Messages from Unseen Agencies
By Tom Jenks.
Stephen Emmerson, Telegraphic Transcriptions, Dept Press (2011)
Stephen Emmerson is utterly, unquestionably of the now, but he nonetheless has something of the futurist about him. His work has the velocity and violence of Marinetti in its blurred, broken asynchronous syntax. But whereas Marinetti et al unambiguously celebrated velocity and – at least until they got a touch of non-theoretical cold steel themselves in the trenches of World War I – violence, Emmerson itemises and deconstructs them. He is less interested in warp speed, more in the speed of the warp, in the rate that sociological, technological and chemical variables are wreaking havoc upon our bodies and our neural wiring. His exploration of this liminal territory is both ruthless, in that his work has no pity, least of all for himself, and relentless. Nothing is out of bounds. Telegraphic Transcriptions blends the lexes of medicine, popular culture, legality and illegality, utilising typographical mutations, objets trouve and many words that may be neologisms (“guffbox”, anyone?) or recherché slang and its own brand of Polari to create a poetic document of remarkable pace and power that perpetually dices with dissolution, only to be brought back again and again by the writer’s skill and iron control. There is something of Sean Bonney in Emmerson’s jammed, jolted, heavily freighted lines, but the reference points that sprang most readily to my mind are novelists rather than poets. Firstly, William Gibson for his concern with cybernetics and the human/machine interface and how the one informs and shapes the other and secondly, J.G. Ballard for his investigations of psychic space and how the individual reacts under different degrees of environmental tension and pressure. Just as Ballard, writing out of suburban Shepperton, had more to say about the dark drives that remained unreformed by modernity than any lettered social theorist, so Emmerson, operating also from a perceived geographical promontory in Leeds, has as much to say about modernity’s more complex younger cousin.
Telegraphic Transcriptions cannot be treated as a set of discrete poems and must instead be regarded as a single text. There are no titles. Sections, if we can call them that, are separated by various permutations of space and style but these sections cannot be understood in isolation. The star cannot be positioned outside the starfield, the cell outside the organism. Images, most notably worms, recur throughout the text, stitching together the Schwitters-esque bricolage. For all its unified nature, however, Telegraphic Transcriptions is a deeply contingent work. It is molten, in flux. One gets the impression that were this text to have been written, or indeed read, a moment later it would have been a different artefact.
This is a text of unsynthesised dialectical oppositions, in perpetual dispute both with the world and with itself, compulsively, self-reflexively disruptive. Emmerson uses a range of ingenious techniques to signal these argumentative interventions. Blocks of text in a typewriter style font appear intermittently throughout the text, like green inked eruptions of fury. These become more frequent and urgent until a page arrives which looks as if it has been defaced or as if the text’s internal tensions have finally inched the needle into the red zone and triggered detonation: a page empty of all except scattered, partially effaced capitals. At other points, syntax breaks down completely and words are supplanted by strings of alphanumeric characters. Elsewhere, we have a form to report an adverse reaction to medication inserted apparently verbatim, suggesting, playfully, that the preceding pages have been simply a side effect. Earlier, we have a feral version of source code as if the text has mutated and its wiring has been exposed, as if it has lost its skin and its skeleton been revealed. Towards the end of the book, there is what presents itself as a cipher which is anything but. This is not a guide for the reader, rather another level of complexity, another shade or slant. So too the Allen Fisher style list of source materials and references which bring Telegraphic Transcriptions to a close, or rather signal the point where it passes out of our field of vision.
Telegraphic Transcriptions is not an easy read, nor does it seek to be. It is confrontational, unapologetically dense and complex. Emmerson notes, amongst other ephemera of a late twentieth century childhood and adolescence (I think this is the first time I have seen the triangular savant and shaman Bod used as a poetic reference) Stock Aitken and Waterman, but in musical terms Emmerson himself is much more Stockhausen. This is sharp edged, jagged, determinedly dissonant work. In amongst the innumerable striking and startling images and phrases that lace and litter Telegraphic Transcriptions are two which are particularly apt summations of the book as a whole.
The first is the term “pharmapoetics”, which may be another neologism or may be a term that has previously eluded me; whatever its provenance it encapsulates the text perfectly, foregrounding the author’s exploration of chemical consciousness and the twilit borderlands of medicated states.
The second is the fragment:
…The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Through a Christmas cracker monocle
On boxing day
which describes far better than I ever could how the world looks through the shattered, prismatic lense of this work. It is a look worth taking
Telegraphic Transcriptions is also notable for being the first full length collection on the Dept imprint, previously confined to shorter works and magazine publications. This debut marks it out as one to follow.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 22nd, 2012.