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

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