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

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