The Problem of England

Robert Sheppard – Bad Idea and Adrian Clarke – Euromancer (both Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2021)

Here are two poets very close to my own heart. Both are put out by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.

In his English Strain project Robert Sheppard ‘translates’ or versions sonnets. Shearsman put out the first volume. Here, in volume 2, he processes Michael Drayton’s 1619 sonnets into the Brexit clusterfuck, weaving in traces of British dogging hotspots.

The basic premise, you might say, seems a bit random. A jagged, salvaged piece of a smash between the arbitrarily historic and the accidentally-discovered profane. And so it is. You may even argue that this makes the work less than incisively conceptual. But I will be so bold as to state that its basic modus operandi makes it Art with a cap A.

Because why would anyone make a piece of work that was scalpel-clean cerebral, at this point in history? The confusing, the confused, the idiotic, the hypocritical, the absurd, the total ballsup, the moronic, the drooling, the dangerously narcissistic, somebody caught in the bushes, trousers around the ankles: These are the atmospheres and temperatures of today.

At the same time, that Sheppard has done this – set this particular mix of inputs to pour in and then proceed to poeticise them – seems to create a critical feedback effect which makes the work incisively conceptual all over again.

Put simply, it is strategically profane and chaotic, not accidentally. It is in fact very finely crafted. Some of the pages present ‘overdubs’ of Drayton’s sonnets. Thus a manifesto of sorts emerges on the first page:

I hang out inside these sonnets, punching
echoes into new shape, because I take
poetry as the investigation

Sheppard understands the attempted removal of the space between the signifier and the signified that takes place in the totalising dogma of our times (on the left and the right, actually): ‘Boris is Boris; Brexit is Brexit’, but this is always partial – as Foucault knew – because they don’t say ‘Racism is Racism’.

You have to find the edges, the places where the stitches are showing, then unpick them and crawl back inside to see how everything is wired. The left have been caught throwing this understanding into the trash as gleefully as the right.

Sheppard does this for us, and the metaphors of stitching run through the book. ‘My stitched up eyes cannot see the way until you shine’ for instance and then Theresa May is presented as sewn together, about to be unpicked.

Sometimes it is side-splittingly funny, at other times really horrible. Or horribly real. The Freudian, generational infanticide of the whole thing is very clear:

He can’t take it with him when he’s gone
but the funeral bill will make it look
that way. The leavers are leaving life:
the remainers must pick up the tab.
Through the loophole of language and down
the lift shaft of poetry, my old brain
drops two flights a second. My prostate
only leaves time for writing sonnets.

Sheppard finds and amplifies the place where difference is being flattened in language. He cites the Attorney General, ‘no deal is good and “no-deal” is worse’. Joyce was onto this. It shows us the madness of the times and the madness of meaning as it operates in human discourses more widely. The sickness returns on p.41 when (we assume) Theresa May returns to express ‘no deals or no-deal’.

This is no longer just a morally weak epoch – as it has been for some time – but a time of weakened logic as well. The two together make semio-explosive. But this book is the sound a man of enlightenment and renaissance makes as he sees the long rich curve of knowledge – our real ‘heritage’ – being flushed clean down a political shitter:

He beggars belief: whacks me round the head
with a sock full of frozen sick, and steals my reason.

A character called Idea emerges, from Drayton’s title, and haunts the sonnets for a while:

by the Mersey’s open mouth to the world,
Idea sits in her Ladies Day sick and weeps.

Liverpool will be among the first to feel the pinch of ocean rises and Sheppard, a native, sees himself ‘warming the Arctic Puffin with my heated verse’. This book is not shy of admitting complicity, but it never shies away:

He earns £2,291 per hour for his damp stories
in the Telegraph, while speeding freedmen piss into
plastic bottles in the Amazon temple…

This work collapses the medieval and the modern, the pompous and the low. It is acid, sarcastic, the only voice I now accept. It is utterly brilliant. You think that’s bad? Then give me some times that change my view.

Meanwhile, Adrian Clarke has Euromancer, which tackles our era with a similar lack of care for our delicate sensibilities. Clarke cites Jules Laforgue up front: ‘As for the distant heavens, they were distant.’

The opening sequence of ‘Herodiad’ is savage, dark, less laughs than Sheppard. But I have found, in Clarke, the poet whose music feels most similar to my own. These poems could have come from my body:

meaning existential
pneuma in
synch with
fuckwit poses

Like Sheppard, the work is staring down into the pit of the past from the present. It conflates the idiocies of the time – that are opening up a new epoch of vast danger – with those of the past. ‘Herodiad’ reminds me of Osip Mandelstam’s most desparing work, and Celan, in fact the last sequence is titled ‘In the Margins of Celan’s Schneepart’. I hear Nelly Sachs in there, too.

In this work, Europe (and that includes England) has already allowed some sort of Rubicon to be crossed, after which the voices of the old times are triggered:

split-screen aberrrant
brazen decks
klezmer sampled
in wax

This is poetry with the gloves off, it is brutal, fizzing with energy and hysteria, and in this both of these books are clear mirrors of the times we are in.

Steve Hanson

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