Relaxation and Control

Advanced Immorality, Philip Terry (if p then q)

I'm starting to appreciate the ethos of this particular poetry publisher. Philip Terry's new collection combines an interest in process with a surreal sense of humour and a liking for a strange beauty, which may well be a product of the first two tendencies.

The opening number - '50 and a half Crime Novels for Beginners' - is exactly that, each justified block of text a variant on a précis of a crime fiction, mixing humour with absurdity with gory detail and repeated journalistic tropes which add to the stylistic effect of the overall piece. Details from the individual paragraphs are merged and cut into other sections with slight alterations, producing variants which are as madly humorous as they are disturbingly 'real'. I imagine the starting point for this fiction was the crime section of a variety of newspapers but it's also a spoof on the genre of hard-boiled crime fiction, as well as providing an absurd commentary on the darker recesses of the human imagination:

     There is a phone call in the night. A week later an eyeball turns
     up   in   the   oxtail   soup.   Seeing   no   alternative,   the  soup
     manufacturers agree to pay.  As instructed, the money is left in
     six  identical  soup  tins  in  the  toilet  of  a  transit café. Police
     marksmen surround it.

               (from '50 and a half Crime Novels for Beginners')

It's harder to see the starting point for 'Advanced Immorality', the second section of the collection, though I may figure this out given time. Each page consists of what appears to be a separate poem and the format of each is pretty much identical in terms of layout, so, for example, on page 33 (chosen, pretty much at random), we get this:

     Static cat             Purring cat             Scratching cat

                                 Wild cat             

     Static dog            Growling dog        Panting dog

                                  Wild dog

    Static rabbit           Purring tiger        Purple gorilla

                                  Wild goldfish

                                   On safari

                                   the blind traveller

                                   listens out for

                                   animal noises
                                   On the crowded plain

                                   a swarm of flies

                                   breeds on dung

Static mouse               Jumping frog        Stationary wasp

                                   Wild eagle

                                     (from 'Advanced Immorality')

Taken in isolation, each page feels less impressive than the cumulative effect of reading the whole piece, and while some poems are clearly stronger than others, the reader begins to build up a sense of the whole process when he or she has read it through a few times. There are the sonic effects, the strange dislocation of the phrasing - the often incongruous juxtaposition of words and phrases - plus a kind of haunting lyric beauty which feels at odds with what I take to be the methods of construction. Slightly unnerving and full of interest.

Terry has a liking for formal structures, both traditional and of the Oulipo variety. 'Clop Clop', for example, is a madly deviant sestina which hints at Edwin Morgan and Bob Cobbing (each line ends with 'clop') and looks as though it would sound wonderful when read out loud - ' Gene clop rush clop hot clop lung clop' - while 'First Steps in Phonology' is a poem in nine parts, each part having three, three-line stanzas, with the last stanza of each section following a similar format - thus:

     The young couple happened to know our region.
     I've bought these greengages;
     I've brought these green cages.

          (from 'First Steps in Phonology, VIII')

The variations in this piece are inventive and witty though I felt the tension between the formal restrictions and the poem's underlying anarchy less creatively fruitful than in some of the other writing here.

 'Hamlet' is a four-page, bold block of justified text, relating, unsurprisingly, to Shakespeare's play. It mixes the expected archaisms with modern humour and is hilariously funny in parts - ''Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on / than a pipe? Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of / a camel?' - yet there are echoes which seem to have come from other sources altogether and the overall feel of the piece is almost one of slapstick comedy - 'Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about / the sconce with a dirty shovel, …'.

 'A Berlin Notebook' is a longer, more relaxed piece, combining observation with a listing device (suggesting movement, as from a train) which has an immediacy and a 'snapshot' feel which is appropriate to travel writing, and I guess this is a kind of travel writing, as highlighted by the title. I love the dry, throwaway wit of - 'They call this the “Shepherd's Meadow”, but there are no shepherds around here.' - for example. There's a minimalist lyrical quality to Terry's lists, which as well as suggesting movement and 'the moment', locates you in the world with mere suggestion yet which also implies something more permanent and lasting, a trick perhaps, but it feels authentic:

     Ornamental palace. Green bridge. Green bench. Gold lions. Gilded pagoda.

     Sudden laughter.   Choppy water.  Moored boat.  Squeaking truck. Pointed

     camera. Falling leaf. Diving swallow.

          (from 'A Berlin Notebook')

'Days', the penultimate section, is also a list of observations, thoughts and feelings, which build incrementally, yet often works on a line-by-line basis, mixing the banal and everyday with those moments of 'minor epiphany' - ' Afternoons when you plan to go out for a walk and it starts / snowing, hard. You go out anyway - the beauty of the snow.' It's a mildly existential approach which Terry brings off brilliantly - this kind of writing is easy to do badly - and provides an interesting contrast to his more obviously formal and game-playing work, though this isn't to say that the formal qualities are lacking in 'Days', just that the writing feels more relaxed and 'at home'. There is angst and there is 'bad stuff' but the overall mood here is one of a 'laid-back' existence, aided perhaps by the repetition of the line-beginnings.

I loved reading these poems. Terry seems to be a natural writer, prolific, wide-ranging in terms of an expertise in formal constraint, as well as being an astute observer of the here and now, yet there's an interest also in history and 'how things get put together' (particularly in 'A Berlin Notebook') which embraces the snapshot while suggesting a deeper engagement. Relaxation and control, a wonderful combination. Great stuff.

     © Steve Spence 2014