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.
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.
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’.
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 Ériphile 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 Ériphile 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 Ériphile’s speech in act two of “Iphigénie”.
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.
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.
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;
- the appalling level and types of violence in Northern Mexico;
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 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 poésie concrète 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.