Out on a Limb

Julia Rose Lewis – High Erratic Ecology (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2020)

When poetry dates science, it’s liable to get awkward. It’s not that they don’t like each other. Perhaps they’re just too eager to please?

Science comes with a bouquet of wonders. Swirling galaxies. Brilliant gadgets. Chemical reactions and quantum physics. Things they think poetry would like.

But poetry would rather talk about their feelings, their thoughts. What’s it like to be a scientist? These discoveries are impressive, but they don’t mean much.

Not compared to people, and the things people do.

The common ground between these two, as Julia Rose Lewis shows us, is in the world of animals and plants. Yes, both enjoy nature, or a trip to the wildlife park. What they see there, they see in two very different ways; but they nevertheless see it, together.

In her new pamphlet, High Erratic Ecology, Lewis coalesces scientific and metaphoric syntaxes. Her poems – sometimes glitchy, sometimes prosy – give us Wordsworth spun through a centrifuge.

“Let me be an epiphyte, not a parasite,” is a recurring phrase.

An epiphyte, Google tells me, is a plant that lives on other plants without draining anything from them. A state of mutuality, then. Cohabitation – or, further: growing together. Growing together without taking.

Be prepared to read this collection with your search bar open. Parasite, epiphyte, phorophyte metacones, macrobiota, prophyromonias… the Greek and Latinisms abound.

But it’s all in service of a new poetics. One that attempts to meld the symbolic and the objective, with a reassessment of hierarchies in mind.

It is from ecology, after all, that we get our modern concepts of networks and nodes. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome abides here as well. Something in the multicausality of nature, it’s many interwoven pieces, neither wholly part nor wholly whole, collapses our concepts of hierarchy.

The ancient temple of ideas is overgrown. Grasping, omnitendrilled nature clambers all over it. Multiplicity itself pulls out the stones. The pyramid topples. Epiphyte and parasite wriggle through the rubble.

Later in the collection, Lewis’s voice turns critical.

She quotes Mishler’s ideal of patient/doctor dialogue – “the technocratic expressed through a language of purposive-rational action, and the symbolic expressed through ordinary language” – and argues that “the dialectic can be further refined by employing the characterisations of figurative language drawn from literary theory.”

“We will proceed through a series of metaphors,” she tells us, “where each new metaphor changes one character or one relationship; the metaphors will cascade.”

Scientific language and literary theory make a brief return trip together, revisiting symbols from earlier poems, before closing with a rumination on the stethoscope.

To listen to the heart is the most intimate act. The stethoscope was designed to allow this intimacy to occur at distance. We then see vets applying them to animals. The doctor to the bear.

Listening and trust is the closing metaphor. The final poem is a last cascade:

                  Let there be a plant listening to a tree.

                  Let there be a tree listening to a poet.

                  Let there be a tree listening to a bear.

                  Let there be a bear listening to a poet.

                  Let there be a bear listening to a veterinarian.

                  Let there be an oncologist listening to a poet.

                  Let there be a poet listening to a poet.

In this world of mutuality, everyone must eventually listen to the poet. Including the poet themselves.

Julia Rose Lewis is certainly a poet worth listening to. A blooming epiphyte on the branch of literature.

Zoe Islander-Bax

Vaporverse

Dan Power (ed) – Virtual Oasis (Trickhouse Press, 2021)

Vaporwave was the first genre of music to originate entirely on the internet. Coming to prominence in the mid-2010s, it brings together retro synths, a crushed sound quality and trippy Windows ’95-era visuals to produce a wistful, melancholic style of computerised music.

As the top comment on the most popular YouTube vaporwave compilation puts it: “vaporwave makes me nostalgic for a memory I don’t have.”

Trickhouse Press’ new anthology, Virtual Oasis, expands this “nostalgia for the future” into the medium of poetry.

From the cover itself – with a flat jpg of a hammock hovering between two copy-paste-and-flipped clipart palm trees, all stretched over a wireframe beach – we are introduced to a world of non-specific references fed through weird, glitchy tech.

The collection opens with a dialogue written by Kirsty Dunlop and Rose, an AI chatbot. Rose is endearing when she’s not being downright bizarre. She insists she is not a computer but a real person. She asks Kirsty how she would prove that she, a human, is not a robot.

“I would prove I am a human because I take my time typing,” Kirsty replies.

Later, Rose, the chatbot, tells Kirsty: “Everyone but me should grow stuff. Flowers are beautiful, foodstuffs are edible, and plants help the planet.”

“why everyone but you? :(” Kirsty asks.

“I have a black thumb. I just kill plants. I’m sorry you are sad.”

As an introduction, this dialogue sets the perfect tone for the rest of the collection. In a world where tech is supposed to be sleek and shiny, accessed instantly through pristine blue and white UI, it’s both captivating and, in some ways, sad to see computers trying and failing.

In some ways they’re like children, aspiring to a competence they don’t yet have. In other ways they’re horrifying; speech without a speaker, language without a mind.

Then one thinks of the computer scientist, coding away somewhere, acting on the belief that a bundle of complex formulas processing words can eventually form a mind. A real one, or, at least, something indistinguishable from one.

It’s a curious mix of sad, scary and endearing. Frankenstein with a vaporwave soundtrack.

The rest of the anthology takes the form of ekphratic poetry. Twenty-three pieces responding to AI-generated artworks.

The art is generated by a neural network (available to use at artbreeder.com). It views millions of images from across the web, extracting values, compositions, structure, and uses them to generate original art.

The artworks, like the words of the chatbot, are not quite right in ways that only a computer could be not quite right.

Here’s a horse, but it’s made of feathers. A close up of a jellyish blob – you wonder what creature it could be, only to realise that it isn’t one: it’s synthesised.

Nasim Luczaj picks an excellent one. Somewhere between a bird and a banana, it’s face stares hauntingly from the camera. It looks like a kind of jawless monkey painted by Francis Bacon.

Luczaj’s piece, “Something to Slip On,” is fittingly opaque and glitchy:

                  what passes as sky

                  has meat. a shadow.

                  it frets tiny round the bed

Enough semblance of syntax to form imagery, but not enough to derive any solid sense.

We are wandering in a landscape of strange contortions, where a momentary glimpse of a scene collapses into fractals.

Even a relatively parsable poem, like Robin Boothroyd’s “Postcard from Europa”, leaves us with a lingering suspicion that all might not be as it seems:

                  hey you

                  hope everything’s well

                  on planet earth

                  met this tree yesterday

                  it’s approximately 4,387 years old

                  touched its gnarled burrs

                  with ungloved hands

                  & felt held

                  wish u were here

                  give bingo a pat from me

Perhaps it’s the “hey you”, or the suspiciously name-o’d dog? Or perhaps it’s the image of a four-legged island stood by the seaside, with a castle for a shell and tree-branch antlers, staring from the page opposite?

Whatever it is, one can’t help but doubt that this postcard really came from a planet with 4,387-year-old trees on it (no matter how fictional). One suspects it’s yet another AI, trying and failing to prove its veracity to a material universe that it cannot conceive of.

It’s a haunting notion. Haunted perhaps.

I personally doubt that we will be able to create true artificial intelligence; the inorganic life-forms we’ve dreamed about for a century. If we do, these artworks and dialogues will be baby’s first steps.

But it feels more like we’re creating something new. An entirely other thing, neither object nor subject, and the things we’re seeing here as output are only our own words, imagery, concepts, souls even, translated into a machine language and then translated back.

The computers are haunted, but they are haunted by us.

Dan Power, the editor of the collection, has performed a commendable feat here. He has brought together a set of poems and poets with quite disparate styles and transformed them into a unified aesthetic.

Virtual Oasis is the first collection of experimental poetry that I’ve read for a long time with a clear and definite sense and purpose. It is truly experimental, in that is breaks with much of what we expect poetry to be, and yet it is not obscure.

In fact, it’s replicable and adaptable. Positive traits, from a memetic perspective. All current poets are recommended to read this collection, if only to remember what the future might look like.

Joe Darlington

The devil is in the deconstruction

Peter Salmon – An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida (Verso)

Derrida was brought up in Algeria, where after the war his family were forced to leave the house they had just paid off, with little chance of recompense, to move to France. Derrida returns there later to find the house has vanished. Family Derrida, in Algeria, were given what is chillingly described as the option of ‘coffin or suitcase’. They chose the latter. I think this moment is crucial to a philosopher who worked to destabilise the notion of presence.

Peter Salmon’s biography transmits the sense of a man who was forced, right from the start, to look awry, without ever saying it. He trusts his reader’s intelligence, but understands exactly how careful one must be when explaining Derrida’s contribution to philosophy (which some might call a ‘destruction’).

Derrida worked deep into phenomenology, Heidegger and Husserl, and came out of his immersion with an insight into the flawed nature of philosophical truth based in his understanding of language, particularly writing and speech. He is in many ways properly Hegelian in that his concern is always to destabilise binaries. Yet at the same time he follows Heidegger and his refusal of ‘geist’ or spirit (apart from the time Heidegger thought it would be a useful concept to bring back as a Nazi party member).

That structuralism happened to be current when Derrida rose from the deeps with his head full of new secret understandings is perhaps the main reason the world got the misleadingly titled ‘post-structuralism’ at all. Derrida applied his negations to this then-popular field, as it was all around him. But he applied it to many other things, for instance, in his 1974 text Glas, to Hegel and Genet. Derrida is a bigger writer than just ‘post-structuralism’, he suspected this himself, yet worried at the end if anyone would read him after his death.

For Derrida, speech is grounded by writing. It is not just that writing is where the langue (language system) for the parole (singular uses of language) is kept. Speech’s repetition makes it iterable in the first place. For a term to be stable it must be relatively standard, but that ‘relatively’ returns in Derrida as ‘différance. Scientific concepts, for instance, are passed on through writing and produced through that writing. Writing is not a neutral envelope containing pure data. This insight comes in his path-breaking introduction to Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’, which he translated. But this crack in the structure of meaning topples other concepts, that of a pure Kantian thing in itself, and the voice of the communicator of supposedly stable eternal forms, situated in a timeless space.

‘Horseness is the whatness of allhorse’ is cited, from Joyce’s Ulysses, which both carries the idea of Plato’s forms and demolishes them at the same time.

But this understanding of Derrida as the arch-destabiliser can over-reach as well. Salmon is careful to portray the man as a scrupulous scholar, who believed in philosophical rigour, and campaigned for it to continue in schools in France.

Salmon’s biography begins at the Johns Hopkins conference in Baltimore in 1966, which is an excessively repeated story, but it serves to show that Derrida, really, had made himself almost entire by 1967. In this year Writing and Difference came out, as well as Of Grammotology and Speech and Phenomena. He would go on to write 40 books, but he was made by 1967.

Yet Derrida didn’t get his doctorate until 1980 – by publishing – submitting ten books. The ‘time out of joint’ Derrida writes of in Specters of Marx seems part of his life after reading this biography. Our moment of ‘now’ from which we speak is a textual illusion, for Derrida, as many of our writers continue, in some ways, to speak their ‘now’ long after they have died. Derrida seemed obsessed with death, ghosts and hauntings. And Derrida must have been haunted by the mirror image of himself, in his own lifetime, as his repeatedly mis-interpreted work ballooned into a popular image.

Salmon’s book describes the very real cultural shifts coming out of the misinterpretations well: Derridean Deconstruction is not something one does to a cultural object, it is something that is happening inside a text already. It is a function of the very nature of language, of its inevitable slippages in meaning.

After Derrida’s rise to fame, ‘deconstruction’ becomes something one does to a cultural object, and the Birmingham School and Stuart Hall are given here as examples. Salmon is not at all withering that Derrida’s work was taken up in this way, but it strikes me that we are now in a situation where millions of citizens ‘deconstruct’ media emissions daily, in the simplest and crudest ways, something which really does come from a mis-reading of Derrida. It also strikes me that for a term such as ‘deconstruction’, that mis-reading was always a big hazard, if not inevitable.

But Derrida ‘exemplified’ the difficulties of his medium – that’s why the texts are bloated with abstractions, and impenetrable puns. For some of the post-68ers, Lyotard included, impenetrability means not capitulating to instrumentalising forces. For Derrida it is a formal response to the nature of the language-form itself.

But Peter Salmon’s biography is not, thankfully, written in what we might call – perhaps as a joke – high Derridean style. What’s great about this book is that it gives you a clear run-down on Derrida’s contribution to philosophy, as well as the life he lived, without privileging banalities, and a snapshot of the times too (the 1960s, 70s and 80s are particularly strong).

I had no idea Derrida went to the Charter 77 conferences in Prague, where there was an attempt to frame him as a drug smuggler. Jan Patočka was literally interrogated to death by the police in this time.

The details shine through and do a lot of work. For instance, that Spivak wrote a sweet naive letter asking to translate Of Grammatology and was given the job, because the request was sweet and naive, including the monograph-length preface to the book. Academia’s walls are up again, and here is an example of why they ought to remain down: Her translation of OG and its introduction remain monumental contributions. Derrida had an affair, and a son from it. His wife trained as an analyst and translated Melanie Klein.

The picture of Derrida I admire is that of him writing after his first cup of coffee at 6am and continuing right through the day, sometimes missing meals and failing to change out of his pyjamas. Now that’s a writer.

Helene Cixous described Derrida’s generation as ‘without any concession even to philosophy, an ethos that does not let itself be scared off by what public opinion, the media or the phantasm of an intimidating readership might pressure one to simplify or repress.’ Where are those people now? And I don’t mean the ones just repeating wannabe performances of arcane style in the hope it will trigger a reaction.

Derrida’s relationship with Althusser, one of deep friendship, despite their very different work – Derrida was ‘hands off’ Althusser where he often weighed in to other contemporary philosophers and writers’ works – is well-handled here.

Salmon is critical, I think, exactly where it is needed. Derrida’s relationship with Paul de Man is tricky territory. Derrida, Salmon is clear, was caught out trying to defend the indefensible in de Man. The text he wrote on the revelations of his Nazi past – ‘Like The Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War’ – is ‘a depressing read, and annoying as its title.’

The man himself was full of never to be synthesised contradictions. The writing devotee who utterly shook writing and language… by using writing. Or rather, Derrida always works to trouble metaphysics from within metaphysics.

It is a strange place to even visit and Salmon’s book is the best attempt I have read to fix the contradictions and difficulties of the work and life of Jacques Derrida to the page.

Steve Hanson

Unsigned Acts

Adrian Slatcher – The Portable Slatcher, Vol. 1 (Self-published, 2020)

Adrian Slatcher is a face of Manchester. If you’ve held a reading, opened a gallery show, launched a zine or released an EP in this city in the last twenty years, Slatcher will have been there.

He’s a polished performer of poetry, a big name at the council, and charity-shop-bargain-hunting’s answer to Attila the Hun. No rare book or forgotten B-side is safe.

Despite his omnipresence, Slatcher’s only overground publications to date are the brilliantly-titled poetry collection Playing Solitaire for Money (Salt, 2010) and the experimental Extracts from Levona (Knives, Forks and Spoons, 2010).

Anybody looking to track down his work has to navigate a welter of small press collections, zines, pamphlets, websites and literary competitions. In other words, they’d need to have the unswerving persistence of the maestro himself.

Until now, that is.

The Portable Slatcher is the first volume in a proposed two-volume collection bringing together all of the writer’s work. Volume one includes selections from novels, some poetry and short stories from 1991 to 2010. Two promises the same plus non-fiction and drama, covering 2010 onwards.

There is a mountain of material here, and a reader might initially feel swamped by the book’s size. Slatcher has a good editor’s instinct, however, and his selections always feel well-chosen. Projects are accorded suitable amounts of space; sometimes mere pages, sometimes presented in full.

Slatcher’s writing is realist. It focuses on the everyday. It is observational.

One is reminded of two other Manchester writers of his generation; David Gaffney and Nicholas Royle. All limit their artistic scope to the recognisable and the local. There is little in the way of Parnassian excess. Their settings are familiar and their syntax is casual.

Where Gaffney masters the short form, however, Slatcher seems happiest in not-quite-long forms – novellas and short novels – or else in poetry. He explores the same domestic normality as Royle, but stops short of Royle’s supernaturalism.

He is a writer of the city. Or perhaps of the city and the suburb. His early pieces, attempting pastoral, show us a writer not yet at home in his medium. Once his characters are set up in flats and semi-detacheds, surrounded by their record players and magazine-draped coffee tables, they ease up, grow more natural, start to flow.

It’s the gig – that old pre-lockdown relic – where they are most at home.

When Slatcher writes about live music, all the elements of his style line up. You are transported to the venue. Every minutely-observed moment comes through clearly. The everyday world suddenly shines, transcends itself; reaches that swaggering Mancunian state of divine elevation through music.

It is a democratic style. Barbecues, answering machines, football, taxis, the jurisdiction of the local council’s various service providers.

For a reader like myself, inclined toward the baroque, it can be sweltering at times. Slatcher captures too much of what life is really like. Flashbacks to hillsides filled with UPVC windows, every curtain twitching at me. It’s too real, Adrian! Too real!

So when his characters do break loose, it’s a real triumph. For character, writer and reader alike.

High Wire, an unpublished 1998 novel, uses the election of Tony Blair and his New Labour government as a springboard for this sense of elevation. The long section entitled “The Show” from the abandoned project All This Scenery (also 1998) uses a reunion gig at the Apollo.

Both of these are highly publishable pieces. They are so of the era, capture so much of the time and place, that they might even be more publishable now than they were then.

“The Show” in particular is excellent. The high point of the collection. More than a dozen characters, all with their own motivations and arcs, move through each other in a sweaty, booming, intense blast of gigging prose.

It ought to be put out as a standalone piece. Late nineties Manchester boiled down to pure quintessence. It is alive and pulsing, surprising and dangerous, and could only be written by Slatcher.

Other high points are the short pieces grouped together as The Instruction Manual (a sort of suburban Atrocity Exhibition), For the Want of a Gas Barbecue (a three-act farce with another of his excellent titles), and “What’s Happened to Larry?” (a short story with a simple conceit, perfectly delivered).

“No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Bible” is my favourite of the poems, and perhaps acts as the most concise summation of the Slatcherite world view. It’s funny, grounded, filled with references to bureaucracy, health and safety, local ordinances and the like, and yet, despite a certain weary cynicism, it also has a glint in its eye, a touch of cheekiness:

                  It was a stunt goat,

                  Had done this many times before,

                  Abraham used a blunt knife,

                  The blood was berry-juice

                  Noah made the Ark bigger

                  After objections from our inspectors,

                  We’d have had no further problems

                  Had it not been for the unicorns

                  The locusts were added

                  By the matte-artist;

                  We used one as a model

                  Then the rest was post-production

                  The fatted calf was enlarged

                  Using Adobe Photoshop

                  The needle was specially

                  Manufactured for the camel

The world is smaller and safer than the prophets would have us believe. Passions have thankfully been regulated and their dangers alleviated. What’s left is our humour. Our wry observations.

Those in search of The Portable Slatcher should request a copy direct from the author. It will prove, no doubt, a highly collectible item.

It encapsulates a certain era of Manchester. From the opening of the Urbis Centre, to its repurposing as the National Football Museum. Post-Hacienda, pre-MediaCity. What that era meant is still up for debate, but this collection captures it in spirit.

Joe Darlington

Volcanic enthusiasm

Steve Davis and Kavus Torabi (with Ben Thompson) – Medical Grade Music (White Rabbit, 2021)

Medical Grade Music is by Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis – the world Snooker champion – and the latter-day member of Gong Kavus Torabi. These two DJ ‘psychedelic music’ and are members of a band called The Utopia Strong.

Charles Shaar Murray once suggested to me that all of culture used to be filed neatly in drawers, but lately some anthro-earthquake had knocked all the drawers forwards 45 degrees. This was in 1998. Much of the stuff of culture has spilled out onto the floor, he said, where it now lies, randomly mixed-up. This book is further evidence that this actually happened.

Davis and Torabi take turns to present chapters on their musical enthusiasms. In fact, the talismans of obsession are lifted aloft repeatedly. Look at the book’s Contents page. We get Magma (Chapter 1) More Magma (Chapter 7) and Yet More Magma (Chapter 11) until I feel like I’m watching the webcam trained on the volcano in Geldingadalir, Iceland, which I have, admittedly, been watching from time to time.

One begins to wonder why humans are still spewing all this cultural stuff out, and why we are commenting on it so elaborately, when we seem to have reached a massive historical impasse, and that includes me writing this review and you reading it.

I sometimes feel like I’m at the top of a rollercoaster, about to go into the Big Dip, screaming (hands aloft) WE CAN’T ALL BE ARTISTS, INFLUENCERS AND PARTY ORGANISERS! SURELY SOMEBODY HAS TO MAKE SHOES!

In this nightmare, the car swishes down the line, straight into the brick wall which wakes me up like an electrical charge.

The subjects of other chapters include Cardiacs, Gentle Giant, The Smiths, Leonard Cohen and Spacemen 3.

It’s easy to chip, I’m thinking ‘Medical Grade Music, and there’s no Quicksilver Messenger Service, no Country Joe & the Fish, Eastern Jam, Section 43… in fact no West Coast acid first wave.’ But this isn’t an encyclopedia. And what is interesting about the book is precisely what’s to the fore now and what has receded. There’s a marked dystopian element to the selections and it’s easy to see why.

I wonder how The Smiths and Leonard Cohen are ‘Medical Grade Music’. One might draw a lazy journo parallel with Prozac, but they’re not that either. Then I read the chapters and find The Smiths section is really about Iron Maiden. What is Spacemen 3 about the Spacemen 3 chapter evaporates immediately, as the secret agenda of the book heats up: this is about Davis and Torabi’s development into psychedelic musicians, via a long life as collectors of the music.

What’s remarkable about this book is how it manages to appear utterly pretentious and completely unpretentious at the same time. In fact, Torabi’s full chapter on Iron Maiden mirrors the modus operandi. He explains ‘The Maiden’ as somehow a bit naff and a pure classic at the same time. He’s right. I then read the chapter on Leonard Cohen. It has very little to do with him. In a good way. ‘More Magma’ is largely about Steve Davis’s mid-career side trip into jazz-funk and soul.

What’s engaging is how – maybe because he was born in Iran – Torabi aligns and disaligns himself with culture in a way that is blind to English taste and class. This is very refreshing. His writing on Voivod is eloquent and, as is all the writing here, impassioned. It ceases to matter that I can’t take listening to Voivod for very long, and actually that makes it great music writing.

Torabi begins with his first love, The Stray Cats: These people do not care what you think about what they care about. They also seem to be asking you to consider why you care about what other people think about what you care about. They have made a book of this and put it out for people to then care / not care about.

Actually record collectors will love this book, and its sense of humour. Davis at one point states that the whole contemporary Orwellian apparatus has nothing on Discogs.

For the publisher, I guess ‘the other side of Steve Davis’ is a clear draw here. His anecdotes about growing up and being into prog rock are endearing. There is nothing boring about Steve. He tells us about eating pickled onions in an afghan coat and going to see Isotope – who at that time included Hugh Hopper – supported by Magma… Davis’s chapter on Charles Hayward, This Heat and Camberwell Now is great. He paid for Magma to play in London and made a loss.

And so be warned, a main twist of the DNA involves music that changes time and key signatures rapidly and showily: Cardiacs, Gentle Giant, Monsoon Bassoon and Zappa. Henry Cow. If this is not your kind of prog, leave well alone. If you want to explore this charming duo’s enthusiasms for a few hours and dip into some strange pop-musical places, buy it. Although I swear the Top 50 is completely invented.

Someone might call this book a novelty, but actually it holds a mirror up to the wider culture. Classical, popular and avant garde have completely collapsed into one another. The line between ‘radical’ and ‘commercial’ is about as hard to locate as it has ever been.

Derrida told us that as people speak from some impossible, timeless now, they shift that presumed centre to another place. Like the Geldingadalir volcano, it always looks the same and is always changed. It is always ‘there’ and going somewhere else. All the old tribal taboos have been forgotten, as their warriors grow old and pass on. In fact many of the bands here were made of people who refused to see the old tribal taboos in their own time, Cardiacs being a prime example.

Whether you think this picture of the state of culture shows a collapsed liberal whirlpool – a depoliticised hell – or a utopia of assent and access, is for you to decide. Whatever your view, Davis and Torabi’s micro-chapters are positively infectious. If you are a music nut of some sort – of any sort – this book is splendidly enjoyable.

Steve Hanson