillingly vital while simultaneously bringing its inherent weirdness into greater relief.

The 2017 poem ‘Sinking Feeling’ is one of the best examples of Sutherland’s mature chiaroscuro.[1] The poem is written in three unparagraphed prose sections. Unlike some of the prose passages found in Sutherland’s 2013 book The Odes to TL61P, the prose of ‘Sinking Feeling’ seems, at least for vast swathes of its unfolding, to be properly prosaic, offering no refuge for Sutherland’s dissimulated verse. As a result, the writing sometimes has the veneer of being crisp, lucent, and periodically balanced. And yet, for much of the time it might instead be said to be floundering, sinking, or even drowning. Below is the opening ‘sentence’ of the first section of the poem:

Dear secret object, I made a swing for you at last, lying awake in pieces, a cantilever strewn with fur, implicit as brain fluid, as though once, I had to have been redistributed in a system of tranches, a network of trays, or to have been this flotilla of levels, so that the icon that would be dipped in and out of view, as I push you and you fly round in a spiral, could be of girders sensitively decomposed into the relic of a helix, eyes in a cup suspended in the equivalent of space that, if you like, is split into one half becoming nothing and the other half becoming the room we are in, where I was at work at the usual place and there was some kind of event going on like a festival or celebration of some kind and people or what represented people or the bodies of people had come to be there from around the country.[2]

The address “Dear secret object” illuminates a vast expanse of the poem’s purview. We can infer here both an object that has been hyper-valorised to the point of salutation and a would-be human that is sunk under the weight of its objectification. There is a similar tension in “made a swing for you”. If we abstract “swing” as a noun, we can infer a wonderful gift—a recreational contrivance of the kind that might be made for a child from a parent or guardian. But we can also go with a decidedly more violent reading and interpret “made a swing for” as ‘threw a punch at’. In Sutherland’s equivocal gambit, then, there is an oscillation between extremes of generosity and antipathy. Thereafter, the perspectival tension increases still further as the subject-voice fragments into a series of incongruous or impossible image-juxtapositions (e.g. “flotilla of levels”). While describing its fragmentation, the subject becomes both agentially and conceptually estranged from the conditions of same, disoriented by a series of violent tense shifts and tricky modal auxiliaries. Then, as the passage culminates with “people or what represented people or the bodies of people”, we are confronted overtly with one of the most fundamental problematics of ‘Sinking Feeling’: namely, the relationship between sign and referent, a relationship that the poem compromises to such an extent that even the most fundamental strata of linguistic and conceptual categories begin to seem suspiciously rhetorical.


In his famous essay “Figura”, Erich Auerbach draws attention to both the plasticity and the newness inherent in figuration. Auerbach shows that the newness engendered by this “plastic form” is implicitly apparent in the earliest attestations of the term: “in our two oldest examples [Terence and Pacuvius] figura occurs in combination with nova”.[3] For Auerbach, this originary combination of figura and nova (even if only accidental) is indicative of “the new manifestation […] of the permanent” that has been at work throughout world history.[4] Writing more recently, Lisa Robertson usefully expands on Auerbach’s insights:

The figural shape is already social, already part of a willed production of meaning. What makes an object figurative, besides this productive origin, it its capacity to overflow intention. The figure’s agency is its historicity – it finds its dynamics in the inherent incompletion of history.[5]

The “production of meaning” and its relationship to the “social” or communal have always been animating concerns for Sutherland’s poetics, as have linguistic plasticity and the piquancy of newness. But do Sutherland’s figures “overflow intention” in accordance with Robertson’s anatomy? Such a question may seem more pertinent when we consider Sutherland’s claim (a check to Wordsworth’s famous aperçu) that there is “no spontaneous overflow beyond this fact, that wage labour is unalterably a fundamental injustice whose ‘speculative concept’ is the absolute value nil humanity”.[6] How do we square Sutherland’s claim with those of Auerbach and Robertson? With what levees (if any) does Sutherland secure his figures against overflow, and how do these figures become “new manifestation[s]” or dynamic registers of the “incompletion of history”?

Before I attempt to answer the above questions, it will be useful to examine some examples of Sutherland’s figuration in ‘Sinking Feeling’. Often, when evaluating the rhetoric or figuration or a literary work, the critic will be tempted to invoke ostensibly ‘positive’ metrics, such as imagination, fidelity, persuasiveness, skill, etc. Comfortably oriented by these metrics, the critic might then be better able to pick out the ‘great stylist’ or the ‘master metaphorician’—the writer, in other words, whose ‘literary prowess’ is readily apparent. However, Sutherland’s writing is not only singularly unamenable to this critical approach, it is actively hostile to it. While Sutherland’s poetry is often dazzling, it is also stubbornly abnegatory (in its constant renunciation of the hallmarks of literary bravura) and maddeningly torturous (in the errant and painful discharge of its contents). To phrase things differently, Sutherland is often drawn to writing that feels ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ (indeed, his book of criticism Stupefaction contains a long essay bearing the title ‘Wrong Poetry’, on which more in a moment). Consider the following excerpts:

[…] these mats or pallets too were indistinct, though not in the way calculated to exaggerate your curiosity to know why and what they were there, or who they were.

[…] let float between the wicker gaps in sanity, in grainy resolution on the patched-up wall in knots projected fire […]

[…] as though the sort of reconstituted people who alone can be counted on to watch, paid in thought, should never be trusted to depend on it that any progress is being made for people like them unless it is sped up to prove it, who arrive finally at a restricted edge or line that for what obscure reason could not be guessed could not be crossed […]

[…] what else are potentials for organic solidarity with driftwood drilled down through the leaping hull for when not that[…][7]

The turgidities and infelicities on display here are signature Sutherland. In the first excerpt, the off-colour definite article (“the way” as opposed to ‘a way’) is sneaked in almost sub rosa, but the culmination of the passage leaves no room for doubt as to its awkwardness. Particularly notable is how the strained syllepsis (“why and what they were there”) is made more awkward still by the subsequent relative clause, a clause that might instead have been euphoniously subsumed into the foregoing for a redemptive tricolon (why and what and who). The second and fourth excerpts defer comprehensibility with an overcooked anastrophe (the object “projected fire” shunted to the end of the imperative) and a bloated noun phrase (the headword “potentials” trailed by eleven dependents), respectively. In the third excerpt, the clumsy and variously referential pronoun trio (“depend on it […] unless it is sped up to prove it”) is simultaneously hilarious and claustrophobic, while the wince-inducing double passive (“a restricted edge or line that for what obscure reason could not be guessed could not be crossed”) reads like a horrendously infarcted circumlocution. It might be tempting to see these lines as straight-up examples of ‘bad’ writing, but we must first ask why Sutherland should choose to write like this—for certainly, it is an act of volition. Here, I return to Sutherland’s speculative category of “wrong poetry”. Sutherland is eager to point out that wrong poetry is not something that can be easily recognised through a mere tabulation of effects of defections—the category should “be extremely hard to get into any sort of right focus”.[8] We might infer from this claim that wrong poetry is apt to appear wrong even in relation to its own wrongness. Thus, it would be a risky move to adduce the above excerpts as representative examples of Sutherland’s speculative category. Nonetheless, I would argue that there is a flailing or floundering exertion in these lines—an exertion that might be taken as the most desperately somatic form of what, in his essay, Sutherland recognises as strenuous effort.

The relationship between strenuous effort and ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ writing is not an adventitious one. Nor, it should be said, is the above causality inaccurate; though the typical assumption might be that strenuous effort (sheer tenacity) might be a path to ‘good’ writing, such thinking is most likely predicated on a misapprehension. Sutherland borrows the term “strenuous effort” from Hegel’s famous ‘Preface’ to Phenomenology of Spirit. Below is a particularly germane gloss on one aspect of what is implied by Hegel’s term:

[…] ’knowledge’, Hegel observes, is usually in the first instance more preoccupied with ‘recounting’ its contents in irresistible style than it is interested in making any sort of strenuous effort (it was an important condition of Beckett’s prose that this distinction should be impossible to believe in).[9]

Despite Sutherland’s avowed admiration of Beckett, the implicit marriage of “strenuous effort” and “irresistible style” in Beckett’s prose does not obtain in Sutherland’s writing. Whatever irresistible style exists in Sutherland’s writing is fraught to the point that it may already be broken. Such is not to say that Sutherland’s writing lacks style, but rather to emphasise the inherent tension of his lines, which are often violently contused or rent by their own internal logomachies. The refusal of irresistible style in ‘Sinking Feeling’ does indeed involve a strenuous effort (if one pushed slightly outside of the usual intellectual habitus due to sheer exigency), a fight to discard the trellises of convention upon which mere recounting might be easily trained. For instance, let’s consider again “why and what they were there, or who they were”. The decision not to meld the three pronouns into a tricolon can be seen as a deliberate refusal of the flattening logic of equivalence. I.e. the awkwardness of the writing invites us to ask whether “who they were” is qualitatively different than “what they were”, or whether it is qualitatively different than who they were there (assuming that it is even possible to describe them as “who” there). These are, in a certain respect, elementary questions, but they are also ones that might all too easily have been glossed over had Sutherland’s asperities been smoothed out into an irresistible style. As such questions mount, we begin to realise that Sutherland’s ‘bad’/’wrong’ writing does something that ‘good’ or rhetorically obeisant couldn’t possibly do: namely, it interrogates the very conditions and limits of grammatical parsability—the conditions and limits by which meaning gets made or unmade.

The obstacles to grammatical parsing in ‘Sinking Feeling’ are copious and variegated. In some sections, Sutherland twists the spigot so that a torrent of unpunctuated prose gushes out:

[…] a broken mind stuck to the cavity eternity still borders on in the preliminary form of pictures of the faces that still vacate it every time the static or revolving back is turned for good to have another person who had loved you go away need not to starve […][10]

In other sections (particularly in the third part of the poem), the prose can be violently asyndetic, choked with commas at seemingly every turn:

Not the way you move, but in, where, past desire, that, before the painless, adjacent extinction, first lasts forever, someone is there, who, for now, stranded in your touch, in flight across the furthest stretch, to here, cups its hand to intimate […][11]

These two excerpts raise questions about space, enclosure, deluge, containment, and the individual or communal relationships thereto. In the first excerpt, the centre-embedding and general distension place such demands on the reader’s short-term memory that by the time we get to “need not starve” we will likely struggle to suture the words to their antecedent. The second excerpt compromises its implied coordinating and subordinating logics through sheer overcrowding or crowding out. Collectively, the excerpts imply a kind of textual proxemics that becomes a meta-figure for the closeness and space between human bodies in the poem. These bodies are the bodies both of migrants (whether in flight, already immigrated, or tragically drowned) and of persons fortunate enough not to have to risk a perilous escape via sea to potentially hostile new lands. The poem sometimes makes direct reference to displaced or erased peoples (“Syrian bodies washed up near [Farmakonisi]”).[12] At the same time as these peoples and their bodies drift across the optical field of the poem like “irritant floaters”, there is a different kind of bodily encroachment or violation going on, figured most pungently in the repeated image of a toe being “stuck into [the] asshole” of the poem’s speaker* (or what represents its speaker or one of its speakers).[13] The political displacement thus becomes embrangled with the corporeal incursion, causing the semantic horizon and the syntax of the poem to undulate and teleport. In both of the excerpts above, the textual space is filled with so much detail as to effect an “amputation of [the] misremembered point”, to borrow Sutherland’s own phrase from elsewhere in the poem.[14] The figure of bodily severance is again implied in another difficult-to-parse part of the poem:

A drowned body. For whose surface bodies perforate determines what limb will be saved and what with poignancy piled on the rest in peace.[15]

The garden-path syntax of the second line is extreme—the reader will likely flounder multiple times to recalibrate the language parts before realising that the ‘sentence’ is ultimately resistant to satisfactory resolution. Do the bodies themselves perforate (intransitive) or do they perforate an external surface? Does “piled on the rest in peace” refer to an effusive requiescat or to the piling high of a remainder of limbs? The figure is also somewhat amorphous in a broader sense—i.e. it is unclear how the implied avulsion of unsaved limbs relates to the “bodies” mentioned in the line. Are we talking about individual bodies, bodies politic, or both?

What certainly is clear is that avulsion or “tearing” plays a major role in ‘Sinking Feeling’. Throughout the poem, images are rent in striking ways, as are the linguistic materials that are put in the service of describing these images. Sutherland writes of “space from which closeness had been torn out but was still streaming away” and about anxiousness to “tear reality the fuck out”.[16] The compulsion to “tear” space is rooted both in bodily propinquity (or remoteness) and in the conditions that make a given space habitable or uninhabitable. Space is a seemingly insuperable problem, one that is figured by (the) (un)enterable room—that is, both the walled, bounded room and the open space that affords room for movement. Moving into or through this space can come to seem paradoxical:

That you cannot get in since the entrance is the obstacle itself is what it means for life to end in emptiness. Despite the space. Then to move it through a doorway blocked up with evacuated footholds now laid flat for sliding under you get in.[17]

These lines are at once adamantine and porous, their maddening topologies simultaneously suggesting traversal and blockage and purgation of space. Such graspingly painful writing is a figure of sorts for the aporetic conception of spatial movement as it exists as a dissonant aggregate of relations between the poem’s discrete yet interconnected bodies (beleaguered individuals, bourgeois sensibilities, media portrayals, etc.). The impossible figure of space being torn (out) is exemplary not only in capturing something of the actual and the symbolic violence of the migrant crisis, but also in implying an (un)ethical relation to space as the primary variable in said crisis. In other words, what is figured is a necessarily violent orientation to the crisis.

Such violence sometimes manifests as a kind of levity or dysphemism, through which the migrant or drowned person is casually dehumanised or objectified (e.g. “Rohingya rehydrated into stateless entities”).[18] Occasionally, the levity tips over into an absurd ventriloquism:

The body was distraught and wanted to say why this was so but also it was trying to avoid talking about it in the way that the drowned do, as though it could only ever be tiresome and obnoxious to be dragged into a dialogue that might risk disturbing a surface of emotion always only just now at last ironed flat and placated like a baby who is a nightmare to get to sleep […][19]

I will examine shortly what might possibly excuse or even recommend such dysphemistic levity. But first, it is necessary to look at the spatial violence of the lines. What we see in the above excerpt is a desperate attempt to control the space that is both opening up and contracting as a result of the encounter (whether conceptual or actual) with the drowned body. If there is a vestige of solemnity—an attempt to give voice to the dead—it is all but submerged by the ventriloquistic and figurative absurdities. The flail of four consecutive adverbs (“always only just now at last”) suggests a frantic effort to manage the space, an effort that is then immediately revealed as a failure by the grotesque carryover of the simile (“ironed flat … like a baby”). This botched simile, which is utterly unviable on its own terms, usefully approximates the conceptual rending of the encounter. Any attempt to “placate” the body, the object, or the psyche in fact involves a considerable degree of violence—a frantic tearing of the actual or conceptual or linguistic space by which these phenomena are mediated. Sometimes, the tearing in ‘Sinking Feeling’ creates as many possibilities as it forecloses:

One of them was a long, loping man on the floor behind me who kept pressing his foot against my ass and sticking his toe into my asshole and lower back […] saying, it hurts here, hier tut es weh, j’ai mal ici, until I turned around and snapped him into a pyramid of goat, heroin, wind and rain, flush with the relief that always comes with consciousness of my status and power and grieved to think that he could be here in this space at all. This drowned.[20]

It is worth looking first at the final two words of this excerpt. There are various ways that we might understand these words. At first blush, they perhaps parse as a sentence, in which “drowned” functions as the predicate of the deictic “This”. Alternatively, we might read “This” as a preposterous adverb for a graded “drowned” (e.g. ‘He was this much drowned’). But perhaps the most discomfiting and compelling reading is one by which the words are anchored, via syntactic dislocation, to the male pronoun that precedes them (i.e. ‘…that he could be here in this space at all, this drowned’). Such a reading of course necessitates a dehumanising elision of the noun in ‘this drowned person’. But the nominalising downgrade seems entirely plausible when one notices that, several lines later, “This drowned” has in fact been torn from a longer string of text: “This drowned body intimated to me that an ex-partner of his was dying of an incurable disease”.[21] The violent swerve into the deverbal noun of “This drowned” is not merely the result of a tearing; it is also a complex figure for the symbolic and conceptual avulsions that both engender and are engendered by the humanitarian crises playing out in various theatres of (unin)habitable space. Through the poem’s topological twists and tears, the drowned person becomes either “This drowned body” or, simply, “This drowned”. The note of contempt emitted by the deverbal noun implies a hierarchical distance between the voice of poem and the drowned person, a tearing out of closeness—the kind of closeness, perhaps, that might be figured by a borderless body politic. The “loping man” who so unceremoniously violates the bodily autonomy of the speaker is thus, in another sense, a figure for this borderless body politic—and also for the speaker themselves. In Sutherland’s necessarily uncomfortable depiction, both subjectivities are flailing: the one to protect its body from being encroached upon; the other to find geopolitical succor via appeals couched in European prestige languages. The threat that these two subjectivities are in fact one and the same (as suggested by the deictic “here”/“heir”/“ici” being coterminous with the toe as index), ultimately proves too much for the speaker to bear, and the loping man is (apparently) destroyed. However, despite the speaker’s claim to be “flush with relief”, the destruction is utterly compromised by the material and categorical impossibilities of the metaphor, whose elements positively advertise the subreption inherent in the claim. In short, by typical lights, the metaphor doesn’t work—and in not working, it belies the speaker’s claim.

But what do we mean when we say that a metaphor doesn’t work? Typically, we mean that the elements of the figure are inapposite (contextually, stylistically, visually, or logically) relative to what they are intended to denote. In the past, this potential chasm between sign and referent has been a question not simply of local style but also of underlying essence, with scholars arguing whether biblical figuration was concrete or merely allegorical. In “Figura”, Auerbach draws special attention to Tertullian, who claimed that “there could not have been a figure unless there were a true body” (“Figura autem non fuisset, nisi veritatis esset corpus”).[22] This claim casts figuration in purely divine terms, refusing the decoupling gesture of allegory that would come to characterise much of later biblical scholarship. Tertullian insists that an “empty thing, that is, a phantom, could not take on a figure” (“Ceterum vacua res, quod est phantasma, figuram capere non posset”).[23] Sutherland would perhaps both agree with this claim and vehemently repudiate it, depending on which way the glass is tilted. For Sutherland, there are indeed bodies behind figuration; but so, too, are there phantoms. In the introduction to Stupefaction, Sutherland writes, contra Derrida, about Marx’s “emphatic and unapologetic identification of speculative constructions with reality, in particular with the real lives of living individuals”.[24] While “for Marx as well as for Derrida” there are “human beings who are phantoms as well as flesh”, the crucial distinction is that “unlike Derrida, Marx did not consider that [the existence of phantoms] amounted to a reason to believe in them”. If we can begin to make sense of the idea that there are really existing phantoms that are to be taken as negative credenda, we might then ask what such a condition means for Sutherland’s figuration. One thing we might conclude is that, pace Tertullian, there can be and are phantoms that take on figures—indeed, perhaps most of the figures that we encounter are tethered to phantoms. The reason not to believe in these phantoms is that most of them are pernicious speculative constructions that are destitute in humanity. In these figures—these figments—space has been violently torn out and borders have been erected. Thus, when confronted with the levity of a taciturn corpse or the dysphemism of a “drowned”, the correct response is not simply to measure a shortfall from decorum but to recognise that the violent tearing of these figures occurs atop a previous site of tearing. Sutherland’s dysphemism refigures existing categories so as to bring us closer to destitution, forcing us to think about the destitution already existent in the sovereign phantom. The ‘perfect’ figure, couched in irresistible style, cozying up to decorum, cannot unsettle categories in this manner. Instead, it pays lip service to a phantom that may well entail bodily harm in the real.

By these lights, we might say that the metaphor that doesn’t work actually does work—i.e. it works to harry the conditions of phantomaticity that would or do haunt it. It isn’t that Sutherland’s figures somehow elude or transcend phantomaticity (it would be facile to claim as much) but rather that they attempt, however desperately or flailingly, to register disbelief in this same phantomaticity, to deny the ghosts in their midst. Whereas many other writers—those who believe in such specious conditions as impeccable or irresistible style—might fret over unwittingly letting a mixed metaphor creep into their writing, Sutherland actively courts something even more debased or ‘wrong’ than such mere infelicity. We might call one of Sutherland’s favourite tropes the missed metaphor, viz. the figural creation that, obtunded by inapposition, makes its mimetic shortfall a necessary part of the deal:

We wanted to be simple. We wanted to be so simple that even people who could watch the 2015 GOP debates at the Coors Event Center in Colorado could understand us without slitting each other’s jugular veins and carotid arteries with sponges full of caramelized phlegm like the butchers of Deir al-Zour.[25]

The figurative hebetude renders the claim preposterous (how does one slit a vein or an artery with a sputum-laced sponge?). The figure dramatises its own failed execution as language even as it purports to denote bloodthirsty execution in the real. The miss is intended to rankle—we can imagine the brittle filaments of invective nettling the skin as the sponge is wielded with teleological absurdity. The trefoil knot of the simile “like the butchers of Deir al-Zour” introduces a further remove—is it “We” or “people” or “phlegm” that is the subject to which the simile attaches? These various topological possibilities stand in stark contradistinction to the desire “to be simple”. But if simplicity is part of the utopian armamentarium, then so too is complexity. As the space of ‘Sinking Feeling’ is torn or folded or inundated, monadological subjectivity becomes complicated with the alterities against which it abuts. Occasionally, this complication is conveyed more of less overtly:

[…] like his mother who has watched Elf and thought fuck it that will do, whose stick insects and crickets that I own are in fact me, charmed to be as one the brain containing their appearance broke what contained me and I was lost in what could not be found replaced with an equivalent because it sounds different […][26]

In the humor of the speaker’s being their insects that are owned by someone else, there is also paranoia and comity. Each succedaneum for subjectivity is felt as a threat, as is the possibility that subjectivity as such is merely an undifferentiated morass. But in the paradox of becoming lost in complete non-fungibility, unable to “be found replaced with an equivalent”, there is also, potentially, a welcome unity, however ironised (“charmed to be as one”). This perspectival vacillation in relation to what is (and where it is) is the ethical crux of ‘Sinking Feeling’. The poem ends thus:

[...] you are everything, you are something, you are nothing, you are most things, you are just a few things, you are one particular thing, you are that one particular thing, and you are the beginning, you are the middle, you are the end, you are just after the start, you are getting closer to the end, you are not moving from the start, you are that particular not moving from the start, far away from what you never left, everything is still the beginning, though something is the middle, and nothing is the end, […] I am here looking at you and you are there doing it, seeing how you do, the strap on your shoulder, the eyes you abandon, that I use, how I know to, in a way, or not, for now, for you.[27]

This peroration begins with a catacosmesis, a scheme that is in many ways is the perfect one for ‘Sinking Feeling’ to invoke and unsettle. Henry Peacham glosses this variety of catacosmesis as “a meete placing of words among themselves, wherof […] the worthiest word is set first, which order is naturall, as when we say: God and man, men and women, Sun and moone, life and death.”[28] While the “meete” movement from “everything” to “something” to “nothing” seems to conform to Peacham’s “naturall” order, the negative truth value sealed by the incongruous copulas essentially renders the ordering inoperative. The figure then seems simultaneously to expand and to contract. It expands in the sense that what follows is another catacosmesis, one whose movement from “most things” to “just a few things” to “one particular thing” upholds its own intrinsic ‘natural order’ while simultaneously proffering items smaller in scale than the absolutes which precede them. If we put the two strings together, we can see something like a hyper-figure begin to emerge, a catacosmesis in macro. But the diminishment of the second string can also be taken as a corrective to the foregoing series, an in medias res recension of the figure. There are then further complex catacosmeses of the “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”, whose recensions work to deny this same trajectory, to locate the figural dynamism “in the inherent incompletion” of the denoted narrative arc. Taken as a whole, this dense catacosmetic space seems, like one of the rooms mentioned in the poem, to be “surging and billowing, or disintegrating and reforming”, in the process imperiling the integrity of its own figural logic—an ordinal logic by which a god, a man, a life might be safely immured from the proximity of a person, a body, a drowned.[29] The eyes that are “seeing” are one’s own, or they are the eyes of the other, or they are both. Everything depends on how the punctuated text is parsed, on whether the “use” and the “not” and the “for” are read into a recoil or an embrace. ‘Sinking Feeling’ wants us to think about human beings drowning at sea, about the conditions that enable and perpetuate such drowning, and about the horror of what such drowning might mean for them, for us, and for us

But beyond this—because beyond this is the only way to even try to make sense of this—‘Sinking Feeling’ also wants us to think about what is sunk through figuration, or perhaps what is sunk in figuration. What we see in ‘Sinking Feeling’ is a kind of bathos of figuration—and by bathos I mean not the OED definition of bathos as a “[l]udicrous descent from the elevated to the commonplace in writing or speech”, but the bathos that has been philologically revived by Sutherland in his essay ‘What is called ‘Bathos’?’. In this essay, Sutherland goes back to Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, seeing in Pope’s term “not the descent but the destination[;] not a fall, but what is fallen to; not sinking, but what is sunk to.”[30] This Scriblerian bathos should thus not be taken a “fluctuation in value” but “as nil, as the non plus ultra and perfect bottom”.[31] The term as introduced into English by Pope instantiates the very thing that it designates, is “βάθος sunk into English”—i.e. a ponderous satirical locution that takes aim at the poetic epigones of Pope’s time and their sunken approximations of a classical inheritance.[32] However much the “Sinking” in Sutherland’s title (and indeed, Pope’s) seems at odds with Sutherland’s claim that bathos is “not sinking, but what is sunk to”, Sutherland’s poem is undoubtedly bathetic, its every page teeming with destitute figures. But crucially, the poem also attempts, via its flailing figuration, to extricate itself from the nil values, to “overflow intention” as per Lisa Robertson—indeed, to overflow what must not be overflowed, the “perfected contradiction” of the Marxist dialectic to which the “poetic mind” must cleave until this same contradiction can be “destroyed by social and political revolution”.[33] Such is what the poem wants to do and what, from a certain perspective, it cannot do. Unsurprisingly, the bathos of a poem floundering under such a loftily impossible goal is concerned with something more important than simply the day’s poetasters (even if some of our contemporary poetic idiocies are collaterally lacerated along the way). What the bathos of ‘Sinking Feeling’ does is to suggest that all strata of our language habitually become corrupted or degraded (whether intentionally or not) into dubious rhetorical devices. We can see in the figure of catacosmesis (classically considered a hallmark of good style) a potential scaffold for foisted relations, a vehicle by which the arbitrary or the contingent might be presented as being hierarchically preordained. Similarly, in Sutherland’s often flippant-seeming dysphemism, we see something that doesn’t merely satirise or ironise but that asks in what ways language itself might already be surreptitiously dysphemistic. For Sutherland, such a question is pertinent even in relation to our ‘simplest’ symbols, as Danny Hayward shows in his essay ‘Wound Building’, to date one of the few pieces of literary criticism to touch at any length upon ‘Sinking Feeling’. With characteristic perspicacity, Hayward charts Sutherland’s preoccupation with “the construction and dissolution of symbols” and the condition of symbols as “congealed or false immediacies”.[34] My own contention is that, within the space of ‘Sinking Feeling’, even the ‘simplest’ symbol (and I mean symbol in a non-literary rather than a symbolistic sense) is best understood in terms of figuration. By shifting our focus away from the symbol thus, we can think more deeply about the nova of figuration—the dynamic productive relationship of the figure to history and social life. This nova has, we might say, become occulted by a mendacious presentation of immanence—i.e. the figure’s formal relationship to newness has been obscured by violence or complacency, such that what we instead encounter is a peremptory ‘symbol’ that brooks no challenges to its congealed immediacy. Linguistic floundering is partially a desperate attempt to break free from this congealed immediacy and to become wrong.

As Sutherland puts it, “becoming wrong is for knowledge the fundamental advance toward loss of itself”—a loss that is essential if we are to avoid ossification.[35] In coming to realise that a great many of our perduring symbols are in fact figures, we start thrashing wildly about to extricate ourselves from the phantomatic mendacity of the given. During an immersive reading of Sutherland’s poetry, language can come to seem like an auto-inculcatory instrument for the worst forms of inured habit or ‘knowledge’. Weighed down with the sunken tokens by which it has paradoxically learned to sustain and preserve itself, language is both a metonym for and a condition of the violent psyche. In the worst forms of linguistic dereliction, the drowning-by-figuration is so utter that those who are objectified cannot be resuscitated even via anthropomorphism. Instead, they are utterly deadened, much like

[…] a stock of commodities in aspic or paralysis outside the circuits of valorization, beyond even a limit case of the pathetic fallacy such as a cloud in the shape of Farmakonisi or the Syrian bodies washed up near there.[36] 

Sutherland’s Marxian figure strives to literalise the above-mentioned dereliction, such that the conceptual-linguistic unit might appear as a receptacle into which human beings sink out of sight, just as they do (via homogeneous human labour) into the commodity. The fact that human beings are sinking and drowning is beyond unconscionable, as are the bromides or sophisms through which the deluge of such intelligence is assuaged. As long as such conditions obtain, there will be no figuration adequate to their depiction. Because Sutherland knows this, his figuration will never be about good writing. It has to hurt and rankle and chafe. It has to involve a strenuous, painful, floundering effort. It has to move it through a doorway blocked up with evacuated footholds now laid flat for sliding under it gets in. Such is necessary for this poetry to fulgurate with its moments of utopia, its “bits of distance in the raw [that can] be picked up everywhere, sprinkled on the tongue”, its spaces that are “intensely bright and lustrous as we [hold] each other and [fill] the space with gold and yellow light”. [37] Such light and brightness are not and can never be the stuff of the irresistible stylist. As Keston Sutherland’s work resolutely and excoriatingly insists, irresistible style is always to be resisted.



* Sutherland would likely object to my use of the term “speaker”. In an interview with Robert Crawford for BOMB magazine, Sutherland writes: “I have never much liked the fallacy that poems have ‘speakers.’ I think it tends to work as a surreptitious naturalization of poetic language, which ought first of all to be felt in all its force as basically not in the mouth.” In a review of Sutherland’s Scherzos Benjyosos for the Chicago Review, Connie Scozzaro usefully “suggest[s] film theorist Michel Chion’s term acousmetre, meaning 'voice-being'" as a nomenclature for approaching Sutherland’s speakers/characters. While the status of Sutherland’s ‘speakers’ or acousmetres is worthy of further enquiry, such enquiry is beyond the purview of this essay. Thus I retain the term “speaker” for the sake of expediency. At the time of writing, the aforementioned BOMB and Chicago Review pieces can be accessed in their entirety at and , respectively.



[1] The poem ‘Sinking Feeling’ originally appeared in Sutherland’s pamphlet Wither Russia (London: Barque Press, 2017). Sutherland later reproduced the poem in his book Scherzos Benjyosos (Amsterdam/Sofia: The Last Books, 2020). All subsequent page references to the poem correlate with the later publication.

[2] Sutherland, ‘Sinking Feeling’, p. 9.

[3] Erich Auerbach, “Figura” (trans. Ralph Mannheim), in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) pp. 11-12.

[4] Ibid., p.12.

[5] Lisa Robertson, ‘Time in the Codex’, in Nilling (Toronto: Bookthug, 2012) p. 11.

[6] Sutherland, ‘What is Called Bathos?’, in Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2013) p. 205.

[7] Sutherland, ‘Sinking Feeling’, p. 10., p. 17., p. 17., p. 21.

[8] Sutherland, ‘Wrong Poetry’, in Stupefaction, p. 147.

[9] Ibid., p. 92.

[10] Sutherland, ‘Sinking Feeling’, p. 18.

[11] Ibid., p. 20.

[12] Ibid., p. 15.

[13] Ibid., p. 10, p. 13.

[14] Ibid., p. 18.

[15] Ibid., p. 12.

[16] Ibid., p. 11, p. 20.

[17] Ibid., p. 11.

[18] Ibid., p. 20.

[19] Ibid., p. 12.

[20] Ibid., p. 13.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Auerbach, “Figura”, p. 31.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Sutherland, Introduction to Stupefaction, p. 16.

[25] Sutherland, ‘Sinking Feeling’, p. 14.

[26] Ibid., p. 18.

[27] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[28] Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloqvence (London, 1593), p. 118.

[29] Sutherland, ‘Sinking Feeling’, p. 14.

[30] Sutherland, ‘What is Called Bathos?’, p. 176.

[31] Ibid., p. 189.

[32] Ibid., p. 176.

[33] Ibid., 204-205.

[34] Danny Hayward, Wound Building (California: Punctum Books, 2021) p. 145, p. 152.

[35] Sutherland, ‘Wrong Poetry’, p. 112.

[36] Sutherland, ‘Sinking Feeling’, p. 15.

[37] Ibid., p. 15, p. 14.



[Colin Leemarshall runs Erotoplasty Editions. He is currently working on a project titled Total Spiritual Refection. His translations of the Korean poet Lee Sumyeong have recently appeared in Rabbit and Lana Turner and are forthcoming in Chicago Review.]

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