The Shifting City

Isabelle Kenyon (Ed.), Mancunian Ways (Fly On the Wall Press, 2020)

Maureen Ward and Richard Barrett (Eds.), Shock City, Issue 1, Autumn 2020

Now is a fascinating time as any to reflect on the status of the city one inhabits. Over recent months we have seen the streets transform from post-apocalyptic hinterlands to slowly regenerating hubs, whilst mass inequality is exposed.

Both poetry anthology Mancunian Ways and zine Shock City consider Manchester as it is at present, trawling through the annals of history and chronicling its contemporary landscape, either through celebratory lyrics or scathing essays. 

Shock City is a new zine with a ‘critical eye on Manchester’. The editorial note roots this issue – “Fauxthenticity” – in Guy Debord’s theory of the bête noire; the demonic commodity. EP Niblock’s opening article “The Art of Cynical Placemaking in an Age of Fauxthenticity” takes aim at the inauthentic construction of a city through corporate placemaking. He attacks the constant presence of cranes building “hip new neighbourhoods”, and the HS2 connecting London and Manchester.

Many poems in the Mancunian Ways anthology present Manchester as the second-city to London, a site to flee from to “pursue big dreams in the big smoke” as Abbie Day puts it in her homesick ode “Long Distance”.

But there is a collective awareness of Manchester’s assumption into a homogenised metropolis. Particularly in “Ascension” by Joseph Darlington, with its modernist fixation on the metallic industry of urbanisation, the “shimmering steel ” that “shatter[s] open the sky”.

This “new Manchester” is gazed upon in Sarah Pritchard’s “City of Cranes” with an ecological leaning. The anthropomorphised cranes which litter the skyline usurp the position of nature; “Red-eyed in the night sky, keeping watch over the city.”

A common enemy is shared between Niblock and Tina Tamsho-Thomas. Her poem “Before The Dual Carriage Way” records elegiacally urban division and the suffering of black-owned businesses caused by city planning. His article, along with others in Shock City, carries the same scepticism present in many poems harking back to the pre-modernised city.

It is unsurprising how diverse and inclusive Mancunian Ways is, yet thrilling reading about so many identities forged and fostered in Manchester nightlife.

“FAC-51” by Billy Morrissey relates an mythologised time in the heyday of Madchester. “The Ritz” by Vicky Morris and “Before The Village” by Sarah Pritchard, by contrast, offer us a glimpse into a more transgressive side of nightlife.

For Morris, it’s 1991, with “soap-spiked Mohicans” and crust punks. Whereas Pritchard’s remembers the LGBT+ scene before the Gay Village existed.

Much of the same themes are explored by Morag Rose in her essay “UnManchester: A Warning to Soul Seekers” in Shock City. She argues against a “One True Manchester” as so many sub-cultures and identities make up this “complicated, complex, fucked up and wonderful” city. Rose’s outrage at the inaccessibility of the Peterloo memorial for disabled people reminds us that Manchester is a city of trauma.

A more familiar terror, recalled by Jan Berry in her poem “My Tribe”, is of the Manchester Arena bombing at an Ariana Grande concert; the “Young star whose music / enchanted children and teens”. After this event the bee symbol came to represent “waves of grief”; consolidating resilient collectivism which has defined the city since the Industrial Revolution.

On the whole, these writings on Manchester record dismay regarding foreign investments flooding into its urban core and the new scourge of luxury apartments. The general feeling is that this modification threatens some “authentic” nature of the city, whatever that may be; just read Shock City to delve into this discourse.

Whether “authenticity” exists in the diversity of the city’s inhabitants, in its peculiar history or its resilient places and spaces, there is a sense of its realness and the imminent threat to it, witnessed in the red-eyed skyline, and hiding behind omniscient glass-plated monoliths.

Tom Branfoot

Serendipity and Wisdom

Eileen Myles – ‘For Now’, Why I Write (Yale, 2020)

At one point Eileen Myles talks about horses shitting, ‘there’s so much shit and so much horse’, she says. It both is and isn’t about the whole world, this line, which is a good way of describing exactly what has always been great about Eileen Myles’ work.

Life details bouff out like smoke, into much bigger forms. At the start of the book, her building in New York is bought. The new owner wants to hand deliver the new leases. The landlady comes round and offers her $75,000 to leave her rent-controlled apartment. The landlady knows, somehow, that Myles stays for some of the time in Texas.

Later, it becomes clear they have been watching her, using surveillance, to see how she moves. They try to prove she is living in Texas, when she goes all over the world. It goes to court and in the meantime there’s a rule change. It gets dropped. The judge asks why the landlady continued pursuing, after the rule changed. She has relatives, is the answer, who need apartments.

So much shit and so much horse.

Myles describes rent-stabilised apartments as ‘a trust fund for the working classes’. These places and the legal oases they are in are the political conditions of what created her. In Manchester right now I can only describe – the odd herioc housing co-op apart – their absolute lack.

Here, TV programmes still try to explain Manchester’s building frenzy as ‘cool’ and in some ill-defined way related to creativity (and often New York) at the same time as the city’s radicalism is only that of the right.

Myles describes her landlady as ‘a gift’ and I can hear Allen Ginsberg from beyond the grave here. He appears at other times in the book more fully. The buddhist serendipity. The love of your enemy. The realisation of the moment of catastrophe as a moment of illumination. The fee for the lawyer to deal with the landlady and the court case is the same as the fee for the talk which this book is based on (it began as a Windham-Campbell lecture).

Having nearly died because of negligent landlords and estate agents, agnostic is the absolute best I can do here and let’s not talk about the worst.

But Myles’ acceptance is something to aspire to, and I understand exactly when she talks about writing and time.

The title ‘For Now’ is about the present and being temporary in the world. ‘For now’ she is here, for now. As we all are. But how do we live in the now and not in the past, or in a constantly collapsing present which is always raided by anxious, angry ghosts from the future?

It is also about seeing, then. She talks of copying, and art schools. God. If god is anywhere, it is in the copy. But after finishing the book I conclude that if god is anywhere it is in time. Time is a lens, for Myles.

Myles talks about the ‘alibi’. She feels to be getting one late in life – an alibi – selling her archives, taking up esteemed positions. But she also talks about having fewer concrete plans as you move out of childhood. This is the bravery of the writer. It coincides almost exactly with that of the beat or the punk. Driving the other way with no aim, past the traffic jam to the offices in the centre of town. Past all the angry stares and new cars on tick.

It’s a bad metaphor I know, many of us would not be around to see the commute.

Literature is ‘wasted time’ she says, ‘there’s nothing good about it’, it isn’t a moral project. At the same time she is not denying literature its potential good, far from it. This kind of experience, a long way into the game, is what I value now. The out-of-breath pronouncements about engaging every marginalised and oppressed group are not here. Eileen Myles never did that, to be clear, but right now lots of people are doing it all the time.

There’s a dead-on honesty about Myles’ work. There was in 1969 (and how) and in Chelsea Girls, but this is a little different. This Myles seems more comfortable in herself, and in her temporariness (there’s a final line about this I don’t want to spoil).

But that insight about literature and its pretensions, I want it on every first year arts and humanities curriculum all over the world. Orientations 101: This Is Not A Moral Project.

People turn it into a bauble and bounce it, literature, she says. What an insight.

And her insights were produced by a particular time. In our time literature is trinketized and bounced by human capital as well as agents and publishers. They maketh themselves anew with it. It is make-up.

She talks about her generation, via Robert Smithson’s notion of ultra modernism, all mirrors and displacement, her contemporary scene. You radically understand your own condition, she explains. She is not nostalgic at all. I like that.

Myles talks of rolling in the shit of time. She wants ‘all the time in the world’. That’s the ultimate hit. The deepest fix. I understand that so acutely. But where is it hiding? Not in Europe or San Francisco. If you have kids or a job you will think about them all the time. She couldn’t take that on.

She talks of writing until sleep pulls you in. I understand this through long practice, right down to the details. It’s a different sort of sleep to that of an office worker. A full, fat sleep. You wake up and begin again as though your whole surface is wiped clean, but the last round of writing is in you, under the new surface. Some aspects of it, of whatever quality, are in your laptop, or on paper.

That’s how I understand it, but I think it’s how Eileen Myles understands it too. She also understands that stuff making it onto paper doesn’t signal the end of the task either.

She talks about risk. Every writer has weighed this up, sacrificing the medium-term gains of stability, with one cynical eye on the crashing pension funds and the redundancy rounds. But Myles talks of the people she met and how she just kept on walking. The horizon got wider, opportunities opened up. But that’s New York, I guess.

Myles’ neighbours do not exist like this, though. Not all of them at least. They struggle, prison happens to them. That she understands this so well is essential to my respect for her.

Myles says that when she had eclipsed her twenties she learned that ‘to be real was an interior project’. But she can, through artistic strategy, communicate this interior beyond itself.

She talks of the moment of a fret buzz in a recording. She claims that the way she pulls in similar things, things that initially seem extraneous, actually mark the moment of politics in writing. She is right.

The way a fret buzz makes the guitar realer – its playing more miraculous – is similar to what happens when the image of a horse shitting connects, sometime later in your head, to the rest of the world.

It isn’t exactly the same thing, but it is part of the mystery of human communication, a mystery that is being strategically employed within itself to do productive work. It isn’t so occult, it has an ordinary name, which is art!

I’m often amused to receive a review copy of a supermarket novel in hardback. There’s a tiny comedy there. But here is a book with a real point to having in hardback. Because it is a book I want to go on after me, for as long as there are humans left.

At one point Myles says she is making a public building with her writing, with her art, she goes in first and you go in after. It might be messy in there, in places, but that is what is good about it.

This book stitches wisdom and philosophy into the world anew via phrases that sometimes seem like strings of afterthoughts. It is the opposite of the polished novel that hides its own sheen. It has the skill and years of the seasoned jazz musician.

Listen to a Roland Kirk record, say The Inflated Tear. If that record has a main theme, it’s about making jazz. It’s about blackness, joy and slavery, but the theme underneath, that is making jazz.

But somehow, and it isn’t explicit how, it’s also about everything else all at once.

This book is about making writing, and being a writer, but it also speaks directly to everyone who ever lived a life. It paints a backdrop and then improvises. The result is as rich and worthwhile as a late Beethoven quartet.

A real keeper.

Steve Hanson

Murder Between Continents

Jan Pearson, Blue Dragon Spring (Proverse, 2020)

Jan Pearson is Hong Kong’s top thriller writer in English. Her thrillers Red Bird Summer (2014), Tiger Autumn (2015) and Black Tortoise Winter (2016) are classics of the genre. Heart-racing puzzleboxes bursting with Triads, high financiers and fraught Anglo-Sino political relations.

As Peter Benson, the novels’ “man in HK”, opens the novel by telling us; phoenix, tiger and tortoise represent three of the Four Directions in Chinese mythology. We’ve also had summer, autumn and winter.

Now, four years after the last book, spring is coming and “there will be a time for dragons”.

This time, the action moves between HK and GB (Great Britain). A series of murders is taking place across the country in restaurants named the Blue Dragon. GCHQ don’t waste time in connecting them to Hong Kong Triads. Fingers are being removed from bodies, after all.

And ending up in boxes, sent to Yip Yee Koon. Koon, a financial mogul well-known already to Pearson’s readers, is shown here as undaunted and unbowed as always. His nephew stepped down from leading the Kowloon Walled City Triad two years earlier and this seems like a transparent hussle originating from his predecessor.

Yip is the kind of man whose in-tray could be stacked high with severed fingers and he wouldn’t bat an eye.

His daughter, Annie, meanwhile, is another matter.

From Annie’s first appearance, demanding to be picked up by Yip’s Rolls Royce Silver Shadow (“You know how I love the Rolls daddy”), she’s a captivating character. The spoiled brat whose very stereotypicality makes her compelling. Her particular brand of pouting innocence, we are sure, can’t last long in the brutal world of the HK underground.

Set in the 1990s, the novel is at its best when depicting the fluid movement of the HK elite and British intelligence between the UK mainland and its leased territory.

It paints a picture of a bygone era, but one not so bygone; still, in fact, alive in many resident’s memories. Its freedoms after all were, in the main, still enjoyed until only a few months ago. Their disappearance coincided with our own lockdown, but it will take more than a vaccine to restore them.

As the novel ends by saying: “All seems well enough in Hong Kong, but for how long?”

This places the novel in a curious position. Both current and nostalgic. Hard-boiled and cynical, and yet still glamorous and dazzling. It’s a fitting finale to the Four Directions, and a hell of a page-turner.

Joe Darlington

A shattered symphony

Susan Finlay – My Other Spruce and Maple Self (Moist, 2021)

The cellist voted ‘most sexy’ by Gramophone magazine broke her wrist. Allegra. She can no longer spend between four and eight hours a day practising. Into a spiral of destruction she goes.

You can see her already, with barely a description. Charcoal background and velvet drapes and dress, cream and ivory skin. A living trope that emerged through various female classical musicians across the 1990s.

It walked through these women and out into the world, like a dybbuk. A ghost image that blended in, became part of the landscape of the millenium. Everyone thought that view was fixed, until recently.

Allegra buys poetry volumes that are well reviewed in weekend papers. You already know the publishers. But she also talks to her cello, a Montagnana.

Allegra meets a friend and gets drunk. They end up at the flat of a guy called Johnnie, with a man called John. Wealthy guys. City guys. They get stoned. She wakes up and some porn is on the TV. The numb, amoral boredom of it all is being communicated.

It returns later, the porn scene, as Allegra repeats a fantasy to a guy she contacted via a dating site. The point being made is that she has no fantasies of her own. Whether she did or not before is a moot point.

Moments like this are powerful in this novel. They seem to connect the malaise of the main character with the last six months, and the preceding time to 2016, in which all our fantasies dried out. Withered in the intense heat of the dream-drought.

Initially, Allegra’s inner monologue has that ironic tone which was extremely annoying in the 1990s, all smart answers. But it works in a different register here, as the language of a people now on a kind of social parole. The smart answers are sometimes in a slightly film noir-ish register, and that register already contains tragedy, even if only tragedy-lite.

But the references are those of regular readers of How To Spend It magazine. It has become a sort of subcultural lingo, a green colour is that of a ‘Verdaccio underpainting’. It makes me remember the way very posh people say Glasto, which could make me actually heave, rather than just say I might heave.

But here that whole register has become a kind of antiquated tongue which is still being used – and that is very interesting. Lots of literary critics talk about that, Raymond Williams, when discussing structures of feeling. Benjamin, too, was interested in the recently outmoded for what it illuminated.

Specifically, the cadaver stink can be traced to the ‘lit’ of the 1990s. Dead twenty years, but the corpse is big, its shadow long. So long that maybe we cannot see we are still in it. I wrote some fiction a while back and realised I was still in the shade.

Here, Allegra’s waspish tongue is the death rattle of 90’s ‘lit’. Her inner monologue illuminates her sickness and the drained lagoon we have all ended up in. An airless and socially unwell enclave is still a ghetto, even with money.

Allegra goes to the ladies pond at Hampstead and en route says ‘hi’ to her neighbour Helena Bonham-Carter. There’s a dead python at the swimming pond, full of maggots, half rotted. A deacying phallus. Her distant husband is called Albion, but he is in Amsterdam working as an art expert. And she can never quite call her husband her husband.

It’s a great big metaphor. ‘Britain’ is in Europe, but back in England the newspapers are full of toxic words about the EU, which the country, the precariously named United Kingdom, is leaving. It’s a swollen symbol.

This novel has to whack the big nails into the largest timbers to make its construction, because the sense of the old architecture is going. In five years it may not be obvious what this period was about at all. That is what the novel is about, underneath its story, so the reconstruction with the old wood is actually not just the best thing, but the only thing to do. Turner’s Deluge is referred to. Very obvious, but very relevant and economic. Good craft.

The repeat references to Rossetti are about Allegra’s looks, but they also point to a nostalgic and unrealistic art movement. The Pre-Raphaelites peddled an over-aestheticised, reconstructed past. Now, everyone seems to be living in their own nostalgia fantasy bubble, because there is nowhere else to be. Some are nasty racist reconstructions, others more benign, but the reference is well made.

The main character is called Allegra and of course ‘allegro’ is a musical term meaning brisk and lively – in a healthy sort of way. But she is going to pieces. By page seventy-two she is thinking about how her corpse will be dressed. And then there are the Johns.

Albion rapes her after a consensual beating and she is too inhibited to say no any louder than a whisper for fear of the people in the neighbouring hotel room overhearing. And those people were arguing earlier. Talk about ‘metaphor’.

The signifiers are moved around very well like this, like pawns in the opening moves of Chess. Then occasionally a big piece is moved.

Allegra goes to Greece and is chaperoned by a woman called Eurydice with Medusa icons on her wrap-round shades. They drive into a protest. The police are holding everything up. She gets out, Allegra, and browses a stall selling Nazi tat. ‘Feierliches Stück’ comes on the stereo, a piece of music from Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which the Duchy of Brabant is sliding back into its pagan past, due to the machinations of devious, lurking powers from that past. I see Farage in medieval garb.

The Greek section is fascinating to read just as the leaders of Golden Dawn are sent down for thirteen years. The trouble is that the situation in Lohengrin is solved by a heroic knight sent by god. I don’t see any on the horizon, or a God.

But I do think all of this is ‘critical’ as in critical theory. I think the author has done something quite brutal and clever here. She is a victim, Allegra, eating disorders and self-harm create the elite musician, but the elite musician has been created by a predatory bully.

There’s a moment when Allegra’s old tutor praises his new protégé as lacking feeling, where he used to praise Allegra for possessing it. This man is a cipher for #metoo, he is the cause of her self-abuse. But he is also a road sign along the back lane we’re all now in, and some people call it ‘populism’. It’s a detail that does work at both a story and historical level.

This novel also makes me want the social class it describes removed permanently. This is not to say that I want to do away with people, in some grim totalitarian putsch, but that I want a society in which we have become immune to the celebrity and status disease, as well as the more topical one.

I wish this novel would be able to permanently kill the register it is in – at least in the first half – as well as the need for it to exist. The whiplash tongue of Allegra remains evidence of the kill setting of the financial victors. The jealousy at the younger and equally beautiful asian musician, the self-harm, they are produced in the circuits of a sick system. Post-capitalist schizophrenia breaking in, but at the privileged end.

At the same time, there must be a correlation between those who quip about having as many new labias as husbands and the communities which have had to invent a new feral way of getting by for each movement of capital which closed down whatever economy used to rudely serve it, in whichever historical era.

Their egos are planet-sized, even when suffering. Allegra’s pure hatred of ordinariness overlaps with fascism. She contemplates a Swedish couple and ponders the country’s Nazi past, then in the next sequential thought remembers how she enjoyed the applause at a concert in Sweden.

I am reminded of the end of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ by Kenneth Rexroth many times when reading this novel.

But it all shifts on page one hundred and thirty four. Allegra goes to volunteer at a refugee centre in Athens and considers her self-obsessed nature. All her ironic jokes are lost on the volunteers there. This is the thing about postmodernism, the poor have been sincere for hundreds of years. Ironic double takes have no use where the very floor is uncertain.

But you can only ever go there if you can never come out again, you can never go there as a tourist.

Later, at a dinner party, an elite arts crowd make ‘Earnest but always positive appraisals of the art’ and ‘Earnest and always negative critiques of the political ideologies that financed the aesthetic ideologies that critiqued them.’

This appropriately tautological, stoned-sounding passage diagnoses the opposite pole: The place where postmodernism is an empty space in which meaning has to be generated, like oxygen pumped into an oxygen tent.

Allegra becomes ‘an echo’ here, in these pointless conversations. Nobody is really listening to anyone else, some social is happening, at that frequency Orwell measured; upper middle class noise pitched as high as bat screech.

Only insiders can detect it, and yet Allegra still pictures ‘the sharp edge of a bronze paperweight tearing into what should have been a nose’ on the face of her dinner table neighbour. She files this woman in her phone as ‘shithead’s wife’.

The inhabitants of the enclaves depicted in this novel may be feeling a bit peaky right now, but they are not dying, their power is redoubling. The higher managerial classes within the platform giants are rising. They will take the Georgian houses that are supposedly so fragile they cannot be used for fear of cracking them.

At one point, Britain is described as an amputated or phantom limb. The author couldn’t have known when writing that line how acutely close to the collar it would be as the book came out.

The point is not Britain as antique, but Britain as an antiquity that some people live like Lords in, while others clean the toilets. In this there has been barely any change for hundreds of years.

The book is incredibly well done. Clinical and subtle, but also pulsing with a raciness and heat, which means people will read it. If what we are losing down the cracks as the EU and Britain splits apart is the bunch of people portrayed in this novel then fine. What’s disturbing about the book for me is not that it shows that the populists have arrived, but that it has the potential to briefly turn me into the worst sort of commie there is.

Yet in other ways, we are one: Susan Finlay understands that the contemporary world is a toxic ruin hiding in the light as a utopia. I’m possibly coming at it from the opposite side, in terms of social class, but the feeling is the same. The author keeps it quite poker-faced throughout though, which is great craft.

Everyone knows that it is all fucked and something very different needs to happen at all levels of human existence. The horror lies in the secret knowledge that it won’t, and the even surer, more deeply buried knowledge regarding how it won’t.

As far as I know nobody else is writing this kind of literature at the moment. It suspends you over the real void of Britain, and at the same time manages to do it through a whacking great novel that could and might be adapted for TV.

Horrifyingly brilliant work.

Steve Hanson

Circuit Diagrams of the Soul in Flight

Kinga Tóth – We Build a City (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2020)

The language of engineering is musical. Things and parts. Objects and their labels. Words slotting into words like pipes into pipes, meaning running through them like water, like current.

Portion transfer sand 20

On land 50 in the tunnels concrete

The needlehead prepares the vectors

The planer prepares the ironframework

Pick up any manual on electronics, plumbing, industrial processes, and you can find a poetry in the occulted lines. A logic that surpasses sense. At once entirely concrete and yet, in terms of what it signifies for us, the uninformed reader, it is as abstract as theology, or French theory.

We Build a City is a new translation of Kinga Tóth’s collection Wir Bauen Eine Stadt (Parasitenpresse, 2019). Its poetry is that of the engineer. Pieces fall together in unexpected formations and unexpected grammars.

The dampers are iron rings the spring

Lets the stomach sound

In glassshop pharmacy

The doll creaks is unsettled

The doll is hungry and rattles

The city that Tóth’s speakers are building contains unusual elements. A whale, a Dublin mass, a moth and, as the collection opens, a woman. Laying the foundations, perhaps, or clearing the site, in preparation for the structure.

            Upper section of sending pipe

            Is welded to the cervical vertebra

            Sending facility opens the lower lens

The words are accompanied by Tóth’s graphics. These are rough, sketchy. Bare sheets of paper hammered by typewriter keys, unpronounceable words form, while vague suggestions of structure, gesture and detail are scratched in biro and ink.

These are not so much illustrations as accompaniments. Suggestive blueprints, elevations, circuit diagrams as ultimately indecipherable as the fabricated grammar of the poems.

There is something being built here but we do not know what it is. A celestial city, perhaps? A city of the soul? An attempt to square the circle? She uses the raw form of construction to transcend the constructed.

It reminds me of the writer Alan Burns, whose novel Celebrations used cut-up assembly diagrams to create new poetries. It also reminds me of Mayakovski, or what I think Mayakovski will be like before I go back and read him. Modernist. Futurist. A celebration of building as a dance for the glory of itself.

But it is also absolutely current. Here in Manchester, buildings are piling up ever higher, ever faster and are ever more disposable. Does anyone think these towers will last more than ten years? These are transient towers for transient populations. White boxes ascending and descending.

Our souls too are forever in construction. We are shaping ourselves for the future after the next one. As Tóth shows us, this is at once a madness and a magic. She shows us circuit diagrams for a modern life; indecipherable blueprints for forever-moving parts.

Zoe Islander-Bax

Hell is ordinary

Ansgar Allen – Wretch (Schism, 2020)

A figure – I won’t say a person, that would be too holistic – exists in a cell with a copying machine. Wretch. He has broken his last copying machine and perhaps more besides, we do not quite know. His name is not unique, he is one among many wretches.

Wretch’s cell has a central orifice, down which goes waste. Bleach is poured in daily. Wretch eats.

Wretch copies what is pushed under his door as he trains himself to have an ordered mind. He has rages that he cannot remember. He is told this by the people who sit outside his cell door and feed him more copying.

This element of memory loss, or more accurately of blanked-out trauma, has one dimension rooted in Freud and the whole historical psychoanalytical conversation thereafter. But it has another dimension in the fact that as Wretch copies, he adds what he overhears through the door to his ‘copies’.

The account we read in the book, therefore, is an account from an accountant of texts, of a sort. But this all flings the reliability of Wretch as a narrator in the air, in all directions, which puts the reader into a very interesting space.

This could all act as a metaphor for historical process – there is a monkish aspect to Wretch as copyist – or for subject-formation, or both. It works as an entry point into theoretical work by Derrida, or Friedrich Kittler even. But the strength of Wretch as a work is that it is never loaded with any single explanation heavily enough for it to be weighed down.

This book is a prism, a dark one, a scrying mirror perhaps, but it can be read and re-read via any one of its facets. This multiplicity of meaning is quite astonishing for a narrative which centres on a complete lack of freedom, a lack which is our lack, all of our lacks. It is about ‘civilisation’ as Freud figured it. Here, civilisation involves the repression of drives and their often violent return.

But Wretch notes that those outside the cell allow him to rest, to fall silent as he stops copying. This moment shows the author’s craft well. Lesser writers would script overt punishment beatings. Power partly works through provision. The book is both brutal and subtle, not an easy thing to pull off.

There are many moments like this, for instance when the people who sit outside Wretch’s cell feel euphoria from trading machine parts. What is left of the human seems reduced to a mutual serotonin trigger. This work is not beyond ideology or metaphysics – none are – but by peeling a very particular narrative right back to its barest parts, Allen gets very close to a world stripped bare. It shows us The Real we all live to avoid. The thing we all live in, but really cannot live in.

Wretch, like all prisoners of all kinds – and there are many sorts – knows only his cell. But he also ‘knows’ the world outside it. From inference and induction, but of course significant parts of that knowledge are always already sheer fantasy. And we don’t quite know which parts, we don’t know what we don’t know, or that we don’t know it.

We don’t know that we don’t know something that we don’t know.

Wretch has to be told about himself by others. That detail alone is worth twenty pages of explanation by other writers. One obvious reading of that aspect of Wretch is dystopian. But another interpretation is that we are all told about ourselves by others, something you can get from reading Winnicott, or Lacan. The book puts you into that horrible place where our workings are laid out on a cold slab. This is literature as autopsy, or x-ray.

The ‘Known City’ then appears, initially in Wretch’s copying. But if Wretch’s copying includes half-heard inferences from outside Wretch’s cell, what do the documents he copies hold? Here the cell complex begins to appear as a sort of symptom-amplifer, a mutter-collider.

Out there, something really terrible has happened. Or not started. But we’ve read so many stories which say that, surely? There is an entire branch of sci-fi, probably with a GDP figure attached to it, focussed on such things. But here, actually, this is where it starts to get really interesting. When ‘they’, they are always just a barely known they, go outside the Known City – all posited by our copyist-mummer Wretch – they are ‘lost to reason’. This is a magnificent genre inversion. It completely upends Heart of Darkness, in that ‘the horror’ – a citation that can only now return at a pomo-lite Simpsons level anyway – is located in reason, not in its lack. In this it critiques colonialism as much as it attacks reason. It seems to do what Heart of Darkness, because Conrad was so very compromised, could not do. The civilised here do not want to know.

The way the book is paced here is also very skillful. Allen takes us a certain distance into alien territory, then just as we are orienting, he scrambles all the compasses. Again, the book deals with massive epochal subjects via narrative elements, and here The Enlightenment. The sections of description that provide a sort-of surface about the explorers outside ‘The Known’ show us that enlightenment reason is not a cold floor of objective truth. It is yet another veil of human projection.

That ‘the centre’ – in Wretch’s cell, pointedly, right at the start – is a kind of anus is surely deliberate. I could begin to write a scything essay on Berkeley, Hume and Kant at this point. Magnifying glasses are to be avoided here, as those things show the world as un-ordered. Where pulp for paper comes from is to remain unknown, it is better to not know.

Here is a human world rolling back on knowledge. But they are trapped-between, which is perhaps always our historical hell, in whatever era we live. There’s a double edge to all of this in Wretch, humans are still continuing in a world made by reason, just as the Soviets carried forward factories, but the bottom has dropped right out of the whole project. We never find out why. It doesn’t matter. But as I said, it’s both brutal and subtle.

It also sits on the anthropocene, Wretch, in that it illuminates our simultaneous total immersion and alienness in the universe. If we have an objective, cosmic position, it is surely this. At one point the explorers – from the Known City, going into the unknown world – are following on single file in order to reduce perception, rather than to increase it. It is tempting to say that this is a future in which humanity devolves itself, in stages, towards a Bataillean primord, each individual recombining to become a groping worm. But isn’t that also a statement about the condition of the contemporary social world, particularly of work?

Wretch re-ignites Beckett, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Orwell, Kafka, Burroughs, Conrad and Nietzsche. At the same time, Allen is none of those writers. There seems to be far more interest in losing the ego in order to make a piece of effective work. In terms of critical theory, what is happening in Wretch can trigger a multitude of thinkers: Freud, Derrida, Marx, Lyotard, Foucault, Agamben. Simultaneously, it feels unaligned. It is philosophy or critical theory as strategic art. This field has become known as ‘the creative-critical’, but in this work ‘strategy’ gets much closer to what is going on here, and in some of my own work, which is trying to do similar things.

It reminds me of teaching on the studio side in art schools. Students need to be trained out of their desire to make work from the inside-out. To get them to see dispassionately is the first slog, to get them to coolly and distantly sketch out the whole the next task. Wretch does this, in literature. But Wretch is not without writerly detail. A survivor of an expedition beyond the Known City staggers back with the ‘instincts of distended elastic’, with ‘enough pull to return but little more than that’. The biological creeps in slowly too, skin under fingernails, moisture and breath. Its terror is post-COVID.

But what is truly chilling to the bone about Wretch, ultimately, is just how unfantastical most of it is, at a very basic level. It is in fact not dystopian enough. Hell sits in its ordinariness.

Beyond all this high-falutin review chat it also works as a great horror story, with a cover that my closet metal-head self loves (by JMF Casey).

This is a work which deserves a much bigger audience, and one that commands a place in the archive of texts to hang onto for however many years are left, whether we call that a canon or not.

Steve Hanson

Living in the beginning times

Jacques Ranciere – What Times Are We Living In? (Polity)

Paul Ricoeur – Philosophy, Ethics and Politics (Polity)

Here are two books of interviews – both published by Polity – with French philosophers whose surnames begin with ‘R’. One is dead, the other still with us – and very active. Both books speak strongly to our times, one as its stated aim, the other less directly.  

The Ranciere book was published in France in 2017 and will be out in English in 2021. In it, interviewer Eric Hazan talks about Wolfgang Schäuble’s comments on Greece’s financial crisis.

Hazan cites Schäuble’s statement in 2015 that elections must not change anything, that Greek fiscal austerity must continue, as a precursive indication of the state of democratic politics today.

Hazan suggests that via such examples we might be seeing the ‘last throes of the representative system’, a notion which seems to be everywhere, as I write. But Ranciere counters this by saying:

‘If the representative system were in its death throes each time a left-wing party betrayed its electoral promises, it would actually have been dead for a good century, which is not the case. The objection rests on a false idea, which equates three different things with one another – representation, election and democracy – and takes the representative system to result in the simple “democratic” illusion whereby people are subjected to a power whose source they imagine themselves to be.’

This is not the case, Ranciere states. It is not simply that people believe in a representative and so vote for them. Belief ‘does not found adherence, adherence founds belief’. The whole political process, then, produces politics, not just a ‘representative system’.

As an English Labour voter who gets what I call ‘Dr Strangelove arm’ in polling booths and hits Labour every time – no matter how cynical and sold-out he feels about the party – I understand this point perfectly well.

But others – they are now called ‘the red wall’ – have been getting over this affliction. Their arms seem freer to scan, pencil in hand, the choices on the ballot paper. Many of them have been siding with old enemies whom they now seem to view as allies.

Ranciere does not really deal with this fully, but he does talk about ‘unbelief’, the idea that one expresses political choice via contempt. The red wall is perhaps more in focus through this lens. Ranciere says that ‘you submit to a form of domination to the extent that it gives you the most possibility to show contempt for it.’ We hate Tory but vote for them because Labour are shit. We hate them all so vote Boris because he’s already a joke. The crappiest rebellion, perhaps worse than ballot spoliation.

This is surely a key feature of what is now called ‘populism’, to the extent that it should be renamed ‘unpopulism’. A zombie politics, haunted by individual mortality and the death of any discernible future, which takes place in the present, on top of that mortality.

Ranciere describes the ‘expiry of work as a common world’ as part of the malaise. Vast, horizontal, common-world networks existed from the mid-nineteenth century until the collapse of western industrialism in the late 20th; strong elements within which could see how it needn’t be mediated by capital and commodities any more, and worked towards that future. That world of work is no longer here.

I would add that the ‘end of work’ as a leftist ideology is not separable from the end of work as a strongly connected collective consciousness either. A joined set of intelligences that can occasionally result in large-scale collective action. Ranciere describes the hypothetical universal basic income (UBI) as something to compensate for deindustrialization. But ‘there is no longer any community already there that guarantees the community to come’ he says, the lineage is broken and the dangers should, I think, be obvious. Community ‘has become above all an object of desire’.

This is not to downplay the very positive actions some might point to, for instance the organising of some of the most precarious workers against capital, but merely to say that the weakened position of workers and voting via contempt are surely always already connected.

The sight of individuals – as Ranciere describes them – managing their ‘human capital’ invokes a mild sense of nausea in those of a certain age, a peakiness which actually points to a vast existential void below.

But then I remember the factories I worked in, and which my father worked in, and how the workers were bought off the moment the union had anything on the bosses, and I don’t believe in the simplistic explanation of a strong worker collective in the past versus a weak one now either. In some places the unions were strong, in others, they barely had a grip and the workers were as selfish as the current advocates of populist leaders.

‘One does not work for the future’ Ranciere says, ‘one works to hollow out a gap, a furrow traced in the present, to intensify the experience of another way of being.’ This is what my parents did, I am sure of that.

In this way Ranciere is cynical about what he calls the ‘great defeatist mash’ which describes interlinked global oppression. He sees much more heterogeneous oppressions, as well as resistances, Occupy, Nuit Debout:

‘What happens in these large gatherings is the same thing that happens in the specific struggles. The singularisation of struggles in the gathering together of actors occurs outside the idea of any fusion oriented by a view of history and the future.’

For Ranciere there are ‘singular instances of speech’ that ‘keep open the space of their compossibility.’ The compossible is a phrase of Leibniz’s, later used by Deleuze.

At the same time, the collapse is real. The logic of all this is complex though. Ranciere notes that ‘extra-parliamentary movements were at their peak in times when the parliamentary system still fed hopes’, but now ‘electoral despondency readily finds its counterpart in half-resigned movements of protest and radical revolutionary theories that often borrow their arguments and their tone from the disenchanted theories of civilisational catastrophe.’

Ranciere, broadly, does not believe the great defeatist mash. Turning to the book of Ricoeur interviews, not for him either the morbid pronouncements of the end of things, philosophy for instance, or declarations that language is dead.

Ricoeur explained that to make such statements we would have to be able to posit another sort of language or philosophy, we cannot. There seems something ecological in this, Darwinian even. I am reminded of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s book on ‘Ecology, Media and Power’ Dreamers of the Absolute that I have been re-reading. Our species-being and environment – including that which we have created in language – is total for us.

What remains of Freud most strongly in Ricoeur is that we do not straightforwardly know ourselves. Humans are not fully in control and they do bad things. Because of evil, Ricoeur fuses phenomenology (the structure of experience) with hermeneutics (interpretation). Language slips, and here Ricoeur folds into many other 20th c. French thinkers, structuralist and what misleadingly became known as post-structural. Like Ranciere though, he does not easily fit into either category.

Now that’s the very big picture, and these interviews focus on discussions with Ricoeur from one whole period of his career. But what’s useful about the discourses is how they speak to now. They will always speak to a now of course, even if it is a different now to this one. So what is it about Ricouer we need today?

There is so much to go into here that I want to concentrate on one interview, in order to try to communicate what I think that is. Its title is ‘Sketch of a Plea for the Capable Human Being’.

There is something of D.W. Winnicott’s ‘good enough’ here, of the human being who can survive and individuate, something hard won, even in so-called ‘civilisation’. Damaged, perhaps, but working, yes, as in ‘functioning’.

We all need that now, as we’re being forced to face a much steeper kind of adaptation. Actually, I think that the way Ricoeur addresses Marx here speaks to that task.

In this interview, Ricoeur is asked ‘from the standpoint of human emancipation, do you think there could still be a future for a deontology in which Marx would be seen as a thinker of the possible?’ He replies that, along with others he shares the view ‘that it is as if Marx’s work were covered over by Marxism’, particularly ‘by the German Marxism of the Second International.’ (Ital mine).

‘In truth’, he says, ‘what failed historically was the legacy of that Marxism.’ From this ‘sprang the invention of the most stupid conceptions, such as the opposition between “proletarian science” and “bourgeois science,” “proletarian art” and “bourgeois art.” And probably also the idea that politics, morality, and religion are “superstructures.”‘

Again, Ranciere makes very similar points in our time. A deepened Marx is needed to become a thinker of the possible again. An uncovered Marx.

Ricoeur also seems to be agreeing with Ranciere from out of the past by stating that the problem is no longer ‘the singular’ but rather ‘the abstract historical’.

This is expressed in the return of nationalism. On the one hand, nationalism has ‘richness of content’, its ‘mores, its convictions’. On the other hand, we find ‘a purely abstract conception’. Ricoeur says that connecting these abstracts with communities poses great difficulties.

I would add, in our time, ‘danger’. If community, as Ranciere says, is an object of desire, then double danger.

There ‘is now a fringe of marginal people who are no longer members of the social contract’ Ricoeur states. ‘How are they to be integrated? By helping them to find work, housing?’ Here, he really seems to be speaking to us. But Ricoeur died in 2005. The popular vote and the ‘disenfranchised’ comes later.

The ‘endness’ of our times that Zizek describes is very real, but we are always also beginning again in the middle as Deleuze put it.

In ‘regressive situations’ Ricoeur says, ‘faced with moments of disaster’, only ‘a few committed individuals, only a few indomitable consciences, are responsible, in reality, for the future of civilized society.’

For Ricoeur, ‘conviction’ comes when ‘the hierarchy of preferences compels me, the intolerable transforms me from a timid or disinterested spectator into a person of conviction, who discovers in creating and creates in discovering.’ The ‘lucidity of our gaze does not spare us from engagement in protest or from the will to repair breaches.’

Here there is a great deal of traffic between what Ricoeur was saying right up to his death and what Ranciere is currently saying about the state of things, namely, that there are still possibilities, and we all need those now. And if you agree with that, then maybe you need these books.

But it is also necessary to say that the future belonging to that committed individual who is transformed from spectator to person of conviction could apply equally to Hitler, Ghandi, Mussolini and Rosa Luxemburg.

The final point is that we always need to translate the abstracts of our philosophers into material specifics, and to do it well.

Steve Hanson

Eating Crow

Michael Stewart – King Crow (Bluemoose Books, 2020)

The swift cannot touch the ground. To do so means death.

The swift has evolved wings efficient enough to outmanoeuvre any bird of prey while also strong enough to carry these tiny birds on annual migrations to and from Africa. The one thing they can’t do is take off from standing. They must drop; from a tree, a cliff, or a towerblock.

Their entire lives are lived under momentum.

Michael Stewart’s new novel, King Crow, is a study in momentum. Cooper is sixteen-year-old Salford lad with an alcoholic mum and a dad who left a long time ago. He has no role models, no direction. Only an obsession with birds.

The fact above, about the swift, is one of Cooper’s. He tells us about gulls (NOT “sea”gulls), wrens, a variety of sparrows and hornbills, and, the greatest obsession of them all, the raven.

The raven is hunted by farmers. It is a scavenger, like a vulture, but it is not against helping nature along its way by pushing the occasional sheep off a mountain. This is more than morally justified, Cooper tells us. In fact, it is only common sense. He longs to see a raven in the wild.

Cooper’s life, shuffled between tower block and comp school, is enclosed, restless; his own cage. Only when he meets the braver, suaver, and potentially gang-affiliated Ashley, does Cooper finally make his leap into the unknown and fly loose.

The narrative soon gains a terrific momentum. We leap from Salford to London to Helvellyn by way of Kendal, then up to Carlisle. Danger follows, they’ve pissed off some gangsters, while love blossoms and, always around the next corner, the wild ravens await.

Stewart does an excellent job depicting life on the estates of Greater Manchester. His tone is perfect: heartbreaking stories accompanied by a shrug. He captures the Mancunian/Salfordian accent with a level of naturalism that makes the switch from a rich inner life to inarticulate speech both believable and meaningful.

After all, as Cooper reminds us, people take the piss if you say long words out loud; but they can’t stop you thinking them.

The novel becomes less naturalistic as it moves out of these well-known stomping grounds and, as they reach the Lakes, Stewart paints with a more impressionist palette. This works well as, for our unreliable narrator, we come to see the Lakes as a kind of liminal, fantastical place. A place where ravens fly free.

The only part of the novel that didn’t work for me was the ending – it being a too-close borrowing from another well-known novel about two violent men.

That is not enough to unrecommend this novel, however. The narrative carries a weight of momentum like a swift leaping between tower blocks, while Cooper, the ornithologically-obsessed outcast, is a captivating character who is highly memorable and sympathetic.

The novel, like a kingfisher, is both compact and colourful; a rare treat for wanderers in the wilds of literature.

Joe Darlington

Who’d be a poet?

Lana Del Ray – Violet Bent Backwards over the Grass (Simon & Schuster, 2020)

“I want to say something about bad writing. I’m proud of my bad writing”

– Ariana Reines

There is bad writing in Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass the debut poetry book by Lana Del Rey. I wonder if it’s quite the sort of bad writing Reines means though, whose quote continues: “I am proud of Baudelaire’s mamma’s boy goo goo misery”. Which I guess is Reines celebrating those so-called “bad” moments in Baudelaire which are too uncomfortably raw and exposed for some, parts of Reines’ own writing arguably being able to be filed in a similar category. Both Reines and Baudelaire, however, are indisputably good writers prone to occasional excesses which others can dismiss as “bad” if they so desire. But what about writers who are exclusively bad? Those writers who aren’t able to get away with occasional lapses of taste by turning to point to a massive body of work which is almost universally recognised as being “good”? Are there two types of “badness” then? Are there more? Which type of “badness” is it that’s between the cover of this LDR book? 

Parts of this book seemed so bad that they made me laugh. Let me just get that statement out of the way at this stage, though let me go on to add that anything that I quote won’t be pulled from the text with the aim of laughing either at Lana Del Rey, or any of her fans, of which I am one. Here, Philip Tagg’s line on popular music seems apposite “making it [popular music] a laughing matter, although understandable (it can be hilarious at times), is basically reactionary”. No, with this review I’m just trying to think some stuff through and hopefully get some clarity on how I feel about this book.

Reines goes on (it’s a long quote…): “Excellence nowadays is too general and available to be worth prizing: I am interested in people who have to find strange and horrible ways just to get from point a to point b” which was the bit of the quote which came back to me after I finished LDRs book. Pacing around the flat muttering lines from the book to myself I remembered Reines’ line about being interested in the weird, slightly shameful stuff and I thought  I’d just read a brilliant example of that kind of thing. But, again, had I? Is the LDR book quite what Reines means?

Whether it is or not, I can’t remember the last poetry book I felt so exercised, so disoriented by. I read something “good” and, sure, it leaves its imprint on me. I might mention the poem, or the lines, or the couplet to a few people. I might even read the poem over two or three times. So, “good” has an impact. But that impact compared to how this LDR book has hit me seems very feeble indeed. Right now, approximately four hours after finishing Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass I honestly feel somehow rearranged by the book, despite or maybe because of its badness.    

The book is a deluxe item. Hardback, poems, photos and a few paintings inside. The poems seem to be scans of typewritten pages, complete with coffee stains, smudged ink from what may well be fallen tears, there are also handwritten amendments to some of the lines. The photos are generally empty landscapes at dusk: traffic lights, an industrial building seen through a chain-link fence, a tower-crane, a port, a motorway bridge disappearing off into the distance – all photos are credited to LDR. The paintings, which I would call Hockney-lite, are not by LDR…Coffee-stain as design choice, then, the suggestion of tears, empty landscapes evocative of loneliness and a desire to be elsewhere, it’s all Lana working the well-worn and by now well established Lana aesthetic fantastically…

A few examples from the poems: “Stay on your path Sylvia Plath / Don’t fall away like all the others / Don’t take all your secrets alone to your water grave about / lovers and mother”. On the next page there’s a poem that rhymes ‘u’ with ‘Bellevue’ with ‘Xanadu’ with ‘ Malibu’ with ‘nothing much to do’, and, indeed, rhyming such as this is a constant throughout the book so perhaps if you’ve more of a tolerance than I do for that kind of thing the book might work better for you. (Not that I should be written off as an enemy of rhyme as certain rhymes act upon me like a shot to the heart…Ted Berrigan, for example, at the end of ‘Bean Spasms’, his line about “leaving the room/ to go to the moon” just kills me every time). I think the most extreme example of LDR’s rhyming, here, appears in ‘Quiet Waiter Blue Forever’: ‘You move like water sweet baby sweet waiter / making the night smile to no one you cater / silent woodworker from midnight til later / my lover my laughter my armour my maker” . . . Is it possible that anyone, anywhere can tolerate that?

The rest of the poems: in the middle there’s a two-part prose poem kind of thing called ‘SportCruiser’ where Del Rey talks about going for, first, a flying lesson and then a sailing lesson and the syntax in both parts is just so tortured . . . It also seems like Del Rey is suffering from a type of logorrhea, desperately in need of an editor.  You think her sentence must surely have ended but then there’s another four words stuck on the next line. Towards the end of the book there’s a poem called ‘’Paradise is Very Fragile which interweaves a tale of her childhood treehouse burning down with a quasi state of the nation address. It’s hard to say what, exactly, the issue is that I have with this poem . . . I think it’s just the naivety of it. A realisation which makes me wonder what the problem is that I have with naivety . . .   

The final section of the book is given over to a series of Del Rey’s haiku:’I stepped on a bird / cried in my new boyfriend’s arms / to live is to kill’. That being probably the worst of the haiku I think: a pseudo-profound observation about the fragility of life delivered in such a way as to render all deep feeling nothing more than laughable. And I think Del Rey’s haiku operate as something of a key to understanding one of the flaws of the book: there are no unexpected juxtapositions in here, none whatsoever, accordingly there’s nothing for the reader to do. At no point did I find myself wondering what Del Rey might be trying to convey by placing that image next to that other image. Even the photographs have a largely tautological relationship to the poems they’re placed beside.  

So, yep, there’s bad writing, I think, in Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass. There is also some stuff that I like. I guess it’s just that I’ve started with the bad because it’s much more apparent, you have to dig a little bit harder to find the good I think. The opening poem, then, from which the book takes its title, a tale of going to a party and seeing a child messing about in the grass which reminds Del Rey of the joy of being a child is not a bad poem. Alright, it probably is bad, the rhythm of the longer opening verse is very staccato and it has alternate line endings with some pretty obvious rhymes and then there’s a gap of approximately a quarter of the page between the penultimate line and the last line which is the single word ‘forever’ and that gap has the effect, for me at least, of rendering that final ‘forever, unnecessarily dramatic and ultimately comical. All that said though, I do quite like the poem – which might be some sort of indicator of my fascination for this book: I can’t quite get a handle on it. Sometimes it feels awful, sometimes it feels not that bad. 

Anyway, onwards …’LA Who I am to Love You?’ is an almost hysterical hymn to LA with a lot of exclamation marks and Lana shouting things like ‘LA/ I’m upset! / I have complaints!’ and ‘LA!/ I’m pathetic/ but so are you/ can I come home now’ and ‘LAAAAA!/ who am I to need you when I’ve needed so much’. Again I suppose, really, it’s not very good but, here at least, LDR does seem in control of her effects. The poem does seem to be trying to achieve something in particular and I think she largely pulls it off. There’s a mania to this poem which contrasts effectively, I think, with the quiet, more reflective moments. 

The next poem but one begins with the lines ‘Two steel blue trains run through the tunnels of your/ cool blue steel eyes’. And I really like that other than for the fact that Del Rey, to my mind seems to have overdone it: get rid of ‘cool blue steel’ on the second line and it’d be great I think.

A bit later on, in ‘Tessa DiPietro’, Del Rey writes: “Which for some reason made me think of a live show I had seen/ Jim Morrison at the Hollywood Bowl/ 1968? (check date)”. And I unambivalently do love that ‘check date’! Why so pernickety about whether she’s used the right date when, in this book, she seems to have been so un-pernickety about so much else…  

In terms of influences I’m hard-pushed to say what this reminds me of. Initially, I thought the Beats and Bukowski but now I’m not so sure. There’s a kind of free, unedited spontaneity to the writing here which Kerouac claimed to be so fond of (though who really knows? I always have my doubts about those who claim not to do too much editing and just dash their work off). And the LA settings and the vaguely down-at-heel ambience of the poems reminds me of Bukowski – though, in this case, a female Bukowski who’s turned their pain inward rather than directing it onto others. I don’t know though, I read the poems again and the first comparison seems to make no sense to me anymore while, sure, yep, the impression of a Bukowski influence remains – though even there I feel on uncertain ground as I haven’t read much Bukowski and what I have read was ages ago. 

Though maybe I should be trying to think about the book in a different way rather than playing the boring old game of trying to situate it on a line of descent from influences x, y and z . . . It occurs to me that parts of some of the pieces in the book remind me of social media posts and I wonder if perhaps there’s something to learn from this book about how people feel, think and express themselves these days on social media, and by people – in this context – I suppose I mean young people. So maybe this is another part of my difficulty with the book, maybe it’s just not for middle-aged men such as me which is fine – why should middle aged men assume all spaces are open to them? I suspect if I was 14 years old again this book would mean a hell of a lot to me, lines and phrases from it scribbled all over my school books.  


One of the most puzzling things about the book, to me, is Lana’s insistent and repeated affirmation of her status as a poet. In the second part of ‘SportCruiser’ we find “6 trips to the moon for my poetry to arise / I’m not a captain / I’m not a pilot / I write / I write”. In ‘Quiet Waiter Blue Forever’ there is “But who am I / just a girl in love dreaming on paper”. ‘My bedroom is a sacred place now – There are children at the foot of my bed’ ends with an extended riff on the process of her becoming a poet, the last line of which is “the more I step into becoming a poet / the less I will fall into bed with you”. Finally, in ‘Salamander’, the last full length poem before the haiku section, there is “you see I’m a real poet / my life is my poetry / my lovemaking is my legacy”.  

I’m just baffled as to why an international pop-star, with all the impact upon the culture that comes with being an international pop-star, would want so much to be a poet, with the accompanying zero-impact upon the culture that a poet has. That’s not even factoring in the question of money and the fact the former position delivers a lot of cash, whilst the latter position delivers exactly none. Though I guess if Lana were to give up everything, now, to become a poet she wouldn’t be a poet quite in the same sense that you or I or Simon Armitage might be a poet, additionally, she would be a different type of poet altogether ie a very wealthy one who is guaranteed a lot of interest in her work. 

I guess, also, I’m being a little disingenuous here, yes, I can understand why a pop star might be drawn to poetry: the opportunity to be taken seriously if they perceive that they previously haven’t been; that and maybe the notion that poetry is somehow realer and more meaningful than pop-music. Poetry as a means to be taken seriously? Poetry lending to the poet a vibe of authenticity and depth? Does poetry actually deliver that stuff though or does it just have a great public-relations officer who’s managed to convince loads of people across the ages, including this particular innocent, very wealthy, internationally famous pop-star that it does? I don’t know. A question I don’t have the answer to. All I can say is that as neither a pop-star or a poet I would much rather be a pop-star and I wonder if part of the function of this review is perhaps to try to talk Lana down from the ledge before she pointlessly and wastefully throws herself into a career in poetry. Lana, don’t do it!      


Some way above I mentioned the naivety of Lana’s writing here and said I wondered what my problem was with that, as I certainly felt I had a problem. Well, I’ve been mulling on that question since I asked myself it and it seems to me that there’s an authentic naivety to the writing in this book which can be contrasted to the popular mode (actually, is it still popular? I’m not sure, a few years ago it seemed to be everywhere) of faux-naivety adopted by writers who, along the way, always made sure to let their readers know that they were just messing with them and they were really nowhere near as daft as they were pretending to be. And I think the absence of nods and winks from LDR that the poems in this book are written the way they are as a result of her deliberately choosing this style out of all the others available to her unsettled me in quite a big way. Maybe Violet Bent Backwards Over Grass is The Real and maybe this is what The Real looks like. 

On reflection, I think what unsettled me more than the manner of utterance were the poems showing Lana’s self-loathing and, seemingly, the impact of that upon her romantic decisions. ‘Tessa DiPietro’ opens with “No one ever touched me without wanting to kill me”. ‘Thanks to the Locals’ has “The man that I love hates me. But it would be easier to stay”. And besides those specific examples there’s a lot of hanging around waiting for men and reflecting on bad decisions, stuff we’re all familiar with from the records, stuff which is key to the well-worked Lana image… I guess I’m just not sure what to make of all of this. Encountering in real life someone with the particular problems that Lana appears to have is one thing, yet encountering a piece of art where there’s the suspicion that perhaps these elements are just being played with and utilised in service of some dubious ideas concerning image is an entirely other thing. The unpicking of which, of course, is all a major part of the LDR conundrum.  


Which brings me back to where we started, the Ariana Reines quote, the bit in between the two bits already mentioned goes: “Sometimes the lurid or shitty means having a heart, which is something you have to try to have”. So does Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass have a heart? What do I even mean by that question? 

Well, sometimes with these poems there’s the feeling that Del Rey has assembled them via some sort of algorithm: themes, attitudes and moods recur – all pretty par the course for poetry I know – but, as well, there’s an awkwardness and an unwieldiness to a lot of them which suggests that no human consciousness was involved in their construction. And so I guess if it were to come out at some point that all this work was computer generated or something that’d equate to them having no heart (though at the same time such a revelation would open up lots more interesting avenues for thought and discussion!). So I guess my question whether or not there’s a heart in this book is to do with how much Lana is there in here? Obviously a question impossible to answer but for the little it’s worth my view is that there’s a lot and that this collection – for all its bad writing, and I think that, yes, there’s a lot – has a massive beating heart which will ensure this book matters to more people and lasts a lot longer than whatever the latest critically acclaimed, technically perfect poetry book from this year’s graduating class of creative writing students turns out to be.


A final thought regarding what Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass has done to the LDR brand? For me, it’s complicated it in ways I still don’t feel entirely clear about. For others I’m sure it’s just unambiguously strengthened it. With this book are we seeing the beginning of Lana’s exit strategy from international pop-stardom, which would certainly be incredibly interesting. Or will the book prove to be nothing more than a never-to-be repeated sideline in her career? I hope not. I, at least, would like to see a lot more poetry from Del Rey. 

– Richard Barrett

New Scenes, new dreams

Lisa Tickner – London’s New Scene and Culture in the 1960s (Paul Mellon, 2020)

Andy Neill – Ready Steady Go (BMG, 2020)

I highly recommend these two books, notwithstanding the amount of literature and other coverage the 60s has had.

Tickner’s book contains a breadth of research, continued in the extensive notes. It is an account of, first art, then other cultural media and social phenomena; in that order, but also an indeed new scene of relations and dynamics.

A source new to me is The Image by Daniel J. Boorstin, 1961, published as a Pelican in 1962. I am pleased though that she cites Man About Town magazine, later just Town as a precursor to the Sunday supplements. Copies I have show a joyful debt to the Harper’s designer Alexei Brodovitch.

I’ll jump here to p.19 of Ready Steady Go, a photo of Mick Jagger with a note: ‘Mick Jagger photographed by Terry O’Neill in the foyer of Television House, as Mick’s admirers press against the doors.’ The photographic image is giving those in its eye a new, compelling mix of casual-intimate and glamourously apart.

Tickner invites us to consider her term ‘scene’ by discussing Bourdieu’s notion of a ‘field’ of cultural production and the less prescriptive view of Howard Becker. But a field of some kind it is, as her very interesting chapter-choices unfold.

Chapter 1, 1962, concerns Ken Russell’s TV documentary on London’s art scene for Monitor. Chapter 5, 1966, looks at Antonioni’s film Blow-Up and has the subtitle ‘The Cult of the Photogenes’. The scene’s components are brought together in the ‘Prices’ section of Chapter 2 on the Kasmin Gallery:

‘the availability of disposable income; an aesthetic, social or speculative compulsion to spend it on art; the influence of particular dealers, critics and curators; and competition for a limited supply of signature works.’

…bringing this up to date with an Artforum special issue of 2008 with a Damien Hirst on the cover. For an important exposition of the change from art to Art in the renaissance, see Hans Hess, ‘Art and Social Function’, in Marxism Today, August 1976. The scene’s components and complicities coming under strain, Tickner well accounts for in her Epilogue, looking at Conceptual Art.

Andy Neill’s archiving of Ready Steady Go is of a scope I had given up hope on, such was the importance to us of this TV programme at 5.30 on a Friday. The endpapers reproduce the passes given to dancers from London clubs, recruited as the audience.

The dancer Sandy Sarjeant is one of those reflecting through the book about what was evolving. This alongside Vicki Wickham, Dusty Springfield, Eric Burdon… a wonderful format which reminds me of Jonathan Green’s Days In The Life, 1988, only with photos you’ve not seen.

On the back of the 1964 Decca Ready Steady Go LP Francis Hitching writes:

‘We decided to have none of the frills of scenery or costume, but to let the music and the atmosphere speak for itself.’

It was not the format of TV variety shows, but it did make a scenery. To receive it, it set itself among a new aesthetic of black and white op art, Lulu, the Stones 1965 against an enlarged black and white part-photo of the Animals first LP cover.

The energy of the music and the image.

Robert Galeta