magical moments in literature
[This post consists of raw notes towards an essay on Andrea Brady's poetry. The finished essay (eight months later) incorporated some of this, but not much.]
OK, it's my mission to dash something off for Intercapillary Space, but what about? Let's check out what's in my backpack.
Edward Thomas, Werner Aspenström, William Shakespeare... hmm, it's not quite what I'm looking for.
Try another pocket. Tim Allen's Default Soul. Well that's more like it, but people are going to be fed up with me writing about Tim Allen. Anyhow, that's where we'll begin.
Default Soul (Red Ceilings Press, 2014) contains 44 poems that are all in the same format (three four-line stanzas). "Stanzas" is quite a misleading term here, but at least you'll understand what the poems look like.
The end-paper says that it's the first of a trilogy of such books, and I hope that turns out to be true, because of all the various Tim Allen books I've read I think this is the most imaginatively intense.
It's a small pamphlet and a very good thing to carry around in a pocket because you don't need to read much to get a hit off it. Each poem consists of 12 sort-of-jokes. They interact in a mainly subliminal way. If I claimed that I'd laughed out loud a few times, you'd think that I'm lying, but anyway I've definitely chuckled. I think one of the lines was
chilly on the terrace even in the cubby hole
When something's a limited edition of 35 copies it seems ridiculous to call it popular poetry, but it kind of is. If you can imagine one of those comic compilations of amusing or wacky newspaper headlines, then that's not too far away from what you've got here,
physicist's life is in ruins he insists
Or, "Tutankhamun's beard glued back on, say Egyptian museum conservators". Oh no, that one's real. But back to Tim's physicist. It starts as a joke, but it doesn't end there, because this is poetry. After the chuckle, the analysis: Why is this funny? Something about the unfettered emotionalism of "my life is in ruins" in absurd contrast to the way we expect a physicist to talk. And what does that expectation say about science, and about us?
Another thing that often comes to mind is the clues in a cryptic crossword. It's to do with the lack of articles and the replacement of names by categories.
young man blinks as old writer decomposesor
bird in highest tree is singing the lowest noteor
church porch quite possible without a church
Next time round he should supply the grid.
Then there are fragments.
the handrail is a Letraset bird of prey
That makes perfect sense if you assume that it's a fragment, and is missing the opening word "On". So why miss it out, then? I don't really know, but it isn't just to create a gratuitous difficulty. Compare this by Andrea Brady:
the sheep's skull must have cracked
when it plunged onto the strand from the pasture. (from "Table Talk")
That's a neat way of telling us that a sheep fell off a cliff but without mentioning the cliff. Again, not gratuitous difficulty. Somehow the process of working this out produces a kind of delight that isn't separable from the enhanced vividness that comes from perceiving something that you haven't simply been told.
This sort of delight is not what Brady's poems usually do. Highlighting it might be a false beginning. I guess I'll leave it hanging there.
Back to Allen. Put together these one-liners into quatrains and you end up with something a good deal more complicated:
audience of monsters and proud star gazers
judge retires to a convent to shave
cannibals in the attire of anyone called Rousseau
devastating poverty blights your first day
seabirds potter in their pyjamas
beach debris desert boy makes premier soaps
glyptic holy girl calculating grotto's dimensions
summer hols summary has a cold conviction
I can't resist laying this side to side with another teasing quatrain poem, J.H. Prynne's STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE ARTESIAN (Barque, 2009):
Cursive slow dropper forbear manipulated order to
save them allusive eat till suited, offering help
them single them fairly wit tackle. Into wicket
fainting team alloy white iron bait, aril did them
Claimant at first. Getting them out to margin few
to allow by pair iridescence gain the hold step,
strim loose panic back go slant copy as broken out
for them this counter waveform, less same fusion
I don't want to pre-empt what conclusions you might want to draw from this juxtaposition. But, in a general way, the difference strikes me this way. Allen's poetical challenge is the world-as-experienced; how to get it in to poetry, which is always resisting it. That's the challenge in itself, and it's challenge enough. But I conceive Prynne's poetry as more sceptical about the coherence of the world-as-experienced; he aspires to get beneath that illusion and to tinker with the workings. In that respect I see Prynne's enterprise as grandly romantic in a way that Allen's is not.
Robert Potts: "One yearns for a reading – academic or otherwise – that would start to explain Her Weasels Wild Returning(1994) or the impenetrable STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE~~~ARTESIAN (2009)".
Streak Willing is an easy text in some ways. Most people will agree that the six stanzas on each page represent a discrete poem, a supposition confirmed by each sixth stanza ending in a full stop, which none of the others do. And it's quite easy to identify themes within each poem, so we can give the twelve poems working titles, like this.
1. closed box
2. broken / fragment
3. water / margin
5. enamel / bitten
6. would / eye / wood cut
9. rapid / soon
11. At for was.
12. some / same /ours
Other minutiae to ponder: 1. Each stanza begins with a capital letter which, except for the first in each poem, is purely metrical. 2. The poems contain few articles, but each has at least one (in Poem 10, "the" arrives only in the last line; Poem 11 has only "a"s). 3. The lines get gradually longer, so poem 1 averages about 12 syllables a line, but poem 12 averages about 16. 4. The poems are lyrical. The most basic lyrical word of all - "oh" - appears in poems 1,2,3,6,8 and 11. The word "how" is also prominent and I think usually ejaculatory. Besides a surprising amount of emotive, even anguished, language. 5. "At" is a basic word in Prynne's poems and is prominent here. 6. But the key word here is "same", which appears multiple times in every poem, and with special emphasis in the last. It seems to be linked to both "some" and "shame", also to the first syllables of "summary", "summons", "summer" "salmon", "simulate", "simper" etc.) 7. Following on from that observation, it's clear that the sound of words, or the sound of bits of words, may be a decisive factor in the patterning. Consider the "-ic" suffix that shows up in Poem 1 as "civic.. Tantric.. Galvanic.." Poem 9 plays a game with "-ic" and "x": "relics", "pernix", "proximal", "exit", "phalanx", "ethic", "ferric", "synthetic", "Suffix", "metric", "traffic". The closer you read, the more of such games you'll see. 8. The word "graven" appears in Poems 3 and 4, "limit" in 7 and 9, "livid" in 1 and 5, "defect" in 4 and 11, "metric" in 5 and 9.
John Armstrong has written numerous posts on the sequence. His key contention is that it refers to The Troubles and more specifically the blanket protest and hunger strike at the Maze Prison in 1980-81. This contention mainly took shape in these two early posts.
As an idea I think it has quite a lot to be said for it. Armstrong has pointed to the significant debate in leftist circles around the time of the split between the official IRA and the provos in 1969 - did violence between the working classes only aid the cause of capital?
But ultimately my view is that associating Prynne's poem with a single historical locus isn't right. To put it crudely, the striking differentness of Prynne's approach (so demanding to write, and so demanding to read) couldn't really be excused if all that lies behind it is merely an engagement with a single piece of history. My belief is that Streak Willing is a polysemous poem; it isn't about Long Kesh and Bobby Sands in the same sort of way that Richard Hamilton's The citizen and Steve McQueen's Hunger are. Prynne's text can interconnect many things.
For example, Poem 4, the "hunger" poem, uses the word "trucial". Now this can certainly be interpreted in a Northern-Irish context, since truces with the British government (hypothetical or actual) are a major part of the history of the struggle.
But the Arabian context ("Trucial States", as they were before 1971 - subsequently the UAE) ought to be followed up for its own sake, too. For this single word directs us to the astonishing transformation of life in the southern Arabian peninsula that came with the discovery of oil; the auto-destruction of the Bedu way of life; the uncorrupt hungers and thirsts of the desert, as poignantly hymned by Wilfred Thesiger in Arabian Sands, inevitably replaced by the desalinated water and green villas of Abu Dhabi.
Is a willed hunger, in this context too, the appropriate protest to an oil-propelled globe and to the independent commercial zones of Dubai, the Middle East's London?
But I wouldn't want to argue that this, either, is the true hidden theme of Prynne's poem. I believe the text is a honeycomb of larger ideas that permits a searching meditation on the basic roots of our capitalist civilization, and it partly does what it does by glancing at multiple loci. But it's only a working hypothesis, and there's a greater element of faith in it than I'd wish.
A year after Streak Willing was published, Andrea Brady said: " I have profound misgivings about the political methods of Prynne’s late poetry". I'm taking that out of its context, which certainly wasn't the right moment to expand on that remark. Still, it was an interesting one. "Political methods" ... Not "political views". Not "poetical methods". Where is that going?
OK. Andrea Brady, Cut From The Rushes (Reality Street Editions,2013).
"The Rushes", I think, is a sort of collective name for Brady's occasional poems: speedy here-and-now one-off poems which don't belong to a larger project such as the extended verse-essay Wildfire (Krupskaya 2010). What's cut from the rushes here, then, are two swathes: Embrace (previously published separately in 2005), and Presenting, which consists of more recent poems. The implication, maybe, is that there's a whole marshland of other uncollected poems out there. Which is quite an impressive thought, because Cut from the Rushes is an exhausting reading experience. Not for the number of poems , but for the demands made by each one.
The title might mean a bit more. At any rate, "cut" is a word that turns up very frequently in Brady's texts (as it does, also, in Prynne's). In one word it concentrates the grand themes of physical violence and cultural manipulation; public opinion is manufactured; - as Brady noted in her Quid essay about post 9/11 grief.
You might entertain the hope that the occasions of the poems would be obvious, and in some cases this is true. E.g the much-discussed "Saw Fit" (Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib) or "The Gloucester, The Illustrious" (Operation Highbrow, evacuation of British citizens from Beirut in 2006) or "Vision in Neutrals" (sub-titled A Coalition Pastoral). Reading the reviews, which naturally favour what the reviewer can talk about, you sometimes get the impression that the poems are all like this. But they're not. Most of the poems are highly oblique about their occasions. Most often the poem-titles are riddling puns ("Sight Unseen") or just riddles ("In Album Men") or personal notes ("To Castellina").
A poem like "In Album Men" has an occasion, all right, but not really a public occasion: more about holidaying in Turkey. The locations include Uçhisar in Cappadocia, Olympos in Lycia, and maybe the Lydian aqueducts.
Mevsimlik sailors cut the Eurovision frigate in to hove
See, I told you the word "cut" was a regular. "Mevsimlik" is Turkish for Etesian - the summer northerly of the Aegean, considered "a good steady sailing wind preferred by many leisure sailors" (Wikipedia). There's a sneer lurking here, about the leisure sailors. In the poem the sneer (and the leisure) becomes applied to the cultural tourists who file through Turkey like Xenophon's mercenaries. I.e Brady herself. While Mutability was very specifically domestic in its concerns, this was nothing new. Brady has always uncaringly done things that are supposed to typify mainstream poets: for example, writing about herself, family, relationships, the domestic and quotidian, and holidays. Of course the way she does it is distinctive. But the point is, she doesn't need to demonstrate where she stands in the poetry world.
This is surely a strength. After all, there are reasons why these subjects are so popular among the poets and audiences of today. They are itches we need to scratch. They are politically sensitive and much-cut-up battlegrounds. They are the place where we play out a dialogue of feeling and forgetting our complicity. They are where the money gets spent. They are the site of desire and of such values, visions and ideals as still remain to us.
In some other respects, too, Brady stands out from the mass of post-avant writing.
Much post-avant writing disdains the similes and metaphors that mainstream authors cherish. Brady is willing and able to deploy brilliant similes.
Flock of friendly parables catch
the air like whiffle balls. Hard to loft, they are harder to gather.
(Paradise Gardens 1 and 2)
(This reminds me that Brady is an American poet as well as a London-based poet. Precinct comes easier when the word is interpreted in a US way.)
will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park?
(Mutability, p. 109)
smoke unbundled like measuring tape
(Hymn On The Nativity)
grenades, built to appeal to the hand
like an American football
("Thrown Fire", in Wildfire)
Most post-avant poems avoid a resonant ending: not open-field enough: they cultivate a muted fade. But many of Brady's poems end with a knockout.
so gorgeous(To Be Continued)
a hush falls down
the fault of language.
Or this, a clincher that is also a brilliant simile.
Because you are righteous you open your
head every day, joy cut-in like a kite mark.
(Commercial In Confidence)
Nevertheless, the poems are difficult. They never resolve into simple or single meanings. And yet the urgency of the poem challenges us to find meaning, and not just any meaning either.
The poems are difficult. That's less true of Mutability, a book that many will be able to read with simple happiness. In a different way it's also less true of Wildfire, because at least you know what the poem is about.
I need help with reading Brady. Fortunately there's some genuinely helpful stuff around on the internet.
The most searching piece is still the one by Marianne Morris that was printed in Jacket in 2006. This deals with Embrace.
I just think that Morris asks questions that fall less easily into the familiar terms of debate about Brady.
The other essential piece on Embrace is by John Wilkinson ("Off the Grid: Lyric and Politics in Andrea Brady's Embrace" (Chicago Review vol 53 no 1 Spring 2007, reprinted shortly afterwards in his collection of essays The Lyric Touch - Salt 2007). This isn't available online, which is a damn shame.
[Yes, it is now, thanks to the Free Library:
But it may be some consolation to know that The Lyric Touch is a fairly indispensable book. The Brady essay is typical - probably, indeed, the keystone essay - in its extraordinary flow of insights and in its marked disputability. Both book and essay pretend to prove more than they prove, are oracular on big ideas and slipshod on small ones.
Though Wilkinson characterizes Morris' piece as "wayward" and takes specific issue with her reading of "Saw Fit". both essays are in some sort of accord inasmuch as they register much faith in Brady pointing the way out of a poetic impasse.
They're also in accord in tending to approach Embrace via what each sees as characteristic imagery (encountered in multiple poems). In Morris's case it's bodies being pierced and distended and split; in Wilkinson's case it's things being fed into slots, hatches, grids and grates.
To which may be prefixed Sam Ladkin's remarks, since they touch on most of the consensual opinions about Brady's poems:
Andrea's poetry has always disclosed within its fierce political insights the sentimentalities which are the stage management techniques of the political class. Her poetry frequently operates by bringing into alignment and misalignment the machinery of varieties of economy; the spaces and rhetorics which are their constituent cogs and the locations for conflicts of value. Hence Vacation of a Lifetime registers the debt of leisure and the domestic arena in the experience of alienation, and Cold Calling a conflict of ethical and legal economies. The new work in Chicago Review I think contains Andrea's most persistent attempt to salvage different economies of experience from such abasement. The task of making space is never free and delirious from rhetorical, financial and critical intrusions (and one of their subjects is how to save experience from rhetoric) but there is a persistent hope for the dominion of friendship, pleasure, and intimacy.
This is from his chatty Chicago Review Tour Report , c. 2007.
In connection with the above is Sam Ladkin and Robin Purves, "An Introduction" (Chicago Review, Vol 53, No. 1, Cambridge Poetry Issue (Spring 2007), pp. 6-13
The essay is partly a counter-offensive against its own failure to introduce (the four poets, Andrea Brady, Chris Goode, Peter Manson, Keston Sutherland). They say in the first paragraph: "[W]e want to avoid the kind of reassuring exposition that would seriously blunt the impact of poetry that is designed to confront and unsettle." (Ibid, p. 6)
Why should they feel that the poetry is so weak that they could snuff out its spark with a carelessly reassuring exposition?
There seems no reason to believe that exposition, reassuring or not, blunts the impact of poetry. It doesn't seem to have done so for the most exposited texts of all, the Bible and Shakespeare.
Exposition tends to sharpen and deepen impact. Impact is not an individual but a communal endeavour. A poetic that believes that the creator-author shapes impact with a lacerating edge, and then the edge is progressively taken off when anyone talks about it, is absurdly individualistic.
But why, anyway, should the introducers feel bound to assist the poetry in doing what, in their opinion, it's designed to do? Who claims that the design is as it should be? -; poetry is not self-validating. Poetry is a design, but it cannot control its reception. To treat it as a device that must be allowed to confront and unsettle - is to treat it as exactly what it isn't, a panacea (instructions on the bottle to be followed) rather than an intervention in a much wider debate.
But to continue.
The difficulties this poetry poses for readers are potentially daunting. Complex hierarchies of syntactical dependence have to be followed and retraced, highly condensed and thoroughly dislocated references to the social world and its myriad discursive fields have to be followed up -- and all the while readers' efforts are sabotaged by bathetic collapses, pratfalls, and aggression. It is the kind of poetry that seems to require introduction.And yet the quickness of prosody and critique refutes in advance the sure-footed preface that would measure up each poet and sing a dirge to finalize their interment. (Ibid, p. 10)
(Just who are these sure-footed prefators, these reassuring expositors? Most modern poetry languishes for lack of any comment at all. Ladkin and Purves themselves would come nearly top of my list of people who can step with reassuring sure-footedness through this landscape. And good on them!)
We cannot circumscribe this work, principally because its most fundamental concerns circumscribe us; who am "I", who are "we", how am "I" made and, in that making, who suffers as a result? (Ibid, p. 10, continuing previous quote.)That's brilliantly and helpfully said, as is their characterization of the encountered difficulties. I feel here a strong sense of common ground - a recognition that we've read the same poetry and had similar experiences to contend with.,
Because contending is what it does amount to. Complicity ("who suffers as a result?") is a continuous preoccupation of Brady's poetry. As soon as you begin to take an interest in Brady's poetry it begins to turn personal: "Is this about me too?"
On that last sentence, they explain further:
... the truth that our identities, as we crouch over a laptop or eat a clementine on the subway, are dependent for their making and sustenance on the catastrophic exploitation of the unfortunate inhabitants of other places (Ibid, p. 10)
Tussling with the details of this should not be taken as implying anything but fierce agreement with its general drift. Nevertheless, it deserves thinking out a little more. I might come back to this.
For the rest, their introduction shows strong influence from Wilkinson's "Off the Grid" essay, notably as regards its sketch of recent UK poetry history, objection to the "Cambridge" tag, Brady's supposed lack of self-regard...
The latter isn't something I disagree with, inasmuch as it importantly highlit the analytical and generalized concerns of Brady's poetry. Yet Marianne Morris (chided by Wilkinson) had seen that Brady's poems were of course highly aware of their own dazzle. And in fact since these essays were written her work has increasingly trodden a fine-line ghazal on the edges of the autobiographical mode; the distinction between personal and public is being forcibly broken down. Neither of which observations imply that Brady's poetry is self-regarding in the vaguely pejorative sense that Wilkinson or Ladkin/Purves seem to mean. Just that private virtues like "lack of self-regard" have little meaning in the complicit world we live in.
Andrew Duncan interviewing Andrea Brady, soon after the publication of Wildfire (2010).
And finally a more recent review of the whole of Cut From The Rushes by Andrew Spragg in HixEros (January 2014).
In the same month, Ashleigh Lambert reviewed Mutability: Scripts For Infancy for The Rumpus.
Vicky Sparrow's review of Mutability in The Litterateur (Dec 2013)
Neither of the above three pieces really attempt anything like critical engagement, just appreciation and a little elucidation. And most likely that's all I'll manage here.
Brady is by birth an American poet, and there are times when her poetry reminds not of Cambridge but of Indiana. "Child Stars on Trial" sounds like it ought to be a poem by Arielle Greenberg. At the same time no-one would call Brady a Gurlesque poet, she's too committed to a central knot of ideas and values, she'll never just spin and incandesce. There are heavy costs to that commitment. The reader too needs to decide it's worth it.
This is a theme that is often mentioned by Brady's commentators. I'm talking about social complicity of the kind that educated people, such as poets and their audiences, all feel and have to make some accord with.
It's a highly complicated topic with a vast literature.