The Inevitability of Meaning

Steve Spence, Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Replicating noise is difficult. The modern world is beset by noise, and large numbers of poets and artists set out expressly to capture it. Most, I’m sorry to say, are unsuccessful.

Our review pile here at the MRB is always full of poetry collections attempting in different ways to capture modern noise; to the extent that these collections become a form of noise themselves.

Steve Spence’s new collection is different.

Spence has understood what many poets have not: that noise is not meaningless. Noise is structured and comprehensible. That’s what makes it so tiring, so invasive.

If all noise consisted of was a random background hum, we could tune it out. I’m sat here tuning out the noise of my laptop, the buzz of the lightbulb above, and the wave-like sound of cars passing in the street. I can tune all this out.

But if the builders next door decide to switch on TalkSport – then it’s all over. No more review. No more thinking possible until the wordstream has ended.

Because the exhausting thing about modern noise is not that it’s constant, but that it’s intermittent enough to always request our attention. Adverts, radio, other people’s conversations; they all sap our attention away, bit by bit.

Spence’s poetry captures this perfectly.

The collection consists of forty poems, each structured in a standardised form: four stanzas of four lines each followed by a two-line coda.

The content is also controlled, made up of phrases that, despite all being unrelated, are always complete and self-standing. The result is a poetry that never feels fragmentary, despite its content being only that of overheard or quickly-read statements:

                Is it time to rethink our ideas

                of community? By definition

                you can’t always know where

                research might lead but it’s

                an early piece and it’s in good

                shape. In this film the perpetrator

                gets away with the crime. In terms

                of style, what are you thinking?

Strategic use of stanza-breaks and enjambment produce additional poetic effects, meaning that – as with the statements themselves – we are tempted into reading the piece as cohesive even when it isn’t.

By fitting his random statements into a tight, cohesive structure Spence rather brilliantly mimics the modern mind in transit. We are faced with constant information and, often against our will, our consciousness constantly tries to amalgamate it, to squeeze some meaning out of it by fitting it into our pre-existing structures of thought.

The effect is like walking down a city street: there’s a sale on, that’s a daft advert, what are they talking about?, that man has a placard – don’t read it, too late I’ve read it – podcast in the ears and a woman shouting at her husband, remembering a thing someone said long ago and coming up with a perfect response to an argument in your own head…

Some poetry tries to replicate this by cutting up the information into fragments so tiny they are impossible to parse. The real horror, Spence shows us, is that all this information is parsable and, not only that, you will spend your whole life in a constant, inevitable, unavoidable effort to parse it.

As you read, you dip in and drift out. A Beefheart reference woke me up. A Brexit reference put me to sleep. These poems are re-readable, but only in the sense that one can walk a street four times and never have the same experience.

For readers of experimental poetry, I’d say that Eat Here, Get Gas & Worms is a must. Although I’m still not entirely sure what the title refers too.

Joe Darlington

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