Messianic millenarianism?

Hartmut Rosa – The Uncontrollability of the World (Polity)
Srećko Horvat – After The Apocalypse (Polity)

Hartmut Rosa’s book seems partly to be a short guide to his larger works. It isn’t pitched as one, but the text refers throughout to the more expansive and difficult books Rosa has completed. It is an accessible entry point to a philosopher I consider to be important. The reader can map the concepts out onto their own lives and experiences easily. For this alone I recommend it. The politics are there too. Rosa cites Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer, Bruno Latour, et al.

One of Rosa’s key concepts is Resonance, the idea of being in dialogue with something or someone. Simple enough on the surface, but this idea in Rosa’s hands is shot through with the unavailability of Resonance: whether we can resonate with objects, situations, other people (other subjectivities) or not, is much less in our hands than we might imagine it to be.

A key part of Rosa’s philosophy is also gathered around the idea of a world not under control, and here he explains how resonance and its elusiveness is central to that concept. The Uncontrollability of the World seems to be one of those books which came out in the global pandemic already describing it, without having been written in it (the preface signs off March 2020).

Some books seemed to be erased by that year, but this one is redoubled by it. It seems to have been written for it, before it. Rosa describes how our western polity and individual subjectivities arose out of, essentially, enlightenment rationality. A world that is first made viewable – via telescopes, microscopes – then accessible, then manageable, and finally, useful. I am reminded of Martin Jay’s work on the visual here.

But after three hundred years of this snowballing, instrumentalising activity, the world is still not controllable and we are not in control. Anyone who watched the recent Adam Curtis documentaries, their conclusions – whatever else one might say about them – were not a description of a global human situation which is finally managed. Far from it.

Srećko Horvat’s After The Apocalypse takes this statement as a given. For him, the apocalypse, climate-burnout, nuclear catastrophe, is so very possible due to escalating risk and possibility tipping-points, that we might as well say it already happened. Not only are we are living ‘in the end times’, we are living after the end, before it.

But Rosa says that we would profit from being penetrated by the world’s uncontrollability a little more, rather than remaining in the enlightenment mode of attempting to control at a distance. Because ultimately, not only do we fail to achieve the goal of control, in our attempts, we make the world more uncontrollable as we try. Surely there is no better example of this philosophical point than the proliferation of nuclear weapons since the end of WW2. The maddest, inverted logic of control-at-a-distance. I think about them all the way through, but Rosa doesn’t use nukes as an example until the very end of the book.

Many writers are making the connection between the collapse of globalisation, the rise of rightwing populism and the increased instability of world politics now. This also means the possibility of new wars, which at this point means the risk of nuclear strikes, or at best standoffs. I Hate The Lake District by Charlie Gere (MIT/Goldsmiths see my previous review) also seemed haunted by this idea. I am personally, haunted by all this, and have been – on and off, to a greater or lesser degree – since the 1980s.

My ghosts now have their own armchairs in the living room. The conclusion of this book is very pessimistic. So much so that Rosa places a caveat at the end to say that the work is just a first foray. But Emerson’s ‘things are in the saddle and ride mankind’ seems to be at peak decay in early 2021.

Some of the examples in Rosa’s book seem slight, computers not working, the cat clawing you: I can imagine a day in 1910 in which the adding machine stuck and the cat swiped out. But this does nothing to dim the unbearable glare of the central thesis.

Another MIT/Goldsmiths book, Six Concepts for the End of the World by Steve Beard, is part of this tradition. They are the most fatalistic books of critical theory I have read in a long time. Creative, playful, yes, but morbidly messianic too. Peak Libido by Dominic Pettman also seems to be part of it. I know how they feel.

But there’s something else to figure out here. Is all of this literature delayed millenarianism? It is certainly messianic in its tendencies. Horvat’s book particularly, with its Benjaminian time-manipulation. It is the inverse of Pauline ‘good news’, that the messiah has not arrived and yet, somehow, still has. It is negation’s revelation. The apocalypse has already happened, just not yet. For Horvat our position is no longer ‘socialism or barbarism’, but total reinvention of the world, or mass extinction.

But it seems to me that full millenarianism may have arrived twenty years into the new century. Can we bracket this strand of critical theory completely off from the anti-vaxxers? Yes, I think, but that they co-exist is at least interesting. Does the existence of a unanimous science, all nodding at the oncoming catastrophes, mean that a verdict of ‘delayed millenarianism’ should be ruled out? Maybe. I can’t answer it yet, it needs more prodding. To try to answer this in a facile way here would be pointless.

However we view the cultural trend of it, the concerns all of these books have are terrifyingly real. And to sign off saying ‘now we all need to remake the world, duh-duh duh-duh duh-duh‘ would be, in Rosa’s own philosophical terms, neither resonant nor transformative. It would be worse than merely crass and naive. It would be an insult to the millions of us who have to live under this newly intensified shadow. Even worse for the young and yet to be born.

There might not be any pure and innocent adult humans, but I also don’t buy the idea that we have all created this shadow either. I do not hold on to any of the leftwing evangelisms I once did. Back in 2017 and before I might have signed this article off with some worthy but ultimately empty lines about what ‘we’ must all do next.

But I can and still will imagine the ways in which the world might be different, even without hope. These books are great resources to use, to at least start thinking again.

Steve Hanson

The Slap of Flesh

Max Porter – The Death of Francis Bacon (Faber, 2021)

John Berger once wrote of Francis Bacon that his style lacked humanity. By pummelling away at the flesh, Bacon only got further and further away from the subjective core of personhood.

His creatures, his popes; they are tortured but they feel no pain. His is a world without love.

And yet, in spite of Berger’s condemnation, I can’t help but find myself drawn back to Bacon’s paintings again and again. Perhaps for the very same reasons that Berger condemns them.

To be always mutilated but never feel pain. This is the most abject loneliness. Loneliness as absolute. As totality.

Max Porter’s latest novella, The Death of Francis Bacon, attempts to paint seven “word pictures” exploring the death and dying memories of the artist. Like Bacon’s own works, they are at times realist and at times mere blurs. They are action and brutality, and there is nothing of the saccharine.

Lying in his hospital bed in Madrid, nursed by the Handmaids of Maria, the strict Sister Mercedes specifically, he experiences the horror and humiliation of his own body decaying.

He remembers his artistic failures, his bad reviews, and his sexually violent relationship with East End criminal George Dyer.

It is not a redemptive death. It approaches transcendence, but only through the always-liberating presence of memory. The memories themselves are brutal, as is what remains of his life – as brutal as his paintings – but it is the ability of the mind to wander between brutalities that offers us some promise, some hope, even if Bacon himself rejects it.

Porter’s own writing is stripped back and percussive. He utilises the white page as negative space. Punctuation abounds. Short sentences. Broken sentences. And then gaps. The space between words itself operates as a form of visual punctuation.

The words burst through the white, like fists pummelling a carcass.

The Death of Francis Bacon is a very short book, but an evocative one. It’s hard to tell whether this is an end-point for Porter’s minimalist literary journey, or merely a stopping point on his way. Despite racking up the awards for Death is a Thing with Feathers (2015), I can’t help but suspect Max Porter is a writer with his best work still ahead of him.

Brutal. Percussive. Exhausting. Cathartic. Maybe redemptive.

Porter’s Bacon is a punch to the jaw of writing.

  • Joe Darlington

The Dust Blows Back

Juan Rulfo – El Llano in Flames (Structo Press, 2019)

In Mexico, the land is treacherous. To survive, you must be stubborn.

Juan Rulfo is a legend of Mexican storytelling. His short stories contain the depth of novels, the melodrama of movies and all the passion and tragedy one expects from Latin American writing.

He isn’t well known in England. In the United States, he is known for his novel Pedro Paramo (1955). In Mexico itself it is his short story collection, El Llamos en llamas (1953), that is studied in schools, adapted into TV shows and available in all good book shops.

Stephen Beechinor has finally translated the second of these books for an English market, and Structo, a literary magazine specialising in “slipstream” lit, founded its own publishing subsidiary, Structo Press, in 2019 purely to bring it out.

It had been well worth the wait. Despite its slim size, El Llano in Flames feels like an odyssey. A panoramic view of the sprawling Mexican deserts. The land where nothing grows and the hard men that try to live there.

The book begins with “They Gave us the Land”; a story of poor dirt farmers, trekking across a waterless plateau only to learn that the government has granted them that desert land for farming.

“A thousand acres of land, just for you!”

“But… there is no water on that land.”

It is a story foretelling much to come.

We meet a teacher, broken by his attempts to reform the dirt farmers. In the end, he realises there is nothing to be done. If they want to get out of starvation, they must move. This, too, they refuse.

Their dead live under the dry earth. They could not leave them behind.

Men get caught up in murders. They live their lives in fear, then die sapped of everything but their regrets. Revolutionaries rove through the land, rustling cattle and burning crops in the name of high causes, only to be hunted and killed; leaving devastation behind.

We are left with the sense of a haunted land. A land where nothing moves forwards; things die faster than they grow, every plan ends in tragedy and betrayal.

But in among the pain are moments of such poignancy that one almost envies the people of the Llanos. Only at such extremes of experience can one truly sacrifice. Only here is one tested, and can triumph or fall.

The man who carries his dying son on his shoulders, across two valleys in the heat; not for the sake of his son, but in memory of his dead mother.

The boy born with a hard head, who stays up all night carrying a plank of wood, bashing the frogs that disturb his mother’s sleep. In the morning he thuds his head into the ground, over and over, so it sounds like the big, booming drums at the church.

The woman they call “belly-up”, who had and lost a dozen kids by a dozen fathers, only to die as the surviving one is born.

These are tales of great intensity, sincerity and truth. They are strange, but only as the world itself is strange. They are also masterful in their concision. I could not name another writer who could do so much in such a short space.

This is a book that deserves to be read. A classic of world literature that Beechinor and Structo have finally brought to our shores.

Joe Darlington

In Praise of the Social

Joseph Darlington – Quiz Night (No-Name Press, 2020)

I did a pub quiz once but when I saw that my meagre contribution wasn’t going to help lead the team I was on to victory I never bothered again. For some reason I’d been convinced I’d be brilliant, paraded around the pub on the shoulders of my teammates after our triumph, acclaimed as the Maradona of the quizzing world etc etc… The disappointment attendant upon the realisation that this was unlikely ever to happen forced me to take the view that pub quizzes probably weren’t for me. Now, this isn’t a memory that has particularly stayed with me but this past week, while reading Joe Darlington’s new novel Quiz Night I have had cause to revisit my brief career as a pub quizzer. 

Yep, I wanted my team to win, of course I did, but I think I probably only wanted them to win off the back of the outstanding individual performance I proved myself so unable to provide that unmomentous evening. Which I guess is just me saying I’m probably not that much of a team-player and thereby proving the lie to all those job applications over the years (sorry to any employers who might have fallen for that lie). In my case (and what is this, btw, a book-review or a personal confession???) I think my issue with quizzes is something to do with the element of competition, which is to say, I think I dislike being in a competitive arena when it’s more than likely I’m not gonna come first. Get rid of the quiz element from pub quizzes, then, I suppose, and I’d be as happy as anything. 

All of which might lead one to suppose I might not constitute the most natural audience for a novel called Quiz Night but, here’s the thing – while, yes, there is a quiz in the book, which I’ll talk more about later – for me, though, Darlington’s novel is mainly about hanging-out with people, being amongst friends. Across the few nights I spent reading the novel, when I was away from it I would find myself actually missing the characters: Nick, Blain, Amy, Naomi and Rach. I would find my concentration wandering from whichever telly programme we were watching back towards these folk who I’d only so recently become acquainted with, impatient for the next opportunity I’d have to put myself back in their company. The night I started reading it I even struggled to fall asleep coz I was buzzing so much after time spent with these characters. And this is one hell of an achievement I think. Of course, all fiction writers should be aiming to populate their works with memorable, life-like characters, but, really, how often is this achieved? The occasions when I’ve encounter it in a novel have been quite infrequent I think, sadly.

A note at the beginning of Quiz Night explains that the novel was written during 2020’s coronavirus lockdown and, as much as is possible given the speed that current times have tended to change, Quiz Night does feel like the perfect work for this strange moment we’ve all been living through. Rather than going the oh too predictable way of showing us what we’ve got though – or I guess more accurately what we had (there goes the velocity of change again…) – in other words deserted streets and rising levels of fear and anxiety, Darlington, instead, opts to show us what we’ve no longer got and what I, and I suspect a hell of a lot of other people, so desperately miss, company and camaraderie. The social. Interestingly however, in this novel, the diagnosis and the cure, to me at least, seemed almost to be the same thing. By showing us so skilfully and satisfyingly what we’ve not got I felt that at least some of my own needs for the social had been met. So much did this feel to me the case that after finishing Quiz Night I found myself wishing I’d read a copy of it much earlier, it seemed to me it’s effects would have made this latest lockdown much, much easier to bear.

Alongside the vivid and lively hymn to friendship we get, as well, Darlington’s thoughts on the nature of knowledge. These ruminations provide a constant thread running throughout the book and as just one example of this on Page 165 we find:

“But how will you know if it’s right or not, if you don’t know yourself?” Naomi asked.

Normally such a question could only provoke either the most banal or the most profound answer. The most banal being “Google”. The most profound addressing the very nature of what it is to know, and how one enters a state of knowing, and whether one could possess knowledge as a supplement when the possessor does not actively know in-themselves. 

It’s these sections which provide the philosophical heart of the book and in a fantastic example of interactivity Darlington allows the reader space in the text not just to think about these conundrums but also to try to figure them out practically by pitting themselves against the same quiz questions that the characters are facing. Darlington even provides an answers sheet at the back of the book.

And although I didn’t complete the quiz (partly due to the reasons indicated at the beginning of this review, partly due to the fact that I’m not a big fan of writing in books) I thought Quiz Night’s interactive element was a great idea. It reminded me of the Choose-your-adventure books of my youth, which I was a massive fan of…but it also seemed to me that Darlington had provided a means to ensure that everyone’s experience of his book would be slightly different due to the differing frames of reference people would be drawing on in order to try to answer the questions, so in a sense then Darlington could be said to have written a book which is perpetually rewriting itself – no mean feat.

Since finishing Quiz Night I’ve been wondering if part of the reason it landed so positively with me was because there was a level of recognition, and here I don’t mean the specific characters of the quizzers but, rather, the locations. I’m a big fan of local, Manchester-based literature and here, with Quiz Night, we have another great entry into that canon. Reading the description of the pub in the opening pages I felt sure I knew which one Darlington was talking about… And isn’t there always some weird magic which occurs when you see a place you know on TV or, as is the case here, portrayed in fiction (as an aside, what is that all about exactly: there can be a street you’ve walked down every day of your life for the past 10 years without ever giving it a second thought but when you unexpectedly see it on the local news it’s suddenly been transformed into the most exciting location on earth!).

Also, since finishing the book, I’ve been wondering what happened next for the characters. Some of them were facing some pretty big life changes and I would absolutely love to know how they got on with those. I’ve also been thinking that perhaps when lockdown finally is over I might even give pub quizzes another chance. That’s far from certain but you never know. Always say you never know. Unless, of course you do know. In which case write the answer down quickly and ignore all self-doubt, and whatever you do definitely, definitely don’t go and change your answer at the last minute.

Richard Barrett

New Writing 2021

Tom Branfoot – I’ll Splinter (Pariah Press, 2021)

This collection of work is crunchy, cold, sharp, and stinks of impatient ambition. Branfoot is an abrupt new voice with a tone which can evoke at times an open hand and at others a turned back. He hops with seasoned ease from space to space, capturing moments of quiet love, conceits of the vulnerable cosmos, ironic nothings, winding paths, the boring horrors of mortality, the dryness of living and yet life’s wetness, too. To describe Branfoot in his own terms, he is a “stunning intrusion”. I’ll Splinter is young and fast; a “splendid falling.”

Blair James

The King of Porthcawl

Abby Kearney and Daniel McMillan – From Elvis in Porthcawl (self-published, 2021)

From Elvis in Porthcawl is a new zine by Manchester-based writers Abby Kearney and Daniel McMillan, which recounts a visit to the famous Porthcawl Elvis Festival in South Wales. Combining creative writing, travelogue and local and cultural history, Elvis’s career path is interwoven with the story of how the event itself came into being, and snapshots of people and places carefully observed during the town’s annual takeover and transformation by scores of Elvis fans and tribute acts. 

The result of many months of painstaking research, and published in a tiny print run of fifty, From Elvis in Porthcawl is no mere fan act, but something much richer. As well as exploring how Elvis’s image and persona shifted according to the social mores of mid-twentieth-century America, Kearney and McMillan document the changing fortunes of Porthcawl as a tourist destination in the latter decades of the twentieth-century and contextualise them against political and economic events. Significant among these are factors such as the Beeching cuts of the early 1960s, which closed the town’s railway station – where many visitors arrived – and the subsequent closure of the Welsh mines which provided many of Porthcawl’s tourists; arriving on schedule with the shut-down of the mines every year, these visitors brought significant disposable income to the town and even an audience for its annual panto.

In the face of dwindling visitors, coming up with the idea for Porthcawl Elvis Festival – which was first held in 2004 – must have felt like hitting a pot of gold: the underused Pavilion was reimagined as a stage for Elvis impersonators, and the glut of holiday camps hosted a ready audience, forming a niche but thriving community in the process.

While the Elvis Festival is specific to Porthcawl and unrivalled in its scale, the town’s experiences mirror those of coastal resorts up and down the country, from Blackpool (where Kearney is originally from) to Great Yarmouth. Elvis acts present a significant part of the cultural offer in towns such as these, too; despite the fact that the King himself never performed in Britain, his music and charisma continue to exert a powerful transatlantic appeal.

Anyone who has grown up or worked in a seaside town, or visited out of season, will, therefore, recognise Kearney and McMillan’s evocative and sometimes bittersweet portrait of a resort desperately seeking creative ways to remain novel in the era of mass travel and the package holiday: the zine has just as much to offer those with an interest in British places, social history and customs as Elvis fans.

In an unforeseen twist of fate, since the zine was originally conceived tourism has been one of the industries hit hardest by Covid-19. From Elvis in Porthcawl reminds us what British seaside towns have to offer us, from the daytripper to the dresser-upper seeking to find like-minded fans against a backdrop of sun, sea and sand. Reading From Elvis in Porthcawl, one can only hope that the current restrictions to travel might work to the benefit of resorts such as Porthcawl, as we look to holiday closer to home.

https://goodpress.co.uk/writing-zines/from-elvis-in-porthcawl-by-abby-kearney-amp-daniel-mcmillan

Natalie Bradbury

Stranger than Fiction is the Film Kaufman Would’ve Written if He Were Able to Plan and Structure His Work

Charlie Kaufman – Antkind (4th Estate, 2020)

Do you ever finish a book and wonder if you’re the only person who’s read it?

Charlie Kaufman’s megalithic new novel, Antkind, appears to be designed explicitly to alienate and offend every member of the bookbuying class. It’s huge, sprawling, often directionless, and yet funny enough and wacky enough that I just couldn’t put it down.

B Rosenberger Rosenberg, who goes by “B.”, whose pronouns are “thon/thonself”, and who is adamant to let you know he’s not Jewish, has written over eighty impenetrable academic monographs, left his wife for an “African American Girlfriend”, and introduces himself with a three-page monologue about his beard.

He’s very sorry for being white, and he thinks you’re a cretin.

The narrative hook of Antkind is introduced over the first hundred pages. B is down in St Augustine researching a monograph on the transgender movies of the silent era, when he is accosted by an old “African American Gentleman” called Ingo Cuthbert.

B helpfully informs Ingo that he is a “Magical Negro”, and therefore an offensive stereotype. Ingo shows B his movie.

Ingo has spent over ninety years making his movie; a stop-motion piece that is three-months long and uses the future-tech “Brainio” to incorporate the viewer’s own minds into the film. It is the greatest film ever made.

Even more profoundly, Cuthbert has animated an entire city of “Unseen” characters off-screen. Every character shown in the film is white; the Unseen are black. The Unseen have been animated for ninety years off-screen, watching on as the white puppets are animated before the cameras.

Halfway through the screening, Ingo dies. B realises that this movie is his ticket to stardom.

He packs it in his car, along with all the puppets and sets. He intends to drive to New York but instead sets the car on fire. He spends three months in the burns unit and wakes up without any memory of the now destroyed movie.

It’s a brilliant set-up. But don’t get too excited: there’s another 650 pages to go.

The rest is a typical Kaufman-esque phantasmagoria, moving from the real, to the uncanny, to the comic and then to the downright bizarre and dreamlike.

B argues with his author (of course!), murders a doppelganger, is visited by travellers from a future where movie novelisations are considered higher art than the movies themselves, and is finally caught in an apocalyptic war between a million robotic Donald Trumps and the corporate-war-machine-slash-burger-chain Slammys.

Kaufman turns frustration into an art form. Our narrator cannot simply describe Ingo’s film. Instead, we are overwhelmed by academic jargon, woke posturing and reflections on film-watching technique.

Ingo’s own compelling and moving theories of film are rapidly snatched away by B, who tells us what to think instead. Every moment of profundity is swiftly barfed on; a regurgitated word-salad of academese saturating every scene.

I challenge a film theorist to read this without burning it. The whole Rosenbergian enterprise of film studies must surely be dismantled after this. So spot-on is the satire that it’s barely satire, merely a description of our horrible, stupid reality.

And it just keeps going and going.

Could it be the ultimate novel of the twenty-first century? Frustration building upon frustration, transparently self-serving moralising on the one side and a bumbling, childish ineptitude on the other? The whole thing jarring, boring, tonally confused and yet compelling, laugh-out-loud funny, outrageous and hateful?

It feels like real life! But it is so unreal!

The only way it could possibly have ended would have been for B to wake up, realise it was all just a movie and that he had been sat in Ingo’s apartment the whole time. And yet, being too clever even for himself, Kaufman points out that this is the only viable ending for his book and then sabotages himself by pronouncing it trite.

He refuses to end it this way. I can’t even remember the real ending. I guess you should read it and find out.

If you aren’t already horrified by the prospect of this novel, go and search for it on Twitter. The collective hate, anguish, and despair that it has elicited is the ultimate marker of its success. If you feel any sympathy for the enraged Tweeters, don’t buy this book.

If you would prefer to laugh at them, and laugh at yourself, and laugh at the world, buy the damn thing now – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Joe Darlington

Hell is a Circle

Phillip O’Neil – Mental Shrapnel (Equus Press, 2020)

The image of hell dies hard. The rest of the Christian assemblage may have fallen away, but hell retains its power over us.

This is because hell is a description of a world without forgiveness.

I recently read René Girard’s work, Violence and the Sacred, in which he argues that sacrifice, whether human or animal, was not simply ceremonial, or a tribute to the gods, but a way of directing the whole society’s violence in one direction, thus dispelling it.

In a collective act of murder, ancient man could finally attain forgiveness. Eventually, Christ supplanted the living sacrifices.

Without a mechanism to allow us to forgive, ancient society entered a state of total distrust, total suspicion and total war. Without forgiveness, we unleash hell.

Phillip O’Neil’s book is a study in hell. Christopher Mahler, our protagonist, is either a psychotherapist or a war correspondent (his identity is unstable, in flux). He saw the worst of the war in Sarajevo and, years later, suffers blackouts as a result.

Sarajevo is a vision of the hell without. Mobs, murder and mutilation are commonplace. Simply seeing the war is enough to pollute Mahler. The chaos enters his soul.

Cut to 2008; Mahler is now in Prague, living in a halfway house with drunks and drug-addicts. He witnesses their decline while trying to piece his own mind back together. His bizarre PTSD-driven actions and fugue states are easily confused for drunkenness. He fits in well.

Finally, having seen the hell without and lived the hell within, Mahler pierces the fabric of reality. He goes in search of his memory, and his lost Beatrice, in a world of his own making.

This parallel existence takes the form of a city, similar to Unthank in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, where every meeting is a confrontation and every compliment contains a threat.

The alternative worldspace is divided between PeaceZone and WarZone. The differences between the two are minimal and the line drawn between them is shifting and arbitrary.

At times we are back in the Bosnian war. Sometimes we meet the drunks and drug addicts from his building. Often the dead come back to life.

There is a reason that hell is a circle. We learn that through Mahler’s odyssey, and whether O’Neill truly succeeds in exorcising his character’s demons is up to the reader to decide.

This is a brutal book. It’s shifts in tone are often jarring. And yet that gives it a texture and a patina unlike any other book I’ve read.

I would expect no less from Equus Press, whose experimental texts are at the forefront of the contemporary avant garde. As publishers, they don’t flinch from discomfort, and works of twisted brilliance like Mental Shrapnel are the result.

This is a book that shoves you, then looks at you expectantly; waiting to be shoved back. A dynamic absolutely of our times.

  • Joe Darlington

Continuation and confusion…

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

The Poetics of the Puzzle

Philip Terry – Birds of the British Isles (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

Tom Cowin – Static Gleanings (Red Ceilings Press, 2021)

For the ancients, poetry’s job was to sanctify. For the Romantics, it was to express. What is its role today?

Two new short works from Red Ceilings Press suggest, in different ways, the same answer: that poetry is a puzzle.

“Puzzle” is, yes, something of a diminutive word. It is cosy. Domestic. A night in with hot cocoa rather than out with the Sturm und Drang.

For the first of these collections, Philip Terry’s Birds of the British Isles, such a descriptor might be suitable. Terry was editor of The Penguin Book of Oulipo, and here offers us some wordgames of his own.

                  Oak battle daze

                  Pine fight erasure

                  Larch conflict haze

                  Birch feud muddle

                  ………………………….

There is a dotted line at the end of each poem; a space reserved for a bird of the British Isles: fifty in total. For the above piece, as I’m sure you’ve got now, the answer is willow warbler (as in “willow war blur”).

Some of these are easier than others. A layman’s knowledge will suit for most – puffin, seagull, robin, shag – but a quick brush-up with a bird book might be needed beforehand if one is to get every answer. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of the bee-eater or the sheerwater.

As Sunday afternoon amusements go it’s definitely original, and particularly fun to play with others. It’s often said of poetry that it’s “intended to be read aloud”; in this case, the audience are encouraged to answer back as well.

As for poetics, there are some pleasant incongruities, and some of the puzzles build to a satisfying conclusion (massive breast / large bosom / sizeable mammary / big boob …. [everybody together now!]).

But the real poetics are, I suspect, in the readerly constraints. It’s not often that a poet tells you exactly how to respond to their work. It inverts our expectations. By refusing analysis, it provokes analysis in response. You want to ask; “but is it poetry?”

Isn’t this the quintessential response to the arts in our time?

An identical response might be levelled at Tom Cowin’s Static Gleanings. Subtitled “The History of our Polyphony Gleaned from EVP Recordings”; Cowin combines words heard in static with his own poetical structuring to produce a book sat uncannily between poignancy and garble.

Certain lines stick out as framing devices: “if you hear music or singing in the sounds / sometimes they are just random sounds / or a limited range of learned patterns”.

Our poet-guide leads us in.

Others read like the white-noise-words themselves: “when the rain stopped / it was like an unravelling / knots of almost territory / reclaiming voices like / nightingales”.

But mostly we find ourselves caught between. Are these the sounds Cowin heard, or are they his own? Or, which seems the case, are they a fusion of the two; messages from the void repurposed to act as a guide to hearing the void itself?

The void calls. The void beckons.

The poetics here are clearer; the answer to the puzzles less clear. Ambiguity. The abiding category of our contemporary judgement. Cowin’s work has it, far moreso than Terry’s. At least on the surface of things.

And yet, in its séance-like qualities, Cowin’s work also belongs perhaps to the “puzzling” tradition. The voices are on tape, an analogue phenomenon and therefore antiquated. It’s certainly no parlour game, but it gestures that way. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s what makes it so contemporary.

The world is interactive now. Not just videogames, but our friendships, our love lives, our careers and our experiences. We are given an active role, albeit a mediated one, a curated one. That our poetry grows more puzzle-like, more encouraging of interaction or replication, places it here among our lives; not as elevated, maybe, but more fun.

  • Joe Darlington