By Tom Jenks.
Stuff, nick-e melville, Whirlpool Press 2011
Everything is made from stuff and Stuff is made from everything. nick-e melville neatly summarises the content of his chapbook from Edinburgh’s Whirlpool Press as: “words from stuff, stuff from words, stuff lying about, stuff on TV etc.” The etc. is particularly apt.
Stuff could be described as a conceptual work in that it has no truck with the still-hegemonic Romantic view of creativity as an act of windswept inspiration, devoid of context and timeless. Nor is it concerned with “authenticity”, or the image of the poet we so often see strolling in from central casting: the seer, the tragedian, the ardent entreatist. Almost every piece presented here is unashamedly made from something else: an advertisement, a clothing label, the instructions for a child’s toy and the ego is noticeable only by its absence. But if we take Kenneth Goldsmith to be correct when he says that conceptual writing is important as an idea rather than a product and that conceptual texts are not actually meant to be read, then Stuff is not a conceptual work, for this is very definitely meant to be read and there is very much fun to be had in doing so. Many poets seek to keep the imperfect, contingent, plural world out of their work, presenting their poems as if they were golden apples picked from a magical tree, or curious speckled eggs plucked from the nest of a beautiful and terrible bird. Melville is not one of those writers. Stuff is to do with the ephemeral rather than the eternal. It is deeply engaged with the apparently shallow. It is work which foregrounds the background and, in doing so it offers a different perspective on the world.
Some would say, of course, that melville is not a poet. And some, judging by the penultimate piece in Stuff, evidently have. a “poet” appears to be a verbatim copy of a review or comment about a piece called Letter of Resignation, not noticeably presented in this book: “…this is an advertising approach of a joke, or child’s play and not poetry.” I do not concur: although it is hard to quantify why, it feels like poetry to me, perhaps because of its high level of linguistic engagement and obvious interest in the form underpinning seemingly banal content. It does, however, highlight the point that to call Stuff poetry is inadequate, as it references and uses techniques from other disciplines, particularly visual art. Most obviously and almost unavoidably, we must note the presence of Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, we could view many of these pieces as textual Readymades. The subversive humour of Magritte and his way of questioning what things are and what things are not is detectable here. Fluxus comes to mind for the interest in and pleasure taken from process and for its joyful sense of play, so too the collage and bricolage of Bob Cobbing. The deadpan surrealism of Les Coleman also provides a reference point. Seeing as I do not have Letter of Resignation to hand, I will turn instead to what I imagine to be a companion piece:
Details of employee leaving work
Copy for employee
Many of the pieces in Stuff are of a similar length to P45 and come from similar sources. At first reading, they seem familiar. We recognise these words and we recognise the order in which these words are placed, for if we have not seen these precise examples before, we have undoubtedly encountered others like them. For example:
small parts and small balls
not for children under 3 years
Made in China
But we may not have seen them in this context or rather we may not have seen them without a context. Removed from their customary frame, disconnected from their usual co-ordinates in logical space, presented discretely with the white noise edited out, they become imagistic and gnomic. Like Roland Dorgelès inserting sculptures undetected into the Antiques Gallery of the Louvre or Yoko Ono presenting an apple labelled simply APPLE, Melville makes new objects out of existing objects simply by where he puts them. Another example:
and to hand.
The longer pieces are worth mentioning too. ‘Big Razor-Grinder’ is the most Cobbing-esque of the lot, a list of British nesting birds, from Golden Bill to Pay-Pay. On a whiteboard in a prison is just that. Words, phrases, fragments, ghosts of sentences are presented apparently unedited and assume new meaning, becoming a fractured narrative of incarceration and frustration. A sonnet composed entirely of creative writing notes is a masterstroke.
Melville excels in showing us what we do not see. Where Betjeman had trains and Larkin had disappointment, Melville has the scotoma: the mental blind spot. If it was possible for a psychological phenomenon to have a poet laureate, then he would undoubtedly be the man for the job. Stuff is not so much a book as a manual for a different way of thinking.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 6th, 2011.