Poemuseum

Robin Boothroyd – Atomised (Trickhouse Press, 2020)

Words are not the things they describe. At best, they bear a structural relation to them. Often, the connection between word and object is merely arbitrary.

Yet words are, in themselves, objects.

But they are not solid objects. Shift some letters, place them in unexpected combinations, arrange them unusually upon the page, and we soon see the solid black-white of the printed object break down, revealing the subverbal chaos beneath.

Poets orchestrate this chaotic power in different ways. Often, it is barely palpable, merely a whisp of an aura. In Robin Boothroyd’s poetry, it comes at us head-on.

Atomised is a collection of “minimal poems”. One, two or, at most, four-word poems of the style practiced by Aron Saroyan and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Boothroyd’s poems are more like tiny art pieces than poesy. They offer us oblique views on well-rubbed words. Some are funny, some profound; but each must be met by the reader half-way.

The poems take a number of forms.

The compound word. Of which my particular favourite are animal-based: budgericigar, rhinoctopus, seaglegull. Not so much puns as surrealist incitements. There’s plenty of Edward Lear-like food for the imagination here.

The word broken by spaces, or mirrored. These are more provocative. Boothroyd prods our tired language, surprising us with the unexpected, hidden words that pop out. “s elves” is a good example of space used provocatively: live/evil, an example of the mirror.

The contrast between two words. “Conservation” placed above “conversation” was the piece that inspired me to buy this collection. What such a contrast is “saying” is not entirely clear, but, if anything, its opacity only makes it more intriguing. The two words contain an unexpected symmetry, but no related meaning; we are hearing the music of pure structure, detached from all referents.

The iteration of a word. Triangular lists, where a letter is removed each line: taking “trough” to “rough” to “ugh”. These have an older history than minimal poetry, going back to Ou Li Po and the algorithmic poetry of Brion Gysin and Alan Burns.

The arrangement of words into shapes, to be read in numerous directions. These palindromatic arrangements tie Boothroyd’s work into even older traditions; medieval arcana, Chinese ideograms. They reveal the manifold meanings contained in our symbols, and the fact that structure itself often determines content.

There are mysteries and magic here, but also plenty of fun and the noggin-scratching satisfaction of a puzzle solved. Its effect depends upon the reader.

Across thirty white walls of paper, Boothroyd hangs works of conceptual art. How we interpret them is part of the pleasure, and well worth the price of admission.

Atomised is available in a limited edition of 100 from Lancaster-based small press Trickhouse. Those interested in buying a copy are recommended to act fast.

  • Joe Darlington

Your Lovely Feet Gleamed Like Fish

Pablo Neruda – The Captain’s Verses (Carcanet, 2020)

Neruda. A legend. And yet, little known in the English language. Brian Cole, translator of The Captain’s Verses, wonders why.

I look at the picture of the man on the cover. He is well-fed, with a face at once warm and yet sceptical. He is dressed professorially, with a white shirt, tie, a woollen cardigan and a scarf. In the back are the bleached white walls of a Chilean village.

I realise it must be searing hot there. But Neruda is wearing a scarf.

Here, I think, lies the secret to Neruda’s lack of Anglophone readers. There is an unbearable heat to his poetry that makes us uncomfortable. We have to cast it off. We cannot bear it. We’ll wilt.

The Captain’s Verses were first published anonymously in 1952. Neruda was in the middle of leaving one wife for another, and these passionate poems of love and squabble would, he feared, break his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s heart.

But the anonymity only made them more intense. Our speaker, the Captain, takes his “rose so little, tiny and naked,” into his arms. He loves her feet, he kisses her feet, because they bring her to him. She is a trembling leaf, a tiny horse, a waving field of wheat.

He lifts her up. He holds her head. He drinks her blood. He dies over and over, living inside her heart.

The intensity is raw. At times, like the opening poem, “In You the Earth”, and the closing one, “Letter on my Travels”, there is a solid enough image there to bear the flood of words, to keep the structure solid, like a bridge over a rushing torrent.

In other poems, the whole thing collapses into a delirium of mixed metaphors.

                  As if the blustery wind of dreams

                  Had given fresh

                  Fire to your hair

                  And had dipped your body in wheat

                  And silver to leave it dazzling bright

Neruda is less like a love poet here than a true lover. His words are sticky, running over each other, losing all signification, showing only the mingled lust and love that comes between lovers in the night.

They are embarrassing then, yes? Creepy maybe?

Here, I think, is the crux. English readers are puritans. Lusty poems written during a man’s divorce can’t help but feel sleazy. Intense passions are suspect; those that feel them (or, worse, express them!) are dangerous.

But that’s only English readers. And readers on the page at that.

Neruda’s poems have open, freely-running lines. They are quite clearly for performance, to be read aloud.

They are of the oral tradition. A tradition that makes sense of the mixed metaphors. A tradition that thrills in cliché. Neruda is often on fire, his love is burning, his heart swells up, swells with flame.

And his communism, his fighting; what little resemblance it bears to our soggy placard-bearers! He is a man, fighting in the name of love and faith and friendship. He could be a knight on horseback:

                  And in the middle of life I shall be

                  Always

                  Next to my friend, facing the enemy,

                  With your name on my lips

                  And a kiss that never

                  Went away from yours

These words could be Don Quixote’s, but they aren’t. They are true. Well, not true, but foolish and filled with passion, which is better than true.

The act of translating Neruda into English is, also, Quixotic. Thankfully, Cole always picks the right word. Carcanet has also made the right choice in presenting this as a dual-language edition. Some lines must be read out in the Spanish if they are to come alive in sound.

A perfect collection for lovers.

(It’s a shame we couldn’t get the review out for Valentine’s day – ed.)

  • Zoe Islander-Bax

Codex Curiousum

Edward Brooke-Hitching – The Madman’s Library (Simon and Schuster, 2020)

There’s an art to a good curio. A fine balance must be struck between strangeness, rarity and simplicity of paraphrase. The ideal curate’s egg is something you can summarise in the time it takes to idly pick it off a shelf and pass it to a curious fellow-reader.

It must then reveal some, but not all, of its secrets on first parsing. That way, you leave your guest still curious when, a few minutes after you’ve passed it to them, you snatch it away and replace it on the shelf.

My fiancée has an excellent eye for them. Two recent acquisitions include:

My Idealed John Bullesses by Yoshio Markino: a book written by a Japanese author, in broken English, in which he explains at length his attraction to British women. Published in 1912 and richly illustrated, it raises endless questions not so much about the author but about who chose to publish it and why.

Słownik wiedzy obywatelskiej: a Polish “dictionary of political phrases” released under communism. Its Marxist-Leninist bias, presented under the guise of objectivity, is fascinating (provided you read Polish). There’s also a page where a Polish reader has risked prison by drawing a Hitler moustache on Lenin.

My latest purchase is not a curio of this order (a first-hand curio, if you will), but rather a new book that gathers curios together (a second-hand, or encyclopaedia of curios, perhaps).

Edward Brooke-Hitching, in an effort to create a coffee-table book to end all coffee-table books, has gathered together hundreds of rare and strange books and placed them together into one mind-bending volume.

Subtitled “The Strangest Books, Manuscripts, and Other Literary Curiousities from History,” The Madman’s Library is a perfect collection for readers like myself who are not full-fledged book collectors, but do love a good rare book; and the weirder the better.

There are Guinness Book of Records-type books; from the miniature “thumb Bibles” of the seventeenth century to Vinicius Leôncio’s 41,000 page Pátria Amada (a 6’11” high book that contains all of Brazil’s tax code; printed out as a protest against red tape).

Then there are the historical curiosities: Incan knot-language, books bound with human skin, and medieval bestiaries. A personal favourite here is the Liber Belial; a fifteenth-century book that purports to contain a legal case launched by the Devil against Jesus, complaining that the Christ was “trespassing” in hell when he went down to rescue the lost souls.

That one, I admit, sent me to abebooks. No copies available, sadly.

Nor could I find a reasonably priced copy of Nancy Luce’s Poor Little Hearts (1866): a book of poetry written for her chickens. Nor Mary Ann Herold’s A Basic Guide to the Occult for Law Enforcement Agencies (1986) either.

Luckily, I already own a copy of the I Ching, Jonathan Swift’s The Benefits of Farting Explained, and From India to the Planet Mars; a book detailing the psychic Hélène Smith’s multiple personalities: Marie Antoinette, Mughal Emperors and canal diggers on Mars.

As for John Dee’s Book of Enoch, written in the language of angels, or the as-yet-untranslated Voynich Manuscript; simply being able to see snatches of these works in photographic reproductions is enough to conjure their peculiar magic.

The Madman’s Library is a book that truly understands what the world of curio collecting is all about: titillation. Few of these books would reward a second reading, and many are hardly worth reading the first time; at least not from cover to cover. They are primarily objects, things that draw in the curiosity and then, just as quickly, deny it full satisfaction.

For this reason, many of the books produced during the automatic writing craze of the 1920s are no longer of great interest. Nor are any of the cut-up poems made by lesser writers in the wake of William Burroughs. These are strange works, but easily explainable.

A book written in the language of angels, or an ancient Japanese scroll depicting “fart duelling”, however; these come to us as if from an alien planet. We have no context for them and so they, as strange objects, are both interesting in themselves and a glimpse into a world of even larger mysteries.

A strange book is like a fragment of possibility. A shattered crystal ball has dropped a shard into our hands.

It’s for this reason that I think Brooke-Hitching’s book, despite its (necessarily) list-like presentation, is worth reading from start to finish. It is a book that is perfect for browsing, but it also forms an ad-hoc history of the book as an object. The printed codex, viewed from the periphery.

It’s beautiful object itself and one that will surely tempt every MRB reader.

Joe Darlington

Workings for a new world

James Davies – Stack (Carcanet, 2017)
Scott Thurston – Phrases Toward a Kinepoetics (Contraband, 2020)

So why do I review James Davies’ 2017 Stack and Scott Thurston’s latest collection, Phrases Toward a Kinepoetics, in one review? Well, partly because Thurston and Davies ran The Other Room together in Manchester for years, a very important poetry night and publication series.

Having read both these books across a couple of weekends, I’m now clear that I’m reading my current state of mind through them. Of course, contemporary poetry is the perfect genre through which this happens. Abstracted or context-loose signs allow the mind to re-thread what remains concrete, black and white, on the page. Thus Thurston writes in Phrases

‘That high but not perfect contingency of poetry –
nearly but clearly not me […]’

Well if it isn’t quite the author’s, it’s never fully the reader’s either. But the reader takes the work and makes a new portal with it. This is what I like about contemporary poetry as a reader – if not as a writer – that it gives me a prism, not a prison. ‘What are you doing with this poem?’ Thurston writes, that its ‘particularity might lead to generality’.

And so James Davies’ Stack might initially seem like a litany of descriptions of objects. But a little way into the book I am struck that Davies seems to be noting down an internal language which is currently beneath our interest. Stack seems to reproduce the internal meaningscape of ordinary life, often of everyday work.

I put it to you that this everyday functional mental space is almost beneath consciousness. So much so that it is now hard to grasp. This mental space has been colonised by our spectaclised, mediated social world.

Stack, then, presents a fugitive language that is in fact the most ordinary. Great art has always been made out of the stuff that is really obvious – once the artist has pointed it out. Before we were shown it, we were all blind to it. Someone will inevitably say ‘yeah, but that’s obvious, I could have told you that’ and the answer is always ‘maybe, but you didn’t’.

Davies’ words-beneath-notice are the words that direct the body. Or they might be words that arise when the body is navigating space, which both direct movement and confirm it. (‘Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body’ a Manchester singer once asked, shame about him).

Cart or horse first, we all do it. I did it today:

Keys. Keys windows. Take facemask, bike and door.

But we’ve stopped living there. So haunted by digital environments, which have invaded work, leisure and everyday life, we have almost completely ceased to ‘be’ on this plane. Davies picks out this relationship of the body to language and objects:

Slipped walking up a ramp

A room with some flowers in it

There’s another history here for sure, emerging from Imagism, into and through Pound et al. But once these lines are collected up and presented en masse across severely spaced pages, in a book-length work, they become something else. They condense up our fake window on the world and draw our attention to another, perhaps realer one. A world that is beneath our attention on the mediascape, but one that is probably closer to they way we experience life outside the screen than that mediascape could ever tell us. In this, it potentially gives us a way out of it, a route back into a more grounded sort of existence.

Or at least that’s how I’m taking this work on board, right now. Davies re-essentialises and magicalises the ‘real’ world for me simply by drawing me back to it, using quite basic signifiers and strategies.

Put more simply, it is so far from the internet, this book. It is the space left over from that whole social world made up of nothing but pre-fabricated representations.

Patrick Keiller, in the early days of the internet, speculated that the outside world might soon become a shabby, neglected space, because of Web 2.0. Like the space on top of a wardrobe, he said. He marvelled that it hadn’t yet happened. That he didn’t go out and find the whole world looking like a hastily evacuated house.

There’s much more to Davies’ Stack than that, there’s playful humour and the occasional conceptual derailing. There’s also a lineage and tradition in the work of Robert Grenier and others. But Stack seems to properly diagnose – without ever mentioning it – that contemporary life has turned our mental interiors into spaces of dangerous baroque nonsense, at the same time as it shows us that outside all of this an ordinary and saner space remains, which we can simply return to, and then perhaps refuse to leave.

If Patrick Keiller worried that the whole world might look like the forgotten space on top of a wardrobe, Davies seems to be telling us that space might be a utopian one via which we can begin a saner life. Easy eh? Well maybe not so easy, but this book is an important exemplary demonstration of that, or at least I think that’s one of its many uses.

In Phrases Toward a Kinepoetics Thurston is also exploring this relationship of the body to language. He has been doing this formally for years, the line between poetry and movement, poetry and dance. So there may be an explicit research connection between the two writers, I don’t know. A shared aim. If there isn’t, I think I see a connection between their practices anyway. Here, Thurston mirrors the more meditative mental spaces in Davies’ book:

Affect only through changes in the structure of the
body – sitting silently, nothing special.

(from Phrase IV)

He also reflects on the different layers of consciousness flowing through and directing the body: ‘Have I stood too firm in myself? Am I near or far / from my ego?’ Thurston is testing out a language of movement and its attendant psychology. The human as split, as inhabiting their bodies badly, seems to be implicit in both Davies’ work and Thurston’s.

If Davies is trying to get back to the place where humans function in actual ordinary space again, a space of nuts-and-bolts ideation, Thurston seems to be trying to create a poetics of inhabiting the body in that ordinary space. But he is also moving in it in a way that connects with both the space and with others, ‘local alignments, not successive instants’ he writes (from Phrase II):

‘to bring movement into awareness against
the scepticism that cannot ever become

action.’

We forget that our newly mediated mental environments are new and that there are those who are so new here that they never knew that their newly mediated mental environments were new.

Each epoch bursts into a fresh mental space, overlapping with the old ones. In Richard Sennett’s Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, the historical split of body and mind is explored. This split was noted in Greek culture but recoded in Christian culture as the fall from grace and banishment from the garden. I keep forgetting that Sennett began that work with Foucault until I go back to it. I think The Body and the City and Thurston’s collection are very compatible volumes.

Split humans, inhabiting their bodies badly, also move about in cultural space. Cities, for instance. Instrumentalised, post-enlightenment cities of science and technology. But in antiquity they often sent a poet out with ships to found new cities. The poet would lay out the topography of the city. He would speak or sing its layout, thus validating and authorising it. The poet had a relationship with the gods, which – like the unsplit human – has gone, but the city had to be authorised by a poet’s voice.

Sennett’s Body and the City moves, of course, on to Vitruvian man, Michaelangelo’s ideal form of a body, and explains how dimensions of cities were taken from the scales of human forms.

I am taken into scale again, in Thurston’s book, by its form. The line lengths and where they break give me that, often continuing on the line beneath, before stopping, brought short by a full stop, just as a body might be brought short by the presence of a wall, before turning and moving again. As the form dances through a series of tight corridors, the content unspools.

The dance makes the rest of me
visible. Finding the wild line lost,

(from Phrase I)

In some of my work I have made reference to the Acephale cult Bataille was involved in, and his mutilation of Michaelangelo’s Vitruvian Man into what I have called ‘Vitrinian man’, a bleak, modernist figure, reflecting the mid-century years of horror, but also the shift from a fuller human to a fundamentally split being with an instrumentalised libido: The symbol of Acephale was a headless man with its skull in its crotch; ‘Human life is exasperated by having served as the head and reason of the universe’ Bataille wrote in the Acephale journal.

Both Davies and Thurston seem to understand that. Humans are now ‘Vitrinian’, not Vitruvian. ‘Shocked to realise’ Thurston writes ‘that I still have a body, relieved to get lost in it, rolling back / onto spine, knees into chest, then letting it roll onto floor…’

Thurston’s line lengths seem to put us back into a human scale, even in cities – such as Manchester – that can so monstrously dwarf people:

How do we begin? Between that which is
about to happen and that which has happened

[…]

How to challenge scale? You are not
alone again […]

The sacred moment when I reach

(from Phrase II)

I think part of what Davies and Thurston are doing in these works – intentionally or not – is reassembling practices and languages capable of bringing us back to a more grounded human experience. They are very far from the Californian new age cults, because grounded in ordinary doing. Not dangerously spiritualised. There is nothing straightforwardly utopian about mindfulness or the post-Californian cults of the body. Recent years in which new age belief and conspiracy have blended in the clouds of ‘populist’ far right politics should have shown us all that.

Across Thurston’s collection, too, the sheer difficulty of making the body sing poetically in space comes across. He notes not wanting to be ‘fed a role-play’, notes the points at which connection with the other breaks, where the body and mind has had, for today, enough. Here is work, not ideology. Here is sweat, not trite spiritualism.

These books, quietly released, contain enormous, important ramifications. In Davies’ Stack there is an inverse relationship between how minimal the text is and the potential ramifications of that minimalism. It offers a doorway into a saner life. Equally, Thurston’s book, less deadpan, not content to remain on the level of a basic, playful ideation, is a showing and telling of a poetics of inhabiting the world.

Both works offer hard-won openings into a new symbolic world which we all now need.

Steve Hanson

Flannels and Tears

Blair James – Bernard and Pat (Corsair, 2021)

“Before Dad died we went to Grandma’s on Thursdays but after Dad died we went to McDonald’s instead.”

This line, along with many others from Bernard and Pat, has haunted me ever since I first read it. It sits on the corner of something very profound, swinging its legs, but never quite commits to jumping off.

This is a novel where we’re always on the edge of something. Some big revelation is always around the corner, peeking out but unseen. It’s the sort of novel that you feel certain that other people have misunderstood, even though you might not know anyone else who’s read it.

Sold under Little Brown’s LGBT label, Corsair, Blair James’ Bernard and Pat promises, on its cover, a tale of childhood traumas and subsequent repressions. Psychological damage and innocence exploited. Set in the North, it has all the makings of yet another misery memoir.

And yet it transcends its premises, overleaps them in fact. Perhaps even transgresses.

There is a dangerous uncertainty to James’ writing voice. It prefers simple syntax and loose grammar. At times it’s recognisably faux naïve, reflecting the child to whom the action is occurring.

At other times, however, we are treated to long, loose diatribes red with sex and violence. Bloody words that turn her faux naïve style into something else. Something reminiscent of Ann Quin.

The landscape of Bernard and Pat is, like its language, both familiar and unfamiliar. School playgrounds, McDonald’s, a series of aunties and uncles with their names bolted together in pairs – Lyn and Sandra, Bernard and Pat – and those late 90s thrills: WWF wrestling, Ab Fab, The Neverending Story.

We could be in any Northern town, small or large. In fact we’re in Salford, although there’s nothing specifically Salfordian about it.

Instead, we inhabit a sort of Peter Kay dreamscape. But where Kay, the King of Northern comics, can find a laugh in every lightbulb; James, the Quin of the North, will find something unsettling.

What are we to make of the fat dinner lady who sat our little protagonist down on her knee every day so she could cry out all her tears? All James tells us about it is that “dinner” is now called “lunch”. An obtuse evasion if ever there was one. The book is full of them.

The whole narrative of Bernard and Pat is a dance of evasion and confrontation. It is constructed in a series of short sections, each taking a jumping-off point and chasing it until an epiphany is in sight. Then, at the last moment, we break off, leaving things still not quite uncovered.

In this way, the novel does serve as a representation of trauma, repression, forgetting and remembering. It does what it promises. But it also, in a larger sense, shows us life. Life in the raw, in the midst of the mundane.

It shows us that it’s not what you observe that makes a life, but how you observe it.

Joe Darlington

The eastern avant garde

Vítězslav Nezval – Woman in the Plural (Twisted Spoon Press)

Vítězslav Nezval was a founder of the Czech surrealists. This is the first English translation of Woman in the Plural (1936) along with Karel Teige’s wonderful original illustrations. Twisted Spoon have done a great job of putting this together, in a handsome hardback.

Breton’s Free Union poem (1931) seems to be a model for some of the work here. List poems that begin with ‘like’ open out in the mind, into weird urban blooms.

Like the rotations of a coffee grinder
Like the quivering eye of a neon sign
Like a barmoeter

The Czech surrealist collective Devětsil which Nezval co-founded – in its initial manifesto – advocated that its acolytes turn to everyday modernism. Big buildings, aeroplanes and posters. In this there is a similarity with Apollinaire, with Blaise Cendrar’s ‘Profound Today’, and they are precursors to the poetical sections of Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, although by then the european avant-garde were bored with the city.

Here, Nezval takes on the theme of ‘woman’, of an everyday urban eroticism. The translators write that the way Nezval handles the subject of women would cause alarm today. But Toyen, the Czech artist who refused to end sentences with feminine clauses, who was essentially transgender, appears in its pages. It’s very tame, actually, in comparison with the – on one hand – pornified everyday landscape, and on the other the raging gender and culture wars. It feels like a gentler landscape, even though it was not, and in ’36 it was about to become intolerably harsh for a long time.

The founder of the Prague Linguistic School, Roman Jakobson, was also involved with Devětsil. Appropriately, then, there is some formal innovation here. Whole sections run like dramatic dialogue, for instance. The Prague surrealists are in and out of the theatres watching each other’s rehearsals.

A chapter runs as ‘Pages from a Diary’. This section is very rich, historically. A mention of a letter from ‘H Bousquet’ who is terminally ill and never leaves his rooms, makes me wonder if Nezval means Joë Bousquet. The dates fit, Bousquet died in 1950 and was in a bad way from the end of WW1, from 1918. This Bousquet wants to buy a copy of Toyen’s Yellow Specter.

This whole section is a snapshot of the european avant garde when everything was up for grabs, it was all to play for. They were writing to each other across the continent, hooking up, buying each other’s publications. In this section, the night-time dreams overlap with the accounts of daytime.

In one delicious moment Nezval and friends walk out of a museum and a boy comments, when he thinks they are out of earshot, ‘surrealists’. We could easily flash forward to 1977 to hear someone say ‘bloody punks’ under their breath. At the end of the section, Nezval seems to be suggesting the boy’s comment was channelled from the dead Apollinaire. They are practicing automatic writing.

A manifesto piece ‘Why I Am A Surrealist’ cites the ‘hatred of romantic gibberish’, but the Romanticism this movement emerged from is also tangible in the work, at this distance. The thing a movement defines itself against is very often still tangled up in it.

Still, they were Marxist-internationalists, this lot, too. Nezval ends his book with a poem in bold called ‘The Spirit of Corruption’:

This world in which man rules over man disgusts me
And a humanity that does not want this world’s day of reckoning
disgusts me even more
But what disgusts me most is my own impotence to bring
its murderers to reckoning

Especially since they are few enough
For me to strangle with my bare hands
I would scrub up like a doctor
Recomb my hair a bit
And go write my poetry

This world in which man rules over man disgusts me
And a humanity that does not want this world’s day of reckoning
disgusts me even more
But what disgusts me the most is the fool who laughs at this
desperate poem of mine
Which is how I should end all my books

Amen, buy this book.

Steve Hanson

Forgettable/Unforgettable

Yoko Ogawa – The Memory Police (Vintage, 2019)

The Memory Police, going by the title, sounds like a story you’ve heard before. 1984, Brave New World, We, Swastika Night, Fahrenheit 451; there are plenty of books dealing with the eradication and falsification of history. But this is something new.

Yoko Ogawa’s story is set on a distant island. It’s an island that’s full of noises, like Propero’s, only here the noises grow fewer and fewer each day.

Whatever magic the island has seems to be in league with the memory police themselves. Each time something new “disappears”, nature collaborates with the police in getting rid of it.

When dates disappear, the memory police must search all houses and destroy the calendars and diaries. Nature then does her part by forgetting the change of seasons.

Nature disappears the birds and the memory police oblige by ransacking the house of our protagonist’s ornithologist father.

The people of the island help out by burning their possessions. Once everything’s burned they forget the disappeared items altogether, losing their words and the ability to even picture them in their memories.

Why is this happening, we wonder? No answers seem forthcoming. If there ever was a reason for the memory police or the disappearances, then that reason seems to itself have been disappeared.

This is one of The Memory Police’s bravest and most insightful literary decisions. Ogawa gives us no insider possessed of knowledge, no outlaw scientist to provide exposition. The old man who our protagonist befriends, an old fisherman, looks on just as astonished as the rest, as all the boats disappear.

The time of explanations has passed, Ogawa seems to say. Reasoning no longer comes first. Compliance comes first. Reasoning comes in after, putting us all at peace. Relieving our troubled consciences.

Ogawa plays with other staples of the dystopian dictatorship novel as well. Our protagonist is duly arrested by the memory police, as is inevitable, but here they let her off with a caution.

Our protagonist is a writer, but this gives her no power over the past. She complies, just like the rest, and when her own writings are shown to include disappeared words and images, she is more surprised than anyone. She has forgotten; the words mean nothing to her.

We learn that there are people who still have their memories (or, more accurately, lack the ability to forget). They have done nothing special to make this so. It is merely a genetic fluke; easily identifiable by a medical test.

Our protagonist, in her only real attempt to defy the memory police, takes in one of these remembering ones. The scenes of his hideout, with undertones of Anne Frank, are the only part of the novel that feels recognisable. The historical parallel here is clear.

The strength of The Memory Police lies in its lack of obvious historical parallels. It tells a new story, and it does so using unexpected ingredients. As a result, its direct relationship to our living world is uncertain, ambiguous, perhaps uncanny.

This is not a story you’ve heard before. For that reason alone I would recommend it, but I would also add that its mystery is both haunting and compulsively readable. There are twists, even beyond those I’ve semi-spoiled above, and an underlying tone that carries a weight of current meaning.

An unforgettable book.

Joe Darlington

Solstice Prayer

Lucy Rose Cunningham – For Mary, Marie, Maria (Broken Sleep Books, 2021)

Leeds-based artist and writer Lucy Rose Cunningham’s debut pamphlet is a paean to love and maternal kindness, alluded to by the title’s addressees: Mary, the Holy Mother of God; Marie Stopes, founder of the first birth control clinic in England and Maria Goretti, the Italian martyr. 

Divided into five sections, the poem muses on desire, art, loss and the carnal body. Each comprised of lyric fragments, almost Sapphic in their tenderness and succulent language. Cunningham utilises the white space of the page, space which signals absence in the sparse, early sections and is graciously filled in section V, ‘to New Love’.

Throughout the poem, a subtext is threaded in greyed-out text, almost as if the poem were a musical piece for two voices.

Most striking is the musicality of these lyrics, the words enclosed in this pamphlet beg to be read aloud, to become sound in air. There is a balance struck between hyper-confessional sincerity, ‘oh I want to bury myself between you and the / night’, and a mystical, folk sensibility, ‘tonight I am white gold with saints, / swimming in waxen wilderness’. 

Aside from its experimental form and subtle references to contemporary life (such as ‘listening to Lana’ or the Regenfenster at Tate Modern) For Mary feels classical in its treatment of beauty. Not timeless, but a poem where time stretches out like a ‘solstice prayer’.

Much of the content surrounds sexuality and reproductive choices, delighting in the sensual language of the body, where nectar and linden trees figure symbolic of bodily fluids.

Cunningham’s artistic practice looks at the performative use of language and voice, and has influenced this romantic meditation in which the speaker has ‘grown / peachy vowels; / thick, pitted, / raw’. The poem seems scored like a musical composition, the five-part structure, and experimental form guide the reader through each section.

Most stanzas are punctuated, except on occasions where the words run into each other, ‘swimming round round round and back / back space backwards’ creating an incantatory rhythm. For Maria has found a unique form and language for the complexities of lived experiences, however ‘burning thirsting pulsing’ they may be.

Lucy Rose Cunningham’s For Mary, Marie, Maria is due to be released on 31st January 2021. The first of many releases this year from Michael Marks Publisher’s Award winners 2020, Broken Sleep Books.

Tom Branfoot

A Paean to Pomo

Andrew Komarnyckyj – Ezra Slef, The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (Tartarus Press)

I started this novel in January thinking it was serendipitous that I had hoovered up Roger Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess over Christmastime. I found the Roger Lewis biography in the organic food co-op (Chorlton of course) on the book swap. I opened and finished it in a few days. It’ll be going back there at some point.

The idea of the biographer going a bit mad, or rogue, or both, and talking more about himself, is the basic premise of this novel. What pulled me through Roger Lewis’s biography was the sheer rush of egotism. The asides about a prediliction for nipples as big as tractor buttons. Yet another scything remark about liver failure. One could conclude that Lewis’s biography of Burgess is simply scandalous. But it is, in its unreliability, in its scaffolding with nothing more than amplified hearsay and plain untruth, in its rudeness, quite ‘of Burgess’.

Komarnyckyj, then, has a fictional biographer break into a fictional writer’s home to be thrown out and told ‘you can write about anything as long as I am not involved.’ The biographer takes this as a massive green light and Komarnyckyj presents it all to us deadpan like a new Confederacy of Dunces for a contemporary neo-Grub Street.

The other subject of the book is postmodernism. Ezra Slef, the fictional writer, is a postmodern author. Him being called Ezra is always already a nod to Pound. In a mediated world – on a planet of representations – meaning’s endgame has always already been played out.

Komarnyckyj claims a love-hate relation with postmodernism. I agree. But then I read Pynchon and realise that the problem is often not with postmodern literary landmarks. It lies in the absolutely thumb-sucking languagescape I try to stay out of. But it’s everywhere, ironic take-downs of next-to-nothing, pouty-faced styles that entertain in order to disguise there is little or no content beneath the tonal posturing.

This novel gets at that uncomfortable truth by presenting the fictional biographer’s material during its in-progress state. It’s often dreadful crap, the disturbing dimension being that it will only take a little buffing for the material to be publishable.

So what marks Komarnyckyj’s take on literary postmodernism out – because that’s what I think this book is – is an understanding that on this litscape where meaning’s endgame is already lost, all that’s left to do is make a satire out of its fundamental literary-philosophical stuffs. And that’s why I think this is a great novel, not a lightweight one.

For example ‘Ezra’ and ‘Senor Humbert’ appear as themselves, but frosted with a little of the literary sugar of Pound and Humbert Humbert. Komarnyckyj then puts them in positions where that light dusting of connotation will do a lot of work. But you need to know your literature for that to happen, and so this is literary fiction, for all its cheeky re-arrangement of museum furniture. There’s a lot of this in the book and to over-discuss it here would ruin the reader’s fun.

When I got to the end of this book I realised its author had actually listed Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess as one of his source documents. Burgess’s Enderby is in there too: Perhaps I was more than accidentally on the right track with my coincidental reading.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson is also listed at the end. As the novel gets crazier and Ezra Slef becomes more a target than a subject, the influence becomes clear. Johnson’s Albert Angelo must be an influence too, as the author of the book, Andrew Komarnyckyj, is clearly in the text to a greater or lesser degree (how could he not be? Andrew Komarnyckyj invented the whole thing).

Stern’s Tristam Shandy is also listed, and I wonder if we might add Voltaire’s Candide as well. There’s a kind of nutcase, duo of journeymen quality to the book, which is very entertaining and a little bit brutal in places. The biographer blags his way into Oxford and then bribes his way into a job with an early folio of Joyce (as a professor of postmodernism, of course). In this there’s Hogarth too, I think, and so of course Smollett and Fielding. This is the very British – actually English – aspect of the book, for all its Pynchonism.

There’s been a lot of talk about exiting postmodernism. But I haven’t seen any convincing examples of form that can claim to be ‘out the other side’. All I see is drably worthy reheated humanism and modernism. A lot of it. I’m so fucking bored of it I can’t tell you. It reflects the last few years of batshit crazy times in no ways whatsoever. It’s just the dour underside of the contemporary cultural coinage. The bright upside is the chattering, giddy childscape of listicles about celebrity pets.

If you’re sick of that, and I am, then this is a damn fine novel to take in while we’re waiting for either The End or Something New.

Steve Hanson

* PS: I’ve never seen a Tartarus book before, they are beautifully made.

Intergalactic Grammars

Jeff Vandermeer – Dead Astronauts (Fourth Estate, 2020)

It is imperative that we alter our consciousness if we are to escape the planet. Professor Haim Eshed, the father of Israel’s space programme, recently revealed the Galactic Federation that awaits us in the stars. The Federation is waiting for us to develop. We are not ready yet.

If we are to evolve minds capable of surviving in space, we must look to our language. We speak an Earth grammar. A language rooted in soil and rock. Jesus, the living Word, recognised these limitations. That’s why he could only speak in parables.

Jeff Vandemeer also recognises these limitations: perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously. His new novel, Dead Astronauts, is a fascinating story, an experimental romp, but it is also a clear statement of intent; language as we know it cannot handle the future. It must change.

The story follows three dead astronauts. Moss is an elemental field, formed into human shape for the temporary benefit of her compatriots. Chen is trans-chronomic, travelling through time, constantly beset by other versions of himself, each struggling for supremacy.

Grayson is the closest we get to an everyman. She, lest we forget, is also dead.

Other creatures fall between vision, memory, and pure allegory. The blue fox. The duck that watches. Leviathan.

The action appears to take place on a desolated Earth, but it could be any planet. The Company – an ephemeral but hardly benign force – are everywhere and nowhere at once. It is impossible to tell who works for the Company. All you know is that you must escape them. Seize freedom where you can.

The astronaut’s great nemesis is Charlie X. A multidimensional Mengele; he warps and mutates creatures into new shapes, inspired by the tortures his own father inflicted on him as a child.

Charlie X appears to be both empowered and persecuted by the Company. Without the Company he could be free, but without the Company he also could not practice.

So far, so psychedelic. But the great promise of Dead Astronauts lies not in its characters and plot but in its mode of presentation.

Vandemeer’s language is ever-shifting. Strange tenses. Clipped lines. Concrete nouns that sit in ambiguous relation to each other. It is a post-Heisenbergian language of uncertainty.

Sitting within the language, our strange cast of characters is made mythic. I cannot help but notice the Biblical parallels: Leviathan the aquarial behemoth, Charlie X the morning star, and of course the three dead astronauts themselves: kings of reality, journeying across an existential desert, following their own stars.

Perhaps this is the kind of reality that we now attend to? Perhaps these are the kinds of creatures that we must become?

Our language has evolved alongside us; taking for granted the concreteness of objects, the unidirectionality of time, the notion that our senses must be detecting all possible phenomena.

In order to join the Galactic Federation, it is likely that we must evolve beyond this. We have to be flexible enough, right down in our language’s basic phenomenological foundations, to permit encounters with transdimensional entities, metaphysical para-objects, and timewarps.

Scripture has given us a glimpse of this world. The prophets already inhabited a state where meaning overflows surfaces; where appearances shift and materials themselves change to accommodate the intentions of transcendent beings.

The universe Vandemeer conjures is curiously Biblical, and thoroughly futuristic. It is the kind of book that serious readers must attend to; and writers even more so.

It is only one more in a huge line of “small steps”, to quote Neal Armstrong, but it is heading in the direction of the Great Leap that will finally take our minds, and not just our bodies, into space.

Rev. Demetrios Kanapka