Issue 23: Adam Piette reviews John Wilkinson, Sean Bonney, Seedings issue 6, Eleanor Wilner

John Wilkinson, Lyric in its Times: Temporalities in Verse, Breath and Stone (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019)


Sean Bonney, Letters Against the Firmament (London: Enitharmon Press, 2015)

Seedings issue 6 (summer 2019), ed. Jerrold Shiroma

Eleanor Wilner, Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2017 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019) 

A poem gets written in its own time, within a specific cultural moment with the considerable complexity that that entails; and that means a special burden is borne by the text: having to wear a mantle woven from imaginary-to-plausible discursive threads of denotation assumed by historicising readers. Most readers of poetry of any sophistication at all will have a use for the arrows that are taken to point out, like extrasensory antennae, from the text on the page out to the world of its context, its compositional frame, its historical horizon.

Having pulled down the cathedral of New Criticism so many decades now ago, it would be crass to counter this allusive hermeneutics. A quiet pastoral poem means differently if it is understood to have been written in wartime, for instance, as Geoffrey Hill once remarked.[1] And great pains may have indeed been taken by writers at specific occasions to respond to, generate and sustain political responses to contemporary injustices, collective cultural understanding and bonds, explorations of absolutely new or absolutely dangerous technologies, behavior, mass movements, cabals, systems of control.

It is a point of more than scholarly accuracy to know when a poem was composed and published, its genetic journey through its various textual manifestations: for history is always the case. At the same time, limiting the poem to its year of composition / publication, and its life to its reception by that specific contemporary readership is criticism as stranglehold.


This is one of the arguments made by John Wilkinson in his remarkable book Lyric in its Times – the title puns surmisingly, inviting you to assume that lyrics are stuck in their compositional and publication histories, and then baffling that assumption with the book’s argument for a plural sense of historical reference and temporality when responding to poetry, as in ‘the lyric poem exists in its many times’.

The monograph has many targets, including a deliciously subtle critique of Objectivist credences, a revision of Adrian Stokes’s more single-minded readings of art in order to establish the brilliant exploration of temporalities in verse, stone, breath, even a testy questioning of the ‘unmoving block accumulations’ of late Prynne’s satirical post-poetics (the ‘poetics of seizure’ of the ‘progressively de-cadenced anti-verse’ [147]); but it is this impatience with a narrowly conceived historicism which I dwell on here.

With some stunning close readings that blend an Empsonian febrility of tact in response to ambiguities in patches of tough and tangled text with a mobile and ultra-sensitive openness to the disruptive and social complexities in those same quotations, Wilkinson performs a deliberately excessive and loving, difficult and exacting set of readings of poems by his own neo-romantic canonical line from Shelley through Muriel Rukeyser, W. S. Graham and Frank O’Hara  to Barbara Guest, whilst attending too to key contemporary writing, with particularly luscious interpretative work done on poems by Cody-Rose Clevidence and Drew Milne.

Partly by demonstration, partly by robust argufying, Wilkinson establishes the complexity of temporal reference within artworks and poems: the close readings of 20th and 21st century work spark off equally closely argued readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Shelley (with a richly fascinating defence of Defence of Poetry, and moving meditations on ‘The Cloud’ and other poems), and the introduction has a super-smart sense of the limitations of the historicist method:

If the work of poetics should properly be to approach poems as linguistic cryptograms figured out for evidence of the ideological assumptions saturating them at birth, readings that fail to acknowledge their own contrary and distorting desires indeed are to be deplored. But this book does not aim to use poems to such evidentiary ends. Poems written centuries ago are here read as emerging into contemporaneity, resonating with our times, because they are hybrid and recurrent object-events. ‘History continually arrives as differently as our most recent minute on earth’, as W.S. Graham, a poet central to this book, declared. (2)

Note that the critique of historicist readings is not anti-historicist as such: it takes a more radical sense of contemporaneity as always saturated with other times as well as its own moment; as in a real sense accorded with early modern and modernist apprehensions of times as hybrid and recurrent, and, in the understanding of lyric, activated by a probing awareness of the ways poems catch fire and intervene in our times through their living enactments of what Wilkinson defines as ‘repeatable evanescence’, an intimacy of eventful feeling and layered speculation that crystallizes and constellates in lines of strange force and moment, again and again (because recorded as artwork), despite and in light of the fleetingness of such object-events.

One example of the intricate close reading style has to suffice: and it is the readings of Barbara Guest that stand out, given Wilkinson’s determination to cast a spotlight on her relatively neglected work’s studiedly awkward grace, its extrospective and transformatory brilliance. Pursuing his stone thematic, he closes in on a page of Rocks on a Platter, Guest’s late text in her late style, pushing beyond the lyricism of the early work towards a seemingly forbidding step by step analytic-harmonic poetics. The text begins cryptically with ‘Is evanescence a wool beggar?’, includes the equally enigmatic ‘thee GLOSS GLOSS’ (cheekily inscribed beneath “’Bafflement’”) and ends with the figure of a Yeatsian Dolphin emerging from and as artwork (fusing painterly and poetic iconicities in her own form of New York School transmedial process):

                                    there! it slides into view

                                                      the Dolphin,

                  before the moment oversteps,


                                    the hum pour his ivory.

Wilkinson weaves forth a dazzling multilayered explication of these baffling lines, showing how they network out into the rest of the poem and her lifework (the sonic links that ‘hum’ is nested within point to consonance with the concept  humus, for example)  as well as deep back into lyric tradition, with the calling out to Ovid, Wordsworth, Yeats, whilst summoning type-scenes from classical mythology and expanding reference out into the art-making of her world (allusions to Cy Twombly are noted by Wilkinson).

He structures his readings according to a three-pronged analysis, dependent on Guest’s own theorizing and practice: text as ground and ‘sounding substrate’ (167), a sound surface that hums the lines into breath’s being; intertext as resonance, the manner in which the lines sing and tough it out against the language of lyric and critical thinking across history (for instance, the repeated engagement with Adorno’s ‘The Moment a limit is posited it is overstepped’); metatext as reflexive click of the camera eye of fabricating consciousness on its own operations.

Wilkinson argues, with some deft and startling speculations on the terms of the text on the page, that the intertextual res0nance challenges the closed circle that is the temptation of a bewitchingly unifying sonority; and that the textual self-consciousness reveals the poem as object-event in process of being made, in concert with other voices, eyes, minds, language communities. The plural temporalities engaged with in the poem’s textures and flow are crucial to the ways experimental poetics can clear passage through the Scylla of high lyric, with its stress on sheer presence and dreamy unity, and the Charybdis of tough-minded constructivism with its intellectual and acerbically diagnostic separation of the powers of text, intertext, metatext.

For Wilkinson, the many times of lyric in work as blithe and sophisticated as Guest’s help engender ‘a dialectical drama, a push into emergence, a falling back onto the page of text, the click of the surveying lens, the dip beneath the surface’ (168). Note the four moves here: the push into emergence the work of text as sonic substrate, the falling back onto the page of text a rhetorical consequence of allusive resonance, the click of the lens the metatextual abstract control of operations – the fourth element is left as a mysterious aftereffect, an othering and textually unconscious mystery as unfurling, created by the combination of the dialectical energies of the three levels working through and across and against each other.

Guest’s lines become freighted and metaphysical as Wilkinson accumulates readings and potential significances with the tripartite method: specifically through a detailed consideration of the meanings of ‘hum’, of ‘gloss’ as activated by the poem (gloss as interpretation, as painterly shininess, in relation to the equally slippery ‘glitter’), suggesting a counter-paratactic sequencing of line events that involves readerly daring among the gaps, and a hyper-awareness of the singular and triplicate meaning-making and sound-dialectic going on.

Sara Lundquist has suggested the dolphin in these lines was imagined by Guest as ‘her reader’s incentive and recompense, for glossing, for attending, for immersion, for risking getting lost in her vast and complex experimental sea.’[2]  Wilkinson might demur: the dolphin, because of the strength of the inevitable allusion to Yeats’ Byzantine mosaic of the ‘dolphin-torn, gong-tormented sea’, instead intra-allusively nods towards Guest’s poems ‘Saving Tallow’ and The Türler Losses where dolphin skin signifies as a mysterious writing surface, more uncannily alive than the stone artifice of the Yeats. Or, as Wilkinson puts it, ‘an intersubjective integument, a pierced and written boundary – what Guest rides vocally is what has scribbled, splattered, hurt and pleased at special, intimate points in her own historical body’ (171).

The dolphin/gloss page constructed by Guest in Rocks on a Platter stages the emergence of an image of the writing process being captured before Adorno’s Moment, sliding into the projector frame and before the metatextual camera eye like a glossy, glittery, gruesome patch of Balzac’s  peau de chagrin, accompanied by the humming (after-vibration of the tormenting gong?) of various meanings that liquefy the petrifications of formal artifice (the ‘ivory’ of the dolphin now pourable, as colour, as phonemes, echoing off ‘before’, no longer tough and dentine) because taken as if before the analytic intelligence has objectified and frozen language into rock-solid image.

Yet at the same time and in the same times, and informed by the other times of the text’s multiple pasts and intertexts, and its many futures in the differing minds of future readers, the lines create their own moment as steps taken down the page and into consciousness, by way of a serial set of intimate points in the various-minded tradition and in Guest’s own historical body; the human transformed into hum, the I-voices of reader/writer into the liquid ‘ivory’ of art (Austen’s two inches of ivory), without aestheticist ivory towering, and free of the game theoretics of a constructivist stone-hearted parataxis. This is a book to marvel at and with, to be inspired by as companionable breath, as tremendous defence of poetry, as manifesto for the rocky three-phase dialectical enactments of art in living language generating the fourth dimension of lyric.

Temporalities obsessed Sean Bonney too, particularly in these last years and after what struck him as the monumental potential unleashed by the 6-11 August 2011 riots in London and cities across the UK, triggered by the death of Mark Duggan, shot and killed by the police on 4th August. It must seem strange to read a ‘review’  of Letters Against the Firmament when it was published four years ago by Enitharmon – this is not a review, then, but a gesture of tribute, an acknowledgement of his passing and the shock this has caused.

These letters are post-poetic in much the same spirit as Prynne’s textual sabotaging displays – but they insist, really very much demand, that the politically revolutionary and necessarily violent advocacy of activist art be communicated so that it can be understood by the enemy; no, further, it is a poetry that only the enemy can understand, in Bonney’s own phrase. That is, the language and punch of the political gesture has to have the power to attack minds sheltered behind heavily policed bourgeois borders and prejudices and ideology. And that attack potential includes, especially includes the fake fellow traveller, the radical-with-a-job, the salaried Marxist who might be teaching Bonney to their students. The letters are addressed to just such, and bite with venom and bile, deep striking satire, satire so uncompromising that it must have burnt many of his friendships away, yet admirable too, like reading Rimbaud on speed.

But it would be a mistake to take this radicalism as simplistic and brickbat-confrontational, simply: what emerges from reading the collection, breath-taking and violent and eloquently fuck-you as the letters are, is a strange theory of temporality, learnt from the Marxist tradition, and sustained by the very form and practice of Bonney’s politics. Taking as a given that it is only those living at the most out-there margins of culture, the undercommons of the many living in poverty, hunger, joblessness, zero hour slavery, who really understand the violence of that culture, the true malevolence of the enemy, the police and the masters of oligarchy / plutocracy governing the polis, Bonney constructs in these texts a double theory of history.

On the one hand are the times as understood within bourgeois culture, obsessed with sustaining power relations as they stand, basing those powers on constructions drawn from fictions of the past, mystifications concealing the compulsions of command and control; and on the other the other world of the commons, moving towards futures defined and dreamt by a radical politics. Those two time zones never coincide: indeed, bourgeois control systems are designed to nullify, buy off and numb the alternate futures as designer dreams of an irrelevant or commodified rabble at the margins of culture. Except they do: they do coincide – at extraordinary moments when radical anarchist energies unleash and take to the streets. They coincide as riot.

What Bonney then argues, however, is as uncompromisingly plurally historicist as Wilkinson’s three-ply dialectics, but with a quite different animus and bearing. The two worlds of the bourgeoisie and the revolutionary coincide as riot because they strike into being a multiple presencing of other historical flashpoints, much like a chronotope or a punctum, because those living the riot are so hyper-conscious of their potential just so to do in the here and now of London, 2011. This is a post-poetics because formed by critical theory and art-thinking that only an innovative radical poetics can conceive; yet the poems (as experimental shaping of potentia) shift to letters (as in direct and passionate direct action and activist persuasion) because of the very same pressure of street politics that are unleashed by the riot, demanding more than aesthetics.

Meditating on Hölderlin in one of the letters written some time in 2013/2014, Bonney unpacks the implications of the German poet’s theory of ‘counter-rhythmic interruption’ in his ‘Notes on Oedipus’. Hölderlin, Bonney writes, is thinking about the moment of fate which compels us out of the orbit of our life, ‘the very mid-point of inner life’, into ‘the eccentric orbit of the dead’, in Hölderlin’s words. But, Bonney insists, that fate is not mythical but political and real; and it is also a thing of prosody, concerns the fault-line  ‘that runs through the centre of that prosody’ (115) – and it is along the fault-line that the only poetics worth the candle exists. It is when the language folds in on itself and stumbles and the tectonic shift occurs that the fault-line releases and enables the coincidence of the two worlds in the riot-event:

the calendar, as map, has been split down the middle, into two chronologies, two orbits, and they are locked in an endless spinning antagonism, where the dead are what tend to come to life, and the living are, well you get the picture […] You’ve got one track, call it antagonistic time, revolutionary time, the time of the dead, whatever, and it’s packed with unfinished events: the Paris Commune, Orgreave, the Mau Mau rebellion. […] And then there is standard time, normative time, a chain of completed triumphs, a net of monuments, dead labour, capital. (116)

When history and state violence produces a ‘sub-rhythmic jolt’, like some ‘radioactive catastrophe’, or the killing of Mark Duggan, for instance, there will be generated ‘a sudden alignment of revolutionary and normative time’, animating the dead metaphors of temporality and poetics, and unleashing ‘a network of forces, places of insurrection, places of divergence, moments when everything is up for grabs. Well, that’s the theory’ (116-7). What is remarkable about the theory is how intensely it engages with poetics and history to construct the zombie revolution: the two chronologies coincide because of the prosodic fault-line that sustains the dead metaphor and memory of all those unfinished events: and unleashes a living reenactment of the other times.

When Sean Bonney died he disappeared much as Rimbaud did. As these letters argue, so passionately and woundingly, Rimbaud cannot be understood without Marx, and cannot be read without living the unfinished history of the Paris Commune. If he died to become Rimbaud-as-text, it is because these letters burn with metaphorical gothic-revolutionary incandescence waiting for a spark to live on the streets again as transformative, as riot, as radical post-poetics of the commons as the time of the dead.

The suspension between the two worlds of deadening retrospective present and zombie proleptic anticipation might be like waiting intensely for the Dolphin to come before the Moment, or like dreaming of riots in a seminar room; or it might be like getting stuck in an aesthetic problem that masks fearful contradictions. Adam Phillips, writing about phobia in his essay ‘First Hates’, has an anecdote from the art world that speaks to the phobic side to suspension in unfinished projects, in stalled dialectic:

Describing the way he made sketches, Bonnard wrote in his notebook: ‘The practice of cropping of the visual field almost gives something which doesn’t seem true. Composition at the second degree consists of bringing back certain elements which lie outside the rectangle.’ The phobic person is suspended between the first and second degree of composition; he assumes, quite sensibly, that making the transition will break the frame rather than, as Bonnard intimates, making it a frame for something that seems true. He hovers in his terror, unable to make the decisive transition. (‘First Hates’, One Way or Another [London: Hamish Hamilton, 2013], 44-59 (p. 51))

The artwork as unfinished project, or incomplete representation, might be taken as unsuccessfully attempting to represent the phobic situation (because so hampered by the zombie state of waiting, or because so stunned by the amnesiac and censoring culture of the retrospective present), but begins then to figure itself as phobic object. Phobias are about the past, addictions the present, compulsions the future: the phobic suspension as art project mimics as neurosis the retrospective culture with its chain of completed triumphs, its net of monuments, at the same time as it keeps alive, both as addiction to repetition of the suspensive dead labour, and as compulsive dreaming of the second degree of composition, the grounds of the possibility of decisive transition through counter-rhythmic interruption.

All the more impressive, then, when an art work, such as Guest’s late lyrics and Bonney’s letters, manages both to stage the suspension as phobic and to initiate aesthetically the counter-rhythmic interruption by way of an affect-activating and speculative network of compacted temporalities, in the same text – there! what was outside the frame slides into view.

Translation acts as a crucible for the fusing into phobic culture of the elements that lie outside the frame of reference of the language. The summer 2019 issue of the California journal Seedings continues the exemplary work done with translation by duration press since the 1990s, through the kind offices of editor and publisher Jerrold Shiroma. The journal specializes in Beat-Surrealist work, and has continued to provide a platform for the Englishing of Latin American and European voices that connect to that internationalist tradition.

In this sixth issue, notably, we have Mexican painter and poet Valerie Mejer Caso’s sequence ‘The True Loves’ translated by Torin Jensen, featuring collage works reworking global maps alternating with poems tracking refugee stories of spooky hieratic violence and death. ‘Thanksgiving Day’ stages a postcolonial nightmare with a myth of a giant Gulliver saint destroying villages, punishing a woman who dares speak out by becoming oven to her dough:

    the woman is made of dough

(flour and water, yeast


and the stone man

tied with cartilage,

the fired oven with the

nearly orange or nearly blood

stones or words

before the world, like

the betrayal of the light, emptied into stars

of a port without people (35)

Conquistador atrocity fuses with a longer story of Catholic religion and European fiction as agents of terror in the mind (the saint monster wields the bread trope of his faith, the giant is Swift’s, the plot from Grimm). At the same time, as the collage that accompanies ‘Thanksgiving Day’ pictures, the poem maintains a global and ethical world-view that remembers the free people and their light, ‘before’ the conquest, before the construct of world – the sequence is addressed to a fellow artist from India, and the collage brings India and Mexico close, and is inscribed with the words ‘invisible El gigante’ and ‘Qué es la dignidad’, with the last phrase interrupting the first; so both intimating as warning a common enemy, and sharing the urgency of finding a manner of ethical sustenance under onslaught that will act as counter-rhythm.

The issue has the fine work of the French poet, Isabelle Garron, an extract from her Variation sequence, translated by Eléna Rivera. Here too, histories compact into the lyric generating strangeness of revelation; the poet is struck by illumination alone in the Alps, her lover stuck behind and below her at a landslide:

sweaty toward the peak then

the cry came as if

torn out

torn out in advance

it had to do wi

th experiencing

radiance – going

back up much

later       .this radiance

that .I would gi

-ve myself

The scene reprises a thousand sublime moments in a brisk post-romantic gesture, so is quietly feminist, topsy-turvical like the full stop marking the beginning of a new phrase mid-sentence. Language is stretched to accommodate the shock and cry, alienating the voice from the poet just as the cry seems torn from an other, and yet generating strange consonance (like the rhyming of  ‘wi’ and ‘gi’ ) – and the revelation twists time, the cry torn in advance, as if before the radiant moment. This radiance is the poem on the page as much as it is the idea of the sublime once exclusively male and Manfred: more movingly, it is the sense of experiencing in advance as such, as the gentle rhyming intimates, an Adorno before and a claim to avant-garde, as well as a receiving of and opening up to a posthuman prehuman source of warmth and energy.

The issue has other fine pieces, Luxembourg poet Anise Koltz’s Fire Eater elegies for her husband, translated by Pierre Joris, LA-based Thérèse Bachand’s typewriter poems, Panamanian-American Roberto Harrison’s work. There is a consistency to the quality of the work, a seriousness, a dedication to a clarity of engagement with difficult temporally complex extreme states, and an engagement with writing that stages varieties of feeling, thinking, experiencing as suspenseful (the gap and wait in ‘to do wi /th experiencing’, for instance) and yet as intimating a beyond to the phobic, through radical forms of translation that take cognizance of the freight of history and story.

Before Our Eyes gathers together a selection of Eleanor Wilner’s work since the 1970s, and consolidates her reputation as a dream lyricist capturing the lineaments of fictions of the collective unconscious understood as myth from other times, including the future. These can read as Jungian nightmare, or as minatory meditations on story-telling as estranging enchantment. The style is straight narrative, a prosaic surface that is countered by the weird nature of the stories being imagined, and by the vividness and detail of the fictions, as well as by the interruptive querying caused by the technique.

What begin as ordinary experience-narrations quickly change gear and swoop to realms beyond. ‘Night Fishing in the Sound’, for instance, begins prosaically enough, noting how sound seems muffled by the darkness, registering the invisibility of buoys whose bells are heard as they swing on top of ‘the oily waves’. Yet just as this familiar lyric gesture is established (poem as annotation of feelings and solitary experiencing), the poem swerves into the other dark:

                the water a black

so absolute it drinks light

back, unquenchable thirst

like that the shades in Hades had

for the hot blood of sacrifice –

how the dead swell, like ticks,

till they rise, bloated envoys

out of the curious dark.

The lines register as little shocks and shifts, like the way ‘back’ twists the rhythm and meaning of drinking light (drinking light back, the rhythm as enjambment says, really glugging it down, as if to destroy the rival element) as well as rhyming back to black, as though somehow the ‘l’ of light has been absorbed so forcefully it has disappeared from the night water’s own predicate. Or the way the very awkwardness of ‘shades in Hades had’ puts on display the hell within the damned, as well as the mere fact such a fiction is of course purely verbal, a thing of words and past superstition (something that had meant something some time in the dark and backward abysm).

Yet the superstition surfaces again, like a return of the repressed, like a reanimation of the dead as phobic nightmare, a reanimation very close to the way the poem is being constructed: the swell and ticks and rising speak to the rhythm of the lines as they surge and click their rising beats ( 'envoys'  suggesting poems like Pound's 'Envoi', the dead preserved, bloated, as roses might be 'in magic amber laid'), and do so maybe because of rather than despite the awareness of the risk of prurient pseudo-Gothic relish in the violence, the hot blood, the bloatedness of an imagination at feed. What price curiosity at this pitch?

It’s possible Wilner is not aware of W. S. Graham’s The Nightfishing yet there are rhymes between her poem and his, nevertheless; not least in the sense of the night sea space as soundscape substrate, and the shared sense of poetry as both ‘obstacle and vehicle at the same time’.[3] ‘The waves of sound sway’ in Wilner’s poem, ‘endlessly’,  she adds, after the line-ending, and her small craft is being tossed in the absolute dark of a ‘restless channel’ that lies ‘between two seas – one fresh, one salt – / as if suspended’.

The phobic state of suspense, rapt in contemplation of the mind’s inherited forms, out there as history, internalised as unconscious flow (‘the hot blood of sacrifice’), exerts its pressure as substrate (‘the dark sound blind’), inhabits the compositional present as resonance from the deep past (the shades in Hades). The phobic object being encountered is the poem as vehicle, both the craft and the swell and rise of the waves and the sounds of the night; but it is obstacle too and threatens the art-making at its core (‘sinking the line / deep into the heaving black’).

Wilner’s poem swerves away from this intimation into a sentimental close, the rise of the ‘tsunami of / overwheming sun’ and the ‘cauldron of dawn’, the sentimentality registerable in the contradiction of the images, a confessing to the draw, inertia, tug and fear of the phobia. In her tracking of the state of suspense, though, she rhymes her sense of story with the engagements with difficult history and the state of suspense as tracked by Wilkinson, Bonney and the poets gathered together by Seedings.


Adam Piette teaches at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Remembering and the Sound of Words: Mallarmé, Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry, 1939-1945, The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam. He co-edits Blackbox Manifold with Alex Houen.

Copyright © 2019 by Adam Piette, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.