Issue 9: Adam Piette on Michael Farrell, Simon Jarvis, Susan Utting and Ben Stainton

Michael Farrell, open sesame. Giramondo Poets, 2012. 978-1-9208828-4-6

Simon Jarvis, Dionysus Crucified. Grasp Press, 2011. 978-0-9559459-4-6

Ben Stainton, The Backlists. The Knives Fork and Spoons Press, 2011. 978-1-907812-52-1

Susan Utting, Fair’s Fair. Two Rivers Press, 2012. 978-1-901677-80-5

A poetry collection works into the mind through a networking effect along the channels, of memory, language expectations, affect alignments, the cultural cloud of givens and assumptions, whacky personal stuff, and elements of pure play in the imagination. If the reader is lazy enough, she will let the words take the mind over a while and give up some of the usual controls. If she is attentive enough, then the words might begin to mean more than they strike her at first as meaning. A collection relies on a to-and-fro between lazy and attentive forms of reading, and something is curiously summoned into being by the interplay between all the channels as they get momentarily tuned together in diapason or as clashing disharmonies that work there in the dark. The collection is a sequencing of events on the page which strikes up various kinds of affective, cognitive, linguistic and cultural notes – and a reading might not even follow the order, lazily and attentively free as readers are, but can work as a random sparking up of other kinds of connection.

            Simon Jarvis’s sequence, Dionysus Crucified, offers itself to us as a ‘Choral Lyric for Two Soloists and Messenger’, as parody of 17th century masque and opera form – the two voices dramatized as Greek symbols, pi and delta, two manners of delivery matched by two language games, baroque-allegorical (a masque that performs the crucifixion of Dionysus), contemporary-political (zone of mediatized sound-bite shards); the messenger droning in imitation of empty clubland anecdote, that is followed by a distorted mishmash of sacrificial mood-music coloured by after-echoes from the same classical hinterland; the whole broken into by a concrete page which sees Bacchants clashing against the ‘CURIAL THREAT’ of a massive(ly camp) Cross, and then by a Canticle of floating bubbles of religiose texts. The mix up is a mash-up of Nietzschean portentiousness, underlit by low key menace and kitsch war-words (‘Time for the STARFIGHTERS’ antiphon to ‘Bind me with drones’, for example). But what makes the sequence cohere are the material conditions of the chapbook itself: Grasp Press have provided a massive canvas for the Jarvis chorale, a 30 x 30 cm or (more unluckily) a 13” x 13” square which tempts Jarvis to Mallarméan feats of layout chic; and affords space for an unfeasibly long line. This, in situ, is one line, for instance: ‘What’s that I can hear or half hear at the edge of the forest where the dark shade gathers and glooms over where there used to be a bright field?’ A 30 word or 144 character line pushes any Renaissance-sourced scansion out of frame into white space, and leaves one with a breathless, prosy, unsingable, gauche sound surface – it is what makes this ‘exercise of style’ into something more than a modish tour de force. The long long line enacts a persistently stylized lyric-as-machine designed to fabricate ‘revellings’ and ‘woodland fictions’ as though Milton were still around, Comus up his sleeve, dreaming up solipsistic monologues droning on at the edge of the forest. And the long line destabilizes readers switching from lazy openness to rapt greedy attention by staging the sacrificial mood-music droning on, too, at the back of language as it posits itself to the imagination. The 13-inch square is a mirror both to watch others as ‘sacrificed & archaic fathers and daughters’ and to witness ourselves as ‘lusterous sold simulacra of faces, the person I wear to the bank’. The observer subject connives at the Agamemnon-Iphegenia sacrificial logic running affairs in the political sphere, at the same time as it profits from the dividends generated by the ontological effects of an economy manufacturing such desires. This poetry is very smart, very dangerous, very knowing – and wears its learning as a challenge on your sleeves, o my masters.

            Michael Farrell’s open sesame has tricks up its sleeve too, and works on the synapses as if with a screwdriver. It deconstructs Australia and throws the bits and pieces into the air onto the page, bloodied, mangled, shiny with sneery insinuations, frightening flashes of syntax, and a way with words that merges extremes (Dickinson plus Stein, in a cement mixer, sort of). The sequencing of the whole book is given formal embodiment in ‘saints & or’, a sequence reworking Edna St Vincent Millay’s sonnets. Millay’s lines are crunched and refashioned to release weird surreal language explosions across the page:

three      the season knows you as its own &,

the bay as it produces weed for you to;

put in a, pocket &, bring out a

hat never photographed & water;

The punctuation becomes material, ampersand as a weather in the occiput; Australian beach-drugs inviting ‘you’ to ‘colon’ the end of the line; put in a comma, pocket the same ampersand – as though lineation were a syntax-hat without reference and content beyond the ‘magpie/swoops’ of sheer energy at work. Romantic lyric impulse meets Australian self-colonizing drive to generate a word-music end-stopped ‘merely’ as syntax or comma-space, as though with a wild wit: ‘Slessor & Byron emphasizing words as,’ – this is such exhilarating work.

            Susan Utting’s collection from Two Rivers Press is more mainstream – but certain emphases recur which link up to the cerebral Jarvis theatre and Farrell’s language energies: turning on what is glimpsed at the edge of things. ‘Warhol Blonde’ starts off with the aperçu that Warhol’s work has valency as a form of image-making which takes hold of the mind at unconscious levels, there where the mind refuses to remember, not remembering the things done to people by acts of representation: ‘What you don’t remember is the way/she fades to smudge’. Warhol’s art reduces phenomena not just to the media surface of the reproducible industrial artwork. It also conjures into being a back-space where things become shadows which might acquire the status of ‘forgotten’ mental events thanks to the amnesiac effect the artworks are designed to have: ‘it’s what you see you had / forgotten: all that shadow, / its hide and seek, its chill.’ The words, too, of Utting’s poem play hide and seek, do not clarify, have a chilling effect: for they imply that the poem too is there with purposes the lazy or attentive reader cannot master, or analyze, or even enjoy. It is there to sponsor forgotten affect, and may be treacherous in ways no seeking after shocks can quite capture. At times a collection catches fire with just one poem, as here: a tremendous thing to have pulled off.

            Ben Stainton’s little chapbook, The Backlists, is such a finely comic invitation to voyage across the language surfaces and global experience, a world literature gameplay, high and ecstatic. The poems seduce you into Tokyo bars, to ‘Latin/ Quarter’ saloonings, to Genevan embassies, to specific spaces ‘Outside the Window of the Room’, or to Beirut: you choose. But in all the excursions, the mind is latched onto and wound about with collaged bits and pieces of language use and made to be alive to the processes which bind. If we go to the Barents Sea, for instance, it is towards:

Tables frozen

as legs / exits / eyes / ropes / hands / pea / s

eek & ye shall find

Displaying the same bravado as Farrell in the marshalling of syntax and punctuation booby traps; with a comedy comparable to Jarvis’s spooky inhabiting of period styles as patches of manner; and with something of a Warholian gameplay staging an unconscious, uncontrollable aesthetic which Utting discovers – there is so much driving along here: this is just such juicy work. In every collection, dear reader, ‘s/eek & ye shall find’ such marvels.

Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold, is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, and author of Remembering and the Sounds of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War.