Tag Archives: keston sutherland

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.

Sordello

Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

Marvell, Matthias, Sutherland and Information Quality

Not entirely sure where I’m going with this but I’ve come across the above notion which apparently is a growing field of study. It turns out that information quality is thought about in a matrix of different qualities and as soon as I saw these I thought it might be useful to think about The Odes to TL61P in these terms and see where we get to. I then had a closer look at these ‘metrics’ and decided that they wouldn’t fit this particular bill after all because they omit or confuse many of the aspects that I think about in poetry.

So, I’d like to start with what my own headings might look like. I need to emphasise that these qualities appear to me to be the ones I ‘apply’ in my reading this week and is entirely provisional, tentative and obviously subjective. In order to do this properly, I’m going to pay attention to three very different extracts from three poems that I’m reasonably familiar with and see where we get to: Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, John Mathias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes and Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P.

This is Marvell:


But most the hewel's wonders are
Who here has the holt-fester's care.
He walks still upright from the root,
Meas'ring the timber with his foot;
And all the way, to keep it clean,
Doth from the bark the woodmoths glean.
He, with his beak, examines well
Which fit to stand and which to fell.

The good he numbers up, and hacks;
As if he marked them with the axe
but where, tinkling with his beak,
Does find the hollow oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
and through the tainted sign he mines.
Who could have thought the tallest oak
Should fall by such a feeble stroke!

Nor would it, had the tree not fed
A traitor worm, within it bred.
(As first our flesh corrupt within
Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
And yet that worm triumphs not long
But serves to feed the hewel's young
While the oak seems to fall content,
Viewing the treason's punishment.

And this is Matthias:


           .....while on a promontory broken off
The screensaver image 0f an ancient SE10
Madame C's high cognates gather around boxes dropped
By Ever Afterlife Balloonists working on the script
Of Cargo Cults. They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all collaterals and cogs
Codes and codices for Mme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an
Unkown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal, and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives,their little trumpets blow.

And this is Sutherland:


The west Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with
a cabin; a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin
had England. Love gets saner, stained into the glass.
All countries must work together toward a mutual
resolution of currency imbalances, or risk war, says the
governor of the Bank of England, tasked with making
the genital stage of Godzilla inevitable; but he is
right, it's the answer Jesus would give if pressed; the
severance will yet amount to minus sweet fuck all.
Your job is to be at that orgy and to experience
maximum anxiety, write, and see what happens; it's not
a joke to say that you learn from that, except you
decline. Synergized to social fact, surplus grout of the
myriad equivalents; at the source I is screaming or am;
prolegomenon to an epigram. Smoke that shit. Yes.
Passion swings both ways, unfixed to be enlarged,
hungry for the majority of the earth, Robert's penis is a
surprise. In my tent, it is more pink than I am. I am 
more red or purple or brown. I had guessed, startling
me, but I sucked it anyway, not to go back; I think it
was an excruciation to him and a probably morally
significant embarrassment, because he never used it
against me when I started punching his face in on the 
couch that my mother pissed herself on; get it back;
why did I do that, smacking around with childish 
fists, deepening our wishes, blunting life in him and
me; and smack that miniscule nameless boy who merely
explained to me that my fantasy car for sale to him
could be given wheels, when I wanted it to be flat and 
just glide? The Victorian English had their more
innocent Green Zones in India, from which to peroroate
on the superiority of peace for trade; indiscreet to go
slaughtering around all over the place like the Russians
via the French and in any case very likely more
overheads to redemption. If sex is the price for that,
be it what you may; after all sex disappears anyway.

Verbal skill.

This is a broad category but, in my view, one of the things that poets do is to make words to a variety of different things at the same time, the words chosen shouldn’t ‘jar’ on the ear, should be precise whilst at the same time carrying a number of different contexts. There’s also the skill of putting words together, in whatever form that enhances both the sound of sense of what’s being written.

Taking Appleton House first, it seems to me that the words are taking us, almost by stealth, from the world of the wood to the world of politics. Unlike the others, Marvell is constrained by both rhyme and meter yet the lines proceed without that sing-song playground effect that seems to be present in too many poems of his period. Tinkle might be thought of as problematic but this is helped a little by the discovery that it can also mean ‘tingle’, especially with regard to the nose. The other concern might be the are/care rhyme in the first quoted verse and long/young in the last. It may well be that these could be credibly made to rhyme in the 17th century ( long/yong) but it still strikes me as clunky.

John Matthias is a superb technician who hardly ever puts a verbal foot wrong. I know this because I’ve been working with him to produced an annotated on-line version of his Trigons and that entire sequence is remarkable for its absence, with one very small exception, of clunk. It could be argued that I’m biased but this mastery is something I’d written about before John got in touch. The poem above is the last from the Laundry Lists sequence and these are the first lines that had me punching the air with delight precisely because of the verbal brilliance of the last line and this uncanny ability to use ordinary/conversational language to do very complex and intelligent things. As well as being a sucker for the great phrase (their tiny trumpets blow) I’m also of the view that poetry, if it’s about anything, is about a ‘mix’ of compression and precision. I have gone on at length about the last 6 and a half lines that conclude the sequence but I still feel the need to emphasise in terms of word-choice, syntax and phrasing how the very difficult to do properly is made to feel relaxed and easy.

Keston Sutherland is the most exciting British poet writing today but he isn’t without his annoyances and the most irritating of these is his tendency to throw in the obscure word or phrase which has always struck me as less than democratic- ‘prolegomenon’ and ‘perorate’ being the only offenders here. This aside, the above is utterly brilliant in that it manages to create a verbal flow that effortlessly takes us from wider public issues to the deeply personal and back again and achieves this by being both precise and economic with the words that are used. The way in which the sophisticated political analysis is smashed to bits by the extraordinary account of Keston as a child sucking off differently-coloured Robert is breathtaking, in the Prynne sense, and profoundly disturbing atleast to this particular reader. In terms of words, those used here are straightforward and clear we are not left in any doubt what is being said although the small and nameless boy at the end might carry some ambiguity. Incidentally, I’ve checked and ‘prolegomenon’ is a classical term for a written preface and I have to wonder whether ‘preface to an epigram’ is more democratic. As far as I can tell, we can reasonably use ‘declaim’ instead of ‘perorate’ and the same argument applies. I don’t find myself feeling the same about Matthias’ cognates because I can’t think of a more accessible substitute.

Tone

One of the surprising things about thinking in this way is that I’ve discovered or refined what seems to be important to me. I used to think of this as ‘voice’ but I now realise that this musical term seems to cover this better. I also realise that, most of the time, I’m attracted to and impressed by a mix of the clever and the playful. I’ll try to use these three extracts to think a bit more about what I mean.

Starting with the woodpecker’s journey through the wood. The first verse reads as a description of this progress and plays with language to create an ostensibly simple and pleasant scene. Things become much more serious by the end of the third verse which makes the subject matter very clear. The language sounds like an attractive melody but (cleverly) carries more than a little ‘bite’ it also conveys a degree of ambiguity which I find satisfying. The creation of these twelve lines of complexity seems quite improvised and conversational yet the ‘message’ is very serious indeed and refreshingly different in its use of play from other poetic efforts of the time.

I now see that it was this combination was what drew me in to Matthias’ work, in his longer work he clearly plays with language and conveys to the reader the pleasure that he takes in this. More so than with Marvell The above is a demonstration of the playfully clever in this pleasure and the verbal exuberance of the opening lines. The concluding image does many things given that the sequence as a whole is about our relationship to a sense of order and the ways in which we struggle with that. I hesitate to say this but “their little trumpets blow” is about as playfully clever as it gets.

Since i first came across his work, I’ve thought of Sutherland as essentially experimental even though he probably views himself as essentially political. The good thing about these experiments is that they mostly work. The beginning of this particular paragraph reads like the beginning of an earlyish Jon Zorn Riff, leaping from target to target at a rapid pace. Then you come across Godzilla’s genital stage which injects some humour into this depiction of Capital and Empire. The one-liners ooze (technical term) with cleverness and there’s clearly more than a little fun with words being had along the way. The most cleverly playful aspect is the insertion of the childhood confessions which tackles the wider theme of how the breaking of secrets can be a powerful and liberating political weapon.

Subject Matter.

I’m against political poems mostly because I find them too ‘viewy’ in the E Pound sense and I have more than enough views of my own. All of these poems ‘do’ politics but accomplish other things as well. Upon Appleton House encompasses landscape and the effects of natural forces, celebrates the life and achievements of his employer, Thomas Fairfax (all-round Civil War good guy) and presents this front row view of one of the most turbulent times in British history. It also does all these things very well indeed. I’m not that interested in the political aspects of the Civil War because I think we continue to give them far too much importance but I am fascinated by how poets responded to those events on either side of the ‘fence’. I am however fascinated by the interplay between the forces of the state and individual agency. Fairfax was on of the most prominent figures on the Roundhead side of the fence yet he was firmly opposed to the trial of Charles I, indeed on the first day of the trial his wife heckled from the gallery. So what Marvell seems to be playing with, as in his An Horatian Ode is the complexities involved in any political strategy/

Laundry Lists and Manifestoes is less obviously political but nevertheless plays along the manifesto / manifest / list and the way in which we ‘lean’ on lists as a kind of prop to calm our various neuroses. It’s not that lists are meaningless and arbitrary collations (as with Perec) but that they are inherently faulty in many kinds of ways. One of the very many clevernesses is that the sequence can itself be read as a long and overlapping list of proper nouns, so it’s a list of listists about lists. Of course, manifestoes are a central part of political life and they have there own frailties between ideology and electoral success.

Keston Sutherland is determinedly political and The Odes present a more considered analysis of the dismal workings of the state than his previous work but also makes use of his personal biography to make a more general but astute point about secrets and the liberating effect of exposing secrets.

One of the ‘big’ secrets of contemporary life is that children are sexual beings with sexual feelings. This isn’t in any way a defence for paedophilia but unleashing this particular secret does cast a lot of adult assumptions about notions of innocence and purity out of the window. In The Odes Sutherland describes in quite graphic detail his own childhood sexual preferences and desires and contrasts these with the desire of his parents to both prevent these being acted upon and to keep them hidden from the world. As well as disliking political poetry, I have a distinct loathing of what we now think of as confessional work so I should really hate this particular mix but it is saved by the strength of the analysis and the wider implications of the confession. I think.

There’s also the issue of wider appeal, we all live under the rule and by the rules of the state, we’re currently watching a couple of states looking increasingly fragile from internal strife and one that has gone beyond the point of self-destruction. We all make lists, nobody is free from the deep need to impose order on the world around us and this takes the form a list of nouns interspersed with a list of their ‘connectors’. We all have a personal manifesto which, whether conscious or not, guides our behaviour. Mine is poorly articulated notion of integrity that contains all of the qualities that I aspire to and it’s there because my previous behaviours have refined down those moral traits that make sense to me. There have been other lists, the clearest being the set of tasks that needed to be done in order to gain as much money in as short a time as possible. Everybody should think more about lists in a much more critical and sceptical manner- Matthias’s sequence prods us into doing that very thing. In a similar fashion we all need to confront our most hidden and awkward secrets and the lies that we tell ourselves about them. It now seems to me absurd that we deny in ourselves what we know to be true and incorporate that denial into our view of the world. Keston’s choice of secret is perhaps extreme but there are many, many others, the way that we deny our racism, our material greed and what Foucault almost described once as the fascist within.

Pointfulness

I read a lot of poetry and I’ve noticed a new demarcation in addition to honest / dishonest line and it’s to do with futility. It seems to me that the vast majority of published work on both sides of the Atlantic is utterly pointless, it makes no positive cultural contribution and is staggeringly complacent even as it glides into its own irrelevance. I’m not going to name names but it does take a lot for work to rise above this dismal morass. None of these three are complacent, the poets involved a clearly challenging themselves to produce work that challenges the staus quo and move things forward in a positive direction. I accept that Marvell’s being dead for a long, long time but nobody yet has picked up the gauntlet that he laid down.

In conclusion, I’m discovering a growing number of components that make up my idea of quality and it is making me read familiar work in new and fascinating eays. I wonder if others have their own readerly criteria…?

Keston Sutherland’s Under the Mattress

I am now in possession of a draft of the above, having watched the youtube clip of Keston reading this recently in the US. I’m told that it may not be finished but what I’ve seen is a very impressive piece of work. I’ll start with the central image, ‘you’ are underneath a mattress whilst a British military observer is ‘fucking his girlfriend’ on top of it. This is brilliant in all kinds of ways and in order to identify those ways I want to go back to the first part of the second ode from Odes to TL61P. This concerns our police force(s) and is a savage attack on the way in which the current status quo is maintained.

One of the many developments that have occurred during my adult life is the increased cleverness of the police whose primary function seems to have moved from Catching Bad People to Working with Communities as a kind of social work with muscle. Of course this is not the case, both of these functions are, as they always have been, cover for the ‘real’ task which is keeping us in our place. The general ‘cover’ has moved from the pseudo morality of the first stance to the management of communities with all the performance targets and outcomes and strategic babble that this implies.

This dismal state of affairs is captured thus:

What the public here from the police on TV is the
voice of police management. Everyone who has a
manager knows what that litotic brachylogy always
sounds like. You learn in the end to pick out the
buzzwords like hairs from a dessert you only think you
don't want to eat now, whereas in truth it is what you
have paid for in order that you can be too intimidated
to complain about it or send it back, by way of sending
it back instead, and though the mouthfeel is like
a grease-filled crack except astonishingly ugly you
study to toll your eyes, pucker as if embittered, and
furtively smirk at the gelatine souffle with the other
patriotic bulimics........

This is the sort of stuff that has me punching the air in delight. It’s grown up political satire and it is gloriously complex. This isn’t just another illustration of our complicity in our oppression/exploitation but the truly grim picture which is that we know that all of this is a con and yet make a conscious decision to live our lives as if it wasn’t. Keston has said that he isn’t sure whether he’s written a satire or a critique but I’m of the view that this manages to do both as well as skewering the fundamental lie of the ongoing farce that is New Labour.

Some time ago (before I became a more rounded and understanding person) I would have gone on to have a rant about both litotic and brachylogy as being both obscure and off-putting to the average reader. I think this argument would still stand if we didn’t now have free and instant access to the OED and other reference tomes via the marvels of the interweb. Now, given that I’ve been unable to unwrap both these oddities in less than a minute, I don’t think this argument applies to me but it may do for those who may find words like these intimidating in the sense that whoever uses them is much cleverer than they are and for those who just want to read poetry for the language without being overly concerned about anything as moveable as meaning.

I didn’t have a problem about not knowing what those two words mean and was quite happy to be swept along by the strength of the argument initially but then felt the need to discover that litotic isn’t a word in the OED (and therefore Does Not Exist) but is probably being used as the adjective for ‘litotes’ whichic is defined as “A figure of speech, in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary; an instance of this.” Brachylogy (which is a word) is apparently a term used in the lost art of rhetoric and means: ” Conciseness of speech, laconism; a condensed expression.” So, it turns out that this is probably the most concise way of saying what Sutherland wants to say and is therefore not only defensible but also a Good Thing.

Before we proceed to the dreamer under the mattress, there are a couple of brief detours that I want to take. John Bloomberg Rissman and I have been discussing the specialness or otherwise of poetry and I was challenged / asked to come up with a definition. Of course I ducked this as best I could but came up with what had attracted / enchanted me in the first place: the ability of the poem to express greater precision by means of compression. I don’t think that poetry is unique in this but I think, at its best, it does it very well. This is a long way of saying that ‘litotic brachyology’ is an example of this and of Sutherland’s poetic skills.

The other by-way that needs to be trod is that of satire, it wasn’t until I was writing out the above that I noticed the scabrous nature of this astonishingly ugly crack that is filled with grease. Having now noticed it, I think i have to ask whether this extreme kind of satire doesn’t detract from the deadly serious point that is being made. Just because Swift did doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s okay. In this instance I’m prepared to accept that it’s meant to be read at a rate of knots and that something forceful is required but I’m not certain that it isn’t a little gratuitous.

What follows is not just a dissection of police tactics in protests but also an interweaving of the hacking fiasco, the Arab spring, the emergence of China Mobile as a global competitor and the oddness that is the lingering and ongoing death of Yvonne Fletcher with management speak and the relationship between police overtime and crisis.

This was intended as a description of the effectiveness of the central image in Under the Mattress but I seem to have gotten carried away, this is magnificent:

.........................have a dream in which to 
evade arrest you squeeze your whole body under a 
mattress laid out intuitively horizontal on which now
 superficially outlays overcharged and wasted an 
obscurely misplaced British military observer who is 
thereby on standby to be presumed innocent on the 
ground of his readiness to fall in with reality not once
but by more expertly fucking his girlfriend, and once
having been gratefully squeezed under the mattress it 
is still being done more expertly to her on, to excuse 
the strange imposition of a life directly under his 
peacekeeping pounding ass, you explain without
 meaning it or strangely caring that who should remain 
at large on the tugboat or free would needs risk 
being captured, in vintage language like that.....

There are two things here that attract my attention. The first is this observer who we are told is a military observer but is also a peacekeeper. Starting with the business of observation, I seem to recall fairly reliable (and not denied) evidence that British ‘diplomats’ were present as observers when people were being tortured in a number of dark rooms all over the world. I also recall the present regime of posh rich boys undertaking to have a thorough review of these observers’ role and / or complicity in these barbaric practices which we could never condone or make use of. However, it must be pointed out that this observer is not actually applying the electrodes, hammer, white noise, hooding but is merely observing the process and the results that then ensue. The eminently reasonable argument put forward by the powers that be, or copied from the Bush adminstration, is that these ‘techniques’ produce valuable intelligence which helps us to win the War on Terror and that we need to observe the process in order to gain that intelligence. Of course this particular military observer may be a peacekeeping observer in somewhere intransigently tricky like the DRC which would be completely neutral and have nothing to do with the interests of the larger (British) mining conglomerates currently bringing wealth and prosperity to the region.

The second thing to think about is what it means or what it’s like to be under a mattress. First and most obviously your movement is restricted and you can’t see very much. Secondly you have the weight of the mattress and those people lying on it weighing down on you. Anything you hear is muffled and you can only see what is apparent in the gap on either side between the mattress and the frame of the bed. You cannot complain against the activities going on above because you are hiding in order to evade arrest.

At least one of your hands may yet protrude from the side of the bed as if in silent protest at what is going on above it. Breathing is likely to be difficult especially as your rib cage is buffeted from the exertions going on above.

It is a dream poem and in this particular dream the protagonist (still addressed as ‘you’) moves in and out of being “Roger fucking Moore” complete with a brief biography of this Great British Icon and the overall ‘feel’ is more satire than critique and it’s very funny.

So, an image that will stay with me for a very long time and a poem that manages to be seriously absurd / absurdly serious with a great deal of verbal flair. One of the threads that seems to be worked through in Keston’s recent work is an increasingly grown-up and sophisticated analysis of the workings of the state. As a closet anarchist, I’m very pleased indeed.

Keston Sutherland: the Dot Investigation

Regular readers will know that I’ve had a recent peeve (technical term) about the dot that appears in section II of Stress Position and annoyingly re-emerges in The Odes to TL61P. Since then, thanks to the infinite and not-to-be-questioned power of the interweb, several new possible justifications have been put to me and I have been gently reminded that I omitted the Dot in the Foot. I’ve also had a question put to me which I need to quote in full:

I wonder has there ever been a word in your life that has oddly just stuck around or hung in the air or returned obstinately to your mind without ever fully or altogether disclosing its charge of significance or range of associations?

I do want to address this at some length but first I want to report on my Dot Findings.

It turns out that the dot is not an annoyingly empty affectation, indeed it has a very clear origin and ‘meaning’. Thanks again to the power of the interweb I now have a digitised copy of an essay entitled “Poetry and Subjective Infinity” by Keston Sutherland which I am told pre-dates SP.

I think it is only fair to warn the uninitiated that Keston is much more Marxist than your average Marxist and what follows contains more than a little of Karl and may require some sympathy with a leftist position. We start with a childhood dream:

I would return to the labyrinth, resentful and awkward with grief, consciously unable to comprehend the reality that this cycle of meaningless labour in infinite abstraction would go on eternally, that it would go on being interrupted at regular intervals in order that the alien law could be reaffirmed, and that this whole cycle played out in absolute abstraction emptied of all sensuous content was not only inescapable, but that it was somehow the very pattern of necessity itself, and that my whole life would be spent in the dutiful repetition of this cycle, and that I would never understand why or to what end. In the dream I was a dot in infinity. When I woke up, I was a child standing in the living room in my pyjamas, drenched in sweat, convulsively screaming noises, and my father and sister were standing in front of me, nervously attempting to wake me, their two adjacent faces twisted up in worry and astonishment.

We then move on to Becket’s Imagination Dead Imagine from which this is quoted:

No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere, and no question now of ever finding again that white speck lost in whiteness, to see if they still lie in the stress of that storm, or of a worse storm, or in the black dark for good, or the great whiteness unchanging, and if not what they are doing.

Now, you will be pleased to know that, to further this investigation, I have just read all three pages of Imagination Dead Imagine. This isn’t any kind of burden for me because Becket’s prose has been a lifelong companion and I like to think that I have a reasonable grasp of the work. In this particular piece the scene is set with great precision and two prone and motionless figures are subjected to variations in temperature and light. The ‘speck lost in whiteness’ is first described as “Externally all is as before and the sighting of the little fabric quite as much a matter of chance, its whiteness merging into the surrounding whiteness”. There is then an analysis of the grammatical structure before this explanation of the speck:

The figure of the speck lost in infinity is something like the test of this proposition. It is the image of life contracted into a terminally punctual abstraction, jettisoned in a world from which it is absolutely impotent to escape, and which it can never hope even in the slightest degree to alter, disrupt or influence. To be absolutely impotent and absolutely lost in the world is not yet to be dead; but as Beckett often only seems to joke, the difference is in truth indifferent.

This is followed by Marx’s dot or his use of the term Puntualitat which is translated for us as ‘dotlikeness’ and is used by Marx (apparently) to describe the appearance of the individual under the “despotism” of capital. The point is also made that capital “assumes the role of infinity.”

I’m going to glide over the discussion that follows about the (no doubt) complex relationship between Marx and Hegel because it seems to be more about infinity that The Dot. There’s also a fair bit about the way that capital empties out the worker.

The essay ends with a rousing and heartfelt description of what poetry can and must do which starts with:

To be the critic of political economy, really to be the active enemy of capital and not its sycophant, requires poetry: speculation as the work of subjectively infinite self-conscious reflection must be kept alive in poetry.

and:

It has always seemed to me that the image of the dot lost in infinity, the image of absolutely belittled life horrifyingly forever adrift in infinite emptiness, is a basic experiential content of poetry. I have not written a poem I care about that was not in some more or less explicit way determined by that image and my horror of it.

So, I stand corrected – the dot does have a specific significance and meaning in Keston’s work and practice and is not, as I cynically suggested, a mere stylistic tic. There are however a couple of thoughts that this investigation has prompted for me. The first of these is the underlying and (to me) key difference between Becket’s speck and Marx’s punkt. The latter would appear to be a product of an economic system and would disappear if that system was overthrown. The first has always been our reality and will remain so throughout our existence regardless of the contexts in which we live. For Becket struggle and striving are always futile because they always end in a paricularly unremitting kind of failure.

The next point (entirely intentional} that I think needs to be made is that being an active enemy of capital does not require poetry any more than it requires light opera. This seems so blindingly self-evident to me that I cannot understand how very bright people whose work I have the greatest respect for should continue to make this entirely spurious piece of grandiosity. Poetry may be many wonderful things but it is neither essential nor, in any way, special. End of short and oft-repeated rant.

I think I also need to point out the absolute sincerity of Keston’s views on this, I have no doubt that his belief in the power of poetry is keenly felt and probably is the ingredient (technical term) that gives his work its brilliance and strength. I just think he’s wrong.

I’m not going to re-examine each particular dot here because that’s probably best left to individual readers although I may feel the need to return to the dot in the foot and the Capo dot at a later stage.

Keston Sutherland’s dot

Whilst thinking about writing this I realised that something has changed. Not so very long ago if I came across something that I didn’t understand then I automatically assumed that this was my problem, that I was insufficiently educated, inadequately read and what generally ignorant. I now realise that this is no longer the case. When I encounter a similar piece of bafflement I now assume that the problem lies primarily with the poet rather than with me. I’ve also noticed that I’m less bothered by elitism, not because it isn’t a sin but more because it seems to matter less. I think I might need to worry about both of these because there’s clearly some softening occurring and this does not sit at all well with my carefully honed rugged Northern working class persona.

I have no idea when these events occurred but they do seem to be exemplified by the Dot Problem.

I started reading Keston’s Stress Position at the very end of 2009 and was very impressed which is unusual because most kinds of poetic polemic manage to be both childishly agitated and tedious in equal measure.

I’ve written with enthusiasm about SP many times since then but I’ve always managed to glide gracefully around the dot device. Initially this was because I didn’t understand it and felt that this was due to the above issues. I was also very happy to overlook the dots because SP is full of many, many good things that I do understand and can write about. So, I was quite happy to file the dots away until some rainy day when things would become suddenly clear. However the dot (I now notice) has returned in The Odes to TL61P and I am trying to say intelligent things about these because I think they might be Quite Important.

So, I’ve been back to SP’s dots and have to report that they’re not any clearer now than they were in 2009. Section 2 (The Workings) opens with:


        To the anagrammatic Diotima I am a bare intuition of Vietstock
    so we split - on a skiv run down The Street like a milky gutter
        of burnt silk singing 8000 BAHT the girl with the waggly tail
    my eyes too. A billion negligible eggs in a rectangle pruned
        to a triangle, pruned to a dot. Making the parts of a sky inside you
    shift, think, and you too, reliving Svay Pak. Across the road
         Tajik scag, Satyr alive on theft, metanarcissism.

Now you might think that this is a fuss about nothing, that this particular dot makes complete sense given where it sits. However, this is the second half of the third stanza:

I can’t understand how beautiful it is, my thin heart thrashes at
the limit it sets in stony flesh flooded by brilliancy
later unknown, this is the real dot I hear my final voice
repeat as the shrinkwrapped air collapses spinning into the floor.

I would ask you to note the italics above because this is all of the fourth stanza:


        Now I want you to repeat that back to me in white noise
    lived with static that comes in grey when put on the black market,
        like truth faded into. I turn the hole in her foot into
    a man called DOT, it is not a person but a multicoloured and
        immaculate silhuette of whom it thrills me as I eat
    a chthonic donut, which, if you lick its sugar, tells the story
        of my dot, of Black Beauty, of the gastro yacht, of poetry.

It doesn’t end there, there are two real dots and and some dots that are all joined up, italicised, upper case dots and a capo dot further on. Now, perhaps it can be seen why I decided to leave well alone, the poem (apart from this and a couple of other tics) is brilliantly inventive and does what poetry can do at its very best. My initial response of being too thick to work out what might be going on has been given over to annoyance. First, I’m not a fan of changes in type to hint at a variation of meaning. Second, I’m not too sure that I can be bothered to work out what the dots might, if anything, signify. Third, I have a lingering suspicion that Section two of SP may be too elaborately affected for its own good. All of which is a pity.

We now come to The Odes of which I am the most enthusiastic fan / advocate / reader. I continue to think that it’s a really important piece of work in that it reaches out to the world well beyond poetry, it’s uncompromisingly honest and incredibly brave. Unfortunately, I’ve just noticed a dot. I hadn’t noticed it before but I am trying to write intelligent things about Ode 1 and this involves me paying more attention than usual. There may, of course, be other dots but this is the first:


     ...................You task Madiha Shenshel with
    cooking your breakfast (hawk eggs in fried milk
    high in polycollaterals), then finishing it, then making
    it again (fuck, a dot), automatically spitting shells
    out; you prefer the boxes to the toys; Deborah's photo
    of herself crammed into her college wardrobe, ad
    infitum; the hair on a thousand mothers; infinity ad
    nauseam; the internal level counter is stored in a single
    byte, and when it reaches 255 the subroutine causes 
    this value to roll over to zero before drawing the fruit.

So, there are two alternatives, I can note that the offending conceit is in brackets and therefore can be ignored or I can take a deep breath and start with all those dots in SP and work out what might be going on. It then occurs to me that the brackets argument doesn’t work because, by that argument, I’d miss the collaterals quip which does make a difference to what’s around it.

So, this isn’t my problem, I’m not missing the ‘point’ or, if I am, the ‘point’ isn’t sufficiently clear. One of the issues that I still have with SP is that sometimes it becomes a little too pleased with itself and occasionally Keston lets his cleverness (he is very clever) get the better of him so that the substance gets a bit lost. Nevertheless, it seems that it’s time to revisit The Workings.

Brief media bulletin: Jarvis, Sutherland and Jones.

The audio of the launch of Simon Jarvis’ Night Office is now available on the Enitharmon site. This has the reading and a discussion between Simon and Rowan Williams followed by a brief Q and A. Essential listening for those of us currently paying attention to the work. The Claudius App Soundcloud Gizmo has a reading of the stunningly odd Dionysus Crucified read by Simon and Justin Katko- I’ll be writing about this in the reasonably near future.

The Archive of the Now Keston Sutherland page has both the Cafe Oto and the Brighton launch readings of The Odes to TL61P. The Claudius App Soundcloud gizmo has a New York reading, apparently there’s a New Haven reading as well that Keston feels is the best to date- will provide the link when I get it.

There are also two films on David Jones by David Shiel and commissioned by the David Jones Society. Both of these are more about the paintings and drawings than the poems but there’s still plenty to argue with.

Starting to pay attention to the Odes to TL61P

I’m continuing with the ‘experiments in reading’ series on arduity focusing on ‘The Anathemata’, ‘Night Office’ and ‘The Odes’. I thought I’d put the Sutherland pages here as well because this gives me an excuse/opportunity to talk about the process from the outside.

The intention is to write something which conveys something of the immediacy of my readerly experience and to thus encourage others to tackle these brilliant but challenging pieces of work. Writing about the Odes in this way has presented a number of unexpected problems. Regular readers will know that I’m of the vies that this is an exceptionally brilliant and important piece of work and that therefore my task is to praise it to the hilt. The problem that I have encountered is that its whole is so much better than its individual bits and writing honestly about those bits detracts from its true worth. This may be my problem, but I like to think that my annoyance at some of the devices is at least honest annoyance

Having realised that this was going on, the fourth attempt on Ode 1 deals with themes rather than individual lines and phrases but I’m concerned that this approach comes across as too formal, as an attempt to impose form and structure on something that is monstrously chaotic. None of these concerns will deter me from my task but they do provide additional food for thought.

The following is, as usual, deeply provisional and more than a little tentative, it’s also quite long.

Part one.

You’ve been reading this in various drafts since 2010 and now you have the Real Thing and you’ve read it a couple of times and you went to the Dalston launch where Keston read bits of it gloriously out of sequence and you’ve blogged on the Odes / Stress Position debate and now it’s time to get to grips with it.

One of your better Sutherland-related observations is that his work makes reasonable sense until you read the actual words rather than let the words wash over you. The first couple of pages appear to bear this out and you’re not sure how you feel about this so you start slowly with the first few lines:


    Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
    and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
    in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
    hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
    grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
    whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
    preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
    devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
    prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
    eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
    swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
    are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument

You acknowledge to yourself the energy and the thrust, you also like the confidence of ‘only kidding’ which you’ll come back to shortly but first you decided to think about this ‘head’ that is unscrewed. You recognise that this particular noun has many, many meanings from head of lettuce through to human head and on to the head of an oil well and this last might be appropriate given that this results in burning. The other thing you notice is ‘each’ which indicates, as there’s only one head involved, that the head is unscrewed, emits truths and is then screwed back down again. You know enough about the rest of the poem to gather that this may relate to the theme of the tyranny of secrets and the absolute need to break them but you may, as usual, be rushing ahead of yourself. These ‘truths’ are also a bit of a worry because Keston’s previous truths tend to have been coloured by his Marxian perspective and Stress Position makes fairly explicit his distaste with the/my relativist tendency. You don’t recall being conscious of this getting extended in your previous readings and hope that these kind of truths relate to secrets rather than some kind of universal positivism.

You can’t resist having a peek at the OED definitions for ‘head’ and are staggered by the number and by the fact that you’d forgotten or overlooked so many but it does appear that the well head / flare stack may be the best analogy. The ever-improving Wikipedia tells you that flare stacks are used to burn off the natural gas that comes to the surface (the head of the well) with the oil and that there are normally efficient valves that can stop and start the flow as required. You also recognise that there’s more than one meaning to ‘screw’. This could all be very wide of the mark especially if you take the next two lines into account but it might be significant that these truths burn there way out and then ‘fly away’. You start with the obvious, truths are abstract and completely incapable of either burning or flying. There is however, in the world of secrets, that the content of some truths is so dangerous and corrosive that it is exposed and then flies away. You now hate yourself because you’ve just leapt to Edward Snowden currently in the noplace of Moscow airport and to the slow burn of secrets locked away in Welsh care homes. You then re-read just to make sure that this is a track that you want to go down and realise that ‘burn out’ also has connotations of becoming exhausted, stressed, demoralised and no longer fit for the tsk that you have started. You try to bear this in mind as you come up against these stacked basements.

You don’t want to be too clever or overly poetic but you can’t resist clocking the proximity of basement to abasement and then decide that this is silly, the point is that these burning truths have flown away from their source and are now above these stacks which are flooded with this Very Early snot. This is where the absence of sense may start to kick in but you persevere. Of course, a stack of basements is difficult to envisage because a basement is the room usually at the bottom of the ‘stack’ of other rooms. So if another basement is placed on top of it then that basement becomes a room because it is no longer at the base of the stack.

You consider a different approach but first realise that this Welsh care home thing relates not just to institutional and political secrets but also the truth that an abusing adult will take enormous pains to conceal. You then move on to state secrets and the fact that many of these cover up various forms of abuse from torture through to eavesdropping and reading my e-mails. The different approach turns out to be the function of the basement.

Basements are hidden from view, rarely visited and (in movies at least) the scene of very many bad things. People are killed, bodies are dismembered, the ‘truth’ is extracted in the basement precisely because it is hidden from view, indeed it might even be metaphor for the underbelly of the modern state. We know, thank to the release of truths, that the US and UK arranged for torture to be carried out in basements all over the world and that the use of ‘stacks’ may simply mean ‘very many’.

The snot problem is in part resolved by the discovery that it is only nasal mucus that is snot and that the term is “viscous substance secreted by the mucous cells and glands of animals to provide protection, lubrication, etc” which ties in a bit more with the grisly business of inflicting pain on others.

You may now be wavering between the sense and non-sense positions but you still have your suspicions that this is as it is because it contains more than a touch of the absurd and you’ve just spent ninety minutes or so reading things into something that were never there. This nagging doubt is not at all helped by the prospect of the hairless Janine.

Now you’ve read the Enitharmon blurb and you feel a little more confident about the fray to come. Before you get to the hairless Janine you need to start with “elevating the impeccable” and (by careful re-reading) you gather that it is the truths of line one that are doing the lifting. You haven’t checked but you’re taking “elevating” to indicating some kind of raising up. People are elevated to the peerage, priests are elevated to become bishops etc. There’s also elevations in terms of building plans but you don’t think that elevating is involved in producing these. So, these truths that have burned their way out are now lifting this woman / girl who is said to be “impeccable”. You don’t understand how something abstract like a truth can do something physical like rising somebody up. Then you recall that to elevate can also mean to inspire and / or lift to a higher state of consciousness which would be more in line with an abstraction like truth. In leftist terms the Truth about Capital should inspire people to join the struggle nd the fact that it doesn’t is now one of those tricky and hence ignored elephants in the room.

You then decide to think about “impeccable” and realise that this is quite a complex adjective that doesn’t quite mean “flawless” but might indicate that someone is beyond reproach, difficult to criticise, we say “impeccably turned out”, for example, to indicate that somebody has achieved the highest level in terms of both sartorial elegance and general appearance, usually in the context of a specific event.

You look at the OED which gently informs you that, when applied to people, the word means “Not capable of or liable to sin; exempt from the possibility of sinning or doing wrong”. When applied to things it means “faultless, unerring”. Now, this doesn’t work for you, neither of these seem to mirror your experience and use of the word in the ordinary world that most of us inhabit. You then realise that there is a note next to the definition which points out that this hasn’t been updated since 1899 and you follow the link to something called Oxford Dictionaries Online which tells you that the “incapable of sin” definition relates to theology and is now considered to be rare whilst the main definition is now “in accordance with the highest standards, faultless”. You are still not happy because in your head it applies to n action or quality that is above criticism which doesn’t seem quite the same as without fault.

You’ve had a response to the first of these readings re the identity of Janine: “Since we’re speculating… a (carefully circumscribed) internet search brought up adult film actress Janine Lindemulder. I’ll leave it to someone else to confirm her depilation, but the reference seems to fit with a recurring theme/trope of the poem; it also obviously adds another semantic valence to much of the quoted passage. Couldn’t decide if your ‘nagging’ doubt was about this line of inquiry, so I’ll tastelessly broach it for you.” You’re holding out for Alasdair Gray’s “Janine 1982″ because it’s vaguely literary although you also know that porn is a bit of a sub-theme (technical term) in The Odes. Of course “impeccable” in its theological sense doesn’t easily fit with either of these characters but some sense may be made of the theology of truth and the elevation to heaven of those without sin.

You move on to “hereafter congenitally depilated” and this is one of those places where sense seems to go a bit adrift. If we’re to take ‘congenital’to mean something that is present since birth then ‘hereafter’ as in ‘from now on’ doesn’t make sense. The other observation is that some of us don’t have much hair at all when we’re born but in this instance it would appear that someone has shorn Janine at birth and she has stayed that way or that she has been regularly depilated ever since. At this point your brain loses patience with itself and you begin to feel that this close examination may be an exercise in futility. As a last throw of this particular dice, you check the verb nd discover that there is a secondary definition: “To deprive of it’s skin, decorticate, peel”. Given that your previous reading had detected at least one reference to torture, this changes things around a bit. Removing someone’s skin is a particularly barbaric thing to do and flaying felons was for centuries a mainstay of our penal system and (you’re guessing) an important activity still deployed by states in basements around the world. You don’t want to get carried away with the God thing but many martyrs were flayed alive and many of these were said to be incapable of sin. You’re also reminded that flagellants flourished across Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries so you check the wikipedia page that informs you that whipping yourself is much older than that.

You seem to recall that Prynne has used “congenital” in the fairly recent past and you try to remember where but fail and, anyway, knowing this probably won’t be that much help.

You move on to the Janine problem and fall across a remarkable site called “whosdatedwho.com” which contains a list of 63 Janines who might be considered to be celebrities. You love this stuff, Janine Lindemulder (porn star, probably depilated) tops the list with over 413,00 views but there’s also Janine Pommy Vega who is listed as a poet and activist and a further moment’s search reveals a youtube video of her with Fairly Short Hair. This makes much more sense but you also notice Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, a leading French psychoanalyst who described the 1968 protesters as totalitarian stalinists who were affected by a sordid infantilism caught up in an Oedipal revolt against the father. You hope against hope that this is the Janine in question but then you notice Janine Mellor, the Britsh actress who played Kelsey Phillips in the BBC’s ‘Casualty’…..

You then realise that you’ve spent over a thousand words on just over one line and vow to do better next time.

Part two.

The Blurb

You’ve decided to leave the identity of the depilated Janine alone for a while in the hope that things may become clearer as you progress. Instead of ploughing along at the pace of an arthritic snail you decide to have a closer look at the blurb on the relevant Enitharmon web page:

The Odes to TL61P is a suite of five massive, turbulent, tender and satirical odes written and revised from 2010-13. It is the explicit history of the author’s sexual development from early infancy; a commentary on the social and political history of the UK since the election of the coalition government; a philosophical account of the common meaning of secrecy in the most intimate, private experiences and in international diplomacy; a wild work of revolutionary theory that investigates in minute detail the difference between commodities and human lives; a record of a thousand revisions, deletions and metamorphoses; an attempt to radically extend and reimagine the very possibility of the ode form; a monstrous accumulation of techniques and mimeses, from the strictest and most perfected metrical verse to the most delirious and cacophonous noise music; and a devoted love song to the now obsolete product ordering code for a bygone Hotpoint washer-dryer, “TL61P”. It is the longest poetical work yet written by Keston Sutherland and his most comprehensive effort yet to transform the grammar of human existence.

You don’t normally pay any attention (at all) to what publishers say about their wares but in this instance it would appear that this is a shameless piece of self-promotion by our poet himself and may therefore be worthy of some attention. It turns out that the above ticks the boxes of what you thought might be going on, childhood sexuality, the repressive effect of secrecy, the strange (and getting stranger) phenomenon known as ‘austerity’ intermingled with some of the to be expected Marxian guff. In terms of form, you’re guessing that you’ve started with an example of the “most delirious and cacophonous noise music”. You begin to worry about your lack of knowledge of the ode as a form and half-heartedly resolve to do something about this but you’re taking more notice of the omission of the absurd from the above.

This is puzzling because an element of the ridiculous isn’t usually that far from the surface of Sutherland’s work- the role of Black Beauty in “Stress Position” being the most endearing example. The dedication of the Odes to a “bygone” white good strikes you as firmly in the absurdist camp even though it might be an arch comment on the relationship between human lives and commodities. You’ve dipped your toe in this particular world view enough to know that it has its attractions but you wonder why such a committed Marxian should be attracted to this particular “voice”. You then re-read the blurb and try to work out whether the first page is an example more of delirium. You decide that there’s enough of both and they’re punctuated with the “only ever kidding” and “who the fuck I am now speaking to” device both of which seem to be trying to drag the hapless reader (you) back into whatever might be going on.


    Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
    and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
    in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
    hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
    grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
    whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
    preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
    devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
    prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
    eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
    swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
    are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument
    to be burst asunder by reason of innately shattered
    strobes as soon lived as burnt out, ramming an unplanned
    crack into the door mechanism; who the fuck I am
    now speaking to or at or for or not at this moment
    is compensation for being completed into a circle
    resigned to resume the first square, the first on the 
    entire board, and is listening there, afloat and spent yet
    lost in streaks to the opening night whose primitively
    explosive starlight is progressively nit-picked from a 
    lately impatient and fidgeting sky, not far too far or fast
    too inquisitively squinted at, its cartilage of crudely
    lubed-up open access sex arcs scraped out piecemeal
    and in single-file, and once there inaudibly ask yourself
    why; inside it is the fundamental sky of shining fact:
    the abolition of capital is the social revolution; state

After the seemingly endless tussles with the first four lines, you’ve decided to take a more panoptic view to try and get a bit more sense of the ‘flow’. You notice that we start with “truths” and end up with at least one fact that is said to be shining whilst in the middle you’ve got crates of cosmetics, a bad joke about food, an almost lyrical evocation of the night sky interspersed with references to you, the reader. Most of this occurs after the momentary appearance of the enigmatic Janine. You’ve half-realised that you’re not being invited to worry over-much about how a void can be prophylactic. Having written “a void” your mind, in spite of itself, takes a wander to the first square and ends up with Georges Perec and all things Oulipo which requires a re-reading of the epigram(s):

And the situation is like that in certain games, in which all places on the board are supposed to be filled in accordance with certain rules, where at the end, blocked by certain spaces, you will be forced to leave more empty spaces that you could have or wanted to, unless you used some trick. There is, however, a certain procedure through which one can most easily fill the board.

Wake up my fellow citizens and middle class and go look in the mirror.

You run this through a few times, Oulipo was/is ‘about’ creating patterns and writing in accordance with certain (usually mathematical) rules in order to highlight the inherent meaninglessness of everyday life which doesn’t sound very Sutherland and indeed the above seems to be much more about the “hidden” hand of capital than any kind of Gallic nihilism. One of the really curious things about this first page is that it fights shy of its brilliance or, at least, it appears to undermine its own technique and you can’t put your finger on why this might be but there are some wondrous moments that seem to falter in their moment of triumph. You look again at “integument” and decide that it’s a saboteur, an unnecessarily complex/obscure word that adds nothing to the sense of what’s been said but just uglifies (technical term) the flow and distracts from the ‘sense’. Of course the offending noun might carry weight with those that actually went to college but you doubt it. Warming to your theme, you decide that “nit picked” provides a similar function. You look at “only ever kidding” and come to the view that this does something quite complex on the use of language to cover up or deny acts of violence and/or oppression. On the other hand it might (just) be a ‘real’ attempt to justify the arctic roll quip but this is counterbalanced by the fact that Sutherland tends to avoid “kidding” which (now you come to think about it) is a verb which requires closer scrutiny.

You decide to think some more about this person/listener/reader that Sutherland claims to be addressing and you discover that this address provides some compensation which for the moment you to take to be a softening of the blow rather than monetary reward. It turns out that this blow is being forced or cajoled or manoeuvred into the first square (again). At this stage there is some justifiable confusion in your head about who is on the square but the way that things progress would indicate that perhaps we, everybody, are all back at the first square just as we are all beneath this sky which fidgets with impatience like a small child.

So, in terms of narrative or things that happen, we seem to move from truths soaring over the murderous basements of American and British foreign policy through the hairless Janine, various foodstuffs, a freezer, some eye shadow, a door mechanism that may or may not be part of the freezer, the person whom the poet is addressing and then on to this squares/chess device before arriving at the fundamental sky of shining fact and the truism about Capital. Whilst building this trajectory, you notice again “no-one is the radius of everything we are” which stills sounds better than it should. There are two obvious questions- how can person become a radius and who are the we? you don’t know whether this is a profound observation on the human condition or just another absurdist/monstrous tic- an echo of some half-recalled pomposity. Either way, it’s annoying but that may well be the ‘point’.

Part Three

A pause.

You have cheated, you have read the next two pages carefully in order to get a few more bearings. This was not your intention but (you argue with yourself) this kind of reading does need some kind of frame to sustain it. Your reasonably attentive reading of these two pages reminds you of why you were so gobsmacked in the first place. It also underlines the usual reservation (obscurity) that you have about Keston’s work.

In order to speed things up a bit, you’ve decided to concentrate on shorter and less frequent passages so that you can get more of an idea of the broader themes. You decide to think about ‘theme’ at a later stage.

You start with:

    in the Ottoman style of the rococo circumlocution in
    liberal sex jargon recited by &#201riphile at II.i.477-508,
    in the dreamiest mannequin's subsequent scan of which

Ferret-like you and your beady eyes start to delve the depths of the web for &#201riphile and find her but spend twenty minutes (an age in interweb time) trying to find an English translation of the offending passage. Then decide to give up as life really is too short and it does seem to be almost as needlessly obscure as Hill’s more outrageous references. You then decide to beat your auto-didact self up for not knowing what either ‘circumlocution’ or ‘rococo’ mean although you do recall there being a parody of bureaucracy called the House of Circumlocution somewhere in Dickens. You resort to the OED and discover that you could have hazarded a guess as to both and you think about the interplay between rococo and the Ottoman style and decide tht this is all longhand for overly ornate and evasive speech which may or may not describe &#201riphile’s speech in act two of “Iphig&#233nie”.

You then pause and consider whether or not this level of knowledge is a pre-requirement for reading The Odes and if you should therefore give up now. You decided that it would be a rare creature indeed that would be completely au fait with the Racine and that this would limit the readership to Not Very Many. So, are we then expected to ferret away in order to appraciate / grasp the full connotations of the ‘point’ that may be being made? You know that this kind of device is an accepted and expected feature of the late modern – you just wish that it wasn’t. You’re not irritated by the complexity of the argument nor by the use of obscure language to make a point (unless it’s a foreign language) but you are by this kind of reference. You then notice the precision of the reference and then consider that this might be a joke about being convoluted in order to describe something that is convoluted – even this ‘explanation’ irritates you because it’s an example of Sutherland being too clever for his own good.

You end your pause by recognising that The Odes deserve a sizeable readership but most readers will be deterred / alienated by this kind of cleverness as it merely confirms their perceptions of and prejudices about this kind of material.

Beckett

You have been to see a production of “Not I” at the Royal Court and it now seems self evident that this refers to that particular piece of brilliance:


    in stratified squamous epithelium  to an alternatively
    screaming mouth, destined while dying inside
    to repeat before dying outside one last infinity of
    one-liners before snapping and giving up, or
    better yet pretending to, once you get it, once
    that is you really get it all, or not at all directly into
    the hot squamocolumnar junction with its intestate
    teat cistern......

There are many screaming mouths in our cultural baggage but very few that ‘do’ very many one-liners. “Not I” consists of a single mouth suspended in darkness over the stage and throwing out what appears to be the difficult to control thoughts of a very damaged mind. You sat through a discussion after the performance where it was reasonably clear that there was a different way of ‘getting it’ to yours. The panel members gave the impression that this was a particular woman who had experienced some kind of traumatising event. You are not an expert by any means on all things Sam but you have been reading “Not I” since it was first performed and you’ve always thought of it s expressing something more universal as in ‘this is how it is for us’ rather than ‘this is how it is for her’. On reflection you decide that you don’t actually care whether you get it or not because your reading of Sam is where you started from and you can’t / won’t undo forty years of reading for getting it in the way that Keston apparently does.

You are, however, intrigued by the dying / pretending to, inside / outside play as if understanding (getting) this pretence or that there is a pretence is where we / you need to be. You are less annoyed than usual by the two squams although ‘scaly’ would probably be a more approachable way of putting it. You check out epithelium and decide that ‘scaly skin’ is much much more open and comprehensible although you acknowledge that squamous sounds better. Whilst staring at the OED on ‘epithelium’ you note that it is derived from the Greek for ‘upon’ and ‘teat’ or ‘nipple’ and then you realise that some harder thinking might be required. You understand that intestate is the adjective used to describe someone who has died without leaving a will, that teat normally refers to a nipple that provides milk and that a cistern is a tank.

You re-read ‘Not I’ and discover that isn’t much help, a teat cistern could be either one of those milk churns tht aren’t in use any more, or a milk bottle / carton or the breast that holds the milk. At this point you feel that you might be getting somewhere re maternal deprivation (the woman refers to herself as a ‘waif) but decide to give this aspect a rest. You move on the the ‘one-liner’ tag and recognise that (in your head) these are normally succinct and witty phrases that accurately encapsulate an event or a mental / emotional state. Good one-liners, in your view tend to have some poetic or lyrical quality. Your all time favourite is from a Clive James song lyric from the early seventies: “The trick is not to stop the sliding said the kid / but to find a graceful way of staying slid”. You like to think that you’ve now arrived at such a state but this does not at all help with the ‘one last infinity’ above. You recognise that ‘Not I’ is composed entirely of very short phrases indeed and you scan these and they fall short in both the witty and the succinct stakes. However, infinity makes more sense in that the piece is meant to be read / performed very quickly and you get the sense, both as audience and reader, that you are interrupting something which has no end – the monologue will continue until the woman’s death. You then try and work out whether the following ‘snapping and giving up’ refers to this death. You conclude that it might.

One of the strengths of ‘The Odes’ is a sense of the absurd and the ridiculous that run through the work. This is the first:


    sucking on the ageing raging hard-on held in trust
    for young dysphagia who only comes of age, yes
    exactly but at the same time, or at some other time
    like it, or at what is not a time, but is still like it
    if not exactly like it, or at what is exactly not a time
    and therefore not exactly like it, or not like this, or 
    in an unsustainable combination of the above, to
    be waked to death and faked alive, for the known  
    good of bored stiff rich men whose sexuality is
    literalised into a rampage of leverage and default swaps,

You read this aloud a couple of times and, despite yourself, you find that it works. It’s sufficiently convoluted in it’s imitation of the qualifiers and equivocations that surround us before delivering this notion of a sexuality being made concrete in the form of those financial niceties that caused this punitive state of self-denial (austerity) back in 2007/8. You begin to note the more formal elements within the prose: aging/raging, waked / faked, rampage / leverage because these become more apparent once read aloud.

You have to look up dysphagia and discover that it refers to problems with swallowing and you begin to get a bit disturbed by the adjective and coming of age. This theme of childhood sexual desires and behaviours gets developed in much more detail later on but you hadn’t recognised that it began here, on the second page. As an ex-Marxian you need time to think about whether it was / is a literalised sexuality that drove the bored men in suits to bring fiscal disaster around our heads. Your understanding of these things is that the world of finance is stocked exclusively by overgrown adolescents who thrive on a mix of cocaine and adrenaline and burn out when they’re 35. It wasn’t either of these aspects that caused the fiasco but greed and arrogance, the morons really did think that they’d found a way to make money for ever and proceeded to stuff their pockets with as much as they could. It may be wrong but it’s still an excellent two-liner.

You think about the time entanglement and wonder whether there’s a ‘point’ beyond the simply absurd. You know that @The Odes’ are concerned with time in that they relate to childhood and that there’s increasing anxiety about how those who can respond fastest to events have an inherent advantage over other wheelers and dealers. ‘Waked’ and ‘faked’ needs some thinking about until you realise that it is in capital’s interests to maintain us in a state of living death so that we don’t think about difficult things like causes or reasons. On reflection, it is remarkable how many intelligent and rational people have failed to work out the that inherent instabilities and inequalities in the free market ‘system’ might have more than a little to do with what went wrong.

So, it’s brilliant and audacious and you really do wish that you’d written it.

Part Four.

Ode 1: an overview.

You have decided to remove yourself from line by line pondering and to try and get to grips with all of the first ode at once. This seems to make sense because it’s written in a way that encourages forward momentum and you feel that going with the flow is the best way to grasp what might be going on. At times like this you find yourself bringing to mind Prynne’s characterisation of the late modern poem, that you’ve got to have an almost panoptic grasp of how one part might relate to an/or affect another. You’ve always been a little daunted by this because there are some poems and some sequences that are too complex or too ‘big’ to fit into your small brain. ‘Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian’ and ‘The Unconditional’ come to mind as previous defeats in the overview stakes. This is not something you experienced with ‘Stress Position’ however so there is some room for optimism.

Starting with the basics, Ode 1 starts on p1 and ends on p18. It has five parts although it may have three parts with the third part containing a further two parts. All of the parts contain both prose and verse, some of the verse parts are quite structured and there’s a group of three 4-line stanzas that rhyme. The themes relate to:

  • the evils of late capital;
  • retail, including household appliances;
  • recent imperial stupidities in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya;
  • torture;
  • the appalling level and types of violence in Northern Mexico;
  • sex:
  • tenderness.

You are quite pleased with this list because it gives some structure to your thinking. You decide to identify what seem to be the main ‘points’ with regard to each of these.

This is not as easy as it first appears because the overt references to a theme are usually tied into other backgound elements and are thus difficult to disentangle. You start with:


   right angles folded until they froth, to triple its 
   unaccountability to an afflatus, doing as the banks
   just did not as the banks just said, I understand the
   hole that George is in, a dot whose innuendo comes
   too late, flushed with spirit toilet-trained ro life, but
   sucking on the aging raging hard-on held in trust

Before moving in on to:


   good of bored stiff rich men whose sexuality is
   literalised into a rampage of leverage and default swaps
   hovering above minimum wage like a bloodthirsty
   erection over a fairground mirror......

Neither of these are difficult to understand- the banks and servile politicians being the bad boys of our times but what you hadn’t noticed is the proximity of cash and sex, as if lust and greed are paert of the same dynamic. The doing but not saying is a nice touch and, of course, doesn’t just relate to the recent fiasco but will persist as long as there is a need to dress up the pernicious nature of capital. George (Osborne) isn’t in a hole, he isn’t destroying public services because of the economic fiascos, he’s doing this because he wants to get the state out of service provision so that we are all better exposed to the vagaries of the market. The literalisation ‘works’ until you start to think about it and then you realise that it’s not meant to make complete sense but is intended to give emphasis to a kind of bleak, lust-ridden violence at the heart of capital.

On the next page there is:


   before anyone could actually get hard or wet or both at
   once for leading members of that cast, lead role models
   for our past, who beg to differ, slave to eat the mess we
   inherited from the last orgasm in government for sexy 
   workers whipped to slurp the surplus spew of petty
   change remaindered when the banks have had their due,

and:


   and almost shut but not decisively shut yet and still
   shatterproof smeary and eternally not real window 
   sing the mess we inherited from the last beginning scraps
   the missing past to recycle the joy it brings, the power
   set, of a subset, of a power set, of a sex power,
   
 

You congratulate yourself on recognising the plaintive cry of every newly elected/installed government since Walpole. The elected party runs the following ritual:

  • it announces that it has inspected the current state of affairs and things are much worse than they first appeared;
  • as a result of this shock discovery the new administration will have to take even more draconian measures than those outlined in its manifesto;
  • these draconian measures are regrettable but the blame lies firmly with the previous adminstration.

Of course, this particular card has been played to the full by the latest band of dismalities but is there a ‘sex power’ at work here? You remain to be convinced, your view of political ambition remains that it is more driven by a desire for recognition and the opportunity to meddle on a major scale rather than by a need to sexually dominate. You notice that, as you are thinking this through, you are avoiding the ‘p’ word and that is probably because things (for you) start to get a bit queasy. You know that the exercise of power is not a one way thing, that it operates in many directions and across many societal and cultural dimensions. You also know that the relationship between sex and power is never (ever) straightforward. The notion of a sex power, if it is to be equated with the banal human greed that drives capital, might need to be explained at some length.

The other aspect that these two extracts bring to light is the close relationship between the state and the free market, emphasising perhaps the role of the state in making society (you and me) ‘safe’ for capital. This all seems to be taking place behind a “shatterproof smeary and eternally not real window” this has you nodding in vigorous agreement, it is not quite shut thereby giving the opportunity for resistance and any attempt to shatter it is self-defeating because of the immense power of the modern state to repress and destroy any kind of direct action. The window is smeary because it distorts and disguises the way that capital ‘works’, especially the exploitation and inequality that is at its core.

You worry about the tone of the first extract and whether it is more than a little gratuitous, the spew of small change may well refer to the amount left in the public purse after the various banks and building societies had been ‘recued’ but this needs a little bit of working out. Still, the equation of sex / power / capital is intriguing given the Odes concern with childhood sexuality and the power of secrets.

You now move on to retail and appliances and find that neither of these might be theme. The absence of a retail thread disappoints you but only because you are of the view that every great / good poet should have the complexities and nuances of retail in sight at all times. This particular piece of wishful thinking is derived from you relatively recent experiences in this line of business and your ongoing shock thatno-one seems capable of giving it the careand attention that it deserves. With regard to appliances, this is the first passage:


   whose cameo done in grisly nitrocellulose and gritty 
   ochre/lavender of your mother in the late style of the
   perpetually born yesterday Francis Bacon dissembling
   his tantrum to dead meat bunged in oil in an overhead
   Tefal Maxifry inanely overheated to open the end up
   half empty of Fair and Lovely a single infinitesimal,
   silver plated, tiny ring slowly and invisibly spins,

You consider the humour in this and then find yourself wondering if it isn’t a bit too absurd, a little bit too florid, that the inclusion of ‘Fair and Lovely’ might be a Brand Too Far. You then (against your better judgement) use the interweb to find out more and it v quickly transpires that this particular confection is a cream used for “face lightening” which takes you back to the faux Lenny Henry footnote in Sutherland’s “Hot White Andy”- a trope that still annoys you. As far as you can make out, there are no such associations with the Maxifry- even though the name might have ‘grisly’ connotations. You are vaguely amused by the tantrum quip but can’t be bothered to work out whether “perpetually born yesterday” is meant to be anything other than a quip. You do however discover that the uber-friendly Google machine will show you, exclusively, a whole pile of Bacon’s ‘meat’ paintings but you decided that you’d rather stay with the dissembling of tantrums as a means of artistic impression. For some strange reason both Larkin and Lowell come into your mind at about the same time. You then realise that there is some cleverness in the use of ‘bunged’ as in ‘placed’ in the hot oil and depicted in oil paint. You then notice a photograph of a bare-chested Bacon holding up two sides of beef- on in each hand and decide that you were never that fond of the work anyway.

This is also an early appearance of ‘mother’, a figure that becomes more difficult / problematic as the Odes progress. It’s not entirely clear whether this mother is the poet’s or yours, later on she clearly is the poet’s. You also wonder whether Francis Bacon had a ‘late style’ – you were under the impression that his subjects may have changed through the years but that his ‘style’stayed fairly constant.

The other ‘appliance’ reference closes the first Ode:


   The code TL61P belongs to a hotpoint dryer.
   You'll find nothing if you look 
   it up through the sky in the screen, the vault
   of exchangeable passion, Vertigo at
   the horizon, prostrate as an outstretched 
   cheek; but in the mouth that grows 
   in capacity behind that overflow,
   Nobody can take away the word for it:
   love; the provisional end until death;
   TL61P its unperfected provisional shadow
   opposite; Now go back to the start.

When you were first sent a draft of this, you did (of course) look it up on the interweb and you did indeed find nothing and you wrote and wondered about the absurdity of this until you came across a reference in some earlyish poem by Ezra Pound and considered whether this disclaimer is entirely what it seems. You thought you’d written about the Pound ‘discovery’ on your blog but it seems that you haven’t. You then spend a very pleasant few hours re-reading pre-Cantos Pound and decide that you really should pay more attention to early Ez- no luck with the appliance however.

There are three other appliances, the unidentified freezer as in “rescaled to a grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer whose shut white lid unhinged at the back….” and the Canon MF8180C and Brother DPC-9045CDN faxing, copying and printing units as in “a photograph blurred into alienating aleatory po&#233sie concr&#232te by being roughly swiped back and forth over the scratched platen glass of the Canon….”. You have (as usual) more than a few problems with the use of the French when the English equivalent has the same meaning, although you do grudgingly acknowledge that the sound of the French is much more, erm, poetic. You don’t like concrete poetry because it always struck you as a bit of a gimmick- even when Charles Olson does it but (if aleatory is to mean ‘by chance’ or ‘random’) the second adjective strikes you as contradictory because there isn’t a lot of randmoness involved in making pictures with a typewriter. It then strike you that the reference might be to George Herbert but this is even more structured than its twentieth century descendants.

The “sky in the screen” is another attempt to say something different about the interweb that doesn’t quite come off but you do like the next two although the capitalisation in this section is just annoying, “Vertigo” doesn’t need the big v. The appearance of love is intriguing and you think you recall love and solidarity as two of the undercurrents throughout the work. Having spent many lines on the earlier ‘congenital’ you decide not to dwell too long on provisional except to note in your head that your definition it is something that isn’t quite finished or complete, that may be subject to change in the future, that isn’t to be relied upon. This throws up the possibility that the shadow’s unperfection is due to it being (now, thus far) provisional. As you get older and slower you realise that most things are provisional, are always on their way.

You are not surprised to find overt references to the Middle East, given Sutherland’s recent work, especially “Stress Position” which is a bitter denunciation of both the West’s ‘interventions’ and the extensive use of torture to sustain it. You are however puzzled by “You task Madiha Shenshel with cooking your breakfast (hawk eggs in fried milk, high in poly collaterals) and look up the name on the sky in the screen to find that the first three results are written by you complaining that the only result that crops up is as the point of contact for MYO Consultants, a Baghdad trading company. This is still the case except for a link to a free online text of The Odes.

The less obscure reference is:

   .................................But reality is not at the
   bottom of the abyss, the abyss is in time just reality
   being itself, at least to begin with and at the same time
   conclusively as if contracted - soft - to a single point
   (a dot) at the end of the universe, when dark matter is a
   distant memory subject for chastisement to the
   fluctuations of military nostalgia (in her foot) and I am
   not sure to go on, or how to, or even what name that is
   any more, whoever you are I do this for, person this
   human this, this window for this crack or even if I do
   it, and probably I don't, the strings on a thousand dolls,
   relief at Abu
   Naji I cite its adaptation on bliss in memory,

You are a little bit pleased with yourself because you recognise ‘Abu Naji’ as the British military base where Baha Moussa was murdered and 28 other Iraqis were tortured. The obsessive repetition of this is effective but you don’t understand what it might be that is being done. The first part of the sentence about the abyss is reasonably straightforward if the abyss is the Abyss much loved by poets everywhere. Sutherland seems to be attempting to rob it of its mystique (for the want of a better noun) and strength by pointing out that it is just the ordinary everday stuff but (being itself) stripped of the illusions and delusions that we use to make things bearable. As a depressive you can relate to this as an example of that ‘bare bones’ perspective that severe depression gifts you but you’re not sure that it might be an accurate description of What Might be Going On. The following oscillations sound better than they read and you are vaguely annoyed by the dot/foot trope which was used in Stress Position and seemed affected then. You know (as an Inquiry obsessive) that one of the concerns as Abu Naji was the use of some or all of the Five Techniques as a means of interrogation and you consider whether the military nostalgia is for the time when these could be openly deployed- they were found to be illegal in the early seventies. This makes a kind of sense because on the next page there is:

                                            Since once
   you get from A to B, take your time returning. Isn't
   it the problem that I want you to stare at me until
   our eyes trade sockets, trailing visions, fucking our
   mutual brains out all over the wrongest floor not the
   implication that hooding was banned in 1972 that asks 
   for an adaptation on bliss in memory? Light
   sockets, the halo pinned to bodies in remorse,
   devoured in a shadow life sends back?

Hooding is one of the Five Techniques and was used routinely at Abu Naji, soldiers in evidence to the Baha Moussa Inquiry claimed not to be aware that they weren’t supposed to use it. ‘Eyes trading sockets’ is nicely ambiguous as is the ‘wrongest floor’ but the central conundrum is the ‘bliss’ repetition and what it might mean in either context. This is where you might need to take the forensic guess approach that you’ve been known to use with Prynne. Normally it would make some sense if it was adaptation of bliss but it isn’t. You try first of all the reasonably rational reasoning that this bliss is in your memory and therefore has the potential to be recalled although it isn’t clear whether it is something that is being consciously remembered. You then spend some time with the OED and find that ‘bliss’ once meant “Blitheness of aspect toward others, kindness of manner; ‘light of one’s countenance,’ ‘smile.” But that this was only in Old English, the rest of the definitions match the ones that are already in your head. You then move along to ‘adaptation’ and discover this as the primary definition: “The application of something to a particular end or purpose; the action of applying one thing to another or of bringing two things together so as to effect a change in the nature of the objects. Also: an instance of this. Obs.” The first recorded use occurred in 1597. So, does this troublesome phrase mean the application of bliss to memory? This has possibilities but you decide to proceed.

The next reference to exciting adventures abroad is:

   Traherne: love is deeper than at first it can be
   thought, and the extra will last you
   past care to a better joke about
   you drilled through to infiltrate the gothic froth of Helmand.

You know that Helmand is where British troops have been thoughtlessly allowing themselves to be blown up for the last few years so ‘gothic’ would make sense. You normally think of froth as something flimsy or insubstantial, something that is used to deflect attention from the ‘real’ content. An example of this would be the current use of austerity froth by politicians everywhere to further impoverish working people or the fundamentalist and/or insurgent froths to justify random slaughter and torture. The British military presence is meant to be seen as some kind of pre-emptive defence against the threat from Muslim extremists when it has much (much) more to do with a country that is desperate to cling on to some notion of Empire and, at the same time, please the Americans. Anybody with any understanding of history knows that invading Afghanistan is even more stupid than marching into Russia. Given that our leaders are not entirely stupid we must therefore assume that this little adventure is ‘cover’ for the punishment of Arabs everywhere and for increasingly intrusive methods of malveillance on the various domestic fronts. You then decide to track down the Traherne quote:

Love is deeper than at first it can be thought. It never ceaseth but
in endless things. It ever multiplies. Its benefits and its designs are
always infinite. Were you not Holy, Divine, and Blessed in enjoying the
World, I should not care so much to bestow it. But now in this you
accomplish the end of your creation, and serve God best, and please Him
most: I rejoice in giving it. For to enable you to please GOD, is the
highest service a man can do you. It is to make you pleasing to the
King of Heaven, that you may be the Darling of His bosom.

You decide that the ‘extra’ refers to a love that “ever multiplies” which is in direct opposition to the experience of being ‘drilled though’ which may refer to soldierly drill on the parade ground – but you doubt it.

This ‘method’ of following the themes / threads seems to work in that it gives a wider view of what may be being said and it also points up things that may benefit from more focused attention.

Annotated Trigons update and further experiments in reading

For those that aren’t regulars, I’m currently collaborating with John Matthias on producing an on-line and annotated full text version of Trigons, his magnificent sequence which was published in 2010. Progress continues to be made, we now have the third section of “Islands, Inlands” (the first poem in the sequence) in a usable state together with notes to John’s headnote for the sequence as a whole. I like to think that I’m a bit clearer on the amount of information to provide and to try and rely on what I’m thinking of as primary sources (diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews etc) to expand on a theme because secondary sources dealing with Greece since 1945, for example, all seem to have a very sharp ideological axe to grind. There’s also issues of self control, I’m now of the view that the whole world should know more about Michael Ayrton and his “The Testament of Daedalus”. I could therefore write a few thousand enthusiastic words on this remarkable man but I’ve recognised that this would be serving my needs rather than those of the reader. So, Ayrton gets about the same as Miller, Seferis and Durrell.

I think I also need to say what a privilege it is to work with someone as generous and thoughtful as John on this marvellous piece of work.

Given the attention tht this project seems to be getting, I’ve had several long thoughts about arduity and have decided to cull a few of the sections (those relating to theory and lit crit etc etc) and to concentrate on poems and poets whilst retaining pages on ambiguity, meaning and allusion. The site is also in desperate need of a Big Polish in that it currently has two page formats based on completely different style sheets and I need to tweak some of my prose. In the mood for spring cleaning, I’ve now added disqus comment boxes at the bottom of the Matthias pages and will now carry this across the rest of the site. I’ve avoided the comments issue on arduity primarily because it’s technically beyond me and I’m too stubborn to use a wysiwyg editor but now I think it would be a Good Thing to have feedback at the foot of each page.

I’ve also recognised that arduity gets more traffic than this blog (4022 user sessions v 822 so far this month) and this means that the material that I think might have some value to others might be best “parked” on arduity. There are probably a number of reasons for this imbalance- people use blogs in different ways to sites with more visible navigation, the wordpress metatags aren’t very good even and this means arduity invariably beats berowed in search engine results.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m going to write about poems and poets on arduity and use this to think out loud about poetry in a less specific way. The first development will be extended “experiments in reading” being placed on arduity so that they are more visible to google and the rest. Which brings me to a thought following on from John Dillon a fortnight ago about the relationship between the gloss and the text and in what way can a gloss be said to be part of the poem. I think I’m beginning to sort out an answer to that but the interweb gives us another dimension in that we now have comments on the gloss that the reader can chose to integrate into his or her reading.
I’ll try and give an example, the experiements in reading are an attempt to inject a greater sense of immediacy into my readings with a view to encouraging a wider readership and to get some feedback/help with regard to the tricky stuff.

By way of illustration, a week ago I posted an experiment re the first few pages of “The Anathemata” which drew this comment:

I just have a quick point about the opening prayer. The prayer is the Quam Oblationem. According to some theologians, it is an epiklesis whereby the celebrant prays that God will send down the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the body and blood. One of the theologians who ascribed to that reading and who sees it as the actual beginning of the Consecration is Maurice de la Taille. In that sense, then, The Ana’s opening prayer acts as DJ’s invocation of the muse ( and quite a number of other things).

I’m of the view that this belongs in the body of my text as well at the bottom of the page because it enhances understanding and provides context that I don’t have. So, I will be asking permission to do incorporate this into the text in a way that acknowledges the source but is nevertheless part of the work.

This isn’t a clarion call for the “open” gloss whereby everybody can contribute what ever they want but it certainly does give another dimension that we should think about. The other dimesnion is where the speculation about meaning becomes part of the gloss. I’ve now written 2 x 1,000 word experiments on Keston Sutherland’s “The Odes” and there’s been a couple of enhanced speculations with regard to the depilated Janine:

Since we’re speculating … a (carefully circumscribed) internet search brought up adult film actress Janine Lindemulder. I’ll leave it to someone else to confirm her depilation, but the reference seems to fit with a recurring theme/trope of the poem; it also obviously adds another semantic valence to much of the quoted passage. Couldn’t decide if your ‘nagging’ doubt was about this line of inquiry, so I’ll tastelessly broach it for you.

I responded by suggesting that Alasdair Gray’s “Janine 1982″ was more likely. Here’s the response:

<

Damn, I like yours better, and have another book to read to boot. How can something be “hereafter congenital” for said textual/sexual Janine, assuming all her kidding is prophylactically voided? I’m tempted to go ‘full Prynne’ and trace congenital back to its conquest of of ‘congenial.’ Now that’s what over-reading would look like.

I’m of the view that this exchange should occur just after I first mention the prospect of “tackling” Janine. Then yesterday something else was thrown into the mix:

You’ve got me thinking about ‘congenitally depilated’. The word ‘congenitally’ contains the word ‘genitally’, so this could partially resolve to ‘genitally depilated’. Genitals and the word and the word do crop up elsewhere in the poem. This would certainly fit with the porn star reading. That still leaves ‘congenitally’. In line with the poem’s larger (troubling? important? brave?) preoccupation with childhood sexuality, I read ‘congenitally’ as collapsing the state of nature at birth into the infantilising and fashionable aversion to pubic hair among adults (not just porn stars), but here the aversion is inverted and to depilation and it’s that that’s defective. This is somewhat troubling, or at least challenging. I would justify the apparent awkwardness/senselessness of ‘hearafter’ as picking up on this temporal confusion. It also strikes me that if ‘congenitally’ can become ‘con genitally’, maybe ‘hereafter’ can be taken as ‘here after’, but I don’t know how much that helps. If it’s congenital it’s congenital from birth but in a different, artificial way, “always already” congenital in adulthood?

I think reading both of the above, it is important that when people have put some thought into things and expressed those thoughts with such clarity that they should be given a more prominent/noticeable place in the gloss.

There’s also a more precise reading:

‘aboriginal mucus’ thought of as an original inhabitant; impeccable darkness as opposed to the mere absence of light.

My unscrewed head is like a bulb in the palm of my hand. Certain kinds of ‘truths burn out and fly away’ for as long as it’s not connected to a Ground⏚

Ground is where the ‘stack of basements’ are
elevated; inundated in impeccable darkness.

My freezer has a freezer light. It’s behind a ‘grainy
blank’. Blank is another word for a cover or a plate.
I wonder what it would be like if all the world were like the contents of my freezer and only ever seen under that light. A ‘prophylactic void…’?

The etymology of Janine is the same as it is for John, John, but to take the etymological truth of Janine as gospel would be like removing the hair at birth. Are burnt out truths like hairs pulled out of your head one at a time?

I think you are onto something John. Probably something to do with the intersection between carrying secrets and burning out.

Which I need to find a place for. Of course, this wholesale lifting needs to be agreed with the writer before I move it but I do think that it’s a dimension that’s woth pursuing.

The Odes to Tl61P: an experiment in reading pt 2.

Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument

Last time you dealt with the first 2.5 lines and didn’t do terribly well other than throw out a number of half worked through guesses but now you’ve read the Enitharmon blurb and you feel a little more confident about the fray to come. Before you get to the hairless Janine you need to start with “elevating the impeccable” and (by careful re-reading) you gather that it is the truths of line one that are doing the lifting. You haven’t checked but you’re taking “elevating” to indicating some kind of raising up. People are elevated to the peerage, priests are elevated to become bishops etc. There’s also elevations in terms of building plans but you don’t think that elevating is involved in producing these. So, these truths that have burned their way out are now lifting this woman / girl who is said to be “impeccable”. You don’t understand how something abstract like a truth can do something physical like rising somebody up. Then you recall that to elevate can also mean to inspire and / or lift to a higher state of consciousness which would be more in line with an abstraction like truth. In leftist terms the Truth about Capital should inspire people to join the struggle nd the fact that it doesn’t is now one of those tricky and hence ignored elephants in the room.

You then decide to think about “impeccable” and realise that this is quite a complex adjective that doesn’t quite mean “flawless” but might indicate that someone is beyond reproach, difficult to criticise, we say “impeccably turned out”, for example, to indicate that somebody has achieved the highest level in terms of both sartorial elegance and general appearance, usually in the context of a specific event.

You look at the OED which gently informs you that, when applied to people, the word means “Not capable of or liable to sin; exempt from the possibility of sinning or doing wrong”. When applied to things it means “faultless, unerring”. Now, this doesn’t work for you, neither of these seem to mirror your experience and use of the word in the ordinary world that most of us inhabit. You then realise that there is a note next to the definition which points out that this hasn’t been updated since 1899 and you follow the link to something called Oxford Dictionaries Online which tells you that the “incapable of sin” definition relates to theology and is now considered to be rare whilst the main definition is now “in accordance with the highest standards, faultless”. You are still not happy because in your head it applies to n action or quality that is above criticism which doesn’t seem quite the same as without fault.

You’ve had a response to the first of these readings re the identity of Janine: “Since we’re speculating … a (carefully circumscribed) internet search brought up adult film actress Janine Lindemulder. I’ll leave it to someone else to confirm her depilation, but the reference seems to fit with a recurring theme/trope of the poem; it also obviously adds another semantic valence to much of the quoted passage. Couldn’t decide if your ‘nagging’ doubt was about this line of inquiry, so I’ll tastelessly broach it for you.” You’re holding out for Alasdair Gray’s “Janine 1982″ because it’s vaguely literary although you also know that porn is a bit of a sub-theme (technical term) in The Odes. Of course “impeccable” in its theological sense doesn’t easily fit with either of these characters but some sense may be made of the theology of truth and the elevation to heaven of those without sin.

You move on to “hereafter congenitally depilated” and this is one of those places where sense seems to go a bit adrift. If we’re to take ‘congenital’to mean something that is present since birth then ‘hereafter’ as in ‘from now on’ doesn’t make sense. The other observation is that some of us don’t have much hair at all when we’re born but in this instance it would appear that someone has shorn Janine at birth and she has stayed that way or that she has been regularly depilated ever since. At this point your brain loses patience with itself and you begin to feel that this close examination may be an exercise in futility. As a last throw of this particular dice, you check the verb nd discover that there is a secondary definition: “To deprive of it’s skin, decorticate, peel”. Given that your previous reading had detected at least one reference to torture, this changes things around a bit. Removing someone’s skin is a particularly barbaric thing to do and flaying felons was for centuries a mainstay of our penal system and (you’re guessing) an important activity still deployed by states in basements around the world. You don’t want to get carried away with the God thing but many martyrs were flayed alive and many of these were said to be incapable of sin. You’re also reminded that flagellants flourished across Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries so you check the wikipedia page that informs you that whipping yourself is much older than that.

You seem to recall that Prynne has used “congenital” in the fairly recent past and you try to remember where but fail and, anyway, knowing this probably won’t be that much help.

You move on to the Janine problem and fall across a remarkable site called “whosdatedwho.com” which contains a list of 63 Janines who might be considered to be celebrities. You love this stuff, Janine Lindemulder (porn star, probably depilated) tops the list with over 413,00 views but there’s also Janine Pommy Vega who is listed as a poet and activist and a further moment’s search reveals a youtube video of her with Fairly Short Hair. This makes much more sense but you also notice Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, a leading French psychoanalyst who described the 1968 protesters as totalitarian stalinists who were affected by a sordid infantilism caught up in an Oedipal revolt against the father. You hope against hope that this is the Janine in question but then you notice Janine Mellor, the Britsh actress who played Kelsey Phillips in the BBC’s ‘Casualty’…..

You then realise that you’ve spent over a thousand words on just over one line and vow to do better next time.

The Odes to TL61P: another experiment in reading

You’ve been reading this in various drafts since 2010 and now you have the Real Thing and you’ve read it a couple of times and you went to the Dalston launch where Keston read bits of it gloriously out of sequence and you’ve blogged on the Odes / Stress Position debate and now it’s time to get to grips with it.

One of your better Sutherland-related observations is that his work makes reasonable sense until you read the actual words rather than let the words wash over you. The first couple of pages appear to bear this out and you’re not sure how you feel about this so you start slowly with the first few lines:


Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument

You acknowledge to yourself the energy and the thrust, you also like the confidence of ‘only kidding’ which you’ll come back to shortly but first you decided to think about this ‘head’ that is unscrewed. You recognise that this particular noun has many, many meanings from head of lettuce through to human head and on to the head of an oil well and this last might be appropriate given that this results in burning. The other thing you notice is ‘each’ which indicates, as there’s only one head involved, that the head is unscrewed, emits truths and is then screwed back down again. You know enough about the rest of the poem to gather that this may relate to the theme of the tyranny of secrets and the absolute need to break them but you may, as usual, be rushing ahead of yourself. These ‘truths’ are also a bit of a worry because Keston’s previous truths tend to have been coloured by his Marxian perspective and Stress Position makes fairly explicit his distaste with the/my relativist tendency. You don’t recall being conscious of this getting extended in your previous readings and hope that these kind of truths relate to secrets rather than some kind of universal positivism.

You can’t resist having a peek at the OED definitions for ‘head’ and are staggered by the number and by the fact that you’d forgotten or overlooked so many but it does appear that the well head / flare stack may be the best analogy. The ever-improving Wikipedia tells you that flare stacks are used to burn off the natural gas that comes to the surface (the head of the well) with the oil and that there are normally efficient valves that can stop and start the flow as required. You also recognise that there’s more than one meaning to ‘screw’. This could all be very wide of the mark especially if you take the next two lines into account but it might be significant that these truths burn there way out and then ‘fly away’. You start with the obvious, truths are abstract and completely incapable of either burning or flying. There is however, in the world of secrets, that the content of some truths is so dangerous and corrosive that it is exposed and then flies away. You now hate yourself because you’ve just leapt to Edward Snowden currently in the noplace of Moscow airport and to the slow burn of secrets locked away in Welsh care homes. You then re-read just to make sure that this is a track that you want to go down and realise that ‘burn out’ also has connotations of becoming exhausted, stressed, demoralised and no longer fit for the tsk that you have started. You try to bear this in mind as you come up against these stacked basements.

You don’t want to be too clever or overly poetic but you can’t resist clocking the proximity of basement to abasement and then decide that this is silly, the point is that these burning truths have flown away from their source and are now above these stacks which are flooded with this Very Early snot. This is where the absence of sense may start to kick in but you persevere. Of course, a stack of basements is difficult to envisage because a basement is the room usually at the bottom of the ‘stack’ of other rooms. So if another basement is placed on top of it then that basement becomes a room because it is no longer at the base of the stack.

You consider a different approach but first realise that this Welsh care home thing relates not just to institutional and political secrets but also the truth that an abusing adult will take enormous pains to conceal. You then move on to state secrets and the fact that many of these cover up various forms of abuse from torture through to eavesdropping and reading my e-mails. The different approach turns out to be the function of the basement.

Basements are hidden from view, rarely visited and (in movies at least) the scene of very many bad things. People are killed, bodies are dismembered, the ‘truth’ is extracted in the basement precisely because it is hidden from view, indeed it might even be metaphor for the underbelly of the modern state. We know, thank to the release of truths, that the US and UK arranged for torture to be carried out in basements all over the world and that the use of ‘stacks’ may simply mean ‘very many’.

The snot problem is in part resolved by the discovery that it is only nasal mucus that is snot and that the term is “viscous substance secreted by the mucous cells and glands of animals to provide protection, lubrication, etc” which ties in a bit more with the grisly business of inflicting pain on others.

You may now be wavering between the sense and non-sense positions but you still have your suspicions that this is as it is because it contains more than a touch of the absurd and you’ve just spent ninety minutes or so reading things into something that were never there. This nagging doubt is not at all helped by the prospect of the hairless Janine.