Issue 30: Nell Perry

Nell Perry review: David Grundy, Present Continuous (Pamenar Press, 2022)


In Time Lived, Without Its Flow (Capsule Editions, 2012), Denise Riley’s meticulous account of her grief at the death of her son, she writes of the experience of ‘living in suddenly arrested time: that acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow’ (2012, 7). This ‘existence outside of earthly time,’ she suggests, is the nearest she can get to the ‘timelessness of being dead’ (2012, 23). While it would be simplistic to directly compare Riley’s personal loss of an adult child to the various communal and individual losses to COVID during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, there is nonetheless a parallel we can draw between Riley’s description of lived grief and David Grundy’s exploration of coronavirus temporality in Present Continuous (Pamenar Press, 2022).

In Grundy’s essays, ‘time and space layer jagged, not fitting, escaping the edges of their frame’ (2022, 54). We are ‘stuck in the looping eternal present of a hellish eternal return’ (2022, 190). Isolation in space – lockdown – correlates with a suspension of time, an unending present we cannot escape. It is an atemporality suffused with griefs, those collectively shared and those felt personally. And the weight of these griefs keep time in abeyance while lockdown suspends the patterns of day-to-day life.

         Consequently, Grundy’s essays are uniquely – and paradoxically – both timely and out of time. Timely in that the lockdown period which Grundy’s essays recount, between March 2020 and April 2021, still feels like something we are all collectively processing. And out of time, not just because they illustrate a temporality in suspension, but also because they imply the surpassing of a point of no return. ‘The Four Horsemen rode through too long ago to recall,’ Grundy writes in ‘Horses and History,’ quoting the poet D. Scott Miller (2022, 94). The apocalypse, it would seem, has already happened, and we are living in its bleak and grimy aftermath. 

That the collection opens with an essay titled ‘Catalogue’ implies that we might understand Grundy’s essays as performing a kind of cataloguing work: a systematic registering of lived experiences, a methodical arrangement of thoughts and ideas, attempting to create a sense of order and meaning out of the disordered meaningless of lockdown. There is a Benjaminian quality to Present Continuous; a sense of putting fragments in order, to situate quotations alongside one another to allow them converse. The essays operate as a means of drawing loose connections between things; enacting a constellatory gesture, where events, artworks and ideas are arranged into a configuration so as to raise and explore larger questions.

And these questions are often focused upon poetry – or, more generally, the act of writing – and its purpose. What function, if any, does writing have in our current political moment of disaster capitalism, characterised as it is by pandemic and financial collapse and necropolitics? What is there left to say after the four horsemen of the apocalypse have been and gone and we’re still reeling in their wake? Where a better world is ‘little more than one that is merely liveable’ (2022, 82)? What promises can writing hold and uphold in these conditions? And how can it acknowledge its own historical role in creating the inequalities written so deeply within the fabric of our culture and society? Can writing embody a different temporality than the one we currently inhabit?

Chaos, and the impulse to find order within it, are repeated themes throughout. This is the consequence, perhaps, of trying to ‘narrate a story you’re in the middle of,’ particularly if that story is a crisis of global proportions (2022, 106). It’s a human impulse to try to make sense out of confusion and catastrophe. But the suspension of time always impedes narrative potential, as Riley highlights in Time Lived, Without Its Flow, because ‘as the movement of time halts […], so do all those customary ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ that underpin narration’ (2012, 57). The temporality of lockdown permits no such ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in any logical sense, so Grundy’s essays must tell their broken narratives through non-linear linkages, complex assemblages, fading patterns and fragmentary maps. These linkages frequently occur throughout the book as criss-crossing networks of tunnels and wires and arteries: dendritic connectives, multi-branching systems of potential.

‘Sometimes you don’t want to write,’ Grundy says, ‘in case what comes out breaks the delicate threads that in defence you’ve woven to hold everything together’ (2022, 123). Sometimes those delicate threads are coping mechanisms we have built to prevent us from falling apart, and sometimes they are holding us fixed in a cataclysmic present. What happens when those threads need breaking?

While it is tempting to seek order in chaos, Grundy’s essays imply, the notion of order is a really just a bourgeoise invention, and an insidious one at that. After all, it is so-called ‘order’ that State violence and uniformed power seek to uphold. And it is so-called ‘order’ that characterises the ‘the laws and lore of whiteness’ that not only prop up the entire catalogue of Western literature but also constitute the foundations upon which the present has been built; the no-longer-so-invisible wires holding everything rigidly in place (2022, 112).

‘Do you want to hold things up,’ Grundy asks in ‘Occasion’, ‘or to overturn them’ (2022, 169)? Perhaps the answer depends on the particular brand of horror the current capitalist cycle of exploitation and crisis has served up on any given day. One of the things that makes Grundy’s essays so compelling is that they reflexively interrogate the validity of their own methodology. The epistemological mode that gathers together and juxtaposes various ideas to create a network of potential – a sense of order out of chaos – is both generatively explored and thoughtfully critiqued. This reflexiveness gives the essays a recursive, ouroboric quality; a sense of constantly moving outwards only to reflect back on themselves in a way that suggests a continuous seeking, and refusal, of order. Sometimes they operate like a weaving of delicate threads to hold everything together; at others, they are like a disintegration of the threads that hold things in place. Like Grundy’s description of the murals in Agnès Varda’s Mur Murs (1981), they build, strip down, and begin again (2022, 152).  

The essays frequently inhabit London’s boundary spaces and edgelands, its disorganised, transitional spaces, or what Victor Hugo, describing Paris in Les Miserables, called the ‘bastard countryside’. In investigating these spaces, Grundy is seeking an ‘otherwise,’ an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘alternative vantage’ (2022, 185). In ‘He was roaring around like a bullet’, the third essay in the collection, the Commons is described as a place of ‘insurgency, prophecy, vision’ (2022, 57). It is a stark reminder that lockdown – the communal agreement to remain apart from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19 – also enabled the ceding of literal and political ground to a Tory-led authoritarian state. It was a ceding whose terminal point was the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of April 2022 which granted extra powers to the police and severely impacted our human right to protest. Grundy’s essays grieve these complex trade-offs made without our knowledge; our desire to prevent further deaths leveraged to seize collective powers and criminalize dissent. 

The essays also explore the effects that lockdown – and the wider crises of disaster capitalism – have had on language, and what this might mean for poetry and writing more broadly. A global disaster, much like a deeply felt grief, has the capacity to be too big, too grave, too incomprehensible, too indecipherable, too chaotic, too horrifying for language to contain. Worse, language has been supplanted by the headline, the buzzword, the Parliamentary Act, the news cycle and ‘the vague rhetoric of monied belonging’ (2022, 145). Everything has become a trope, a cliché, a dead metaphor, a hollow signifier in the face of the brutal statistics of mass death.

In contrast, Grundy’s essays are searching for new forms of language: in birdsong and ‘sinister murmurations,’ in graffiti and gravestones, in rumours and whispers, in blood vessels and tree branches, in comets and stars, in street noise and sounds at the edge of hearing (2022, 161). Through new forms of signifying and communicating, Grundy argues, we might find new temporalities, new ways of connecting, new ways of seeing the world. At the lambent, ghostly, elusive edges of things, we might find ‘the basis for a theory of how to write a history of art, of music or poetry’ (2022, 64). And, according to Adorno – Grundy points out – the ‘origins of music and weeping are in essence the same – the expression that cannot be unambiguous’ (2022, 71). In the face of crisis and chaos, in the face of the collapse of language, it is grief and music that can offer us clarity. 

Nell Perry's publications include Radical Elegies: White Violence, Patriarchy, and Necropoetics (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) and four poetry books: Unspeakable Patterns of the House (Salò Press, 2020); Of Parasites & Proximities (Contraband Books, 2017); Meat ∙ Volt ∙ Interruption (Oystercatcher, 2015); and Venusberg (Veer Books, 2015). They edit the online poetry zine DATABLEED with Juha Virtanen.

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