Poem 9 in J H Prynne’s ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’

It seems like ages since I last wrote about this particular sequence and I’ve been reading it again to try and get some balance or context with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Before getting to this particular poem, it might be as well to recap what I’ve been able to glean:

  • there are twelve poems in the sequence and each of these contain six quatrains, line length is roughly equal throughout;
  • none of the poems have titles, it is only feasible to assume that each page contains a single poem because of the full stop at the end of the sixth quatrain;
  • all of the poems are incredibly austere with this poem being more austere than most
  • one of the themes relates to the recent civil war in Ulster that we insist on referring to as ‘The Troubles’
  • another theme may be one of the last two or three financial ‘shocks’;
  • there may also be elements of self parody

I’m referring to this as Poem 9 because it’s a lot quicker than typing ‘the poem that is on page 9’ every time. This is it:

But relics intercept pernix go shifted snowfall, base
gimbal evermore he treats he shall forested. Rail time
and snicker by valid proximal, up slink bone you have
the same fill-track,fill even. Open gamble fine edge

Languish they to him, proof very rapid die-cast hair
cracking transverse mill end. Gone for tell this label
extract side to slide towards honey guided fit thirst
guarantor. Invent shack slim to heart mute doorway

Tepid or fumble exit better false by mime sacrosanct
hinge settled, spooned off for him next stop soon, next
heat to blink famous. Fitment to stagger pin owning
balance phalanx summit slay the day the way sump lit

He advises this too. It's for advent for shall or rested
occlusion pale object both sides, grill access delivery
ethic suck notice her ferric his to bind synthetic sip
alum entangled. Broadly infill bunker tremble ostive

Bit parcel same to find strong too. Odds to sublet cut
fancy triage up late give to win adventure, mild have
him taken. Suffix shall marry resection at principle
get stuck as metric hinder him, same slam. As grasp

Buy yet colouring traffic incidental locks but turning
say off awry, quick relent, store. How brain up patter
fond him to you sheer fathom, how. Entrain by per limit
resume and plan, fetch too, all incriminate allowed on.

Many of you will not be shocked, given the above, that Robert Potts (poetry editor at the TLS) has described ‘Streak’ as ‘impenetrable’. I hope to show that this isn’t the case but I also concede that these poems require careful readerly attention if they are going to yield anything at all.

I’ve found that there are several ways of approaching this stuff and the most profitable is usually to identify those phrases that do make ‘sense’ and try to expand out from there. It’s also as well to keep in mindwaht might be going on in other parts of the sequence. As I’ve said, Ulster seems to be a recurring theme as is repetition although it’s not entirely clear yet whether this is a subject or a device. The other method of entry is to identify and try to define what the odd or obscure words might be doing. The problem with this is that it can lead to too many choices so I’ll start with those phrases that seem to be reasonably clear.

When you read through looking for these, it is surprising how many there are, ‘you have the same fill-track’ is the first and might open some of what’s around it. In music a ‘fill’ is used to hold the listener’s attention during a break or gap in the phrases of the melody so I’m guessing that the ‘fill-track’ is the track or channel of the recording that contains the fill. Musical fills aren’t meant to be either spectacular or stunning but simply structured and reasonably short. Wikipedia tells me that musicians are “expected to be able to select and perform stylistically appropriate fills from a collection of stock fills and phrases” and that ” the tempo is not changed at all……….An important point to remember is that the flow of the music should not be sacrificed to the technicality of the fill”.

So this is something that isn’t part of the main event but is something ‘stock’ or off the peg that is used to keep things going. ‘Same’ is a word that recurs throughout the sequence but rarely specifies what it relates to which has led me to speculate in the past that for more than twenty years the various combatants deployed the same routines of murder and atrocity and dressed these up in the same tired rhetoric. It could be then that this same fill-track is the steady rhythm of violence between the paramilitaries and with the British Army. The ‘you’ in this sense could be the reader or the Great British Public who were initially outraged by attacks on the mainland but same became accustomed to the regular patterns referred to above or it could refer to both. Or neither.

I’m nominating ‘next stop soon’ as a phrase that also makes sense but is more difficult to relate to what surrounds it. The next stop would most obviously refer to either a bus or train journey but in the context of the civil way, stop could also refer to one of the many ceasefires discussed, promised and waited for especially during the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Bus stops and train stations (two of each) were bombed between 2 and 3 pm on Bloody Friday when 9 people were killed and 130 were injured. The OED defines the verb spoon as “to lift or transfer by means of a spoon. Chiefly with preps. and advs., as into, off, out, up” but also gives “In sailing, to run before the wind or sea; to scud. Also with away” neither of which are much help until I can work out the identity of ‘him’. It is eminently possible to have buckets of fun with ‘next heat to blink famous’ but I’ll try to restrict myself to the more obvious possibilities. Heat may be the heat of an explosion or gunfire or it may be increased pressure from the security services or it may be about the various pressures to reach a settlement. To blink as a verb has its ‘ordinary meaning’ but others include- “To deceive”, “To start out of the way, so as to elude anything” and “To avoid, flinch from”. There’s also a coursing term which means to temporarily elude the dogs. Those who have got this far down the page will observe that ‘blink’ is also a noun. The OED gives us these definitions:

  • a trick, stratagem;
  • boughs thrown to turn aside deer from their course; also, feathers, etc. on a thread to scare birds;
  • a sudden or momentary gleam of light from the sun, a fire, etc.; a slight flash; a peep of light; a twinkling gleam, as of the stars; a gleam of sunshine between showers: also poet. ‘glimmer’;
  • a ‘glimmer’ or ‘spark’ of anything good;
  • a brief gleam of mental sunshine;
  • a glance (usually, a bright, cheerful glance); a glimpse;
  • the action or an act of blinking;
  • the time taken by a glance; an instant, the twinkling of an eye;
  • a fisherman’s name for the mackerel when about a year old.

There’s also an iceblink and a blink comparator but I think that we can rule these out. So this may be a brief ray or gleam of hope and it may be famous because it became recognised as a turning point in the conflict, or it may be a famous piece of deception or evasion, or it may be neither of these. I am taking ‘famous’ to have its usual meaning although it can also mean ‘notorious’. At this stage it’s hard to choose from the many alternatives and I probably need to think a bit more about the rest of the poem first.

The other reasonably tangible phrase is ‘He advises this too’ but I have yet to work out what ‘this refers to’ or who ‘he’ might be.The rest of the sentence isn’t yielding any possible answers at the moment

As for the unusual words, I’m taking ‘pernix’ to mean nimble or quick or as an adverb as in ‘intercept quickly’. I have absolutely no idea about ostive so any help or guidance would be much appreciated. Conversely ‘gimbal’ has several possibilities;

  • a finger-ring (rarely an ear-ring) so constructed as to admit of being divided into two (sometimes into three) rings;
  • joints, connecting links (in machinery);
  • a hinge;
  • a kind of pastry work that is hard, about the thickness of one’s little finger, form’d round, and made in the shape of a ring;
  • contrivance by means of which articles for use at sea (esp. the compass and the chronometer) are suspended so as to keep a horizontal position. It usually consists of a pair of rings moving on pivots in such a way as to have a free motion in two directions at right angles, so as to counteract the motion of the vessel.

For the moment, I’m going with ‘hinge’ but only because the word is used in verse 3 and I really can’t get my brain around applying the fourth definition (yet).

‘Snicker’ is a little more amenable, either to mean ‘snigger’ as noun or verb or a horse suffering from the glanders or a knife. However I can’t see what any of these might have to do with ‘rail time’ although I don’t know what that’s about either.

Finally (for now), the sequence does seem to focus on the Maze hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 at the end of which ten Republican prisoners had starved themselves to death. The OED definition of ‘sacrosanct’ is “Of persons and things, esp. obligations, laws, etc.: Secured by a religious sanction from violation, infringement, or encroachment; inviolable, sacred” and other poems seem to contain references to the support that some elements of the Catholic church gave to these men and promoted them as martyrs in their community. So it would seem likely that ‘mime sacrosanct’ might be a sarcastic reference to that support. Or (of course) it may refer to something else that I haven’t thought of.

I will return to this in the next week or so, primarily because I do still find this sequence compelling and enjoy trying to work my way through.

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4 responses to “Poem 9 in J H Prynne’s ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’

  1. I often wonder whether in ‘innovative’ poetry such as this the form IS the content, the language IS the matter

    But you don’t seem to be able to give up your idea of it as meaning-containing

    That phrase, ‘The lights are on, but nobody’s home.’ In this poem the lights aren’t on

    • I see I’m going to have to write something on the entirely provisional relationship between ‘poem’ and ‘meaning’. I don’t want to go over the rather tired Prynne debates, nor do I consider myself a cheerleader. There is much of Prynne that doesn’t seem to me to be particularly pointful but ‘Streak’ does because of its austerity and because of what it appears to say, I’d launch the same defence for most of late Celan.
      My engagement with Prynne started more or less with the start of this blog in 2009 and I started from a deep scepticism (charlatanry, obscurity etc etc) and have moved towards something else. I can only speak as I find and I find ‘Streak’ to be the most compelling poem that I’ve read in the last twenty years.
      Incidentally, when I write the ‘meaning’ piece it will probably start with a quote from Prynne’s ‘Poetic Work’.
      I also probably need to say that I’m of the view that the Cambridge School is utterly wrong about poetry but that doesn’t entail, as with Ashbery, giving up meaning altogether.
      I also like to think that there is a degree of persistence underneath this ditheriness.

  2. Robert Potts is not the poetry editor at the TLS.

    • I’m now confused, I’m reasonably sure that he was when his observation was printed – otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned it. The TLS site is abysmal and I’ve stopped buying hard copies although the Guardian tells me that he is TLS ‘managing editor’.

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