Issue 21: Adam Piette reviews Peter Riley, the Big Energy Poets anthology, Noelle Kocot and Jonty Tiplady
Peter Riley, Collected Poems, 2 vols (Bristol: Shearsman, 2018)
Heidi Lynn Stales and Amy King (eds.), Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVox Books, 2017)
Noelle Kocot, Sonnets (London: Clinic, 2017)
Jonty Tiplady, The Eternal Inflation (Totnes: Title Press, 2018)
That Peter Riley collected his poems this year was a rare truly festive occasion, countering the general doom and its cohorts, its powers cabals factions: here at least extends now a field of words shining at the edges of the darknesses, with its forms and abstractions, its strange and demanding ethico-metaphysical questions, surmisings, dreams, collective performances.
With the vulnerability of lyrics (these mere words on a page from one heart to another) yet brimming with the energies of radical post-national posthuman epic (imagination acting out dream-tribe voicings, at cross purposes, transtemporal, grounded, instinct with many histories and journeyings), the poems here communicate across the years of composition as gifts and signs and marks from their time to us, already as though bequeathed, glinting with lucent spirit, created by and inspiring fleet textual mobilities of mind.
The advent of the Collected Poems has afforded Peter Riley the occasion to assume space and time as voiced song and abstraction beyond the future grave: and this chimes with one of his fiercest and most cherished motives, the tracking of collective artworks and being at and beyond vanishing point under the increasingly sinister claustral constraints of destructive time / powers / drives, dark late capitalism, culture-annihilative procedures now and across history.
There are too many gifts here to track in a brief review: yet the Collected does give you the chance to savour again, in new contexts, the long works that he made his signature (though each so different), to reread and relish again the texts with their tough lyric-epic scope, their intricate convolutions and knots of experiencing, languaging, making, their sustained and dedicated research into the vanished/vanishing worlds under erasure.
The great double sequence, Excavations, comes to mind (published in sections, with the two books of Part One, Distant Points, in 1995, then printed as Excavations by Reality Street in 2004): they form a great arch within the second volume, over two hundred pages of meditation on 19th century excavation reports by J. R. Mortimer, his 1905 Forty Years’ Researches in British and Saxon Burial Mounds in East Yorkshire, and William Greenwell’s 1877 British Barrows (with a coda dedicated to Thomas Bateman’s 1861 Ten Years’ Digging in Celtic and Saxon Gravehills).
The technique chosen is to weave together extracts from the reports (in italics) with voicings from vantage-points in history and culture that reflect on the marks and signs imagined to ‘sing’ out from the disposition of the bodies, remains and artefacts within the barrows (in clear type), and with fragments of mainly 16th and 17th century sung lyrics (in bold). The three voices come together to generate prose poems that dream on the dead very specifically, but not with narrow elegiac purposes: the burials and the way Mortimer and Greenwell so meticulously mapped the spatial coordinates, correlations and layout of the bones and their material accompaniments within the barrow space, are read as radical poems and performances of abstract significations, as speaking singing signs that bring together love and death drives, cultural and species thinking, class, tribe, gender and family logics and dreamwork, an antiquarian prehistory that is experimental, contemporary, alive with vocalizations of poetics, politics, collective desire.
The mutuality of the antiquarian and the lyric impulse (both seek to make the dead other sing again, to confess their meaning to us alone) is satirised at the same turn as enabling the release of accompanying motivations and identifications: for the very strangeness of the burial customs of the Neolithic peoples, the dismemberment, the staging of single, couple, numerous dead bodies/bones in jumbles of disordered sequences of bone and remains within material and artefact spaces, gives weird hope to the 21st century poet that the anti-humanist, abstract and ‘blackbox manifold’ complexities and disturbances of modern artworks and performances may be closer to core species enactments across time and space than you might have thought.
This is designed to make experimental poetry as antipathetical as possible to idiotic English-nationalist essentializing gestures through the bold and deliberately contradictory and compacted multivalence of the procedures: no prose poem is the same as any other, each barrow is ‘read’ according to different lights, under its own set of compulsions and inspirations, attentive as anything to the singularity of the site, as it is to the expansive and myriad-minded strands of thought being locally generated, as abstractions and performances.
Coming closer in to the writing, and the barrows/poems give up their specific sensings and thought-making exfoliations in ways both breath-taking and depth-eloquent: the antiquarian dreaming nudges potential ancient belief systems into life as poem-ideas / spatio-temporal constructions at the same time as the gaze on the dead, miming the excavators’ analytic measurements and speculations within their rational economy, is streaked through with radical empathies and counter-cultural passion, as though calling to the loved other to accompany / co-produce / energise the art-making, the song-improvisation, the loving acts of signifying against the atomizing forces of history and power.
The imbrication of shaping gaze and compositional drive enacts a collective gesture, receiving as much as giving: the dead speak not as puppets but as mysteries at the edge of nothingness, as 'sobjects', as beings beyond the taxonomising economy of the signifying system, and yet capable of generating song within the textual unconscious of the artwork, or rather as artwork.
The barrows attended to by Riley are burial mounds in northern England, mainly the Yorkshire Wolds: and it is tempting to read Excavations as a chthonic disinterring of a radical England beyond the grave of late capital’s depradations: but this would be to invalidate the larger senses of what is held as common across the spacetime coordinates (and Riley in his Preface is candid about how the mounds house ‘relics of a common humanity authenticated by a common fate’), and as truly other too in what is being traced from the lineaments of vanished cultures buried in the hills. This is less spiritual old England than it is a dada death play where the ghosts sing strange languages of ‘lamentation and celebration’, as though from ancient Greece, yet here and in England beneath our very feet, treading their strange chalky, clayey, shard-strewn, ashen, wastetip boards.
The baselines of the poems are readings of the mounds: to take one example very slowly, to give some sense of the extraordinary fusion of dreamwork, analysis, cultural contemplation, and flights of wild imagination at work in each prose poem - here is the account of a ‘double interment’ within burial mound C63, a barrow of the Garton Slack group in East Yorkshire near Driffield, excavated by Mortimer in 1873 (Mortimer’s text is happily available at the Internet Archive). Riley’s text, 34th of his 181 prose poems, runs:
And for a sign, four large flint flakes in a row along her back /a sign to whom/ a yellow pebble the size and shape of a hen’s egg set at the end of the row, at the base of her skull – route marks, ironies, sentences of affinity and yearning, the couple apart/together back to back and head to foot, the woman to the north /set as a sign for no-one to see and everyone to know/ and two assemblages of human bones side by side a few inches above the couple; that above the feet of the woman mainly large bones; above the man’s head, which was turned away, a much smaller heap: front and back of a skull (separated), half an ulna and a piece of tibia. A few delicate voice-like notations, mnemonic for what performance, what singing? “clear as a road sign without a road” | of lines forking through lives and circular arbours, sanctuaries of the god | of the renewal of love through growth into worldness, progression up the spine year by year to the sun’s marker – making a sign of hope to all | Antigone, Elektra, year after year.
Riley or his compositional ‘excavator voice’ does not track Mortimer accurately, but paraphrases, condenses, streamlines, moulds. Details are omitted of what Mortimer refers to as Grave “C” with its male body 2, female body 3 lying back to back and head to toe; such as the fact Mortimer is only half-sure the skeleton to the north is of a female, that he speculates she is forty years old from the teeth, that there was an ‘elegantly-formed drinking cup’ found crushed at the back of her head.
Riley’s poem also records spatial relationships not in the original report: the excavator-italicized text is therefore also recording impressions of the drawings in Forty Years’ of the artefacts and remains, translating them into prose. Riley’s Mortimer (let us call him M) is more intimate (writing ‘along her back’ whereas Mortimer refers to her as ‘it’), writing with an eerie precision that has a weird lyricism of its own, closer to Urne Buriall than 1873.
M takes sentimental liberties, too, despite the cold detail: the man’s head ‘is turned away’ for M, whereas Mortimer notes that it is on its chest (unusual) with ‘head to the east’. The assemblages of bones are given in some detail in Mortimer; M is more interested in the gendered difference: the large bones by the woman’s feet, the smaller bones beside the man, but itemized.
Accompanying M is a lover-poet-historian from our own time (let us name them L), gauging the burial as a set of signs, marks, as a text enclosing affects (‘sentences of affinity and yearning’) in ways that betray a need to find common cause (the affinities are being yearned for), reading the disposition of the couple as a lover might, tracing the bodies as still performances of emotional relation.
The couple is ‘apart/together’, buried back to back, but head to foot (like Bloom and Molly), with the man turning his head away. That separation is teased out too from the debris of bones, the sinister heaps of anonymous skeletal fragments speaking a halving and dismemberment of the couple’s love lives (‘front and back of a skull (separated)’) - again with intimations of adultery, sacrifice, torn affections. And, like Thomas Browne, L zooms out from the site to place the interment within the history of burial in Europe, finding affinities between the barrow’s buried enclosure (described by Mortimer as ‘a perfectly circular filled-up ring fosse, measuring 55 feet in diameter’ - see his fig. 536 below) and the circles of sun-god worship.
His greatest liberty is in reading the material disposition of the skeletons within the ring fosse as a lyric, as sung sentences, as vocal signs, as poems with ‘lines’ taking the geometries and cardinal alignments of Mortimer’s figures to signify lines of Neolithic poetry singing across time and world to all, including to us here and now. But how fine is the imagination released by this bold fiction, this identification not of self with buried selves, but of abstract experimental poetics with buried staged death-scening. How delicate the fiction of the four black flakes leading us up to the sun-egg at the base of her skull: read as a sign of the cyclical progression, as of chakras (or as the levels or horizons meditated upon in poem 124 of Part 2 of Excavations on Rothko and Ganesa), towards the sun figured as close to the imagining creative core of her lost being.
But also perhaps, given the dismemberment and violent separation of this couple as staged, figuring illicit desire within and against the patriarchy, or a defining of the sun god as female, as matriarchal: a religion made by Antigone and Elektra. The black flakes are read, also, as notations, musical notes along the stave of the vertebrae or along the lines of flight of the zoning generated by the gazes, angles, cardinal dispositions. We might hear the song sung if we lean a little closer, a song of hope created by our own acceptance of L’s fiction as something collectively understood. It sings if we hear the prose as poetry, if we begin, inwardly, as if singing along with Riley, Mortimer, M, L, she, he, the heaps of nameless dead, to intone the affective connectedness of cycles of being beyond this our lonely day.
Fig. 536. Plan or Barrow C. 63.
The prose poems spread far and wide, as they attend to the strange singularities of each burial, be it a child, old woman, warrior alone, a group, empty tombs with significant rubbish in mysterious cavities: and they explore the dark war culture and brutality of the customs and ‘performances’ registered by Mortimer and Greenwell without sentimentality or prostration before the other as unutterably good and dead. If they pay their respects, they judge also, and the voices taken on, like L and M, are often themselves ironized and satirized without pity.
But the 181 poems together draw us into an orbit of making that aligns our political and cultural situations with a ‘growth into worldness’, a creative community uncircumscribed by the powerfully minatory and restrictive neoliberal fictions of science, state, economy, globalization, a community daring to understand each other through the differential complexity and aesthetic intricacies of the arts of love, death, peace. The collected poems have such a collectivity in mind and heart: a quite magnificent achievement.
The dance-song of the historical imagination among words can speak with clarity of the worst as much as it can honour the best, as Peter Riley’s surpassing of the dialectic of past and present through fusions, breakages, interactions, cross-performances fully demonstrates. Yet the present and recent past has generated a future temporality of disaster and toxicity through the poisoning of the world which ‘climate change’ is an inadequate umbrella term for. Yet use it we can still do, as Heidi Lynn Stales and Amy King have done with the excellent anthology (with the rather clumsy title), Big Energy Poets: Ecopoetry Thinks Climate Change, that came out of BlazeVox Books a year or so ago.
The editors helpfully asked the poets represented to provide not only ecopoetic work, but also to accompany the poems with sections on their poetics, their process, their preferred ‘perceptual challenge’ to readers, plus suggested reading list relevant to their projects. So for example, Julie Patton has examples of her collage work, including her map of the United States collaged over with scraps from the rest of the world, black hand of justice crushing a derrick in Texas, &c., with poetics (‘displaying the gaps, elisions and silences and mis takes … of the creative process, [foregrounding] art as a living, breathing, dynamic PROCESS’ [p. 160]); her challenge: seeing if readers will put ‘your money where your mouth’ and buy a lot, give it to nature, let it grow wild.
The volume includes work by Joyelle McSweeney, her necropastoral project, countering pastoral as ‘a defunct, anachronistic, dead, imperial and imperialistic literary form’: she extracts from her play Dead Youth, staging teenagers ‘struck down by a variety of Anthropocene ails’ (p. 145). There’s Brenda Hillman, with a poem giving glimpses into the travails and chances of her activism, ‘Describing Tattoos to a Cop’: she has to tell the presiding officer she has an alchemical sign on her ankle, and the policeman has to write, in his little box: ‘MOON, LILY, STAR’ (p. 90).
Jonathan Skinner has a piece here that uses some amazing technology to chart bird song as though three dimensionally, which he allies with stanzas on blackbirds (‘the whole woods / connected / naturally plucked / roar / pulling us into thin air / whether we like it or not’) that seek to match the songs (necessarily slowed down to capture detail at human scales) with parallel ‘vocalization, modeling variety, density, and rhythm’ (p. 243).
Stephen Collis has a fine piece (‘Take Oil & Hum’) which has intricate demonstrations of our capacity to accept the globalized lies of destruction (eg the line ‘Driven snow west fleece over ocean tanker’ spots the way we accept the whitewashing of climate violence, that oil tanker and its fleecing of the world, by buying into a childish propaganda trick - Esso’s white as the driven snow, lamblike in its innocence - a trick which only describes the stupidity of our own willful ignorance). Included here is the important ‘Manifesto of the Biotariat’, dreaming and urging ‘the Earth as planetary commons’ through a radical animal politics. There are also pieces and activist texts produced together by Matthew Cooperman and Aby Kaupang with their Objectivist-inspired projects of ‘negative culpability’ (following Stephen Cope on George Oppen) intersecting with ecological thought.
Metta Sáma writes passionate poems that feel through and see the connections between environmental violence and racism in America: a chilling poem ‘Another way of looking at a blackbird’ reshuffles Stevens and imagines ‘the 13 dozen black birds / in the chemical-drenched trees’ reprising as in nightmare the lynching violence of ‘unmerciful white hands’. With comparable anger, Lucas de Lima speaks against a white ecopoetics complicit in the colonial and racialized logic of ‘resource extraction and human enslavement’ (p. 210), the fact of climate change as violence done to the Global South. This is a beacon of an anthology, summoning, denouncing, bewildering, testing connections, radicalising, weaving texts against the storm.
The Clinic small press brought out a little pamphlet of Noelle Kocot’s sonnets in 2017 and they sing their lines and form to the recognizable double tune Kocot has made her own, strange and high octane comedy and improv running against dark elegiac turbulences, released surreal energies and left field bravura, tainted at the edges with growth into end of the worldness. Her neighborhood is still burning, the collection opening with acknowledgement of the mourning she is locked into, after the terrible death of her composer husband, Damon Tomblin, in 2004 (‘Anniversary reaction signals incomplete / Mourning. My mourning will never be / Complete.’)
At the same time, what is being attended to are visions and consequences (as in the game of severed sections and incompatible levels), miming manic image-making jazzed up (as if by Coltrane, Parker, Jarret - Tomblin’s muses) against the syntax and shape of the sonnet form, something like the way one might perform an Emily Dickinson poem with the harsh sardonic sneers of a Burroughs acting out some high and ecstatically camp routine.
‘Orange’, for instance, takes up one of Kocot’s motif-words (‘An orange radio is all I need’ opened the Poem from the End of Time collection, for instance, ‘orange’ taken from Cixous, as we shall see) and listens to its darker senses:
First, find the finest optical moment,
The flaming gook of our heavy puzzles.
Are you climate-controlled? Just asking.
The rinky-dink body becomes words.
The racist term of the second line points to napalm, the title ‘Orange’ thus turning to Agent Orange: the Vietnam War is a heavy puzzle only according to a certain point of view, presumably the view of current history as mass prejudice (‘the finest optical moment’ crossing war rhetoric - ‘their finest hour’ - with nationalist cinema, within a scrambled idiom - ‘finest optical moment’ near to but skew-whiff off away from the finest possible/optimum moment).
The defeat of that war for the US is under renewed procedures of denial (it’s a puzzle because it won’t be understood, heavy because reworking 1970s vet-grunt slang) and therefore veiled behind racist neo-imperial collective dreamwork (scoped as war movie and television ‘screen’ memory). Racism as America’s dream cinema ‘becomes words’ by way of a globalization of command and control, a climate of opinion, but also the disinformational propaganda underpinning deliberate climate change as post-Vietnam reprisal violence wreaked upon the Global South in the Republican base’s imaginary.
The sonnet proceeds, though, to forget this political subtext, obscuring it behind fake aphorism (‘And there are no sailors anymore to catch’) which plays at the intonations of imperial nostalgia and regret at the same time as performing misdirection into lazy abstraction, a switch and bait effect. What is turned to, symptomatically, are the ways this renewed-again racist States has been turning the mind solitary and abstract, globalized but off kilter all the time like the planet itself: ‘The world seems tipped somehow, and / I am almost a cube’.
To be almost a cube is to be climate-controlled to such an extent that the mind is multiplied by the mass prejudice of its nation as though by its own square (‘square’ ideology again taking us back to 1970s lexicon), a magnification as if each US citizen were the same unit and therefore capable of being multiplied once, twice, thrice by its own fake ‘collective’. To be almost a cube is also to become an abstraction, a being geometrically transformed by the optical moment of stateside TV, that cubical box in the corner of every mind.
What fuels all this racist sublime is apocalypse, apocalypse now and again and again: ‘Knowingly and / Scarcely ended, the times go on and on.’ The sonnet dwells close to Berryman here, close to the never-ending terminality of those dream songs. Kocot’s sestet moves, like a dream song often does, into the madhouse then (‘The introductions are crazy around here’), and addresses the loved one (as though this were a lyric!) with some Browningesque convolution and baroque anacoluthon (‘your charisma is a mortgage to a / Sensate skein of wool’): that actually only makes any sense at all if it is about both the ways wool is collectively pulled over the nation’s eyes by the state’s economy of grace and favours; and the ways the nation state continues to gamble with its citizens’ futures through fictions of a phony godhead and bogus eschatology - the sensate skein of wool being (one might speculate) the counterfeit lamb which will open up the seven seals and start the finest optical moment of Revelation.
Kocot’s voice then acknowledges the unreal funhouse of the dream factory as the motor behind the abiding fusion of personal-psychotic visions and national fictions of the end of days, as generating the weirdly contentless (because so censored) ideology endorsing stateside temporality: ‘The movie doesn’t / Exist: it’s continuity we describe’. Continuity in cinema equals continuity of policy heading for the end of the world: as racist dogma writ over the world’s climate, deploying concealments, visual/textual weaponry, delusional calculations, misdirections, deep drift, and so on and so on. Kocot’s extraordinary poem ends with the lines:
Over the droning matrimony, hail over
The fig. You know you are alive and orange.
This is meant to be baffling, like some baroque puzzle, or surreal gameplay. The coded allusion to Revelation, though, in the third quatrain might prove a key to what’s under lock. When the Lamb opens the sixth seal, which is terror, a hail of stars is triggered, which fall like figs: ‘And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind’ (Revelation, 6:13). What is remembered is the hail of bombs on Vietnam, the hail-spray of Agent Orange on the fruit and fauna of the landscape. This is modernised with allusion to drone warfare, and spliced into a confused vision of fascist demagoguery (Hail Leader) lording it over all desire, whether between lovers in no longer quite holy matrimony, or within the libido of the subject (the fig as sexual symbol).
We are ‘alive and orange’ has all the passionate defiance of a bold statement, and must be speaking with the accents of Hélène Cixous, whose 1994 essay ‘To Live the Orange’ took orange to mean living interculturally, intersubjectively, in-between the ego and the other, a counter-colonial act. And it is a woman’s imagination as sparked by another, as Cixous was inspired by Clarice Lispector.
In the world of the late 2010s, however, the grey world of politics has corrupted the clarities of the orange of creative female energies, and poisoned its present and future with the post-Vietnam global violences: the ‘we’ may be the feminist collective, but it signifies too the victims of the warfare state and its hails and drones and agents. An important poem from a poet writing with quite extraordinary daring and boldly symptomatic strength of mind and imagination.
Another fine pamphlet to note is Jonty Tiplady’s tremendously lively The Eternal Inflation from Title Press, a golden A4 booklet that resembles (as a friend remarked) a (not-so) classy restaurant menu, and which signals the line taken within the sequence about the economy behind the inflationary rhetorics of the terminal/toxic world. The sequence is made up of ten 28-line poems, each occupying an A4 page: the long lines scanning roughly to seven beats, so quite ballady to the ear.
The opening poem zeroes in on the unsettling question ‘How do we carry the loss that contains us’, and finds a kind of answer in a speculative fiction register, looking forward in SF style, as through a future anterior lens, at the mass extinction event happening now. ‘I have a wild stream of extinction in me’, the poet states, with a queer mix of bravado and shock. The lines move fast and jump-cut with nervous energy, despite the heavy-going formal patterning, as though in panic, as though driven by that wild stream of extinction as well as miming the inflation (moral, technical, economic, metaphysical, climate-c0ntrolled) that is exploding the world - with the bloated lines and big sequential ambition and the golden casing.
The life of the subject, or its confusion, or ‘second life’ is the subject of this line, we cannot tell what ‘it’ refers to: ‘It comes through like nothing else, scribbled out the image for fun’. As the world shifts into posthumous virtuality (second life as the game platform and as afterlife), the posthuman life ‘comes through like nothing else’: ie has power like a bang not a whimper, but also emerges into being like nothing else, is a nothingness.
The second life scribbles out the images of this world, this first life, for fun seemingly (like Judge Holden with his erasure of historical records in Blood Meridian). What is being generated by this nothing which nothings is the formation of ‘a future infinite null’, with the same continuity obsession intuited by Kocot: ‘And continues to form a future infinite null’ (my emphasis). ‘Null’ breathes Mallarmé onto the page’s white space, a science fictional poetics of annulment that aligns modernism’s dream of extinction, its inflationary long poem, with the current ‘zeitgeist thrill’ of the Anthropocenic subject, so ‘spaced out and crushed’ by the loss at work within us.
How to write the immense loss that is carrying us? Is there a poetics that makes sense in and of such loss? ‘Bereavement in the future anterior’, Tiplady writes: what a topic, and yet these tombstone poems with their faux-jaunty somersaults, power turns, vanishing tricks and blasts of eloquence, such dreamy ballads of the end, such fine rhythm and syntax and light-fingered grace (‘A sliver of pronouns falters at the cracked up thin sky’) still dare to charm us into double awarenesses, of the ways lyric, language, aesthetics, modernism helped construct the dream of the end, and equally act as beautifully alluring invitations to resist.
Mortimer has, for instance, ‘Four flakes of black flint occurred in a line upon the vertebrae, at the farther end of which was a small yellow pebble. Fig. 544 indicates the position in which they were found. This pebble is nearly the size of a hen’s egg, and one of its end is slightly battered’ (p. 215).
Eg Thomas Brown’s ‘In a Field of old Walsingham, not many moneths past, were digged up between fourty and fifty Urnes, deposited in a dry and sandy soile, not a yard deep, nor farre from one another: Not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described: Some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jawes, thigh-bones, and teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion.
Alluding perhaps too to the incumbent President’s hair: the rapper Busta Rhymes at the 2017 Grammys called him ‘President Agent Orange’: timesofisrael.com/rap-artists-savage-agent-orange-trump-at-grammys.
Adam Piette is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War, and co-edits Blackbox Manfold with Alex Houen.
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