Issue 27: Adam Piette reviews John Balaban, John Ashbery, Maggie O'Sullivan, Jane Goldman, Ken Edwards

John Balaban, Empires (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2019)

John Ashbery, Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works, ed. Emily Skillings (Manchester: Carcanet, 2021)

Maggie O'Sullivan, courtship of lapwings (Manchester: if p then q, 2021)

Jane Goldman, Sekxphrastiks (Manchester: Dostoevsky Wannabe, 2021)

Ken Edwards, Collected Poems, 1975-2020 (Bristol: Shearsman, 2021)

In the second section of W. S. Graham's The Dark Dialogues, the poet returns to his Greenock tenement home and becomes, in the verse we read, his mother, raking the fire whilst her children sleep.[1] The 'I'-voice is hers, the voice of 'Their mother through his mother'; that is, she communicates as the mother of the children sleeping because she is Graham's mother, the riddle pointing up the paradox of this return to the hearth, that he is there as adult 'he' as well as child asleep, the he become observer as well as the ventriloquist of the mother-I, his mother-I. The pronoun-shifts signal ontological and temporal splits, and also an eerie inhabiting of a subjectivity afraid of the identity-theft and its hollowing-out effects.

The dreamt mother-as-I acknowledges that she plays a role as subject of the poem's script: 'in this poem I am, / Whoever elsewhere I am, / Their mother through his mother'. The locution 'whoever else' is turned slightly, becomes locational, as though this tenement space is not quite a remembered place but a poetic space with its own rules of ascription and identity. Still, the dreamt mother-I resists the role-play as far as the voice is allowed, as symptomatic, to resist, and the resistance is there in the potential of the following lines to carry inflections of fear:

And I hear them breathe and turn

Over in their sleep

As I sit here becoming

Hardly who I know

The blank misgiving at the ways she is being turned into this son-generated I is there in the weird last line, 'Hardly who I know', that means at once 'hardly anybody I recognise', 'hardly [a person] I as the real historical mother knows personally', 'hardly human or knowable as human'. The turn of the children in their sleep is accompanied by the mother turning into this hardly-human subject, a subject made of words that patch the I together as stranger-breath (lightly suggesting the boy sleeping is dreaming so enabling the dreaming returnee to connect with the mother subject): you can hear the emptying of self happening in the shift from 'I hear' to 'I sit here' to 'Hardly […] I'. The I dissolves away as prop for the play of words for the eye and ear, as with the turn over the enjambment to generate attention to the turn as trope; as in the nestling of the letters 'hear' in the word 'breathe', the dissemination of the graphemes b/r/ea/the into the letters of the third line ('As I sit here becoming'), and the play with the sight and sound of the 'h' (hear-breathe-here-Hardly) as though playing out the breathy nothingness and hardly-thereness of the identity under the turn.

The mother-I, even as role-play and wordplay, is conscious enough of the theft-game to wish otherwise. She speaks of seeing her children play hide and seek, crying 'come out / Come out whoever you are', and as the voice reflects on the creepy gaminess and the mannerism of the poem it is being turned by ('Only the dark / Dialogues drew their breath'), she draws herself free of the son-spirit that has taken her place at the hearth: 'Wheesht and go to sleep / And grown up but not / To say mother mother'.

The hide and seek game is played as if in dialogue with the invasive son, requesting he renounce the act of Oedipalizing possession, and Graham is left calling on his mother, despite her interdiction, for the 'great games / I grew up quick to play'. The great game of art, its invitation and theatrical power to assume, provisionally, the identities of others, has been played out in the dark dialogue of son and mother, and questioned, ethically, by the assumed identity felt as resisting aesthetic transformations.

Before she ejects the son-spirit, the mother-voice narrates herself sitting with the gas 'turned / Down' with time knocking 'Somewhere through the wall' (time staged as the knocking of old houses as gas warms the pipes, and as a force knocking quite through the wall): and as she 'breaks the raker up' (that is, breaks the coal up in the fire), she tells her children to sleep and says: 'It is only the stranger / Hissing in the grate'. The lines are bifold in their performance: the mother-I tells the children that the eerie sounds being generated by the returned spirit are not signs of a malevolent ghost, just the 'stranger' hissing in the grate.

The 'stranger' is the soot that trembles in the grate, thought to signal the arrival of a stranger, and summons Coleridge and 'Frost at Midnight'. '[T]hat film, which flutter'd on the grate': Coleridge remembers watching the stranger as a boy in superstition, and he recalls this whilst sitting and thinking of his son Hartley asleep as he writes and reflects. Graham's inhabiting of his mother's spirit as he slept as a child turns her into Coleridge and his own sleeping form into Hartley, and enacts the secret ministry of poetry as translocational, identity-transformational, and as an art of time, a parenting of the ego by artifice and the imagination's strange power.

At the same time, and in the same breath, the mother-voice guards her children from the dark spirits that knock at the wall, including the returning Graham, and turns the ghostliness down like the gas, mocking the visiting spirit as a hissing stranger just as she soothes her children with a rational explanation for the spirit's strange sounds. The allusion to Coleridge is just one of the games this returned native would like to play, and it is a game, like hide and seek, that the mother will only play if she plays it with voice and resistance enough on her side to lead to the ejection of the dark dialogist from the tenement-space.

One of poetry's roles is to enable an art of return, memory vivified by imagination treading the boards of the past again so that what seemed fixed and determined becomes fluid, malleable, world-buildable. Graham's practice reveals the darker motivations, ranging from the spectral through the playfully and authoritarianly aesthetic to the frankly Oedipal, that may be haunting the returning gesture, and gives some body and spirit to the repertoire of ways the journey home figures as classic story arc.

John Balaban's recent collection, Empires, sees him return to Vietnam where he served as a conscientious objector with the International Volunteer Services, then as a member of the charity Committee of Responsibility treating and supporting children burned and injured by the war, and in the 1970s as a recorder of Vietnamese ca dao poetry. That pacifist service to the Vietnamese people is played out again in the returnee poems, a dedicating of the observations and felt sense of affective history to the people served to counter the imperialist violence of his nation. Balaban is aware of the ambiguity of his desire to return and bear witness again.

The poem 'The Uses of Poetry' opens: 'the poets descend like locusts / wings filmy, bright, whirring ambitions // with mandible greed for green expanses, / for tended lushest leaf, all foliage'. The lines cross the locust swarm with the whirring helicopters and planes of the war, with their foliage-targeting Agent Orange and napalm, revealing the violence of the romantic impulse to greedily consume exotic lifeforms of other nations.

The sequence 'Returning After Our War' also acknowledges that the account he will give of his trip back to Vietnam is ineluctably associated with the ideology that ran the American War: it opens with an epigraph from Graham Greene's Ways of Escape, about retired Foreign Legion Frenchmen, their eyes lighting up 'at the mention of Saigon and Hanoi'. It follows the returning Balaban as he discovers that Greene's apartment behind the Majestic hotel has disappeared, and remembering the old man who ran the opium den Greene writes of still doing so in the 1970s.

What is there now in Ho Chi Minh is 'a garish complex of glass and metal called “Katina”: as the global imperium changed hands', an instance of the collection's focus on the neo-imperial forces that ran the war and which now run the globalised markets of the world. The second poem, 'The Opium Pillow', reenacts the opium taking of that time:

One long pull

that drew in combers of smoke rolling

down the lungs like the South China Sea,

crashing on the mind's frail shell

that rattled, then wallowed, and filled with sand (21)

The poetry is offered up as an opiate to turn down the guilt reflexes of the Greene-era imperium, and the opium is drawn into the body and allowed to possess the returning imagination as though to replace the American with South-East Asian spirit. The sea-analogy does the work of self-violence, and of self-emptying, acting like the rolling crashing waves on the shell-mind, deadening, burying, using the wallowing indulgence of the American stranger-invader as access key.

The guilt, though, is faintly there as the returning mind dreams of 'smoke rolling / down the lungs' that cannot but summon the toxic lung-damage inflicted by the American War, and this memory - as an act that translates poetry as a spirit and volatile substance, a pillow of words - is turned into this reparative and acrid demonstration of time as return and rolling, crashing recognitions.

Other poems in the collection trope the past as hovering smoke, register the memory-fuelled imagination of poetry as probing wind, as blizzard, as 'breath fogged in the cooling mountain air'. A poem accompanies Ovid in Tristia 'searching // the air like syllables of poetry' while 'poplar fluff floats / over imperial rubble' (13). Poetry may be the 'delicate thing that lasts' yet its elegiac force can only mimic the smokiness of fugitive presence that disappears, after the manoeuvres of empire have destroyed and moved on: 'Nearly all those Saigon friends are gone now', sighs John Balaban. 'Gone like smoke. Like incense' (22).

Part of the logic of returning is the felt coincidence of the older person with older figures remembered - just as Graham wrote The Dark Dialogues (first published in Botteghe oscure in 1959) when he was roughly his mother's age in the memory, so Balaban writes of the old man, Greene's opium den host, as he approaches that old man's age. The coincidence invites the transference and difficult embodiments. These poems are feelingful, tender and self-corrective acts of return, balancing elegy with political condemnation, and haunted, still, by the delicate presences on their way to leaving the world along with John Balaban's frail shell: may this collection, delicate thing that lasts, be long read and remembered.

The posthumous John Ashbery book, Parallel Movement of the Hands: Five Unfinished Longer Works, edited by his amanuensis and assistant, Emily Skillings, also demonstrates a poetics of return. One of the five longer works, 'The Kane Richmond Project', recycles the plots and casts of a 1942 B-movie spy thriller serial, Spy Smasher, which Ashbery would have enjoyed as a boy, collaged into other playful games with many kitsch movies Richmond acted in. The plot features Richmond and his twin brother fighting the Nazis infiltrating America by U-boat, led by the evil genius, The Mask. Ashbery returns to the fifteen-year-old he was when the serial was shown. The opening poem, 'Spy Smasher', remembers a scene, cryptically:

Man wanders along a ledge.

Vanished into the sea.

You both saw him.

 The lines point to the movie plot - in the penultimate episode of the serial, the Spy Smasher is shot and falls from a ledge: it turns out to be Richmond's twin brother in the hero costume. That fall from the ledge is followed in the last episode when Richmond knocks the Mask out on a boat and then jumps into the sea. The 'both' who see this fusion of death and triumphant escape may be Ashbery and a friend, or it may be that other twin, his old man and boy selves together watching and rewatching the film in their separate time zones. This double playfulness of the return to the kitsch artwork flattens the thriller with deliberate low key emotionlessness, using it as form within which to exercise other kinds of destabilising, hollowing return-work.

The poem shifts, characteristically, to other plots, removed from the Kane Richmond scenarios, as though the mind has wandered, bored with its own nostalgic project. The bathos is palpable. After speculating that the act of recall may stir deep feeling ('the seething within is / wine to the dodged sense'), the Ashbery voice dodges that very sense of emotionality with an identity-trick: 'there is no whorl that knows us // or can think / about us / long enough'.

The lines intimate that knowing of the two observers and even knowing the very scenes they watch together does not give you any kind of access to their seething insides, since any interpreter would simply not have the necessary lifetime to connect the boy and man. Closing off the emotion enables the voice then to kill off sentimental or melodramatic meanings: for instance any suggestion that the death of the twin and the success of the hero vanishing into the sea might signify as fear or nostalgic drama.

The voice, spectacularly dully, like a dry dusty lecturer, offers their opinion: 'The smouldering of brush / On the horizon / Is a vivid sign, / One example of that.' The bathos here is deliberately deadening, as though the apocalyptic brush-fire, staple of many Westerns and war movies, like the U-boat aflame at the end of Spy Smasher, is mere routine trope. What is vivid is strangled down to stereotype and yawnworthy cliché. It is at this point in the poem, designed to open up the whole long project tracking the Kane Richmond serials, that Ashbery wanders off-topic: with stanzas remembering trout-fishing on a lake, a fat priest and two lovers falling apart, dogs fighting, a cornice scene with vision of tall ships; and in the middle of these flat enigmas, this line, out on a limb on its own: 'It was more than Mary could stand'.

The plotlessness seems aimless, the stanzas only obliquely related to the spy thriller genre - one could read the trout who 'all told the truth' as comic versions of the good guys in such movies; the old lovers and the priest connect to the feeble love plots; the dogs to the war genre, and the cornice scene a dream version of the cliff-hanger as genre and as replay of the ledge fall of the serial. But this is too much like hard work, and the laconic throwaway style deadens the will, and we just receive the lines like passive move-goers, a passivity that we, like Mary, can't stand.

Mary is the clue to the other kind of return of this opening poem. Before she features, the trout and lake stanza tells us 'we all got together and pushed. / It was wonderful / for that one time'. The lilt and silliness of this recalls The Waste Land: 'And when we were children, staying at the archduke's, / My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened. He said, Marie, / Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. / In the mountains, there you feel free.' The old lovers and the fat priest, the dogs a-biting 'in spring / in times for tulips again / and those other / forms in imagination', the anxiety in the cornice section about time ('but oh my goodness - weight of the past / strife coming up from / all that mortifying of tall ships'): there is a parody secreted here of the modernist long poem, and the shattered shards of story in The Waste Land about the harsh return of spring, the falling apart of lovers because of war, the mortifying effects of history in the age of anxiety. And there Marie stands as Mary, unable to stand the assumptions of modernism, its religiosity (that fat priest assenting), its acceptance of history as meaningless extremes ('We'll have plagues,' the voice tells us banally, 'good / times too'), its gender politics, its relentless symbolism (so dull, the dry lecturer tells us dully, 'those other / forms in imagination').

Eliotic modernism to Ashbery sold us its thrills and nostalgias like a foolish B-movie, making sex and adventure mortifying and heavy-going, and convincing us, passive in our seats, that it was for the good of the nation and its holy beliefs, matrimonies and grammar of assent. How difficult it is to read Ashbery without squirming in our seats: the long unfinished poems gathered here are wonderfully welcome, though, as witty, tenacious and poker-faced acts of return to the high and low culture of mid-century, to teach us a (flat, dull, hilarious) lesson about priest modernists and their long long poems.

A quite different turning and returning can be gleaned from Maggie O'Sullivan's astonishing courtship of lapwings, which collects eight sequences that explore the page space and the potentialities of typeface and vocalisation, visual/acoustic experiment, acousmatic continuation-effects, with an attention to living beings under threat. The complexity of the verbal material on the page is bewildering, wildering, drawing eyes and ears to the surface of each page with a cumulative and at times ecstatic awareness, if and only if the listening and absorbing take place against resistances.

The title sequence, 'courtship of lapwings', opens with a page that turns on and returns to variations on calling, summoning either the bird-watcher's or the lapwing's call: the word-events are in speech marks to connect the call to the registering of human language. The eight call-events end with '“calls it”', as though the seven utterances build up, as incantation, to just this, the calling of it: it as this poem we read, as the textual unconscious connecting human to bird call, enabling a present-tensile calling into being of poetry as cry, as summoned creature.

                  The next page sets forth, in a green column, six words which a note tells us are drawn from the Irish oral poetry tradition defining poetry, as 'Weaving', 'Spinning', 'Cutting', 'Shaping', 'Tying', 'Rinsing'. Each word is followed by an equals sign and introduces interlineally to their right five words in a red column, from Un coup de dés. These are Mallarmé's terms, which present, according to Blanchot in Le Livre à venir, 'the specific invisibility of its (the poem's) becoming'. They are, in O'Sullivan's English, 'Watching', 'Doubting', 'Wheeling', 'Shining', 'Pondering', followed also by an equals sign. Mallarmé's lines appear like this in his great poem:




                                                          brilliant et méditant

and sound out as an example of the 'CONSTELLATION', the new poem being invented on the surface of the page, empty space taking on the successive blows of text which then persist on the page like the stars ('sidéralement'). This star-like language is disseminated in the space as a negative, bright stars against black space now inked print on white page. The star-words and phrases on the page-space watch over us, instil instabilities of mind, wheel over us and shine, make us ponder as if the words themselves were meditating beings.

For Blanchot, these five terms define the work of poetry, tracking the poem's becoming, that is the flaring of the isolate words into meaning and then their disappearance, the alternate beam and blankness of the twinkling stars, meaning then unmeaning. This intermittence is key to O'Sullivan's green/red equations: the Irish weaving terms, as analogues for poetry, imagine poetry as making, as a crafting of textile, as the weaving of text with words. The Mallarmé defines this textuality as an approach to a weird form of sublime, a constellation-effect of radical hazard (the words appearing on the page chosen and placed as if by throws of the dice); a rolling dubiety of manifestations that is a sidereal intermittence, a flaring into printed shining being - then an erasure - as the mind moves on across the white space.

The words can weave new patterns and provisional connections such that the Irish weaving is equivalent to the French watching, which is a kind of spinning, which is doubting, etc. We weave the poems as we watch the words spin their instabilities of cutting and wheeling words into shapes that wheel across the mind's sky, tying word events together, generating a pondering across the page, rinsing us clean, and leaving us with: an equals sign - leading to empty white space - to a nothingness.

The third page then moves into more radical O'Sullivan language textures:

     spun t'tilt

incision's sieved -

incision's feather 'd              

   agile opulence(     scaffil


  on-chain- >>>>>>>

pieta incompliances    (inverted falcon


   data/ / /

This baffling opening after the poetry-definition page certainly presents as Mallarméan, and sequence-logic (if it can be called that) invites us to read these lines as generated by a pondering of poetry - 'spun t'tilt' drawing out from the spinning and wheeling, but with a Northern burr, and suggesting (with the constellation in mind) the tilt of this spinning planet earth. The feather of the third line wakes us to the lapwings (that also wheel in the sky), and the repeated 'incision' to the cutting effects necessary to the making; the language is cut into these mobile fragments that have been selected, as by a mesh that divides what is wanted from what is not - but the incision is also feathered, like the cutting flight of the lapwings as they wheel.

There's a slight space between feather and the 'd, and the d'd below confirms this: that elision signalled in t'tilt has us note the apostrophes after 'incision' before the 'd and d'd: the incision is also a shaping of language with cuts such that the apostrophe shape (O'Sullivan chooses straight not curly quote mark ') is itself more cutting. The 'agile opulence' is at once that of the birds and the words on the page, scaffolded as grid, but also cut up so that death is in the air (scaffold misspelt scaffild), or there as something to be exploited as food, like hunted birds, subject to the 'scaff' (Scottish for eating voraciously) of the human gaze.

The agile opulence that makes play with nature need not necessarily be celebrated (thus the sad face emoticon), just as the sight of chained birds (like falcons kept to hunt for men) can lead to rage - those greater-than signs are arrows of anger and anguished feeling pointing us to the enormous fact of the supposed superiority of the human over the more-than-human, and the enormous fact of the deep hypocrisy of a culture based on sacrifice (the pietà as mourning the dead Christ) that sacrifices the animal world.

The 'greater-than' is mocked by the increase in font size; which also plays out the loud shock at the duplicity. The 'greater than' icons appear, the critique goes on, as inverted falcons on the page, birds that are tamed, made into signs that are inverted, like the commas of the apostrophe, to serve the human possessive, the wolfish hunger of the domineering species for data. The 'd signals a cut, the missing e, so d'd could sound out dead, or a stuttered version of the verb ending -ed, sign of a thing as past, just as the lapwings in decline move towards extinction, mere data for future pietà. This is speculation, of course, all of it: what happens on the page is febrile and incandescent, beyond any decrypting - it is a cumulative lament that is also a fabulating making, deep energies on the surface, a print marvel, a living-with turn back to Mallarméan textuality that shapes this difficult art into a turning, wheeling ecopoetics of the tongue, eye, ear and text and heart.

Jane Goldman's collection, Sekxphrastiks, practices a return to Dada and surrealist-modernist élan and wild experiment and fusing the recycled practice to contemporary non-binary, erotic and queer feminist radicalism, with an exhilarating speed and improvisatory scope to each poem. The title is a nonce word pointing, a bristling note tells us, to 'a poetics of sekx, ekphrasis, and tiks', the 'kx' signalling 'mortal osculation, elusive, intimate soma-chromatic space', 'sekx' connecting creativity to 'the pleasuring intimacies of sex', and 'ekphrasis' defined as 'a poetry on  intimate terms with other works of art', while 'tiks' acknowledges the spasmodic nature of the body-writing and the desire to capture 'a sense of extreme presence'.

Much of the work is rambunctious no-holds-barred raunchy verse; a version of Sappho, for instance, calling 'all glitter arsed slay queens foam divas, / meaning you you cunning wee cunts'. That Glasgwegian in-yer-face energy draws powerfully from the daring of modernist Sapphic experiment, Djuna Barnes ventriloquising H.D. with the jaunty fearless brio of Baroness Elsa, voices as supportive presences ('bitches give me strength'), and Goldman turns her own solitary self plural through this connectivity - every 'I' is scripted 'i-i': 'what is it that i-i most longed to come next / for my crazy lust?' The I becomes a stuttering double as if under emotional pressure, and at the same time mimicking the dub i & i that insists on and performs plural being.

The return to the Sapphic modernism enables Goldman to perform another return that rhymes with The Dark Dialogues. The fine sequence 'Wild Country: Distant Echo' sees Goldman tracking her parents at the time of her own birth in 1960, whilst also drawing on what a note describes as 'word slivers' from sixty-five writers from Anna Akhmatova to Virginia Woolf, including Rae Armantrout, Hélène Cixous, Maggie O'Sullivan, Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, Gertrude Stein. The return to primal family is also a gathering of female creative voices, as supportive fragments for the autobiographical turn so far back. The following reading of this poem assumes the text is Goldman's, but it should be read as a voice constructed out of this plural engagement with the sixty-five companions, as another form of the i-i echoic technique.

The return to her womb context is already, autobiographically, a return to other artist-voices. Her parents were both visual artists, indicating that the ekphrasis of the collection project is also a connecting back to their practice and pedagogy and presences, and this sequence plays darker-dialogic games with the poetry-art relationship of ekphrasis. Riffing off letters her father sent a friend, which revealed both his appropriation of the female experience ('I'm going to have a baby') and the fact he wanted a baby boy, Goldman returns in imagination to her pregnant mother's body:

i-i called out to i-i woke up this

distant echo here here we are

did i-i say gold and every time

i-i suggested her as i-i

i-i knew too that i-i would

i-i said gold in her and gold

and tell me just where is she

The lines explore, fitfully, the echoic space of poetry as womb and temporal fusion of mother-daughter being; the same lines capture her mother's knowledge of the being inside her as 'her', and Jane Goldman's own inner search for her mother's being, both sharing the first phoneme of the family name stripped of 'man'. The i-i is revealed as the twin mother-daughter both gold and substantiated as the double 'here' of the double intimate presence. This act of fusion enables a speaking-as-mother which is also a connecting back to pre-verbal being, a Kristevan zone; in the second section, we hear the voice(s) say 'here in a new picture of you / who am i-i already floating / tangled in the net / i-i start to tremble being able to stop / the line is crowded i-i go on'.

The lines begin as though impersonating the mother showing her daughter an ultrasound, then switches to the double self, adult and foetus, floating in the amniotic fluid and 'tangled in the net' of representation. The tremble at this, as with an innate fear of the enemy gaze , suggests the stutter in i-i - but as the Beckettian metapoetic line intimates ('the line is crowded i-i go on'), the plurality of radical and fusional women-identification that i-i had also signified begins to work as a crowdedness of being that enables powerful continuities and advance: the i-i on the page as the I that moves on to the next manifestation of subjectivity. This is intricate, intimate and entrancingly improvised and listened-to poetry, that channels the crowded line of gendering and fusionally erotic desires to connect, to live-with, to experience the shaking presences of the language of radical return.

Ken Edwards has published his collected poems, gathering forty-five years of work by the editor of Reality Street. He is also a practicing musician and his work has always been in extraordinary contact with the complexities and experimental, improvisatory chance musicality of jazz. That lifelong jazz consciousness presents in the poetry as a superfine sense of ways in which the aleatory and chance structural play of a Cage-influenced poetics can generate what one poem refers to as 'prismatic movement', 'pattern'd communality', music and metre blossoming from 'sound debris'.

The poem is 'What the razor knew', so in touch with the cutting procedures O'Sullivan dates back to Mallarmé, and appears as one of the pieces from the 1982 collection Drumming & poems, each of which reference mainly jazz and blues musicians. 'What the razor knew' is written with the work of Roscoe Mitchell in mind, the Art Ensemble of Chicago new jazz saxophonist whose solo saxophone concerts worked up spooky and minimalist themes and variations with chance shuffling of sound-events.

The opening prose poem paragraph speaks to the ways a jazz poetics turns and returns to the events drawn out from the sound debris. The second paragraph shuffles the debris used in the first paragraph, breaking it into 27 reordered pieces. The paragraphs continue to do so, but there are sudden changes and new elements appear, so the fourth paragraph introduces new events, the phrases 'how does it come into the story', 'in disconnected flashes', etc - instancing what a later section defines as 'the capacity to change the structure': 'the playing suggests freedom'.

The Mitchell minimalist reworkings and returns of theme can be themselves improvised not as variations but as freeform switches. Each paragraph does have one continuous event in place: they all begin 'An event is gone': what we have is the absent presence of the text debris as they come and go ('an event is gone and passes and is gone') but beaded together, braided into a provisional structure 'as if without mishap'. The return to Mitchell's jazz writing is also, clearly, a reworking of Beckett's Lessness, but energised by the active and intimate energies of a musicality of turn, return and transformation.

Much of Edwards' work also engages with the cybernetic grids and structures of information, as well as using classical music forms such as the sonata or chaconne to generate the specific logic of a piece's poetics of return. And though one might be tempted to think these are aesthetic exercises, every one of these quite exquisite experiments are broadly political too. 'What the razor knew' speaks of '"Musical rain-forests", council property, value of which', which in other paragraphs appear as a warning of doom and extinction: 'An event is gone - "musical rain-forests", council - and sits, lights out'. This is a poetry that has a music of two arts to hand and heart, with a superb lifelong dedication to the rhythm, sound-structure and disconnected flashes of revelatory work  on the page.

The quite different practice of these five poets, Balaban, O'Sullivan, Ashbery, Goldman and Edwards, explore the various manners in which the art of return, which Graham imagined as a difficult threshold poetics, manifests when writing engages with revenant performances of being and text. These returns combine real returns to historical spaces of trauma, as with Balaban's return to Vietnam, textual renascence of radical modes of writing, as with O'Sullivan's re-transformations of Un coup de dés, play with fusions of autobiographical and literary historical forms, as with Ashbery's merging of modernist and movie serial texts and Goldman's return to her birth-event as engagement with a network of female voices as distant echoes, and a musicality of new jazz reprise and variations with Edwards.

The return of the native, the return to source material, the return to home or historical materialities and imaginaries: these are reinvented as textual, reconfigured language-events turned and troped and animated again, anew, quizzing the fixities of all that has gone before.


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.

Copyright © 2022 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.