Monday, 24 July 2017

Ryan Dobran – Story One (Self-published, 2014)

Errors, Patterns & Repetitions from Jacqueline Arias on Vimeo.

Ryan Dobran’s Story One exists only in a fugitive, self-produced edition, though there should be copies left if you ask him. (The publication accompanied a gallery collaboration with the artist Jacqueline Arias, of which Arias' portion can be seen above, as part of a show called 'Former Islands'. The show also had wall posters of Dobran's poem "Fantasy Index", published in Cordite Review.) Following on from Dobran’s previous books – Your Guilt is a Miracle (Bad Press, 2008), Ding Ding (Critical Documents, 2009), Confection ((c)_(c) Press, 2011), Shouts from OK Glamour (Barque Press, 2013), and Remote Carbon (Critical Documents, 2014) – it’s gnarly and difficult work, characterized by a particular biting tone which certainly approaches sarcasm, but it offers an explicit and immediate directness distinct from his previous work. As its title indicates, it has a quasi-narrative framing, centred on the domestic preparation for work and the work that is done in the work-place itself. Beginning “at the beginning”, the tone, ventriloquizing as it does various familiar discourses around office work and its frames, is often brutally direct. It’s very quotable – there are killer lines on most every page. But, despite the narrative and the presence of a central first-person speaker who functions as something like a ‘character’, its narrative doesn’t resolve or offer closure – it is a perpetual present characterized by incremental change which doesn’t change anything but merely repeats, an implicitly cyclical and easily-recognisable structure of routine whose exaggerations occur in the telling. Though the numbering of the title suggests that this is the first of many – a start, if not a new one, it also suggests a singularity, both unique and utterly familiar. This is it. Importantly, it’s a story in which not much actually happens. Banal events are stretched out into luxuriantly cynical description – the moment of waking, showering, slicing a fruit, parking a car – while environmental change, globalized warfare and the workings of international capital become larger frames which can’t be afforded the same narrative clarity, appearing to provide an alarming shift of scale which is nonetheless at every turn related to these minutiae, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Dobran writes (in personal communication):
It’s definitely a departure in terms of clause structure at least and I was going for a pseudo-narrative that keeps restarting. I was desperately trying to be funny, and I often think about the link between the desire to laugh and the intractable and putatively ineluctable position that one can feel beleaguered by when locked into a job whose hours one counts. I think it must be some kind of “cruel optimism” that sets the restlessness along with a middle-class upbringing whose creators conspired to make their children think that holding open possibility for what may come--and indeed what should come provided enough hard work--is itself a form of necessity. But on the other side of cruel optimism is beneficent pessimism, whose feeling of immobilization is linked to the same social reality but whose manoeuvring is without any desire at all.
That final sentence references Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), a book which explores how European and American fantasies of the good life and of a work-ethic based doctrine of achievement (what Berlant calls, "conventional good-life fantasies – say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work”) are still held to even after it has become clear through periods of crisis that liberal capitalist democracy cannot provide them. Such a relation to the present continues despite being disproved, centred on various intricate modes of adjustment. For Berlant, “a relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” The continuing process of survival – staying afloat – involved in sustaining some sort of relation to this object of desire, this fantasy of fulfilment, even when it is clearly unattainable becomes so total that “the loss of what’s not working is more unbearable than the having of it, and vice versa.” These methods of coping (what Berlant calls “norms of self-management”), then, do not remove the initial desire but sustain it.

Dobran’s ‘beneficent pessimism’ instead embraces this immobilisation and removes desire. Both relations involve a certain pose of cynicism, but this doesn’t mean they’re total – as, in Dobran’s poem, the speaker treads a gamut between a kind of numb, almost thoughtless physical functioning and outbursts of sadness in love or brutally comic competitive violence. This is itself a means of adjustment, but one whose mode of survival doesn’t aim at the sustaining of the desire it knows is blocked. The speaker doesn’t expect the kinds of sustaining relations – to work-place, domestic partnership, etc – that still motivate Berlant’s cruel optimists. Instead, lack of belief is what allows the worker in the poem to fulfil their tasks as if they believed in them. Such a lack might, in other context, be the grounds for attempting change – rebellion, rejection, nihilism or politically-transformative collective action, as it might manifest in life-style dropping-out, work-place sabotage, organizing, protest, etc. Perhaps it’s too fanciful to suggest that the book’s red and black cover might jokingly hint at the political tendencies associated with those colours – communism and anarchism – to suggest their near-total absence in the world and mind-set the poem so convincingly and rigorously inhabits. Pessimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will. Now carry on.

The poem occasionally shifts its focus to imagine cosmic scenarios of destruction which are nonetheless almost entirely filtered through limited and limiting perspectives, the modes of mediation they would seek to reach beyond in sublime transformation. At one point, Dobran writes: “I don’t think any of us / has the story we most want / to fulfil the proud suggestions / from EARTH.” The shift from singular to plural here suggests both the supposed ‘universality’ of ‘the story’ that is desired and its miserable limitation to a failed individualism. What none of us have is what each of us want, separately, even if the particular scenario desired seems like the most personal thing. The capitalized “Earth” itself comes up with all sorts of helpful suggestions which cannot be made to fit a narrative frame which would contain and fulfill them. Choose your own adventure. However, as in Berlant’s cruel optimism, even the contained and stereotypical story of effort and success, centred on work, the nuclear family, and a libidinal investment in a particular economic model, cannot be fulfilled.

The ‘adjustment’ to the working day described in the poem sometimes veers to statements of patently false enthusiasm – “the beauty of the globe is real”; “I await / the greatest day” – though it’s worth noting that such instances of beauty occur precisely at the moment of destruction, of negation, the moment when the earth explodes in nuclear holocaust and the light is registered on the “beatific space station”. On the other hand, there is cynical description of continuing routine, void of any connection to the sublime beauty of cosmic destruction within “the stupid days” of the work routine. Adjustment to work routine must negotiate between the modes of forcibly internalised enthusiasm conventionally said to lead to promotion, betterment, and the like, and a relentless cynicism which must nonetheless operate almost entirely within the frame of that which it criticises. What is outside work in the poem is only “wasted free time” and the promise of last night (associated, perhaps, with desire, fantasy, dream), which is itself dismissed – “Everything that last night meant is shit.”

Dobran’s poem, with its ventriloquism of the masculinist logics of patriotic imperialism – “nuke this motherfucking coffee”, “inhabit the dude without lifting the brow” – sees the toxic masculinity that might be found in an office space as inseparable from the logics of violent, patriotic imperialism, as bolstered by an economy churning along on a good life mentality (both ones of simultaneous suppression and release). In this sense, the speaker of the poem may find links along a collective fantasy of violence, national identity, gender identity, class identity (or aspiration), but these are ones which will not allows any real solidarity to emerge, which are defined and perpetrated on violence of various kinds against others, even colleagues. Thus, the joke about beating up someone who “comes round to take my spot / at the sink basin”; or, “I will use your face to destroy / the manager.” This is not worker solidarity, even if it is posed against some manifestation of authority (albeit a localized one). The speaker uses two other people to destroy themselves for his own advantage, perhaps in order to replace the manager. If that is the implication, destroying them is not a destruction of the structural position that the particular person in this case designated as ‘manager’ fills and represents; it redirects to personal antagonism a broader (let’s say, class) analysis. (Though it’s worth noting that such talk of the ‘structural’ might risk a kind of fatalistic purity of investigative method. For a recent work that insistently and even obsessively explores the dynamic between a cartoonish, personally-based antagonism and a structural approach – one which might be said to characterise different trends in contemporary U.K. and U.S. political poetry and theatre in various ways – see Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon’s David Cameron: A Theatre of Knife Songs (Shit Valley, 2015); also Danny Hayward’s review of the same in Hix Eros 6).

In any case, the promise of “us[ing] your face to destroy / the manager” is something of an empty threat. The future-tense injunction has something of the character of an earlier and yet more ridiculous injunction in which the speaker barks out: “Give me pleasure, shower.” This injunction is a rhetorical pose which suggests power even as it knows the mechanized comfort-givers associated with the good life bestow only a limited horizon of actual comfort and power. If the animate holds no promise, the inanimate must substitute. The shower’s pleasure-giving both has the structure of an exploitative demand and acknowledges the speaker’s lack of agency which the statement of command attempts to disguise.

As I’ve suggested above, the poem’s title brings up the relation of story, routine, agency and patterning. In telling their own ‘story’, the poet here merely attests to the crushingly and fatalistically pre-determined narrative which labour forces most everyone to accept, all the way from the shower to the desk. As a fragment from Kafka’s journals which is (twice) set in devastating form in György Kurtág’s 1987 Kafka Fragments has it: “Slept, woke, slept, woke. Miserable life.” There is nothing unique about this narrative content, and neither does it reflect collective or instructive values: it is at once particular, alienated, individualised, a cell, and crushingly familiar, skewed into repetition at both ends of the scale. It is a condition presented as unchangeable and permanent and yet also permanently subject to anxiety, lack of safety, the threat of losing your place even within this crushing process, the motions you will not any longer be allowed to go through. So this story, the first and the last, will be just another template, yet also one which self-destructs, just as work routine is locked in cycles of starting and re-starting that don’t necessarily ‘progress’ – though progress that (in meagre drip-feed fashion) is the aim (the discourses of self-betterment, promotion, and the like; sell yourself more, sell yourself better, devote your whole life to the task, for everyone’s good).

More broadly, this might also relate to periodic financial crisis and recovery, boom and bust, as part of a neo-liberal economic consensus, or a purported, forced and manufactured consensus, which is imagined to have finished with narrative for good (ends of history), but in which the constant recurrence of crisis, collapsing, recovering, re-starting, collapsing, recovering, etc, constantly belies that narrative end-point. The story, from beginning to end, can never end, even as it is said to have already ended: it will always repeat, with its minor fluctuations, crises and supposed resolutions, with everyone playing the role of the characters whose actions, whatever their motivations, must always conform to the same predictable patterns.

Likewise, the notion of effort and self-bettering is no longer manifested in (certain kinds of) physical labour, given that those physical elements of work have reduced in visibility and importance, present only through the distance of time and space. Thus, the shift from blue-collar to white-collar, from assembly line to desk, the shift in ‘the west’ from industrial to tertiary industries as the result of the mass out-sourcing of industry to places abroad where labour is cheap and protective regulations less present. So that there is a kind of indifference or apathy set off by a sense of that global positioning within systems of exploitation, which must also figure with a sense of one’s own exploitation – reckoning with different levels of privilege which the discourses of American Maoism might term ‘labour aristocracy’, working through that global and specific class dynamic in which: “I continue to thrive as a result / of my steadfast commitment to / servicing the petite-bourgeois / home improvement / industry.” (Note here how the job itself, which aims at a balance with the domestic sphere necessary to complete the circle of the well-contained good life, loops back into the domestic whose raison d’etre it is to bolster.) The office workers eat their lunch: “Everyone just sits there in a vat of space / starving the poor. Keep your fucking / text focus, poet-broker.” Being in the vat, it seems like they themselves are being cooked and eaten. The injunction to keep focussed suggests that the dramatic-bathetic statement ‘starving the poor’ is not the proper domain of the enclosed text-object-poem. It is not the deal or contract with the reader, with the demands for action it might make, that has been agreed. Of course, by ventriloquizing that position, the poet goes against it, even as the poem itself consciously sticks within certain limits. Such moments of underplayed extremity manifest a humour which is sometimes as violent as that situation, and sometimes as apathetic, which perhaps amount to the same thing. As Dobran puts it: “Humor is neither / defense nor protection, but stimulant. / The possibility of action is simply too / ridiculous.”

*         *          *

As any good story should, the poem begins “at the beginning”, with reference to a “plastic cradle” which is the flesh. The worker is re-born each day, progressing from the infantilism of waking (“more drool / than ga-ga”) to the ‘maturity’ necessary to accomplish the tasks of work which, perhaps, replaces the mother. Indeed, the text as a whole is notably male in its environs, even if the cast of characters beside the speaker remains something of a backdrop, barely even delineated in terms of physical description, let alone characteristic. Here, people are their role, whether that be in the job or in usurping the speaker’s place at the sink, a moment which leads to a bleakly comic outburst of responsive violence. Only towards the end does some element of what might be the traditional subject of the “lyric” that the poem at one point seems to name itself as – a love relation.

The book’s opening is reminiscent of Creation narratives: “at the beginning, at the left / off light” has something of the Book of Genesis about it, not only in its opening phrase but in the faint echo of God’s generative command, “let there be light”. The light here, however, has been switched off at some point (implying that this is not the first ‘beginning’, but one of many involved in a daily routine). The flesh-cradle is felt as an exterior shell, one that is synthetic rather than fleshly, or at once synthetic and fleshly. You sit in your flesh almost as if you sat the desk; it contains you, as your total environment. Detail is precise, but this leads, not to an attention to the object and its production, but to the entirely unexceptional: the “firm, / but not hard, plastic bottom” of the slippers, the page-long description of cutting a grapefruit in minute detail. “There is nothing less than ordinary / details configured in surprise / arrangements.” The phrasing here is subtly unusual – we might expect “nothing more”. ‘Nothing less’ suggests some sort of achievement, or grandeur, or, indeed, surprise. Expressing it in this way only reinforces how none of these things apply: for the surprise must not be too surprising. It must be predictable, within a certain field of expectation. The speaker goes on to talk about changing the alarm sound on their phone every day, in order not to fall back asleep: “the threat of behaviour / and any remarkable achievement / of habit”. Yet these are not things that can be perfected – or, their perfection is in their acknowledged imperfectness, their highly-functioning inadequacy as coping mechanisms and ways of living and surviving.

Once the alarm has gone off and the speaker is properly awake, they are able (in the second person) to assert the following: “You affirm at 06.34 ante-meridian / that the beauty of the globe is real. / and that your place on its fine. Just / or merely, don’t care.” ‘Fine’ can, of course, be both a term of particularly esteemed quality and the base-line of survival – not especially great, but I get by. It’s the common answer to a common greeting-question – ‘How are you?’ – whose connotations are determined by the inflection of the answer – ‘fine’. Similarly, ‘just’ is not here ‘justice’, but ‘nearly’ or ‘merely’. ‘Don’t care’ could either be an injunction, the speaker speaking to themselves or to the reader, as with the second-person of ‘you affirm’: a kind of negative mantra which nonetheless possesses a kind of self-help function. Beneficent pessimism – because you don’t care, you can get on by. 

On the same page, however, the speaker “begin[s] to care, / because there is plenty of time to care”– a care itself produced by “boredom”, but one which might be different to the “care / that you thought of / that time, at the edge of it” – the deictic reference, which could mean a care thought of at the edge of boredom, or of care itself. Care is both to look after something and to give a fuck – to care for (someone) or to care about (something). It would seem that the care that arises from boredom is the former, the care at the edge perhaps the latter – but the terms are deliberately vague. In a work routine characterized both by uber-specificity and amorphous vagueness – we never find out the exact details of the job; the ritual around it is more important that what exactly is done, what the job is ostensibly ‘for’ – you don’t need to care for anybody else, in some kind of loving relation, though you might need to ‘take care over’ your work, which isn’t exactly the same thing as caring about it.

Care might be taken as a positive which mitigates a negative – you have to take care of someone because they cannot take care of themselves – though, in its noun form, it originates as something profoundly negative in feeling. The affirmation involved in waking is a negative one – “Just / or merely, don’t care” – as is even the care which emerges from boredom or beyond. Likewise, we later read: “the life of lyric is a sad / fucking ministry of vapid / negation”. Lyric poetry – as this poem both is and isn’t a ‘lyric poem’, excluding in the main as it does the subject and address of love and passion – might, in this formulation, thus be construed to affirm, in the face of evidence otherwise, that the world really is beautiful and that ‘you’ fit into it quite comfortably, bolstered and encouraged to carry on as you are but your relative comfortable position of waged precarity. This is not traditionally what lyric does. But what Dobran terms “the crust of deformation” might be both the deformation of an alternative possibility of social life accomplished by the structures of wage-labour and their affective ‘crust’ – a merely ‘vapid’ negation’ – and the deformation of what is by which it is de-formed, destroyed, transformed into something else. This crust “waits upon the magnetic / personae” – waiting upon them like a servant, or waiting for them as the speaker “await[s] / the greatest day” (a phrase I’ll come onto in the next paragraph). The personae are magnetic, perhaps in the sense that they are charismatic, or compelling, or that anything can be stuck to them – they are personae that are waiting to be deformed, blank canvasses or shape shifters, not touched by a fixed particularity. Yet the crust which will stick to them, like a mask covering a volcanic explosion, the crust of the earth, or a dirty remainder, does so within “the infinity / of the singular” – both what is utterly reduced to an endlessly reproduced and common individuality of negation and – as Tom Allen suggests in a review of the poem for Hix Eros 6 – that which negates this negation, in which the singular and the common are neither falsely reconciled nor at odds.

This passage occurs after the following sentence, which again plays between the notions of beauty and the day being just the same as any other – particularity and sameness, newness and repetition: “Ready for beauty, I await / the greatest day.” An eschatological expectation seems to raise its head – the great day which shall surely come and which shall be infinitely stretched beyond the bounds of repetition, routine, sleeping, waking, living and dying, disappointment and loss. This is in itself the good life fantasy which Berlant discusses and which, I would argue, Frank O’Hara partially satirizes in his great ‘Ode to Joy’: “We shall have everything we want and there’ll be no more dying.” That ‘we’, with its “cocktail bars” and “supper clubs”, is one determined by class exclusion. Here I argue for the opposite of Michael Clune’s reading of the ‘Ode’ in his book American Literature and the Free Market (pp.64-6). For Clune, commerce and desire here are consummate: “the desire of the collective blows through the priced objects of everyday life, infusing them with its aura.” Yet, contra to Clune’s notion of entirely fulfilled desire, Hazel Smith notes that “no more dying” could also be read as the end of sexual satisfaction (Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara, p.78). At first glance, it may appear, through a carefully-judged set of antitheses focussing on love, death and life, which are forcefully combined throughout the poem’s three stanzas, that everything that happens here, happens “that love may live”. Yet the “symbol acknowledge[d]” in this new mode of living privileges “vulgar materialistic laughter / over an insatiable sexual appetite”, and the model of eternity advanced occurs as much through tedium as excitement: “not once but interminably”. Labour itself is removed: “buildings will got up into the dizzy air” as if they simply erect themselves – with the sexual pun intended – yet poverty rears its head through a gruesome image of intravenous feeding: “and the hairs dry out that summon anxious declaration of the organs / as they rise like buildings to the needs of temporary neighbors / pouring hunger through the heart to feed desire in intravenous ways”. Desire here is paradoxically ‘fed’ or sustained through a hunger connected to these “temporary neighbours” – perhaps suggesting the temporary sociality of the city, geographies of cruising, a queer space breaking out the repressive mould of the second stanza’s “heat-hating Puritan.” Yet the flipside of such a sociality, growing as it does out of the city’s contingency, is a class-based precarity potentially resulting in the very death the poem insistently and apparently denies.

The title of O’Hara’s poem is of course borrowed from a totemic ode to the new forms of social life named as humanism, or universalism, in Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem. This ode excludes as much as it includes. As Theodor Adorno wrote:
It is peculiar to the bourgeois Utopia that it is not yet able to conceive an image of perfect joy without that of the person excluded from it: it can take pleasure in that image only in proportion to the unhappiness in the world. In Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the text of the Ninth Symphony, any person is included in the circle provided he is able to call ‘even a single soul his own in this wide world’: that is, the person who is happy in love. ‘But he who has none, let him steal weeping from our company.’ Inherent in the bad collective is the image of the solitary, and joy desires to see him weep. Moreover, the rhyme word in German, ‘stehle’ [steal], points rightly to the property relationship. We can understand why the ‘problem of the Ninth Symphony’ was insoluble. In the fairytale Utopia, too, the step-mother who must dance in burning shoes or is stuffed into a barrel spiked with nails is an inseparable part of the glorious wedding. The loneliness punished by Schiller, however, is no other than that produced by his revellers’ community itself. In such a company, what is to become of old maids, not to speak of the souls of the dead?
Theodor Adorno (trans. Edmund Jephcott), Beethoven, The Philosophy of Music, pp.32-3
Bearing this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that Schiller’s ode recurs today, in Beethoven’s setting, as the anthem for a political project – the European union – whose battering-down (for example) of Greece exactly captures that logic of inclusion, exclusion, sacrifice. By contrast, in O’Hara’s formulation, there is perhaps still a utopian expectation which isn’t entirely circumscribed by that which it knows it is the ideological manifestation of. The desire it expresses – which isn’t necessarily the one it can seem to express – is consciously bound up in that which inadequately releases or deflects it.

Yet the only way by which infinity (or desire) can manifest itself in Dobran’s poem is through an ouroborotic temporal relation very much connected to that which ‘the greatest day’ would seek to redeem, and without a trace of utopian aspiration, longing, or belief. “Today will be the same as today was.” Today will be – future tense – the same as today was – past tense – though ‘today’ itself is presumably present. In relation to such temporalities, we might consider a number of comparative instances from the poem, some already quoted. “Ready for beauty, I await / the greatest day”: beauty is that which will come, which is ‘awaited’, though it is unclear in what objects this abstract beauty will inhere.“You affirm at 06.34 ante-meridian / that the beauty of the globe is real”: beauty is affirmed in the present tense, as manifest in the globe itself. “We are the beautiful ones. / Everything that last night meant is shit”: beauty is again present, current, and, somewhere between the two previous examples (beauty as abstraction or beauty as the globe), has become the attribute of an unidentified collective subject. In the latter instance, the past is firmly rejected, even as the formula with which this paragraph begun, in which today will be the same as it has been, implies a folded-in encircling by the past. But if ‘last night’ promised some sort of temporal break-out, even one circumscribed by its placement in relation to the day – night as the time of (sexual?) release, or merely sleep, the escape of dream – it must be rejected. Beauty is not here connected to desire; it becomes an empty substitute for something perfected in the presence of manifest imperfection, something which stands in for referentiality, valourizing the (falsely) general over the particular, and coating it with an aesthetic sheen whose distance from the drab realities of office life lends at irony with which Dobran’s precisely plays.

This is “the auto-worship of the present”: a worship which is automatic, or a worship that takes itself as its object of devotion. Depending on how you read the hyphenated formula, this worship is done either by the celebrants who presumably include the poem’s speaker and others like him, or by the present itself which, like beauty, both attaches and refuses to attach to a specific referent. We celebrate the present and we are it, even as it denies us to ourselves. The present at the moment of speech must be the day, the poem’s emphatic temporal location, and day itself comes to seem to be the thing that both “disclose[s] / and exploit[s] the bodies / whose metabolic shifts / comprise” it.

Metabolism, a word deriving from the ancient Greek for ‘changeable’, is that process which allows organisms to grow, reproduce, excrete and in various other ways respond to their environments. In Dobran’s poem, this process of constant adaptation allows something like (the working) day to remain fixed – as in the endless small adjustments required by relations of cruel optimism, here rendered as a natural process. ‘Metabolic shift’ might also pun on shift work (itself another process of adaptation, availability, readiness); or, indeed, on John Bellamy Foster’s coinage ‘metabolic rift’ to describe Marx’s theorisation, in the third volume of Capital, of the means by which capitalist production and the growing division of town and country lead to an “irreparable rift in the interdependent processes of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” (See Foster, Capital must use up natural resources to sustain itself, without the balancing of intake and outtake that metabolism itself involves; likewise, it uses up the workers on whom it relies, supplementing their intake only to the extent that it pays them enough to feed and live, or with the good life fantasies that promise something else, however deferred. Cruel optimism partially realizes – ‘disclose[s]’ this – and leaves itself open to be ‘exploit[ed]’ by it, even comes to desire such exploitation. The process is one of simultaneous clarity and concealment, perfectly balanced.

How to get out of this? In his recent review of Dobran’s book for Hix Eros 6, Tom Allen writes “There is no direct moment of rupture that I can locate in Story One.” Yet he goes on to identify in the poem what – though he doesn’t use this term – we might name a mode of Realism that is not simply a report on conditions as they are – though it is nothing if not that – which, in reporting on and inhabiting those conditions and contradictions, is not a settling for less; which, in apparently offering itself as a fait accompli, at the deferred and repeated beginning all over again, forces an implicit protest, however sarcastic and aware of its own limitations. At the conclusion of his review, Allen focuses on a section from roughly the middle of the poem. Dobran’s “The shell of the commute / is not the whole answer” is spoken “to myself / and to my listeners / in the back seat”, and the reason for this (“because”) is given as the fact that “the spirit unfolds in a slimy mass of visionary potential”. Yet this present unfolding occurs only “when I slide into my icy spot / in front of the building / adjacent to my office.”

It’s hard to read the tone of this characterisation of ‘spirit’ and ‘potential’. Spirit is uncapitalized and prefaced by the definite article, which at once particularizes it and refuses to give us a theoretical framework – say, a Hegelian one – into which we can definitely place it. The ‘slimy mass’, meanwhile is like a diseased, malevolent goo or virus, the alien Blob from the 1958 Steve McQueen drive-in classic (one of whose original titles was apparently ‘the mass’). It might also ventriloquize the traditional tone of class-hatred which disdains the greasy proletariat and sub-proletariat – after all, as noted earlier, the class-specific cruel optimism of the worker who “service[s] the petite-bourgeois / home improvement / industry” sustains itself by being, however drably, positioned in a better situation than those who have to perform other forms of labour – or indeed, than those who, being unemployed, are unable to sell their labour power at all.

Certainly, that would be one way of reading Dobran’s line, yet to describe this ‘mass’ as possessing a ‘visionary potential’ – where vision is not only the ability to see what is, but to see something else beyond it – is a direct juxtaposition which leaves some room for manoeuvre. The ‘shell’ recalls the ‘crust’ of deformation on p.10 - a container which is, perhaps, breakable, and out of which an as-yet-undefined magma or mass could emerge. (‘The crust of deformation’ further suggests a pun on ‘crustal deformation’, the changing of the earth’s surface by tectonic shifts within the earth’s crust which cause earthquakes.) Of course, the amorphous shape is exactly what the individuality of the individual worker is converted into in the capitalist structuring of work – the amorphous is not the negation of the closed-off and the singular, but what reduces humans to gallerte. In that sense, ‘potential’ might simply be exploitable labour-power, and one could see such undefined homogeneity as simply created by the apparent particularity of the office routine the poem describes; yet the spirit’s slimy, visionary mass, however much the poem guards itself against an optimism that might simply be cruel, does suggest something else. Yet to say this might seem to go against the way the poem itself actually seems to work, to make the kind of familiar critical manoeuvre or demand by which one is told that something which seems to do one thing actually does something else, usually something with a vaguely-defined political potential. But it is not the poem itself that will tell us what the ‘something else’ might be. Rather, as Allen suggests, looking back on Story One from a different situation – itself not a thought it is necessarily possible to properly think – might reveal to us the unanticipated kernel within its workings that it does desire.

Monday, 15 May 2017

New from MATERIALS: Prynne & Kruk

A sequence of ten poems by J.H. Prynne.

“Oh strike the light, float the boat, for
sake of common peril they are fallen away
as gathered up in sight of lamentable in-
difference and will go down against us”. 

16 pp, card covers (blue), saddle-stapled.

Also announcing the opening of the German wing of MATERIALS, MATERIALIEN, run from Munich by Lisa Jeschke. First publication, Stecknadel, a German-language translation of Frances Kruk's Pin by Koshka Duff.

More info on both here.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Pocket Reviews

New Books

Nine Drugs (Face Press, 2016)
[By Ulf Stolterfoht, translated by Lisa Jeschke, with a short introductory piece by J.H. Prynne included as a separate sheet. Available at:]

First thing to say is that, as with any of the steady steam of books made in recent years by Ian Heames, often with virtually no publicity (though the Face Press website is now operational once again, as per the link above), this is beautifully made and designed. The title font sees some sort of swirling whirlpool swimming in dark blue and white inside the letters of that title, perhaps a kind of useful analogy for the poems themselves, which serve as ironically sober descriptions of a series of different drugs taken amongst bohemian poetry communities. Reading this from outside those communities, it can be hard to place what’s going on: rather than the inside reference of coterie achieved through naming (though there are a few names, of the nine drugs which form the poems’ ostensible topics, of poets and musicians and locations – including T.Rex, Gary Glitter and Hans Sachs), we get a sense of community much stranger for not being clearly defined. (Perhaps the poem would become libellous if it did name: the sequence’s most memorable line, the curse “may their work rot unread.”) In any case, the obscurity into which small poetic circles might fall reflects at the level of form. Some of the poets here write poetry that they cannot understand themselves. This is perhaps analogous to the experience of a trip, the way that a drug experience might oscillate between a sense of collective being, of social and even universal connection, of the capacity to understand hyper-complex connections in a simple, singular flash, but might also provoke alienation, paranoia, total enclosure in self, “always close to / absence”. The same with writing. The sense of being at the edge of something: either a breakthrough, whether political, social, on the level of ‘consciousness’ or poetic form, or of total collapse. “nutmeg: before taking a whole nut, push your poetry to / an end. then however you like it: collapse or lethargy. / sink to your knees, pray.” The stakes here might actually be life and death: “in case of an overdose, / a topos position itself right in the middle of the sentence, obstructing / rhymical progression.” Drug-induce “aporia” the cost of ‘finding one’s voice’, alien in the poem. “what luck for their poetry, how devastating / for their soul. all in all, heslach has thus far delivered / eight exquisite poets. deep dark night covers twelve others.” The poem as a transaction between “recipient” and “supplier” reaches a stage of “full dissolution” and “melt[ing] together into a poem thing” – perhaps as a manifestation of narcissistic delusion. Poem as analogue for trip, for process of ego-formation; or vice versa. The term ‘self-reflexivity’ just doesn’t cover it.

It would be easy, perhaps, to dismiss the poems based on a summary of their ‘content’ as some sort of post-Beat drug binge, but that is precisely not the experience of reading them. These are gnarly and odd like nothing else I’ve read recently. In part this comes from the way the poems temper any tendency towards a self-valourizing autobiography of bohemian community as moment of collective possibility retrospectively used to boost fading careers and failing creativity with speculations on precisely such trajectories: and function as factual reports, somewhere between descriptions of physical symptoms prompted by the particular drugs and various narratives of the context in which the drugs might be taken and the significance for the composition of poetry. The speaker’s tone is located somewhere between affection, nostalgia and a caustic satire of bohemian life. So that when he says “for young white drop-outs poetry / and improvised music were the only way out of the ghetto”, we read genuine desire and possibility alongside, or perhaps through, the bathos of retrospective near-sarcasm. Concluding that perhaps “the best drug is a blank sheet”, the poem’s prosaic delirium is “resounding excellent song.” Lisa Jeschke’s hard-worked translations do an excellent job in conveying the tone and form of scrupulously off-centre precision which, from my almost entirely absent German, I presume inheres also in the original.

Luke Roberts, Pocket Song (Self-published, 2016)

Luke Roberts’ latest self-produced book is a small pamphlet which, as title suggests, fits away neatly wherever you put it. Something to carry around, rewarding return visits, small doses sinking in. A short lyric sequence, like a palette cleanser, after the politicised pastoral and the surrealist pastoral and the filtered birds and landscapes of the preceding TO MY CONTEMPORARIES and SORBET, in which the poet finds themselves in the city, breath and treading lightly under the gently loving cruelty of the winter sun and the filtered shadowy glare of Brexit: “Europe the sun and my hangover.” The lines are gentle zingers, zingingly gentle, of a particular quality with which the poet could run and run, but lets themselves run on just enough, no more,  with enough of a kick and a reversal (not quite a sting in the tale) to ensure that things don’t run too smooth, too sweet. Perhaps not wrong to detect shades of Peter Gizzi in the melancholy falling cadence; maybe because I just picked up his chapbook THE WINTER SUN SAYS FIGHT from my shoebox full of pamphlets (poems subsequently collected in ARCHEOPHONICS, the prime lyric product of Gizzi’s 2015-2016 year in Cambridge as the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellow: I hope to return to and write something about this soon). Or OK, another coincidence, but the American pianist Ran Blake’s ‘The Short Life of Barbara Monk’ (  is a composition based on a pattern of two parts, the first a rhythmically light and lilting memory of childhood skating, the second of life taken away too soon, the realisation of this break. A play with time, repeating the circuits of loss and hope, always ending on the hope, or you hope it will. And you can always press play again. Returning to Roberts, if, as the citational citation of the final poem in the sequence has it, the possibility of “collective life” is stymied, and art contains the promise of collective life, the poem holds up a negative mirror, goes on despite itself, but its fluent and fluid urge to song is not delusional. Roberts’ poem has its movements, its moments. The cover design suggests train lines, or movement on foot. Perhaps you’re waiting at a stop, or lines are running through your head, a rhythm both within and against that of the flow of labour around the city. A pocket song is something small that you can take out or put away, small change. It’ll unfold if you want it to, will compress just as easily. “In the city sincerity flew.” Climbing to the building’s top floor, descending again. The poem’s first person feels more integrated and comfortable with the possibility of speaking in and to the second than in previous work, an earned reward, yet not a resting laurel, declaring its own funeral in the moment of its achieved consummation. This is how poets keep their ear in, or is it eye. And this, too, is how we as readers can be carried on by the words the poet writes. “We love the urgent sun / in its emergency”. Essentially: “love unbroken by the sun” is a killer closing line, and the poem earns it.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Further Announcements

Published July 2016
This magazine has been put together in response to the recent referendum in the U.K. which came out in favour of the ‘Brexit’. It has been made quickly as a front against the fascist implications of ‘Leave’. Please print, photocopy and otherwise distribute widely. [D.G. + L.J. ~ July 2016]

Contents: Tom Allen, Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, Richard Barrett, Sarah Crewe, Joey Frances & Will Berry, David Grundy, Jeremy Hardingham, Danny Hayward, Tom Jenks, Lisa Jeschke, Justin Katko, Robert Kiely, Ed Luker, Max Maher, Sophie Mayer, Mendoza, Nat Raha, William Rowe, Connie Scozzaro, Robert Sheppard, Rachel Sills, Verity Spott, Street Kid, Andrew Taylor, Gareth Twose, Lawrence Uziell, Collages, Flyer

Link to PDF

Published July 2016

Marigold and Cable: A Garland for the New Year was written in January 2014 in relation to Alex Cobb’s album of the same name, and was first published by Shelter Press in 2014. The poem has been revised for this edition. Each page of lyric folds and unfolds into the next, its tough and fragile voice settling on gold and sun, on elegy and death, effulgent and full, sozzled and bedazzled, examining and inhabiting the condition of song.

Peter Gizzi is the author of books including In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011(Wesleyan University Press, 2014); The Outernationale (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003), Artificial Heart (1998), and Periplum (1992). He editedThe House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (1998), and, with Kevin Killian, co-edited My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2008).

In morning’s coloratura
a magick eye plays tricks
under the ongoing mossy
cloud-mass, exhilarating
triangles and timpani softly
in silt air, in the blanketed
nowhere of now

41pp, card covers, side stapled.


Available at

Sunday, 29 May 2016


New publications from MATERIALS: The Sea Together, by Ed Luker, and Army Poems, by Kenneth Irby. A sequence of new poems by Luker, and a previously unpublished sequence by Irby, presented with an introduction by Kyle Waugh, emerging from his time in the US army during the early 1960s. While Luker's poems speak of the present moment -- the highly politicized space of the sea as a locus of movement and the material cruelties of what's known as 'the migrant crisis' -- Irby's call forward over decades to speak passionately, out of intense love and intense hate, of the experiences of those whose lives were torn apart by the army. These Army Poems are poems of declarative urgency and formal richness, imbued with a deep sense of identification with those stigmatized for their sexual desires, speaking out against the disciplinary exclusion and damage wrought on the bodies and minds of those caught up in the army's structures. Written in the army, they also write against the army: as the final poem in the sequence puts it, “I hate the Army, / singly, by itself, one jewel, one open / mouth”. Poetry written from a condition of simultaneous distance and enclosure, this work bursts out of its moment of composition to speak with the intensity and grace we now require more than ever. As Lyn Hejinian has written, it “radiates love”.

Both books are available to purchase from the MATERIALS website. Still available are Yule Log, a magazine published last December, Pragmatic Sanction by Danny Hayward, Praxis, Apostles! by David Brazil, and Merry Hell, by Sara Larsen, and more books will be forthcoming in the next few months.

Also, my own To The Reader is now available as part of the new series of pamphlets from Shit Valley, alongside Justin Katko's Basic Middle Finger and Verity Spott's Trans* Manifestos, with a further pamphlet forthcoming from Kaveh Bahrami. Spott's Manifestos in particular are essential, wrenching reading.

Sunday, 31 January 2016


Luke Roberts’ new, self-published book, printed, released, and distributed for free towards the end of last year, all quietly, all without fanfare, is called To My Contemporaries (a title borrowed from Edwin Rolfe). As this title might suggest, it relentlessly foregrounds referentiality, by which I suppose I mean naming, something that Roberts has been concerned with for a while, but in a way that develops from its use in both of his preceding books, Left Helicon (Equipage, 2013) and Keep All Your Friends (MATERIALS, 2014). Left Helicon’s invocations of historical, political and literary figures often function as often hard-to-place jokes:

Now I imitate Neruda from memory;

Engels, the beautiful walrus;

Samuel Beckett feeding ice-cream
to a three-legged dog, it is the saddest thing;

The name of my band is Theodor’s Swimsuit,
on a striped recliner,  
it is the second saddest thing;

[…] if you bring Mussolini
into this, I will shoot him in a duel. I will use the robot
Bertolt Brecht to travel back in time, and I will go to town
on Gabriele D’Annunzio.
(Most of those examples are from the poem ‘People from the Book Kept Entering the Room’, whose title suggests that these proliferating references function as much as interruptions to the present moment of composition, or inhabitation, as to points of clarification and contextualisation for it.) KALYF deploys such naming them more as part of a sublimated(?) or ambiguous research project (without wanting that term to sound like the subsumption of poetic concern to academic funding-drive), perhaps in the mode of the earlier False Flags, with its take on conspiracy theories, moon landings and Cold War chess games. Thus, the argument about secrecy and clandestine political movements which references Comrade Bala, Patty Hearst, and the like, in the book’s concluding poem, ‘Agitprop: An Ode’

In To My Contemporaries, however, the names are more explicitly posed in terms of what they can teach us: the poem is about reading, and learning from the poets of the past and the poets of now, disagreeing with them, recalibrating them, etc. Or it functions as a survey, a summing-up, reckonings and engagements with the feeling of a particular poetical and political moment, mournful lookings-back and reassessments, workings-through. TMC is very much a poem of address, as its title suggests, but it’s not exactly a grandly rhetorical, public poem – there are all sorts of ironizations, disguises, feints and so on, familiar to readers of Roberts’ poetry over the years, though there is here a definite change in register.

The poem is, in essence, a political pastoral – pastoral elements having crept into ‘Agitprop’, and here being more explicitly fore-grounded, in setting at least, though this is perhaps more background, or ambience, than the explicit and obsessive concern it might be in the work of, say, Lisa Robertson, or even the scrupulous attention to natural detail found in such writers as R.F. Langley and Peter Larkin. Such vagueness is explicitly remarked upon and turned into a joke – how simultaneous recall erases the distinctions between seasons, the specificity of the landscape supposedly attended to, the unsuitability of the poet themselves for that purpose: “It was summer, it was autumn, it was spring […] Implausible that the revolutionary bucolic / should fall to me, the bearer of gratuitous hayfever.” The poem is also suspicious of an attachment to place that romanticizes any inherent quality of – say – racial belonging – “If you absorb a place it absorbs you / is wholly untrue […] a porch in the West of the military tract […] afraid of desolation / but doing duty to where you belong offends my sensibility”. Likewise, its presentation of culinary delights is tinged by its obvious metaphorical overlay with the discourse surrounding migration and economic inclusion within the European Union: “Now fed on Polish blueberries most days / a harvest of European plums, / Greek honey / abundance / waiting for the ground war to slow its circle.”

Despite these self-conscious asides, half-apologies, and criticism, the poem’s pastoralism is not exactly programmatic, though it has the structure of this in some manner – in part, perhaps, due to the fact that it’s a single sequence, in three books, rather than a collection of single poems, as in the previous two collections. It begins with an un-named second person plural, in a particular place, looking at plants and waiting for their washing:

We were in the ice-cold pagoda observing the angiosperms
we were outside the actual laundromat

These lines immediately establish a play between inside and outside, the reality of the place and incident described and its transformation and re-framing within an (often obscured and non-linear) poetic narrative. “I” and “we” are insistently there from the beginning, and the poem describes its own mission statement as early as the fourth line – “This is a poem about timing and advice” – even as it also betrays a scepticism about the grounds for this mission, and the poet’s suitability for accomplishing it:

how to begin when versatility’s in thrall to caution
afraid of repetition
falling short of what we’d shyly call an ethics.

Indeed, the claim is that this is a poem about timing and advice, rather than an actual enacting of a particular kind of timing or a giving of a particular breed of advice. A concern here is whether the poet themselves has something to teach their readers, or whether they themselves might accomplish the task of self-interrogation – itself potentially instructive to others – or whether both these things might fall apart in ironic feints and half-declarations which are almost immediately backtracked upon. Such a problematic would seem particularly to be encapsulated in the line on the following page: “you could finally be divulged”. This is an odd grammatical usage, reversing the usual subject-object structure associated with the verb, so that rather than the speaker divulging something, making it known, they themselves (and, moreover, addressing themselves in the second person) would be the one divulged. ‘Divulged’ sounds here something like ‘divested’, a casting off of secrecy perhaps: though what exactly is meant by the “twofold office” of the previous line which, again, sits in an awkwardly elided grammatical relation to what follows it, is unclear. But what’s central here, nonetheless, and however much apparent disclosure and foregrounding actually functions as another means of giving the slip, of – perhaps, and intentionally, dissembling – is the poet as narrator: in this sense differing from Edwin Rolfe, whose own To My Contemporaries opens with the following ‘Credo’:

To welcome multitudes – the miracle of deeds
performed in unison – the mind
must first renounce the fiction of the self
and its vainglory.

This is not to suggest that Roberts’ poem lapses into a kind of idealized bourgeois individualism – however much that term suggests a crushing, anti-poetic Stalinism, and however much I’d see the opposition between ‘poetry of the individual’ and ‘poetry of the masses’ as crude and unhelpful  – but that its negotiations of “what we’d shyly call an ethics” are more intimate than Rolfe’s “strength and togetherness / of bodies phalanxed in a common cause, / of fists tight-clenched around a crimson banner”. So the narrator in Roberts’ poem draws in elements of intimate or private reference, perhaps intelligible in their full sense only to close friends, and also reaching for a more public form of address – though ‘public’ here might mean as much those friends as an ambition towards a soap-box oratory, an imagining that the poem will mean anything to an imagined political crowd just waiting to be inspired by revolutionary poetry. The poem is more coy and double-bluffing than that, though this shouldn’t imply that there is a secret key, that there really is such a thing as the “secret poem” on which Joseph Persad focuses in his recent review of Left Helicon for Hix Eros. This is a work that so insistently and consistently draws attention to and thinks critically but not distantly through its own circumstances or concerns – it feels and is, I think, a poetry that really means what it says and means something, does something with it.

So, the pastoral, then, as background; the slow, drawn-out process of grinding defeat inflicted by the Coalition, and now, Tory government in the UK, the slow fade-out from the hopes of the Student Movement of 2010-2011, at its most publicly visible, active and radicalized; the impact of certain disputes and fallings-out amongst a ‘community’ of Anglophone poets over the past few years as well; and all these as part of a coming to terms with certain things that the poet’s past poetry has done, which this poem attempts to explicitly bid farewell to. Leave-taking more broadly is something the poem is concerned with –geographical departure, or the death of the poet Stephen Rodefer, mentioned twice in the final section – as well as spring, new starts, the pastoral, the harvest, the birds, the flowers; that balance.

The poem is in three sections (‘Books’): the first, from which I’ve already quoted, establishing something of a narrative, or at least a sense of place, whose dipping in and out of real landscape and a more ephemeral or idealized pastoral variant is played on. Thus, “the actual Laundromat” is a half-joking claim for factual accuracy, the absence of place names and the generalising specificity of locations which are also mythological and poetic tropes – the sea, the forest, et al – a co-existing counter-tendency. There is a distinct and distinctive sound patterning here, more exaggerated even than in Roberts’ previous books, which, for a whole section, leads to a series of end-rhymed lines, with plenty of internal rhyming echoes across these lines as well. This relates to the developing theme of beginning, ending, and return. A familiar move in Roberts’ poetry for years now has been the placing of an adjective at the end of a line (often equating with a syntactical unit), rather than before the noun to which it refers. This is also done with adverbs, often playing on the English-language ambiguity wherein words like “forgetful” implicitly read as “forgetfully”. One could say that this marks a displacement from objects described to quality, the imbuing of those objects with feeling, but I think it functions more as a way of maintaining simultaneous meanings, so that that process of imbuing something apparently solid with something more confusedly personal is deliberately fore-grounded and keeps the sense of the phrase mobile. Some examples: “to write this down forgetful”; “on certain shores uncertain”; “with our justice under-nourished”; “parallels of impressive orchestration unavoidable”. This kind of suspension, or inversion – a suspension whose quality of syntatical and line-ending resolution problematizes as much as it resolves – as an equivalent to what the poem names in the following manner: “nourished endings, solemn and inevitable / the starting point is flinching in compression.” (Inversion also echoes in the inversion (or reversal) of the Biblical creation myth, in which the (male) poet is created out of the rib of their (female) lover - “And Jack knew all the flowers’ names” / therefore I would be her rib” - taught by or (in the second section), spoken through by them: “So Jack spoke through the imperfect medium of Luke” - itself a reversal of Alice Notley's phrase about Jack Kerouac. This is, after all, a love poem of sorts.)

After all this, a transition, nicely managed, a marked shift in register, from first to second book: the end of the first asking what story “you” (either the poet themselves, or its readers) “want to be told”, abruptly concluding “well okay” and then beginning on the next page with a declarative citation of George Oppen. The second book is the shortest of the three, in terms of page numbers at least, though with far longer lines substituting for the three-step structure of the sections that surround it – and is more didactic (from “timing” to “advice”), while carrying on the fragments of narrative reference to place, the metaphorical use of pastoral setting: for instance, the fire in the forest, “curated entirely by unreliable poets”, which seems to be a dig at the unthinking fetishisation of would-be revolutionary activity (“a fire in the forest”) within a situation not yet revolutionary, where the conditions aren’t right. I say ‘didactic’, but one might better substitute the word ‘rhetorical’, or even expansive, as references to flowers and the writing of poets about flowers (the “insurgent botany” of the first section) transition into a list of “these poets [who] are your friends”: a roll call, without naming names (save the late Stephen Rodefer, who recurs in the final section), but rather places, which function as a “parallel of impressive orchestration unavoidable.” This list of Anglo-American poets, recognisable in terms of who exactly is being referred to, to those in the know, recognisable at least as an index of international poetic kinship to those who aren’t, seems to be one of those who might give both the poet of this poem, and the ‘contemporaries’ to whom it is addressed, advice. O’Hara is obviously lurking around here, and not just in the obvious joke about “our lapsed curiosity about the poets / in Ghana”; but the advice sought here is less fleeting, less part of an on-the-move sociality than O’Hara’s.

Apart from this list – a single stanza – this section carries over from the first a recurrence of ribs, ribcages, hips and the heart – again, internalisation, this time on a specifically physical plane, as well as the play between privacy and disclosure, sometimes explicitly in contrast to the address to the dispersed poets, its play on a kind of internationalism, an “impressive orchestration unavoidable”, distance, with the flower functioning as symbolic object both specific (through reference to its uses in literary and botany trivia) and “undefined.” The poem wrestling with definitions, schemas, clarity on the one hand, irony, turning away, shifts in scene and reference on the other, the set of declarations within the final sentence seeing the poet apparently “renounce[ing] my title”. (This perhaps a reference to the joking boasts from from False Flag’s already-ironized ‘Colossal Boredom Swan Song’, with its “withdraw[al] to my ethical bin bag” and “accept[ance] of everything, every tiresome imitation of flight”. Here, the phrase ‘champion of poetry’ reads both as a claim to skill, with poetry as competition and act of mastery asserted over other poets, and as a more generous championing of poetry: “I champion of poetry, salute the elders, put my / foot in a desk, kicking poetry with a desk lamp / strapped to my heart”). Having renounced this title, they propose to reconvene later on “with exacter measures, with better poems, / celebrations of a less sacrificial nature”, and the section ends ominously on the lines “blame all over the ocean.”

If solidarity has broken down into recrimination, there’s nonetheless some promise held out: but the third section doesn’t provide the triumphal assertion of a new programme for poetry, Rolfe-ian or otherwise. Instead, it functions as something like a coda to the second, with its gathering together of the disparate or distanced (by geography, circumstance, straitening of circumstance, suspicion, paranoia, moving on, betrayal, the inability to cope and deal with violences of all kinds – all the rest of it). It functions as a chastened or careful way to begin again after a grand gathering together which is both invocation and farewell. The formal workings here echo this double sense. Such workings – echoed in three poems, outtakes from TMC, which appear in the Xmas magazine YULE LOG – play out mainly through repetitions of words or phrases, the poet deliberately tweaking or rather, spannering (but not quite) the works of the poem. Maybe they could be more accurately figured using a sonic metaphor, as little glitches, distortions, feedbacks, which mesh or extend a different way the use of rhyme and particular cadence, within its frame, the frame of a particular style, troubling it without destroying it.

Towards the end of the poem, an anecdote appears, in which the poet encounters a homeless man outside a late-opening grocery store / off-licence, stopping to call the emergency services. There’s a risk in this sort of move, perhaps, of the return of a kind of philanthropism, a demonstration of the poet’s ethical commitment, as a person, through a specific act of inter-personal kindness; but the way the story is recounted belies that. “Here is my realism”, writes Roberts, preceding to describe waiting with the man and calling the emergency services and concluding “I didn’t love him at all”. What I get from this is that an ethics of care, that acts of political solidarity, might not be prefaced on love of a specific person, but on a more general sense of solidarity, which in itself actually functions as a more reasonable, expansive, useful and practicable sense of what love might mean -- however much poets like to go for extremes, to put themselves through the wrangler of love, elevated in triumph or abjection, aggrandizing and narrativizing their emotional lives, meshing them with politics, making claims for them. “Meet me with everyone / you love, even badly” refigures the roll-call of contemporaries from the second section, on a more intimate scale, and one which, nonetheless, leaves the definition of love, conventional or – given the evidence of this poem – most likely otherwise, open, negotiable, to be struggled with and lived.

The poet concludes with advice that is to himself as much as to his contemporaries, and which might, in some roundabout way, describe the purpose of the poem itself:

write to everyone
you know
write to everyone.

A note to self but also advice in general, encouragement, necessity; in times of dispersal, as any poet, or anyone, might figure them; the necessity of communication, re-evaluation, continued dialogue, and one which might take place more privately, more carefully, with more openness to risk and disagreement, than in the fractious and fracturing fora of an often confused public debate about the political function of poetry (however useful and laudable and central to our thought that might be). The poem, then, engages with and emerges from the difficulties of finding frames for such concerns which don’t descend into bickering and to the crossing of wires, but to a different kind of crossing (a word I’m thinking of here in relation to a recent series of videos made by the poet Richard Owens). We often can’t see these things clearly until after they’ve past – and, in some ways, perhaps even less so after. And we know this from examining the histories of the poets and the poetries we read, the literary histories that are constructed around them, both by these poets themselves and by others, the historians, the critics, the new generations, those who come after. So it can be hard to say just what exactly these words - given, renounced, ironized, declared, affirmed - will mean – and who will read them. But for now, this is what seems important, to me at least, about them.

And then the rest of that conclusion: the burning of the heather on the hillside by the apprentices who “threw their tools / in the sea”, which, perhaps because of a coincidence in my own reading, when I first encountered drafts of the poem, rather than because of something specifically in the poem itself, brings to mind these lines from the poem ‘Landscape with Three People’, included in the late Lee Harwood’s 1966 pamphlet The Man With Blue Eyes:

I loved him and I loved her
and no understanding was offered
to the first citizen
when the ricks were burnt.

Those lines, which I’ve not found glossed or discussed in detail in any of the existing Harwood criticism, explicitly foreground the book’s bisexuality, but what I’m interested in here, in relation to Roberts, is how they offer a removed ambience while apparently tapping into a register associated with acts of historical violence and turmoil – they sound, at least, as if culled from a historical account of machine-breaking, acts of sabotage in reaction to the cruel displacements of the Industrial Revolution; in that sense mirroring the poem’s landscape setting. Roberts, too, plays on the relation between closure and disclosure, historical record and a more numinous interiority, but his poem differs from the elision of temporalities, settings, registers and referents evinced in Harwood’s “and” – a privacy redolent of John Ashbery, the ‘man with blue eyes’ of the title, and arguably associated with the poems’ own acts of privacy or concealment around the issue of sexuality, poised half in and half out of the closet. Roberts’ privacy is of a different kind; is perhaps about the pleasures of concealment, the near-paranoia borne of conditions of political defeat – if ones less dramatic than the references to political torture, resistant fighting and the like that (again somewhat ambiguously and atmospherically) pepper The Man with Blue Eyes and The White Room. In any case, the hillside burning is here a means, perhaps, of imbuing the pastoral with a history of resistance and solidarity, rather than of the class distinctions so often imbued within it, from Spenser on Ireland to the seventeenth- and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landed gentry surveying the harmonious shaping of their estate; to make it something wilder, a site of conflict and violence as much as of pleasure and escape.

But, again, this isn’t explicitly thematic; we could read the apprentices as younger poets, the contemporaries of the title themselves, learning their craft as much through destruction as imitation; or as something else entirely. In any case, to conclude abruptly, I like the poem’s self-reflexive questioning of the problem of love in poetry, and the way that ethical conduct in love might be inflected, in life, by its use as material for poetry: so that the poet says they are (maybe) done with “loving eruditely”. And its final lines, in the wake of Rodefer’s death and personal dispersal, on “holding on to the living” and calling time and closing; true to the spirit of the poem as a whole, in general free of bombast, with the right combination of warmth, generosity, and self-criticism that doesn’t turn into elongated writhing display and is, frequently, genuinely moving.