Two passing notes on Jennifer Cooke's poems
by Michael Peverett
Yesterday's virtual ramble began, I think, by searching for online poems by Jennifer Cooke. She's a poet I've slowly got more curious about, e.g. most recently from reading the anthology Out of Everywhere 2, which contains her South Mimms Motorway Services poem, or 11/12 of it anyhow. In the past I've always ended up being put off by reports of her attack on self-improvement books. This time I decided to press on regardless. I'm glad I did. I discovered for instance her enthusiasm for Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, which I totally share.
The South Mimms poem "STEEL GIRDERED HER MUSICAL" is in part violent fantasy-narrative somewhere between W.H. Smith, Starbucks and the toilets, somewhat recalling the McDonalds episode in Keston Sutherland's Stress Position. This, and other poems that I've previously read online, are high-energy, brutal and grimy; at least that's how I've read them, but it might be a misrepresentation. They were collected in * not suitable for domestic sublimation (Contraband Books, 2013).
Review by Claire Hurley in Shearsman Magazine, who instead emphasizes the comedy:
Five poems in Great Works ("Honda's Right Hand Works Hard", "REEMOIR", "CARBORUNDRUM MORNS", "SONNET A", "THE SECOND DAY"
but stories won’t leave edges
alone days lived without understanding
always a finger tip’s reach out of hers
why it is more tales come snap saturation
stretched taut she lies floorward thinking beyond image or symbol to colour’s uncertainty
and three others intact stand one squats looking to not touch yet at the vulnerable surface
telling the day’s sun into aches and eyes floppy this time rinsed still without conviction
veined redness tints her in-looking for the others around near here perhaps without a
torch on the ward she shudders into stillness.
(end of "THE SECOND DAY")
Cooke has since published another poetry book in a very different mode, Apocalypse Dreams (Sad Press, 2015). [Since then, the apocalypse seems to be picking up pace. But Cooke was already contending that we were in it.]
Andy Spragg interview with Jennifer Cooke about Apocapalypse Dreams (Datableed magazine). The poems are all real dreams dreamed by Cooke. They are apocalyptic as in: they are dreams about the final moments, the end of all things.
The work originated in her DPhil work about the Plague, beginning with Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. Studies like that give you vivid dreams. The book that came out of those studies is Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film (2009). You can read quite a lot of it thanks to the Amazon Look Inside! feature. The first page of the introduction had me hooked.
The last epidemic of Plague in western Europe was in 1720 in Marseilles. It has since remained as a gruesomely memorable metaphor for afflictions that are perceived as indifferently smiting a whole population; in contrast to the way that most people perceive diseases such as cancer or Alzheimers, as a disease that strikes down an individual. (Though, to be fair, cancer has a rich metaphorical life in our culture too; but it has a different set of connotations.)
Sometimes the afflictions that are compared to a plague are demonized groups within (or seen as parasitic upon) society, e.g. "Plague" has been used to stigmatize groups such as Jews, gays, migrants..
Cooke also edited and introduced Scenes of Intimacy: Reading, Writing and Theorizing Contemporary Literature (2013). You can see a PDF of her excellent introductory chapter via Academia. The intimacies are about sex, mourning, death and other things that are difficult to talk about.
Here's a more complete list of publications. As of December 2016, there's a couple of interesting ones that are still going through submission.
NOTE 2: murky and still in a cradle of watery poison
Pamphlet published by Sad Press, 2015.
There are not many alternative-poetry pamphlets that I could genuinely say I wish were longer, but this is one. Cooke's twelve poems seem to be over in a rush, not so much because of a paucity of text as because of the reader's greed for these euphoric/catastrophic narratives.
Basically, they are accounts of dreams that have an apocalyptic premise. Apparently based on notes of true dreams by the author, but rendered in different forms.
New apocalypse dream: there is an apocalypse. I am at work. The only way to avoid the apocalypse is to apply for study leave ....
how shit would it be if the end of the world
was a rave in the snow. yet here it is. muddy
snowy footfalls & loud music & stoned eyes
with drugs generated from beetroot compounds...
That's how two of the pieces begin.
Here are some of the euphoric lines:
Rain here does not clean; it muddies; we feel this as
We are bloodless; shit fish.
And it is just water coming down on people.
That there are only minutes left. Our knowledge is
incommensurable. We are happy.
a waterfall of effluence tumbling
people with everything else how
far can it fall off the edge of this
...can it be fun to surf before you die
in sewage washed to the end the...
In the seas a block of salmon fillets floats high as an iceberg, rearing above our deck, enormous and pinkly soft at the edges -- you could cut off your dinner, but it's diseased.
I would also have liked to quote the bit where they're hiding in a squat in Brighton trying to recharge their phones -- the apocalypse has become an irritation. ... but anyway this is as much of an idea as I can give you in one post.
Dreams are a release of fiction into the aridities of art.
Dreams (genuine ones) are overdetermined. Cooke (a big Freud fan) has allowed the overdetermination to flow into her poems. So the book is somehow a fond autobiography of childhood and adolescence and even university common rooms at the same time that it is an alarming dredge into the sub-political globalized mentality of 2015, and a captious view of social behaviour when we're not dreaming.
The hilarity in the book comes from reason confronting the irrational. Sometimes reason is demolished by it, and sometimes reason wins small petulant victories. In the end Apocalypse Dreams aligns itself with that shrinking part of the population that is still educated and intelligent. It is enlightened.
The apocalypse is inevitable defeat. We are all in a slow apocalypse and must one day face that defeat: the time when it seems better to let go than to struggle, the time when we know, in office parlance, that we are "fighting a losing battle". Cooke's poems witness both the relief and the dread of that release.
But it's not just or even mainly about individual demise. Even before 2015, and acceleratingly since, much of our world has perceptibly begun to behave more like rats in a hot cage. Apocalypse Dreams feels like a useful guide to our times.
[This Intercapillary Space piece adapts a couple of posts from http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.com, Dec 2016 / June 2017]
A note on ‘Irises’ from Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Four Year Old Girl
Download full essay (pdf)
[W]hile the use of a pastoral vocabulary pressed against a questioning of bodies, (dis)embodiments, spaces and emplacements is present throughout Four Year Old Girl, in ‘Irises’ this examination is mediated through an awareness of perception and attention. I look at how this optic intimacy opens up the field for motherhood, eroticism and subjectivity to come into being.
Download full essay (pdf)
Poem by Jèssica Pujol Duran
La cuestión esque
(piece written in solidarity, against Brexit and fascism, and read at the poetry reading in support of One Day Without Us at IKLECTIK, on 20/02/17)
(piece written in solidarity, against Brexit and fascism, and read at the poetry reading in support of One Day Without Us at IKLECTIK, on 20/02/17)
Colin Lee Marshall on Ian Heames
Colin Lee Marshall
In the preface to his Four Lectures, Stephen Rodefer famously wrote: “Today we have painted cities, painted conveyances, painted apartments, painted roads, painted people, even painted food. Is it not time for painted poetry as well?” This question has found a highly receptive addressee in Ian Heames, a poet who has published a set of extensive annotations to Rodefer’s poem, and one whose own poetry might itself be thought to evoke or suggest the art of painting. Heames’ ‘painted poetry’ is often prefigured by the production values of his self-released Face Press chapbooks, the artwork to which typically seems to aspire towards a similarly extrinsic condition to that of the poetry. Stated more specifically, even though Heames’ book designs don’t actually incorporate traditional paintings, they are nonetheless highly ekphrastic nods to the form (vide the floral intaglio of Out of Villon, the abstract digital pointillism of Arrays, or the Rothko-ized photography of Banners Over Terminal Highway). As regards the poetry itself, Heames’ style of ‘painting’ has already passed through several iterations, from the euphonious impasto of his earlier work, to the variegated motif-stippling of his ongoing Sonnets series. The 2015 chapbook Arrays – which collects the releases Array One (Critical Documents, 2012), To (Iodine, 2013), and A.I In Daylight (Materials, 2014) – is an especially interesting juncture of Heames’ painterly development, and one that is worthy of a close reading on its own terms.
Each of Arrays’ three sections comprises twenty-seven poems, all of which are titled with double decimal numbers (‘1.1.1’, ‘1.1.2’, 1.1.3’, etc.). If this structural skeleton seems to promise the kind of propositional boldness and (alleged) clarity that we might associate with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, it also immediately reneges on that promise, flourishing out a world that confounds the usual methods of haptic and optic purchase. Rodefer, who asseverates in Four Lectures that “The modern world began with the first contiguity disorder”, deserves quoting here at more length:
A poetry painted with every jarring color and juxtaposition, every simultaneous order and disorder, every deliberate working, every movement toward one thing deformed into another. Painted with every erosion and scraping away, every blurring, every showing through, every wiping out and every replacement, with every dismemberment of the figure and assault on creation, every menace and response, every transformation of the color and reforming of the parts, necessary to express the world.
For Rodefer, as for Heames, poetic painting aims not at a neat, skillful prosopopeia, but rather at a series of effacements and refasionings, with the aim of allowing all pentimenti to peer out from behind the redacted text. Indeed, “jarring color and juxtaposition” perhaps doesn’t go far enough in Heames’ case; for in Arrays, what we more often see is impossible colour and juxtaposition: “the night turns one quarter green / incarnadine”. One could perhaps write an entire essay on this string of text alone. Striking us at first as a mere tremor, a local wavelet of protean colour, “green / incarnadine” can turn, if we allow it to, into a whelm of poetry so oppressive that it threatens to arrest the hermeneutic urge. Knowing that we cannot arrive at the wavelength “green / incarnadine” through the dictionary, the Pantone Matching system, or any other readily available reference work, we may prefer to dispense with any attempt to arrive at it at all—to which end we might be thankful for the line break, see it as a welcome bulwark against so oppressive an incongruity. However, this requires that we overlook its lacerative suggestion, its subtle nod to the sanguinary associations that have attended the word “incarnadine” ever since its appearance in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Such suggestiveness is also, by extension, a reminder that Shakespeare (or his readers) had already taken a scalpel to the entailed flesh of the word’s etymology long before its appearance in Arrays, irrevocably staining the word just as Macbeth would stain the “multitudinous seas”. We are thus confronted with a mysterious new wound atop an old one—mysterious because it precedes the cutaneous integration that it severs. Given that there has never been any ‘greenincarnadine’ to speak of, Heames’ amputation acts as a displaced emotional stimulus, triggering in the reader an urge to mourn something that has never been cathected. The discomforting vagueness of this violence is further complicated by the fact that, before its severance, “green / incarnadine” had already been chromatically quartered (more blood, perhaps), and was thus already an etiolated version of its Platonic form. Any attempt here to “storm the exactest shade”, to restore a pure ‘greenincarnadine’, would thus occur outside the frame of textual signification.
One could certainly write at far greater length about the swirling Ishihara plate of colours in Arrays; however, there are also other striking impossibilities in the text that are equally worthy of our attention. Nowhere, perhaps, are such impossibilities more apparent than in the monsters of Arrays. Heames’ teratology is extreme, transcending more familiar zoomorphic configurations, and extending even to the moment of utterance itself, so that not only do the referents become monstrous, but the signifying apparatus does, too (e.g. “Swans into theatregoer in floods”; “that visibly pet moth”; “Cherry-pick workplace murex vernix Euler tour / then evolved into prey”). Most notable, perhaps, is the progressive interlocking of several wildly different taxonomies. In one prominent example, the lepidopterous and the cetaceous drift into an improbable congress, out of which emerges a “moth dolphin” (elsewhere a “beached moth”). But this impossible miscegenation is not nearly impossible enough, given that the site of its unfolding is purely biological. What Arrays seems ultimately to strive for is a monstrosity that implies more than merely organic impossibility, a monstrosity that sublates chemistry, warfare, art, and myriad systems of knowledge or inscription. Thus, we also encounter a “metalloid cartouche butterfly” and a “military dolphin”. Heames elaborates on the latter thus: “A military dolphin is a dolphin / Trained for military uses / / One in three warplanes / Learn cuneiform”. Given the proximity of “dolphin” to “warplanes”, I’m inclined to read beyond the text here, and to posit “moths that desire fins” as being almost fungible with an extra-textual ‘dolphins that desire wings’. If such fast-and-loose reading seems dubious, I hope that the point extractable from it – namely, that a desire for wings doesn’t necessarily, or even likely imply biological alation (far less romantic or poetic elation) – is nonetheless relevant to the broader concerns of Arrays. What we see in the “metalloid cartouche butterfly”, as in the [cetacean?] “warplanes that learn cuneiform”, is a startling triad of nature, techne, and inscription—that is to say, a gesture towards mastery and deployment (with all of the various connotations that those two words might be thought to evoke).
This bores right into the etymology of the title. In its oldest attestations, ‘array’ is a martial word (the OED defines the verb thus: “To set or place in order of readiness, to marshall. esp. To draw up prepared for battle”; and the noun thus: “Arrangement in line or ranks, esp. martial order”). Over time, the word has bled into various other disciplines – mathematics, statistics, computing, law, etc. – on top of being co-opted for the inevitable figurative usages. This ‘bleeding’ is essential to Arrays, is part of the book’s linguistic and philosophical ‘sfumato’ (a term Heames actually uses once in the collection: “in sfumato limelight”). If the general use of sfumato might sometimes achieve the expected shades (“Borders with no guard left”) it is also often a technique of willful obnubilation, of a kind that might invite charges of vagueness or misdirection (“please cloud / my judgement”). What Heames often chooses to deploy is perhaps precisely the kind of material that he might be expected by some to elide. Consider the use of trees, for example. If Brecht’s claim that “talking about trees is almost a crime / because it avoids speaking about so many brutalities” might still be thought relevant for contemporary poetry, it is one to which Heames is demonstrably unable to subscribe: “trees like the trees of another world”; “some tree lined Valhalla of the crestfallen”; “trees locks / seas curls”; “moth tree to moth”. That which, for Brecht, is almost impossible for committed poetry, is, for Heames, clearly not impossible enough. Whether this makes the deployment of trees in his work more, or less worthy of censure is uncertain. But either way, far from being merely the pretty staffage of a painted poetry, these trees are – like most phenomena in Arrays – worked into important discursive and hypertextual knots. The first quote (enriched by the ambiguity of the word “like”) compresses poetry, ecology, psychology, gender, cosmology, politics, sociology, and social media into its few words. This perhaps seems a bold claim at face value. But at the very least, we must recognize that it is difficult to discern any ‘simple’ tree in Arrays. The word ‘tree’ is too historically charged, too laden with associations (poetic staple/bauble; life-giver; phallus; etc.) that are not – or are not necessarily – compatible with each other. As a further rebuttal to this simplicity, the trees of Arrays also act like synapses that effect pro- and analeptic communication with other, intratextual phenomena. Thus, “some tree lined Valhalla of the crestfallen” refers us forward (if we are willing to shoehorn in a contraband etymology) to “trees locks / seas curls”, which in turn refers us forward to “locks greener [parenthetically, a hypertextual link to all of the various ‘greens’ of Arrays] and more weeping”, which in turn refers us back to “use iris to melt locks”, which – on top of becoming reciprocally (and recursively) referential with “locks greener” – seems to radiate out towards all of the impossible colours of Arrays. The horrendously pleached syntax generated by the parentheses in the above sentence should go some way to conveying the dense, proliferative effects of Heames’ text. One could just as easily abstract the words “world”, “lined”, “seas”, or “moth” from the above quotes, and go off on other tangents.
Thus we are confronted not only with a kind of hyper-economy or- compression (a desire, in other words, to deploy individual words with a largesse that maximally confounds the notion of simple conveyance), but also with proliferating in-text matrices that both deepen and complicate this economy. Consider, for example, the line: “Autumn Psyche Nightingale Indolence Autumn”. Divorced from the context of literary history, these words would be, at best, merely rich; but realizing that the words need not – in any definitional or categorical sense – concatenate naturally with each other, we might have pause thereby to be startled by the very specific associative power that they exact. If we ‘know’ what Heames has done – namely, that he has compressed Keats’ classic odes by the simple juxtaposition of their titular keywords – we also know that such knowledge is not intrinsic to the words themselves (a fact that holds true even as they are deployed alongside each other). It’s an impressive card trick; and yet, however arresting it might be in the moment, Heames’ uploading of a secret, exformational cache of entire poems (via a simple list of nouns, no less) is ultimately unsatisfying. What appears at first to be a type of hyper-compression soon becomes a verbal cincture that must be unloosened. It is not enough that these nouns refer only to Keats odes. The storm that passes through Arrays (and by storm, I refer both to an actual, narrative storm, and to an unremitting and oragious attack on language) ensures that almost any given word in the book isn’t quite what it is. Writes Heames: “the shakeup could proceed / as early as this autumn”. This sentence, which, like so many in Arrays, reads like found language, becomes more than what it appears, is ionized by the context of its placement, so that “this autumn” is also that “Autumn”—i.e. Keats’ Autumn, shaken up or out by the storm.
But lest these cross-textual mappings belie the more afferent or self-contained effects of the poetry, it is perhaps worth pausing for a close reading of a single poem. The poem ‘1.1.3’ from ‘A.I. In Daylight’ is reproduced in its entirety below.
crab panther Dis regent emanation clown
flame troubadour tsar manta
sort of floats
in on the receding undertow
cadre made halcyon phoenix of my ovation
as though a mesh were
without its border sign
it is listed as vulnerable and looks pleasing
doubt is a sad playlist
said the pretend leader
when it came to rest
the sky now is peach as the tree is willow
it would be easier to hold games
Notwithstanding the pageant of monsters already encountered in Arrays, the rapid-fire stacking of “crab panther Dis regent emanation clown / flame troubadour tsar manta” seems almost too excessive, larded beyond leitmotif to the point of poetic infarction. The initial urge is to treat this monster as reflexive hyper-parody, and thus to dismiss its constituent words as a kind of protruding surplusage—i.e. as noticeable, but unimportant beyond the moment of lurid self-flagellation. But there is something going on in this weird mess of words that allows the monster to reclaim its troubled corpus beyond the parody, to feel itself as the site of its own conflict. This conflict is felt not only in the fraught conjunction of the body’s social, biological, and physical constituents, but also in the stratification that these can imply, in their historical or futural status as signifiers of power or pathos, and in the flickering grammar by which they vie to be read substantively. The crab panther is thus simultaneously a hideous monster and a conspicuously monstrous body politic.
The monster is also a harbinger of the fraught syntagms that will follow. In the second (micro-) stanza, we encounter “sort of floats”, a phrase almost calligramic in the buoyancy of its placement above the third stanza. That which “sort of floats / in on the receding undertow” also doesn’t do so, denies the water as facilitative body, hardens into a complicit noun that is “in on” the whole thing, or which simply hovers above, safely static (however tantalizing), before giving way to, or becoming subsumed in another monster: “cadre made halcyon phoenix of my ovation”. Rather than immediately dovetailing with “[…] receding undertow”, this line reads as a kind of Frankensteinian suture, a grammatical oddment that requires a certain level of readerly pressure – etymological, phonological, and morphological – before the various operations of the juxtaposition become less opaque. Most obviously, perhaps, “halcyon” at least lends the aquatic buoyancy the context of myth—although the avian surfeit of “phoenix” cancels (nixes) this elemental mooring with its associative fire. Both “halcycon” and “phoenix” are also suggestively chromatic, the former orthographically evoking ‘cyan’, the latter derived etymologically from “purple-red, crimson”. By the time we reach “ovation” – a brilliantly germane choice of word – the line has become almost untenable in its multiparous generosity, flailing around to keep hold of its offspring. “Ovation” is almost ‘aviation’, evoking by this similarity halcyon/phoenician flight and generation, tinged all the while (via “cadre”) with the suggestion of soldiers and warplanes. Soldiers – or their sublimation as athletes – are of course themselves entailed by the word “ovation”. Thus, the halcyon that would build its nest atop calm waters is threatened, trapped inside a syntagm that seems designed to thwart the simple nesting instinct, and to promote instead a kind of oviparous surfeit.
In truth, though, “syntagm” doesn’t seem quite accurate; for the matrix out of which meaning is (however dubiously) ‘held’, feels less linear, more densely patinaed than whatever might be possible purely at the level of the sentence. The word “cadre”, for example, can be linked (via its etymological roots as “four-sided thing, square”) to “mesh”. Both “cadre” and “mesh” entail, in various ways, “border” and “list”, and all four words variously imply capture or containment. But this lunge to containment is always compromised by border spillage. The word “list”, in particular, yields copious etymological spoils. That which is “listed as vulnerable” is the building that ‘leans’, ‘inclines’, or (in light of the already established oceanic setting) ‘careens’. It is ‘bordered’, or ‘taken pleasure in’. But it is also ‘listened to’. Such definitional richness affects the lines in strange ways. The phrase “looks pleasing” begins to seem almost uncannily tautologous in the context of listly ‘pleasure’, while “sad playlist”, given a super-aural definition, reveals itself as the false cognate we probably never knew existed.
It is doubtful whether any of this ‘comes to rest’ in hermeneutic fixity or inertia. The penultimate stanza parlays the dubiety, so that the “doubt” proffered by a “pretend leader” is amplified by the de-humanizing pronoun “it”. We have one more stanza to try to draw out further associations, and might perhaps start by positing “peach” and “willow” as problem colours generically similar to “halcyon” and “phoenix”. But when it comes to arriving at a definitive answer, “it would be easier to hold games” (Olympic, video, or language). That is to say, it would and it wouldn’t be easier, depending on which kind of prehensility we are taking about at any given moment of reading—if indeed we can hold anything for long enough to know exactly what it is we are talking about.
And yet, for all of this, there are rare occasions elsewhere in the book when Heames chisels out a seemingly crystalline apophthegm. “Love is an abuse of love” echoes a similar line in Rodefer’s Four Lectures—“Ordinary human love can RUIN a being for the experience of real love”. Regardless of any homage that may or may not be at play in Heames’ line, its sentiment is as succinct a crystallization of a particularly prevalent tenor of avant-garde poetic ‘love’ as any I have encountered in contemporary British poetry. Vigilant yet fragile, it cannot quite sustain itself (or can do so only vexedly under the weight of its paradox). Another string of text makes similarly tantalizing apophthegmatic demands: “love, as in politics / before the city / gets made there”. The grammar here appears tensile and generative, but is in fact isotropically weak. There can be no restitution – for love, for politics, or for the city – however vividly the nouns might emerge from the lines, or however ardently they might suggest that they are imbricated, temporally moored, made/decided/perfected/instantiated. The words thus run a kind of gamut of semantic clarity and nonsense, comprising at first a trenchant apophthegm, which then fractures under scrutiny into rich equivocation, and finally resolves into a carefully crafted series of conjunctive repeals.
This is a poetry, then, not only of what gets included (trees, for example), but also of what gets excluded or denied. Specifically, it is a poetry that seems to wonder at the viability of certain strands of ‘left’ thought in contemporary avant-garde poetics. The final couplet of the collection reads: “Left poetry to lift weights / Air between wings again”. Here, Heames’ fondness for puns (prevalent throughout Arrays) can be seen at its most strikingly polysemic. “Left poetry to lift weights” works simultaneously as a defection, a commitment, an admonishment, a promise, and an arrogation, while “Air between wings again” is both a re-subliming into a now long-embargoed poetic flight, and an attempt to purify the stagnant – or perhaps even the noxious – odour that has built up under the complacency of certain contemporary pretensions. Brilliant work, we might think, and hardly open to castigation simply because it works an array of volte-faces into its more dutiful moments. And yet, at a time when a great number of the poets in Heames’ broader milieu often invoke direct targets and rhetorics – and do so in ways that suggest figurative mobilization, deployment, and attack – Heames stands out in his preference for a more iridescent, or better yet, a more spectral semantic palette. Granted, there are tissues of what might be called a more direct poetic idiolect in Arrays (“teens woke from a heavily policed summer”; “caught up in the rhetoric of the Games”; etc.), but the book never comes close to positioning Heames alongside the more brazen of his contemporaries. Indeed, his question “Why should I even mention / These politicians” might almost seem incendiary, an unwelcome fit of malcontent. But certainly, it provides an invigorating challenge to the notion that any committed poetics must treat certain material as essential, just as it treats other material as verboten. If not a directly political text, Arrays is nonetheless a fascinating and challenging wunderkammer, a collection of monsters from the imagined intersections of politics, technology, war, video games, the internet, social media, dreams, and nature, and one that arouses in us a suspicion that simply reading these words (or simply reading these words [or simply reading these words]) will risk eliding too much. We are thus kindled with a desire to read also what has been painted over or scratched out. An apparent piece of found language (which we might do well to imagine as having been both deployed verbatim and painted over) brings us quickly to the point: “Some names have been changed”. Indeed they have.
Colin Lee Marshall
Diary of reading Carol Watts
by Michael Peverett
16th May 2016
This pamphlet When blue light falls (published by Peter Hughes' Oystercatcher Press in 2008) is the first tranche of a longer sequence.
What is here is sixteen poems. The first eight (even-numbered, 2 - 16) are like a very slow meditation on blue light, particularly the blue of the sky. The second eight (odd-numbered, 1 - 15) are formally different, the words arranged in very short couplets; the vocabulary and images become less spare ("Ukrainian", "cottonwoods", "lias") and the topics proliferate. But behind this second half, and connecting it in some way to the concerns of the first, there's a distinct diurnal sequence from early morning through to night.
This second part is sometimes agitated, in fact it's the seriousness of the thought that compels attention throughout. From the splintered vocabulary come ideas of glass-blowing and television. Some idea of extinction too, as in this poem, from the first half of the sequence:
yet it is uncertain
if there is this habitat of blue
to speak of
turning its bleak constancy
to what might shine
at my lived
a grip loosened into it
might fall or
23rd May 2016
It's a basic rule of experimental poetry that you don't write about birds. When this rule is ignored, as in Allen Fisher's chapbook Birds, it causes furrowed brows. The resultant poetry tends to be neglected. And on the whole I've neglected Occasionals (Reality Street, 2011), a whole generous book of poetry about mainly quotidian nature, including plenty of bird action among other things. But increasing interest in When Blue Light Falls made me pick this off the shelves (out of a cardboard box, in fact) and begin to think about it again. In this bigger book too I find a commitment that stops me in my tracks. I don't quite know what the commitment is to. I don't even know if the poet does, altogether. She has sort of dived without measuring the depth.
Only superficials today. The poems are dated like a diary of a year, so here's some appropriately May/June-dated extracts. The parenthesized titles are mine.
Tell me it returns, the soughing. Of
deliberate rivulets, the construction
of sluices . Sinking, the heaviest stones,
rolling. The change of prospecting a.
Gold rush, do they glint. In deposits,
rolling, slower at the base. A small girl
trips along, her mind would be elsewhere.
The drains are overcome, the hill washes.
Where culverts might once, now it is.
Matter. For survival, the overcoming
of life wells from. Below....
Flight, is brown. Heaviness rising, as
much commotion as gesture....
.... Fledging is
however. The point where the brink. Is.
Teetering, with much beating. Of wings,
clinging on with delicate. Claws, to any
available nest. It beetles over quite
vertiginously. Will it fall. Has turned into
a swallow, such luck. She said, and not
that heavier. Deal, rib cage consternation.
(Children playing in sand dunes:)
sharpness of. Green whipgrass, cuts.
A possibility, and children charge.
Up, piling down local mesas, limbs
combusting thoughtlessly, flung
faster. Than the sand allows, they
find themselves abrupt. As matter is.
Cooling, in the darkness of. Dug down.
Out of the wind, the cliff is matted.
Heat, the breeze has not caught on.
8th July 2016
Charles Alexander's useful review of Occasionals:
Today is the 8th of July. Consultation of Occasionals shows that it has two poems for this day, like a Brahms pairing.
The first poem (springcuts XIII)is preoccupied with darkness on a bright day. Some are out in the sun, gardening ("Took off his shirt to grow a bed.").
Yet. "When voices are dark from open windows"... "the dull kick of resignation".
Coming into focus:
All you have to say to me. A woman
is speaking, where pain is. Domestic
it comes in shades of eavesdropped.
Lack, of light.
The second poem (springcuts XIV) isn't without pain, either. In the first half, we circulate memories of things lost, maybe only imagined. (Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars" in the offing.)
In the second half, the poem focusses on a childhood memory. Of the gang throwing stones at an unpopular girl. The poet comments:
Loyalties, I was silent but. This was virtue,
to stick by in a stoning.
And she notices that the cruel girl seemed brave when stoned, with a scar on her lips.
18th November, 2016
|Young elm, 15th November 2016|
Something of an evacuation of light. Persists,
it knows the ending of day. Approaches, it turns
towards heat as love might. Deep in the earth,
rotting gently, sweat. Of leaves, skin's sudden
exposure. Plane trees, in intentional mottling
effect, sun spots. Ruching....
.... Trees cascade, rust hoards, are coin.
.... It is the way woodsmoke brings
life forward, strong as leather, the way yesterday
always joins. With. Scenting tomorrow, its yellow
These are extracts from one of the two poems for October 31st. All of the poems in Occasionals are 28 lines long. The thought in each poem is fantastically interlaced, so that quoting a few favourite lines, like here, feels like a disjointing: what's quoted is good, yet I'm aware the meaning of the goodness is largely lost.
That poem was, somewhat, about leaf-fall, but also about love, injustice, SAD, and its contrary... There's also rain in the air, and the watery element musters in larger forces in the next poem, XVII (24th November - the last poem in autumncuts). Indeed, now it's beginning to flood.
.... Looking at his feet, they already push.
Through the flow, the child stamps.
And it's getting dark, no sun but "possible light". Earlier in the poem,
.... Before an Atlantic
storm, with hours of quiet rising. Weakness,
in light, lays down to rest. The falling out
Later remembered in the resting birds' "fatigue of alarm", this weakness, being necessary and to come, is nevertheless the season's potential. From a certain point of view this weakness is, will be, strength. But that's rather a drastic reconfiguration of values. How do we, or the complaining cat outside the window, negotiate it?
POEM IN THE MANNER OF CAROL WATTS' OCCASIONALS
Yet light reverses sameness, the word. Latte is a witness-board
around the cardboard hedge, the corrugated leaf. And not.
To drink deeply, but. The cone is acquisition, yet equation.
For the rain soaks also along, and can wade on pegs.
To sup laterally, the going down of. These golden fish,
for the heron to stick at. Because Nationwide they say baulked
at the hydrant, or the tap stuck, shallowing
the serrate dorsals. But more rain overnight.
To clear this suspicion of a dwelling. On the
motions of the, several traffics, following
each other out. As rinsed of old use. How she said as we
cleared, they say in the footings to the
medical centre, and rehearsals from it.
A bus-shelter draws. A flare of sun
in the plastic windows comes down. The street, as if.
So they do. The leaves wink and in the afternoon, morning,
for noon never steeples. The naked imaginings of
summer hill-forts, move in the occluded
more freely perhaps. There is a Morkerseende.
Whose space we frolic. And the large windows
open as for fitness, should a child stray in it
buoyed by reassurance. Or the continuance of home eggs.
As if the timetables came to know upon the coops.
Mostly, it is. But how do we know where to go without.
These elders, turning with a light upon the stairs. Into
a space so surrounding. Out into, as we say, the closing
of home behind, whose waiting was known so long
it's still experienced lost. Not known as a base camp.
|Elm leaves, 15th November 2016|
[I'm no expert on elms but if I had to make a guess I'd say this is one of the Ulmus minor x glabra hybrids, perhaps a Huntingdon Elm: a lattice pattern on the bark (below) is said to distinguish Huntingdon Elm from Dutch Elm. At any rate, it definitely isn't U. procera (English Elm) or U. glabra (Wych-elm).]
14th March 2017
cockle shell black-limbed slacks off
gelatinous red ghosts gouted
by the tide are sealed the salt air
there must be a key
in the writing of barnacles where fibonacci
makes sense of the spread of bladderwrack
at the height of spring tide blackened
even in meagre sun wrack taken as a word
in a wider universe not portent
but principle of addition or in a briny manual
discovered A Dreadful Alarm upon the Clouds
of Heaven, Mix'd with Love shared
with crows whipgrass the barking of gulls
the busying sands and fingering waters
readying to come again to keep oraginous order
(from Wrack, poem 1)
the shell in your palm a child's milk tooth
abandoning infancy to the bulls and bears
a nocturnal calculus not yet established
in the fold of what is inanimate and lasting
in us but found in a line on the sand
fetched up by the night tide I shall treasure it
always tracking a parallel economy
shells etched with lines frequencies lit
like the bloom of flesh ringed and grained [...]
(from Wrack, poem 4)
Coming to this book from Occasionals (2011) , I might have anticipated this brilliance of nature writing and this flow of new discoveries connecting nature, economy and identity.
But Wrack (2007) is not just about wandering along the shoreline. It's also a salty smuggling, merchandising and wrecking book based on an actual Devon wreck of 1772 and a single woman passenger.
Which makes it a marvellous companion to the other book I'm in the middle of right now, J. Meade Falkner's 1898 adventure yarn Moonfleet, set in Dorset in 1757-ish. (Both books being, besides the related subject-matter, very inventive bits of language ...)
And as Carol's book co-opts a touch of the boy's-book excitement of the seafaring yarn in order to pursue a meditation about women's experience in the western urban capitalist world of today, well there's a bit of a parallel there with another poem I've spent a lot of time with in the past year, Lisa Samuels' south sea island adventure Tomorrowland (2009)...
OK, that's the second mention of whipgrass, time to look it up. Apparently it's a local name, not very well attested on the internet, for a dune grass, maybe Sand Couch or Marram or Lyme Grass or all three.
|Cormorant (Phalcrocorax carbo)|
[Image source: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/c/cormorant/]
When I was a landlocked child in Kent, I thought of the cormorant as a rather exotic creature confined to seafaring yarns, or perhaps seen just once, on that caravan holiday to cream-tea country.
In those days Phalocrocorax carbo bred on western coasts in the spring. Outside of the breeding season they sometimes ventured inland, for example they could be seen in winter in parts of the west midlands and northern Ireland. But not elsewhere.
Things have changed. Fifty years later, the whole of the British Isles (apart from high Scottish mountains) play host to the winter cormorants. For example here in Swindon, a long way from any coast. Whether it's because our inland waterways are so much cleaner and they once more "teem with fish" (Bede's description of England) ; or because we've now ruined the sea-fishing ; or because inland winters are now as mild as coastal ones used to be ; I don't know - but I suspect it's the first reason, given the similarly dramatic increase in herons and egrets over the same period. Cormorants being superb fishers, this has rattled the angling community, who want the freshwater fish stocks all to themselves.
The cormorants fly around in small flocks of half-a-dozen birds, and they spend a lot of time perching companionably but clumsily in the bare crowns of trees above the water -- I mistook them for crows or rooks until I looked more closely. (Webbed feet are not really much good for perching.)
Last Sunday I watched a cormorant fishing on a calm stretch of the River Avon in Bath. (I've also noticed them at Midford, south of Bath.) Its body sat very low in the water, reminding me of the great northern divers that I used to watch in Sweden. And now the cormorant seemed graceful, not clumsy. The long snaky head and bill were extremely impressive. So were the long dives. I held my own breath, wondering that it could stay down so long. Then I saw it again, twenty yards away.
NOW THE PINK STRIPES
now the pink stripes, the books, the clothes you wear
in the eaves of houses I ask whose land it is
an orange the size of a melon rolling slowly across the field
where I sit at the centre in an upright coffin of five panes of
there is no air the sun shines
and under me you've planted a quick growing cactus
(Tom Raworth, who died on 8 February, 2017.)
S. J. Fowler
The PennSound treasury of Raworth readings and recordings:
Recommended: Amazon's Look Inside! the As When Carcanet Selection chosen by Miles Champion; includes most of a biographical introduction and some of the well-known early poems:
Recommended: Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, and Michael S. Hennessey talk with Al Filreis about Tom Raworth's poem "Errory"
|Collage by Tom Raworth|
[Image source: http://www.tomraworth.com/pictures.html . It's in the William Fuller Collection, Chicago.]
NEGATIVE SPACE INTACT
Door behind the chair
coat behind the door
Fiery smoke obscures
a single burning object
Parched flowers and
Neither lives long
without the other
Stationary ceiling fan
from LEGEND OF THE WINTER TRIP (XII)
Edge into the winter room
The room is sharpening its
Fracture zone open to the sky
Comb straight the slipping paths
The private seed belongs
Plum cherry pear and turquoise
Missing stem leave leaf black
Buildings prompt the weather
Ignite span tunnels rub space
Soaring mortal inaudible cracks
The unremembered body
The corpse’s pale water fingers
from LEGEND OF THE WINTER TRIP (VII)
Ride afraid this surface
Over grass and glass
Boat awake straightening
The pond faster tightening
Infection grabbing blue
At this stage gestures
Push wondering rural dreams
Skin covered in pain
Once fire and firewall
Yellow foliage conversations
Hooked the environment
Hissing public signals blank
Window afraid of sliding sticking
Cracking proud the lines of time
from LEGEND OF THE WINTER TRIP (XIII)
Dusty in between losing
Clean guidelines that shape
And contorted hostility
The powerful human collapse
In the waiting room
Hard and suffocating
On weekends unnatural
Chests alive and open-palmed
Arrested and clapped
This phantom red dress
This underwater sleeplessness
On cue locate crowds the ship
from LEGEND OF THE WINTER TRIP (X)
Crimes against the path
We are above all everything
Unknown to governments
Pearly electric states
Don’t call yourself that
Take your stones and your shoes
Your distant village
Arriving desolate accompany
The dancers Senegal’s nerves
Faithful unsettling ribs
from LEGEND OF THE WINTER TRIP (XIV)
A quiet born in displacement
A wealth of names of threads
Of printed history
Children vanish step by hinge
Liquid threshold front
Lines shifting haggle
Amid buzz afternoon crack
Determining an edge
Ribbed with vainly meager lip
Stains shouldering the weight
Hunched appeal broken
Smoke loose and contagious
Will trade a near shelter
For stars lost parents recognize