Reading the Century

Alan Baker (Knives, Forks and Spoons)
Red Doc >, Anne Carson (Jonathan Cape)
Makers of Empty Dreams, Ian Seed (Shearsman)
Epigraphs, Chrissy Williams (if p then q)

Alan Baker's new short collection from KFS is made up of two sections - 'Week to View', basically a seven day diary entry with a difference, and 'Thirteen Spells Against Global Warming', which has a similar feel and is packed with interesting diversions. Both sections contain, I think, snippets of 'found language', with a more straightforward 'documentary' style, embracing the skilful use of teasing non-sequiturs and unexpected juxtapositions. The fact that these are presented in a pretty seamless manner (very skilful, these poems) and also maintain a degree of lyric intensity are further evidence of Baker's ability to break with 'genre expectation'. These excellent poems combine tradition with innovation and are consistently good to read.

'Week to View' (for Rupert Loydell), starts with a mediation/meditation on early rising (probably prefacing the journey to work) - 'Cat mewing around legs, / kettle building up to boil.' We are told that the sun is '92.5 million miles away' before being given more immediate references to the symmetry of a wall decoration and a commentary on the '100% recycled paper fibres' which, presumably are being used to write the diary entry. The tone is optimistic, upbeat, embracing routine, possibly as a tactic to deal with the coming rigours of the day but this is a hunch on my part, lightly implied perhaps, by the text itself. Then we get a completely surprising line followed by a commentary on the American film industry (reality versus 'high-glamour reality' perhaps?), a newspaper guide to 'the Sun' which can be interpreted two ways and seems like a very clever piece of cut-up 'filching' to me, followed by a self-reference to 'the 'Diary' and a non-sequitur mentioning the word 'labyrinth', leading to a very neat ending:

   Heart disease wears a skirt too.
   Risk factors include succumbing
   to the siren call of Hollywood
   and making provocative
   and emotionally powerful films.
   The Independent Guide
   to the Sun talks about
   endings and happenings
   in a remote future. Most
   of the world's surface
   is covered by sea. Diary,
   so what? The labyrinth
   has many entrances,
   and tomorrow
   may be one of them.
       (from ' - Monday - Week to View')

This has the appearance of a mind talking to itself and allowing thoughts to 'go where they will' yet the diary aspect of its form suggests the artificial construct of the piece in a very up-front manner, the suggestion of the gap between representation and 'reality', however we might want to designate the latter. I'm reminded to a degree here, of Paul Violi's documenting of TV programmes in 'Breakers' though there is a more overt humorous gambit in this aspect of Violi's work. Baker's poems are filled with interest, with surprise, with an engrossing encapsulation of observed moments - 'Tea in the garden / watching a spider / demonstrating pure / mindfulness, awareness /
of self, leading to / obliteration of self (one might / say). .

Which, again, has a lightness of touch (humour) even where suggesting something deeper, or, dare I say it, profound.
   Many struggle
   to understand their bills.
   It's getting late,
   and having fun
   was never on the agenda,
   unless it's dream-fun.
   Silence is the leaves
   rustling, Darkness
   is freedom. I myself
   am a hypothetical stranger.
   'I've always been
   so much older than I am,
   even when I was
   younger', she said.
         (from - 'Sunday -Week to View')

There's a suggestion of political commentary here, a possible reference to a Bob Dylan lyric, a mingling of thoughts and feelings encapsulated in language which offers different registers yet which manages to keep the onflow of 'inner talk' (as Beckett might have put it) bright and perky.

'Thirteen Spells Against Global Warming' names a fictional (?) weather forecaster called 'Sarah Blizzard' (from '1'), questions the relationship between dreams and science ('8') and mixes the language of meteorology with that of textual analysis:

   Note that the sky
   isn't always on our side;
   it's abstract and intertextual,
   has birds and moods,
   is full of rain & prone
   to instability, devoid
   of motive, & always
   conveniently elsewhere.
        (from 'TSAGW - no 10')

Baker knows something of science but he's not overwhelmed by it and his mixed discourse, embracing aspects of recycled, refreshed clichˇ is mood enhancing and optimistic, not absurdly so but on a day-to-day basis where a common spell can be integrated into the language of science and technology. Thus:

   Cast the bones
   on the ground to know
   whether to walk
   or give the kids
   a lift to school.
       (from 'TSAGW - no 10')

I'm immediately back in the world of Ray Harryhausen and Jason's 'Argonauts', another magic moment conjured by Baker's modern necromancy. I'm sure other readers will pick up or 'project' other references, all part of the fun of reading these serious yet entertaining poems. Yes, these poems are entirely undidactic - you can and should create your own narrative from the suggestions and maps of these texts. My favourite poem in 'TSAGW' is the final piece which includes 'the long wait for the future / . but when it arrives, / oh boy! ,' and a wonderful ending which reminds me very much of the eternally optimistic yet stubbornly resisting poetry of John James:

   but don't forget the man
   in the next room
   listening to music in A flat minor
   and wondering whether
   it would be wise
   to drink some milk.
        (from 'TSAGW - 13')

Culture is everywhere and they can't take it away from you. Don't let them. This is wonderful, wonderful poetry.

I've not read Anne Carson before and was barely aware of her work which is probably remiss of me as she seems to be a big name in Canada and has won international recognition for her poetry. The back cover blurbs register the names of the great and the good and my initial gisting of this work made me curious if a little wary, wanting to know more. This is a picaresque poetry adventure, Proustian in its memory fuelled, experimental mode, containing some key characters, set in geographically disparate settings, probably across time, across genre and filled with wordplay and wonderful writing. Red Doc > is prefaced by a previous, related work, Autobiography of Red, which I've obviously not read, yet this hasn't hampered my enjoyment of this book, though in terms of 'narrative' - insofar as one exists or is intended to exist - then I'm still at sea, which turns out not to be a bad place to be:

   certain    doors   in  certain
   corridors.   The    Laundry
   Room      door.      Certain
   midnights.   It   is  directly
   underneath     the      room
   where he sleeps or doesn't.

   Your magic contracts your
   body  putting  forth no frill
   under   another's gaze. Ida
   wears   the  frill   now.  He
   wonders   how    Ida  finds
   Sad    as    a     lover. .

                  The moonlight
   ironing                     boards
   grandstanding like steeds.
        (p 85)

Formally this collection reminds me of David Peace's fiction, where a
use of repetition within prose blocks and 'newspaper columns', justified
texts and multiple viewpoints or 'voices' create an overwhelming sense of everything going on everywhere at once. You are forced to go with the flow, turning the page to be presented with one of a variety of layouts, where 'traditional' poetic technique in terms of rhyme, rhythm and repetition are juxtaposed with a less regular but more prominent flow-of-consciousness speed writing which is filled with wordplay and the apparent invention of its own forwards momentum. Carson's work is erudite, wide-ranging, shifting in its parameters and time-scales, very moving in parts and a real roller-coaster of a read. How much better her work is (if at all) than a host of lesser-known experimental poets working here and abroad is a moot question but I'm glad that I came across this book, quite by chance, as it happens, and I'm sure I'm going to dip into her poetry again.

The clue may lie in the title of Ian Seed's most recent collection as there is a dreamlike quality to his writing which suggests the absurd logic of classic surrealism which is both funny and at times menacing. I've not always picked up the menace in his work but it's certainly at home in these excellent prose poems, both in terms of a vague, implied sense of placelessness (even where place is foregrounded by naming) and a disorienting feel of existential 'lostness' aided and abetted by a lingering expectation of possible violence. The vagueness implied in these qualifying adjectives (mine, not his) is all part of the background, clearly European and cosmopolitan but with threat always potentially present in the alleyway and in the room.

I'm reminded at times of an Ivor Cutler story where the narrative is evident but goes nowhere or turns back on itself, or one of those Jake Thackray songs where erotic possibilities are often frustrated. There is humour in both these 'outcomes' but it usually comes at a cost. There are also some wonderful puzzling 'non-sequiturs' which have you re-reading the piece immediately just to check that you've 'got it'. Often you realise that you haven't and that Seed's knotted narratives defy such a possibility anyway but his work is so endlessly enchanting and entertaining that time passes and 'meaning' ceases to matter. Take this piece on page 41 which I'll quote in full.

   There  was  a  mottled  snake  which  made its home  under our
   kitchen sink. If it was venomous, I would have to kill it. Other-
   wise, we would keep it as a pet.

   There was a woman upstairs with smoothest skin who lay naked
   in her bed at nights, but I wasn't sure it was  me she was waiting

   Around the corner  was a small store  no one went to anymore. I
   felt I must  go there soon.  I would buy a bottle of wine and chat
   to the Indian owner the  way I used to.  But first  I had  to decide
   upon the snake and the woman.

There's a lot of the 'anxiety dream' in these pieces, and references to heavyweight European philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre and Heidegger present both a humorous, deconstructive aspect while also implying a sense of the 'serious stuff' which underlines, perhaps, the element of threat which so imbues these elusive, ungraspable yet intriguing and strangely satisfying, if unsettling, prose poems. Masterly and addictive.

Epigraphs, a series of attributed quotations, across a wide range of time and geographical space, some clearly bunched together via subject - for example, pieces on the sea, on death, on dance and on suicide. This isn't quite as grim as I'm probably making it sound. I suppose the major modern work of Literature which used this process would be Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, a vast scholarly tome which built a whole out of fragments of writing by others, as a way of commenting on the issues of modernity. But this is now a long, long time ago!

Chrissy Williams' book is much shorter, arguably even more diverse in its source works (though the media has changed, exponentially since Benjamin's time - what the great commentator on 'the function of art in the age of mechanical reproduction' would have made of modern media saturation and diversity is of course unknowable) though with a lightness of touch which seems to transcend its sometimes tragic materials. She takes quotations from people as varied as Nostradamus, Groucho Marx, David Attenborough, Fred Astaire, Arthur Schopenhauer, Stephen King, Eric Morecambe, Martha Grahame, Walt Whitman, Edwin Morgan, Elizabeth von Arnim, Charles M. Schulz, H.P. Lovecraft, Neville Chamberlain, John Berger, Carl Sagan and Franz Kafka. There are references from comics, from The Simpsons, from Facebook, from a closing down sale advertisement from a fishing tackle business and elsewhere. Clearly an interest in popular culture and the advent of the internet is combined here with a more 'high-art' tendency though the barriers appear to have totally broken down. Leaving aside the aforementioned 'thematically-based texts' there are some interesting juxtapositions at play, and juxtaposition - as well as choice - is clearly an important tool when working with existing materials. Take the following by way of example:
   'I have to solve this Labyrinth but there aren't any turns
   or any openings or anything, it just goes on and on!'
Jim Henson

   'The intertextual in which every text is held, it itself being the
   text-between of another text, is not to be confused with some
   origin of the text: to try to find the 'sources', the 'influences'
   of a work, is to fall in with the myth of filiation; the citations
   which go to make up a text are anonymous, untraceable, and yet 
already read: they are quotations without inverted commas.'
                       Image - Music - Text
Roland Barthes

   'I do not think it means what you think it means.'
                       Inigo Montoya,
The Princess Bride
                                    William Goldman

               'Snap out of it!'
Charles M. Schulz

                 'Re: Epping Fishing Tackle ½ Price Closing Down Sale -
   i may go a little crazy if the stuff is worth it, i'm looking at some new rods!'

The comment by Barthes hints perhaps at Benjamin's notion that all acts of writing are indeed a form of translation, whether acknowledged as such or not
and further hints at the mysteries of language and origins which are still being argued over by linguists and philosophers today. The quotation from
Labyrinth underlines this suggestion and the short extract from The Princess Bride furthers the puzzlement by bringing in 'meaning' and the problems of interpretation. 'Snap out of it' (Peanuts) brings us down to earth with its 'snappy' humour and probably also suggests the perils of over-intellectualising the problem, while the fishing tackle advert (which had me in stitches, I have to say) also hints at the ever present question of desire and the impossibility of ever quenching it. So, wit and humour as well as serious stuff is implied here. Perhaps, a la Peter Finch (and others) the use of 'existing language' as a means of dealing with information overload is a viable option though using acknowledged quotation as opposed to adapting and/or assimilating 'found texts' is a somewhat different ballgame, I think. Giles Goodland wrote interestingly about this in an edition of Tears in the Fence a few years back and I'll have to re-read his piece. His collection, A Spy in the House of Years (Leviathan, 2001) is a classic of this kind, attempting to 'read' the 20th century via a page of varied quotation from each year. Stimulating stuff.

        © Steve Spence.2014