The I that can be we (review: Skin Can Hold)

 

skin can hold2

Vahni Capildeo, Skin Can Hold (Carcanet)

Of all the contemporary poets writing in the UK today, Vahni Capildeo is the one who, with four or five books behind them, most gives the impression that they are only just getting started. Capildeo’s intelligence, learning, wit, anger, skill and insight appear to be, on the evidence so far, limitless; and it is a brave person who would hazard a guess as to what they will come up with next. Of course, it is not actually any of the above qualities that make Capildeo’s work stand out (they are adjectives that could be applied to any number of active poets), but it is the way those qualities are used – the purposes to which they are put.

When Geoffrey Hill died, Rowan Williams elegised him in the Guardian with these words: “He speaks from deep inside his language. The reader sees the ripple on the surface, puzzling, even apparently arbitrary; but not the fathoms-down movement on the seabed. To read with understanding, you have to join him down there, which is an arduous journey and often frustrating, but generates a sense of challenge and vital unsettlement.”

Capildeo’s poetry is not easy, and I would suggest that, as with Hill, their work provokes in the reader a “sense of challenge and vital unsettlement”, but Capildeo does not require us to dive to the dark seabed of language in search of understanding, as Williams had Hill doing, rather they bring it up into the joyful, harsh, sometimes blinding sunlight on the surface. Puzzling, maybe, but hardly arduous.

In some ways Skin Can Hold moves thematically away from the previous two Carcanet collections, Measures of Expatriation and Venus as a Bear, in as much as the constant questioning, testing, stretching and redefining of the ‘lyrical I’ largely shifts in focus from some of the strategies that have served the poet so well in the past (for example, using geographical dislocation as a metaphor for distancing inner from outer / mental from physical worlds, and some of the more Ovidian forms of metamorphosis to be found in, particularly, Venus as a Bear). Capildeo is clearly continuing their project of breaking down the I, but in this collection, we find more twisting together and opening-up of pre-existing texts (see the Muriel Spark sequence for the former and the Martin Carter section for the latter), as well as direct engagement with fellow contemporary poets (Mark Ford and Zaffar Kunial) and an ‘inviting-in’ of the reader (or audience) with several poems that include stage directions (e.g. ‘Four Ablutions’) or prose explanations as to the purpose of the poem (i.e. the syntax-ified Carter poem ‘I am No Soldier’).

The overall result is a feeling that this is a collection which Capildeo is holding out to the world, offering – as a teacher may offer to a student – a utensil that will help them participate and therefore understand: ‘Look’ they seem to say, ‘now it’s your turn!’ Perhaps it is increasing confidence that leads Capildeo to offer up their work this way, but I get the impression that this is the way things were always heading. The Carcanet volumes (the only Capildeo collections I am familiar with) all seem to be developing towards something which involves sharing a new way of looking through poetry (or looking, through poetry). We may not need to follow Capildeo to her ocean depths, but she would like us to take part in her language, to join her in the water so to speak – and perhaps the understanding is in the taking part. There is, however, no sense that this is the arriving at a destination, or the culmination of a previously incomplete sequence of work.

I think the continual development of forms and ideas, call it experimentation, is central to Capildeo’s work because it represents the poet’s vision of a fundamental ‘unfinishedness’ inherent in the human condition. (This is distinct from ‘incomplete’, as it is perfectly possible in Capildeo to be both complete and unfinished simultaneously). We see this directly in poems like ‘from The End of the Poem’, which is both complete in itself and an extract from another poem (and which contains the ultimate ‘unfinishable’ image, that “infinite tonguetwister” the self-devouring ouroboros), and we see it also in ‘Fragment of a Lost Epic from the Losing Side’ – which is in the most overtly political, final section of the book – in which both a city and an individual perch for eternity on the verge of destruction. Both these poems define themselves as just the visible element of a larger and more complex whole – complete in that they present as entire ‘units’ but unfinished in that what lies behind the visible remains impossibly always-to-be-arrived-at.

Language here is inseparable from the physical individual, and Capildeo makes chromosomal references several times, most overtly in the second section of ‘from The End of the Poem’: “The poem is Trinidadian, / is double x chromosomed, is one hundred and fifty cm, / is creatively crushing on a dead Scottish man / and imagines itself in medieval Italian / and is none of I, Lord have mercy, it is not what I am.” So, the reader would clearly be unwise to identify poem and poet as synonymous and yet the poet appears to run through the poem at an almost genetic level (I’ve written about linguistic DNA before, and find myself on an unfinished learning journey myself here too, as this link will show). But for Capildeo, individual identity, like gender and like race (which are of course inseparable from self) is fluid, creative, unfinished and ultimately not actually individual at all: Martin Carter’s I is described as “extensive, inclusive” and containing a sense of “the I that can be we” and this is also true of Capildeo’s own I (and all of ours) – this is both political (“I am this poem like a sacrifice” wrote Carter in ‘I am No Soldier’, whose poems Capildeo wishes to be “with and inside” through syntax poetry) and personal (“Do not SHE me” the poet puts it bluntly in ‘Shame’) In contrast with ‘she’ / ‘her’ the personal pronouns ‘they’ / ‘them’ are plural, inclusive and as such reflect the communality of a self-definition which seems to wrest the notion of ‘containing multitudes’ away from Whitman. Capildeo does not make any claims on ‘largeness’ but expands the I to celebrate all the unfinished, unfixed, and fluid plurality that the Skin Can Hold.

More than with any poet, I am aware of a ‘review’ format being inadequate to cover the myriad delights that Capildeo presents to the reader – and further aware that there will no doubt be many more delights I have missed because of my own lack of reading. My unfamiliarity with the work of Muriel Spark, for example, stunts my appreciation of one of the two central sections in the collection, ‘Sparks’, a knitting-together of various Spark stories with elements of Shakespeare, Webster, Marinetti and Two Knotty Boys (Google them if you need to. I did!) among others, but this does not prevent me from seeing the creativity of different ages being intertwined and thereby metamorphosed into something new and by extension, again, unfinished. And it also inspires me to seek out and read the work of Muriel Spark – which is not such a bad outcome – and then to return to these texts more fully-informed, perhaps to write a second review. So it may be that this review is itself unfinished.

I love Capildeo for their wit and rage, which often comes in one and the same expression (“Fuck that shit. Now that’s a poem”) but more than that for the complexities of life that they refuse to gloss over glibly, or ignore, as many do. This is poetry which is interested in looking for the truth with the only tool we have to do so, language. In other words, for me this is real – stop, slow down, read, think – poetry. And I make no apology for linking it as I did above to dead white male poet Geoffrey Hill in this regard.

I have had reason recently to quarrel somewhat bitterly on Facebook with a relative who is of the ‘science-tells-us-men-are-men-and-women-are-women-and-trans-women-are-men-who-pose-a-threat-to-actual-women’ school. I feel I argued the case-against successfully (although my relative would disagree) but how I wish I could find a way of having us sit with each other and for us to read Vahni Capildeo together, and to talk about the non-binary complexities of life and how art can help us see these complexities which science is only beginning to reveal in some cases, and to think about the multitudinous nature of selfhood and how language reflects that. I don’t think my relative would take the time required to do this though – they are filled at the moment with too much blind anger, panic and fear, those most contemporary of abstract nouns. But it seems to me that it is language as a defence against just those nouns which Capildeo holds out to us so generously in this collection.

Skin Can Hold is published by Carcanet, and is available here.

Elisabeth Sennitt Clough: an informal interview

Elizabeth-Sennitt-Clough

I recently met up with Elisabeth Sennitt Clough at The Cambridge Blue on Gwydir Street for a chat before her CB1 reading around the corner at The Blue Moon on Norfolk Street. She read alongside the unique and wonderful John Lyons, who I will make the subject of a separate post.
Liz has been a friend since we completed our online MAs at Manchester Metropolitan University together. She has over the last few years won and come highly placed in several competitions, been published in countless magazines and been named a Poetry Society Recommendation for the most recent of her two full collections At or Below Sea Level.
It was an informal sort of interview and I didn’t want to risk creating a stilted atmosphere by recording what we were saying. We agreed that we would just chat and I would pass my write-up by her before I published it on the blog, to give her the chance to correct anything I had misremembered. So, that’s what we did.

I was keen to know how she thought MMU had helped get her started on what has been a relatively meteoric rise. Her response was interesting because it was not what I had expected: as online students she felt we had missed out on an important part of ‘being there’ and experiencing the face-to-face dialogues that are part of a physical university presence. We had, I think, all enjoyed and got a lot out of our ‘virtual classroom’ workshops, but it may well be that online students of creative courses miss something ‘organic’ that comes from seeing peoples expressions, and reading their bodily reactions (a subtle smile here, an involuntary grimace there!). Anyway, perhaps as a result of this perceived limitation of the online aspect of the course Liz threw herself into taking advantage of modules that allowed her to travel to Manchester, entered the university competitions (such the Rosamond Prize, which she won for a piece called ‘Samson’ in 2016 in collaboration with BBC Young Composer of the Year Grace Mason) and supplemented her university writing by travelling to poetry residentials and workshops up and down the country.
Overall, we agreed, Liz had grasped, far more than I have even now, the importance of poetry as collaboration. For me, even working on our MMU workshops felt a little like ‘cheating’, and I still fight advice to an unreasonable degree, but by embracing the community of experienced and skilful poets, she has been able to learn from them, build on their advice and shape her (I use the word although I dislike it) ‘craft’. Liz still takes advantage of mentor schemes, which she says allow for far more dialogue and nuanced discussion than the editing process involves, and she made a point of mentioning and praising her present mentor Rebecca Goss (Her Birth, Girl – both Carcanet) in this respect.
Anyone who has read Liz’s work knows the importance the Fens plays in her poetry and I mentioned to her that she sometimes seems to almost get inside the land itself (particularly in some of the poems from At or Below Sea Level) and I felt that in one particular poem in her pamphlet Glass, ‘Fallen’ – a traumatic evocation of a sexual assault – the speaker almost appears pressed into the earth by her abuser, and I wondered if for her the flatness of the Fens and the positioning of her ‘poet’s-eye’ so close to the ground represents the oppression, the physical pressing down of women under the weight of patriarchy. She took it further and replied that the Fens are an ‘abused’ landscape, almost literally beaten into submission over hundreds of years of drainage. So, yes, they are the perfect landscape to symbolise female subjugation.
I think of Liz as a ‘poet who uses nature’ rather than a Nature Poet (as I would call someone like  Alice Oswald, another writer who keeps her eye very close to the ground) because her use of her immediate surroundings seems to emphasise the symbolic / atmospheric over the mythic / organic; and so her Fenland narratives and characters (including her ‘I’) are steeped in their surroundings’ history and shape in the present just as individuals are surrounded by their symbolic selves (man v Man; woman v Woman etc.).
Liz’s work shows a fascination with unusual, interesting and foreign words, but not, so far as I have noticed, Fenland dialect words; and so it was interesting to notice her use later in the evening, during her reading, of the word ‘dyke’ to mean ‘ditch’. I noted that my grandfather in the North East used to use the word to mean ‘hedge’ which I believe is a more northern and Scottish use of the word, but this prompted me to ask Liz if she had thought about using more dialect words in her work – as these often seem to me to form a bridge between language, history and landscape. She had been made more aware, she said, of the power that dialect words have on a poem after reading Liz Berry’s Black Country, and it is true that the Fenland of East Anglia, like the west Midlands, is very rich in dialect potential. But Liz has spent years away from the local dialect, living in Cambridge, the Netherlands and the US, and so she does not feel linked to the local language in a way that has allowed its use to feel natural in her poems so far. Having said that, she acknowledges it may be a rich seam of inspiration and so does not rule out using dialect words in poems in the future. I’d be fascinated to see what the results would look/sound like.
I asked Liz what direction her new work was taking and particularly whether she felt she had ‘written out’ the traumas in her past which have informed some of her previous work. To a certain extent, she said, she had, and for that reason her most recent work (for her forthcoming collection The Cold Store), while retaining the Fens as a central theme, casts its net wider and looks at more global, environmental issues. The work she read later in the evening, which is destined for the new book but still going through the process of being honed, certainly bore this out. And if you have read Liz’s previous work, the pamphlet Glass, through her first collection Sightings to her recent At or Below Sea Level you will have seen her themes broadening, her risks (and their pay-offs) increasing, and her thematic reach being stretched ever-further, and so this movement towards a more overtly political eco-poetry will seem both a natural and an exciting progression.
By way of finishing off, I include here a poem from At or Below Sea Level, ‘The Fens as Post-Apocalyptic Region’ (previously published in The Lighthouse Literary Review) as it is a lovely example of how Liz pulls the Fenland landscape’s history into the present and works it for its symbolic value.
Whatever she does next, poems like this show that Liz is likely to remain worth watching…

The Fens as Post-Apocalyptic Region

By the beginning of the 20th Century,
only one acre of true Fenland remained.

The Apocalypse arrived five centuries ago
as fire in the belly of a Dutch engineer.
Now elderly ladies wear The Apocalypse
between their brows, as they pursue
the earliest Early River plums on Ely Market.
Traces of the apocalypse can be detected
in the arsenic-green signage of the two
Poundlands in Wisbech town centre.
Teenagers carry snakes of The Apocalypse
in their eyes, as they loiter between
fog and shadow in Whittlesea bus shelters.
A doctor’s surgery in Boston prescribes
apocalyptic pills instead of HRT.
Cash machines in Fenland banks spit
apocalyptic saliva instead of notes.
Local playgroups nurture toddlers
with apocalyptic tantrums. In Earith,
bakers bake apocalyptic loaves
and in Haddenham, butchers string strings
of plump apocalyptic sausages together.
And, all the while, the Fen Blow blows
apocalyptic dust over its people.
The Apocalypse has come, a Fenland pastor tells us.
We know, say the Fen people and fill their cans
of petrol to fuel the apocalyptic flames.

You can read my analysis of Liz’s poem ‘Pages You Lose to the River’, here.

You can buy Glass from Paper Swans Press, here, Sightings from Pindrop Press, here, and At or Below Sea Level from Paper Swans Press, at the Poetry Book Society here.

 

A Prayer For My Daughter (poem)

Ellie1

A Prayer For My Daughter

After Yeats

That you will read this when I’m gone
And not be sad or tied to anyone
(Unless self-tied) including me,
Who as, I hope, a happy memory
Will have some form of life inside
Your head, not as a father or a guide
But as a simple loving friend
Until you die, and then content to end;
That you will not regret your life
As lover, mother, single-parent, wife,
Whatever you should choose to be
In your relations with contemporaries;
That you will say I learned from my mistakes;
That you will be delivered from the fakes
And perverts you will no doubt meet
In every city, down every street;
That you will sieve the dust of words
And filter out the sly, absurd,
Wicked, false and downright bland;
That you will think about and understand
A thing before you call it A
Or B, before you yield or disobey;
That beneath the sky of your last night
On Earth, free from hatred, pain and spite,
You will breathe in peaceful air.
That’s my prayer.

For Ellie

Kim Moore’s ‘I Let a Man’

This blogpost comes from reaction to Kim Moore’s poem ‘I Let a Man’, which was published in The New Statesman in March, and which elicited a surprisingly strong comment on Twitter from a male writer who called the poem “horrible, unpleasant”, and appeared to accuse it of objectifying men, then later of being part of a “liberal backlash against men” which “seeks to denigrate and reduce them at every turn” and which if taken to an extreme “will result in the annihilation of men”, the critic then referenced the SCUM Manifesto of radical feminist and would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solana.

What horrors were awaiting within, I wondered as I clicked with a quivering finger on the New Statesman website. Never having read Moore’s work (I subsequently have) I didn’t really know what to expect but I had read interviews with the poet online, and I found it hard to believe that the poem would be quite as bad as its critic made out. I was right. It isn’t bad at all. It’s a brilliant poem which should be celebrated by men and women alike.

I want to take a look at some of the ways the poem creates a disquiet that works through its female voice to to speak of an all-pervading sense of menace which, far from contributing to men’s obliteration, should grab them by the lapels and force them to look afresh at the effect they have, through their actions, on female psychology.

But first I cannot help wondering why a poem like this should create such a negative response in a male reader. There is a clear sense of fear in such over-the-top reactions; this is expressed more or less openly in the use of a word like “eradication” – some men read their own destruction in critiques of male behaviour towards women, much as some white people fear (on various levels) increases in non-white populations. Upping the ante from the mere diminishing of power to the (il)logical extreme of entirely losing the right to exist provides a useful rhetorical hook but also smacks of panic-induced desperation.

In this angry reaction there is also a blindness (wilful or not) to the function of a poem – or at least one of the many functions – which is the fact that poems are able to break free of dominant discourses and provide both writer and reader with a vision of what lies behind such discourses. They need to be read as opportunities to look from a new perspective: I am a man; a woman has written a poem which provides a woman’s perspective on men; I can learn something new about men; I can learn something about myself. Unfortunately poetry is a medium that requires scalpel and tweezers and we live in an age of clubs and axes.

The writer has also mistakenly identified the objectification of men. We are simultaneously ‘selves’ and examples of a ‘kind’. You cannot be yourself without being one of many others who share characteristics that affect your relationship with the outside world. Asking critical questions about your own ‘kind’, (especially if the particular group you belong to is and has been the principal oppressor throughout the history of the modern world) is no more or less than the responsible thing to do.

Poetry provides the cultural space for women (and everyone for that matter) to vocalise identity without reference to hegemonic and patriarchal expectations (cf recent examples Blakemore, Collins, Tamás). If this space also presents men with the opportunity to consider critically male subjection of women, well that is not objectification, it’s a gift we should accept gratefully.

On to the poem itself.

The word “let” bears a great deal of the emotional weight here; its repetition seems to incant into existence a feeling of self-recrimination that creates the sense of a female voice speaking from within something it cannot escape. That the reader comes to the voice from the outside allows them to see the menace, coercion, bullying and abuse that the speaker does not seem able to name. It is the dissonance between what the speaker acknowledges and what the reader infers which builds into the poem an impression of a misogyny bigger and more all-pervading than either the female speaker or the various male protagonists are aware. The poem is doing many other things but it seems to me that this sits behind everything else.

The whole idea of letting a man across the threshold of a house has vampiric associations, a use of the just-out-of-view supernatural which builds on word choices such as “space”, “shadow” and “light” (three consecutive line endings) to hint towards the female speaker as filmic or literary victim of some genre-evil. The very language of the poem in this way becomes part of the culture (in both senses of the word) that traps the ‘character’ it creates.

The shadow and light also sets up a critique of the black-and-white nature of the choice imposed on women, knowingly or unknowingly, by men – once a tacit agreement for sex has taken place, there is an expectation that it will be followed through, because “a mind is not for changing”. As if a mind is for anything else. This is a false binary which is approached first through the abstracts of dark and light, then developed in the opening and closing of lift doors, simulating the jarring clash of body against body, and finally brought to its quiet ‘climax’ in the extraordinary final line “I open then I close my eyes” – the culmination of having accepted the false binaries throughout the poem, the speaker finally really only has two choices left: either to open her eyes and look at her unwanted partner during sex, which she cannot bear to do, or to close them and pretend it’s not happening, which she does.

I’m only touching on the surface of what this poem contains that is worth analysing and discussing. I would encourage anyone, and yes, I think particularly men, to read it, share it and talk about it. But don’t just write it off as man-bashing.

You can read ‘I Let a Man’ at the New Statesman, here.

anger land (poem)

brexit1

we’re all football hooligans now you’ve picked your side
you’re waiting to pass your colours down the generations
as you’re chanting syllables of phlegm out onto the pitch
thinking your vee signs from the height of your terraces
we’ve all got stanley knives to slice our points out of faces
pool balls in our socks like Ray Winston in scum united thus
from barbed wire council estates to the gardens of eton
all of us simultaneous individuals and examples of our species
do you remember when it was only the punks and the pinks
who were filled with bile but it’s only a fascist who thinks
about the good old days these days a metropolitan poet
told me to fuck off the other day not really i just said that
to get noticed and dear lord all i want is to get noticed
we haven’t got time to think it though history will sniff
they had too much panicking to do too many days and no
i know pinks doesn’t really work but it rhymes and no
i know i’m repeating words too much but i haven’t got time
and why o why am i using a lower case i christ without
a capital this means nothing to me as Midge Ure said
and after that there’s really nothing left to say except
it’s likely some of us at least will live to fight another day
politics has just appeared and politics has never been away
i feel like i should read parlement of foules i don’t know
what it’s about but it sounds about right could check it out
on wikipedia but probably won’t just look at those cunts
doing their best from within their wormy little holes
if they had plastic seats to rip out they’d be flinging them
across the commons more than ever we are the blind
following the blind this country is a parlement of mole
rats a talking shop for wealthy troglodytic vermin whose
eyes have been sealed no not by 40 years in the european
union in fact but the 360 since the tenures abolition act
or so i understand from so-i-understand.com placards
demonstrate we’re such an eccentric race what fun
what fun to leap on a train to london daddies-aunties-
mates-and-sweethearts-against-the-nazis revolutionaries
and soixante-huitards hardly more than a pitch invasion
to the multimillionaire and the builder’s apprentice and
the out-of-work foreman who suddenly have something
in common before them a self-righteous army
of the relatively wealthy confused into certainty hungry
for blame easily offended i think we all thought
that history had ended but that was a lie the size of a bus
this jumble of ill-considered words is a metaphor for brexit
i’m flagging this up because subtlety’s dead and this
and this and if there is anything left to say you can be sure
it’s already been said look there’s no good rhyme
for ‘brexit’ but ‘sex it’ that’s what a chick sexer does
to separate the pullets life of enforced reproduction
from the cockerels moments of life then maceration
this i feel provides some insight into our chicken shit
nation but what that insight is i cannot say have you ever
thought what this must look like from the outside not
the outside we like to think about because it’s not
really outside at all but from the real outside the one
where people work hard and starve to death every day
and everyday some of them will know that up there
somewhere those spoilt ones are squabbling because
they fear some of their luxuries might get taken away
okay this is doggerel for a doggerel time
but even the worst poem you’ve ever written
can be revised i mean look at that terrible chicken
analogy just now any citizen in their right mind
would go back and cast their eyes over what’s done
take pen to paper in a second referendum but still
what should have been a marathon became a sprint
between two individuals you lost you won
we didn’t know what we were voting for is the point
is not the point we were lied to by those bastards
is the point is not the point yes we’re all individuals
is the point is not the point world war two
is the point is not the point we are all degrees of racist
is the point is not the point changing demographics
is the point is not the point millennials is the point
is not the point capital progress technology greed love
is not the point and because two things can be true
is the point the whole point and nothing but the point
one statement can be both impolite and kindly meant
and vice versa polemic quickly descends into mindless rant
but o my god it feels good to be angry and good to have
someone to be angry with and good to transfer all my
insecurities and weaknesses onto a single group my enemy
my guilt my paranoia my self-hate my inner-ugliness
my lack of understanding my hubris my humiliation

Surfacings (review: An Ocean of Static)

binary

An Ocean of Static (Penned in the Margins) by JR Carpenter has already been ably reviewed several times (among others, by Alison Graham, Jade Cuttle, Mary Paterson, Tom Jeffreys, and Steve Spence – links to which reviews, along with some interesting interviews with the poet, can be found on Carpenter’s webpage) so I will try in this post to make some observations and connections about this very good experimental book of poetry that have not yet been made, rather than simply saying again, less well, what the above reviewers have already said.

What occurred to me first was that this is a book not about ocean depths but about ocean surfaces (there is proportionately little that happens in as opposed to on the ocean), and of course by extension it is about those scraps and fragments, partially hidden, random, and drifting, that are visible because they have floated up from the metaphorical blackness below. If the ocean is ‘us’ in all our unknowable complexity, then the surface is what we can see of ourselves. If the ocean is Meaning, the surface is Words. If, conversely, what happens on the ocean’s surface is political – and it is – then the depths are where history’s dark and powerful hegemonic-patriarchal forces reside.

Computer code becomes the flip-side of the book’s dual ‘depth’ metaphor – the frequent use of elements of coding language (//, [ ], # etc.) highlights the ‘background’ depth of everything we look at on the screen (the screen being where Carpenter’s work is most at home). They are flotsam and jetsam broken off and risen from a programming world that is usually completely hidden from view.

Many of the poems offer the reader ‘alternatives’ of language (the online version of the first poem of the book – ‘Once upon a tide’ – shows different versions of the same lines appearing and vanishing before our eyes) in a way that also reminds us that the language we use and the stories we tell each other are ever-changing – untethered and directed by forces out of our control. This element of constant change reveals an irony in the ‘static’ of the book’s multi-levelled title. In fact, nothing here is static: the jumble of ‘found’ words, the pages of repeated lines which lead to individual letters forming their own cross-currents, the disintegrated grammar and syntax, the indentations, they all build towards a sense of movement, slow, powerful, and quite frightening.

And there is no escaping the ecological aspect of the unease that this powerful sense of movement evokes: in a world where we know ice-caps are melting and sea-levels are rising, the great blocks of repeated language, the fragmentation and break-up of language, the drowning of poems in alternate meanings, could all be read as parts of a diluvial disaster. And this being so, we might read the confusion of messages and measurements and reports and journal entries as the tiny, lost voices of a species way, way out of its depth.

I’ve mentioned the language alternatives offered in many of the poems both as being symbolic of computer code and as ‘drowning’ the poems in meanings; another effect of Carpenter’s technique is to turn the poems into amalgams of differing perspectives, much in the way that cubist art offers various viewpoints of the same object. One thing in these poems can be many things, with different associations, working off each other in multiple ways so the poem as a whole becomes a complex (if unwieldy when first encountered) artwork, glinting with alternate readings and shifting perspectives. And of course, because there are usually three or four alternatives on offer, the reader can (in the paper book version at least) choose from a huge variety of word combinations and in principal at least and create their own ‘do-it-yourself’ poem:

“An owl and a girl most [‘adventurous’, ‘curious’, ‘studious’] [‘set out’, ‘set sail’, ‘sailed away’] in a [‘bottle-green’, ‘pea-green’] [‘boat’, ‘sieve’, ‘skiff’, ‘vessel’]; a [‘beautiful’, ‘shipshape’, ‘sea worthy’] [‘craft’, ‘raft’, ‘wooden shoe’]”

(‘Notes on the Voyage of the Owl and the Girl – // The Voyage’ p.23)

Here, the owl is the only fixed element in a poetic structure that contains multiple existences at the same time, but we must work hard as readers to piece together the various parts of the whole. Every reading could yield a different girl, a different boat, a different poem. It’s good value for money, if nothing else; but it is of course much more than that.

Picasso was, therefore, one creative mind that I thought about as I was reading this book; another was the poet Kei Miller, whose ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion’ seems to open up a similar idea of unmappable space to the one Carpenter works with, though to different ends. Miller sets up his cartographer, his “frustrated” mapper of measurable “lengths and breadths”, in opposition to the Rastaman, who knows “Neither low nor high science will get you through / Jah’s impressive door”. And at the same time Miller both sings “In Praise of Maps” and “hail” to the 28,000 rubber ducks lost from a sunken container vessel in 1992 and which “pass in and out of salty vortexes”. The cartographer and the rubber ducks both came into my mind as I was reading about Carpenter’s 2,340 years’ worth of terribly small-seeming human voyagers bobbing about, calling to each other, searching and surviving (barely) in the North Atlantic. And although the reader may feel like they need a map at times, what Carpenter provides is far less tangible – not the spirituality of Rastafarianism but the transience and power of our planet. Some passages provide us with the solid and the political (signalled of course in repetitions, one of Carpenter’s key strategies; for example, in ‘Instructions and Notes Very Necessary and Needful to Be Observed in the Purposed Voyage for Discovery of Cathay Eastwards’ there are two pages of part-phrases all of which include the words England and English – “returned to England”, “under English colours”, “property of the English”) but these ‘locatable’ or ‘mappable’ (indeed, colonial) moments soon dissipate into the language of ocean movements (in this case a further almost-two pages of phrases which use the word tide – “the tide near the head, “as the tide falls”, “at lower-water spring-tides”). Thus Carpenter’s voyagers, like Miller’s Cartographer, must ultimately give themselves up to something greater, more mysterious, and un-pin-downable than themselves if they are to find what they are looking for.

Another name I could not shake from my head while reading An Ocean of Static was Alice Oswald, whose Dart I have always loved. Oswald’s book struck me as both different and similar to this one. Different because Dart is all about river-movement: trickle and ripple and flow and surge – movements that all exist within the greater, purposeful movement towards the sea; while Carpenter’s movement is all directionless, invisible power that can by no means be trusted to take you where you want to go. The two books seem to talk to two different parts of us – that which needs to be elsewhere, and that which is lost and adrift. But there are similarities; one, the way they evoke human lives living on and by the water; and two, the way the water becomes a character in itself – in Dart, this comes through in the voices given to the river and is personified in the Dartmoor rivergod Jan Coo. In An Ocean of Static, it is more cumulative and, I think, less deliberate (I may be wrong) but nonetheless, if there is a central character that emerges, it is the ocean itself – an effect heightened by the abstracted voices building on and reacting to each other in, again, ‘Instructions and Notes Very Necessary and Needful to Be Observed in the Purposed Voyage for Discovery of Cathay Eastwards’: these may be voices that have been harvested from historical documentation (“This book is made of other book” Carpenter tells us) but in their isolation, spaced and indented, and not always – if ever – following on from each other conversationally, just tonally, they begin to feel, to me anyway, as though they are the voice of the ocean itself recalling the voices of those who once braved its cold, dangerous north-west regions.

Oswald also uses the visual shape of her poem to symbolise the shape and movement of the river water in its various states as it travels towards the sea; and Carpenter does something similar throughout, and this reaches a zenith in “TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE]”, which presents a double-page of computer code (which I imagine is JavaScript of something interesting, and I only wish I knew what it was!) – here, to one who does not understand the coding, we have the conjoining of the static of communication (or lack of it), the hush of white noise perhaps, and a visual sense of ‘ocean noise’ – the plus-signs, and brackets, and semi-colons look something like bubbles and the two pages together as a great block of encoded language makes you feel lost, as a diver might feel lost just beneath the crash of waves, perhaps they themselves just another surfacing fragment.

I would recommend An Ocean of Static to anyone who is interested in questioning what a book of poems is and can be.

An Ocean of Static is published by Penned in the Margins, and available here.

Truth and Honesty in Poetry (mini-essay)

As much as he enjoyed Homer, Plato did not want poets anywhere near his ideal State – not only were they a bad influence on the minds of the citizenry, making everything they said seem attractive through such devious means as melody and rhythm, they were also mere imitators, fakers, as opposed to the real makers and doers who made things tick. They were not capable of truth, only a shadowy semblance of it, and this for the purpose of arousing the passions rather than encouraging reason. So, out they must go, and out they must stay, said Plato half reluctantly, unless someone could give a jolly good reason for allowing them back in.
Not a popular view today, it seems, with 2018 poetry sales at an all-time high of £12.3m (almost doubling over the last six years). These days, we are not only allowing poets in, we are, after 2,500 years, embracing them and commodifying them as a fully-fledged part of popular culture. New, living poets too; not just the old, dead ones. But our idea of what poetry is is very different to Plato’s. A recent Poetry Society Twitter poll showed that 48% of us (those of us who care enough to respond to Poetry Society Twitter polls anyway) agree with the statement: ‘If it’s presented as a poem, it’s a poem’. Epic-and-lyric-loving Plato would have frowned, I suspect; and possibly tsked, along with 2,500 years-worth of poets.
Reading chapters III and X from The Republic did make me think, though, about his objection to poetry in relation to its role in society, and about whether there is anything to his charge that poetry’s imitative nature means it is incapable of generating ‘truth’. His worries about poetry influencing the young are less interesting simply because we would be likely to agree that poetry does indeed have the effect on the young he claims it to have, but we would see that as a good thing – inspiring and broadening minds etc. But the ‘truth’ charge still resonates and is worth pausing over. I guess our conception of truth has also changed, but even without the lens of Platonic Forms to look through, it does seem quite a high-flown claim that a poetic work might access something ‘truthful’ which, say, philosophers (with whom Plato felt poets had a distinct and ancient ‘quarrel’) could not. And it also seems fair to say that sometimes the ‘truth’ we glean from a poem is somewhat nebulous, a bit un-pin-downable, more of a feeling than anything else. This is that thing we call ‘Poetic Truth’. Oh, come on! says Plato, wtf?
The charge is a serious one, because the implication is if a poet is not saying something actually true then s/he is not saying anything at all (but saying it prettily). And the gap between saying something that is true for some and not for others and saying something that just kind of sounds like it could be true if you did but ‘get it’, is a narrow one. And besides, when something evoked in a poem strikes us as ‘true’, is it in fact not just highlighting a shared experience? We might argue that there is nothing universally ‘true’ about it at all, it’s more like a stand up comic pointing out something amusing that we both recognise – the meme-line “It’s funny because it’s true” from The Simpsons doesn’t really cover it, more like “It’s funny because we both recognise it from the part of society we both belong to even though a third person may not”. But if enough people do recognise it then you get your laugh and so have your joke (or get to your ‘truth’ and so have your anthology-ready poem). Can we conclude then that a poet is just a stand-up comedian who is packaged as intelligent but who is only intermittently funny (if at all). Should we throw them all out, as Plato suggests?
This problem of truth is highlighted by poets who look back with a frown and a tsk at their own work and go about amending it. One example is WH Auden, who famously changed the final line of the penultimate stanza of ‘September 1, 1939’ (below) from “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die” because the original line, he came to feel, was “a damned lie”, and the poem a whole “was infected with an incurable dishonesty” (John Fuller quoting Bloomfield’s Bibliography).
Auden’s use of the word ‘lie’ suggests (obvs…) that he felt the original line was ‘not true’ in that there is no ‘or’ about it, we will die whether we love one another or not. The literal meaning of ‘or’ in this line can only be read as ‘if we love each other, we will not die’ – a blatant falsehood. So, taken as a prosaic statement of fact, Auden’s right, and if it was a statement of fact he intended (and quite a bland one, because to say ‘we must love one another and die’ is to do nothing more than make an unremarkable suggestion and then state an equally unremarkable fact of life) then the change was fully justified. A reader who is open to the slightly vaguer but still fairly clear ‘Poetic Truth’ understanding of the original line will add their own internal ‘translation’, which will be something like “We should be nice to each other, otherwise we’ll all end up killing each other – and that would be bad”. Plato would no doubt prefer this as a clear and philosophically sound alternative (though written uninterestingly) and agree with Auden that his original line was untruthful nonsense (though attractively succinct in its anapaestic trimeter). As poetry, then, it is a lie but translated into prose it is capable of expressing a truth that could potentially be helpful to the ‘State’. Auden clearly hoped (for a while anyway) that he could maintain the poetry of the line and its prosaic truth by swapping ‘or’ for ‘and’; but he came to realise that this put the line at odds with the ‘sense we get’ (a phrase, woolly as it is, that we often here in poetry reviews) from the rest of the poem and decided the whole thing should “be scrapped” – though it has been reinstated in his collected work since.
The problem was, of course, not with the poem but with Auden, whose politics had shifted since he wrote the original work and later in life wanted it to reflect truths it had not been written to reflect. The Poetic Truth of the ‘or’ line requires the reader to do some of the work for themself, to make a leap in order to ‘translate’ the line in a way that is not ‘untruthful’ in the context of the rest of the poem. This, perhaps, is the difference between poetic and philosophical truths: the latter are clearly laid out and delineated by their writer, the reader intended as a passive recipient; the former, in contrast, invite more active participation from the reader, attractively packaged and embedded in metaphor, they ask the reader if they are willing to follow and even invite some participation in determining their final destination. Maybe Auden forgot this in his severer later years.

But what is more – or at least equally – interesting to me is that Auden repeatedly referred to the poem as “dishonest”, which is not, of course, the same as ‘untrue’. It’s an interesting charge and one to which only Auden himself would be in a position to ascribe substance. You can’t really back-fill honesty, or a lack of it. You either state something in an ‘honest way’ or you don’t; it may be incidentally true or false, and the (dis)honesty of the statement may remain with it, but this particular quality can only ever be injected at the original point of production. So, whether Auden injected his poem with honesty or dishonesty only he knew. I suspect that the fact he came to use the phrase later in life indicates either he knew he had not truly believed what he was writing originally, or that later in life he wanted people to think that he hadn’t – his older self rather patronisingly using his younger self as an example to others of how the young do not really mean what they say – if only they had the wisdom to know it.

An earlier line in ‘September 1, 1939’ exemplifies both poetic truth and honesty quite nicely. The 1930s are referred to as “a low dishonest decade” and it strikes me that a reader on the hunt for hard facts could also accuse this line of being a “damned lie” – decades can be neither low/high nor honest/dishonest. These are both attributes that decades are factually incapable of exhibiting. In order to access any truth that may be encoded within the line, we must make a leap, on the back of our metaphorical understanding of those adjectives, into a world of associations that are likely to be different for all of us, but which we can link to other words and images in the poem to build a Poetic Truth that, while nebulous, carries meanings outside the factual truthfulness of the line. “Low” for example takes us back to the “dives” of the first line and collocates in our minds with phrases like “low-down dirty, lying cheat” and though decades are incapable of dishonesty, we make the leap to understand that Auden means the people who lived through the decade, and at the same time hinting at so much individual dishonesty combining to form something greater and more sinister than dishonesty alone – and we may make a further leap to associate that with the rise of European Fascism. So the line is no more a lie than it is dishonest.

But the way Auden imbues ‘decades’ with the quality of dishonesty suggests he is using ‘dishonest’ to evoke ‘a thing capable of imparting dishonesty’ (as though they speak to us, and in doing so they display dishonesty) as opposed to ‘a thing which was created in a spirit of dishonesty’. If this is the case, it is possible he was doing the same in his subsequent description of the poem as a whole. Was he therefore falling into the pathetic fallacy? Or – a poet speaking metaphorically about their poem – was Auden speaking meta-metaphorically? Perhaps this is one way of reading his reading of the poem.

I often think of Auden when I read critics and poets accusing others of ‘bad faith’, which seems to happen quite a lot. How do they know, I wonder, what level of (dis)honesty – if this is what they mean by ‘bad faith’, and I can think of no other synonym – has been injected into a poem by any given poet? Meta-metaphorics notwithstanding, the ‘truth’ of a poem is one thing (or perhaps many things) but only one person knows about its honesty: the poet.

 

September 1, 1939

by W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.