:: Article

“The world beyond inverted commas”

By Colin Herd.

81 Austerities, Sam Riviere, Faber & Faber 2012

Sometimes a collection comes out and it isn’t so much just a collection of poems but an “intervention” too. Maybe you can’t put your hand on it but it throws something at something and changes the game a little. Like when they introduced Hawkeye in tennis and it didn’t just help you to see stuff more clearly, it also added a whole different torque to the sport. And it’s not really about the technology being used being that new or revolutionary or anything – I mean we knew balls were out when they were called in for ages – it’s more just like the relief and excitement of seeing it play out in the mainstream sport, new, tense and dramatic. And maybe it’s just me but that’s what Sam Riviere’s book 81 Austerities feels like – a really awesome and sort of game-changing intervention.

Throughout the collection, there’s an electrifying casualness of touch and tone, the poems consciously creaking, grinding and crepitating, as though they badly require oiling up. Each line seeming to kind of flake off into the next, connected but not that strongly:

if I know you and I thiiink I do
I think I know the kinds of things
you like putting the heating
up full & walking round in your shorts
with the windows open like buying
organic mince & flushing it straight
down the toilet as soon as you get in
like searching for stunt deaths & funfair
accidents like deliberately changing
your mind like walking a metre behind

from the poem ‘Hey Perverts’ &

across the moonscapes of skateparks you are 13 yrs old
& no longer allowed to play with boys / on platform 6
wearing your amazing cape you are not in fact you
but someone else / while I’m a guy who mishears lyrics
resulting in a more beautiful but private understanding
with your dark fringe white shirt & straw hat you are
the palest goth at the picnic / resolutely uncharmed
by my very charming friend

from the poem ‘My Face Saw Her Magazine’.

One of the most impressive feats of 81 Austerities as a collection is the way Riviere sustains buoyancy, interest and surprise across what is a pretty sizeable book. This is achieved by an ungainly-in-a-nice-way balance of wildly varying styles, perspectives, even personae, alongside recurrent motifs and structures that hook the collection together. It’s like a sort of lyric collage, except the bits and pieces being collaged together aren’t assorted bricolage per se but self referential shards, personae and fractures of the same mind. The fact that many of these structural and thematic motifs are self-dissected in the deadpan index/summary/poem, ’81 Austerities’, with which the book closes, can be seen as sort of the definition of ‘rye’, taking the hard work out of the poems by giving you neatly packaged reflections on them, to ‘take away’. Reflections like: “ok funny” and “back on the ironic high horse?” and “ok- as well to know, but then that’s the point, a found poem grinning at itself.”

The counterintuitive thing is, though, that rather than allowing you to get off easily, these neat little summations force you to look for something more or to resist looking for something more in particular, i.e. to resist neatly capturing, casking and stilling the poems. To allow the poems to occupy “the world beyond inverted commas”. But I definitely don’t want to go all ‘new sincerity’ on you, because I don’t think that’s at all the most interesting thing about these poems, in spite of the fact there’s a tongue-in-cheek section, titled just that. And the style is deliciously and sympathetically parodied in ‘Nobody Famous’, in a sort of cut back, chiselled-off frenetic version:

This is me eating not 1 not 2 but 3 pancakes
this is me having Breakfast in America in paris
with my creepy associates
this is me punching a photographer
this is me listening to my ansaphone messages
these are my new converse all****s
this is me logging into my email
I think my password 40 times a day
here I am inside the reptile house

The sense of things constantly shifting and unfixed is achieved not only through variety in style and personae but through devices like the ‘Alternative Title Matrix’, with which you can pass at least a few minutes programming new titles for the poems and the collection from words such as “bible” “crumb” “swan” “album” “robert” “lowell”, “spooky” and a whole lot more.

One of the poems I most loved in the book was a strange, deadpan, slightly angry little lyric, called ‘You’re Sweet’, which opens with the mirroring, doubling lines: “is my sense of self too easily shaken / is my sense of self too dependent” and finishes with a coup de grâce par excellence à gogo: “I’d be screwed if I woke up one day / without all my cultural supports / & apparatus hey lucky for me / that will never happen.”

And ‘Time Please’, I can’t help thinking, is a right-on-the-money disecction of this scene from Tom Cruise’s Ginsberg parody in Cocktail:

Mr Cruise I don’t drink
alcohol so I can’t relate
to your performance and
in my opinion you should
be punished for your outburst,
not rewarded

One of the recurrent inquiries or explorations is pornography, which sums up so much of the fake, financed, overblown and exploitative, a natural target for Riviere’s talent, and not wanting to sound too Nicky Clarke or anything, perfectly captured in the lines’ zippy clip and buzz:

the food was spiffy
and the drilled back sex toy is great
but satisfying one appetite stimulates another.

An interesting companion in this regard would be Rob Halpern’s extraordinary, powerful collection Music for Porn, which came out last year. And while in different ways there definitely are shades of Ted Berrigan, John Wieners (name checked in the poem ‘Sensors are Tingling’), early Tony Towle, Stephen Jonas and Joe Ceravolo, among other US influences, a more homegrown set of precursors for this kind of union of lyricism and experiment would likely include figures such as John James, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Geraldine Monk and Pete Brown, etc.

Sam Riviere is an exciting poet, unafraid to take his poems into the parks where people tell you not to go (those parks little frequented by either self identified “experimental” poets or otherwise) and apart from anything else, it is pretty knockout heartening to see the Forward Prizes go to this book for best debut collection, and Jorie Graham for best collection.

Colin Herd was born in Stirling in 1985 and is the author of the chapbook LIKE (The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2010) and the book too ok (BlazeVOX Books 2011).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 30th, 2012.