Issue 31: John Wilkinson
'Austerity and Extravagance'. Review: David Grundy, A True Account (87 Press, 2023), and Sabeen Chaudhry, Rimming the Event Horizon (87 Press 2023)
The 87 Press is now the most stimulating poetry publisher in the UK, a notable presence where the long tail of modernism wags again, thanks to a cohort of young, ethnically-diverse, often queer poets cheered on in public readings by enthusiastic crowds. The dozen (at best) beard-strokers at readings in the upper rooms of pubs forty years ago would be impressed. However, I have noticed that few buy books after these events, and would like more attention to the physical media. Hence this brief review of two books from a recent 87 Press release of six. I am interested in their different styles of commitment to lyric poetry as resistance to functionalist language and the reduction of humanity to labour and reproductive resources, or in a word, as resistance to data. We are not entities as given but as formative; we are not weighed entirely on the scale of power, but also of love. Both David Grundy and Sabeen Chaudhry in their contrasting ways are explicit in understanding their lyric practice so; but they diverge extremely, Grundy choosing the path of austerity, and Chaudhry the path of extravagance.
‘The poem’ means everything to David Grundy, as it did to Rainer Maria Rilke and Jack Spicer, the two lyric voices most audible in Grundy’s verse. But there is a catch; ‘the poem’ must not betray the test of A True Account as his first major collection of poetry is assertively titled, acknowledging another audible presence, Amiri Baraka, and probably echoing Baraka’s book title Hard Facts, discussed by Grundy in a recent essay collection on Revolutionary lives of the Red and Black Atlantic since 1917. Yet Grundy is undogmatic in his framing of the facts, unlike the Baraka of the Marxist Hard Facts period, while A True Account is an ambivalent title, borrowed from a poem by Frank O’Hara, a version of a fanciful poem by Mayakovsky, and itself the subject of a claim that it has been attributed to O’Hara erroneously. Some of the complications the title enfolds, play out on the first page of this various yet consistent book when a reader finds a version of Rilke’s most famous line, following an announcement that ‘The poet intersects with and passionately draws on the struggles for life that inhere within the forms of socialist politics’ (‘forms’ is a cautious usage that might even trend aesthetic); in his version of Rilke, Grundy turns around Rilke’s lightning-strike charge to change his life, to read ‘You must change your life so that your poetry changes, and the change in your poetry will change your life.’ Does life come first, before the poem? If the poem is everything, for Grundy his responsibility for it must be total.
A True Account assembles a decade of writing that never smooths out the tension in Grundy’s commitments to changing his life and poetry, and notably refuses to eschew a subjective position – even if at the end of a 200-page collection a reader still knows almost nothing biographically about Grundy, not so much as an identity he might elect. The subjectivity centring these poems is trained steadily in relation to the poem and to life, meeting in the necessity to sustain a horizon of hope and possibility, however tentatively. How though to square the circle between Baraka’s revolutionary dogma and an Adornoite commitment to subjective lyric as inherently critical of capitalism, even if written by ultra-reactionaries? Grundy’s important writings on music provide a clue; what could be more fiercely subjective than the music of John Coltrane for which Baraka was so passionate an advocate? Such subjective fierceness transcends introspection, victimhood or solipsism.
But how to test truth through the subject position and through poetry, rather than through analysis or subjection to a party line? Since Adorno, subjectivity has become despised in ‘advanced’ poetry, and rightly, if it licenses re-treads of sentimental family moments and epiphanies in forests. How can subjectivity, how can lyric be made fierce rather than soupy? The drama of Grundy’s poetry lies in its integrity at a time when expressions of feeling sound fake even to the feeling individual; the task is to imagine the real, in the interests of a true account. Grundy’s pages of reflexively interrogative prose make possible his lyricism; how worried he is that he cannot abjure beauty! He is forever starting, both starting and never-ending like ocean waves – a favourite trope he shares with Spicer, evoking what is at once abstract and physically threatening, a unity and an incessant change, a start, a gathering, a falling back, a fade, and start again. A True Account arrives in waves; although incorporating published and unpublished writing, the components have been selected, re-written and reorganized between recurrent prose sections titled ‘The Problem’, ‘The Questions’, ‘The Poem’, before breaking free into verse for the last quarter of the book. A True Account is oceanic in its extent but buoys a reader in ever-new recurrences.
[…] hold in trust
the line that comes last but not finally
the ending not working
for its mending, for its making,
for its taking shape,
driving away, being driven,
yet promise in truth. [p. 150]
The test of truth marks an endeavour of high seriousness, Rilkean in its conviction that the poem is everything, but unwilling to let metaphor make the running and divert from ‘a true account’. Grundy does not abjure metaphor, but his usage is spare, responsible and testable – the short ‘platform’ in what follows, a sample of Grundy’s lyric beauty, refers formally to the poem’s lines:
If the platform is short
With fresh demands adapting
And from what heights
Do cries arise
In structures collapsing
Who’s here to catch
the catch in the voice
who’s hear to hold
or hear the fall [pp. 167-168]
At first glance quite simple, this reveals itself as elegantly modulated and expert lyric writing, from the sonic parallelism of the first two stanzas with their formally capitalized lines, to the sonic diminuendo of the second two stanzas held by rhyme and assonance, and by that canonical lyric spindle of hear/here. These lines evidence a remarkable formal expertise and a sense of poetry’s responsibility, both exalted and realistic. And the answer to the question these lines pose must be, the responsible poet must be here, must hear, and the voice must both catch and throw. The lines answer their own question.
Such poetry is, to use Grundy’s word, austere; it does not threaten to run away with itself.
[…] I do not want to turn to the arcana, except if it is real. When it is real, in figuring. Metaphor. Our mouths. From inside–which–what; this–from which outside.
The terms, as moral injunction. Instruments of currency. It demands austerity.
Who is it speaks, speaks back, speaks to. What things bring happiness. How, by whom defined. […] [p.125]
Austerity as severe self-denial or self-restraint is an unusual ambition for lyric poetry, notably espoused by the American Marxist Modernists, George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky, but since then rarely affirmed. Strikingly the question of ‘who is it speaks’ shifts the first person away from self-indulgence towards accountability, which would be ducked by denying, bracketing or dispersing the first person, or by abstracting subjectivity. ‘Happiness’ does not imply hedonism; it too demands interrogation, ‘by whom defined’. Grundy’s poetic language is concerned to be accurate and to identify the interests that pressure and shape language use. Resistance to metaphor is crucial for an austere poetics, because metaphor threatens the tight tethering of language to the real, with the real here taking categorical priority over language. When Grundy writes
This is a figure for something
tricked in the city
lost in the country
knowing that you see the lightning
before you hear the thunder [p.177]
in a poem about breaking weather that wants to be a poem about the advent of a revolutionary situation, Grundy must repeat that he is using a figure of speech, and that figure must be literally true; but he must then go on to confess it is a figure he too badly wants to be true metaphorically, but is obliged to question the metaphor’s truth and his own desire for it to be true. It would be hard to imagine a poem more austere than ‘It Is Going to Break’, where the entire poem is devoted to inquiring ‘Who is it speaks, speaks back, speaks to. What things bring happiness. How, by whom defined’ and whether its title can be justified. Grundy has no inclination to parade himself as a good person, as too many poets now do; rather, he recognises no distinction between a struggle to become a good poet and a truth-telling person, impossible but necessary goals and as liable to split apart as in (for example) Shelley’s life. He is haunted by the danger of going too far, or of betraying the truth for the lure of a great line.
I admit to finding this as frustrating as it is admirable. A problem with austere beauty is that it rewards contemplation but can feel immobile. It’s all very well to look before you leap, but on the brink it can be paralysing. ‘It is Going to Break’ exemplifies the virtues and the shortcomings of Grundy’s poetry, ‘the poem never getting going’, that can end like this –
beyond this point
it is going to break
Is that nicely poised final line an expression of faith, an acknowledgment that faith is liable to be broken, an announcement that the poem has come to an end, or all three? When preachiness, righteousness, sentimentality and pumped-up spirituality have become the chief currencies in poetry, Grundy’s path is lonely and courageous, but it would be good to see him allow his lyric gift to point the way without needing to constantly check the coordinates. Yet that might compromise his poetry’s singularity at a historical moment when any aspiration to be truthful has come to feel hopeless, and integrity far less important than image.
By contrast, Sabeen Chaudhry in Rimming the Event Horizon goes all-in from the first line; not that anything other could be expected, given such a book title and the book’s hideous (or humorous, according to taste) cover art, depicting a tornado whirling from a martini and transforming into a kind of organic ear trumpet. The opening poem is ‘run’, all runny lower case, and fluidity characterises Chaudhry’s verse, urged on by Deleuze, cited in endnotes, and by an unquenchable appetite devouring any savoury morsel of vocabulary it runs across.
Reeling in the Badlands of our glottal roaming
small stars are floored, instituting
a loquacious reign of longing & destruction [p.3]
the first poem pronounces, serving up an apt aperitif for what follows. This is Chaudhry’s first book and its confident swagger and sparkle are striking, the carriage reminiscent of Mina Loy or an accelerated Denise Riley in its ‘continuous aggression against foreclosure’. For instance, ‘before evaporating’ leads the reader on an irresistible prowl through city streets. Here are a few lines to give the feel:
tweaking drift modalities while getting a wolf cut
at a salon in Birmingham or drinking any lurid
pop to piss recursion off its rocker, outside the North Circular
our breath scuds post-stellar, a vixen from her den
vanished through underpass emergent as red
radiation weaving vengeful through the suburbs
unstopped loping leak flouting, low-key in the dark
street-lit saunter snarls a trashed remedial sublime
rused in solidity drips the icicle death of the home-seeker
exiled from totality, a kid calls me aunty
splashing rouge I splay the agenda unblushed
growling picket Punjabi with penji Darshan
[Penji is Punjabi for sister in a ‘sisterhood’ sense]
This language is loved in the mouth, ‘pop to piss recursion off its rocker’ feels delicious, and its unselfconsciously hip, female, British-Asian vulpine vision makes a nice complement to Ken Smith’s male, municipal-socialist Fox Running. As a one-time Birmingham resident I hear something of a Brummie lift to the line-endings, but the looping breathless single sentence running over more than three pages, respects no borders syntactically, temporally or geographically, flitting from Lahore to Birmingham in an international dérive. The book’s final words are ‘unclogged kind | of convolution’ which are as apt a self-description as its opening words.
For Chaudhry, poetry is a solvent processing movement through the world and resisting the stabilizing enforcements of categories and identities, ‘in an empathic simultaneity that defies time, facts, loneliness.’ Her writing is mostly enjoyable, and that’s a big compliment, every now and then making me laugh with pleasure; but needless to say, border-crossing can be friction-free only imaginatively. ‘Amazon Zindabad!’ (‘zindebad’ is an Urdu exclamation, the title translatable as ‘Long Live the Amazon!’) meets numerous obstructions to free movement, visible in stanzaic form, and beginning with a word holding fearsome resonance for an Asian writer: ‘Partition | ing some for them […]’, showing Chaudhry can be economical as well as expansive, incorporating at least three barriers in four words. The stanzas fall apart at the end, violently, with a shocked baby owl joining a shrieking marmoset from earlier in the poem, and the lines ‘Plumped destiny fed- | forced migration but make it fashion’ incorporating force-feeding, bodily boundaries, migration, and a twist on fashion/fashioning left unresolved. Chaudhry’s economy here issues a stanzaic clench that drives a hard-hitting and powerfully-felt poem, challenging misinformation, and linking climate catastrophe to ‘the heat | from the refugee line’. It finds temporal boundaries suddenly absolute as the future closes down with ‘a portent in ultrasound’ horrifyingly present, pregnancy no promise; ‘there is only actually the present’, an assertion which is wrenchingly the work of a poem producing such a statement, against the reluctance of a poet who would prefer to celebrate throwing a martini in the face of some creep in a nightclub. This is a point where the different aesthetics of Grundy and Chaudhry become sharply apparent in their political implications; Chaudhry carries a reader into whole-hearted assent, yes!, the poem finds its way to the real, followed by a question of what to do with that assent, whereas Grundy asks a reader to join him in thinking hard to imagine the real:
The dream of violence must be to end violence. This is the aim, as politics. Aesthetics has consistently failed to live up to this, it its piteous regard, the wilting flower celebrates its trampled condition of mud, or the imagined bounteous flow of blood from the erased heads of state, cartoonish in their bleeding. […] When violence becomes terror, what line to draw. The work must work harder; must be more difficult, in writing, in speech, to imagine what we mean when we say these things are the things we believe in. [p.130]
I find myself torn. To echo Frank O’Hara, I love Chaudhry for always at some level saying yes! and drawing my assent, for her irrepressible appetite, but I don’t really believe it. After all, there isn’t ‘only actually the present’; the past is balefully active and actual. This reaction does defensively belie the impact of the poem, making clear another distinction between the two poets. For the Deleuzian Chaudhry the poem is an event and she brings off her events with often-thrilling flair; for the austere Grundy a poem marks a point in a sustained meditation that asks for continuing attention to the corrections and refinements that will follow. The poetry of event is restless, and Chaudhry plunges between formal idioms. Grundy’s restlessness is of a different kind, a poetry that arraigns its own motives and methods. As a final sample from Rimming the Event Horizon, here are the last three quatrains of ‘heat’:
sour tremors to take the cake
with candied neverknows
heartbreak that rubbles
the ruse, the statues
to grimace the sheen
across taut tired skin
through pointed chin, a promise
vibrational grifts pursue
though we tart gritted
teething, throwing the dart
to unknowns of bullseye [pp. 59-60]
Chaudhry pursues ‘neverknows’ and ‘unknowns’ because they might release her from the actuality of the present; she has a sweet tooth for cakes, candies and tarts, for what can be eaten, but no time for statues or for ‘taut tired skin’ (ouch). Even if she sings through gritted teeth, it is in hopes of bullseyes that have not been marked in advance, but imagined as possible beyond a boundary, an event horizon, as that bourn where the observer cannot be arrested, defamed or tortured. Where she can enjoy life.
Both A True Account and Rimming the Event Horizon have ambitions beyond the neat poem that might be exhibited in a box in The New Yorker. David Grundy and Sabeen Chaudhry liberate language from false facts, Grundy by making facts palpably real, ‘when to survive it at | all | is unbearably | a triumph of the heart’ [p. 148] and Chaudhry by refusing constraints: ‘Together they say: ‘fake snow’ / ‘don’t smile’ / ‘every other spiral’, / ‘detonation’, they turn / to one another and mouth ‘miss u when can I see u?’ [p.46]. Both of these books give me heart.
John Wilkinson’s most recent books of poetry are Wood Circle (The Last Books) and Fugue State (Shearsman). His lacunal memoir/poetics Colours Nailed to the Mast will be published by Shearsman in 2024.
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