Issue 4: Adam Piette on Jon Thompson, Chris Nealon, Vahni Capildeo, Ben Wilkinson & nick-e melville

Review of:

Jon Thompson, After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2009). ISBN 978-1-84861-041-5

Chris Nealon, Plummet (Georgetown Station, Washington DC: Aerial/Edge Books, 2009). ISBN 10: 1-890311-29-4

Vahni Capildeo, Undraining Sea (Norwich: Eggbox, 2009). 978-0-9559399-0-7

Ben Wilkinson, the sparks (London: tall-lighthouse, 2008). 978-1-904551-56-0

nick-e melville, selections and dissections (Rockhampton, Australia: Otoliths, 2010). ISBN 978 0 9806025 4 8

As we enter the ninth year of the War in Afghanistan, and the seventh year after the invasion of Iraq, poets are taking stock of the war culture that they have been experiencing. In the United States, Jon Thompson revisits some key American texts to gauge the depth and scope of the warrior rhetoric written in to the history of the Republic. He begins with William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, taking the measure of the Puritan Godhead, language, body, sexuality, ethos – and how the quest for purity in act, vision and politics established a cast-iron and inexorable fanaticism about the external source of all evil still colouring the Bush wars: ‘Of Plymouth Plantation expresses an immense anxiety about purity: the Pilgrims have to trace the source of the contagion, and they have to find that source outside themselves.’ Thompson moves on to Melville’s Bartleby, in a deft X-ray of the false consciousness and ‘dead letter’ reification cast upon citizens by the Law of capital: leading to the hounding and victimization of scapegoats like Bartleby through processes of business-like representation: ‘The narrator defines Bartleby’s life; his definition of Bartleby as an outsider, an “intolerable incubus”, becomes material, actual, in the body of Bartleby, wraithlike in prison, by the wall, awaiting death.’ The spectre of Guantanamo weaves through Thompson’s lines here.

            The Bradford and Melville chapters prepare us for the central piece – a wonderful meditation on Whitman’s Specimen Days, his Civil War journal and its cataloguing of the suffering of the war wounded. Thompson embarks on a passionate exploration of writing, with the field of the page aligned with the ‘field of the past’ – haunted, ghosted, doomy with apparitions and the ‘squads, stragglers, companies’ of the dead. Whitman is taken not only as a witness to the pain and suffering of the maimed of the war – though he is that so extraordinarily – but also as the voice of 19th century Republican patriotism, seeing in warfare a means and trial of American character, American identity: ‘For him the war is not simply internecine struggle or pointless slaughter: the war is the stage upon which the character of the American nation dramatizes itself to itself. Through violence the ideal nation is born.’ Again, one senses the nation-building mission statements of the Bush regime being judged and shamed by the revelation of their undergirding by the Spartan war idolatry of a bankrupt 19th century set of patriotic ideals. Those ideals, the preceding chapters hint, are shaped by capitalist Law-mongering and Puritan apotheosis of the violence wreaked on others.

            A chapter on Emily Dickinson’s Letters then follows, establishing the mystical-erotic charm spun over American solitaries by the mystification of power in the weird and fanatical Master letters she wrote to some fictional Christ-lover in the 1860s: ‘God made me – Master – I did’nt be – myself […] I heard of a thing  called “Redemption” – which rested men and women. You remember I asked you for  it – you gave me something else.’ The passionate exhortation of the ‘Master’, her desire ‘[running] off the page’, for Thompson, is demonstration of the need ‘to be ruled, but redemptively, beyond the ordinary logic of subordination: to be subordinated to desire and at the same time to be imperious in addressing it – in a deliberately dishevelled language, that is, in a language that will not be mastered’. It is a wonderful insight this, into the double-natured nature of American desire, at once dreaming of the ruler of all things in order to establish self-subjection; at the same time creating a dissentient form of words, an unruliness on the tongue that countermands the powerful master-within. Again, the act of writing established grounds of complicity between writer and quasi-illegal forms of power (here the dream of a godhead on earth, erotically desired): Thompson carefully charts the deep morbidity and erotic fantasies of violence to the body and mind inscribed within the American way of religious belief; how the violence of the dream of union with the ‘master’ beyond, is an ecstatic dream of (self-)wounding, dying, writing as permanent elegy for all on earth.

            Dickinson trumps Melville to create the conditions for the possibility of modern warfare as blood-stained text, the ‘extreme righteousness’ written in to the violence of the Vietnam war as explored in Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Vietnam, for Thompson, is a palimpsest ‘in which layer upon layer of writing, of history, goes at least as far back as the domestication of the New World’. After Paradise is an exercise that proves that proposition within the palimpsestual designs of its own structure. It follows in this the historical sense implicit in Herr’s analysis of the ways in which US writing became an instrument of power, and the dramatization of this in the prose style, the ‘amped-up language’, in Thompson’s words, ‘a war-fevered language on overdrive, language possessed by a sense of its own power – and powerlessness’. But there is also Thompson’s testimony to the text’s power to silence through honouring the dead, enacting shame, scourging the MACV systems with a mapping of their lies, fantasies, disgusting display of virtue. That double feature of American writing during wartime – at once miming the seductions of the violent and righteous rhetoric of the warfare state, and judging that state of mind and language through dissentient spacing, satire, dishevelledness – has a complex textual history. Jon Thompson has done magnificent work tracking that long tale through the thick palimpsest that lies behind Herr’s history of American shame. The work is magnificent not in terms of military, godhead virtues of brilliant, violent bravado and exegesis: but in terms of the quiet and dissenting assumption that readers of After Paradise will get it. They will get the fact that this history, this LIT101 in Writers and the American God of War, is also a history of the trackable ideology behind the wars on terror, Iraq and Afghanistan; as it is of the potential for resistance, through acknowledged complicity and unruly dissent both, in such a text as this, Thompson’s After Paradise.

            Chris Nealon’s collection, Plummet, is full of war poems that suit Thompson’s cast of mind. The texts resonate with a comparable double-vision of the war-mongering superstate, with a style and verve that owe something to the textual trajectory from Melville through Herr to today.  ‘Less Negative’ is a creepy dramatic monologue in chatty prosaics – the I-voice thinking about pornography, and in some airport concourse, hearing the noon siren test, letching after an Iraqi girl with a ‘really cool blouse on, and you can see it in her / eyes, she’d like to kill us all’. The poem’s ugly wit is a display of warfaring logic, that Thompson defines as a ‘pornography of spectatorship’ and ‘of lifeless flesh’ which conceals the absence of social forces. Nealon hints at those forces by aligning the energy field behind his own prosaics, the ‘greeting so hard inside prosaic speech’, with the masculinist lusting after the victim’s killing gaze, as well as condemning that very process as the generation of ‘jaggeder selfhood[s]’ by the war culture and its language of power (defined as ‘acting godlike’).

            Nealon’s work on the page is witty-sinuous about its own status as prosaics. Prose, in the piece entitled ‘Poem (I Know Prose…)’, is acknowledged as a mighty instrument, but still, the I-voice complains, ‘still I feel that plein-air lyric need to capture horses moving’. Horses moving may or may not be warhorses; the poem is sly and coy, strategically, about its own concerns. Yet, a prose phrase insists,:

When I was a child I thought, in Homeric fashion I will speak to each of you in
            turn while laying you low

Homeric fashion implies a discourse that binds plein-air lyric to a Graeco-Trojan enstyled war culture, something that would breed into Virgilian singing of ‘arms and the man’, launching an assault on neo-modernist readerships with Achillean disdain. And just as Thompson keys the American warmongering spirit to puritan forms of capitalist hunger for violent sublimity, so Nealon’s treacherous I-voice grounds its lyric desire in the ‘lords of scarcity’ and their ‘other kind of surplus’. They are the ‘masters of prose’.

            If style maketh arms and the man, then the prosaic practice of Plummet is strategic and diagnostic about the matrix linking even a mere poem to the war culture that countenanced and encouraged extraordinary rendition. ‘Poem (Thank You Cinema…)’ traces connexions between watching Arabic films, watching footage of executions/torture scenes (‘I watch depictions of electrocution under bright fluorescent lights with a / slightly elevated heartbeat’), reflections on Plato’s hatred of poets, poetry’s Orientalist exotics (‘Landscape / lapidary / catalog of spices’), and girl-watching whilst thinking about Canto LXXVI from the Pisan cantos. Those links are fused together by the two oblique references to the Gulf and other desert wars: ‘Babylon invisible to me except as style’; ‘Against a sheer wall in the desert with a blindfold on groping for the corner’. The wars fought in Nealon’s name, using his tongue, justified by the long Homeric traditions animating war rhetoric and poetry both (conjuring similar desires for visions of death and suffering): US war culture forces a Poundian complicity upon the American poet, a ‘Pisan’ identification with both victims and perpetrators, the very style of the poem contaminated by ‘prosaic’ sado-military collusion with torture. It feels like the same thing – Pound / Nealon / ‘terrorist’ blindfolded within war’s fake emotions generated by the ‘lyrical’ (military) mission in search of the Babylon of style, the enemy’s city as trove. The ignorance of Arabic culture that underwrites the war government is matched by the fake Orientalism of the Republic’s poets. Chris Nealon has written a book vibrant with the contradictory energies of this time: capturing the unholy alliances between the seductions of war’s assault on the other, the predicament of a mundane prosaics after LANGUAGE poetry, and the spectre of American  poeisis after ‘Pound’’s quest for a war, for a just language, for a butterfly-girl of his own on the sandy floor of a prison in Guantanamo-Pisa.

            Vahni Capildeo’s new collection, Undraining Sea, ponders the passing of love, and the superscription of a single woman in Britain – by her own mind, by the language, by the gaze of others – with unerring vocal surety and exploratory, many-voiced attention to the clamour of experience, of all that goes through the mind on difficult days. The topic  is not war – yet war culture blunders in all the more tellingly, from the side-entrances, breaking in off cue. Many of the pieces here are complex sequences, the most haunting ‘Disappearing People’, which reflects on the genders’ dreams of each other, on the cross-fertilizing of those dreams in desire. The poem meditates deeply on the problems posed to love as tender human transaction both by the aesthetic tradition (the sequence begins with the ways the woman of the relationship is cast as Michelangelesque prisoner-in-stone by the laws of six centuries of male desiring) and by the inexplicable misogyny of the hard men in the streets – some evil bastard ‘silver-haired man’ accosts her on her way to the station ‘as if on business’ with a vile verbal assault on her person.

            The loss of a lover hurts with the weight of those six centuries – and the poem is implacable and tender at the same time about the suffering and guilt that must be thought through. It is seemingly incidentally, then, that the war culture intrudes on the scene. The Capildeo persona seeks comfort in writing, ‘hoping to answer the things of my mind / so their hearts could open’ so as to tell ‘about fire’, the fire of desire, we assume. The poem begins: a purple passage on Dawn as a patch of Indian cloth – but the gentle pastoral of the conventional apostrophe to Dawn quickly turns sour:

dawn’s gentle colours are not fixed,

readily bleeding, lost in the wash.

The mountains stay pink with

their own ore and where forests,

being slashed, come down burning.

Helicopters go raiding.

Man traps, built like they were for slaves,

guard marijuana planters’ estates.

Young government forces

stand round bonfires, smiling

at the weed they set burning.

It goes with the territory.

The newsreel stories about the troops in Afghanistan burning the huge marijuana fields seeps into the poem about desire, triggered by the pun on fire, and by the blood-letting connotation of the ‘bleeding’ of colour from cloth. The helicopters are summoned into the poem, making raids on the inarticulate relations between the erotic poem and the combatant poem – the shared territory of love and war. Images from Vietnam, the helicopters, the burning forest, the man trap cages, also seep into the modern warscape – as though the lost loved one were a John Balaban. And the war takes over, like the vicious words hissed by the silver-haired woman-hater – setting up its Eliotic rhythm of insistent terminal gerunds, the rhetoric of violence that goes with the territory of ‘wounded’ poetry-making. This is an urgent, shapely, generous and serious collection – of self-witness, astute, gentle, sharp and alive, sensing where the mind in words will go, along long journeys/sequences of encounter with the lost other in language.

            Blackbox Manifold welcomes, too, the first pamphlet of poetry by Ben Wilkinson, the sparks – the poems have a story-telling impulse which takes Armitage and Larkin as models for a new take on the mainstream lyric. This is revolutionaized by a refreshing range of subject matter: among the sixteen poems, there are reflections on Tesla’s coil, on trawler fishing, on being drunk and alone on Sheffield streets, on surrealism, on Blake’s angels, on moles as Lazarus, the coincidence of the crash of the money markets and a flash of lightning forking out of the sky. The mainstream tradition of the mundane is very different from the everydayness of the LANGUAGE school – but both share the territory of potential for coincidences as sudden as are charted in this brave, colourful, finely crafted series of poems. And the wars in the desert gleam through this young poet’s words too – the tense, tight, mouth-rich sound-schemes summoned into being by the poem on the Tesla coil. The coil functions as a model for an image of poetry-making as Poundian transfer of energy. Tesla charges up the huge energies, ‘the megawatts // rise like the supernovae burnout of the sun’ – when suddenly something is created, the Frankenstein moment of creation of energy/poem: ‘a ball of plasma’ skirts ‘the air with its lilac electricity’, imploding and ‘into-thin-air gone: / a burning oilfield gleaming from the reddest of horizons’. The poem imagines the lightning bolt (the same that had struck at the markets perhaps) generating a forcefield of language on the page – but it also, in its godlike supernovae power, summons the neo-nuclear arrogance of the invasion of the ‘rogue’ oil nations, creating not a metaphor but a TV clip of the burning oilfields of Iraq.

            We would like to spread the news too of nick-e melville’s collection of concrete poetry, selections and dissections – a banteringly comic and ingenious paging of the visuality of language, its unconsciousnesses, the gaminess citizens of a language ought to enjoy and experience. At the intersection between graphic and poetic, the collection includes crazy zooms into the blotchy details of a 1950s ad, as though dissecting the nuclear family’s nucleoid sins and omissions; a superb imaging of the negative space between letters to capture the spectre of unseen shapings ‘behind’ / ‘between’ language events; a series of concrete poems which feature eerie targets fashioned from bags of Blue Circle cement (very concrete, then, but made out of the paper of the bags, geddit?); a needle-satirical sequence entitled ‘child and adult hood games’ which are gangsta posters that take paedophilia up hard against the reader / interpreter’s own language secrets.

            There are perfect, more conventional word games too, like the page which places the words ‘hail’ and ‘stones’ in a sea of Os, but ‘stones’ come first, so those Os fall out of the word ‘stones’ as from a ‘hail-Caesar’-sinister fascist stoning crowd. With such poems, there is violence – surrealist at times, as with the child and adult hood games; and with the vision of the globular darknesses and whitenesses of the WASP family. What the graphic work does more than anything, though, is to visualize the warring / loving / estranging / playmaking relations between the basic figures of language-‘selves’. The negative space between letters plays on this range of interrelation (‘a seizure between R and S’, for instance; ‘nothing between G and H’; ‘the murder of K by L’, etc.). This is down and dirty in the zone of transaction between the building blocks of language, its script and graphic marks … and it is there that war begins, its potential: as with the axe that swings into view when you black out the space between a capital L and a capital M – ‘the amputation of L and M’. The alphabet aids and abets the war-making the neo-nuclear family desires among its members, against its neighbours, on the playground of its pages and hidden on its surfaces, between its phonemes, along its lines of force.