:: Article

Word Machines

By Colin Herd.


Eighteens, ed. Mark Cobley, The Knives Forks & Spoons Press 2011

From Raymond Queneau’s audacious sequence Hundred Thousand Billion Poems to Jerome Rothenberg’s radical reimagining of the Hebrew Mystic number system in Vienna Blood, Ronald Johnson’s 99-section long poem ARK, Ron Silliman and Inger Christensen’s use of the Fibonacci sequence and Jackson Mac Low’s systematic ‘diastic’ poems, numbers and counting have been an important structural element in the work of many of the Twentieth Century’s most radical and experimental poetics. With potential for chance procedures, and taking the poem’s structural locus away from the subjective perspective, numerical systems and constraints have often slicked the engines of what William Carlos Williams famously called ‘machines made of words.’

Just out from the Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, edited by Mark Cobley and featuring many of contemporary poetry’s brightest stars, Eighteens is an anthology tied up around the uncertain magic of the number eighteen: eighteen poets, each contributing eighteen poems of eighteen words. The work is presented with minimal editorial material. There are short biographical notes on each poet at the end of the anthology, but no introduction or post-script to help the curious reader form an idea as to what fascination the number eighteen holds, or how the anthology came about. What I initially experienced as frustration (maybe it’s just me but I can’t help wondering whether the poems were written as a co-operative self-constraint, or in response to a set of rules put forth on the whim of a benevolent task-master) morphs into a compelling enigma, lending the anthology a pleasing agenda-less, open-ended quality. The reader is left to bounce around in their own associations of the number eighteen: Joyce’s Ulysses had eighteen chapters, apparently. And of course it’s the age of majority, the threshold of adulthood. In Hebrew, the number 18 means “alive” and in some parts of China it can mean “you will prosper”, which makes it the most expensive floor in a block of flats on which to buy. But in Northern parts of China, 18’s unlucky as it’s the final level of Hell. And there are 18 holes in a round of golf.

The chief benefit of this editorial reticence is the focus it puts on each individual poet’s response to the form, each individual poet’s reaction to the number eighteen. Tom Jenks’ sequence ‘dramatis personae’ lists names of mobile phone models and what seem to be technology message board usernames in eighteen dynamic mini dramas or tussles, the titles of which recall computer-game levels or theatre-sets.

Scene 5: Grand Pyramid

M; Blackberry 9700; Ant B LG; Bruno, Nokia 5800 XpressMusic; Izzy; MUFC;
Samsung Wave; Not assigned name; Shelley.

Scene 6: Abandoned orangery

Blackberry 9700; M; Izzy; Ant B LG; Nokia; 7100s-2; Heli; Bruno; Shelley;
Not assigned name; Stubbys phone; MUFC.

Jenks’ bizarre lists are dynamic and disconcerting, their language repetitive, impenetrable and alien. We get a sense that there is a logic directing these patterns of words, letters and numbers, but it’s hard to grasp, beyond an acknowledgement that they adhere to the eighteen-word rule, albeit frictionally. They tug uncomfortably at the constraint, at the value we ascribe to words, at how we define a word. Where the letter “B” takes its place in the count to just the same value as “XpressMusic” and “7100s-2”, Jenks raises questions of value and status, which reverberate outwards from his dismantling of the mobile phone, the definitive technology of our society.

The poems in Mark Cobley’s sequence I still wear mountain are presented in reverse of normative numerical order, beginning with eighteen and combing backwards through to one. Correspondingly, it fluidly tempts the reader to fluctuate breezily back and forth both ways. The poem might also be read like a countdown, pre-empting some kind of action or detonation, but the poems themselves resist the drama of that kind of reading, occupying instead a tense plateau between pastoral and urban, observational and surreal:

“under rain

prayer infusion telescope pool

your coat

foundation umbrella Jerusalem galleon

mirror boat

the bent trees bent”

The surfaces of Cobley’s poems are intricate and lively – the double “l” in “umbrella” rippling over into the double “l” of the galleon, the metaphors sort of merging, the galleon’s sails associatively spread-eagle on the spokes of the umbrella. The sweet image of a boat reflected on water “mirror boat”, carries its doubling over into “the bent trees bent”.

The California-born poet Emily Howard allows her untitled poems to merge into one, so that each eighteen-word poem reads more like an eighteen-word stanza. It’s as if her language is infiltrated by the act of counting, extending into considerations of time:

icy breath
on winter window
dancing countesses
turn like clocks
then disappear
frame by frame”

It’s easy to get lost in Howard’s images, a heady tangle suggesting at once: walking in frost, film-frames, picture-frames, breathing, clocks and music boxes, the ones you open to a spinning woman (‘dancing countess’), vaguely-in-time rendition of some almost-recognizable tune.

Jeff Hilson’s contribution also riffs on the act of counting and numbers, but whereas Howard focuses on time, Hilson’s poems take on money and sex. Tackily, delightedly, obsessively, the neat rows of his poems are variations on the slot-machine. You can hear the jangling torrent of fruit-machine coins, and the dizzy spinning of its mechanism, irresistibly brash, punctuated with a kind of disgust and pity, his language imitating that of hunted virginity (the fruit machine cherries) and cash:

“I need line advice instead of slot advice I’m just 18 and shy around her
giant henrirousseau penis”

Questions of economic, artistic and social value are at the heart of S. J. Fowler’s poems, a sequence that circulates and orders itself around a cataloguing of Sloth species (many of which are critically endangered), and a number of portraits of well-known figures, including the 18th century celebrity William Ansah, who was freed from slavery and found fame in London. Fowler’s poems subvert, resist and draw attention to the exploitative nature of capitalist ethics and value systems, through subtle word-play (the potent use of the word “trappings” below) and a reinvigorated dramatic monologue form:

“my lack of clothes
I am a sloth
the trappings of life
for the drifting path”

The standard in this anthology is so high, and so consistent, I could go on listing and praising poets till my fingers are numb, but I’ll have to make do with just a few more. Christine Hamm’s contribution shows that narrative poetry can be condensed into the eighteen-word form. Her funny, episodic snapshots read like flash-fiction. Alex Davies’ untitled eighteen are smart audacious little off-cuts, as if from a shredding machine, processed, digested and conflated, everything from the name of a contemporary poet mashed with the name of a snooker player (“Maggie O’Ronnie O’ Sullivan”), and gross, uncomfortable scenes described with zero tact, maximum impact: “She cradled a lily while she witnessed/ him burn in a wooden box, / like an all-butter croissant.” Richard Barrett’s thin columns slip their way down the left edge of the paper, stunning poems of the margin (“Ivy / creeps up / these walls”), the veil (“net-curtained and / hedged”), and the fragment (“And then silence // Broken / In // termittently”). The book closes with a sequence by Tom Watts, a wonderful “babbling” Thames drinking poem, dredging through silt and sludge:

“our Thames licks
presses serif into

Variously punky, formally bold and linguistically charged, Eighteens is a tremendous showcase for some of the most exciting stars of contemporary British poetry.


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, April 7th, 2011.