THE MONSTERS THAT COME FROM WITHIN

 

Hold, Scott Thurston
Perihelion,
Sarah Law
[Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, EX4 4LD]


Hold is a great word. It's one of the best titles I've seen all year. Here, in order of occurrence, are the first things the word 'hold' suggested to me: The hold button on a fruit machine. Holding someone. Holding something back. The hold of a ship. Holding forth. Holding someone's attention. The dictionary fashioned me with several others: To be able to control the outward effects of drinking beer; A tenure of land - smallholding; controlling influence - she has a hold on him; to hold for - to apply to or be relevant for; to claim; to have responsibility for; to own; to remain fast or unbroken; to restrain; to maintain.

That's a whole load of meaning. I am frequently left cold (and lonely and frightened) by linguistically experimental poetry, but there is an inviting richness of association in Thurston's title that is at once encouraging and puzzling - and that stands for his poetry, too. It seems to say, 'Come on in! The water is a tasteless, odorless universal solvent. But it's lovely!'

Furthermore, Thurston's first full-length collection is the result of ten years work and incorporates not only his hellishly difficult (but nonetheless rewarding) linguistically innovative stuff, but also his beautiful, lyrical meditations on selfhood which are powerful and well-crafted.

'Rescale', a series of 30 prose poems is stunning, taking in the sound-associations of Sheila E. Murphy and the philosophical abstractions of Ashbery and Creeley and doing the whole thing pretty damn well:

     The loud cleric distinguishes the west long ship who's trembling, for what has
      been sacrificed to art let it not take human shape. Constructed as if there was
     another world waiting in the wings clipper; a convenient weakness.

Some later prose poems compound Thurston's mastery of the form - the flashes of surreal brilliance in 'Let's Talk About Us':

     A recoding of a bell ringing - a clap of fanatical attitude. A fielder runs down
     the side of a mountain in posession of mouth, nose. Quick flash guard day; a
     magpie hiding bread under leaves.

I believe it was R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe who admitted to relying on typing errors for the majority of his early lyrics. A 'recoding of a bell ringing' (as opposed to 'recording') is particularly rich in allusion - the meaning of a bell ringing has changed - and it could be a church bell, an alarm bell, the bell of Pavlovian conditioning. As in the title, there is a generosity of association to Thurston's conjoined phrases and word-salad that outstrips many of his contemporaries.

So
Hold has been something of a revelation for me. I don't usually appreciate linguistically innovative poetry. For me, a lot of it goes no further than saying, 'Have you guys ever noticed how much the word I sounds like EYE? Or how Joan Armatrading sounds like Joan Armour-Trading? Like she's in the arms race or something? Ooh, really makes you think.' Or that Fast Show sketch where a performance artist repeats the word 'carrot' twenty times and then says, smugly, 'It's lost all meaning.' That said, I used to be so into bands like Labradford and Autechre that I could happily listen to a washing machine for five minutes before I realised it wasn't a song. Does that matter? I'm not sure. I think music carried on evolving whereas innovative poetry got stuck somewhere around the 70's. The same new ground being broken ever since - and nary a crop in sight.

So, like modern art and free-improv music, linguistically innovative poetry is a matter of trust. And it's pretty subjective: I trust Raworth, but I don't trust Prynne as far as I could throw his
Collected. I started to trust Scott Thurston on the first page - and by the time I'd reached his more traditionally structured sentences (round about page 80) I felt thoroughly engaged in his vision.

Some of the shorter lyric pieces are so simple and elegant they make me want to cry. Without ornamental dramatic event or dialogue; without withering observations of members of the public that place the poet at an Apollonian height; without pretence, Thurston sums up precisely what it's like to be alive most of the time - a sort of low-level, unaccoubtable irritation:

     WALK
           
     Leaving the house for a walk,
     coming down the steps I dart

     in front of someone passing.
     Up below the cathedral -
           
     the estuary looks landlocked.
     On my return, before

     the crossing, someone runs
     in front of a car.

     Making my way across,
     I feel resentment.

This is the great theme of Thurston's more lyrical writing: a meticulous, but ultimately doomed judgement of the self. Among my favourite passages is the following last stanza from 'Immaturity':

     ...I don't want to feel superior to
     My friend who respected me who emigrated
     Needlessly. Where have I learnt this harsh
     Bitterness from? How can I escape the superior
     Part of myself?

Thurston engages with the hydra of subjectivity with a refreshingly level-gaze and, occiationally, with ferocity and wit. 'Adult Toy' concludes:

     ...Your seriousness generates a
     reactive levity in me - I would smile or laugh to combat its
     hideousness. Flick the fucking switch.

*

Anyone else notice how Ron Silliman, for such an arbiter of taste, isn't often that good at saying why he likes something? Time and again his analysis goes no deeper than, 'Doesn't the word 'chimp' sound great? And doesn't it sound even better when it's next to the word 'pendulum'? Well, for that reason alone,
Chimp Pendulum is the most significant book of its generation. Nine thumbs up.'

(That's not an actual quote). Still, if it's good enough for Silliman the Magnificent, it's good enough for me. 'Touch Watch', the opening poem in
Hold sounds great. It has as satisfying a mouth-feel as a marinated chicken breast or al dente pasta or a tortilla chip. 'Touch Watch' is thoroughly satisfying to read aloud - 'us two lying in a circular notch / rotating', 'full of a cage of anticipation' - and that's all I want from it. To hell with lit theory critiques of commerce/religion/philosophy explored through an aesthetic hegemony of the decomposition of language and meaning: This is a celebration of how great it is to have mouths and tongues and teeth and voice-boxes.

Elsewhere, the frenzied repetition of 'Speak for Itself' ('speak / speak for itself / itself / no it can't speak for itself / itself / gift is a wonder / no you mask its speech / speaking for it') becomes powerful and affecting - in the same way that Beckett's 'Not I' gets increasingly desperate and stricken.

*


Sarah Law's Perihelion opens with a sequence of twenty sonnets called 'A Clutch of Monsters'. They are classically accomplished sonnets. And there are twenty of them. Law's opening lines are arresting and strange:

     I'm playing chess with the dark.

     Must live. Calcified god in your anchorhold,

     A blistering hump rolls over the hill.

     My heart is crushed. My mouth is full of juice.

Uncanny, engaging and unpatronising - the poet trusts us to follow her on the monster hunt through the sub-conscious, baffling and disarming by turns. Law's occasional use of rhyme runs from the playful and parodic ('each pressure point adds water to the mill, and you're / a cabbage with a mind to kill.') to the traditionally assured (...making me wonder if thunder wears a dress, / and all the reasoning under the sun / can stop the burning savour of distress.') If the lines do not run to iambic pentameter, phrases within the sonnet do - and they resonate all the more for it. 'Hot Potato' is a brilliant malediction:

     ...so you
     can see what drives and chases after minds,
     like chopping knives. Like weights
     pressing a saint into the mud.

It concludes, 'You nastily organised network of pawns. / I'm game to escape your drill.' Ouch. I can't remember the last time I saw the form used with such confidence and innovation. 'Psychic', the final sonnet, put me back in the same melancholic frame of mind as Thurston's lyric poetry; the monsters that come from within:

     My own good nature eludes me; like a flash
     in a fragment of mirror, an old bad thing
     I might have done configures and distorts me.

The sequence is followed by the title poem and its opposite - with explanatory empigrams: 'Perihelion' is '
The point in the path of a planet, comet, etc. that is nearest to the sun' and 'Aphelion' is 'The point in the path of a planet, comet, etc. that is farthest from the sun'. These poems explore cycles of feeling; the need for proximity, the need for distance (or the imposition of either). The cosmic / interpersonal parallels explored here outstrip the life's work of any astrologer.

'Tai Chi Sketches' are suitably ephemeral for the sequence's title. The beautiful 'Dragonfly Touches Water' begins, 'You make love to this moment.' It's such a relief to find a poet that lives up to their reputation as spiritual; a poet who doesn't simply name-check Tai Chi, but is actually capable of
conjuring a moment of brilliant meditative clarity.

I've felt the need to stop reading poetry recently - to decompress with a pile of novels. In fact, I've been seriously asking myself whehter or not I even
like poetry. Thanks to Sarah Law, I've decided that I probably do. There are some gorgeous moments in 'Tai Chi Sketches':

     Your chunk of browning fruit lies on the ground,
     slinky reader - want to check the leaves,
     kill the chicken for his prophecy?
          (From 'Snake Creeps Down')

     This boy will steal your peanuts.
     Sit for a minute, your eyes are gone.
     ...
     and a whole house blooms in a cage
     (monkeys trampolining on a feather).
           (From 'Repulse Monkey')
           
     You vague darling. Meet me in the pub
     where the bad beer sprays out acronyms,
     casts a pall over this dreadful air, where
     arms brush fallen apples to their nests.
          (From 'Moving Hands Like Clouds')

The voice is so strong and unexpected here; familiar yet disorientating, funny yet unnerving.

'Heritage' was the first time I was wrongfooted by
Perihelion. 'The lashes / on her closed eyes were innumerable' annoyed me too much to concentrate - how many eyelashes does anyone have? Innumerable, I'll wager. However, I completely got over this on the next page in which the tide unexpectedly drags you under 'with a planetary power.' Superb. And the following poem 'Prynne Knows My Name' is really funny. 'It is the fuming of a censor swung through / the plunge of agnosticism.' The self-conscious comment on name-dropping seemed like a comment on how the avant-garde have gone from an egalitarian de-skilling of poetry to a kind of shamanic self-propagation with as concrete a hierarchy as the Catholic church. I'm not sure if that's what I was meant to think. I haven't been sleeping so well lately.

'The Baptism of the Neophytes' is the longest sequence in
Perihelion - 40 poems, all 20 lines in length. They are the most fragmentary and difficult poems in the collection and I've been grappling with them for some time. They have historical / Christian / painterly / place names like 'Madonna in Maesta', 'Ultima Cena' and 'Madonna del Voto' This excerpt from 'Morte De S. Francesco' is indicitave:

     Erasure of intensity
     featuring angels tonsured by despair
     churning out their lachrymosal job
     against sprung juvenilia.
     Extremities still beckon
     a carriage of nourishment
     preceded by snow, stripped
     of their unique devices
     (stripped of their women):
     tablature in disollution
     and deep field of drapery -
     such a business of cowls.

I've chased up titles and references, I've re-read them over and over, but I can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something. And I'm quite willing to concede that it's an education. I had to look up 'Ultima Cena' to find out it's Spanish for Last Supper. Sigh. Barring the occasional image, 'The Baptism of the Neophytes' runs rings around me and I'm left wanting more information. They seem not unlike psycho-geographical travel pieces - a recording (or recoding) of impressions and thoughts. I can respect them from a distance - and they're far more readable than most psycho-geographical travel pieces. And that's about as far as I get.

I'm far more comfortable with poems about puppies. 'Pet Sitting' is the best of its kind:

     Your golden puppy dissipates distress.
     Time has passed alright, but Elmo's tail
     wags in zen essence of its own atoms,
     a brace of universal zest, perfect choreography
     of what's happened to have come along.

The concluding section, to which 'Pet Sitting' belongs, is a more varied, accessible terrain - from the elegant personal reflections of 'Give and Take' and 'Saint Teresa Contemplates her Futures' and the terse prose-poem / haibuns of 'Reality Principles'. 'Meditation Topics for Women' is the perfect denoument - as witty and fascinating as all that has gone before. I shall leave you with a couple:

     8. If a sister should levitiate, is it prudent to take photographs?

     12. How many palm crosses does it take to build a workable two-sister raft?


           Luke Kennard, 2006