Steve Hanson – Proceedings (Knives, Forks & Spoons)
Towards the end of Section 5 of this book I wrote, in the margin, ‘malfunctioning robot’. Section 5 seems to me the section where this book’s narrative voice finally falls apart. After a run of ‘uhm’s and uh’s’ we pass through ‘tarck hard antigence/ polder estany’ to ‘menstritive trivage andora/ gincholism languahaven’ before ending up in the stuck record repetitions of the part entitled ‘All my bright ideas’.
What’s going on? While, yes, it does seem that here Siri has gone rogue (and I find it interesting that when encountering this kind of language, these days, the first thing I think of is broken technology rather than an author nodding to modernist literary experimentalism, though that thought does come after…) the reader also seems to be encountering an instance of language being bent out of shape under the strange weight of ‘present times’, times so bonkers and strange that language can no longer provide an accurate representation. But then to what extent has language ever been able to do that? These are the kind of questions I find myself wondering about as I make my way through this new work from Hanson.
Concerns with language, indeed, run through the whole of the book, perhaps most explicitly in the poem beginning ‘Nations, favourite poems’ where we find ‘What there most definitely is is/ a pandemic of words/ most definitely is is is’ and ‘Parallel plague/linguistic, viral’. Later on, at the beginning of Section 2, we encounter ‘are you really going to speak and write like that/for the rest of your life?/ Like a pre teen practising for being an adult/ in front of its parents/ and the idea of god’. Here, however, it seems less the limitations of language that Hanson’s railing against, and more the limitations of some of language’s users, specifically those users inhabiting the party political sphere. An attack on both fronts maybe.
Because make no mistake this book is an attack. It’s an attack on everyone who’s led us into our state of climate emergency (which is everyone), it’s an attack on those responsible for the narrowed horizons of what were once called the working classes, and it’s an attack on the way UK towns and cities are managed and run these days… And, accordingly, a great deal of this writing drips with anger: ‘Nother niminy piminy/shoved its way in my face’; ‘Keep walking, try to walk out the furies’; ‘Now he goes in understanding/ he may want to murder everyone he meets’; ‘A thousand years of light crushed into dark’… As someone who – shamefully – pretty much gave up watching and reading the news several months ago due to an inability to sidestep the hopelessness it would induce, this book, at times, feels quite hard to bear. It’s almost too real, contains too much reality. The thing about Hanson’s anger, though, is it’s because he cares, he cares deeply and passionately about people and places – no one who cared less could get so angry.
Running alongside the state of the nation address, though, is a strand of autobiographical narrative where Hanson seems to be addressing the state of Hanson. And for me, this laying of the internal beside the external, the intertwining of the two, is perhaps one of the sources of this book’s tremendous power: the one strand seeming to amplify the other, and vice versa. Early on in the book, for example, in the poem beginning ‘Funeral suit laid out’, Hanson swings his focus from ‘them’ to him ie himself, with the result – I think – that the poem packs a far greater emotional punch than if it had just been a standard confessional piece. Hanson, in these lines, shows that he’s fully in control of his craft, aware of both what he’s doing and the dangers he’s avoiding.
Though I’m hard pushed to identify influences upon this book and, accordingly, find it difficult to situate Hanson amongst the current poetry scene (as possible clues the Index offers mentions of Alan Halsey, Kelvin Corcoran, Jeff Nuttall and Kenneth Rexroth), that unplaceability I find very intriguing. My feeling is that at least part of the reason this book strikes me as not ‘being at home’ in poetry is because Hanson refuses to limit his sphere of operations so narrowly, instead operating across the whole of literature, taking in everything from sociology, politics, theory and fiction. My impression is, and I feel this is borne out somewhat by this book’s Afterword, is that to Hanson writing is writing, with the specific category assigned to that writing not being of the foremost importance. And I think this multi-disciplinary approach can only be to the good of poetry, reinvigorating the contemporary scene.
The final section of this book, Section 7, returns to the picking at language, where, here, we encounter a series of lines which seem to stop short: ‘Turn away the/ will not turn away/ will not turn’; ‘Four I will/ for four I/ And for three/ three of those’. Lines with bits missing. So is Hanson showing us the limits of language running up against the unthinkable? Or else language meeting the unsayable? Perhaps Hanson is just saying that at a certain point we need to stop just saying and, instead, start doing stuff. But then, of course, that raises a whole other set of questions…
The first time I finished reading this book I felt confused. The second time I finished reading it I felt largely the same. And the thing is I like being confused by books and art. I find such works a challenge, things to return to again and again to try to get to the bottom of just why they’ve made me feel the way they have. I’ll take that kind of thing any day of the week over something which gives up all its secrets immediately, and after only a cursory engagement. So while I’m about to embark upon my third reading of Proceedings if you haven’t read it once yet I strongly advise you to rectify that.
- Richard Barrett