Issue 18: Adam Piette reviews Keston Sutherland, Shara McCallum, Alan Halsey, Tara Bergin
Keston Sutherland, Poetical Works 1999-2015 (Enitharmon, 2015)
Shara McCallum, Madwoman (Peepal Tree, 2017)
Alan Halsey, Selected Poems 1988-2016 (Shearsman, 2017)
Tara Bergin, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet, 2017)
The tasks of structuring a poem and structuring a collection share common risks and speculative, formal conflicts to do with the sequencing of blocks of concept, emotional quanta, fleeting patches of argument. To move from a to b to c (within the poem, or across the poems towards the collection as a whole) can be disruptive, cadential, tightly controlled logically, culturally or manically, sensuously mysterious, delightfully differential, dialectically spring-loaded, or just plainly dully to be expected. What might matter more is that the as and bs and cs turn on a constellation of considerations that move the mind to something understood as lines held in common across the piece. But a deal is huddled into the notion of ‘understanding’ in complex acts of language, and ‘common’ can mean nothing more than some token exchange of commonsensical data, the poem/collection a mere negotiation of assumed agreements in principle not really to be distinguished from the pawning of commodities. Some poets prefer to be straight with readers and keep the poem and collection above board, very clearly expressed in terms of its designs and purposes. Others at other extremes throw the whole view of the artwork as communication out of the window along with the paper, ink and book, seeking unconscious, mechanical, incandescent flows of language energy to run and ruin it all. But it is only in the working out of the project at the level of page and text that the risks either way can hope to be measured. Artworks, whatever the makers say, have designs on us – as pages, poems, collections, they conspire to signal movements of mind in language that we respond to and collect as beads on a chain, however naively, whether asked to do so or not. The bigger structures of collections or longer poems acknowledge and speak to this process, often, however much the as and bs and cs shout out their catastrophic, undialiecticizable differences.
The structuring process can be seen at its most alarming and cunning with the last longish poem in Keston Sutherland’s Poetical Works (the title signaling comic allegiance to a bankrupt 19th century code of literary practice), ‘Jenkins, Moore and Bird’, which contains fifteen prose blocks, or rather twelve prose blocks intercalated with one short and recognizable line that occurs three times as variants of itself – running to a ratio of 2:1:2:1:5:1:3 (where ‘1’ stands for the ‘poetical’ line). Sutherland has gone into the rationale of his recent move to prose blocks in the interview Blackbox published last issue, stating that line breaks give false relief from the pressure that has to be felt within the syntax on its way – false because fakedly oblique to the political compulsions of being in the meshes of late capitalism; the analogy being the sensations of frustration, pressure and stasis of being kettled by the police. This raises the question why the prose blocks in ‘Jenkins, Moore and Bird’ have any breaks at all – the blocks are separated by white space and central asterisk, traditional typographical procedure to mark change of scene, page, content, break in time, but here used formally to indicate break as such. The three lines of poetry, or the line of poetry reprised three times as variants, signal(s) a triptych structure, potentially, that matches the three names of the title: so we have a 2:1:2:1 block of blocks followed by 5:1, ending with three blocks (their number confirming the threeness of the structure); though this is all haunted by the heckle that the three poetical lines split the thing into four not three. That ambiguity is contentless unless we move into what the poem does and is about: and here another spectre stalks the work, the self-reflexive ghost worshipped by the formalists. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the spectre cries Remember Me, uncannily generating the play-as-memory-theatre whilst forcing Hamlet, self-reflexively, to remember he’s in a revenge tragedy with specific roles and expectations to play and fulfill. But the Ghost has powers too that have to be acknowledged, not least of which is the structural role of launching the dialectical process, be it three-act or five-act, that makes the play what it generically has or seeks to be. Sutherland’s blocks may be in synch with the containment procedures of capital, but they break them up too, in acts of self-reflexive convention-destructive suicide, whilst triggering potential impulses to think revolutionary dialectic out of its stalled state, somehow.
My paragraphs inch forward with parallel logic – this is a new para so next move, please – but cannot match the daring of the protocols Sutherland generates, enforces, discovers and designs. At the risk of vulgar paraphrase, ‘Jenkins, Moore and Bird’, in conceptual terms, takes us through four big content moves. It opens with sections describing some infernal machine (in Malibu) made of a diamond and slider unit used to inscribe some ‘asset’ mechanical or human: the tone and style is Beckettian and Kafaesque, How It Is fused with ‘In the Penal Colony’, undecideably describing a recording device or a torturing mode of containment; or more mundanely crossing specifications for the design of drones or hard disc drives with rhetoric lifted from the philosophy of reality and soul-erasure. After the irruption of the line of poetry, Joycean prose-poetic (‘Morning the size of a kidney. Peg dolls, chewed, equivalent, crushed.’), the work moves to imaging ‘Roger Bird’ as both DNA-sequenced with swabs from his tonsils and a Kentucky fried chicken roasted in corn oil. The line of poetry returns with syntax switches (‘Early morning, tacked to the body. Peg dolls, erasure, bucket, isolate.’) that make things more Mallarméan, coded, Gauntanamo; then we move to a flat in Richmond, Virginia and meditations on the broken lyric self in terminal crisis that zooms out to feelings about the predestinating violence of capital. The line of poetry returns, re-mashed, and we enter a dream sequence based loosely on the Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, where the poet-figure ends up as a buffoonish Roger Moore squeezed under a mattress on a boat whilst soldiers fuck on top of him. The last prose block returns us to the diamond/slider body machine, finally, as if to remind us that the comedic turn disguises more brutal dynamics. In terms of content, then, we have four topics running to a shape of 1-2-3-4-1, with a block distribution, if we remove the poetry lines, of 3 blocks for the diamond machine (opening 2 and last), 2 blocks for Roger Bird being roasted, 4 blocks for the Virginia flat, 2 blocks for Roger Moore. Structurally, then, the fifteen blocks superimpose triptych against tetraptych, with a three x four logic to the twelve main prose blocks that the poetical lines split up, at the same time as twos recur at every turn, reinforcing the three / four dynamic: the content shape is 1-2-3-4-1, so two blocks bookending three; the doubling of twos, as with the 2 blocks for Rogers Bird and Moore, signaling four.
The structure plays on the dead-end complexity of sequencing, that something accumulates at the same time as we move on and forget; and that the accumulation and the forgetting can trigger conscious or unconscious dialectic movement between block moves, just as it can coalesce into provisional constellations between and across, or simply waste away into oblivion. And it is here that the Self-Reflexive Ghost can help to a certain extent. In all of the four stories are coiled formal surmises relevant to the structural conundrum. The diamond machine section talks about ‘spaced-apart realities’ and ‘proto-psychic’ effects (therefore anticipating reader ‘psychic’ responses to the prose blocks and their separations) as it describes the ‘asset’ it controls ‘hedged in static not escaping’ (the prose blocks containing the subject), whilst a ‘shower of coins’ falls from ‘Malibu airspace’. The Roger Bird section is prefaced by a reflection on the ‘sequences of the region wasted and the wasting sequence block’, its riff on DNA-sequencing charged with the more formal ‘[a]nalysis of structures’. The Richmond section refers to a ‘viewer […] useless to calculate broken links to the structural open one to one’. The Roger Moore fantasy describes its futile position between bedsprings and mattress as being ‘between the base grid of black metal springs and the overhead white rectangle’, as though visualizing the back grid of the prose blocks and the white space with its asterisks. And in all sections the self-reflexivity is structured according to capital’s superpower: the coins falling from the drone, the ‘Bethesda Research Laboratories’ controlling the DNA manipulation, references to ‘Lord Green’ (Stephen Green, the HSBC banker turned trade and industry minister accused of complicity in money laundering), the Moore figure stuck in subjection likened to a zero hours wage slave. A tiny abstracting irrelevance might help solve part of the enigma, of the fit of the poem’s structure to the structures of capital: we have a Roger Bird section and a Roger Moore section, but where is the missing Roger Jenkins section? The only reference we get is in the title and in the last sentence which imagines the mechanism ‘waltzing Jenkins, Moore and Bird to Bethesda Research Laboratories’. The answer is telling: Roger Jenkins is the Barclays banker on trial for fraud, highest paid banker in the City of London. It is his official home address in Malibu which the diamond machine sequence plays on. And it is his specialty as a scheming capitalist which is in the line of fire: for his expertise was in the structuring of tax regimes, his group was set up as Barclays Capital Structured Capital Markets. The masking of the allusion to this fattest of fat cats makes the poem structurally lop-sided, its triptych lopped down to two Rogers (partly explaining the four/three dynamic). What motivates the coded silence about Jenkins is partly strategic mimickry of the homertà due to legal control, partly an enacting of pervasive Pynchonian secrecy of influence, partly the reticence of contempt, partly to trigger the sleuthing of the critic (such as I) as moneytrap. More important than this referencing, however, is the parallel between the restructuring of corporate and state tax liabilities (designed to increase the screw-pressure on victims of the capitalist systems) and the poem’s own fitful meditation on the waste-mechanisms involved in poetry’s elegant and elaborate structuring order. In an essay on Marx’s abandonment of poetry as a young man, Sutherland has written about the necessary turn from the pleasures of form to a bleaker and more engaged political poetics prepared to abandon, or at least self-consciously to stage, formal elaborativeness as in itself corrupted by capital’s seductive pressures and containment protocols: ‘Poetry is intensification pressed to the point of absolute impotence against the real limit of capitalist social reality, where abstract relations reveal their abhorrent imperviousness to poetry in “brutal” detail. This is a revolutionary account of the power of poetry.’ If structure itself is formally a manner taken by capital to maximize inequality to insane degrees in order to foster brutalizing global corporate power, the poet’s structural analysis as compositional procedure will be seen to acknowledge the abstract parallel in an act of recoil, disgust and satirical energy (just as the containment, marginalization and humiliating sanctions played out in the four dream stories enclose a parody of poetry three-line whipped as peg doll childishness, inward animality, self-erasing and imprisoned textuality). Though the ‘structural one to one’ parallel of tax-evasive restructuring to poetry’s ordering of its assets is itself under suspicion (the poem does not bank on anything), the twos and threes and fours of its own fifteen-block manoeuvres, with superb panache and self-dismantling comedy, are thrown in the face of the Lord Greens and Roger Jenkins of this world, as bankers’ chips to be scorned and despised in the very act of miming the terrifying stasis of the capitalist subject in crisis. The prose block sequence closes Sutherland’s ‘poetical works’ in top mesmerizing (anti-)form, the whole collection having sustained just such a curious blend of savage satire, self-diagnostic formal interrogation and exploration of Marxist political animus capable of reinventing the public roles of poetry: an extraordinary and sustained achievement.
The pressures on the subject are the concern of the new collection by Shara McCallum, Madwoman, from Peepal Tree Press, which plays across the full gamut of mental disturbance, as private mania, as feminist ‘madwoman in the attic’ resistance, as expression of Jamaican-American language-energy, as modernist persona, as radical kicking against the pricks. The madwoman poems are signalled in the titles and might thus seem to follow either modernist persona practice as with Yeats’s Crazy Jane pieces, or move according to a loosely confessional tradition, but here they are presented both with full artifice as persona works and as close fits to McCallum’s drives as a poet situated at the edge of identities, styles of address, boundaries. The prose poems in the collection gather force and turbulence admirably, disturbingly, with ‘Fury’ a poem at the core of the collection’s sequence of madwoman performances/incantations. As a Fury, the madwoman is lost in a hall of mirrors, with a parrot identity on her shoulder which squawks ‘Again, Again’ ignored by all. The time mania of the bird matches the madwoman’s tick-tocking obsessions, a ‘mad’ elegiac fear of time as destructive of experience: ‘In her fingers she briefly holds each memory before letting her hands fall back at her sides’. The loss of her time and times leaves her bereft of her past (she cannot be the girl she was in Jamaica), perhaps reduced to the parroting presence beside her head (like Flaubert’s ‘coeur simple’), or, most eerily, ‘become the single word delivered from its maw’. To become the word ‘again’ has implications that cannot be fathomed, but hints at time obsession again, to become the empty recurrence of moments being destroyed over and over. Or more psychoanalytically it is her being named as ‘again’, an othering (‘again’ derives from the German for ‘opposite’, entgegen ) – or as ‘madwoman’ being birthed from a language-mother as Ma stomach-gullet, a daughtering of herself as poem. Radical loss of memory is crossed with its opposite, the recurrence of birth at every moment, and releases an uncanny pluralizing of origin and selving processes. She has ‘no country’ but the map of ‘desire’s coordinates’ on her own body, and that scripting of her geography is sexual (country matters) but it is also recuperative, locally harbouring, processual as any touch on her skin triggers its cognates and counterparts across her lived embodying in the world. This pluralizing, beautifully captured in the quiet intensity of the language, engenders a many-sidedness that may strike us as self-divisive, or as liberatingly complex and self-othering, depending on the instincts you might have about what is culturally or psychologically mad. The madwoman becomes hysteric, anorectic, whore, mystic, mother, but each identity is as much for others and the others she is as it is a fixed self as site for performance. The hysteric cordons off danger ‘so others can believe in safety’; the anorectic starves ‘her flesh so others may eat’. But this other-centeredness only goes so far: the self-division is also a stratagem of controlled anger: so the whore’s sex ‘blooms thorns’; the mystic has dusty feet which ‘discredit her visions’; the mother’s quiet exterior masks ‘the storm gathering fury into its centre’. This is luminous, intensifying work which forges bonds as it listens so carefully to the parroting words of Id and supergo and to the thoughts at the heart of the madwoman’s experiencing in language, her sounds and senses and her furies, as it trains a fearless and uncensoring gaze upon inward and cultural worlds at this her edge.
Alan Halsey’s Selected Poems 1988-2016 is a real and revelatory pleasure to the eye and ear and mind, at times to the whole body and soul too, as the searching, ventriloquial comedy and guises bind together with some formidable learning and lightfingered radical making at so many junctures of time and language and art. The range is beyond belief, so good as to be chameleonic, super-histrionic, shape-shifting, but with always a fully wry energy in the inhabiting of past times, a sideways mockery allied with a very serious intentness of political purpose. The collection gather together some disparate sequences, mainly long work from here and there, alongside poems written since Rampant Intertia. Such wit and sagacity to the pitch of it all: just one example, one which turns, as so often with Alan Halsey’s work, on the delights and new energies the slight change of letters make to the look and meaning of what one says, most especially when they read as mistakes, errors, slips of the typo-tongue. ‘The Frankenstein Franchise’ ponders and celebrates the monsters generated by mistakes the knowing make. It opens by asking its addressee, poet Laura Moriarty, whether it wouldn't be better to rename ‘whoever / it is always writes my poems’ because the subjects hardly change – the renaming is exemplified by the invitation to join him at dinner with renegade compositional personae (‘thieves and thoughts // assistant assassins unsavoury as sugar’). The phonemic slippages are hardly alliteration or assonance: they are shifts in the lexicon at the phonetic level which show language is the ‘whoever’, language as a diverse field of belettered outlaw dynamisms. The shifts from ‘thieves’ to ‘thoughts’ generate micro-flows from the beginnings (the th-repetition) to the endings (the s-repetition) which channel into the sound and the print-shape of the ripple we see and hear (‘assistant assassins unsavoury as sugar’) which also heightens a sonic and letterpress awareness that registers the shared material in the two words ‘assistant’ ‘assassins’ (a-s-i-n) that work backwards (the internal double t in assistant recalls the t-play in ‘thieves and thoughts’) and forwards (we see though we do not hear the shared u-s-a-r conjoining ‘unsavoury’ and ‘sugar’. The little ballad of phonemes and letters is attracted to the sense we make of it insofar as these unruly language creatures assist each other to kill off a conservative view of author-centred poetics. But they work more as surprises that evolve into unfurling jokes that become freeform letterdrunk powers of joy on the tongue: the random sequences of sounds and letters create patterns scooped up by whoever to make sense. Other kinds of serious fun are to be had, so many here – noone but Alan Halsey could stage Peter Ackroyd, G.E. Bentley Jr., S. Foster Damon, the Ghost of a Flea, H.M. Margoliouth and the Man Who Taught Mr Blake Painting in his Dreams discussing, in detail, Blake’s Vala artwork. It develops into a ramshackle chorus of differences, in particular between the critics and those closer to Blake’s mad genius, the Ghost of a Flea and Man Who Taught. This is poetry brimming with intellectual fire, variousness of wit, sardonic dark Romantic bookishness alive and vibrant, huge in scope, tricksy and intricate in its probing of language, poetry, art, the graphemes and phonemes of the fluid imagination flowing with cool electric passion, just wonderful. What a selection this is.
Tara Bergin’s new collection begins and ends with the suicide of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s daughter and first translator of Madame Bovary, weaving together a very spooky voicing of Eleanor Marx’s deathwards voice with poems that work with the Flaubert: the effect is to frame the collection as a project exploring the ways contemporary female poets still feel their own extremes states of feeling as conditioned by 19th century patriarchy despite so many years of radical liberation: Eleanor Marx is alter ego because of her radicalism, her writing powers, her double nature as private partner (her husband revealed he had another wife) and public intellectual. The collection segues into Bergin’s own sequence of poems, not notably personal, but less persona-directed, and very much focussed on surreal and ‘hysterical’ nightmare experiences. The writing offers us parallels, with its staged allusions to Dickinson, to Strindberg’s Miss Julie, to folk tales and nursery rhymes, to work turning on hospitals and sanatoria; but the writing it most resembles is Stevie Smith (as though channelled through a medium trained in Dickinson and Janet Frame) – if Stevie Smith were ever to have been psychoanalysed by a creepy confidante, that is (as her alterego is to a certain extent in Over the Frontier). The non-Eleanor poems are so very like the Eleanor pieces that it becomes clear that the crazy morbidity of that persona is just one of many ghost figures the poems conjure for their analysand dreamwork. The poems have the unsettling comedy one associates with over-proximity of voice, as when a poem launches into a fantasy that the self harbours both Samson and Delilah as rival persons within, or tries to tame a lover who is revealed as lion, both beautiful and deadly. The combined oppositional forces are very Stevie Smith, as is the quietly desperate but finely tough-minded claritas of the struggle with 19th century inheritances and contemporary menace. The control of diction to ensure the claritas is brave and risky and so excellently achieved, as in this imitation of Ingeborg Bachmann:
Who counts the money?
Who sits behind a shield
and tells me the phone isn’t safe?
Who has her lunch at one?
Who shows me what I’ve done
and makes me poorer, richer,
whatever I want?
Who demands my number and my key?
Who is always warning me?
This is so plain-spoken yet so fatal in its voicing of a paranoia about the inner promptings, the whoever within, the secret sharers who might be hostile and evil fake guardians of the mind. This is a collection that seeps into the heart and speaks with those voices, quite uncannily.
In many ways the work knits in well with Shara McCallum’s exploration of extreme mental stress and relates, at its edges, with Alan Halsey’s work of release of the flights of language, and Keston Sutherland’s multi-levelled defence of a poetry beyond limit that attacks as it concedes: and all four avoid the pitfall of a courting of a medicalization of art as crazy symptom, proto-psychic posturing, or frightening psycho-poetics. They do so through care for the clarity of the risks being taken in the sequencing of a poetry beyond order. A poetry given over to the unconscious entirely would be indistinguishable from a poetry seduced by capital, by powers and superpowers, by victimizing forces. These are very different poets indeed: yet they share a courage to continue to serve art as a proud intellectual labour in the world, despite the promptings and seductions of the environment both proto-psychic and hegemonic.
Adam Piette teaches at the University of Sheffield, is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, The Literary Cold War, and is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen.