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By James Tookey.

This is the first in a series of essays on the Republic of Consciousness Book(s) of the Month. The Republic of Consciousness is an organisation that rewards and supports small presses, primarily through its yearly literary prize. Each month, we will publish an essay about their chosen Book of the Month, as well as an extract from the book. This first article is written by the co-organiser of the Republic of Consciousness, James Tookey.

Ben Borek, Sissy (Boiler House Press, 2018)

In an interview in these pages nearly eleven years ago, on the occasion of the publication of his first novel-in-verse Donjong Heights, Ben Borek said that he was working on several things:

‘..in a stupid and haphazard way. Poems (mostly connected in some way with living in Warsaw), a (prose!) novel, and another novel in verse with a few different narratives, touching the mass influx of Poles to London, among other things.’

Apparently Donjong took about a year to write; if Borek is referencing the genesis of his new massive poem Sissy here, we’re looking at a time-span of about ten times that. Now I don’t know the manuscript history of the poem, but there are clues in the text which indicate it has been a long time in the composing: a bus ‘bends’ under Vauxhall Cross (the ill-fated Bendy Buses last carried London commuters in December 2011), while there are references to Brexit bringing it closer to today. There is also a plotline involving the online virtual world, Second Life, which while still a going concern, probably peaked at the beginning of this decade. However long it took, there is something about it — the relentlessness, the largesse, the wit — that means it feels like something that has sprung into existence fully formed, or at most in the time it takes to read it; at the same time, it’s methodical and consistent, formally rigid and regular in design, which takes serious work. Sissy is, in the tradition of its ur-text Don Juan, rather like life itself (‘Is it not life? Is it not the thing?’ wrote Byron in a letter): skipping along frantically, battering you with sensations and adjectives, turning to food or the toilet without warning, and echoing with voices from within and without.

The poem is named for its hero, and follows him attempting to find a companion on a website where you can buy a marriage to a ‘Slavic Beauty’, and travelling across Europe by train. The first time we encounter the character Sissy he is tucked up in bed, under a duvet cover featuring a faded map of Europe pre-1989. He’s also inside his mother, ‘like a crewman/ [i]nside a sticky hull.’ Every day he is literally reborn, sliding out of his mother with ‘horrific/ [a]bandon’; it’s an image that never quite settles and every time it is invoked causes an uncomfortable squirm, and like a lot in the poem, it looks an awful lot like a symbol, but a symbol that is resistant to interpretation. The website Slavic Beauties is one such symbol, or the narrator’s foot fetish: he interrupts the narrative to fulfil his desires at one point (flimsy sandals, open-toed, size three), apologising on his return (‘Oh gosh, I’m sorry that I had to vanish/ [i]n such a heady rush… I’ll clear away the edible confetti’). There is something both really obvious to do with metrical feet, and really ambiguous to do with fetishing form, going on here, particularly when there is a further plotline involving the repatriation of amputated magical feet to the Polish countryside.

Alongside Sissy’s search for a wife, and his journey East, there are several other narrative yarns. In fact, a fundamental success of the poem is the way that the disparate strands intertwine towards the end, and what threatened to be flimsy narrative contrivances to hang the poetry on gains a substance which is beautifully integrated into the poetics. The multiple plotlines include Sissy’s alternative reality online, where he is a gangster called Neno Brown, the narrator’s strange haunting of Sissy, and the lives of the inhabitants of a house in North London’s Cricklewood. They are introduced like this:

‘An Eastern household fond of vodka, E,
Noam Chomsky, Goldfrapp, Echinacea tea,

The liberation of the guinea pig,
The “subject as a process”, not a state.
(One free from labels such as Tory/Whig,
Male/female, Marxist/NeoCon, post/late,
State/nation, nation/state.) You want their names?
Those barely-burning arbitrary flames

That signify so little, that this house
Would rather do away with (but they must,
For ease of social movement, never douse
And scatter into nominative dust).’

Borek, who now lives in Warsaw, seems at home in this European left-wing milieu, and the loving abuse of it is merciless and properly funny. The poem is in many ways a negotiation of the space between his new home and his old. There is a relationship between the tortured English of one character, and the necessary syntactical acrobatics required to write in rhyming iambic pentameter; this connects the poet, who translates stuff from “out-there” into ordered language, and the person speaking a second language, translating stuff from “in-there” into a foreign construction. Britain is described as ‘west of Europe’ at one point, and there is a clear implication of the interconnectedness of the continent throughout. The poem isn’t political in any obvious sense, but in the way Polish words are used to extend or complement the poetic line metrically embodies the relationship between the two edges of Europe.

From Ithaca on, epic poetry always wants to return. Sissy moves from South London to North, across Europe to Lviv, and then back to Vauxhall, via North London again. Indeed, the first rhyming couplet of the book matches ‘circulate’ with ‘placid weight’. It is air that is circulating, and as we trip onto the next stanza, we see that the ‘placid weight’ is the tide of the Thames. The natural motions invoked as the poem begins are repetitive and circular. But while the form is regular, digression is the central thread of the poem; we encounter our first parentheses after three lines, and it goes on for six-and-a-half lines. The narrator notices everything, and comments on it, relevant or not to the immediate action. Footnotes, also written in verse, occur throughout the book, often running over several pages and sometimes continuing beyond the end of a chapter. This is what the novel-in-verse, or epic poem, can do perhaps better than any other form: Borek foregrounds the randomness of life, and find space for the distractions and mundanities of daily life, but by clothing them in the same ritual solemnity of verse as the higher themes of Love and War, everything becomes freighted with importance. This is sometimes funny, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes oddly moving. The rhyme form, which is sesta rima, meaning six-line stanzas rhyming ABABCC, is propulsive. The first half of a rhyme looks forward to its other half, and the layered heroic couplets in this form are incessant. Swinburne wrote of the ‘fervent flow of stanzas’ in Don Juan, ‘now like the ripples and now like the gulfs of the sea’; and Byron described his own poetry as a ‘bubble, not blown up for praise,/ But just to play with, as an infant plays’. There’s that feeling with Sissy, too. It’s sort of a natural phenomenon — an impression bolstered, not lessened, by the high artificiality of the form.

If this all sounds indulgent, it is. But to complain about indulgence, vulgarity, verbosity, lunacy, crudity or silliness would be like criticising an encyclopaedia for being smugly know-it-all. Sissy is grandiose by nature. Near the beginning, the narrator’s muse is described:

‘Her taste is ornamental, Romanesque;
The arches colourful, the vaults grotesque.’

The too-much-ness of imagery and metaphors are not needless excesses but the heart of the project. Sissy is not quite about a world gone mad, because the world’s always been mad, but it is about the multiplicity and oppressive now-ness of experience — and with our high-speed trains and broadband, this is as relevant as ever. Modernism and Postmodernism are both conceived of as formal responses to fragmented lives led today; but high formality has a place too. The lack of restraint in content is held in check by the formal rigidity, the poetic line acting as a thread which guides you through the excesses. The poem is built along lines, rivers, train-tracks, modem cables and ropes, and fittingly ends with the tying of a kimono sash, in a completion of the thread motif. It’s quite an extraordinary achievement to colour this vibrantly and gaudily, and keep within the borders.


James Tookey studies literature in Geneva, and runs the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 15th, 2019.