Surfacings (review: An Ocean of Static)

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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.

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