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.

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4 responses to “Keston Sutherland’s Under the Mattress

  1. Something you don’t mention, but which occurs to me as I read this, is the (apparent, I know, these are only excerpts) utter dehumanization of the girlfriend. She is, apparently, nothing more than a plot device. Or, I may be wrong about this. In which case. why has she chosen to fuck “the other guy”?

  2. Yes, it hadn’t occurred but I’ll have another look. I’m fairly sure that we’re meant to read the ‘you’ that’s under the mattress as the main victim- if that’s the right noun.

    • I rather read the “you” in the extract as at least as much a perpetrator as a victim, with the girlfriend being rather more the total victim. “You” are the victim in the sense that action is restricted, both physically and simply because (as you point out) vision is impaired by the mattress. Nontheless the “vintage language” seems like an almost criminal under-reaction to what is happening.

      I have to admit though, I am very new to this type of poetry and probably very inexpert at unpacking it. Am I interpolating too much of my own sense of the world and its politics, or what I think Sutherland’s is?

      • Tom,

        Sorry for the delay in responding, I’ve been away. I think there’s a couple of things for me that set the ‘tone’ of the poem. The first is that it’s a dream poem and the second is the poet’s penchant for the absurd. Of course, in a dream anything can happen and the absurd is mostly about getting us to question assumptions. So, The girl friend may well be a victim but she is an imaginary victim in an absurd situation, if that makes any kind of sense.

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