FALLING OUT WITH THE GODS

ahadada reader 1 by Alan Halsey, John Byrum, Geraldine Monk, 85pp, Ahadada Books (2004), Meikai University, 8 Akemi, Urayasu-shi, Chiba-ken, Japan 279-8550



This isn't a 'Reader' in the sense of being a kind of best-and-most-accessible selection for students, like the venerable James Joyce Reader, for example. In fact you could argue it's not for reading at all, at least so far as John Byrum's concerned. His work doesn't really fit into book format, which might be one way of making sense out of the wan grisaille of 'Approximations'.

I can't quote from 'Approximations'. No, I'm not being lazy, I mean this literally. I could tell you some of the words I found in it, but it isn't a text. It's visual poetry, and you can't detach the verbal element from the graphics. It triumphantly fails the 'Blake test' proposed by Ron Silliman, who claims that the words of a poem should always be able to do their business when taken away from their original context. That seems a pretty good definition of what visual poetry isn't. It isn't illustrated poems, or poems used as calligraphy exercises.

So what are we going to talk about? We could talk about Byrum's ideas, which are basically about merging and dispersing the category of art into well, human activity itself. That seems a logical destination for visual poets. You can see their work being exciting on the website of Byrum's Generator Press; much more exciting visually than the monochrome of 'Approximations'.

In principle, a visual poet needn't be skillful with the linear disposition of words that we call 'writing' at all. 'Approximations' could have been designed to test that principle. Byrum chooses the most lifeless kind of intertextual theorising about art as the material for his pages; the sort of text so gnarled and over-familiar that it looks like some forgotten essay that you wrote yourself when you were really worried sick about something else.

This, for example, is the text of one double page, big white letters inside two identical grey oblongs:

     cyclica  oneth
     ltropes  ingint
     reveali  ermso
     ngconc fanot
     ealing   her

No question but that you can read this off as 'cyclical tropes revealing concealing one thing in terms of another' - Oh, please! But the presentation brings submerged sounds out of their prisons. 'ngconc' begins with a liquid (though indefinable) vowel and ends with a hard k-sound. 'reveali ermso' wriggles across the middle of the page. More to the point, this has occupied two whole precious pages of the
Reader's modest 85 - and the next five are on the same gigantic scale. Never mind, Byrum makes up for it later with three pages of text so small and cramped that I accepted the invitation not to read it, merely to enjoy the interference patterns. In 'Approximations', neither text nor space has an inherent value. But in your mind it does. The pages I've, well, 'quoted', look opulent, a half-naked penthouse. The cramped later pages are slum tenements.

*

You would think that the instantly visceral power of graphics might lead to an art full of passion. That isn't how it turns out, not here anyway. In the middle of the word 'approximations' is the word 'proxy' (as Byrum's text flat-footedly points out), a defining image of modern poetry. Whatever real things there might be out there, the modern poet doesn't feel anything about them because they've all been endlessly spun in the discredited virtuality of the media. Consider these phrases from Alan Halsey's section of the
Reader:

     Terra In-  
     Cognita known & anticipated only as an Under-

     Song by sub
     Tler suppressed initials unified by natural
     Contingency....  

So even Terra Incognita is already qualified by hordes of past participles.

     severall wayes of flying
     I have now forgott

A little tease. You'd like to know about that, wouldn't you?

     'There was a time when people forgot
     their responsibilities.' At Harken Energy
     phantoms priced the bad news in without a negative spot-
     light. 'Everything,' the ex-director said, 'seemed easy.'

So the bad news doesn't seem bad, and even the lively words 'harken energy' are smeared by being a trade name.

     Certain mendacious
     emendations
     such as asterisks
     for airstrikes.

Are you supposed to feel indignant and horrified about airstrikes? No, just notice a clever pun.

Or here, finally, are some shorter phrases: 'hoovered goodwill', 'sugared safeguards', 'a library garbled', 'For 'faculty' read 'faulty'', 'a sign saying DANGER or DANCER'. Every noun comes ready-wrapped in cynicism.

It seems fairly appropriate to quote Halsey out of context. You're never too sure how many of the words are his anyway, and he often builds page after page out of decontextualized quotes of other people.

The few attempts I've seen at dealing with his work seem to throw their hands up and just regard him as a force of nature. I think I can agree with that. His writings are the dark side of the moon, and reading them from the front isn't very profitable. They have a recognizable cast of mind, of course. They are basically belittling. Every promise is a false promise, every word and action discredited. It produces an oddly liberating kind of equality. 

Halsey's favourite ornament is the pun. At one point he says:

     A pun's a written-out's blast or boast weapon in or upon class
     or crass struggle.

A sentence that, typically, manages to trash itself. Occasionally I find Halseyan word-play bracing - for example, 'Wall to wall coverage on Cogito Live', or 'the cutting-room ceiling'. For every mind-expanding goodie like that there's a mass of 'uniform as cuneiform' and 'literal or littoral' where the pun is manifest only in its negative aspect, as a way of reducing significance, not adding to it. The pun drains away the potential strength of the unpunned word.   

But to see Halsey's writing more fully one needs to be constantly thinking about what it doesn't openly express. At one point he talks illuminatingly about an 'emblem firewall' and I follow the suggestion that, though the writing on the page consists of belittling emblems, these are a very screened version of what lies beyond that firewall.

Consider, for example, the ongoing composition that is extracted here, 'Lives of the Poets'. This consists of a series of short sections headed by the names of British poets - generally, what were once called 'silver poets' - of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. I think none of the words are Halsey's own - they are all either the poet's or contemporary with the poet's life. For example:

     GABRIEL HARVEY

     no bones to take the wall of
     what good liking Maister Dyer had of youre Satyricall Verses
     happiest Inuentor of the English Hexameter
     ink-squittering Howliglasse in Newgate
     Piers Penniless the Pamfletter says borrows my name

I recognize some of the sources here (Spenser, Nashe), but it's probably best not to. At least I hope not, because nearly all the other 'Lives' are outside my range. Anyway, vividly collaged as this is, it clearly denies the satisfaction that one might have hoped for from that hallowed title 'Lives of the Poets'. What did we really want? A narrative in which the subject poet goes about doing things? - But, a narrative told by whom? Or perhaps an interpretation of the poet's significance, whatever that might mean? Halsey's 'Lives' aren't biographies, and they even avoid the commentary of punctuation. They are, however, lives; or at least bits of them. So why all jumbled, then? Because that's the way it was, perhaps - in their lives, which are not their works.  

Here Halsey's procedures are turning a spotlight on the integrity of the various things that we mean by authors and their lives. And it's surprising what comes out of this self-denying and humane project. Gabriel Harvey's heaviness and suspicion are perhaps encoded in the lines above; at least, they seem so to me. But conceptions of a unified character or personality are themselves under review here - the poets themselves, from such different eras, wouldn't have had anything like the same conceptions as me, or each other.

*

The challenge of John Byrum's and Alan Halsey's work is, in some sense, to avoid reading it as poetry - at any rate, not as poetry the way we have known it. The difficulties of Geraldine Monk's poems are somewhat different - perhaps, to take them seriously enough. Her voice is playful, populist, impatient with pretension and highly resistant to being told how to speak. That must be what Andrew Duncan meant when he said 'Perhaps it's significant that she has a command of oral skills, to go with her acute lack of academic skills'.  'Manufractured Moon', the first piece in her selection, is pretty much in 'Dear Diary' format, and it reads like she took about as much time over it as someone dashing off evening emails, which is unnerving as well as pleasing.

     (Subject: Falling Outs)

     The blind even quivered at the iddy girl tungsten thin and burning
     bright fell out with all gods in a big way such as only youngage
     can with starry id. They conjured miniature animals for warfare
     but they readily scorched and rebelled.

     The lambs a-lit

                             Its face turned a shiny teaspoon to the
                                           west beam that was.

     Always always,
     Getha.

When, towards the end of 'Manufractured Moon', there's a complex and marvellous three columns of listening out of the open car window to voices in the street, you'll be convinced that this is a much more worked piece than it might appear in extract. But though there's many games to play here I'm not satisfied overall. Recurring images of an apostle who might be a sashaying female, or an annoying stranger under the streetlight outside, or a Freudian nursery rhyme about crossing a golden river to bring our father's dinner, are woven together and produce an insomniac, sensually hungry fabric. But my appreciation is, too much, at the level of picking out and admiring shiny teaspoons.

'Latitudes' undersells itself too, with weary ha-ha subtitles like 'Eulogy written in an unmarked Northern city pub', but this strikes me as an altogether more pointed sequence, omitting everything but strictly functional words (which, with enviable sophistication, manage to look completely casual). It's the same kind of approach that Monk takes to using the space on the page.  

Consider this highly ambiguated northern meditation on southern countryside, and its eloquent line-breaks:

     Alchemical minds turn
     cold boreal winters to molten
     gold and
     all
     roads flanked with
     hedgerows and horses - swish and
     rush and
     giddy curves of thatch.
     Dumbswept.      Vibrant.     Earth-hug.

Or the ending of a not-at-all grave meditation in a summer graveyard, which keeps flying upwards, and keeps getting more serious:

     Growth gang.  Ging and.   Blue chipped.   Marble.
     Date to date.   A hands span.   A spirit cheer.   Clinks.
     Let's fly.
     Lark.

     Rich one.   Poor one.   Beggar both.   The
     opposition to life is
     massive and sustained.
     Innings and out.
     Clock.
     Tock.
     Cuckoo.

The graveyard sections are paired with pub sections. So now read this:

     It is still night.   It is still day.   It is moving.   Timeless.
     The traffic.
     The cues.
     The ebb and flow and chink of glasses.
     The spills.
     The queues.

Lay the two passages thus alongside (e.g. 'cheer.   Clinks' next to 'chink of glasses') and you'll register the echo effects that someone who listens to every sound and rhythm can deploy to create an intently focussed exploration of society out of bird-song doodles.

Monk's selection ends with three poems that are, a little more directly than the others, about the worsening international situation and the Iraq war. The best is 'Opus Anglicanum-'. Monk's poetry does not, admittedly, pretend to an international kind of poetic reach. What she sees is strictly here and now. I think it makes the poem's discoveries more urgent.

     stuckup on thorn hedge
     hemmed in
     broderie anglaise
     capped
     pearlies kink the may day
     blossom floss
     a fly pass is
     buzzing her maj
     at enormous expense
     the sky streaks red white
     blue
     on blue

It takes more than lateral thinking - lateral feeling, maybe - to connect dental flossing with the Red Arrows. So, yes, I conclude that someone who insists on saying 'her maj' and talking about 'pearlies' is nevertheless someone I do take seriously. Whether you do or not, you ought to keep a watchful eye on a poet who falls out with so many gods.


            Michael Peverett 2005