‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ - Report by Calum Gardner

‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ - symposium at Goldsmiths, London, 18th March 2017

The ‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ Symposium at the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought at Goldsmiths, University of London, organised by Daniel Katz and Benjamin Noys, brought together four speakers on the relationship between poetry and ‘neurosis’. Opening remarks by Daniel Katz drew attention to that fact that ‘neurosis’ is an ill-defined term, taking in a range of psychological states including anxiety, depression, phobia, panic, and addiction. But rather than seeing neurosis as a problem which, in the progress of things, would be solved, it was pointed out that the practice of poetry seems to be founded in states relating to neurotic sensitivities and the resultant ‘weakness’ of the position from which one speaks.


For this reason, the first talk was given by Emma Mason on ‘Critical Vulnerability and the Weakness of Poetry’, and elaborated the notion of ‘weak thinking’. Many of us have a hostile reaction to being accused of weakness, but Mason articulated the idea of ‘weak thinking’ as a critical vulnerability which might allow us to agree with those we disagree with most. Explicitly linking the idea to Brexit, Trump, and the recent far-right resurgence, Mason also positioned the work as part of both a lesbian and a Christian analysis of power.

But while very early Christianity can make a claim to speak for the weak, most institutional forms of the religion do so now from a combination of entitlement not to question and a fear of questioning. In this analysis, Mason drew on the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo and the notion of weak theology. Etymologically, to debate is to fight. To the strong, the weak thinker is the outsider, and weak forms of expression appear irrelevant. However, a critical vulnerability or weak thought might be able to disperse power. Vattimo argues for a rethinking of Catholicism, and for the support of fragility, of what makes the subject. He takes the idea of Verwindung from Heidegger, a kind of progression which, rather than getting stronger, becomes a lightening or weakening of what has gone before. The death of Jesus is the death of God – the Nietzchean moment is not a failure but the origin of the religion. The secularised position Christianity now occupies was always the point, and we have reached a point of kenosis or emptiness. ‘God’ empties Itself out to be known, twisting away from the strong terms of God to the weak terms of kenosis.

This is a charitable mode and, as Vattimo writes in his essay ‘The Shattering of the Poetic Word’, a poetic one.[i] Mason thus capped the talk with a ‘kenostic’ reading of Anne Carson’s ‘Gnosticism I’, but made an impassioned case in doing so that instrumental teaching of literature, philosophy, and any subject in the university often makes this impossible; the weakest thinkings are under the greatest attack.[ii] Questions revealed an audience interest in weak thinking, Mason explained that there is always a risk of weak thinking becoming strong, and that this remains a conversation, and said that weak thinkers are always in conversation with others and their environment and are thus never alone. Weakness can make it feel that way, but vulnerability brings one out of it.


Daniel Katz followed, with a talk entitled ‘Modernist Neurosis, Impersonal Politics’, on the political potential of the moments of loss and remainder. Neurosis is the need to leave a trace of one’s own, or of oneself, but does not thus valorise a poetry centred on self-expression; the lyric ‘I’ should be empty centre around which neurotic poetry would turn. As Katz says, ‘high heroic modernism militates against neurosis’, whereas the core of confessional poetry turns it into something normal to be managed.

This is what Lowell and Berryman do, anyway; a poem like Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’, he argues, is neurotic in the ‘wrong way’ for either modernism or confessionalism, in that it assumes ‘incompatible affective positions’ without making an attempt to reconcile them. Thinking neurotically (perhaps weakly) would let us consider a social order which relies neither on plenty nor on scarcity, the tension between which, and the affective relations between them, lie at the base of ideological struggles, as we were to see in Noys discussion of Diane di Prima in the afternoon.

Paradoxically, Katz observed, imagism removes the contour and flow of things but has often been codified by reference to the work of poets who are feminine or queer, which made increasing sense as the link between the female and queer neurosis was explored further in Natalia Cecire’s paper in the afternoon. Katz’ paper discussed Robert Duncan’s H. D. Book, which in its ‘daybook’ form models the practice of seriality, by means of which a writer can avoid the effect of ego bound up in a ‘final’ production.[iii]

Neurosis, Katz suggested, is the true ruin beneath modernism; Pound and Eliot cover it up, but it can be made sense of with a the decadent, ‘hysterical’, non-phallocentric style that H. D. opens up for Duncan. The talk, and therefore the morning, concluded with a neat aphorism: ‘if the subject of cognition cannot be the subject of politics, then the subject of neurosis must be’. This line between cognition and politics was a bolder one than I had so far dared to draw but, as the afternoon’s events revealed, neurosis was to be a more political tool than the title of the symposium might have led us to believe.


Natalia Cecire spoke after lunch about ‘The Cell, the Shell, and the Death Drive: Marianne Moore and the Open Secrets of the Natural World’. Cecire began with a close reference to D. A. Miller’s study Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style, where it is argued that Anne Elliot, Austen’s only real spinster heroine, is the site of her loss of ‘godlike’ detachment.[iv] Moore speaks of the ‘criminal ingenuity’ required to avoid getting married. A colour-coded slide demonstrated the nested grammatical forms of Moore’s poem ‘The Pangolin’, nouns wrapped in the shell-layers of modifiers.[v] Cecire related this to what Roland Barthes calls the writer’s ‘secret mythology’, style (and particularly modern[ist] style) as a form of ‘solitude’.[vi]

The ‘shell style’, Moore’s version of Austen’s ‘secret style’, is defined by Cecire in terms of Sianne Ngai’s ‘irritation’.[vii] The ‘labile and contested surfaces’ of such texts are embodied in the interactions of hard shells and variably vulnerable cells. To those of us familiar with Cecire’s illuminating work on Moore and precision, it seemed a natural move for her to discuss the multiple Moores of criticism: there is the anal-retentive, ‘syllabic’ Moore and the (often considered overly) dominant, assertive one. The reason Austen’s style is queer, in Miller’s analysis, is that the spinster functions as a ‘relay’ through which gay men can access femininity through a shared relation to marriage and reproduction (this is part of the connection between Duncan and H. D., although H. D. is not [quite] a ‘spinster’). The shell surfaces in Moore are charged with feeling as well as meaning because the shell serves as a kind of closet for Moore, and not just because of their hardened, enclosing form.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, Cecire explained, cells were thought to be miniature models for higher order functions, including psychic ones, and exposure to stimulus made them develop hard outer surfaces. At Bryn Mawr College, Moore was taught in a department which had been home to some of the pioneering cell biologists of the age, but as Cecire says, contrary to what some writing on the subject implies, Moore ‘did O.K. but not great in biology’; its real importance for the poet was to offer a means of socialising apart from her unusually close family life and to explore her sexuality, a place where she met and formed intense relationships with other women. It was possible to draw a link, not dependent on this biographical context but certainly more potent in it, between cellular biology and both spinster and queer identity.

So is the ‘preciseMoore writing from the position of a pangolin or a lab technician? Perhaps the most exciting part of the talk was Cecire’s projection of a meeting-place between queer studies and natural history. Cells can be neurotic: once they are susceptible, penetrable, and able to be touched, they can also be killed. This is the source of the shell style, which is both protective and probing; I was reminded of this paper reading Anne Boyer’s essay ‘No’: ‘The no of a poet is so often a yes in the carapace of no.’ The shell style is this kind of ‘carapace’.

The talk, which had allowed us to linger in the relative comfort of a Bryn Mawr biology classroom, finished by crashing into the present, and looked at the relevance of neurotic sensitivities to the way the media has responded to the present US presidency and its barely disguised disinformation.  The ‘epidemic of liberals “bringing fact-checkers to a knife-fight”’, says Cecire, is the product of a misrecognition of the ways in which the administration makes itself invulnerable to analysis and critique. Reading through Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s paranoid reading, it is suggested that sometimes it is neurotic reading, not fact-checking, that is best able to combat structural inequalities and the way they reproduced by the far right.


Benjamin Noys concluded with a paper entitled ‘The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters and Anti-Neurosis’ – the discussion of anti-neurosis a self-admittedly neurotic move at the neurosis symposium. Noys’ analysis positioned the Revolutionary Letters as poems of the revolution, and of a revolution which did not happen (or hasn’t yet happened). They are poems of anti-neurosis and heavy optimisms. Indeed, di Prima’s is a revolution with no place for neurosis: it is an im-personal revolution, a smash-the-separation, natural revolution.

In many ways, the activities of May 1968 seemed to bring to life (or to be about to bring to life) some of the wishes and desires expressed in the Revolutionary Letters. However, Di Prima’s revolution sees the irruptions of ’68, the demonstrations, occupations, and riots, as merely the ‘ghost dance’ – the spiritual rehearsal – for the true revolution. The response to this dance is just as crucial: to be ‘surprised when the magic works’ undermines the potential revolutionary power of such activities. This is the politics of ‘hard optimism’, to hope against possibility and take it in your stride when the demands are fulfilled. But they must also be the right demands, and di Prima has clear ideas about what those are, as hard optimism is a rejection of other optimisms; Noys drew attention to di Prima’s railing against sci-fi utopias in Letter 19. ‘you are still / the enemy [if] you have chosen / to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some / science fiction Utopia’.[viii]

For a talk from one who made the disclaimer that he was not a ‘professional reader of poetry’ (we wonder, in this context, who would want to be?), the discussion was extremely conscious of the forms, traditions, and conventions in which di Prima was writing and which have emerged after her, refusing to collapse the Revolutionary Letters, as other readings have done, into either emotional overflow or instruction manual, and yet also acknowledging the place of both of those functions in anti-neurotic practice.


The final moments of the day saw three of the panelists (Mason had had to leave early) take questions and attempt to summarise a varied and stimulating set of discussions. In the context of the politics – from presidential to revolutionary – that the papers had raised, Katz said that even a massive social change will not solve our neuroses; ‘we’ll still be unhappy, but we might as well be unhappy in a just society’. What was most stark about the meeting point of what are often, even or perhaps especially in academic analysis, taken to be phenomena experienced by individuals, was how political and indeed revolutionary it positioned itself as being. Ultimately, the symposium was a sketch for a poetic-critical-political analysis to be achieved by attention to the lessons and practices of neurosis.


[i] Vattimo, ‘The Shattering of the Poetic Word’ in The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, trans. by Jon R. Snyder (Cambridge: Polity, 1991).
[ii] Carson, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (New York: Vintage, 2006).
[iii] Duncan, The H. D. Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011 [1984]).
[iv] Miller, Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 31.
[v] Moore, Complete Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
[vi] Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967 [1953]), pp. 10-11.
[vii] Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
[viii] Diane Di Prima, The Revolutionary Letters, 3rd edn (San Francisco: City Lights, 1974), p. 21.

A Poem by David Grundy

Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone
I.m. John Ashbery

Rain falls to halt, fails
to the clock he walks and passes
disappearing into tokens
distributed with care

Just then thinking
of the joy I never knew
nor anyone;

Repeating this knowledge
till the implements fail and some new manner
manifests, I thought of distance
and the lonesome miles the rain calls quotations
calls into question
when it’s over, when it’s faded:

Joy and antagonism,
a dream clear as representation

Till the bulb breaks
the light remains
even at the furthest extent
of shadow extending

One sentence pursues its logic to the next
echo on echo set up to loop
pulling bricks of fact
a thick description
hidden in disappearing truths

Last night’s laughs they matter
what matter I forget
seized by the urge to record each passing
greatly changed, if not visibly so
in dark light developing blurred
developing engraved in grave concern

All we know is that we are a little early
and too late to say any better
taking part in parting
the silence after the last crescendo
awash still with the memory of sound.

Pause at the door
for the whispers to reach you,
and wait, if you must
for the last seat set at the feast

Gently covering the dust
where once the table stood
The actors forget their lines
Forget to depart
with adequate balance

stay flickering shape

I/ II by Danny Hayward

by David Grundy

In its publication by Shit Valley, near hot-off-the-press as I write, Danny Hayward’s latest poem, eventually entitled ‘I/II’, is a singular textual object. Printed on something like thick tracing paper, with dense artwork by Sophie Carapetian which resembles something between the interior of a body and impacted layers of earth, it looks like nothing else I can think of recently. Some initial squinting is required at small, bold-face point 10 text. The columns of text from the next page showing through on the previous, create a kind of visual analogue for the recurrent distortions and returns of figures that motor the poem’s quasi-narrative momentum through the real dystopian cityscape of contemporary London. But the eye soon adjusts to follow the poem’s singular movement, unable to move away from the page until the end. I had a similar experience proofing Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction a few years ago.[i] Like that book, this poem will not let up, nor let its reader let up: interruption would break the spell, however much the pacing of reading might be one of care and attention to detail. It’s that singular combination, of near-frenetic pace and extremely careful figuration of detail, even, or in fact most especially, in cases of apparent crassness or exaggeration, that so characterises his work. There is a change from Pragmatic Sanction though, in the way that detail operates – as Hayward noted in email correspondence earlier in the year, I/II strives for something of a broader canvas, still through a kind of warped, glitched computer game, or game-show, but with the strokes of the more transparent political poetry of the past clearly present: namely, the 1970s work of Marxist-era Amiri Baraka, full of vituperative denunciation, and a reckoning with the balance of revolutionary despair and revolutionary hope.

It’s worth noting at this stage that my impressions of the poem are as much from Hayward’s reading at the May Day Rooms in London earlier this year (when the poem was still titled ‘Feeling Rich’), as they are from the published version. Shoeless feet in coloured socks twitching on a plastic yoga mat, Hayward read quickly and with maximum directional force, even as that direction splintered off into asides, detours and circumnavigations, always returning to the stringency of a particular course from which it would not ultimately stray. The reading took perhaps half an hour, perhaps longer, and it was a transformative experience really, as have been several of Hayward’s readings over the years – in particular one at Wild’s Rents in London back in 2015, where he presented Pragmatic Sanction for the first time. These are fierce and believable events, which Hayward participates in with total commitment and unflinching, unsentimental generosity. There’s a real sense that the poems are written for and to a particular group, however loose-knit that might be; though they are of course available to a much broader audience, they also serve a specific function that coheres around smaller units. This might be true of much small-press activity, and the poems it serves, around the scenes in which Hayward’s work appears, but there’s something particularly true about his own poetry in this regard.

It’s because of this that a new poem by Hayward is an event, something to show us where we are and how we might begin to think about that. I don’t mean this so much in terms of influence – though there are traces of the particular contorted energies of logic and irony in his poems in a few things written recently, there aren’t many people who write in quite the same way that he does – but in terms of a singular example that provides inspiration to go on. We need these kinds of things.

What is the poem about? This is not the facile question it might be in relation to certain other kinds of poetry, for I/II feels very specific in its engagement with issues of political activism – particularly anti-fascist organising around the LD50 campaign, as well as the London mayoral election and debates around the role of electoral politics in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise as leader of the Labour party.[ii] But it’s not just a manifesto of the moment, nor simply an “issue-based” argument, and the question of feeling is important here. There’s a new emotional tenor, previously absent, or nowhere near as present, in Hayward’s oeuvre preceding. It’s important to stress that this is, in fact, a very moving poem – moving in a way that in no sense dispenses with the tools of irony, anger, sarcasm and satire that Hayward has made his own territory, and does like almost no one else, but with a new tenor that tempers, and in doing so, in fact strengthens these.

The poem is self-conscious about this. Its title is a reduction of one of its central recurring tropes, in which “Feeling I” and “Feeling II”, via various play with the SMS substitution of letters for numbers and numbers for letters, recur as horizons of possible identification and motivation to political action. The mangled complexity this process involves reaches apex around half-way through the poem:

too much 4 one mind 2 Feel
in two minds about [...]
u want 2b wearing a Mask 2 Survive 4 what
reason but 2 become 2real 4 u
to bear 2b unmasked as 4 the
benefit of Feeling I wearing a
Mask 4 Survive 2 Feelings I
2 Feel and 4 what reason unmasked
as Feeling II involved in a shadow
II deep 2 survive

Throughout, the “I” and “II” of the poem’s title become both the rhythmic lock-step of predictable repetition (1-2, 1-2, 1-2) and a kind of prog-rock or black metal double album. These are also parallels to the false choice which the poem insistently names, between the two mayoral candidates, “Mayor I” and “Mayor II”, part of the poem’s recurring cast of stick figures, shadows of former selves, headless chickens, wounded pigs, and politicians.

How’s that for a plot point. Two mayors
you need to find: one who will solve everything and the other
to kill.

Here, the liberal discourse of ‘nuance’ is the real crassness which evades political commitment, even in the face of the rise of Fascism. All it can do is “announce / something nuanced about mayors etc”. Feeling turns to melancholic sentiment, “the / corridor of sentimental outrage” filled with “middle-/class disembodied screams”, “the shadow of the shadow of its former self” repeating endlessly in “a leaden scene of generative ambiguity”. These screams stretched thin, covering over the real screams of those dying and excluded by the processes the middle-class can’t quite bring themselves to face, are tinny, cartoon-like – what Amiri Baraka in 1978 called “death peeped in a teeny voice”.[iii] As Hayward writes, they “can’t do perversity or even gasp for it [...] another exercise in sentimentalism.” Nor is the target simply passive acceptance – as, indeed such passive acceptance is never simply passive. Rather, it is symptomatic of an attitude whose melancholic attachment to fading national ideals renders it all the more frightening in its latent (and not so latent) capacity for violence:

a comic haze of UV shadows
as in abstract art, class violence and national sentimentalism
in that order.

Here, the “cold ambiguity of streets stubbed out by generative ambiguity / seems like a blip lit unfaithfully by nihilism”, a “pretence of being overwhelmed”. “Welcome middle class”, the poem proclaims, then declares this class sector to be “also a stick figure / stylised as the reality of defiance / while a sheen of defiance settles on it” –  “the choir of parishioners trans-/fixed by their watercolour stab wounds”, flailing, full of empty talk, in “the downsize risk of an abstract restlessness”.

 All these variants on the false choice between two bad options – in other words, the false structure of equivalence, the illusion of choice promised in contemporary liberal democracy – find their visual analogue in the transparency of pages, which allows the poem to be read simultaneously in its present unfolding, and with simultaneous glimpses of the immediately preceding past and proceeding future. But aside from this, the question of feeling manifests also in a marked emotional tenor, most obviously when the poet talks about directing feelings of violence and cruelty onto themselves.

I think that in the ease of imagining cruelty on any scale
and in the therapeutic restitution
of the self to which imagined cruelty leads
I can begin to understand
how much more beautiful it is to want to smash my own head in.
From damage reflected into its own origin, the struggle to love others radiates
as it might from the torn up roots of an instinct once
opposed to fascism.

It should be stressed that this is not a moment of ‘confession’, the finally revealed ‘human face’ behind the political satirist, of a piece with the poem’s play with the wearing of masks, the drawing of faces (“with two dots for eyes”) and the like. For the idea that this numinous quality of feeling might be enough in itself is one that the poem remains utterly opposed to. Such an index of apparent tenderness, care, concern (or, more realistically, the drip-feed of ‘sympathy’) in no way carries through to the actual political commitments such tenderness or care would demand (i.e. at the very least, the practical application of the concept of solidarity). Indeed, it is a process which the poem, with its masks and shadows and stick figures, perhaps even hates: the simultaneous denial and appropriation of sentiment over feeling.

So the poem is moving both in the sense of its narrative and prosodic momentum and in terms of emotion. It also moves through a particular space. Indeed, what’s striking here is the locality of the writing, its geographically-specific references to the cityscapes of London about a million miles from the melancholy mysticism of the latest Iain Sinclair tourist guide.[iv] In contrast to the movement of compressed expansion, the time-travelling wormholes of Pragmatic Sanction, I / II moves through and in the city as the space of the diurnally monstrous, travelling

past street corners, each more grey and imprecise than the last,
each more general and symbolic than the last, past the drunks frozen
to death and the neighbours your barely speak to, each more
the essence of a ferocious contraction in reality than the last.

Such contractions, both hopelessly generalised and, in the death and suffering they register, cruelly particular, further include: “the immigration advice centre with its files / strewn everywhere”, “closed GPs”, “the huge gasometers and [...] the rotten shells of the real estate brokers”, “the unenduring day care centre [...] the right-wing sports bars, the meaningless dull light”, “nightclubs in which bombs go on and off wordlessly”, “the / shuttered restaurants and the / literal art galleries”, “the sheets of passive mist / rolling over the pawn shops and antique dealers, / each thinner and more figurative than the last”, and “the beige locking mechanism of estate agents and construction sites: / blisters rising from the unchangeable hierarchy of any surface”. Through all of this, we sense “the political and moral atmosphere / of a net closing”: a labyrinth, a trap.

The poem traverses the pleasures of false or deluded hope and the pleasures of despair, the demands of action, at times threatening to burst through its own structure, its stuttering narrative never quite beginning, irregular line lengths stuck like glue to the left margin, the jagged edge of the broken glass of Pragmatic Sanction’s prose blocks. For Hayward, the movement the poem describes risked, at the moment of its composition, seeming “unreal or gestural or just flatly sarcastic: ‘moving’ like a hammer going up and down on a nail”. The poem had been planned according to a grammatical organising grid which would surge towards a final goal. Yet, in the process of composition, the lines would fold back in themselves or retract, recurring turns of speech such as the headless chicken or the shadow of the shadow of its former self folding back in on themselves, simultaneously multiplying and remaining the same. Hayward had sought the aspirations towards which Baraka’s Marxist-Leninist poems of the 1970s frequently build towards, particularly in performance: the sense that calls for Revolution are not merely appeals to something distant and far-off, but an imminent and imminently realisable horizon, in the context of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements around the globe, which allows each poem to move quite specifically, free of abstraction, towards the incantatory culmination of frenzy, expectation and resolution.

2017 is a very different political moment. Without this possibility, the imminent horizon cannot be drawn on as a concluding gesture, the end-point of a process of cumulative building enacted in each new poem, both beyond but animating the poem which seeks to urge it into being. What else can be built to? What can repetition build towards, how can it reveal itself as dialectically connected – interconnected global struggles against capital in the spirit of international socialism – how can it stop itself becoming a merely quantitative list with nothing to build to, papered over by a false, substitutive horizon which cannot, in the poem, be desired into being, does not possess the context to do so – and, because it must speak with immediacy to the present moment, cannot afford to do so.

One might suggest that, instead of what Hayward calls the “single vocable promise or hope” to which Baraka’s 1970s work surges, the poem moves towards defence (on which Hayward has written in a fine essay on Baraka, Nat Raha and Xu Lizhi in one of the magazines produced for the London-based reading series No Money, with which he was crucially involved).[v] The reader is constantly told to move “past” local details – figures and locations which are rendered into deliberate cartoonishness, headless chickens, stick figures, local shops, phantasms, dressed as this or as that or as each other; performers, drawings, ghosts. The poem itself names this at one point as the “cartoon economy / with its live action humans and its two departments / of viscera and mask”: a cast of characters including “Mayor I”, “Mayor II”, “Mr. Interior Minister”, “crude Teutons”, “the shadow of a shadow who is the shadow of its former self”, “the Headless Chicken Who Wears a Mask 2 Survive”, “the Beheaded Phantasm whose slogan is I have no time for you”. Yet, rather than merely emblems for the real enemy (like Baraka’s “strangler” in the poem ‘Das Kapital’, or the “Masked Man” in What was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production?), they become, in the poem, the main target, as the poem is unable to build past the detail towards the final surge, backtracking on itself. The “real enemy” is always missed:

[...] looking up at
Feeling II with talk of a human face scrawled on
twice as fast, was it the Real Enemy[;]

wanting only to hate the right things,
only to come out with yet more
abstract talk
like that.

This sounds like a test case for despair, for a performative self-enactment of the impossibility of perspective and of organisation – a throwing-up of the hands common in the liberal reactions to Brexit, for instance. Or a contorted self-critique, a self-sabotage of a grand plan that exists as a recriminatory ruin, endlessly circling the same streets, which might anyway be part of some elaborate video-game simulation, a virtual reality environment sardonically reduplicating a condition of misery, frustration, ennui and hopeless anger. But the poem, as Hayward wished, does manage to hold onto the collective glimmer that its stick figures and crowds of phantasms parody; it does manage to move beyond self-laceration into purpose and resolve, without forcibly naming those against the conditions of their existence. With its hammer-and-nail circulations and decapitations, repetitions and circulations, I/ II steers a course past the abyss which (as in J.H. Prynne’s most recent sequence) swallows and leaves nothing, not even memory, to be spat back up or desperately held to.[vi] False hope, if it is merely compensation or melancholic extension, rather than spur to action or survival which is more than just ‘mere’ survival, is worse perhaps, or is merely the inverse, of the pleasures of a brick-walled despair. Hayward’s poem registers the slog of struggle, the boredom as well as the despair as well as the feeling of collective unity and of getting something done at the march or protest or event, must be figured, but cannot take over. 

Go-to relentlessness it turns out is just an effect.
Anti-fascists have to tolerate frustration.
Draw blood from the conclusions or get their sweat kicked in."

Is it enough to say that what the poem is for might emerge, in part, from what it is against, and that that is a horizon both immediate and in some ways necessarily suspended? Probably not: it’s pat, a truism. Which side are you on is still a question. But the side is not a monolith. “Reality doesn’t have to be anything like this”. Hayward’s poem truly believes that: moving in multiple senses, it inhabits and exemplifies a commitment to a shifting thing that shifts in relation to the forces of power against which it is defined, within which it is subsumed, and by which it is threatened with erasure. No matter of “merely technical urgency”, it is a vital and revitalising text.

[i] Danny Hayward, Pragmatic Sanction (Cambridge: Materials, 2015)
[ii] LD50 was an art gallery in Dalston which promoted and aimed to host far-right, ‘neo-reactionary’ events. It was successfully shut down after an anti-Fascist campaign earlier this year. See https://shutdownld50.tumblr.com/. The implications raised by this struggle are worth pondering further. As the Shut Down LD50 website notes: “We must continue to think about how to oppose racism and fascism more broadly. Whilst some of the events at LD50 were openly fascist, it is clear that the space also took inspiration from the more everyday forms of political authoritarianism that have proliferated during the last few years, including Trump. Shutting down fascists in the long term requires that we transform the culture in which they can begin to gain popular and institutional support (and the art world is not the neutral space it often believes itself to be). We need to be able to ask larger questions, such as how to oppose Britain’s own violent border regime.”
[iii] Amiri Baraka, ‘Against Bourgeois Art’ (uncollected, but available as part of the liner notes to Baraka’s recording with David Murray and Steve McCall, New Music / New Poetry (India Navigation, 1982)). The poem lives in performance: see the aforementioned recording with Murray and McCall and, above all, the incendiary reading of the poem given at the Just Buffalo Literary Centre in December, 1978, alongside Baraka’s old friend Ed Dorn (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Baraka.php).
[iv] Precisely the kinds of media whose attitude of comforting, melancholic helplessness is the target of much of I / II’s justified invective has, predictably, been making much of the fact that Sinclair has publicly resolved to cease writing about London, in the wake of Brexit and the apparent confusion of “locality” by digital technologies. See Sinclair’s latest, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City, published by Oneworld this year, and the various interviews, reviews and think-pieces surrounding it.
[v] In conclusion to the essay in question, Hayward writes: “I have no idea what it would be like if there were to surge into the world a poetry whose attitude of careful and defensive commitment to the real lives of suffering and exploited individuals were also as freely intensified and dynamised, and as tonally elaborated and iconised, as the postures of helplessness and impotent display that have become the ultimate tax-free havens for whatever bourgeois expressive libidinal energy is left now that high culture has slid triumphantly into administration. But I do think that a writing like this might help people to live instead of annually upgrading their experience of failing to.” (Hayward, ‘Poetry and Self-Defence’, No Money # 2: Drag and Drop, 2016) Perhaps, we might venture to suggest, I/ II is a step in this direction.
[vi] J.H. Prynne, Of · The · Abyss (Cambridge: Materials, 2017)

the illustrated Alistair Noon

notes by Michael Peverett

Entry to the EU:  the Serbia/Hungary border crossing at Horgos (when it was temporarily closed in 2015)

[Image source: http://www.krone.at/welt/ungarn-oeffnet-wieder-grenze-zu-serbien-sperre-war-traurig-story-472968]

Horgos is one of the entry points to the EU.

The following sonnet by Alistair Noon (in Earth Records, 2013) was discussed by Peter Riley here:


Late at night the Balkan languages clog
at Horgos, where they wait to gain admittance
to the circle of stars. A see-through smog
surrounds the returners from the remittance
economy: static, running exhausts
and the world’s greatest mass cigarette break,
as coaches queue up for one of the ports,
bays with a quay, where the night shift’s awake.
We hoot, or cheer each inch; the wise just doze.
No border guard knows the meaning of soon.
Priština, Niš, to Dortmund, Ulm. One
goes to Miriampol. (O beautiful moon
of Miriampol… Sat in East Berlin,
Bobrowski looked up). Here’s Europe. We’re in.

Here's the Johannes Bobrowski lines that Noon remembers, a lyrical evocation of Bobrowski's hometown a long time ago (Bobrowski was born in 1917).

Schöner Mond von Mariampol! Auf deinem
strohernen Rand, mein Städchen,
hinter den Buden
kommt er herauf,
schwer, und hängt ein wenig
nach unten durch. So geht der
Pferdehändler, er kauft
seiner Mutter ein Fransentuch.

("Wagenfahrt", Stanza 1)

...That is, a time before the Mariampol massacre in 1941. In Bobrowski's youth the town - now Marijampolė in Lithuania - had been predominantly Jewish. For more about this, see:


Aerial view of the Serbia/Hungary border crossing at Horgos

[Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Horgos_l%C3%A9gifot%C3%B3.jpg . Photo by Civertan]


Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source: https://guy.smugmug.com/keyword/parrotia%20subaequalis/i-5kPwB3J]

Here's one of my current favourite poems in Alistair Noon's collection The Kerosene Singing (Nine Arches Press, 2015):

Meeting the Family

Take me to greet your relatives
emplaced around the low hills,
covering their ears against familiar
chatter on the New Year visit.

Let's bump out there to inspect them,
the old spring-rolled into back sets, the young
clutching the sides of a bare-backed truck,
surfing the potholes, next

to arrive with an hour's supply
of Gatling Gun crackers in the breeze,
to mow down a Square of Heavenly Peace,
put five generations on trial.

Here we are. Your ancestral homes
are of earth and tufted with grass.
Like wriggling dragons, the annual paths
aren't happy or sad. Let's burn our banknotes.

Your eldest brother has the farmhouse.
The second, the haulage firm, Audi,
and Country & Western ringtone.
Your sister, the unspecified business.
You have the punk drumkit.

Third cousin, a pleasure to meet you
and feast in a room of resemblances
and filling, revolving tables. Thanks!
We're glad to be here among the iron trees,

where I might sink into the earthquake zone
and mime the unrelated individual
when centuries hence they find the pit
and my DNA here in the chicken bones.

Noon's poetry is all-active. Here the sound-scheme is understated, just the ghost of a vowel-rhymed abba , --  and with absolute regularity of stanzas avoided by that one extra line in the fifth stanza. But the word-scheme is a wonder, right from the start...    from that word "emplaced" in line 2, a word typically used of big guns and fortresses...  to let us know that the relatives of  line 1 are ancestral tombs rather than living individuals.

But I think we should start even further back, with the opening words: "Take me..."  It's the first of three imperatives in the opening stanzas.  We understand, of course, that the protagonist (I'm going to call him Alistair, with the usual caveats) is not actually the one making the suggestions about what they're all going to do. His use of the imperative conveys, actually, enthusiastic assent -- even, perhaps, a touch over-enthusiastic --- pardonably, of course. He's making the broad smiles and exaggerated gestures that most of us make when meeting people for the first time and anxious to make a good impression.  Because this "Meeting the family" isn't just about greeting the ancestors. Alistair is also meeting his friend's extended living family -- the five generations who find the incessant firecrackers rather a trial, in Stanza 3.

There's a train of cultural references to make it clear that we're in East Asia, almost certainly China.  ("Square of Heavenly Peace" is a rendering of Tiananmen Square).

As often in Noon's poetry the scena is a sort of deflated but undefeated globalism. The poem is too honest to deny Alistair's flitting thoughts.. for example, that everyone round here looks much the same ("a room of resemblances") ... and the wryly self-regarding fantasy that some future researcher might pick out his own DNA from the quake.

On the surface, that ending insists on Alistair being a stranger, unrelated to the family in question. But isn't the poem as a whole talking about something else? Namely, the Human Family, to which he is very much related and which he is now meeting, albeit in an unfamiliar part of the globe... (The poem has already juggled with the word "familiar").

There's a lot else about this poem - themes that hover there, mostly unstated. Can we meet a family and not join them? Yet isn't that balancing act what society enforces? Is the idea of regarding the whole world as our brothers and sisters a sentimentality that's only attainable in the barest terms of equality before the law, not in terms of the real acquaintance that defines what a family can really be? Actually, what is a family, today? Is it a tribal buttress, asserting common identity by tribal practice, or can it be something that opens out with the welcome to strangers seen here and in so many other parts of the world (though not, all too often, in property-owning Britain.) Is the family necessarily punitive towards difference and foreignness, or can it be something else?

Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source: http://www.asianflora.com/Hamamelidaceae/Parrotia-subaequalis.htm]

"among the iron trees"

That line in the poem probably has nothing at all to do with this Tertiary relict species,  Chinese Ironwood (Parrotia subaequalis), an extremely rare but lovely tree that was properly identified only in 1992 --- in a small area of eastern China. (Its only close relative, Persian Ironwood, grows some 3.5 thousand miles to the west.)

Anyway, it makes for some nice illustrations to this post.


Photos of a wild specimen of Parrotia subaequalis

[Image source: http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/2008-66-1-the-chinese-parrotia-a-sibling-species-of-the-persian-parrotia.pdf , an article in Arnoldia by Jianhua Li and Peter Del Tredici. Photos by P. del Tredici. ]

(Other possible interpretations of Noon's line: 

1. A large decorative indoor plant with mottled spiky leaves, a bit like an agave, famous for flowering very rarely... it is known in China as  the Iron Tree.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-emB59wl9Lc  (looks to me like a species of Sansevieria...)

2.  Artificial metal trees for New Year decoration, similar to fake Christmas trees.

3. (Unlikely) Lamp posts: ... Lampooned (ha, ha),  when first installed in Shanghai, as "iron trees bursting into bloom" -- proverbial for an unlikely overturning of the world order.)


Dancing forest on the Curonian Spit

[Image source: https://in.rbth.com/arts/travel/2013/08/23/curonian_spit_tiny_national_park_on_the_baltic_coast_28783
. Photo by Anton Agarkov / strana.ru]

Another poem in The Kerosene Singing begins thus:


The wagtail's plumage a woodcut,
the sandbank a log
traffic balances along
between lagoon and Baltic
and into Lithuanian mists.

"Oblast" means province or region and is an administrative unit used in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but the topography leaves no doubt which oblast we are talking about in this case. This is Kaliningrad, the Russian semi-exclave between Poland and Lithuania. The sandbank is the Curonian Spit, and the lagoon is the Curonian Lagoon. (We're about 100 miles from Marijampolė, as the crow flies.)


Here's the second stanza of Noon's poem:

The bricks cohere to a Kirche,
squat and ziggurat-roofed.
The Word seconded to Slavic:
nave hung with fresh icons
now the interregnum
as a barn has passed.

The stanza alludes to the forcible dispersion of the German-speaking population at the end of WWII, and their replacement by Russian-speakers . The "interregnum" is the era of Soviet atheism before the church came back into use.

The church in question is in Rybachy, the largest settlement in the Russian part of the Spit. Wikipedia notes:  "The red brick former Lutheran church was built in 1873 when the village was still part of Germany. It is one of the oldest remaining buildings in Rybachy. After the Second World War it was used for wheat storage. Only in 1992 was the church handed to the Russian Orthodox Church to be renovated. It is named after St Sergey of Radonezh and is in use once more as a church, now catering to the Orthodox community." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rybachy,_Kaliningrad_Oblast)

Describing the church as "ziggurat-roofed" is a bit impressionistic, but I  do see what he means:

Church of St Sergey, Rybachy

[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rybachy,_Kaliningrad_Oblast]

Reconstructed facade of the great Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq

[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziggurat]

With scrupulous sequence, the final stanza of the poem moves SW down the spit to the National Park exit near Zelenogradsk. Here the spit is at its narrowest. (The National Park is Kurshskaya Kosa, the smallest in Russia.)

They sow the alders
to halt the dance of the dunes,
the lagoon smooth as a salt plain.
Cattle gaze from the tarmac,
and a pig is loose in the village.
The coach will take us
under the turnpike
and out of the National Park.

{The village with the pig might be Lesnoy.]

The poem opens up progressively to the emptiness and space in the landscape. By the time of that deadpan last sentence, it's hard to say what was ideal, what real; what kind of threshold had been crossed here, and as the poem ends is it now un-crossed?

Sandbank: Curonian Spit

[Image source: https://in.rbth.com/arts/travel/2013/08/23/curonian_spit_tiny_national_park_on_the_baltic_coast_28783
. Photo by Anton Agarkov / strana.ru]

Found anecdote:

“I love fishing here. We used to come here for flounders when I was just a kid,” says Vitya, a young red-nosed fisherman. “Back then we didn't just catch fish, we used to bake crows! Nah, honestly! We'd lay our fishing net out on the ground and bait it with fish. We could catch more than a hundred crows a day.

Then we'd pluck them, chop the heads and legs off and sell them at the market. Of course, the buyers didn't know they were buying crows! We even made up a special name for them — we called them ‘Prussian Doves!’”

(from an article by Daria Gonzalez here: https://in.rbth.com/arts/travel/2013/08/23/curonian_spit_tiny_national_park_on_the_baltic_coast_28783]

Curonian Spit - Dancing Forest

[Image source: http://east-wing-transport.ru/excursions_to_the_curonian_spit]

The strange forms of the mysterious Dancing Forest - a pine forest that grew up  on a former Nazi air-strip - are naturally associated by many with the dancing sand dunes among which the forest grows. A less romantic but still unproven theory is that the unusual bases of these pine trees reflect contortions of the young shoots due to infestation by caterpillars of the Pine Shoot Moth Rhyacionia buoliana . Or the fungus Melampsora pinitorqua . Or maybe there was human interference at an early stage, perhaps with the intention of growing timber with a natural curve (though pine is not a suitable timber for boat-building).

A similar mystery surrounds the Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarnowo, a village near Gryfino, West Pomerania, Poland. This is another pine plantation, thought to have been planted around 1930.


The Crooked Forest at Nowe Czarowo

[Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crooked_Forest]

András Tiborcz

[Image source: http://www.transsylvanians.de/band1.html . See Noon's poem "The Transsylvanians at Supermolly" in The Kerosene Singing.]

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