Issue 11: John Wilkinson
D.S. Marriott, In Neuter. Cambridge, UK: Equipage 2013, 32pp, large format chapbook. £6, obtainable by postal application from Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge CB5 8BL, UK
When I finish a new book by D.S. Marriott I wonder why his work is so much out of currency; why the enthusiasm of such notable writers on his work as Romana Huk, Andrew Duncan and Anthony Barnett has failed to carry it to a wider readership either in Britain or the United States. This question has occurred to me several times; I vow to write about his work but then hesitate, and perhaps my hesitation is symptomatic.
What holds me back? Neither in syntax nor in vocabulary is Marriott’s poetry so outlandish. Yet it is rarely discussed. Marriott does not figure in the new Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry. Although he teaches in Santa Cruz it felt when I saw him read in Berkeley that for an audience as avid for challenge by poetry as anywhere, his work remains almost unknown. I think there is something about Marriott’s poetry that defies representing.
For readers like me, obsessed with the niceties of the lyric condensary, the extensive sweep of his poetry resists any ready purchase, and for readers raised on French Theory or post-Heideggerian thought its way of thinking may be incomprehensible. There is no opportunity to display mastery over these poems or to perform circuits around them, as much obviously difficult writing affords the seminar professional. Indeed it abashes such an intent, for stance towards the world is a matter deeply contested and considered by this poetry but never abjured, stance here being not so much linguistic as existential, and a reader must suffer this agon himself unaided by all the permissions he has become used to in acquiring his postmodern expertise.
Reading Marriott’s poetry permits no release into the ludic, nor self-ironising into moiré ripples of linguistic reflexivity. It asks me where I stand but not in the sense of demanding or taking for granted a political allegiance. That would seem frivolous, cost-free. The question is renewed at every turn in the repudiation of salvific identity and absence of self-exculpating jeremiads. When seriousness has become a get-out clause, Marriott’s poetry makes me feel the stakes. When this poetry registers slavery, to which it returns as a dynamic constituent of every moment’s experience historically, psychologically and philosophically, I am forced to know that for me to figure myself as anti-racist would be ridiculous. But for me to figure myself abjectly as a racist would be a disgrace.
D.S. Marriott’s poetry engages in a struggle to insist there are no others. This does not produce a good feeling, as it deprives me both of the frisson of hopelessness and of the chance to raise my own standard. Hope is difficult in the light of my abjection and arrogance and when deprived of the gestures of rhetorical devastation; it cannot be generated through prosodic effects (although it may be intimated there, in a sense of immanent opening, of a will to amplitude, so in the prosodic sweep rather than its interstices).
Where does this poetry come from? I am struck by D.S. Marriott’s sustained loyalty as a poet and scholar. After a stylistic break from some apprentice work written evidently under the spell of J.H. Prynne while also driven by a theologically-informed interrogation of the conditions for justice in this shared world, so in that regard continuous with his subsequent work, Marriott’s writing has stayed consistent in its tenor and address. It is unafraid to think about universals, it will not succumb to contingency through queasiness at a perceived complicity in domination; domination and suffering are the point, and Marriott’s poems broker a profound engagement with the violence involved in the jurisdiction of love as well as the jurisdiction of colonialism (for instance).
Even the most detailed, historically-specific writing about violence in Marriott’s work becomes emblematic; in this new book, an Israeli soldier fucking a young Arab boy unites and divides in violence and tenderness between them and within each. This is not like the sentimental reductiveness of Burroughs; it is more troubling to individual and social rituals of purifying. Through Marriott’s poetry there runs a thread of sadism and masochism which dissolves attributions of purity: “free me from these semblances, from my submissions | to the desecrations of truth and error” he writes, for the sacred can arise only in the flesh, but neither is the flesh a stupefacient value-in-itself, a sufficient redoubt against the digital engines of molecular difference. We know from Marriott’s critical books how much his thinking about suffering bodies stems from a meditation on Fanon; this version of Hegelianism is mediated through a complex and continuously-negotiated dissidence from binary structures learnt from Gillian Rose and her reading of Hegel. The thinking about death and domination taken forward in her final philosophical work, Mourning Becomes the Law, written in the face of death alongside her well-known memoir Love’s Work, is one powerful agency in D.S. Marriott’s University of Sussex inheritance.
The other major agency derives from Andrew Crozier’s teaching, which led Marriott to become an early interpreter of J.H. Prynne’s poetry and underlies the affinity of Marriott’s work with that of Crozier’s friend, Douglas Oliver. To summarize what I have written elsewhere, Oliver’s is another disregarded corpus, probably because like Marriott’s its seriousness is ethical rather than a display of mastery. Oliver was a more erratic poet than Marriott and his late writing sometimes belittles itself by parochial resentments – but his poems’ and fictions’ erraticism is joined to their urgency. Douglas Oliver’s work offers an example of how to be a poet which is anything but a posture, as Ed Dorn’s does also in its spikier way.
D.S. Marriott’s writing has a metaphysical register and would transcend contraries through inhabiting them and being invested by them. This becomes visible immediately on opening the large pages of his new chapbook In Neuter, published by Equipage. (Equipage is a furtive but long-running and influential British publisher, a front for the writer and scholar Rod Mengham. Marriott’s more extensive collections are published by Salt and Shearsman and are readily obtainable through those publishers’ websites.)
The first poem’s title, ‘The Redeemers’, stands over a lyric pushed back to a narrow left margin established by the prose block at the top of the page; a justified block of prose hems in the opening stanzas of the lyric from the right of the page while the lyric threatens, in moving down the page, to spill across the margin established by the left side of the prose block. The textual disposition of most of the poems in In Neuter is similarly divided and sometimes lassoes further differentiated passages in italics. One poem is set for two female voices. Another poem is titled ‘From Mr Inbetween’ which I think is intended to remind us, in all seriousness, to “accentuate the positive | eliminate the negative” although unlike the song and unlike “Mr DS” and his half-humorous injunction in the chapbook’s epigraph (an injunction against the law, so we surely know how to estimate it) we understand that to accentuate the positive we must, whether master or bondsman, “mess with Mr Inbetween”; for the dancefloor is always already full, “and we all | began to dance again: Manservants, hustlers, and slaves.” So after violating the child in a devastatingly ironical ritual of purification “with a thousand cuts and amens”, after “a blue of fear” which is linguistic and can be mitigated only by “the designated one” who is unnamed, designation being self-canceling and self-affirming in its simultaneous naming-and-unnaming, this chapbook runs its course with an Orphic imperative. In the past tense, since it may be too late for us, “washed ashore like all the others” in a universal fate.
There are two long poems in In Neuter which appear univocal by virtue of their setting on the page, ‘The Negatives’ and ‘Remains of the Day’. But the voice of the former comprises a sustained and uncanny Rilkean echo-chamber – and its sustaining and echoing is part of its work it would do – mulling and resisting the negatives whose persistent allure is that “they out-endure everything”. The poem’s thinking about loss and death rejects the twinned consolations of extinction and life’s dispersal into a frieze, a “pink sketchbook of flesh” devoid of innards. Living demands that loss should be viscerally felt and mourned, and this demand goes so far as to incorporate the master’s losses: “nothing remains | but elephants beside imperial ponds; dark empires.”
Such an imperial legacy occupies “a bigger hole for the swallowed-up tongue” which this poem vows to dig with a tongue, not a pen, and which it goes on digging and breaking open. Indeed its tongue goes on digging the whole way to the deathbed where “neither of us asks for reviving, nil or dumb” (that is, ‘nil by mouth’) and what is imagined is “our commuting” in the original sense of ‘commute’ as exchange, an exchange continuing always “freshly laid” until death, even while at every point of exchange serving continuation “what I hear is the negative | as it springs from its lair.” The other long poem ‘The Remains of the Day’ is subscribed ‘In Memory of Gillian Rose’, but that would be an apt subscription for “The Negatives’ also. D.S. Marriott’s loyalty is philosophical and poetic; forgetfulness would be self-necrotic as would be the failure to speak, whether because stranded gaping in anticipation of revelation or drifting postmodern-style across screens:
nor a curtain swaying before densely-filled masks
where disguises peel away and make us see: A reality
seen as if from outside, interconnected
to dreams that dance on the frieze […]
And speech as it is turned in verse is the veritable medium of memory because memory is physical; memory continuously restores the flesh through ”ravening flesh of my mouth” (‘The Remains of the Day’). Such continuous remembering should not be mistaken for historical resentment; one of the most remarkable and moving qualities of Marriott’s work is its determined struggle against memories of wrong which would seem intolerable and threaten to block speech into at most a stutter, while never having recourse to strategies of alleviation. And as necessarily as that, this poetic speech is utterly opposed to digital and conceptual poetics which would cede the corporeal to the corporate and expel the self-recreating I in a repetitive and radically negative performance. Marriott’s poetry is faithful to an “exilic speech” whose historical resonance extends far behind an individual life, so that here a narrative of Roman violence against tribespeople of the British Isles compels my imagination and re-members me haptically and redolently through such memes of English landscape as “well-trodden gorse”, here as I sit at my desk in Chicago.
Although exilic, Marriott’s speech accommodates formally to the bounds of a civic community. Syntactical deformation and recondite vocabulary would at once signal priority for possession of an inherited capital of knowledge and expertise over the democracy of speaking flesh. The thoroughgoing corruption of civic community, its penetration and colonization, has been taken to justify the assertion that poetry assuming an ‘outsider’ position must be deluded since the social functions it performs include feeding industries of academic certification and creative writing, and encouraging small coteries to rejoice in their impotent rejection of capitalist values, confirming their own purity and intelligence. Therefore, the story goes, the poet should secede from any stance claiming, however implicitly, an exceptionalism in sensibility, knowledge or developed skill, and rather occupy the role of knowledge worker parodically. There would be, I propose, a difference to observe between a higher knowledge worker in the professoriat enjoying the latitude to parody the performance of a drone, ‘uncreatively’, and a cubicle worker urgently seeking for a freedom, however small-scale, contingent and inconsequential in the scheme of things, amidst the transcriptions, reviews and summaries she is obliged to process.
A question arises, however, about the publication of a work like Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources, the subject of discussion by Brian Reed, one of the best readers of contemporary American poetry. Once her labour to open creative space in the debased and mendacious language of workforce management results in a circulated book, it seems the best claim that can be made for it the distasteful one that it offers “an occasion for reverie” – which sounds exactly like connoisseurship. It is striking that Reed’s account of developments in recent American poetry takes Gertrude Stein as its terminus post quem, successive movements surpassing each other leaving dissenters or old-schoolers to be labelled anachronistic, whereas any account of British poetry of the highly politicised avant-garde associated with Cambridge and Sussex would have to reckon with radical re-readings of Wordsworth and Pope. (This refers to the critical discourse; it is salient that Lyn Hejinian, to take one prominent example, draws openly and strongly on the continuing radical power of English romantic poetry.)
It is hard to imagine African-American poets so blithely dissociating themselves from civic culture and from embodiment as historically-shaped subjects, potentially free if only in the confines of their poems. Post-colonialism is not only an academic speciality, but gives an academic name to a stance that entails continuous, strenuous and painful negotiation socially and psychologically. Marriott is British by birth and education although living in California, and also he is black British; he is an exile at least twice over. It is because misprision is the basic condition of such a life that his writing must adhere to the conditions of civic discourse in English. Sure, there is not the one English, and some heterodox Englishes make their way into In Neuter, but between the languages of slave narratives and Christian liturgy and of expository lyric derived from the Prynne of The White Stones, Marriott’s syntax remains largely correct because this is poetry to be followed into the folds of painful experience, not contemplated as an aestheticized object.
Within the poetry’s activity, should you follow it, an urge for transcendence faces death and incurs violence; and the cracks and flickers which are the most this work of the broken middle can envisage, cannot be compelled by a virtuoso surpassing of multiple ironies through a higher reflexivity, through linguistic gaming. Splitting and collapsing are what this poetry resists, even should they be held as often the case within clearly delineated forms. But then, Marriott’s is writing that aspires to speech. Its difficulties lie not in the contortions of a self-exculpation and claim to higher knowledge and purity, nor in its command of cultural references; Rilke and Prynne enrich the verse but there are no references to chase and familiarity with these poets is not a requirement to follow the verse. No, Marriott’s poetry is difficult on account of its rigorous, risky and wholly-involved negotiations among the living. Reed is right that poetic contortions in avoidance of complicity look horribly self-regarding, but there is a way that does not lead to the fictive contemplations of the serf in his or her downtime. Like Douglas Oliver’s, then, this is a civic poetry unafraid to mix it with the world, the flesh and the devil.
The violence in Marriott’s poetry probably dismays many people. While violence is a strong marker for ambitious contemporary English poets, there a slapstick glee tends to be attached to the rhetoric of violence rather than to violence itself, although Keston Sutherland’s poetry increasingly reckons with its own violence, opening out through The Odes to TL61P into a vertiginously violent reworking of the Growth of a Poet’s Mind. Marriott’s violence is never gleeful in the way of the young British poets influenced by Sutherland’s earlier verse, but disturbingly it loves a suffering turned to sacrifice and the enactments of master and slave; its archetype would be love of the suffering on the Cross if it were possible to acknowledge that Christ’s suffering too was already viciously, irredeemably contaminated (and sexy). Yet knowing this to be the case is no defense against the pieties that someone invests in the wisdom accrued and incorporated sensually through one’s own and others’ suffering. So Emmet Till’s mother made from his murder a terrible sacrifice, in refusing cosmetic preparation of the body, and so also In Neuter is filled with violence against black boys, of whom D.S. Marriott is one – a violence inherited in utero as the title would prompt. A proper consideration of the work violence does in In Neuter and all of Marriott’s books would, I suspect, invite a comparison in the US with the poetry of Rob Halpern.
In both poets’ work, lovers can be malignant or indifferent, and deliberately or casually inflict torture. But already this review, intended to be brief and quick, threatens to become a paper, and I not not want it to consign it to an academic invisibility through further inflation. I want to say to people who read contemporary poetry in English that in the present sample of D.S. Marriott’s work we encounter a body of work like no other although cognizant of the others within it, and it objects to the dearest-held as well as the unexamined tenets of any present poetic conventionalisms. It is a first-person lyric poetry which does not put the first person in question theoretically, but subjects it to terrible exactions; after reading Marriott, the conventional bracketing of the first person starts to look like sheer evasion (and it is true that thanks to Sutherland and others this is becoming anachronistic, but Marriott never fell for it). Subsequently too the tone of absolute authority in the political arraignments of late Prynne and much of the most consequential and impressive recent work in English poetry starts to trouble me. These poems are something else.
John Wilkinson is an English poet on Faculty at the University of Chicago. His books of poetry include Down to Earth (2008) and a corrected reissue of his 1994 book Flung Clear (2010). His most recent book is Reckitt's Blue (2012) published by Seagull.