Category Archives: Transmissions

Transmissions: Bristol (Part 2)

 

Transmissions is a 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 Scotthorne’s, The Blood House (Bristol: Hesterglock Press, 2015). Notes on Hawkin’s collection, Contumacy, can be found here.

 

Bodies to Live in: Notes on Sarer Scotthorne’s Blood House
Task 1. Picture a collection of poems as a house; each page a different room. Picture a collection of poems as a body; each page a separate organ.

Ear-Splitting
the house screams
(from ‘David’s Game’)

Task 2. Place your memories inside larger histories of nature and war. The picture of the body is pressed into the picture of the house. The light leaks in, colours merge, and a single picture meets your eye.

The blackness
of his heart
sickened me
(from ‘Poison: Scene 2. Hunger’)

Task 3. Inside this picture read the poems of The Blood House, their visceral correspondences of architecture, bones, circulation, memory, and the death cackle of a fade.

I have been breached
by the living,
who become the dead.
(from ‘Any Persons Arms’)

In opening this way I hope to capture something of the viscerality of Scotthorne’s lyric structures, where the most confessional of poems exceed what could willingly be disclosed, and where the confessions seem aware of what they can’t express. Indeed, across the collection’s opening the speaker points to either the lack or the limits of speech:

‘I wanted to scream and shout/…I remained silent’ (from ‘The Way Seagulls Fly’)

‘There are no words’ (from ‘Any Persons Arms’)

‘What could I say?’ (from ‘Daddy’s Dance’).

Rather than words, what comes out of the mouth is liquid: ‘it sprays from my mouth’ (in ‘Any Persons Arms’), ‘I kneeled and kissed his temple/…Blood sprayed out,/ covering/ his yellow bed/ of flowers’ (in ‘Poison: Scene 1. Alone’).

Blood is a sign of disturbance of the interior and exterior limits of the body. Like all liquids it assumes the form of the container into which it is poured. While the poem as a container for language is an established metaphor, rather than investigating form’s capacity to shape and contain, these poems are like life giving wounds. The poems are open channels for unvoiced feelings — grief, anger, love — to seep into language, its rhythms, words and laws.

If feelings are experienced as somehow prior to language, then it’s significant that it’s not until the end of ‘Repeating Patterns’, the ninth poem of a twenty-six poem collection, that the ‘I’ records its own speech. When it does the words are directed inwards, ‘I say to myself’, the speaker remarks, uttering the sounds ‘chk chk chk’ from an ambiguous subject position: the body first becomes the wallpaper and then it fights against this transformation, ‘I try to come down from the wall’ the speaker says, attempting to escape the fate of the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, vestigially present in the line ‘he traces the lines with his yellow fingers’.

Even though the speaker often refrains from recording their own speech, Scotthorne’s poems have things to say about bodies. The bodies of The Blood House move to their own laws or are violently lawless. There are the crazy, loose bodied bones of a seagull that ‘flee their centre, distorting themselves’ in the opening poem, and then there are a series of poems which constitute the collection’s heart that explore the relationship between a daughter and her dead father, some of which make use of the third person: ‘she should never have eaten his rotten heart./ She should never have killed him’ (lines from ‘Blood Head’).

This idea that one body consumes or becomes another in violence is developed in ‘Soldier’s Dinner’ where the half-day rations of a US soldier in Afghanistan (2013) provide source text for a poem which exchanges the haunting but real power of a father for that of the military:

I moulded my sweat to your national eye,
Gatorade-like-mixes
a fifty-calibre song
spitting your dark trench radar
(lines 11-14)

Rations are the minimal amount of food necessary to sustain a soldier’s body in their work of killing that is often performed in the name of securing a national body. In this poem it is the lubrication of ‘sweat’, rather than blood, that reveals and implicates the flesh in a set of mutually dependent relations: rations sustain the soldier, the soldier sustains the nation, and both sustain the speaker. In this national, militaristic and consuming body the lyric becomes ‘a fifty-calibre song’, singing the violence of its living desires and of its own desire to live.

I particularly value the many other poems in The Blood House that also test out the possibilities and politics of mutual dependency. Here is the last stanza from the poem ‘Sunday Morning Words’:

Inhaled by you, I no longer exist,
my empty nightshirt lies on the bed
and as you absorb me, you become
thinner and thinner.

The ‘you’ in this poem is not a kind host. In the preceding stanza it manipulates, controls and fixes the speaker: ‘And then your cold machinery presses into me,/ you move my arms into position and clamp me tight.’ The ‘you’ here is an enemy, you are the enemy, and the body in its presence does not seep with liquid but is inhaled as gas. After inhalation, the ‘I’ now as a gas inside the ‘you’, reduces the shared body to thinness.

I’m  excited and perplexed by the power relations this poetry creates, as well as the agency it locates. The poems are doing important work. I also feel that even the most painful of poems in The Blood House are acts of generosity. They create new and difficult bodies that we are invited to live in. Whether we can or not is another matter entirely.

 

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Transmissions: Bristol (Part 1)  

 

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:

DO NOT

envisage an isa
or
a fluffed-up pension
to
make
old
age
nicer

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:

Tip #235

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.

 

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