Transmissions is a new series in which I offer notes on the creative work of small press publishers of poetry. I’ve decided to start in Bristol, with the editors of Hesterglock Press, Paul Hawkins and Sarer Scotthorne. In this post, I offer some thoughts on Hawkins’, Contumacy (Liverpool: Erbacce Press, 2014). A review of Sarer’s collection, The Blood House, follows next week.
Listen Up: Notes on Hawkins’ Contumacy
For a collection of poems whose title is Contumacy — meaning the stubborn refusal to obey authority — the poems are unabashed about issuing their own instructions. These instructions are not, however, as straightforward as they might seem:
envisage an isa
a fluffed-up pension
Though this short poem ends the collection, the patterns it makes are circular: the acronym ‘isa’, which concludes the first line is rhymed with the last line ‘nicer’. This patterning also occurs in the first line, where ‘isa’ is concealed in the middle of the first word ‘envisage’. The poem, which specifically instructs us not to ‘envisage’, to speculate, or perhaps even to read on (we are, after all, at the end of the collection) enacts this prohibition through a form that twice bends back upon itself.
The poem critiques the desire to translate the accumulation of money via financial schemes and products into the imagined security of a pleasant future, a desire it figures pornographically. The phrase ‘fluffed-up’, recalls the work of the fluffer (the person whose job it is to give male porn stars blowjobs in order to get them hard enough to perform). In the poem the ‘pension’ — which insufficiently serves as cover for the phrase ‘penis on’ — stimulates our desire while our bodies are used in the service of capital, metaphorically fucked into old age. There is no happy ending, no matter what we might want to envisage.
By instructing us ‘not’ to enter into such a dynamic of speculation the poem perhaps naively (or is it my reading that is naive?) sees the possibility of avoiding this fate as a question of activating an autonomous ‘will’. This word is conspicuously absent from the fourth line of the poem where one might expect to find it. However, the title of the collection and the workings of the poem’s form make me distrust the authority of the voice that offers such an appealing and superficially easy solution to the social and economic malaise that it maps. This feeling of insufficiency has much to do with how form is working across the collection as a whole.
Mark Burnhope’s puff on the book’s cover promises that Contumacy exhibits just ‘the right amount of formal diversity’. But it appears that rather than being deployed in the service of diversity, Hawkins uses form to search for a way out of the social deprivations that his poems so acutely, and often earnestly, observe. As no method of formal experimentation — collage, cut-up, détournement, the recording of overheard speech or the enactment of oulipian procedures — is fully up to that task, a variety of approaches are necessarily employed. In other words, the feeling of insufficiency that I register in ‘DO NOT’ is not a failure that belongs to this poem alone. Instead, rather than being a failure at all, the struggle and failure to find ways to live ethically both with and in the world is something that Hawkins’ poems intentionally and consciously explore.
Of all the formal techniques on display in Contumacy, particularly expressive of the relationship between struggle and failure is ‘Tip #235’ which, like ‘DO NOT’, explores the relationship between accumulation and instruction:
1. search the house or flat you live in and collect all
items of clothing including footwear
2. select one set of clothes for the climate you live in
3. dress yourself in these clothes
4. bag-up remaining clothes and leave in a dry
communal area in your local neighbourhood
5. continue with your life
The pun of the title, the rubbish dump and the recycling centre, situates the poem as a mediator between the individual and the community. The actions of shedding clothes, of seeing clothes as commodities, and of establishing an alternative method of exchange which is both considerate of other people and the environment — the clothes should be left in a ‘dry communal area’ — are juxtaposed by the temporary nature of the act, which the poem also admits to in its final instruction: ’continue with your life’.
The relation between a stubborn and permanent existence and a fleeting, temporary presence in a community is the central concern of the poem ‘Contumacy’ from which the collection takes its title. The notes to this poem explain it is an ‘Oulipo constrained interpretation of the old school squatters Legal Warning Section 6 from the Advisory Service for Squatters’. Using aleatoric procedures on this material produces lines that both demonstrate and explore the relationship between property, language and sound:
THAT we live in this householder, it is our homonym
and we intend to stay here
THAT at all timpani there is at least one persuasion in this homynym.
THAT any epic into this homynym with our…
prerequisite is a criss-cross offspring
This poem moves words on in an arbitrary and unrelenting procedure, and with every noun that is exchanged the sense of the text as a legal document legible in official settings is reduced. The ‘timpani’ and homonyms of this poem have their counterpoint in the change of law (in 2012) that made squatting in residential property a criminal matter. At the most basic level these law changes have made it easier for police to move squatters on, gentrifying and privatising communities with recourse to an arbitrary, legal and procedural violence. Hawkins’ poems are at their strongest when the experimental strategies of modernism, which are surfed throughout the collection, intersect with the documents and language of real political struggle.
In conclusion, I’d like to say a few things about the collection as a whole. Firstly, the recording of sound and rhythm is a recurrent concern: through an open window in the poem ‘Awake in Southall’, the city ‘comes alive’ in ‘a whale-cry’, while in ‘The Secret’, a character called Troy, whose hips ‘grind to the beat’, gets amusingly and desperately aroused as he really starts to dig the groove of a ‘Stepsom 913 – OA’ photocopier (‘the Big Boy of photocopying’). Secondly, there’s a food motif running throughout the collection. There are ‘screaming chickpeas’ in the poem ‘Fruit Bowl’, there is the ‘taste of anchovy’ in the cut-up poem ‘More Metro News’, there are ‘tamarind gas tiles’ in the poem ‘Under Colonel Rule’, while ‘Press Release’ begins with the lines, ‘Cameron’s shopping trolley/ horse skin Cameron’. This interest in sound and in the consumption of food come together in the poem ‘Memory Grill’, which begins, ‘The noise I hear when bacon fries/ is the hard pop and scratch of vinyl’.
If sound is one of the ways in which the world seeps into these poems, then food is the commodity that most repeatedly enters the body, and the poems in Contumacy want to explore the body under capitalism. If these notes have said more about the world than the poems themselves, this speaks to what I like most about Hawkins’ work: the poems consistently point away from themselves and take you back to the world; they let you listen in, then they make you listen out, then they tell you listen up.