Simon Jarvis’ F Subscript Zero

I blame Neil Pattison.
At the beginning of July I was enthusing about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and which I saw as a radical departure from Jarvis’ previous work which had been characterised by a quite defiant use of regular metre. I continued to enthuse through the comments thread which is where Neil informed me of F subscript zero’ which was published by Equipage in 2007. I received a copy about a month ago and what follows is an interim / provisional report about which (as ever) I reserve the right to change my mind.
The first thing to note is that it contains two poems, neither of which are written in regular metre which demolishes the above mentioned chronology. In fact, the verse in the first poem is decidedly free and the second contains some odd formatting. The title is the abbreviation for ‘fundamental frequency’ which Vance Maverick has helpfully defined as
“within any tone, it’s the lowest frequency of any component. So If I sing a C, sounding about 125 Hz, that’s F0 — the overtones above it, which also contribute to the sound, are F1, F2, etc. (Of course, when an instrument plays its lowest note, that note has an F0 too.)”
The first poem would appear to have two titles, the first being “ODE” which appears in very large letters on an otherwise blank page and the second being “At home with Paul Burrell” which appears at the top of the first page of verse. This poem also carries an epigraph- “Immer zu! Immer zu!” in very small italics.
For those who who don’t know, Paul Burrell was butler to Princess Diana and became imbroigled in a fairly public row about some items belonging to Diana that found their way into his possession. As a result of this Burrell becama one of those minor celebrities beloved of the popular press. “At home with” is a headline used by magazines like ‘Hello’.
These preliminaries aside, the first few lines make it clear that we’re in Jarvis territory by which I mean that we’re dealing with poetry where nothing much happens but it happens in really interesting ways and with a strong leaning towards the abstract. The first seven lines are:

"Pudge blinks up or is it glints up from an area of skin pushed out as a fat
fat reserve held against no imaginable lack under the jawbone.
An eye glassy with its declaration of fair dealing first fixes then blurs its blue
or grey trompe window cum aperture into what were the most seeing or most living
or as a hole through which we can gaze into the trace left by a paralogism
or as one of two little caverns frankly welcoming two other little caverns of mine
into it/our ownmost shared inner expectorated category mistake."

I may be wrong but I cant think of anyone else who writes quite like this. I’d like to draw attention to ‘no imaginable lack’, ‘trace left by a paralogism’ and ‘inner expectorated category mistake’. There will be many who will view such phrases as being either unbelievably pretentious or far too mannered for their own good. There have been times in the last month when I have shared this view but now I’m not so sure.

It is worth bearing in mind Jarvis’ view that poetry is an excellent way of doing philosophy and also that doing difficult or ambitious things often comes with a price. The standard, sensible response to reading the above as the start of a six and a quarter page poem would be to put it down and not proceed any further but I’d like to suggest that those who do peresevere will be rewarded. I’m not suggesting that this is an easy ride and that all it takes is to re-adjust your head in line with the Jarvis thesis. What I am suggesting is that this overt attempt to put his thesis into practice has resulted in some of the most startling and though-provoking verse of the last decade.

The above use of ‘parologism’ and ‘category mistake’ announce Jarvis’ intent and the use of many clauses in one sentence echoes the digressive habits of ‘The Unconditional’.

Reviewing ‘The Unconditional’ in Jacket Tom Jones described the poem as “scholarly and in part its scholarship is part of Jarvis’ professional life”. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about whether I agree with that observation and what a scholarly poem might look like. I’ve decided that the term is less than useful because it implies an excess of objectivity which is inimical to the production of verse. One could argue that the ‘Maximus’ poems are scholarly because they are based to some extent on Olson’s archive-based research and are informed by Process and Reality but this would to overlook the utterly biased way that Olson argues his case. There is more of a case to be made for the astronomical aspects of ‘Paradise Lost’ being viewed as scholarly because they are based on contemporary science but nobody would argue that astronomy was Milton’s main ‘point’.
Jarvis’ professional life does however throw some light on this poem but more as a way of understanding one particular piece of polemic. He has written a well respected tome on Adorno in which he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically about the major elements of the Frankfurt School. This isn’t at all surprising as most poets writing in or around the Cambridge vein have bought into the Adorno view. One aspect of this view is its ingrained and unapologetic positivism and another is the view that poetry somehow has a privileged position as a means of creative expression. This particular breed of positivism is deeply/violently against most aspects of post structuralism and especially the works of Jacques Derrida. I now need to quote a lengthy extract which displays this tendency I’m providing such a large chunk because I want to try and avoid taking something out of context-

ready to call all bliss abstract from its long laboured fund of public inattention which is
at once a wrong screen and an exact measure of all goods failing to find a port
at once cloud and the only lit ghost of majesty not babied in blue melancholy
which is a flood at once drowning so punishing and so or and illuminating this dark orb
or which would be at once both saint and criminal only by virtue of this Mobius-at-once generale gloats
taking the hiatus in the a a tongue has broken down for mere representation of breakdown and thus
taking all breaks only for an imaginary slippage and hence whispering or otherwise repeating
a disowned indifferent cosmology of perennial deferal and differing eyelessly in its
refusal to speak a cosmology but instead just slid up topless topologies displacing all top
viz an insideless life no life but built like an invisible brainless bottle or blurred into lobbed blobs
innerless outerless upperless lossles less here than there, deathless, seamless, nested & recursive
less even like 'an advanced credit system' that it is a causality-through-freedom of holding companies
than it is the way my eye flees from sight of a pupil to a fugitively lit corner of restrained eyewear
than it is like the way my ear drops from the grain of an insignificant abrasion to its indexical stuff
than it is like the way my tongue slips from a kiss to a lick collecting some sundry or some sexy data
hand flips from a caress to a blow than it is like how in any event I may not discriminate a quality and how I may not discern a change

I’ve written at length about the ‘Stripogrammatology’ quip in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and have been critical of both its brevity and the abusive terms in which it is expressed. To be fair, Sutherland has put forward a vigorous defence of the two lines in question and I think we’ve agreed to differ. My primary concern was the fact that it’s intellectually shallow to dismiss Derrida in two lines. The above however is a much fuller critique of how the Anglo Saxon academy views deconstruction in general and the controversial ‘Differance’ essay in particular. I have to concede that it ‘works’ in that it is an effective statement in verse form of the standard position and that there are many good ‘philosophical’ bits, in fact I find the first ten lines to be quite stunning, especially ‘babied in blue melancholy’, ‘Mobius-at-once generale’ and ‘just slid up into topless topologies’. After line ten things get a bit too mannered for my liking without adding very much to what’s gone before but the whole does represent a poetic way of doing philosophy.
I need at this stage to come clean with the fact that I don’t share the Jarvis/Sutherland line on this particular subject and I would question whether the above standard refutation is an accurate reflection of what Derrida was about and whether this particular piece of condemnation latches on to the weaker bits of this particular essay or is just another wide-angled volley in the hope of taking a few prisoners. I’d also question whether Derrida actually did philosophy, but then again I’d ask the same question about Adorno.
The other point is that I had to read the above three or four times before I realised what was going on which indicates that I probably need to pay more careful attention to the rest of it.
I don’t want to say much more at the moment because I’m still trying to get my brain around most of it and haven’t yet begun to think about the second poem. Some bits are very experimental-

then but
so not

Some of these make sense whilst others at the moment are merely annoying. As for Paul Burrell…….


8 responses to “Simon Jarvis’ F Subscript Zero

  1. Via Google, “Immer zu! Immer zu!” appears to be Goethe, from “Rastlose Liebe”, a little lyric set to music by Schubert. Unusually compact in spanning the familiar argument that the joys of love are the same as its pains.

    For more on F0, with pictures of waves, see Wikipedia on fundamental frequency.

    That first excerpt is quite good. Not so sure about the second — but then I’m no Derridean, nor a philosopher.

    • ‘Erlkonig’ is from Goethe as well and I think that was the next one after F0.
      I’m not a Derridean nor a philosopher either but this section certainly clarifies more of what he’s trying to achieve and I think I’m beginning to see his point.

  2. as an aside, thanks very much for the excerpts. i have been meaning to get something jarvis for so long i have nearly given up hope, not so easy getting it where i am. i did find Erlkonig on aaaarg tho & the claudius app stuff. i keep coming back to read the excerpts & analyses!

    • In my head Jarvis is getting to be more essential as each week passes. With regard to getting copies, Barque Press are still flogging The Unconditional which is also priced in dollars so I assume that means that they’ll do overseas if you ask them. Cambridge Literary Review are selling off their old issues and Dinner is in issue 4 (I think), no idea about F0 although Neil Pattison did make a suggedsion on the Dionysus crucified thread about contacting the publisher via e-mail.
      Thank you for your attention.


  3. Thanks for the info on the CLR stuff John. this week’s been good. found an affordable copy (at last) of the unconditional on amazon. can’t wait to start reading.


  4. Thanks John. BTW got the book yesterday. Finally! Read for a few hours last night. Need to backtrack and read it again after work. But judging by how it’s going, I am glad I finally got the book.

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