Sunday, 2 December 2012


materials: lisa jeschke david grundy jeremy hardingham lucy beynon david stent patrick farmer george osborne danny hayward mattin staff laura kilbride. magazine & cd. there will be future publications from individual authors, and future magazines.

also: 'contingencies' (ed. luke mcmullan / sophie seita): mcmullan, seita, grundy, jeschke, rowan evans. email

Friday, 2 November 2012

JEFFERSON TOAL & IAN HEAMES // Cambridge // 27.10.12

Has anyone written on Heames and Toal? Well, Richard Owens has typed some thoughts on the newly-published ‘Arcobat’. There’s some page-long stuff in the old CLR series pamphlets, PDF’d for some kind of posterity. And Louis Jagger’s two-page review of ‘Gloss to Carriers’ in ‘International Egg & Poultry Review’, aka ‘Friends 2’, the A4 stapled collection, or anthology, or magazine, or what have you, edited by Justin Katko and Luke Roberts in 2011, packed with poetry and a personalized rip on the purple cover (now out of print and online, go here). Oh yeah, and Jow Lindsay’s four blog posts from 2007 on Toal’s ‘Mortar Penne Ha Ha Ha’ (over at the old ‘Everyone’s Cup of Tea’). Which are actually pretty scrupulous and dense.

But the point I was about to make still stands on its shaky feet, I think: others should, write I mean, whether in scrupulous or cursory scrutiny, but putting it out there. Criticism in the climate of small-press publishing, books popping out every few months, launches and readings in university crevices on the Cambridge-London-Brighton axes, could be a part of the dialogue without hurting the progress or appearance of the poetry. Because if you can’t write about what you read doesn’t the community get lax? (And is the notion of a community that cocoons itself off against harm in mutual friendship-networks, part of the problem? Not community per se, but a lack of bite (tho’ entirely understandable given the bite from outside, perhaps). Well, there’s a whole can of worms. The advantages and disadvantages of alliance: discuss.) But anyway, this thing, here, isn’t quite that criticism it asks for, it’s another report on another reading, and reading a report shouldn’t substitute for entering the fort and seeing the stuff, or booking these people to a place near you.

I’ve had copies of the books Heames launched tonight for a while now (they are, respectively, ‘Banners Over Terminal Highway’, from his own ©_© press and ‘Array One’, from Justin Katko’s Critical Documents), and the more I think about them the more I think that they are some of the best new poetry I’ve read in a while – which is the kind of book-blurb claim that might make you role your eyes in exaggerated and stomach-sinking disbelief, but I do mean that phrases from them will suddenly and insistently pop into my head at unexpected moments and that, formally and in what have you ways, I think that these are important works and that maybe in ten years we’ll look back and really see that, beyond the accumulated fluff of the contemporary, time’s allowed perspective from out of zeitgeist debris. The poems in ‘Banners over Terminal Highway’ work on formal procedures to do, mainly, it seems, with capitalisation (capitals as Capital, or capitol, perhaps, tho’ this is really too silly a speculation to even merit writing up, or down); they use appropriated quotations from other poets and their scenarios are in some dystopian or apocalyptic, yet contemporary in resonance rather than just some future projection (again the book-blurb banality): online zombies, alarm-gut-chompers, lunch-break neurological pathways, cosmic reduction, guerrilla warfare. As, too, in ‘Array One’ (which may even be a better poem than ‘Banners’), contemporary reference peeks through, as London 2012 Olympic-security crackdowns or riots or Arab Springing radar news: “teens woke from a heavily policed summer / no more an illusion than last spring[…]caught up in the rhetoric of the Games.” Perhaps the most obvious example of this would be the poem ‘For Will Stuart’, which Heames didn’t read tonight and which I don’t think has been published, except fugitively, but in which he considers the possibility of interpreting a major world news event (the death of Osama Bin Laden) through a poem (written by Will Stuart): the poetry news, as register of truth or of the filters and screens which contextualize and distort the fact of an event while posing as reportage, fact, transparency. (Transparency, that which is seen through, as distortion or as the pose of instant access, is an important figure in Heames’ work.) “ ‘the US / the US’ / the news appears […] ‘After the United States the United States’ / news appears and collects noisily […] later ‘the United States are the United States’ / they notice, appear and are collected noisily”. The language is like some slight détournement of a phrase no-one’s said but someone probably would or could have: not as the liberation of language, or the revealing of codes behind official-speak, nor with the subjective fury of a ranting observer , nor with ‘objective clarity’, but, maybe, some combination of all these (bar the ‘liberation’).

To put it again in negative terms, the status of observer or subject in these poems is not the lang-po or po-mo schizoid self, all Deleuzian ‘multiplicity’ and ‘becoming’, but neither does it contain, quite, the ironized or sincere lyric register that you might find, at various pinches, in the work of, say, Sophie Robinson or Tomas Weber or Keston Sutherland or Joe Luna. Yeah, I mean, what is the status of the ‘I’ in Heames’ work? Some lines from ‘Array One’: “I was browsing the Hubble Ultra Deep Field images / last night, berserk at how easily / the sky was blue for what felt like a lifetime” // “I am leaving your windows open” // “I need you to go back on” // “I would like to read your thoughts / on this again” // “I would like to be the air between them.” The ‘I’ might at times seem like the subject of the love poem yearning for his beloved – “I would like to read your thoughts” as the desire for knowing the other person’s inner workings, not as attempted possession of them, but as a close intimacy of sharing, even as the phrase that completes the sentence after the line break re-turns it to office email speak. It might also be the player in a game who co-operates with another player, the beloved: “I hit the alarm / to give you a window // don’t ever stop seeing things / or meaning,” which sounds like the farewell of someone sacrificing themselves to save their companion in a movie scenario – this, maybe, as some kind of model for interaction that has human compassion within it, even as it takes place within a virtual world and as cliché (and even as “Empathy is not critical / To my art”).

Similarly, the love object in Toal’s ‘Kaloki Poems’ would seem, as Justin Katko notes in his review of the reading for the UK Poetry list, a “fantasy,” again, perhaps, in a virtual world, non-existent as an actual person. “Fill the boots of a dashing new hero as you meet four potential sweethearts and woo the dream girl of your choice in this romantic 5-part story. Multiple endings based on how you play mean you can always experience new romances or fix failed ones.” As fantasy, then, it is of course in the grand tradition of love poetry, which we too insistently insist on as always being ‘real’ rather than, say, a set of formal tropes: not that Toal’s sequence is, really, an exploration of genre in that particular way. But its concerns are different to, say, a kind of post-O’Hara lyric, even as they’re also not the genial surrealism of post-Ashbery poetry (to pick two perhaps irrelevant schools for starters. Or, compare Lee Harwood’s ‘The Man with Blue Eyes’ to Ashbery’s work from the same period, and argue that Toal is not what using what is ostensibly love poetry in the same way that either Harwood or Ashbery are using it. Well, you could do that if you like.) The language is raw in its video-gamed glitchiness, for all the ‘purities’ of blondness and whiteness that recur in the poem, “teh cosplay” always in danger of letting in languages of ingestion and excretion and violence (video-games are, after all, ultra-violent in their cartoon realness), “inviting a shit-storm,” a kind of sexualized or balletic murder – “bullets maul sigh.” (Those quotations are from ‘Epyx Fastload’, by the way, I don’t have a copy of ‘Kaloki Poems’ to hand right now.) Anyhow, we’ll come back to the notion of the real or imagined love object soon, in relation to Heames’ poems.

Katko comments on the recurrent animals in Toal’s ‘Arcobat’ (bats, panthers, tigers, dogs, etc), speculating a skew-wiff echo of Pound’s Cantos cats: these aren’t perhaps as consistent (or are they?) in deployment, as, say, the recurring legal terminology in Prynne’s ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’, butterflies in Heames’ ‘Array One’, or envelopes in Mike Wallace-Hadrill’s ‘Nettle Range Blade Fear’, but they’re there, not as explicit scheme or code which, once discovered, while tell you what the sequence is ‘about’, but as part of the mental process of constructing poetry which imposes patterns within what might at first seem ‘pure’ flow. (I mean, think the fractals in Pollock’s drip paintings. Or maybe don’t.) Indeed this distinction is what, I think, is distinctive about Toal’s approach formally, at least in ‘Arcobat’ and in 'Epyx Fastload', which was the first thing he read on the night – and that’s a certain looseness in (that word again) flow, a kind of not-quite contained wildness, a spillage of material that can sometimes result in passages which seem fuzzy or undirected, but which can then be brought back to blinding clarity by the kind of line that leaps out at you like a sore thumb thumbing the ride back on track. (Get your similes mixed and stretched here.) Katko theorized it in his introduction at the reading as Toal not always quite knowing what was coming out of him, in his poetry, so that what happens is perhaps not quite willed or logically / logistically-driven, which gives the work that particular quality it has. Anyhow, I discovered that it was not until hearing the poem, by actually reading it out loud, that things really came into focus, and it was good to hear Toal again re-focus things, animals and victims and schiz/cash flow and all the rest of its acrobatics, as he popped around behind the incongruously large lecturer’s podium.

There’s stuff about animals, then, and stuff about children, sometimes combined – “infant hand pat down / grabbed by the muzzle”, “summoning liquid children like / goats to a bath they category inflorescent chant”– often violent stuff, or possessing a latent potential for violence – the thin dividing line between some sort of authoritarian discipline and sadistic harm (“kid in one cot bent in a warning”). This, to me at least, is a horror felt as visceral, and perhaps it’s a horror with particular resonance for Toal, given that he teaches at a school. This would seem even more pressured in ‘Mortar Penne’ (I’m relying on Jow Lindsay’s blogs-posts, as I haven’t read this poem – it’s in the out-of-print Quid 18), in which Madeleine McCann appears as victim-turned-executioner, stitched together from cut-up like a Frankenstein’s monster in the media circus: prurience of celebrity as wrongness, the extent to which hopelessness and victimhood becomes an almost celebrated condition, as grounds for fear and inaction, and as sado-masochistic voyeurism. Some of the most nastily arresting lines from ‘Arcobat’: “the living beams / softened to a puddle of white human cheeks” // “cycloid, clutching its stupid guts” – here, a sense of disgusting malleability and gooey decay through heat (nuclear melt-down?) – “sonar go loud heat delocaliser”, “now receive the weight of the sun” (a kind of morphing of ‘fear no more the heat of the sun’ into an overwhelming by a descending and heavy solar orb), “against heat red dot asleep wet / blind wet street.” Excrescence as violent spillage in instinctive physical disgust at pressured body horror – “Shade now buoyant tiger, spill your flowing human / with sick” // “suck free gore through a / urinated dog.” Hands and softening (I’m put in mind of the ‘hardening’ and ‘softening’ from ‘Hot White Andy’, or Hugh Sykes-Davies’ “but do not put your hand down to see”), melding and meshing not as celebrated cyborgian schiz-flow but as invasion, germ, disease, virus, real violence done to real vulnerable people – the sense that if I let my guard down (for instance, in sexual encounter) I might be under attack, and am under attack anyway, constantly, even as this violence is reduced to cartoon: “blocks the mucus outflow, the split limb threshold, / the slapstick afterglow of an / origami sick. […] Have you ever seen / weakened in the mouth touch yours.” The body is intensely felt as vulnerable and masked up in a gruesome melding process with shades of David Cronenberg’s Brundlefly, in lines driven by sonic logics of clipped pipping Is, Ts, Bs and Cs: “sample bit protein type cautionary applicator mitt / after late time reapers graft your hot robotic skin on.” Victims remain unnamed, rendered anonymous in degrading humiliation, forced ritual: “After late collective gush of a / dozen frantic necks, fourteen shaved heads bend out / hollow, to forge in crap towel the sign of the tick.” Religion is in here somewhere (wars in the name of fundamentalisms, clashes of civilizations?), scientific tests, lab-rats, the flow of capital as the flow of sick and blood and mucus, as, literally, smeared “paydirt.” “Very cash, extension hitbox / fluidity” merges into that gush of the beheaded necks or emptied brains, the shaved heads and the shit-smeared towel. It’s hard, of course, not to think of Abu Ghraib somewhere in the back of all this, or perhaps of torture porn, but the poem’s by no means programmatic in its kakaclog of abuse and assonant squirm. Indeed, Lindsay posits the ‘weirdness’ of Toal’s work as emerging from an anarchist, rather than a Marxist sensibility – “My suspicion [..] is that such weirdness happens through anarchist not marxist instincts – emerges on poems through their ‘wanting’ to be the culture of anarchist counterpower.” I think I’d prefer to read Toal as a reflection of power, of what Richard Owens calls “the spectacular savagery of the everyday,” its “grotesque intimacy” (intimacy as violence, power as personalized, economic relation boring into personal relation), rather than as a counter-power to that power, if this makes sense – a power that is viscerally feltin quasi-comic but also often quite horrible detritus as constant spillage and excess over the boundaries of secure, non-abused personhood and the safety of weaker from stronger (economies, countries, groups, etc). Perhaps I’m not quite getting what Lindsay meant: but it does seem fair to say that is far from schematic, which you can take as anarchist, if you want. This was what I was trying to say with regard to structure earlier and still probably haven’t properly said yet, but I give up. What I mean is that, tho’ in fact Richard Owens actually does gesture towards analyzing the work that syntax and diction do in Toal’s work, as does Lindsay, more so, the poetry doesn’t really lend itself to a schematic kind of close-reading, even as it isn’t just build-up of sound over sense in some kind of ‘liberated language’ free-flow.

Against this, Heames’ opening elegy for Jeff Keen, written on the day that Keen died, stood out in stark and simple relief. In some sort of contrast to Toal, Heames is interested in formal process, whether this be translation, palindrome, capitalisation, or other types of seemingly arbitrary limit set beforehand. This is grid almost as private system – not that its knowledge is refused - he’ll probably tell you if you ask him – but that it is not necessarily central to ‘understanding’, that it is a form of text-generation, even as the formal exactitude mixed ‘casualness’ of register adds a specific resonance or tone to the work that is in some ways quite different to Toal’s. To read Heames’ work, say, through the prism of Keen’s films, their multi-layered pop-culture brightness, their cartoon-violence of image and eye, would be to get their register wrong: because though there are computer games and the war machines of science-fiction (see particularly ‘Gloss to Carriers’) there is also lyric register (and as register it does not have to be ‘authentic’ investment against a barrage of stuff), and their deployment is careful and complex. Lines are short (with some lengthy exceptions) and laid out, generally, in sense units that can be followed fairly easily (as against the jamming-up of someone like, I don’t know, Ulli Freer).

And yet what I notice in Heames’ work is the register in which casual phrases which might, like, be fragments of transcribed speech, hint at personal or relaxed register only to definitively defeat any chummy ease of access or suggestion of ‘realness’ to which that might gesture. This from the penultimate poem in ‘Banners’, ‘Photos of the Party’: “I didn’t know you were smart Until like the end of May / drenched some of our best People in headsets / and loves influence / better at prosody than anything On interpretation.” Notice the grammatical shifts, each clause deflating the expectation set up by the apparent closure of the previous: is it ‘the end of May’ that ‘drenche[s] some of our best People’, and where is the referent of ‘loves influence’? The reference to smartness has always seemed to me like a kind of halting chat-up line, or statement of regret, slightly derailed by the absurdity of the ambiguous date-placing (the qualifier ‘like’ apologizing in advance for inaccuracy) – it’s indeed that inaccuracy which adds the human quality to it, even as ‘like’ so often stands in for some kind of internet idiocy in phraseology, some pathology of dumb(ed-down) speech. Then the Aristotle reference and the talk of prosody, which it’s hard to know what to make of – we might compare the moment in ‘Gloss to Carriers’ where the pilot carries a copy of J.H. Prynne’s ‘The White Stones’ into his flight-vehicle’s cockpit, going “up the hill” as in ‘Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform’, with the implied continuance of the half-quotation, “and we do not return.”

Things don’t flow, or they do (the whole thing is not jammed-up jump-cut sliced in its sensibility), only to reveal themselves on closer inspection and thought as catching or throwing off kilter so that the whole is hard to grasp. Or important-sounding phrases might be repeated and reduced to empty shells, almost satirically. From ‘Array One’, we have “Caviar is a kind of food / life is the opposite of death”, and the mutation of a line of Danny Hayward’s appropriated for ‘Banners’, “love is the derangement of leisure time,” into “love is an abuse of love”; and from ‘Gloss’, “We have to start thinking, seriously, about alternatives / to the future.” All these are shells which reveal themselves as subverting their initial real or imagined source impulse into a commentary less conducive to the ideology which their official usage would attempt. So, “alternatives to the future,” given the sci-fi register of that poem, says something about imagining and imaging as deflected or explored through fantasy, as utopia or dystopia, and as the realisation of sci-fi in the now (Mike Ladd’s notion of the ‘after-future’); also, one would think, as a riposte to ‘There is No Alternative’ and the ‘end of history’.

It does work both ways, though, I think, so that “O 1 2 3 / we are met in the same world” becomes an odd mash-up of archaic, maybe Elizabethan poetic diction with the insertion of lyric cry into basic number list: ‘O’ as both the poetic exclamation, as if number could be made to cry out, to reveal the human suffering it conceals (see below), and the defeat of that attempted cry, O as merely zero, nothing, a void. I’m reminded here of Kevin Davies’ line-breaking in ‘Lateral Argument’ (which I’ve examined at greater length in a recent post on Kenny Goldsmith): “Information / wants to be me. O / K” – or of the line from Keston Sutherland’s ‘Falling in Love Cream Crab’ on which Josh Stanley comments in the editorial to the first issue of ‘Hot Gun!’, “Only now forever | 1.9.” (Stanley: “Statistics, for instance, needs to be passion […] One can read the end of the poem as keeping track of the I’s development from 1 upwards as it tries so hard to be 2, to conceive of a dual ontology, to be in a world where it is not alone, but it cannot ever get there.” One might read this in the light of Sutherland’s comment on number and universalism quoted below.)

Heames’ “O 1 2 3” occurs in the context of the penultimate poem from the sequence, in which desire for the beloved is seen as in some way the opponent to both capitalism and to natural forces themselves: “I would halt retail / I would put off an eclipse / or might” – this as some kind of variant on “I would walk 500 miles,” with the qualifying “might” as a realisation of reality serving to make previous overstatement endearing in some way, even as “(wanting the famousness of love / its long name)” suggest more mercenary motives as regards self-presentation in love and in poetry. Perhaps “O”, then, is anticipated and deflated and ironized even before any attempt at urgent agency might instantiate itself: the following and final poem informs us that “the poem is a stunt / double for my feelings,” the beloved revealed as an “archangel,” a figure which can’t help but put us in mind of the angels of death from the skies that dominate ‘Gloss to Carriers’ (again, see below), a figure whose unreality is filtered through a million internet searches – “with more hits / than ‘the colour of rain.’ ” Colourless and transparent, smoothness of surface see-through to nothing, the empty target or centre, the “arena” surrounded by “borders” and “blockade”.

So, yes, what one might cling to as moment of revealed or real assertion or intimacy is never ever simply that: to pick another example, “Left the film streaming” (from ‘Banners’) is at once the de-materialized movie as internet data on screen, as how we now watch films in our private cubbyholes, and “streaming” as in tears running down faces, that one could still be moved somehow, tho’ this itself is I guess manipulation, in a world where lines redolent of the lyrics to an old love song morph into the hurt of a tumble in the markets: “Rolling on bedclothes […] This has been going on too / long for us not to Hurt by a strong yen.” This is not the “gossamer career move” of an ambiguously co-opted, post-Deleuzian ‘rhizomatic’ take on technology and on popular culture, pitted against lyric singularity in celebration of capital’s displacements: but neither is it simple or silly or binary in its coding of oppositions and entanglements in current world and word states of play.

Both Heames and Toal come back to the figure of the female, either as love-object, idealized or mediated through screen, visor, helmet (“hot lament on tinted windows”) post-human displacement, or (and perhaps the two are more commingled than one might think, in their work) as war engine, despoiler. Here Prynne’s ‘Her Weasels Wild Returning’ is surely an important point of reference, or shall we say of departure, especially so in ‘Gloss to Carriers’. What might in a conventional, or ‘human’ love poem denote a particular desired attribute of the beloved, comes in Heames’ work to be part of a war machine: “Her pink antiaircraft”; or “Blousy in hyaline” (hyaline as transparent glass or as cartilage: the illusion of believing seeing, or seeing within to some real body’s meat). Or we have this: “The loved one shields and boots”, where those final words might be nouns or verbs, as the virus-protection and system re-boot of a computerized robo-beloved (I’m reminded a little of the dictator’s passion for the police supercomputer in Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’), or as the ‘shields’ and ‘boots’ which, say, Xena, Warrior Princess might wear and carry– these items of clothing themselves fantasy and mediation, fetishisation of war and information as against the vagiaries and unreliabilities of that which might not slot into the discourse of war, profit, control, police. “And pragmatics sink any beneficent dictatorship of the heart / Love against body count.” Here I think it would be hard not to read ‘body count’ as the (militarized) enumeration of people into numbered corpses that Keston Sutherland decries in a couplet from ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’, discussed in an interview with ‘Naked Punch’: “In the dead of night you do a sum / and in the morning you deduct it from universalism.”

Again, this from the opening of ‘Gloss’: “Her heels wore scramjets out / Rockets wept when she slowed past them / Sandaled in plasma […] Lust clipped her brake cables and wing tips […] She knocked back a late draught of radar and blinked out.” (Think too the statue of a female head that forms the cover to ‘Banners’.) That the female in these poems is thus implicated with war, technology, capital, might seem problematic in terms of sexual politics, but let’s say too that it comments on the mediations of love through a sexualised and technologized gauze or the “CGI brushed steel on sedge phosophorous / […] approaching the white hot templates / of Capitalism and Love / Its dismal optic carbine.” This idealisation is the displacement of “the blood of spray operators / spiked on the graph” so that the “woman of scope / input signal of the white race […] goddess, / complete angel of calm” becalms as advertising image what goes on behind, and above, in the “sky of control” (these last quotations from an early poem, ‘Reducing Load’).

We might consider too the dated-sexist appellation ‘bird’ for woman, consider the recurring swans and butterflies in ‘Gloss’ and ‘Array One’, or the way in which jets or aircraft associated with ‘Gloss’s’ female become ‘pretty birds’, new singing monsters of the air: “Xylem of osmotic birdsong / Fluted each weightless undercarriage.” Xylem and osmosis, transport of water and nutrients in the plants – the plant as the factory plant, death HQ, fluting as glass or as instrument, a fantasy of gravity-less soar, the fact that space programmes have always been associated with military expansion, colonisation (‘space – the final frontier’), nuclear races, Nazi scientists, etc. We also have “the pain of living in a metropolis […] Guns change their silhouettes / A management swan dive.” What flies from the air and soars is not heaven or the muse or spirit, the lark ascending, but death from the skies descending, in flight formation unleashing the shit-storm, this the era of the drone, the bombing of Baghdad, everyone pointing and cheering at the exploding lights in the night; the sky of cameras and horizons and dwarfing spectacle, the reality of heaven as angels of death from the corporations and conglomerations that are now our gods. To be “on the side of the angels” is, then, truly “a failure of love / or policy.”

‘Gloss’ is both academic commentary, explanation, and shininess and sleekness of surface, as concealment or perfection of technology and wealth: smooth like our bodies are not, delivering death in high slick style. ‘Carriers’ are carriers of disease, are carrier pigeons, messengers, lackeys, bomb-containers – I’m thinking aloud here –the play of inside and out, “Claustrophobe in the machine […] my emotions leaking from my ‘mask’.” Mask here being face or face-mask, tactics of concealment and revealing, the packing of emotion so that what is real in suffering and love is just another movie scene, a game. You’re toy-ing with people’s lives. Mention of mask too makes me think of the role of the face (and the region of the head in general) in ‘Array One’, which might seem a satire of all that talk of Levinasian encounter which is all the rage in French and Film and Ethics departments round the Anglo-American world: “I need you to go back on / to look at pictures of your face” // “medics lost face” // “the convoy kept rolling / down my head and neck” // “breathe down my neck” // “Ilium is toast / Natalie has dark eyes.” This latter bringing us back to ‘Gloss’: “Their eyes / Mere openings that looked like / Maws vaselike.”

Katko comments, in his UK Poetry review, on the affect of Heames’ memorized reading; tho’ I would ague, and perhaps he would too, that the register of elegy and mournfulness which he seems to claim as a particular quality of this particular reading is a necessary quality of any of the Heames readings I’ve seen. There is that play with tension and expectation, some thing which forces you not to look at the reader in case you break the spell of remembrance; so that it is at once performance, more so than with the usual reading from a script, and that it actually does succeed to some extent in Heames’ stated desire to in some way remove charisma-based interpretation from text and deliver that text ‘as it is’ – even as, at the same time, it does exactly the opposite. This probably makes absolutely no sense.

Which has brought me several thousand words in to realize that this hasn’t really been a review of the reading at all. So let’s throw that bit in at the end. The space, a gleaming lecture-hall which is apparently one of the most expensive buildings per square foot in Europe, was perhaps not most conducive to a fairly small gathering (tho’ a packed hall would have maybe have changed and charged the whole atmosphere in was which now of course it would be pointless to speculate on). Its weird, semi-labyrinthine contours were at once suited to the poetry (with their Goldeneye echoes) and in some senses too sleekly institutional for it: Katko’s reception-broken freestyle on the phone afterwards, or Toal and Wallace-Hadrill’s recreation of Nas with the aid of a clunking upright piano outdoors the next day, might be seen as way of breaking back out into the (keeping it) real world, whatever that is. In the meantime, we all got to hear Toal and Heames read, and you can find what they read as availably published and new from ©_© and Critical Documents, winging its way out onto the next level.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

"A Form That's Already Replaced You": Against Kenny Goldsmith

This short piece will argue against Kenny Goldsmith’s post-‘death of the author’, post-Warhol celebration of unoriginality, of banality, in which the statement of the individual artist is fed through and spat out by the images and discourses of advertising, celebrity, spectacle; it will argue that Goldsmith’s position is, at best, politically naïve, and at worst, grotesquely complicit with the exploitative modes of techno-capitalism. Goldsmith’s most recent theoretical statement is entitled ‘Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age’ (Columbia University Press, 2011) – note that telling ‘managing’ in the title, as if poetry had been delivered entirely into the hands of institutional apparatus, of some management consultancy model; and note the final chapter, with its call for writers to be secretary-pirates, appropriating that whole digital piracy thang from Hakim Bey (a usage which was fairly empty in the first place) and incorporating it into some ghastly bland celebration of office space as neutral or even as some good. Goldsmith, in both his theoretical work and those texts in which he puts these ideas into practice, would seem to celebrate the swamping of the human by technological processes bigger, better, brighter than the human – all this trendy talk of ‘the cloud’, digital networks, cyborgs – and thus, ultimately, to fetishize the endless proliferation of modes of digital technology in a manner which overlooks the very real, physical, and non-digital modes of labour exploitation and oppression (the outsourcing of the proletariat) on which these modes depend. For example, how’d you like them apples™? We await Kenny G’s text based on transcripts from the foxconn factory, but that’s not gonna happen (in terms of using sources that take the text from out of the author’s sole domain, a more interesting, and more politically-engaged model might be that of Mark Nowak).

((Well OK, no doubt the same applies to the laptop on which I’m typing this, to the institution in which I’m permitted the time to write this, right down to the clothes I eat and the food I wear, but what I’m arguing is not that I can escape the tacit hypocrisy of which Goldmsith is tactically unaware, but that an awareness of this hypocrisy and complicity is at least some grounds towards a mobilisation that would begin to desire to resist and change that situation. And I’m not going for some Luddism either, some anarcho-primitivism, some model of little tribal farming communities close to the earth yada yada yada – technology mobilised against power structures is also a necessary part of resistance, even if the role of social media in recent revolutionary movements (Arab Spring et al) too easily translates, at least over here in the relative comfort of where I am, as mere slacktivism, constructing a persona of righteous outrage on that facebook screen through which we mediate and create our selves in any case – a digital ‘signature’ as the agglomeration of photos, wall posts, statuses, links, identity parade, self sold through spectacle spectacles and even back to ourselves, so that we don’t realise this construction as anything other than what we ‘really are.’))

Goldsmith’s model of feeding texts through html coding processes, regurgitating traffic reports, or re-typing Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ on a blog – or, for that matter, the ‘flarf’ poets’ re-combinations of internet spam texts as ironic parody / celebration of a kind of virtual spectacle in which all discourses are equivalent – might appear similar to the collapse of specialisation and separation into a collage of discourse in much modernist poetry – from Pound’s or Olson’s mytho-historical projects to the ‘rubbish theory’ of J.H. Prynne, in which the language of high finance comes up against the other languages it conceals: discourses of pain, hurt, environmental despoilage, wounds and damage. But these poetries involve criteria of judgement and thought very different from Goldsmith’s jocular / boring ease. William Burroughs believed that, by cutting up the discourses of power (political speeches, manuals, etc), these discourses would reveal their true messages, their true nonsense and inanity (cf. Sean Bonney’s ‘Tony Blair Speech’ for a more recent example of this). Goldsmith, by contrast, finds found material, or material that has already been cut-up by bots (the endless linguistic detritus of spam emails and web pages) fun and kooky. Pound, Olson, and the early Prynne aim for a philological project that seeks alternative and revitalising histories in language as a measure of where we now are and where we have come from, while the later Prynne sees a radical lack of innocence within language, a lack of innocence that must be reproduced, questioned, distorted, exaggerated and dialectically worked through. Goldsmith, in his post-modern celebration of the failure of such grand historical projects, and his happy-go-lucky lack of concern for issues of innocence or guilt or moral responsibility, could give a (virtual) shit. In ‘Uncreative Writing’, he excitedly proclaims that, though he’s come late to the techno-party, he thinks it’s, gee, just great–sort of,‘I’m older than y’all, y’know, but goddamm it I dig this stuff as much as you do.’

Essentially, what he wants to celebrate is that info-panopticon decried in Kevin Davies’ ‘Lateral Argument’ – “a young-adult global / civilization, a meta-literate culture with time on its / prosthetic tentacles, at this point slightly more silicon / than carbon, blinking vulnerably in the light of its own / radiant connectedness”. This is a panopticon that maintains the notion of the self and its signature just so that we still feel that little bit in control – there is “a special area, a little rectangle, for you to add your own comments.” I can see everyone on the google-ized globe and they can see me, and they can see me being my ‘own’ self, which is near-exactly the same as all the other selves constructed through advertising and all the other forms of propaganda all the more insidious because they pose so often as ‘non-ideological’; which is exactly the same as all the other selves because it is constructed by and through the gaze of the others. Thus mediated, melded, shaped, surrounded by surveillance even in sleep, I go and make my point on twitter, my raised middle finger, I make my point at the base of the news article, at the base of the youtube video, fuck this and that and fuck you and fuck them, you fucking faggot, bitch, nazi, nigger, etc, and this is how I express my ‘individuality’, this is my signature, imagine if all the books you wrote were the conglomeration of all those comments and posts, digital ether, information-propagation, self-duplication, endlessly patterned out, the presence of very real hate speech and keyboard-spat bile, hardly innocent, hardly democratic digital wonderland.

As Davies again puts it, it’s “easier to fill out a form that's already replaced you. Information / wants to be me. O / K.” And here the ‘information’ that wanted to be ‘free’ – that slogan of the post-hippie S. Jobs generation which was against totalitarianism in its obvious apparatus, against the visible violence force of oppression and for a deterritorialisation which ended up simply concealing those same, essentially unchanged means and ends of oppression and exploitation – has become so free (like that ‘freest’ of things, the free market) that it possesses me in my continuing and actual unfreedom. Freedom for markets, for info. Free for the price of a cable, a battery, an LED light, a screen. Motherboard confection. Sign on the dotted line: type it, because it doesn’t have to be your hand now, physical registration of yr presence, disembodied virtually yr identity / it cd be assumed by anyone. (Identity theft is merely the most obvious manifestation of this manipulation). And so Davies’ gesture at the end of these lines is tiny but crucial – the line-break that splits the ‘O’ and the ‘K’ re-invests that banalized word, ‘ok’, with a measure of emotion, however conventionalized and poeticised, through the ‘O’ that slips out of the human mouth of the de-humanised subject – that cry, at once de-personalized because ‘universal’ (the cry of pain or sorrow or anguish) and felt at the deepest core of my feeling being. It’s not as if this cry is being posited as something that will succeed against or even be heard through the white noise of free-running info, the ‘form’ that forms you, that fills you out, that uses you up – but to register that cry, that human note is still some recognition at least against total blind indifference. Douglas Kahn, in ‘Noise Water Meat’ (p.345): “Screams demand urgent or empathetic responses and thereby create a concentrated social space bounded by their audibility[…]They are resolutely communicative and meant for others…”

Of course this cry, as it occurs in Davies’ poem, could in turn be (is already?) fetishized, the scream reduced to a sound and fury that does signify nothing, standing in, in its inarticulacy, for a meaning it does not have but pretends to (‘O’ as mark of ‘profundity’). Indeed, cries / screams already do signify nothing, or nothing precisely, in that they are not language as such: their meaning is generalized signal more than fully-developed idea (though arguably this is little different to much of language per se, at least as it exists in the actual exchange of words between humans, w/ all the attendant paralinguistic edges to that field). Yet that signification of nothing registers as a refusal of ventriloquising ‘meaningful’ banalities and as a revealing of the inarticulate rage and pain and non-compatiblity at the hurt heart of the alienated subject – not John Cage’s ‘nothing to say and saying it’, but wanting (desiring) to say something and not being able to say it, communicating the failure to communicate as a means to (inarticulate) communication.

((I should state here that I’m always a little suspicious of the surely limited and ultimately defeatist stress on ‘inarticulacy’, stammering, etc, as some kind of resistant strategy, that we find, for example, in a recent article by Judith Butler – “at that point it may well be that we are silenced by existing authorities, but we have also become, paradoxically, subjects whose muteness and political stammering come to define a mode of being." (Butler, ‘Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity’ (Critical Inquiry / Summer 2009)) Perhaps what I mean is that inarticulacy, the scream, stammering etc are all fine as critical tropes in relation to the kind of art that explicitly explores those kind of areas – the screams of Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas, Patty Waters, and Ami Yoshida, for example – but that when they’re transferred to a sphere half-way between the political and the academy-critical (as in Butler’s article), their limits start to show. So I’d stress the limits of this approach – but in the context of Davies’ poem, I’ll let the point stand.))

At the back of all this seems to lie the notion that conventionalized forms of utterance, such as ‘O’, cannot be personally meaningful, cannot be imbued with signature – yet the most ‘personal’ moments of music in particular are very often those which use tropes for the expression of the personal – imperfection, slippage, true, the cracks in Billie Holiday’s voice, Charlie Parker playing ‘Lover Man’ with less than technical perfection but with a feted emotional honesty.

“The popular singer adopts many levels of conventional utterance-structures in order to communicate with an audience. It is usually assumed, however[…]that at some level the singer is not ‘acting’, that the conventionalisation stops and that the singer is presenting his or her personal utterance. […]Often such personal utterances will be expressed through widely-known popular and often totemic song-structures. This is taken to an extreme in the case of the blues, where an almost claustrophobically rigid structure of music and text is used as a vehicle for sophisticated gestural expression. This is akin to the highly articulate gestural articulation of ‘stock phrases’ in vernacular speech where the linguistic content can be the least significant communicative element.”

(Trevor Wishart, ‘Utterance’, from ‘On Sonic Art’, p.259)

And OK, so Davies’ ‘O’ does not function in the same way as a slurred or bent note from Miles Davis or a pitch slide from a blues singer might function – as personal expression / signature through at least partially conventionalized formal trope. (Perhaps there is more scope in music than in poetic language for this kind of manoeuvre.) Indeed, its use would seem essentially pessimistic: by anticipatorily ironizing that ‘O’, as merely half of the banal ‘OK’, and essentially turning it into a joke, Davies recognizes its conventionalized usefulness (used-up-ness) – recuperated into a discourse which mutes it, as merely another particle of a language that will not register the realness of hurt. Yet one might also argue that, precisely through the mimetic reproduction of this recuperation, Davies enables us to move beyond that recuperation, into a discourse where that scream could be attended to, not mediated by the distance of the screen, the TV’s mute button, the acceptance of trauma as mere background noise. Indeed, the wrongness (to use Keston Sutherland’s term) of the ‘O/K’ joke is precisely what might restore that ‘O’ as something with agency, with an urgent desire towards meaning or the registration, at least, of the presence of the other through the ‘signature’ of voice (see Adriana Cavarero’s ‘For More than One Voice’ on this).

Back, then, again, to Goldsmith, and KG’s attempt to escape the notion of ‘signature’ is, like John Cage’s, a false and a de-politicising escape from the responsibility that comes with the notion of self, and of self’s translation into image, sound, text. (This apparently insubstantial attack on Cage is developed at greater length in a forthcoming essay, so I won’t reproduce the arguments here.) But if Cage’s attempt to transcend self is informed by queered cultural climates and by a certain anarchistic model of community that is increasingly posited in political terms, Goldsmith’s a-political abdication is an overexcited and uncritical facebook/ twitter/ myspace/ youtube/ linkedin mashup-celebration of technologies which are humanly and historically harmful – both in terms of the exploitation that enables us to believe that ‘we’ve never had it so good’ (& fuck everyone else), the mysticised concealment of means of production, and in terms of the environmental damage that, whatever its consequences for some romanticised ‘mother nature’ is, let’s face it, of human impact also. To remove and diffuse the self into the ‘electronic arms’ of Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’, all watched over by Richard Brautigan’s ‘machines of loving grace’ is to ignore the way in that self still acts within systems which are, OK, intimidatingly large, institutionally-bulked, capital-soaked, backed by guns and cops and private ‘security’ forces – but this kind of religious trust in a system bigger than one is not predicated on any real idea of solidarity or of communities of justice and reciprocal relation. I get my laptop and my dinky html-coded-poetry-play or the found sources I can make a decent dollar off (‘hey! so humble, I lost my ego!’), thus bulking up my institutional / critical cred as a famous author while simultaneously and supposedly celebrating the death of the author, the fact that we’re all creators, man. It is the choric participation of bodies and minds (which aren’t separate, ok) in consensus and dissensus and collective action that changes things and that enables us to get out of situations of systematic injustice – and that choric participation is the collective signature of all our individual signatures, all our individual selves – as Benjamin puts it, “the collective is a body too.” [“Only when […] all revolutionary tension becomes bodily collective innervation, and all the bodily innervations of the collective become revolutionary discharge has reality transcended itself to the extent demanded by the Communist Manifesto.” (Benjamin, ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intellegentsia’)] The de-personalized machine-self or diffusion into realms of neutralized ‘text’, suspension of judgement, endless allowed and luxurious play (turning out, it must be said, texts that are singularly non-joyful, dull, repetitive, blank banalities) shudders us into no sense of the inadequacy of our present mode of existence, the desire for self-(and thus collective-)realisation that is entirely necessary if we are to do more than celebrate what we have as we hurtle towards the real end of what we have. Wake up and smell the meltdown.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Being Ensemble :: Frey / Malfatti / Davies / Lash / Hughes / Kilymis // St Columbus Church, Oxford, 28/06/2012

Jürg Frey: clarinet // Radu Malfatti: trombone // Angharad Davies: violin // Dominic Lash: double bass // Sarah Hughes: zither // Kostis Kilymis: electronics

"The being ensemble, or together, does not merely depend on the accuracy with which each reads his part, but in the intelligence with which he feels its peculiar character and connexion with the whole; whether in the exactitude of phraseology, the precision of the movements, or seizing the instant and degree of pianos and fortes..." // The London Encyclopaedia, Or Universal Dictionary Of Science, Art, Literature And Practical Mechanics, Comprising A Popular View Of The Present State of Knowledge. (In Twenty-Two Volumes. Vol. VIII. 1829.)

But this is part of the hierarchical model of (musical) ensemble: later in the same passage we read, “It belongs to the masters, conductors, and leaders of an orchestra, to guide, check, or accelerate individual performers, and to keep them together.” Now the model of musicians reading from a score, guided by composer and by conductor, is not something that one must necessarily reject in its totality, as was vigorously asserted some of the more vehement statements from that generation of free improvisers who first began to formulate their methods in the 1960s; of course not. But note the term “masters,” the assumption that ensemble, or chorus, implies subordination to a leading, guiding light, the masses under their king, their judge, their chief of police, the ultimate arbiter of taste. Leadership within the improvised ensemble is crucial within African-American improvised musics departing (following on from) jazz: no one challenges the leading roles of Cecil Taylor, or Sun Ra, or Anthony Braxton, within their ensembles, as dictatorial imposition. Yet might we not also (‘also’, rather than ‘instead of’, because no model is absolute), find some mode of accommodation between composition and improvisation, the following of a score and the space for the individual interpretation of a particular line, in a leader-less mode of ensemble-being, or being-ensemble, which follows on from the enacted anarchy of John Cage’s late ‘number pieces’?

Such questions pertain very much to the concert held, on June 28th, at St Columbus Church in Oxford, organized by Richard Pinnell, and featuring a sextet of musicians in composed and improvised work falling somewhere within the territory marked out as ‘Wandelweiser’ music. Before entering the write-up proper, I should thank Richard for putting on this event, and for the clear effort of thought and care expounded in its presentation. One got the sense that the occasion as a whole – and the printed programme which accompanied it in particular – was his attempt to work through concerns latent in the critical reception of this work over the past couple of years, but not often explicitly made the exclusive focus of discussion – and consequently, despite the relatively poor audience turn-out (as, sadly, is to be expected), that it was an enterprise of some importance. Thus, the short essay entitled ‘Wandelweiser and Improvisation’ (available in the PDF version of the programme here) was subtitled ‘The Dangers of Reverence’, and the programme’s placing on the church seats as a kind of hymn-book parodied that ‘reverence,’ even as the essay itself thoughtfully considered the importance that reverence, restraint, and a quietness of communal attention (qualities perhaps associated with certain forms of religious experience, church-based or not) might possess. Pinnell’s points with regard to the drawing in of audience as active participants in listening, and the restraint of improvisational excess through compositional framework that yet, in its looseness, also restricts the ego-mania of a controlling composer figure, are ones very close to the way that my own thinking has developed on this topic. In relation to this, if the sparse audience was spread out through the church, rather than banded together in close or obviously communal quarters, and if many of them might have had their eyes closed for at least half of the music, that was the result of a feeling of ease and comfort within the surroundings – not the comfort of complacency or an unproblematic wallowing in beauty, but, as Pinnell again notes, a mood or mode of listening that may also be fraught with tension, the mechanics of close mental attention, and, to me at least, in the composed pieces by Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti that made up around half the concert, feelings of austere yet wrenching melancholy and sadness.

Sarah Hughes and Kostis Kilymis are, as a duo, perhaps something of an unknown quantity – this was, I believe, only their second public appearance in this configuration (I’m sure they’ll correct me if I’m wrong). Though they appear as part of a quartet with Patrick Farmer and Stephen Cornford on the Another Timbre release ‘No Islands’, and are both involved in the running of improvised music labels – respectively, Compost and Height (co-run by Hughes and Farmer) and Organized Music from Thessaloniki – their presence as improvising musicians is less established, and one gets the sense that their work is at a stage of development perhaps further back than that of, say, the ever-present and enormously experienced Lash, or of Angharad Davies. I think, though, that this is precisely what made their set of interest, for me – its sometimes hesitant reticence, the logics or non-logics of its unfolding rough-edged in non-predictable ways that didn’t always seem intentional or even, quite, to work, but which roused the listening ear out of slumber and into a focussed following of trajectories and pathways taken or not taken.

I’m not sure if this is exactly the way to phrase it, but there was a simultaneous sense of the musicians being both rigorously in control, and of suddenly, and unexpectedly, having the rug pulled out from under their feet – after a long section in which Hughes rhythmically rubbed a bow up and down the side of the zither, she abruptly stopped to leave both musicians suddenly silent and sitting still, as if the performance was about to end. There followed a few seconds, not quite silent, in which Hughes might either have been performatively packing up, or continuing the musical endeavour, as she began removing mini clothes pegs which she had previously attached, as preparations, to the zither strings. It was a while before continuity re-asserted itself, before we were sure that the performance was definitely still under way -- and perhaps this is what I find valuable, and rare, in a mode of music-making, that, despite its methodological openness to and embracing of risk, all too easily falls into established pattern: that moment of uncertainty, the truly improvised moment, where one’s every move, one’s every gesture, will have a bearing on the course, the success or failure, of that particular section, even of the piece as a whole (for once a thread is lost, it’s hard to pick up again).

Kilymis’ electronic set-up was seemingly more capacious than Hughes’ simple amplified zither, consisting as it did of what appeared to be a couple of fans or motors, a selection of pedals, and a no-input mixing board, yet if anything he was the more reticent of the pair, seemingly hardly to touch much of the equipment on his desk. Indeed, at times he made Hughes seem almost busily active, note following note in, if not rapid succession, then enough speed to form what might be described as semi-melodic shapes – though her occasional exploration of the gentle, harp-like thrum of a plucked open string was reined in enough to avoid seeming merely ‘atmospheric.’ Similarly, while drones (with their propensity to fill, or to alter the space) are a fairly stable and staple element of much music of this kind, the pair tended to avoid such fixed stretches, with only one section provoking the imperceptibly slow head nod accompanying such sustained aural washes. The set ended with the barest continuing tick, left running without intervention by Kilymis – he, Hughes, we the audience, all sitting listening there to the machines’ insect heart, beating just within audible range. Here one might recall the paragraph from Pinnell’s essay in which he comments on the way in which the audience are drawn in as participants in a close listening of the kind required from, and demanded by and of, the musicians themselves. Whereas in the composed, or semi-composed music of the Wandelweiser Group, this implies a participation in structural process – anticipating, working out, revelling in the at least partially pre-determined manner in which a piece unfolds – in the case of Kilymis’ and Hughes’ improvised performance, it also seemed to mean a kind of detachment from the act of producing sounds themselves, the occasional moment – such as that ending – in which the musicians seemed as removed from, or puzzled by what was being heard as the audience. I am certainly over-egging the rhetorical pudding here: all the way through, the duo were making active decisions, thinking hard about what to play – witness Kilymis’ frequent half-glances up at the audience – even if Hughes’ demeanour can at times seem casual-tense, as if she were simply playing in private, displaying a certain un-weightiness of gesture. But I do want to stress the way in which, not only in this duo set, the collective sound that is created is a genuine collaboration between those who make it and those who experience it, the two indeed crossing over at points: to hear the music is indeed to sound it in a particular way, to allow it the space to breathe or to be itself. It is not only about the way the music sounds, but about how you sound, to paraphrase Amiri Baraka – how you sound, and how the venue sounds, or allows sounds to be heard, how everything in that situation sounds and is sounded, whether through the smallest bowed whisp or whisper on the zither, or through the generation of an almost ecstatic sleep strum through the tiniest of tinnitus tones, whether through the gurgle of a stomach, the compressed hiss of steady breathing, or the muffled sounds of the quiet city outside.

Following that opening set, Jürg Frey’s ‘Time, Intent, Memory’, a piece composed especially for the concert and performed by the full sextet of Hughes, Kilymis, Dominic Lash, Angharad Davies, Radu Malfatti and Frey himself. If Wandelweiser music is often thought of as austere or minimal in the extreme – Radu Malfatti’s more stripped-down, smaller ensemble work, Manfred Werder’s gnomic text instructions –Frey’s pieces seem somehow fuller, despite their similar economy of means; seem to distill certain harmonic aspects of twentieth-century classical music to a transformed essence, like drops wrung out of a cloth, exploring the simplest of harmonic or rhythm notions and worrying away at those single ideas, through repetition and incremental transformation (in the tradition of minimalism, of course), through an unashamed delight in the creation of beautiful sound – even as that sound, to the non-initiated, may seem to embrace, or at least not to shy away from, the occasional harshness or clash, discord not refused for imposed blandness of total accord. The notion of a whole tradition of music stripped down or back to a shorn, ghost-canvas is, of course, not an unfamiliar one – I’m thinking of pieces I’ve recently witnessed by Helmut Lachenmann and Luigi Nono; of Luciano Berio’s (in)completion of an unfinished Schubert manuscript, ‘Rendering’; and also of the ghost-romantic music of Russian composers such as Valentin Silvestrov. And for sure it’s there in dub and dub-step, in hip-hop’s stretching out over fragments and shards from records that sound out of the past, whether in celebrated nostalgia or détourned, mocking irony. Yet Frey’s filtration of musical history – the intense accumulation and concentration found in a single note, a single chord; indeed, the ‘time, intent, memory’ packed within it – would seem less overtly to present itself as a dialogue with, or haunting by the past; even as elements go back to the very basics of folk traditions – the sounding of particular drone-based formations, the ‘imperfection’ of a sounded tone – even as there always seems a read-in referentiality to each sound and silence (there are times when a melody spins off in my head as I listen, a line taken for a walk from the single point which in actuality is being sounded at that moment). Indeed, it is these very points of ‘referentiality’, or suggestiveness, that are also the most purely moving or beautiful parts of the music (no need here, I think, for scare-quotes around those words).

Despite its conceptual-philosophical title, then, the piece heard tonight had its impact primarily through subdued, non-manipulative emotional pull, centring, or so it seemed to me at least, around a mournful melodic phrase that was broken, or extended, in, round and with silence. Ensemble as unison, clear lines in simple harmonizing. Pick up and echo, like lines starting and stopping at different points on canvas blankness. Instrumental timbre in echo, Malfatti’s trombone, Lash’s sonorously low bass, Hughes and Kilymis held e-bow’d and electronic tones in background merge, Davies and Frey the melodic movers, Frey’s clarinet here by far the most silvery, straightforwardly beautiful of all the sounds. A pigeon, coos (on the roof?). Laughter, dimmed, passing. Bruno Guastalla’s breathing, 2nd row. The scratch of my pen nib, writing this. Violins’ held note in waver. Malfatti, a trombone sound so soft it seems sub even the distant traffic rumble, granite strings and clarinet in, now the cavernous effect of Malfatti’s muted instrument, almost but not quite beating frequencies, the ensemble texture not ‘doomy’ exactly, nor serene (two default modes for much minimal experimental music these days), but its measure is grave and slow and sad. Simon Reynell’s extended stomach whistle.

The piece’s formal architecture, as it appears on first experience: two notes, generally, sounded by clarinet or violin, then other instruments coming in, it overlaps, goes on, with breathing sections, say one minute of silence (waiting / pause / rest) in between. Davies’ trembled high string and Frey’s clarinet in desolate throatache, clarinet call, those low moans, not loquacious enough for song, tho it’s all contained, formal, is not inarticulacy. Yet at times this is what it seems, constantly reaching towards, failing to reach, starting back at the beginning again to reach towards, full articulacy, loquacity – towards that ‘gabbiness’, perhaps, that Radu Malfatti so descries. Put it another way: this is saying the same statement over and over, beginning it again, reiterating or -writing, or -scribing or –speaking, it; for a point of comparison, think maybe those repeating parallel elements in Charles Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question’, as referenced in Evan-Maria Houben’s ‘Druids and Questions’ – the questions those pieces raise with regard to time / memory / change. It take time to iterate. Yet it’s all done, set out, transparent, pretty much on first statement. That simultaneous clarity and complexity of idea, intent. Or in passing those acoustic effect / events / coincidences ‘exterior’ to the music (of course, as any one with even the most fleeting acquaintance with Wandelweiser knows, nothing in the environment can really be ‘exterior’ to the music, the music expanding out to capaciously include that environment, however fragile and easily-disturbed such a balance or encompassing might in experienced actuality be). The church bell sounding the hour, first as background tintinnabulation, in the ensemble spread out, then as an explicit reminder of passing time, punching out the seconds as punctuation to silence, Frey acknowledging its explicitness and appropriateness with a little smile. And now his breath clarinet becoming a dialogue with it, a counterpoint, held ground / extension set against the small sounds of repetition, repeated. The ensemble sets out now what seems almost a resolution-chord, with sorrow still imbued, and still the bell, tolls.

A third page of the score, collectively turned. Rustle. More space fragmented melodic in what seems to be a recontextualisation of previous material from the other sections of the piece. Ending with the most amazing ensemble chord in granite contour, like the sound you hear as all slips out, the final mourning song or breath for the end of the world, and the most intense silence after, probably shorter than it seemed, inhabited and filled by the swelling, receding ghost of that chord, afterglow swims over horizon, sinks. Clap clap.

Afterwards I discover the actual formal structure of the piece, beyond speculative or effusive conjecture. Chords and pitches are all written out, individual notes placed in columns, over several pages, with chords at the bottom of those pages, yet each musician is allowed to make their way through the score at their own pace, at a vaguely-agreed root temp of 40bpm. Thus the previously noted overlapping of lines, and thus the fact that any unison that occurs is the result of simultaneous decisions made by different musicians: ensemble as the collectively-decided and negotiated sounding together of separate lines, rather than imposed, homogenous mass. The restraint of this particular group of musicians, their un-showy, un-fussy approach to the score, is thus central to its successful rendition: one must pay attention to the way in which one realizes the piece, one cannot simply play the notes on the page, safe in the full indications of the composer’s pre-decisions. This is not, however, merely an opportunity for each individual to stamp the muddy foot-prints of their own ego all over the shop: and that this sextet was not in the least concerned with such manoeuvres might be indicated by the fact that all members of the group were given the possibility of playing short (notated) solos, and yet only Frey and Lash played theirs – the latter ending with a resonant thrummed pluck that, for the briefest moment, seemed to summon the ghost of Jimmy Garrison into the church.

A second improvised duo to follow: the combined strings of Lash and of Angharad Davies, Davies, sawed bowing motion in slip-string control (in which the sounds hover around a general field of semi-pitched timbre, but with numerous delicate variations around the edges), rubber-banded string pluck, just one or two notes placed exactly in almost-tandem with Lash’s bow-on-bass-body-rub, wood scritch and scratch. The most exquisite quietness at times, but also, particularly in Lash’s playing, a more obviously reactive ‘improv’ impulse (though one might ask, what was the echo / unison of lines in the Frey piece if not reactive, albeit in a different, more obviously restrained way?) – the result, it would seem from subsequent conversation, of a deliberate attempt not to play a ‘Wandelweiser-style’ improv, while remaining within the spirit of the event as a whole and keeping the gab in check.

Finally, an interval preparing us for the concert’s closing piece: Radu Malfatti’s ‘Darenootodesuka’, the title a Japanese phrase meaning ‘whose sound is it?’ (perhaps a quotation from that important Malfatti collaborator Taku Sugimoto?), the ramifications with regard to the ‘ownership’ of sounds, the fostering of collectivity, the activity of listeners and of environment elevated alongside the activity of musicians, and so on, already discussed at various points above. As in the Frey, mutating ensemble chords seemed to be ‘lead’, or pre-empted, by Davies’ violin. At first, the silences that had permeated ‘Time, Intent, Memory’ were largely absent, continuity not felt as pulse, but gradually changing organic drone, Frey’s clarinet meshing with Hughes’ e-bow’d zither and Kilymis’ laptop, Malfatti and Lash low-blending, Davies again alternating two or so desolate notes, more, an entire tone row, as melody, ascending and descending the stave in simple figure; simple, again, a limited actual number of notes, but in varied combinations, re-iterations, permutations; and again this interest in mournful almost-melody, in the sound of the ensemble, its timbre, its textures, and in the relation of parts together but in parallel not-quite unison, overlapping rather than entirely coinciding. Like the Frey, perhaps even more so, it was quietly devastating at times, as darkness outside the church in dark blue falling. The first section, 12 minutes – for the first eleven of these, each musician playing the melody one to five times, with breaks in between, then sounding, in the final minute, an ensemble chord; a timed silence; section two. Once held note. Shorter silence. Now Lash leading, others coming in. Frey and Davies, held notes with patient semitone descent, each voice stating the melody again descent and over, taking it up, holding, leaving. (Club-bass-boom from outside pub creeps in as brief minor disturbance. After the concert was over, as everyone left, an off-key karaoke rendition of ‘My Way’ spilling out of the door.) Simplicity of the materials, their patient not-elaboration, not-development, not-‘unfolding’ (as that word implies the other two), making the statement in the time it needs, over and over, in ensemble repeating, turning up then down and not leaving, descending and rising and not leaving. The ground, pitched together drifting apart and back, how long can a voice hold (a note), instrument in wood and breath, electronic, each part heard and distinct and together ensemble announcing, constituting, not with tension fraught as slow emerging – always emergent, always there, in that initial transparency revealing, and then revealing, and revealing, in material re-sounding, lay this out and you hear it, it’s not a complexity game, you can contain the information, here, in your hand, in your head, in your ear, it’s on the surface, you’re in the surface. The descent / ascent as it whoosh-slides with the laptop sine // in the surface rocking, maybe, sadly cradled, or quite still, breath and closed eye // the lowing of Malfatti’s trombone, as if in hollows and mists muted, veiled. Longish silence // the unison sound, refreshed, shortly sounded, slight silence, almost, not quite silent, still the air resounding, stating chord as knell, as almost spoken utterance, twice, of one word. Silence. Again ensemble, differing (not violin (now violin. The descending part of the melody again in play // longish section of all that again. In cycles, encycled, the line, the tail spins on itself it turns, the trail encircling, encircled. And utterance stops. It starts. In continuum, holding, just overlap morphing. In silence it stops. Again it starts. The musicians, had paused, put down, now take up their instruments. The sound is new each time the pause – the full silence – refreshes. “do i cease to exist in between waves of sound?” (The rhetorical question, from Francis Brown, appended to the CD release of a previous performance of this composition, on Malfatti’s B-Boim Records). The answer is no. Again shortly stated. And ending, the piece, on that tail whisper. The echoed fragment as final reminder, cut statement, stated, end. Fading with the darkness. Intensity. The scores’ instruction: to play each note as if finding it for the first time. ‘Rather timidly’. All sounds calm and very quiet. Might one not recall here Miles Davis’ instructions to John McLaughlin during the recording of ‘In a Silent Way’: “Play as if you don’t know how to play guitar”?

“do i cease to exist in between waves of sound?” I do not cease to exist but my existence is altered by those between-states, as it is altered by those waves of sound. ‘Between’, that word inevitably now recalling the 2006 Rowe / Nakamura collaboration on Erstwhile. In other definitions: ‘in the space separating’ // ‘in portions for each’ // ‘among.’ What it is between is between individuals, between notes, between audience and performer, between both groups and between the sounded and sounding environment: the points are dual, it is dialogue, to be between things there must be two, or more – multiple, ensemble.

Monday, 7 May 2012

How Long Is This? [The Theatre of Will Stuart] -- Judith E Wilson Drama Studio, Cambridge :: Friday 27th April 2012

Though he is ostensibly the Judith E Wilson dramatist in residence for the duration of the academic year, this day of works by, and responding to the theatre of Will Stuart, marked his first public appearance in Cambridge during that year: perhaps, after the reported extravaganza of pieces presented at the 2011 Miscellaneous Festival, he needed a breather. The day opened at 11AM with his greatest hit – premiered, I believe, at the 2009 Misc. Fest., on which occasion the lead role was memorably ‘played’ by Justin Katko (tho’ the notion of playing roles is of course very much complicated in and by Stuart’s practice). Said ‘hit’ is the half-hour or so theatre piece ‘Transfigurations’ – and while the elements out of whose fabric it is woven (this probably not being the best metaphor) are fairly easy to describe, their ramifications and dynamics take a lot longer to fully grapple with (I’m still doing it; since I first saw it, three years ago, it will occasionally pop into my head as an unsolved conundrum, a source of thought usefully generated from the frictive frustration and strangeness inherent in any engagement with its deceptively ‘clear’ surface). The play’s contents then, in brief: one participant (I’m not sure the word ‘actor’ is really appropriate here – by which I don’t mean to denigrate those who actually performed, but to highlight the ways in which Stuart’s is a very different proposition from the usual theatrical models) runs at full-tilt, back and forth across the breadth of the performance space, yelling ‘THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE ARE COMING’; another stands at the back of that space, mute and unmoving (apart from the inevitable suppressed laughter, which almost seems to be an anticipated, tho’ unwritten part of the role), holding a placard adorned with the single word ‘AROUSED’; a third, the main focus, sits centre stage, beginning by reciting a portion of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, complete with knee-rug, before switching into a portion of Aileen Wuornos’ court testimony, in which she describes killing the man who has been torturing and raping her; the performer (on this occasion, female, tho’ the role appears to be gender-neutral) then stands to recite the lyrics to JLS’ ‘One Shot’ in some sort of sync with the sound of the song itself, blaring out in its fully glory, or otherwise. All fall silent as the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ is p(l)ayed in full; the apocalyptic messenger steps to the front and recites the words to an advert for Lindt chocolate, and the play ends.

That artifice plays a role here should not be in doubt; this being further highlighted by Stuart’s presence at the back of the stage, handing out props and giving cues, and by the fact that many lines were recited from visible scripts. This is not necessarily a ‘bad’ artifice, an artifice that draws critical attention to its own insincerity (tho’, in the case of the Lindt advert, of course, it might be): for instance, the afore-mentioned interchangeability of gender, both in terms of the Pinter / Wuornos / JLS figure and the silently aroused guard (both male in the 2009 production; both female in the 2012 afternoon performance (and I believe, male and female in the evening rendition)), would seem to be at once a move away from gendered stereotyping and a critical engagement with such stereotyping, with questions of vulnerability and victimhood and of what it means to voice the testimony of another, to appropriate another’s language of pain for ostensible purposes of parodic de-contextualisation. (Consider further: what difference does it make that it’s a solo female performer who rehearses the arm pain of ‘In Despite?’)

These questions of artifice and de- or re-contextualisation were central to Ian Heames’ paper on ‘Transfigurations’, originally presented at a conference on literature and pop music, and focussing specifically on Stuart’s use of JLS, understood adamantly not as parody of capitalist pop or those equally ‘stupid’ recipients who uncritically swallow it whole. Such a position would be a quasi-Adornian critique that risks sliding over into mere class contempt: while the ignorant masses lap up X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent or the barely-now-remembered Pop Idol, we can dig our Boulez, and ironically laugh at their poor taste (tho’ of course to attribute X-Factor love to the entire working class is equally contemptuous – much of the most vital avant-popular music of the previous century emerges precisely from a working class base – and to criticise the banalization of emotion and the smoothing over of difficulty or struggle or contradiction into the shinily-packaged, the quick-burst affirmation or melancholic pleading of yet another identikit chart single, is a perhaps necessary, though difficult task (and, furthermore, one that’s not often attempted beyond more than a simple affirmation of what we’re all supposed instinctively to know: that this type of pop is bad and nefarious and contemptible and all the rest of it)). For Heames, then, Stuart’s deployment of ‘One Shot’ is a means of asking what ‘sympathy’ we could actually muster for the feelings the song, and other songs like it, rouse so differently in different individuals, notwithstanding the criticism that pop songs of a certain type homogenize felt response into predictable pattern(ing), aspirations within the capitalist frame of allowed leisure or love, or their attendant impossible celebrity aspiration syndrome (the kind of dream that is, indeed, encouraged by precisely those sorts of talent shows which propelled JLS to their moment of spotlit fame and influence: a notion of a kind of heaven on earth that you could have now, without radical social transformation – capitalism’s utopic cod-promise, forever deferred into pop’s exhortation or yearning to take what you want, because, even if “you’ve only got one shot,” you can have it, whether thru lottery luck or meritocratic striving). This point would seem similar to Marx’s take on religion in ‘The German Ideology’: the aim is to liberate society so that the needs to which religion gives expression are met without the need for their subsumption into a comforting and compensatory religious framework. Neither religion’s nor pop songs’ expressed urges are exactly falsely expressed within the frame of religion or pop, then, but are part of both forms’ very structure, their formal structures of desire and ‘feeling’, and in this light, Stuart’s work seems far more than the initial cheap joke it could seem, far more a serious engagement with, again, that ‘sympathy’ we could have for or with those urges.

Tho’ the advertised ‘discussions’ at the end of each section most often turned into breaks for food or coffee or intermission chat, J.H. Prynne (in a day-long attendance that is a mark of the interest and serious intent locally generated by Stuart’s work) did start a mini-debate as he queried Heames’ use of the phrase ‘deeper logic’ w/r/t pop music, Heames agreeing that this might suggest a false separation between surface and ‘depth’, or sincerity: pop, as it is used in Stuart’s play, is more of a feedback loop, where in is also out, where sincerity and depth cannot be easily entangled from each other, if at all. There is no detached, elevated authorial ‘deployment’ of the material; though the audience’s laughter contains ironic recognition, that recognition second-guesses an intended irony on the part of Stuart that is not present in his own usage. Evi Heinz’ earnest or faux-earnest spoken-karaoke delivery of ‘One Shot’s’ lyrics, with its slight stumbles and halts and missed-timings (at least, in the afternoon performance of the play which I witnessed), was not so much the appearance of real, felt spontaneity; rather, it added imperfection to JLS’ auto-tuned sheen: the imperfection, perhaps, that the listener brings to the perfect product, which imperfection is precisely where any of the ‘sympathy’ that Heames identified might lie – though to describe this as attributable ‘sincerity’ on the part of Stuart or Heinz would, of course be stupid. Maybe the feedback loop is dependent on room-mood and audience biography – the complex interweaving, perhaps clashing network of expectation and social background and felt engagement that they might bring to the performance: and here, alongside Transfiguration’s use of JLS, we might place the time-trial task set in Heinz’ CorresponDANCES, in which performer and audience attempt to blow-up a giant inflatable dinosaur before an extended recording of the Jurassic Park theme tune, and variations thereof, came to its close. Is this actually participation as a kind of communality? The elation and party game panic that the dinosaur challenge infectiously rouse(d) in those participating was in some sense real (witness Heames’ face reddening with effort, or James MacNamara causing his own lip to bleed), even as the piece satirized any ‘togetherness’, that ironization perhaps the condition for this togetherness to be real, to be glimpsed without the cloying cover of a false hippy all-in-this-togetherness, man…And it is laughter that draws one in, a kind of glee mixed with anxiety at the accomplishment of what is accepted as a ridiculous task, but whose accomplishment suddenly comes, in that moment, to seem almost desperately important, the laughter arising from a recognition of the sheer delirious and somehow utterly joyful absurdity of that emotional charge: well, maybe this is no more than what happens in the party games you might play with your friends (certainly before you reach your teens, and sporadically after, tho’ drinking games don’t engender the same kind of innocent, or ‘innocent’ solidarity). But how often does that kind of emotional register ever even enter theatre? Perhaps it could only happen here because the audience at that stage was so small, the interaction occurring on a manageable level, that separation between the elect few on stage and the select or willy-nilly audience mass less apparent than it might otherwise have been: there might then be a readiness to participate less tinged by feelings of embarrassment or the risk of public foolishness (leave that to the actors) – because, after all, the audience always performs itself, to a certain extent (like the clubber checking themselves out in the mirror; cast a quick glance over your fellow theatre attendees to see if they’re laughing as much as you, to see how the cool kids are reacting), and the kind of performance or participation that Heinz asked of it, by placing that performance on the surface, and by transforming it into something joyful and open, rather than furtive, unconscious, or closed, was a liberation of this desire, as well as a questioning of how far it might really be taken. Well, in any case, watching J.H. Prynne blow up almost an entire four-foot inflatable dinosaur was a nigh-on unsurpassed public event.

Interval. Films, by Heames (the script a monologue by Stuart, delivered by poet Peter Gizzi) and by Stuart (sock-puppet unemployment more-than-whimsicalities), unfortunately projected from a laptop with live spoken subtitles, rather than in full-screen glory, due to technical issues. I somehow neglected to take notes on these during the train journey in which I took notes on everything else; so, apologies, no more here will be said.

The notes resume. There follows another Interval. Kat Griffiths then performs a ‘Performed Love Poem’, a monologue of a very different sort to Heinz’ ‘CorresponDANCES’: in a variety of accents, some sort of story would seem to emerge about love failure, in a staged drunken haze which involves dancing that ranged from the wildly enthusiastic to the despairing, eating coffee granules washed down with wine, breaking an egg, telling an absurd-desperate anecdote about masturbating against a lamp-post on the way home from a party after yr love interest gets a boyfriend, and a final reading of the love poem in question; all this an intense, even performance-art-tinged ‘baring all’ coming up against artifice in aware, maybe even dialectical, interplay – as in Stuart, those elements of real or imagined or apparent ‘sincerity’ both lending the work its power and being satirized, ironized. (Those words don’t, of course, really fit; this theatre wants a new vocabulary for its negotiations which for the moment I’m not quite sure how to construct.)

Now Ollie Evans’ first performance, a variant on a short piece I’d first seen him deliver a couple of weeks ago at the ‘Now, Microtheatres’ evening in London’s Five Years Gallery. Evans lies down on the stage, covered by a rug, and with a copy of Finnegans Wake as a pillow, while a tape plays his voice meta-speculating on the live situation, the potential dynamics of the then-future performance, the ethics of this enterprise, &c., while considering art as work, or not work (‘how to scab your own strike’). (Given that F.W. is the subject of Evans’ Ph.D thesis, its unobtrusive pillow-deployment allows a further element to creep in, relevant, no doubt, to all us academy-encrusted students and teachers of ‘radical’ literature, our safety note, the status of our work as work or as isolated, cocooned play.) The apparent spontaneity (I apologize for constantly having banal resource to these tired and inadequate deskriptors: I’ll try to do better next time) of the tape here negated by its deployment as an almost automatically de-humanized pre-recording to which the audience are held in thrall; so, again, that push and pull with and between expectation and frustration and meta-anticipation that is so central to Stuart’s work.

‘In Despite’, the second Stuart piece, playing on pain and boredom with meticulously stringent manipulativeness. Evi Heinz clutches her arm and complains about the pain or ache shooting up it which she just can’t get ride of; for nigh-on fifteen minutes, with the word ‘ow’ punctuating every other sentence, and sometimes, it seems, every other phrase. Irritation, cod-sincerity, restriction, taken to a real extreme of challenging apparent banality. And the entry of quasi-theology at the end, probably not entirely as parody (meditations on infinity, what it would mean, after the end of the universe as we know, for things or people or selves to still be in existence; and the singing of ‘Silent Night’). Pain here is not the one tragic event, but the extended (non-)event of continued and non-ignorable suffering: now here a whole discourse of Levinasian attentiveness, even anti-Imperialist in dimension, opens itself up, but I’m not sure that to extrapolate further would further the play’s cause or really do more than smooth over its jagged irritations (which, in their own way, are perhaps more of a challenge than Transfiguration’s).

So onto Ollie Evans’ third performance (to skip the chronologic for a moment). Preparation and starting, or not starting. A completely improvised, blank-state beginning (this of course a misnomer, as Evans wd realize, for it itself is a concept subject to some sort of pre-cognition): Evans moving around, as if enacting last-minute set- and check-up details, before the performance proper can begin. Which of course it both does and doesn’t; these are already the constitutive elements of the performance. Evans finally asking Stuart, from performer to audience, about his practice. Stuart’s reply: that he is aiming towards a Keston Sutherland-esque obsession (w/r/t to three essays in which K.S. (re)works (around) the same idea consecutively, consumingly). (This section might, I suppose, have been construed as the advertised ‘discussion’ sections of the day in the end making it onto the stage.) Here I get to thinking (again) about the Drama Studio as a space, prompted by Evans’ movement in and out of doors with various paraphernalia (chairs, a microphone and stand, coats and props), the back-stage both back- and on-stage, as tends to happen, In The Studio. This performative non-performance also perhaps a parody of Evans’ familiarity, With The Studio. I ask: to what extent is the power I feel in much of this work (both on Will Stuart Day and in previous Days and Events in the studio) to do with having cultivated a space where the questions the work addresses can be allowed to build and develop, performance to performance, not as an accumulated ‘body of works’, or the diverse bodies of work of the various performers who perform there (& tho’ these bodies of work, whether enacted there or elsewhere, are no doubt enabled or influenced by the space itself), but as questions you feel you can ask, that the audience or the space give you permission to ask, and that they have been, or might be, thinking about? Which is also perhaps constriction; at some point don’t you have to break out of what has become the cocoon of a safe-(lab-experiment)-space, to inform your interaction in the outer and upper world with it? Or do you always need that separate space for experimental testings, like the performer’s magic circle (derived from originally-medieval, now Lecoquian French buffon practice) that Stewart Lee describes in his (essential) book ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’? Except here the whole play is about the lack of that kind of delineated safe cut-off, even if it is always circumscribed within a particular room: what does it mean, then, to talk of ‘risk’ here? How far can risk go before it turns merely into a strategy-board-game in which the pieces are moved around in familiar frisson? How many more questions? But yet, the Drama Studio’s programme is diverse: not just theatre-makers, but poets, musicians, film-makers. This isn’t a trendy inter-disciplinarity, but emerges out of particular work (or play; or plays), not from arts-council-funding schematics, plots, diagramm’d pre-anatomies draining out the live blood of living encounter. So Cage or Adorno of Keston Sutherland or Prynne can all be brought within the frame of reference, that frame expanded out to include them, and to include JLS and hymns and toy helicopters (see below): again, not as a trendy or uncritical togetherness, but because these things are all in the performers’ and the audiences’ lives and minds, of which this work is one textural element (and even vice versa).

The notes dribble and drabble out (I’m not here working to a conclusion, I can’t muster the required energy at the moment). Alors, finalement: The Remains of the Day. Evans’ second performance, the repeated variation of a line from Finnegans Wake (“I can do as I like with what’s me own”), turned into Minton- or MacCaffrey-esque sound poetry, stretched and multiplied and humorously twisted. ‘Iphigenia’, which finds Stuart reading a letter from JH Prynne to John Wilkinson, regarding Wilkinson’s poem of the same name: the figure of the helicopter recurring as trope in that letter, Stuart’s reading ‘accompanied’ by Heames’ flying of remote-controlled toy helicopters around the space and at the reader. Some sort of dizzying height-reach when the helicopter (literally) hits the roof of the Drama Studio arousing temporary mild vertiginous feelings, tho’ this effect may have been localized to no one else in the audience. Heames’ poem ‘For Will Stuart’, the last thing I caught before I had to leave, written after receiving the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death thru Stuart’s poem on that topic: what it might mean for poetry to be the news, with full affect and difficulty built in beyond bland fronting and evasion. “After the United States the United States.”

And after Will Stuart?

[Check this write-up for clear-sighted summary trimmed of the above's excessive verbiage]

Sunday, 29 April 2012

‘Belabouring in Vain’: Scattered Notes on Michael Haslam

Let’s start with the introduction Haslam pens to the volume around which these notes will flip and flap (‘A Cure for Woodness’, the concluding part of his ‘Music’ trilogy). There at first is posited an apparent desire to get away from that soundplay, that rhyming rhythmic jingle-jangle (which John Wilkinson would term a schizoid ‘clang association’ (viz. his analysis of John Wieners’ work)) in which H. has so often revelled, arcane etymological connections not as language’s historical sedimentation (viz. Adorno), but as sidetracks, the eccentric investigations, almost, of a Victorian leisured gentleman (tho’ rougher-shod, and informed by a life of labour): locality and quaintness, amateur histories (some of which spirit, now I think of it, does hover round certain of the ‘English Intelligencer’ prose that’s recently been put out by Mountain Press, particularly Peter Riley’s various investigations of Britain’s stone age past – though there things are more tempered by (a) academic temperament and (b) a sometimes crushingly Olsonian grand project to reclaim origin and to re-write history thru what I guess one might call ‘investigative verse’). In part, of course (and as the succeeding poems in actuality prove) H. actually wants to defend that laboured-leisured sense of non-academic play, often within Nature (we’ll let the generalized term stand, as place-holder, for now) as refreshment for melancholy or ‘woodness’, as a consolation not Romantic-regressive but necessary: “the birds and mammals, streams and flowers and trees, the web of all living life and the pleroma of physical forces, with humanity de-centred”; even without the “religious cause,” in which Nature, however ‘fallen’, still revealed something of God (to the monks on Skellig Michael, for instance, or to St Francis, exhibiting humility and openness in a non-anthropocentric universe), “there are probably good evolutionary reasons for our being enlivened by the beauty of our sustaining ecology” (but note a total lack of sentimental earth-mother piety in this (tho’ the earth as feminine fecundity trope does crop out with a fair frequency in the following verses): “It’s marvellous how consoling the cruelties of nature can be”) – in any case, (inter-)dependence rather than just Brute (Social) Darwinism, the fittest survival; the role of co-operation, yes? But still this worry that the language sound-play and often blatant use of rhyme into which H’s verse has moved functions as regression and narrative from his earlier ‘languescope’ of impersonal undirection and non-paraphrasability, in which the question of “whether the results divulged merely my own so-called ‘Unconscious’ or the truth of the world would be for the world to judge.” Yet the “grand abstract vision” (viz. Hart Crane’s Bridge as abstract synthesis in poetry of that which in life remains messily separate and clashing (as Atlantis, eternity, “one song” which “devoutly binds,” “in single chrysalsis the many twain”)) can’t be accomplished, even in verse: the fall instead is into plot and soundplay – not as (fortunate?) Fall but as “waves & cycles of personal emotional happenstance” – despondence, confidence, elation, tragedy, etc – which aren’t exactly specific in the narrative fixity they impose on the poem; rather, “personal, but common enough” – not as exact specific biography, the poem as confession, ‘authenticated’ by its status as document of inner struggle (and thus elevating the role of the author as one who feels ‘more’, or ‘better’, than us ordinary mortals, and whose documented feelings thus deserve more attention or respect more than those of non-artists). The aim is to avoid being falsely ‘universal’, un-historically/-socially specific in a disingenuous, metaphysical, escapist sense of unchanging essence, whilst simultaneously acknowledging and highlighting personal contingency, even a certain capriciousness. Such capriciousness is central to Haslam’s persona, and is what perhaps enables the free-flowing (though of course, exquisitely controlled and skilful) Delight of his poetry – drawing attention to a certain sonic materiality, sensuous sound-patterning and excited jibber-jabber prized over a previous investment in what H. describes as a certain modernist absence, a near-religious worship of the void (the 'languescope': “There was a time when I was strongly drawn to the lure of an idea of absence. How can Emptiness shine like a tin can? The siren idea I drew from a concept formed from what I might call post-Symbolist French poetry. I remember hearing and reading such stuff in the 1970s. So much whiteness, nothingness, void, and silence, absolute silence. There was something almost mystical in the absence of God: you could almost worship the blankness.”) Instead of such abstracted paring-down, we have here instead an associative play that is almost out of control, that takes one out of oneself, or that takes one outside a structuring sense of one’s self as a stable and rounded entity, instead focussing the sharp or blurred edges of moment-to-moment existence as experienced and lived in its non-schematic minutiae. It’s a little like watching a Stan Brakhage film, where Brakhage’s field of activity and wandering attention is on the play of light and movement, its forms of organization super-fast and contingent. (One could take any number of the painstakingly hand-painted and hand-scratched frames of those brief but highly, highly concentrated, flitteringly dense films from the latter part of his career, and present them as miniature paintings in themselves, but their cumulative power is very much meant to be, and indeed is, in their total effect, their combination into the moving ream: film as mitigating against the permanence (and thus the commercialization and elitist museum-bound segregation) of the art object, as a liberation of perception into temporal flux and flow). Similarly, any one of Haslam’s phrases might cause one to trip and pause on its delicious sonic effect (he could easily have made a fine sound poet), causing one to have to go back and re-read the line, and maybe the line before that, to get back into the ‘sense’ of it – it’s what makes reading Haslam such an exhausting pleasure, such a capacious joy: not because of difficulty of allusion, the kind of stringency demanded by certain forms of late modernist poetry, but because of sheer glorious density. Such density is, of course, a density of allusion and of multiplying potential meanings, cross-connections, associations, etc, as much as it is a density of sound, and the two are, I’d argue, closely connected: sound patternings spark sense connections that would not occur to the ‘rational’ mind, even if afterwards they are rationalized, placed in argumentative order, saying something rather than merely playing with nice vocalized jingle-jangles. (The process, in fact, is not that far off, in general methodology, if not in impact or real practical similarity, to the work J.H. Prynne was writing in the 90s and 2000s (‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ of course being a different proposition altogether, moving through tough and extended argument rather than the building up of thematic area by the build-up of quick-jump fragments and associative build-up)). The difference to Brakhage, of course, is that Haslam is working with language, packed full of signification and allusion, whereas Brakhage, particularly in those abstracted films, can move from visual signification to the creation of new forms that have no exact parallel in what we might see in the world itself (the closest analogy, and one he frequently made, being to ‘closed-eye vision’, that delicate patterning of light synapses when one closes one’s eyes (or, as D. Oliver puts it in ‘The Harmless Building’, “the ever-present background of combinational probability laws that were a more-modern hesistance of the swarm towards pattern, a swirling and sparkling”). Of course, H. could have moved into sound poetry proper, and that he did not suggests that his project is still very much invested in meaning – not the ‘liberated’ meaning of a grunt or growl (viz. Burroughs’ oft-cited statement that “words are an arbitrary communication system and any sound could do as well. An exquisite sonnet could be conveyed in bestial snarls and grunts.” Without overlooking the importance formed by language's non-verbal semantic elements – those qualities of voice (timbre, rhythm, pitch, etc) which are not so much formalized codes (though they contain recognizable features that allow them to be 'read') as individualized modes of conscious or unconscious expression – it would seem foolish to prioritize non-linguistic communication units as something 'better than language'; and, allowing for rhetorical overstatement, the valorization of a kind of 'primitive' animality (why "bestial snarls and grunts" rather than, say, the 'motherease' with which an infant is lulled? well, I guess Burroughs' misogyny would answer that question...) seems a little problematic. By this, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that poems should be all lulling sweetness and light…); OK, so not that ‘animal liberation’ thru sound, access to one’s inner spirit-man, one’s inner lion (a la McClure) (however parodically and delightfully ridiculous this is made to seem by Cobbing, his tongue firmly popping in his cheek), but a negotiation with the fact of mouthing words through tongue and teeth and spittle, a kind of muttering musical complex inside the head which one could become stuck inside, and which poetry’s delicate task is to pick its way through, using that near-schizoid sound to sound out new meanings, new association complexes, to combat language’s bureaucratized or war-mongering straitjacketing without falling into a lulling sonic cocoon of regressive rhyming chiming nonsense:

“The polymorphous parts / of sorry sores and soothing phoney story sorts” (‘A Bunch of Tales’).

Which seems to suggest that any chiming stories that are told are fakes, tho’ elsewhere, as we’ll see, the figure of wounds or bruises, blemish and waste and mess, stand more for a kind of down-to-earthness, a literal materialism that is multiple and, yes, poly-morphous (and poly-tonal, -phonic?), which H. wd most certainly endorse, and wish to participate within, in that self-description. And, let’s think about this: sound and stories have their linkage, in oral epic, the sounded refrain (refrain as both to sound again, and not to do so, to ‘refrain from’ – that dialectic in origin (as the original sensed of the word ‘rhythm’ clash between blockage and flow; as the Dogon word for ‘to open’ and ‘to lcose’ is the same): refrain, then, might be both affirmative action and negative inaction, refusal of action, excess and decorum.) And stories as sorting, arranging of multiple experience into one followed trajectory, one strand of narrative, akin (again I quote) to Hart Crane’s “one song devoutly bind[ing],” his “many twain[ing][…]in single chrysalis.” “Erosis” – giving over to eros (“woodness” as madness, including sexual elation, self-forgetting (madmens’ selves multiply, are forgot, become archetypical (Poor Tom, the generic crazed vagrant), also as erosion (of self? of land? of boundaries?) – the play in this section on ‘so’ sounds and on wounds, s’s and o’s, decay as painful wound (the "worm returning", penetrating in, as in Blake’s Sick Rose) and as ecstatic, tho’ “sickly bliss” – the holy fool, the blessed disease. A particularly striking conceit: clowns as nude weatherpeople (forecasters? rain dancers? the shamanic function sleeping right at the back of that most gleaming of regularized TV banality-bulletins, the weather report). And, ah, stars, as in Bunting’s ‘Briggflats’, that distance – “with starry gaps / of high renown.” A “cry” as birdsong, lyric O (not I) utterance, both the utterly personal and the inarticulate unperson’d, “sounding out of the depths of being” (Nietzsche), ‘O’ as folksong collective utterance at that moment of most personal pain (Prynne’s ‘English Poetry & Emphatical Language’), as danger/pain signal and as ‘music’ (birdsong – nature as decoration, no: “The cry might sound alarming. Clear enough. / It’s nothing personal. It could be couched / and may be decorated with birds.”)

“I don’t rhyme for the sake of riddlin’” (Chuck D)

And with that on, now, to what I think’s the best poem in the book, ‘Belabouring in Vain’. Here there's play on lyric as mass/ folk / fairy (faerie?) pastoral, not as gossamer Edwardian kids at the end of the garden but as rough reverie (wood dwellers misconstrued as spirits might be outlaws, wild (green) men, Winstanley’s commune trying to eke out an arboured existence). So we have leaking, pissing, shitting, ‘wages’ recurring throughout – cash, consequences (wages of sin); we have art as (parodied) lyric (French?) delicacy –“pull faces / thinking phrases for the lyric graces, lilac cordial, vanilla curlew and so on. And hammer on / until the limb’s gone numb” – from easily-slipped dance or drink to lifted hammer, beating out the rhythm in repetitive strain  – art literally become wanking about, as in – “They say it [Art] wanks / to wage thankless assault on taste, by means of / glorious plebeian ructions” – some coarser (Anglo-Saxon?) materiality. The eruption of that rough rusticity of a peasant-pastoralised lyric, not as distanced court dalliance, rural tourism (“a cheap holiday in other people’s [idealized] misery”) but from within the place itself, or from some vantage near enough in sympathy not to render its fantasies spun too wildly into regression and lie: the people, labour, material facts, material world – as against, again, the courtly nostalgized idealisation of yer common-or-garden non-political pastoral idyll (that non-politics of course implicitly and insidiously political in its conservative claim). “There are dozens of us delving in the mass / of gross behaviour” – a kind of free love orgy (“each labourer may love / his or her next or nearest neighbour[…]dreaming nakedness, I readdress thy face”) which is partly imagined as “reverie” and dream, perhaps akin to the gender reversals and temporary madnesses in Shakespeare’s ‘green worlds’ – As You Like It’s Forest of Arden, Cymbeline’s Welsh mountains, the Tempest’s Isle, Twelfth Night’s Illyria, and most particularly, A Midsummer Night Dream’s Athenian Forest. Here we might recall RF Langley’s poem ‘Cash Point’, in which AMND leaps into the present, with a cash point as the “hole in the wall” through which Pyramus and Thisbe communicate, that hole as a point of access between a world of reality and a world of dreams (occurring explicitly in a play within a play, a parodied love story, Romeo and Juliet played for laughs) – like Bottom, those that seek to escape, say, the urban world, the world of court intrigue or brow-beating end up being turned into donkeys, literally being made an ass of. Langley suggests that both Pyramus and Thisbe’s attempt to keep their love alive through the hole (the sexual punning obvious, that hole perhaps, even, as a glory hole, anonymising and rendering almost entirely individualistic what should be an ecstatic inter-personal closeness), and a modern attempt to “cash in dreams for reality, language for things” (in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s words), are efforts doomed to failure, fictions of consoling artifice: the quasi-magical exchange of a pin number for a piece of paper which will allow one to purchase material things is a kind of ‘cashing in’ on the dreams that, say, promises of endless credit encourage –“With your last twitch you can / point at the letters that make up / the spell” – ‘spell’ referring to words as well as to magic, to the act of naming a desire that, it is hoped, produces the material effects of that desire’s presence, but which ends up as just another deferral, another consoling fiction as are the fairies in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (a play which, for AD Nuttall (in ‘Shakespeare the Thinker’) is “not escapist; it is about escapism,” subjecting its subject to a “philosophic scrutiny of the status of love-experience” to be “maintained to the end of the comedy”). If Langley remains sceptical about the consoling power of either cash or nature (elsewhere, he draws together a territorial dispute between a beetle and a wasp and the suspicion which led to the execution and torture of numerous women during the era of witch trials – misrepresentation, the fantasy of fairies and witches, as both consoling and dangerous, leading (as does the fantasy of endless cash and credit) to immiseration and exploitation), Haslam is more like Mercutio, in whose Queen Mab speech – according to Nuttall’s account of it – “wild imagination” ends up “outrun[ning] intellect”; and, unlike Mercutio, he starts off by wishing to believe, if not in the literal existence of fairies, at least in some notion of a consoling nature, or, at least, a nature that is both curse and cure, both the cause of madness and the restoration to sanity: and this can happen in a poem, which can question its own premises, its own wildness of imaginative fancy and sound-play at the same time as revelling in precisely those qualities, constructing connections not possible in the real world, perhaps, bending time in and around on itself to create constellations of country labourers, lyric poets, poetic work and the work on the land, not ignoring the structures of oppression within either, nor valourising himself as a kind of modern-day John Clare (who’s later namechecked), but as partly-parodied “yokel local-focal,” wandering in eccentric bumbling bucolic melancholia.

‘Belabouring’s implied orgy, if it’s imagined as a kind of Green World dream, is also sex as concretion melding, as assertion of body into text rather than the virginal idealization of courtly love (L’Amour de Loin). The ‘gross’ of “gross behaviour” is an excess (viz. the talk of wages and work and counting up (archaic) coins) – ‘gros’ as Falstaffian fatness – ‘delving’ as digging into the earth (here a sexualized activity, no doubt) and as undoubtedly echoing John Ball’s famous notion of communal peasant closeness to land (“when Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”), that non-hierarchical commons involving a free and shared sexuality as well as labour (hopefully not in the sense of customary tribal prostitution (polygamy for men) that Marx criticises with regard to notions of ‘free love’ in a non-Communist society (the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 is yer reference here)). The poem’s title implies that reverie itself is a kind of labour, whether this be labour as birth, ripeness (“a state of ripe undress”), but still at a remove, a recall, a recoil; yet ‘reverie’, in its modern sense, only tells half the story – from the OED, we find a Dionysian ‘madess, delirium, wildness, rage, revelry, wantonness (13th cent. in Old French), incoherent thinking, wandering of the mind, foolish idea, idiocy, absurdity’ – similar indeed to that earlier traced etymology of ‘woodness’: reverie as ‘ravery’ rather than the Debussyian introspection with which one would normally be inclined to read the term). That danger of idealization, fictionalization, telling stories in sound that sound sound but that in fact deceive, taking sound as sense to take leave of one’s senses, in the woods, a mad malady, and yes, this is anticipated and satirised, or fun is poked at it, even in the midst of the most jangling-dangling bits of sound-patterning, where one might think meaning had completely run away with the fairies: thus, the anticipatory rhyme and word-prefiguring of “the butchers dress/ the tripe with cress[…]the village lads and lases[…]in states of ripe undress.” Tripe and cress, daintiness and roughness (roughage), animal / meat and vegetable / plant, the shit or piss that comes out and the food that goes in (the “lyric graces” of “lilac cordial” and “vanilla curlew” (addition, entry) turn to “a loss, a slash, a pee, a piss”, a kind of jocular “aperture” between inner and outer, self and nature into which the waste goes, defecating outside: “that’s my own / at the aperture, open flies / at the back of the shed, / the industrial wate”; where flies become both zippers and insects, organic waste paradoxically industrial, this latter reminding us, perhaps, of the human workers who enabled the, say, inhuman machine-ations of the Industrial Revolution to sprout. Read yer E.P Thompson. ‘Work’, in the poetic and the more usual physical sense, as both making (in the sense of the poetic ‘makir’), crafting, and as sweat, labour, physicality: if art is “hard at work / against vulgarity”, it is really also vulgar because of the hardness of its work, its sweat and flesh and bone (even as, at the end, Haslam drifts from what might thus seem a too-simple celebration of the Victorian work ethic into a more dreamily reveried in- or e-vocation of pastoralized haystack romping – tho’ even there, “the village lads and lasses lay about themselves with mops” – there playing into the last few lines’ play on the clean and the dirty, lyric grace and lyric grit or dirt or mirth or girth, the afore-mentioned tripe and cress, “cleaners wip[ing up] the mess.” And in such messy play of word and worth (where value is, say, meaning, in that metaphor of artistic merit in monied terms we can’t avoid, it seems (seams of “the ore raw bouse”)), ‘mess’ transl(iter)ates into the penultimate line’s ‘mass’, wehre mess is am ass of amassed meaning, hard to master, the labour forcing the pun, the point, to his master’s consternation, to the consternation of the reader reading or delving for solving or solvent clues, for --- synthesis, Haslam here substituting the synthetic for the organic, the synaesthetic (as in ‘A Bunch of Tales’’ sensual mingling – “send out an ear to look”) for the single-minded, in multiplicity, simultaneity, super-imposition, in an ecstatic equivalent of sonic jangle that points to a lighter version of (again) Brakhage’s dissolutions of overlaid image: over-laid, be-laboured, a ‘lay’ as sex and as song, laying back and going for it, energy and repose, labour and reverie, making us work in pleasure, reconciled even, as in Marx’s unalienated dream that we might so be, in the full communism of the individual free to pursue whatever course at that moment is fancied – hunter, fisherman, critic, at different times of the day. That this happens, or even can happen, only in poetry or in necessarily speculative philosophical aside does not render it simply a pipe dream, a song that drugs and dulls to stupor, but as that refreshment that H. found, in his introduction, in the woods above his home, that we might find in a notion of complete personal and political liberation (or as near as could be complete in the necessarily shifting provisionality of any apparent completeness within a non-metaphysical, dialectical understanding of the world as continuous movement, dynamism, contradiction, growth (viz. Mao Zedong, y’all)) – that refreshment necessary to go on at all, to re-invigorate the struggle, whether for continuing poetic composition (‘continuale song’) or continuing fights for the removal of oppression, the ‘green world’ not as the containment structure it assumes as temporary ritual breakout within an inherently conservative framework, but as the possibility for a real radicalism to be (whether in imagination or reality) tried, tested, worked thru, poetry’s su/staining alternative. (But there’s so much of this, in this, that I can’t take too much at one time – so much rhyme, excess, express-train-wandering all over the track (tho’ in fact, as one reads on, one realizes that the range of referenced tropes is relatively slim in recurrence across the whole scope of the book). It would be too easy to overdose, to glaze things over, to just collapse – to fall flat on your back and let it all wash over you. Or you’d go mad, get that wild woodness Haslam harps on, fall head over heels into some realm that not so much heals but hauls one unstoppably in all conceivable directions, un-homing, crazed flight. In that sense, I guess, it’s precisely the opposite of the staid stillnesses in yr common garden pastoral idyll (even Larkin (Philip)’s urban scrubland blanknesses (‘Here’)) - the ‘city’ energy of modernism exploding into a Natural riot of song and voice, bird and birth and berth, in real multiplicity that opening outside: where be-laboured reverie becomes just as much a fantastic dance as hard labour, exploding vibrancies of wired contemplation.)

More (maybe) to follow.