Language dropped from a great height
By Colin Herd.
Since launching a year and a half, two years, or so ago, The Red Ceilings Press (based in Derbyshire, edited and published by Mark Cobley) have emerged as one of the foremost U.K. publishing ventures for contemporary poetry. Earlier this year, they extended their program of publishing ebooks and a blogzine to include beautifully-produced chapbooks. Their chapbooks are published in a snap-them-up edition of only 40 copies (though sometimes reprinted when there’s enough demand), and in production and design they’re understated and pocket-sized, calling to mind City Lights’ famous Pocket Poets Series in the simple uniformity of their appearance, and the dynamism of the poetry that bursts through it or ducks under it.
I really like the title of Andrew Spragg‘s debut collection the fleetingest, its glimmering tension between a desire to quantify and the too-quickly-glanced-at-to-be quantified. It’s a tension and a dichotomy that carries over into the poems themselves, which display an enviable lightness of both touch and breath as part of a practice of fast-paced but hardly discernible hopping, just at the moment when meaning maybe hints it might be beginning to crystallize. It’s a book about noticing in spite of things’ speed.
In the poem ‘state’, there are “windows fast scrambled shut,” where windows of course are a feature of browsers rather than buildings; in the poem ‘mud-puddling’, there are “papery flashes” of butterflies. Running alongside and counter this impulse towards the fleeting, it’s as if the poems are constantly trying to measure and address, constantly trying to quantify and cash-up. As well as ‘state’, there are poems in the book called ‘cash’, ‘address’, ‘config.’ and ‘oppida’, the word used to describe the main cities in administrative districts of ancient Rome. Perhaps most glorious of all in its acknowledgement of the tendency towards measuring and quantifying, the final poem in the book is called ‘Summary’. These are its last two stanzas:
All industry’s a mess, a dredged wreck, these
passages are clumsy work, just letting up,
the eye appraises the situation.
What is said of these liaisons is officially filed,
all those lone elements, the wind forms a battering sense,
who’s that making mischief? I’m writing you up.
Any poem called ‘Summary’ is going to make you draw breath and giggle, and all the more so if it’s the last poem in a collection. The ‘Summary’, of course, can barely summarise itself, never mind the rest of the poems in the book. That final appraisal, “I’m writing you up,” could be a violent or an intimate act, a threat or a warning, but it seems more to be a kind of taking notice or paying attention. For all it proclaims to be “clumsy work,” something approaching but not quite patterns seem to lurk between the lines. Looking at the last stanza, there’s a movement from “these” in the first line to “those” in the second to “that” in the third. There are also mini sound-structures: a dominant use of the vowel “i” in the first line, a more open and not quite so dominant dialogue or play between “o” “a” and “e” in the second line. There isn’t a “u” in that stanza until the final two words “you up.” The stanza enacts its own move from the persona, the “I”, through language and through “lone elements,” through the wind’s “battering sense,” ending up at “you.” “You,” incidentally, is where the poem begins: “You were the first of us to note that the snow is melting/ by increments;”. Maybe it’s a love poem, read this way, an incremental, inclement love poem, subtly shrugging off its obsessive measurements, though you could blink and you’d miss it. Or I guess it could be the “you” is the reader. A third option is, those two options blend, as they did in my case, and the reader falls head over heels for the charm and inventiveness of Spragg’s voice, its intelligence and spark.
Nathan Thompson is a poet whose work I always try to keep abreast of as it pops up in journals, and in his collections the arboretum towards the beginning (Shearsman, 2009), Holes in the Map (Oystercatcher Press, 2010), the day maybe died (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2011) and forthcoming The Visitor’s Guest (Shearsman, 2011). His productivity, while admittedly not quite reaching Cid Corman proportions, is certainly enough to make his devotees break sweat.
Questions for Painters is a sequence of ten poems, taking painting as the subject they circulate around, and having at their centre, or somewhere planted or implied within, a question. The questions vary from the confrontational “why do you think you are in control?” to the genuinely quizzical “is this abstract?” and the downright surreal “how many giraffes before beauty turns to terror?” Most of the questions, most of the poems have a lived-in quality. They’re not questions or poems directed at painters to be asked in a lecture theatre but questions that arise in the restless everyday, about the everyday, from arguments and from encounters, but which resonate through and alongside painters and painting. Thompson’s gift for lyrical observation, his bread and brush-stroke, if you like, is exquisite, and nowhere more so than in the book’s watery, aquatinted opening lines:
reading rain’s small-print
tomorrow will be greener
The poem spreads outwards from here, and multi-directionally, becoming a poem shaped a little like a quincunx (the five dots on a dice) where “Why do you think you are in control?” is the centre dot and there are four pieces of text arranged in relation to it, in the four corners of the poem. The pieces of text can be read in a variety of directions and sequences, and in different dynamics with the question, the ethics of control and arrangement.
At the base of Thompson’s poems there’s a real engagement with art-history and with contemporary art: “my skull is crystal,” he says in one poem, a kind of shattered, refracting reference to Damien Hirst‘s encrusted diamond skull; “an associational system based on digital marble,” which could be a reference to Simon Starling‘s recent installation The Long Ton, in which there are two identical lumps of marble hung in equilibrium, balanced by a pulley system, one hand cut from Chinese marble, the other cut digitally in an exact replica, though four times smaller to reflect the discrepancy in value, from Italian marble. Like Frank O’Hara‘s Why I Am Not A Painter, Thompson’s Questions for Painters draws attention to what poetry shares with visual art and where the two modes of artistic expression diverge, the different assumptions each medium carries, particularly about relation to reality and truthfulness:
“i don’t believe a stroke you paint
“sometimes if you pretend to understand
Andy Warhol becomes imaginary”
“language dropped from a great height splatters interpretation”
Personal and painterly, if painterly is taken to mean a full-on relationship with the textures of his material, Nathan Thompson’s Questions for Painters is a remarkably accomplished and fascinating sequence.
David Berridge‘s BLACK GARDENS also has a relation to contemporary visual art practice. About midway through the book, he writes:
between the poet and the visual artist
is that your illegible is public
but my illegible is legible
so stop reading over my shoulder”
It draws attention to a central concern of the book, text as a public act, as a performance. In this instance, Berridge points to a kind of public composition of the text, with onlookers peering over his shoulder. Or over the shady hedges of the titular b(l)ack gardens, a liminal private/public space if ever there was one, where laundry airs alongside rubbish sacks and compost heaps: “love me/ mistake/ compost for/ compote.”
BLACK GARDENS feels like it documents a performance piece, of which the writing of the text is only one part. On the first page, the performance is initiated: “We kneel on the floor/ we untie the string and unroll the black paper.” Because the circumstances, the performance, of its composition is acknowledged in this way it becomes an integral part of the text itself, an important part of how BLACK GARDENS is read. BLACK GARDENS shares this sense of importance attached to the moment of its composition with other texts such as Coleridge‘s Kubla Khan, Kerouac‘s On the Road and also the radical talk-poems of the writer and artist David Antin, whose work is composed semi-improvisationally in front of an audience, recorded and then transcribed as texts from the talks. In Antin’s case, his texts retain the sense of possibility, unknowing and openness from their original genesis as talks. It’s a similar effect with BLACK GARDENS, where formally, the text also borrows something from its initiation as performance or dialogue, it retains a sense of being “in the moment,” which manifests in the open-field of the poem, with chunks of text spaced out in a way that seems as if it signifies time and duration.
But I say “text” as performance is a central theme of the book, rather than “writing as performance,” because an element of performance is worked into the reading of BLACK GARDENS too. Berridge makes reading a performative act by running words together and spacing them out:
“(loc ked int othewe tpa ges)”
The words sticking or clumping together like, well, like “wet pages.” The reader is a part of the composition of BLACK GARDENS, has to prise or slice the words apart, or leave them as they are. So, when Berridge writes that
“everyone is texting
in the black gardens
he means “everyone”, texting all the time, sending and composing and receiving messages, often at “x” purposes too, and doublecross. Once you enter into the performance of the text it’s a thrilling read, a witty, bizarre and important book by one of our most exciting writers and supporters of text art and experimental writing in Britain at the moment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 12th, 2011.