Issue 22: Adam Piette reviews Catherine Vidler, Khaled Hakim and Peter Mishler

Catherine Vidler, Composite lost sonnet 2_154_77_79_38_ 118_41_115_19_137_ 60_96_21_135_58_ 98_9_147_70_86_ 31_125_48_108_12_ 144_67_89_28_128_ 51_105_4_152_75_ 81_36_120_43_113_ 17_139_62_94_23_ 133_56_100_7_149_ 72_84_33_123_46_ 110_14_142_65_91_ 26_130_53_103_2_ 154_77_79_38_118_ 41_115_19_137_60_ 96_21_135_58_98_ 9_147_70_86_31_ 125_48_108_12_144_ 67_89_28_128_51_ 105_4_152_75_81_ 36_120_43_113_17_ 139_62_94_23_133_ 56_100_7_149_72_ 84_33_123_46_110_ 14_142_65_91_26_ 130_53_103 (Hesterglock Press, 2019)

Khaled Hakim, Letters from the Takeaway, and Other Distances (Shearsman, 2019)

Peter Mishler, Fludde (Sarabande Books, 2018)

Poetry is an art of elsewhere: because language always pulls whatever is being said, in the magnetic space of the poem on the page, towards other fields and sources and temporal zones along lines of invisible attraction, flows of meaning that can be parsed as etymology, allusion, tradition, backlore, store of community tale and fiction, but which feel like subtle tremors along the senses.

The candour or vivacity of the lines of attraction are various, and can entangle with the accumulations of meaning of the poem on its way, within its network of poems in the collection as it is read. Or poets may take it on themselves to overtly source their poems, and make the meaning-making a targeted and controlled exercise, as in a translation, imitation, or boldly allusive project. Such shadow-play can be technical, processual or pastichey: it is always, inevitably, about the act of meaning-making and mark-making in the atemporal space of poetry as a multidirectional historical language event.

Catherine Vidler has put Shakespeare’s sonnets through a procedure that variously churns the original into new texts, the language solidifying into new forms once subject to some automatic transformations according to arbitrary rules, and touched into final form by the compository imagination in the ‘here and now’. The point of the treatment of the poems is as much a display of the procedures as it is the variety of new objects that are produced, and as such a transtextual repertoire is being performed as well as composed, a game of permutation of the processual transformative tools that have been dreamt up as groundrule.

With Catherine Vidler, this opens up into other media, as the lost sonnets are themselves then reworked into palimpsestual fold-ins to generate art-objects (as here published by M58), or migrate into sound projects, such as her current experiments in 14-second sound pieces. I will just be looking at the pamphlet with the extraordinarily long numerical title, which I gloss as Composite lost sonnet for convenience.

The title is a 64-number sequence repeated, 64 a chess number which foregrounds opposition in pairs, and the numbers are linked to Shakespeare’s sonnets: that number determines the number of syllables of the actual outcome poem object, as well as determining the words used. The choice of 64 from the 154 does not follow any perceptible strict pattern, just a rough distribution, two per ten, and the numbers are then scrambled, presumably again semi-randomly (though there is a swing from early to late in pairs).

The first 64 is a syllable game; the second 64 uses a further technique , the fold-in method, which makes poems pairing first and last words, moving inwards a word at a time till the syllable count is hit. The inexactitude as well as the forbidding set of numbers of the title  is true to the emotional and intellectual logic of the treatment, one half more poet-made, the second more machine-made (if by machine one means the process as fully determining procedure).

A quick example: the first poem is ‘2’, so Vidler creates a two-syllable poem choosing from words in Shakespeare’s  ‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’: she chooses ‘Excuse’. In the second iteration, using the fold-in method, the poem generated is ‘|When cold|’, the first and last words of the Shakespeare.

The wit of the chance procedure emerges when we think a little – ‘Excuse’ in the Shakespeare is from the 11th line ‘make my old excuse’, imagining the loved one in forty years time, old and battered, being asked where his beauty lies, pointing to  his child and answering that the child will ‘make my old excuse’, that is both be my customary get-out line, and be the excuse for me being so old. Vidler’s ‘Excuse’ opens her lost sonnet sequence, so acts as a wry plea for forgiveness for the whole operation. The machinic ‘|When cold|’ rather chillingly emphasizes Shakespeare’s use of time’s destructive effects to win his lover over, the words boxed in to the coffin of their straight brackets.

A longer example will bring out the range of effects and more emotional and playful arranging at work. 113 in Vidler’s first set of 64 runs:

113_ Incapable, incapable me, I maketh, I function, I partly see. I, replete with shapes, shapes which latch, shapes which flower, shapes which feature you, my heart-object, shapes which more, which more and more. Day governs my form. But I favour night. Night which delivers vision. The mountain. The dove-bird. The crow-bird. The quick sea. The creature. The eye, effectually. Incapable me. Incapable me and my sweet shapes thus. Form and/or function. Day in day out. Day out day in.

This is working off sonnet 113:

Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind;

And that which governs me to go about

Doth part his function and is partly blind,

Seems seeing, but effectually is out;

For it no form delivers to the heart

Of bird, of flower, or shape which it doth latch:

Of his quick objects hath the mind no part, 

Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch;

For if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight,

The most sweet favour or deformed'st creature,

The mountain or the sea, the day or night,

The crow, or dove, it shapes them to your feature.

   Incapable of more, replete with you,

   My most true mind thus maketh mine eye untrue.

Shakespeare’s poem stages a division between the eye that sees and the eye of the mind, and moves to an extraordinary Berkleyean analysis of the lover’s obsession with the loved one and how that addiction to that one form shapes everything that is seen, generating a radical fictionalizing of the world. Vidler’s remake latches onto the word ‘incapable’ from the closing couplet and beats it into the new poem as violent self-reproach. Other pressing repetitions feature: ‘shapes’ from Shakespeare’s sixth line is repeated as though to signal that repletion is excessive repetition; and she picks out ‘form’ and ‘function’ and notes the cold administration they imply with that ‘and/or’.

What emerges is an interrogation of the form and function of the erotic lyric, with Vidler play-acting the fake display of weakness of the genre (and hinting at the psychological gender politics of the faking, a kind of reverse gaslighting) at the same time as reflecting on the form of her lost sonnet process: the shapes are the poem-objects on the page, and they stand in ironic relation to the curiously mocked-up and mocked-at object of desire, the ‘heart-object’. This underlines one point of the processual operation: it unpicks the crude rulebooks of formal verse (the regulations of the Petrarchan sonnet which we din into our students every year) by substituting rules so overt and crazy they strike the heart and mind as arbitrary.

At the same time, the remake that the numbers-crunching brings about allows for another poem to be made – for Shakespeare’s rhetorical use of nature to establish binaries (‘The most sweet favour or deformed'st creature,/The mountain or the sea, the day or night,/The crow, or dove’), Vidler substitutes radical choice (‘I favour night’) which announces the dark Romanticism of the project as affective artwork which, as Blakean vision (and not simply the function of the eye as it stands in the Shakespeare) intuits the natural beings as separate, sentient, individual, alive (‘The mountain. The dove-bird. The crow-bird. The quick sea. The creature.’)

The making is therefore also a channeling of new feelings and understanding, the generation of sweet shapes, sourcing the processual in Dadaist, surrealist, Steinian and Oulipo programmes of deconstruction, language-unconscious energies, chance release of the Mallarméan lyricism of the throw of the dice or the Cagean algorithm.

That ambivalence between the parodic display of rule of the machinic operation and the efflorescence of new language shapes of the aleatory as language-affect is set up formally with the double procedure of the 2x64 overall shape of the thing. If the first 64 stress the emotional and personal more (‘shapes which more, which more and more’), the second are literally generated by the machine-rule. The counterpart to 113 in the second half, for instance, opens: ‘since untrue | i mine | left maketh | you thus | mine mind | eye true | is most | in my | my you’.

But even here we can see the rule being composed aslant – Vidler omits ‘eye’  from the sequence (the second pairing ought to be ‘|I eye|’) and there are other minor squigglings of the line. And the new poem releases Beckettian lyricism too, a Ping effect, which scrambles and lays bare the I-you relations, the logic of projection, the political point of the remake (‘left maketh’). The double operation points to this fusing and blurring of the two forms and functions the process can be understood to be inhabiting: computational and numeral coding of the Renaissance language; radical emotional remaking of the language object as new heart-object.

Many of the poems in this collection play on Shakespeare’s term for his poems, ‘numbers’: Vidler’s first iteration of sonnet 17 runs ‘’My numbers, alive with poet-song. My verse-deserts, alive with numbers’. The poems she has generated are alive with the wit of this fusion of numbers as computational process, and numbers as the singing of almost edible word-things on the page. These are sweet shapes by a wonderfully gamey, comic intelligence and heart at work and play among the sonnets, bringing them into the transformative space of experimental poetics and remaking them as ‘poet-song’ radical lyric.

Khaled Hakim’s Letters from the Takeaway gathers together his work of the 1990s, when he was one of the tyros of the lively poetry scene centred round the East West Gallery run by Drake Stutesman and Thomas Evans, and the Platform Gallery off Brick Lane organized by Miles Champion and Tim Atkins. The collection preserves the extraordinary epistolary poems he wrote at that time, often for rowdy performance, works addressed to Brakhage (Hakim is an experimental film maker), Peter Gidal, Kurt Kren, and letters composed as if written from his place of work, a gruesome takeaway run by a fulminating boss.

The pieces themselves bounce with fantastic forces, satirical, theoretical, erotic, intellectual: are written in street demotic that sings with junky power, Leonard and Griffiths on speed, and swerve from in yer face high theory speculation on art (just wonderful on Brakhage, throughout) to Villonesque stories of endless parties, night-street dialogue, painfully funny drunken boat antics, and an unnerving and remorseless piss-take of the poet-as-maker. The effect is of a self-destructive poetics that just cannot take poetry’s pretentions or truth-claims, even when theorized and radicalized, seriously; at the same time the poems are enactments of a Brakhage-influenced compositional story-telling with/without linearity, blurred and fractured and gat-toothed. I have never enjoyed a collection as much: tremendously good, shocking, punch-drunk, brainy as hell, explosively there. Just listen a while to the dialogue with Brakhage:

Cliche No. 2. Somwhon asked had yoo taken drugs – & yu sd Wel wil Iv always bleevd anywon has th riht to do whatever they want w/ the body – provided it dosnt harm anywon …

The idea any action in th world dosnt ripple owt into the univers from the original Leibnitz plop, a current selfconsiusnes of awtonomy. Extrordinary partialsihtednes in th halfbakd eastern ethos

yoo shd kno ther is no possibility of the most destitut absenting from th world w/owt some trase tuching, even as yr parents left the trawma, even az our father left us w/owers, in ways im still finding owt abowt

inherited silens

This is prosy, chatty, but intense at the same time – the language close to the spoken articulation (only initially as funny because mispelt etc, this is a new language we learn to read and speak out loud) but also rising to flight and song (‘the most destitut absenting from th world’) that has intellectual heft and punch, and yes lyricism. The challenge to Brakhage whom Hakim got close to as an artist when working in New York takes no prisoners, least of all the gatekeepers and icons of the world of art – and uses the letters to enter ferocious caveats to the received wisdom and clichés of the trade.

What is strange about this extract is that Khaled Hakim did absent himself from the world of art for years and years, disappearing from view in 2000 and is only now reemerging as a super-lively and brightly obnoxious presence on the poetry scene. That absence can be sourced, partly here, to the ‘inherted silens’ that was the consequence of the childhood traumas, that takes on shape as the self-dissolving acid of the self-deconstructive procedures of the composition; but also present as a gamble that even when so absolutely away that the traces he left, these letters themselves, might work their Rimbaud magic whilst he was so destitutely absent. He dedicates the collection to ‘the Preserver’: well, thank the Preserver for these astonishing crackpot fire-eating poems. Best of all, in the whole book, are the letters the 2018 Hakim writes to his 1990s self: these are manic wicked flowers of evil, so captivating – buy and read the book to find these out!

If Vidler takes a complex line on Shakespeare, and Hakim on Brakhage, Peter Mishler’s Fludde sources his poems both in surrealist poetics by way of a variety of plainstyle renderings, and in a mid-century opera staging medieval drama. Why American surrealism disappeared from view is a question worth asking, and has something to do with Cold War politics crunching the life out of the left-surrealist remnant once Breton left New York; or rather, recruiting the deployment of unconscious ‘dérèglement’ of language and image either to straight commodification (Disney doing Dali, design and fashion doing desire), or into byways like Deep Image, compromised by narrow picture-thinking as a journey into the inner self, really a ‘tranquilization’ of the mind (Ekbert Faas on Robert Bly).[1]

Mishler’s work does not reference this pre-history, which is perhaps just as well: what he does do is source the poems in Benjamin Britten’s 1958 opera, Noye’s Fludde, which dramatizes one of the Chester Mystery plays, and which Britten wrote to be performed by school-children – Mishler performed in a production when a child. The poems sometimes track the opera as Biblical story, so ‘Noye’ is a monologue where Noah confesses he listens to ‘the pearl on my dresser’ (like the Gawain-poet), and picks at ‘the white pith of my thumbs’, like a haughtily indifferent god, whilst men and women drown around his boat:

Sometimes the boat

is flanked by swimmers

trying to catch up.

They raise their heads to breathe,

and dip them down again.

They raise their heads to speak,

and I can see their loved ones’

precious objects

strung around their necks

on chains

The dreamlike horror of this is muffled because set as dream; but evokes deep images from history, the Middle Passage, or from contemporary disasters and state cruelties, the drowning in the Mediterranean, the swimmers across the Mexican border. Noah fishes one body from the waters, and takes his rings, whilst his breath ‘[flowers] / timelessly behind us / in the frozen morning air’ – the get-out old excuse being that these are ‘timeless’ poems, that is detached from history and real deaths, a New Critical fallacy that did more than anything to sink surrealism in America. The poem, also, receives benediction from Britten’s opera, as it investigates the contribution children’s voices make to art: here the child is sacrificed, like Billy Budd, to the exceptional mission, and becomes a pearl as asset stripped from state victim.

The opera was performed at Aldburgh in 1958, and Mishler imagines Noye’s boat navigating the fens of East Anglia, and gives him the features and specious anger of the God in the Chester Mystery play (‘it is my likinge,/Mankinde for to anoye./Fourtye dayes and fortye nights/Raine shall fall for ther unrightes,/And that I have made through my mightes,/Nowe thinke I to destroye’).[2] As global warming threatens an apocalyptic flooding of the world, and the super-rich create their ark-like compounds and retreats, as capital seeks to exploit the very victims of the climate catastrophe in the Global South, Mishler’s simple-seeming dreaming takes on denunciatory power and vision: these are dreams to take with caution; a vivid, menacing and lyrical set of nightmares for the times.


Adam Piette co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen. He teaches at the University of Sheffield, and is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, The Literary Cold War.

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