* by Tom Jenks
Published by IF P THEN Q
reviewed by Philip Davenport
Online, if you watch the launch of Tom Jenks's new poem '*' you'll see him look off to the side as if something has spooked him. It's a gesture that characterises this book-length poem, there's a haunted feel to the thing. When I read it now, I can picture Tom's face part-shadowed, reading in one of those nonspace corporate bars that we usher our lives through.
* is a poem of hard surfaces – hi-shine fake oak counters, faces on monitors talking adspeak, food suffocated in its wrapper, cheap jewels, 2nd hand software. The '*' refers to the 'select all' function in databases and the poem duly takes its Poundian slice of everything. But this isn't a poem containing history, it makes a point of dodging all but an immediacy flash-fried and box-fresh.
'to hitch a star to random data
to squander our gifts'
There's no sense of an overarching schema, no symphony, no grand homophonic ending. This is channel-hopping faster than eye or ear, driven by panic and punctuated with nervous jokes. In the tone of it, I'm reminded of nobody so much as neurotic old Brit comedians, Kenneth Williams or Hancock, the weirdness of their emotional hygiene, the horror at the approach of their ogres. Held in the throat of the poem is Ken Williams's skreeking laugh, Hancock's tussle with the melancholy of each bloodied day.
'with some things we have not truck e.g.
terrifying interior worlds of women
are terrified of trees are fearing certain stones
in illuminated manuscripts
seen sideways in the trails of comets'
The idea of a wider hollowness is tracked deep into the piece, initially in its restless taxonomy of consumables, then in other clues. An empire-size collapse is at first gently prefigured, we're shown distant smoke on the horizon:
'somewhere the Tsar his meerschaum pipe
It is later in the book that we find portents of decline turning up in the guts of the pickings, learn to see Russian dolls as falling dominoes:
'decay of late capitalism
crow under arc lights
each room this golden peacock pagoda'
Notions of hollowness, overload and entropy are not new; but Jenks presages two things that are.
Firstly, his own characteristic voice is particular and notable – the lugubrious humour, the deftness of his craft, his gift of lightness. He's taken the poetics of collage and happenstance and turned them into an enthralling schtick. At times, this sacrifices the density of the writing, as comedy often must. But his power is that he utterly holds his audience, and then – as he reads – himself in his own sway.
Secondly, he's one of a number of poets trailing a difference in approach to process and system writing generally. Geof Huth would be another, Holly Pester yet another, select your own version. Cut-up, vispo, excision, aleatory procedures and other strategies of avant writing are being used here not in and of themselves but as methods employed for an ulterior expressive purpose. They are colours in the palette but they do not decide the composition.
Here the expressive act is driven by emotional need, not process. Reeling back to Schoenberg and the desire for 'heart' rather than Cagean processes carries all the danger of a reactionary act. As reward for the risk, * redraws the map of the mainstream, spilling confusion into the shape of new territories. This is a materialist poetry that eschews narrative for the pleasures of the text, it's an un-story, that has found other ways to seduce the audience.
'she eats a crème egg like it's an oyster'
If Tom's still online, look at him. Remarkable isn't it? A perfect locus for his poem, the ideal sounding board, MDF-ed and formica-ed, littered with beer accidents. Just before he read ('in books I see these melancholy things') football guys were howling the place down; you can nearly hear the rip they've taken out of the air.
The piece twitches across its pages too, as if the lines are in shock. They break where they shouldn't, spill all when it's least advisable. He's chopped articles and conjunctions so that there's a hint of faded hipster in the syntax, old pop maybe?
'he got compressed air he
grow rhubarb in window box he
got sound grasp Jungian analysis'
'he got…' re-sound's Lennon's junk guru in Come Together – 'He got juju eyeballs, he one holy roller…'
'got cool fans got numb gel got little levers'
The poem both laughs at and loathes itself, Lennon hissing 'shoot me' low in there. It mocks the idea of an epic anything, the pompousness of a prophet.
'I love the man but he leaves his toys in the garden
that fire engine with authentic siren
frost got in
now it sounds like icecreams'
You almost feel sorry for the lines, the task Jenks has set them is ludicrous and they know it. Select everything? Must we? It is this polite acknowledgement of absurdity while still trudging on that gives the book the tone of wry Britishness, Uncle Ez muddling through a wet Scottish holiday.
Even as Tom Jenks swipes at the thin-ness of the everything he's found - the poor make, the cutback thinking, the culture-kill, the conceitedness - along with it comes the discovery of something hellishly funny. He just can't stop looking off to the side of the stage, where it shifts. He is fascinated by it, by the slippage of the language disguise, by the correct beauty of its coding, by the big shiny new it brings lurching in.