:: Article

Text on Paper, Variable Dimensions

By Colin Herd.


Plants, James Davies, Reality Street 2011

Brave to the point of foolhardy (but brilliantly so), the debut full-length collection by Manchester-based poet James Davies begins with a sequence called ‘Unmades’: forty-four pages of erased poems, the catalogued titles of which each hang above a blank page broken only by the cursory details of the poems’ gensis and erasure, like a yard full of tombstone inscriptions.

Conceived 7th May
Written 7th May
Considered 7th May
Rejected 9th May

It’s a remarkable way to open a book, foregrounding artistic failure so explicitly. The ‘Unmades’ are a conceptual and poetic gesture comparable to the films of artist Bas Jan Ader falling from rooftops, riverbanks and in dimly-lit garages. They share Ader’s dark humour, his interest in the fine line between comic timing and a genuine sense of loss, frustration and even self-annihilation. Meanwhile, they articulate a sense of potential and possibility, encouraging and stimulating the reader’s imagination, Davies’ off-the-wall titles are the “plants”, as in gestating and industrial, that trigger a theoretical half-conception, a readerly writing of these deleted poems: ‘Bottle Bank’, ‘How Long Does it Take to Bake a Carrot?’, ‘Cat Stand Off’.

The remaining thirty-three pages of the book are taken up with what Davies calls “occasional poems”, a reimagining of that form, stressing their rootedness as ‘happenings’ in the language of contemporary existence, their irregularity, rather than a suitability for or glorification of any particular occasion. The poem called ‘Entonox’, (the mixture of nitrous oxide and oxygen which can be inhaled as a pain-relief, most commonly used as pre-emergency care and by women while giving birth), uses language as heady, breezy, intoxicating mix of chaotic and often comic references, from the Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd to Gone With the Wind (is that an Entonox-based pun?) star Scarlett O’Hara:

‘vote’ is an old-fashioned phrase
we ought to have said ‘voted’:
wart chuckles
scarlet o’hambra
language frisk
turkey pottage
so finally you tell me
where has this lime?
judd green
what does this ‘s’ mean
a logical shopping mall
armel, macaque, ostrich, povich, mastiff

The Hermann Hessian sequence ’16 Glass Bead Games’ suggests a possible model for reading these poems openly and productively. In Hesse’s final full-length novel, The Glass Bead Game, he created a game, the rules to which remain mysterious, but involve analogies and connections between words and ideas, including formal qualities. Semi-unrealizable as a game in reality, The Glass Bead Game is a thorough thinking-through, a coming to learning through the progressive apprehension of connections between concepts. Davies’ ‘Glass Bead Games’ are four-by-four square grids with varying numbers of full-stop dots arranged in different sequences, and a word or phrase to the right side. The movements of the dots around the grid – at one point spreading out to all four corners, then conglomerating in a zig-zag down the centre, disappearing altogether (i.e. off the grid) and even breaking the mould and sharing two dots to one grid-space – seem to be a potent analogy for a reading practice that similarly moves around connections in the language of the poems. I found myself imagining these dots as a flip-book, where that multi-directional movement would be even more theatricalised. To the side of each grid, there’re phrases, seemingly connected by their relation to the act of writing and reading poems: one grid labeled by the phrase “INTENTION AND OUTCOME” features two dots in the top left corner and bottom left corner, plus two dots in the third column in the centre, as if between intention and outcome there’s a narrowing or a widening of scope and it’s ambiguous which one.

Much of Davies’ work occupies a place between poetry and conceptual art. His poetry is shot through with references to the work of artists as wide ranging as Franz Kline, Vija Celmins and Thomas Fehlmann. Lines such as “next we masticated to Jeff Koons’ record collection”. Formally, his work responds in different ways to that of these artists. His chilly, wet and monotonous poem ‘The Weather’, made up of four identical tercets describing the weather, each tercet ending in the line “I wonder what it will do tomorrow” seems to be a response to the centreless, representational graphite Sea and sky drawings by Celmins. And then there’s an untitled piece made up of what look like exhibition catalogue labels, detailing the materials used in each ‘poem’:

James Davies, Text 2
(2006). Text on
paper, variable
Collection of the

The labels focus attention on the status of poems as art-objects, and crucially on their ‘materials’, their making. The “variable dimensions” is sweet, an acknowledgment of a poem’s capacity to swell or retract in its reading, and with the absurdity of that final, relentless, “collection of the artist”, questions of artistic ownership swerve right into view.

In his pragmatic deconstruction of the different functions poems perform, I’m reminded of Tom Raworth‘s famous poem, ‘University Days’: “this poem has been removed for further study” and Charles Bernstein‘s “This poem intentionally left blank”. Davies certainly shares the fearless approach of those poets (and add to that list poets like Ron Padgett, Jim Behrle, Nada Gordon and Gary Sullivan) to the value of humour. This is brave and adventurous writing, but it’s also intensely pleasurable, amusing, and vigorous.


Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently 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: Thursday, May 5th, 2011.