Issue 26: John Wilkinson reviews Keston Sutherland

Nothing is Superseded

Review of Keston Sutherland, Scherzos Benjyosos (Amsterdam and Sofia: The Last Books, 2020)

Open an issue of any English-language poetry journal, whether consciously progressive, conservative, professional or amateur, and thirteen to a dozen what will strike the eye is a display of text primping across expanses of white paper. The poem occupies, it owns the page, look at this gift presented to you carefully sanitised and awaiting confidently, dear reader, your adoption of a lyric attitude where even the vacuous becomes plangent, where the banal slogan will be imbued with the force of claimed authority, where the derivative is miraculously refreshed through your condign powers in joint enterprise with line-breaks, and where the powerful dies back amidst the competent.

Lyric attitude may be critiqued by a Virginia Jackson or extolled by a Don Paterson, but a page of poetry of our present day is visibly a claim on… what? Indifference? Inattention? Distractedness? How discouragingly crammed a pocket volume of Swinburne now looks! Consider anthologies, where once by convention poems were printed consecutively, across pages, organised by author, anthologies which now offer their precious artefacts, each in its individual neat white paper wrapper, to give you meditative pause. Like a beautiful timepiece. Like a tasting menu highlight.

The more poetry in English dissociates from historically-sanctioned forms and resources of poetical composition, the more it announces visibly its entitlement to a zone of total linguistic permission, laying claim to virgin territory where words do what I damn well please and you will respect them, for what is lyric attitude but one of extorted respect?

Such a demand disdains casual relationship - either a reader accedes or moves on embarrassed, annoyed or, more often than not, with a shrug, indifferent after all. To accede entails full acceptance; and if the poem isn’t a masterpiece legitimately calling on all your emotional, intellectual, interpretative powers, it is nothing. But response to these absolute claims is, as everyone understands, entirely optional, and the poem doesn’t need you to confirm its authority, it already holds the field.

Open a page of Keston Sutherland’s Scherzos Benjyosos and what troubles the eye is a textual block or a set of formally-identical smaller textual blocks (they are regular stanzas). Block is an important term for this poetry, and has been linked by Sutherland and other radical English poets such as Sean Bonney to kettling as a police tactic, the forcing of a crowd characterised as a mob into an enclosed space for purposes of control, thus increasing the energetic fury of those detained and licensing brutal response for the purpose of their ‘containment’. Why is engrossing a page with text any less a claim on the page than a few fragmentary lines disposed paratactically on white? Generically the reader approaches this text in the dark.

Metaphorically language emerges from language’s coverage, rather than silence and whiteness, and has not been curated as precious, expensive or spiritual, moved around the gallery space, an inch here, an inch there. The text’s appearance makes a different claim on a reader. Lyric attitude gets obstructed; there are no paragraph breaks, so if this is prose, its appearance is as formidable as a page of Thomas Bernhard. These pages have to be broken into; they make no offering, they refuse to entice. Paradoxically, their blocky resistance undermines their status as textual icons since the poems (if that is what they are) cannot be admired as curated objects but have to be entered by force or affective adjustment, through depressive sympathy or love or laughter, in a responsive attitude of exchange, exchange of attitude.

Published by The Last Books, the book Scherzos Benjyosos consists of the title work in four parts, preceded by the previously-published ‘Sinking Feeling’; strangely here the bathos comes before the scherzos, musical interludes in triple-time but also jests (Scherze in German). ‘Sinking Feeling’ is announced independently by an epigraph from Prometheus Unbound while ‘Scherzos Benjyosos’ ends in love and laughter - laughter of a Shelleyan kind, that now bizarre-seeming usage whereby flowers, waves and suchlike natural phenomena are deemed to laugh.

Admittedly the elegant typography and wide margins of this beautifully-designed volume (it even has flaps!) announce the writing has to be art of a kind, but reading into it rapidly induces sea-sickness, for the writing pitches and rolls and it takes some little while to adjust to its movement, even if adjustment feels always provisional.

To switch metaphors, while the impetus of the text may be triple-time in the Scherzos, its language’s local texture is so freighted, so saturated, that the reading effect can feel like being ejected down a rubbish-chute into a dump-truck which suddenly jolts into action, churning and compressing before taking off at the speed of a McLaren. The transport could be maritime, military, a bus filled with day workers, or a  metaphysical or an emotional upper or downer; but all the transports are packed. Why write in this way? Why put a reader through it?

After a little time with this book I have come to feel that its guiding principle, its article of faith, can be encapsulated in the adage Nothing is Superseded. Such a proposition is inimical to current poetic practice and to current progressive politics (in their most debased but dominant versions), for both of which historical denial and denial of the complexities of personal, developmental history have become fundamental. The slate can always be wiped clean, it must be, and the page will lie open. 

utherland’s anti-supersession does not mean that everything will be preserved, or cultivated like a heritage tomato; far from it. Trash is trash, however bejewelled. The book’s textual columns are reminiscent of nothing so much as the English sculptor Helen Chadwick’s Carcass (1986), a two-metre high clear tower filled with rotting food scraps which has haunted me for decades. Now in the Tate collection (presumably reconstructed), notoriously this artwork exploded across the Institute of Contemporary Arts gallery:

The tower of compost took on an unprecedented life force throughout the exhibition which Chadwick later described, “…what I hadn't anticipated was the fact that there would be this fermentation process, particularly with the weight compacting the lower, older material down, and it was constantly percolating bubbles which you could watch kind of fizzing up. So … it became more a metaphor for life.” Later in the exhibition, when the glass cracked, gallery staff tried to remove the tower from the space sideways, but the lid blew off, spraying fermenting garbage across the whole gallery.

Curate that! Nowadays any hipster tending a sourdough starter (the adored hearth of a loft consists of overflowing Mason jars) would know better than Chadwick what to expect. Within the columns of ‘Scherzos Benjyosos’ rotting language ferments, exercising enormous pressure on its containers, so explosive that it can escape only through the valve of English lyric, every other duct and sinus having been blocked, as on the first page of Scherzo 2:

To your corner, to your corner with the milk thistle gartered in peelable chicken wire, to bug it, the better to bug it with wonder whist, surveil the doloriferous, the punctured, the category, the gloop, the screwed. Who stuff the trachenchyma like cannoli. […]

As the last quadrature of sanctuary from the (now it is only a dream) beaked hook’s snapped point’s discreetly self crossed out, to devastate your duct up with the Benjylitic bargepole of self-evidently ludibrious makeshift gympie gympie […] (p. 39)

Gympie is an Anglicisation of gimpi-gimpi from the language of the indigenous Gubbi Gubbi people in Queensland, naming an especially painful variety of stinging tree - not a pleasant bargepole for anyone’s intimate duct, whether or not their trachea has previously been stuffed with gloop and Wonder Whip (delightful gloop of childhood, akin to Angel Delight) given an extra whisk or two. A milk thistle may be tall enough to surveil this ‘doloriferous’ prospect, but while ‘milk thistle’ sounds like a suckling babe of a plant and is much used in traditional medicine for liver complaints, its extract exhibits high levels of mycotoxins.

Such an observation may drive critical surveillance into irrelevance, but for sure it’s relevant that this scenario was but a dream, since in dream nothing has been forgotten or cancelled, and there’s value in any lump of primary gristle fastidiously pushed to the side of the plate. Note what self does here; after succumbing to the “category” through surveillance, after getting royally “screwed”, in dream the point is snapped, the self crossed out, the self shafts itself - Benjy is autoerotic, the name Benjamin originating as “son of my right hand”.

Throughout Scherzos Benjyosos autoeroticism and self-play are more apparent in prose than in lyric, the reverse of usual behaviour; and as the book shifts towards lyric another side to Benjy, one of dependence and reciprocity, will take over. The present autoeroticism is prepared by the precedent text ‘Sinking Feeling’ which sinks into a delirium of drowning in self:

you are everything, you are something, you are nothing, you are most things, you are just a few things, you are one particular thing, you are that one particular thing, and you are the beginning, you are the middle, you are the end, you are just after the start, you are getting closer to the end, you are not moving from the start, you are that particular not moving from the start, far away from what you never left […] (p. 21)

- this you is I, before at the last gasp you and I separate, where I’m clinging to “the strap on your shoulder” as a spar. That strap becomes formal in ‘Scherzos Benjyosos’, where kettled into stanzas lyric arises as a rescue from self-rubbish and deranged interiority; formal song becomes the site of the possibility of loving exchange. From its first advent in this work, lyric longs to realise love, and even if exiting the hectic pace of the engrossing prose and its “gulf stream of spicules” at once exposes to a shock of loneliness and of the body as mere instrument for production, “stripped to applicability”, lyric’s yearning prepares an education towards love, love both of another and of a multitude.

How ever could the idea have taken hold that lyric is the solipsistic medium, when movingly it must entail conspiracy (breathing together) if it materialises fully, and when it knows its motivation by what has never been superseded? Stanzaic lyric’s emergence in each of the Scherzos, ever more extensive, ever more confident, is the profoundest drama of this work. In the first Scherzo, the six triplet stanzas are built on denial, but denial recognised:

Everything you want will come back as the inability

To love it for the way it can’t be held, or hold you

Close to life too distant for the fucked head to go on with. (p. 31)

This is especially painful as verse has entered into the prose to perform the very possibility of coupling, “I lay down in your arms obscurely stuck and horizontal” - coupling which is not kettling but must love “for the way it can’t be held” (p. 31) and thus open a horizon to futurity, by not kettling but childing, by not supersession but succession. Love versed in rough fourteeners, as these, might be expected by historical precedent to conform to couplets, but this loving coupling refuses to close off by such clinches.

Moving forward to Sutherland’s second Scherzo, there the triplet fourteener is sustained through a much longer passage. Enacting a developmental ritual, a ferocious trial by love, these stanzas recapitulate infantile paranoid-schizoid terrors of total fragmentation and of falling through a void of desolation; now verse audibly makes supersession impossible, for in its animation “every word of this | Scolds the will to hear its infantile phonation ring” (p. 42), echoing Mutlu Konuk Blasing’s claim that lyric is marked by the pleasure and pain of an infant’s entry into language (“infantile phonation” refers to vocal sounds on the brink of verbalising).

By the end of this passage the idea of just saying “what is happening”, “being put behind you” and thus dragged backwards through a whirl of spicules for a further recapitulation, threatens madness, it actually would be madness. Lyric has managed a hold, if provisionally, “for the way it can’t be held”

                                                                                      floating ideas

                               Past the last hour of this sun’s resuscitating glory

                               Out on the steep schizoid rim (p. 44)

– open to futurity as the possibility of joy and laughter.

            But what is the alternative, “since, according to the replacement for Ian Duncan Smith, behind every statistic there is a human being, as a support mechanism”? Return to prose will close the second Scherzo under the aegis of one or another ersatz Ian Duncan Smith (endlessly reproduced by the Tory party), with the achieved breath of life, love and lyric, “where life at length inhales all love continually” inexorably “stripped to applicability”, now cast as a “utility model” specified in some twenty lines of dense technical detail beginning

(4) four angle junctions of an inflatable life, (4), of inflatable unit have cross vest of defending oneself, life vest distribution a plurality of inflatable unit (3), cross (3) have four blow vent (13), stretch into adjacent four respectively inflatable unit (4) [und so weiter] (p. 46)

and concluding “therein lies the utility model as it discloses simple structure, scientific and reasonable, stop it, put your mind away […]”. No chance this model can be sustained, and the third Scherzo starts over with Benjy’s birthday, threatening a recapitulation right from the womb (the “wall of presents” he receives feels like a wall of present tenses). At this point I want to pause and say, Sutherland’s kettled prose is not difficult in the sense that it demands hermeneutic labour - we don’t have time for that, the prose won’t give us the time, but it’s exhausting.

Full stops are rare, and like Benjy sent to his room and confined there, we “swinge and scuttle, over by the means, clipping the object, and the other, as all rise like a wheedled spire of yeast” (p. 52). Typing these phrases I realise I could linger endlessly over “a wheedled spire of yeast” for its cadence, but that’s impossible, I’m thrown at once into “preppy, paretic” (what the hell is paretic? it’s slight or partial paralysis - but I didn’t ask that when reading, only on transcribing); and that I could go with “clipping” sonically, automotively, news-of-the-day-ish, coupon-cutting-for-Poundland, and all these would, now I think of it, prove exactly pertinent, but I am dragged through this stuff headlong in its relentless propulsion through a blizzard of jittering, stinging, causticity, buzz-sawing and buzzing. I have discovered no other writing that does this - yes, I’ve known continuous prose like treacle, or prose wafting like gauze, but not this assault where if you stop a moment you get bogged down and must get up at once, but on joining the rush are fated to be jostled and bruised.

Characteristically poetry demands the sort of rapt contemplation guyed at the top of this review, or else in some avant-garde practice it might replicate the effect of visual ‘bombardment’ that in reception can’t hurt at all because half-noticing has become the default mode of moving through the world and its news and art mediations, while the right hand does what it does, multi-tasking. The prose of Scherzos Benjyosos chokes, rasps, sickens, breaks out the mind and affections in hives, won’t let go unless verse intervene to detain with its exquisite pain and pleasure, or at the last deliver its great reward of “love echo”.

Before then, however, the next set of triplets must recut the umbilical, tenderly letting go or smothering the loved child, like an animal “bringing it back to meaning, bites to resurrect the cord”, before despairing of a future at once nurtured and torn apart, “Matching exhaustion to the missing future it cannibalizes”. Then having bitten the umbilical cord, where the stretch between these points of birth and death tightens,

Both of the bodies are still alive. Her child is beneath her.

She bends the little distance down to feel it on her mouth

And bear with it for meaning, breathes vibration to the cord. (p. 57)

From umbilical to vocal, stretch the cords that bind. But this is not enough to free love’s agency. The movement gets stuck in repetition; the vibration holds as an oscillation between fixed points, now and then, fixated on the now/then trauma; “the thing that died within it” is now “the static future it containerizes”. These final four stanzas proceed to march on the spot; one line in each triplet ends, respectively, “paralyzed”, “analysed”, “finalizes” and lastly “containerized”. Containers next facilitate return to a prose block that issues in financial securitising and shorting - not even a “utility model” but a disgusting parody of future-imagining.

My first suggestion on the title of Scherzos Benjyosos can now be corrected by allusion to Fred Zinnemann’s documentary Benjy, about a disabled child whose parents needs to be persuaded by an orthopaedic surgeon to assent to his treatment rather than to reject him out of hand. Sutherland’s book is haunted by physical disability and by childhood damage; the “dear secret object’ addressed by ‘Sinking Feeling’ where it’s ”lying awake in pieces” appears as the child Benjy who gradually becomes incorporated as the Scherzos move towards their beautiful, depressive, loving finale; Benjy is the lost Real around which the psychic economy is organised, a Real that must be released to “speak out” (p. 76) however damaged and whatever damage it causes, rather than preserved as a trauma, self-contained. Only accepting the damage makes love possible beyond “the steep schizoid rim”.

The fourth Scherzo opens with almost five pages of verse where triplets of fourteeners are replaced by triplets of seven syllable lines having three or four stresses, that is, close to ballad or common meter but stopping short of the more conventional quatrain. This last Scherzo is governed by its verse, and now prose recurs as an intrusion into otherwise continuous English lyric where the never-superseded pain of infancy and adolescence, of depressive accommodation, can be advented:

We got wasted every day

With no other idea why

But that the intensity

Makes up for the pain at last

And that love is easier

In a blindness really lived.

How plain these lines are and how urgent the desire to get wasted, against being utilised! To be wasted is made to sound like a Bataillian protest against capitalist rationality. Prose on its return after the first run of lyric initially slows down, permitted to reconcile with the punctuated present, as signalled by a simple expression of anxious care: “Today was such a beautiful day with you. I was anxious, on the drive out, that you would be sick again […]” (p. 67); but then after the extraordinary declaration that “being here for no imaginable greater purpose than to love you, the way I truly do, is also how to justify my life” (p. 69) a break opens in the prose (the book’s single paragraph break) as never before, and having reached this juncture I - having become unmistakably, openly an authorial ‘I’ - decide I’ll get wasted again in “a night out with Starsy”, and before long the language stumbles, scrambles, gets really pissed and slaughtered, errors inflect the transcript:

In among the scrap spreads, cherrypick the specks, approached mnd presented tomet I had written but  somsthrough frightningly reorganized into gible (p. 70)

This is but the beginning of a deliriously violent bender, everything going to smash, ending with a collapse into bed with Starsy “who is now also me”. By this time a line of narrative threads through the prose; however crazed, the proceedings can be followed and phrases are recognisably descriptive. The book’s prose increasingly stabilises in relation to historical genre as does its verse, and the final six pages of ballad-like stanzas are as bell-like, enigmatic, as deeply familiar and strange as the ballad-founded late verse of W. S. Graham. This is the arrived-at reward which could never have been projected in advance; infinite resourcefulness of heart, intelligence and poetic skill had to be called on for such an arrival, and readers must themselves be harrowed so as to feel the soil turn over - a reader’s own never-superseded depths, with what’s encapsulated and disavowed returned to hearing, view, fear and and affection, becoming recognised through what the ‘Scherzos Benjyosos’ put us through if we only allow it to do so.

The developmental, historical and literary pasts resurface in this work in an auto-archaeology and an opening of graves, turned to the future like both the unresting corpse of Trotsky (appearing as Bronstein) and the corpse of childhood; they are not quiet. The verses concluding this book are astounding and I can only place them before you, a move I suspect to be unconscionable, advancing an aesthetic claim as self-evident.

Furthermore, I acknowledge that this short review has pursued some pet hobby-horses through a text whose richness later critics will come forward better to reveal, the better to inform and persuade; and that it’s a record of conforming to writing that in some earlier versions I felt unable to live with. But this is a book whose passage should be gone through. A passage to take again and again in memory and in prospect, for at the end there is always a second now, we go through it again, but nothing is repeated and nothing is superseded.

For poetry will survive

On cracks, deep, true, crisp and flat

Graved into the yielding top

Front brain you got to fuck up

Long ago, full of plastic

Like the sea, poetic, dire,

Drying out, fissile, brassy,

Stupidly irascible

As your head is passed around

Scuffed up in the disbelief

That it would ever come off

Despite the obvious, far

Noises in the lonely trees.

If you look hard you can see

Us there. And please also know

That you did more to repair

Than kill us, as if to spite

A self that never will sing

That did sing. Still alive, hear

Love echo. Even here, like

Laughter, any second now.

John Wilkinson is Director of Creative Writing at the University of Chicago. He has recently published two books with The Last Books, Wood Circle, a cycle of poems, and The Following, a short book of essays. Adam Piette reviewed Wilkinson’s Lyric in Its Times in Issue 23 of Blackbox Manifold.

Copyright © 2021 by John Wilkinson, 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.