The first ‘virtual reality’ poem I came across was Doug
Oliver’s ‘The Video House of Fame’,
not the sort of thing you might have
expected from his particular pen but it was prescient and inventive as well
as hilariously funny in parts. Ross Sutherland is of the generation that have
grown up with the new technologies and it’s hardly surprising that younger
poets are now incorporating both the ‘form and content’ of the video game and
its related thrills and anxieties into their work. Allied to this
technological baseline there’s an element of storytelling which feels very
Raymond Chandler or James. M. Cain, alongside the psychological S/F of Philip
K. Dick, J. G. Ballard and William Gibson. If there’s a strong sense of
pastiche in his work, which suggests the advertising industry as well as
entertainment value, this is also a poetry which has a critical dimension and
its value lies largely in this aspect.
While there’s clearly a heavy element of entertainment/distraction intended
here, aimed mainly but not exclusively at a younger audience, as with The
Simpsons, or perhaps more-tellingly, South
Park, Sutherland’s work has a satirical,
possibly also an ethical, dimension which embraces the dark side of things in
a world increasingly hard to define, rationalise or feel comfortable in. Thus
in ‘The Circus’ we get this:
It was the year 2000, or
It was difficult to
remember what my penis looked like
amongst all those fake
I finished uploading The
The city terminated my
adding my name to a
of unreliable narrators.
All this was to be
yet the circus was
There is also a strong focus on the
actual process of composition in Sutherland’s work, as featured in the final
section ‘The National Language’ where we are given a number of poems produced
by ‘translating’ the work of famous poets using a computer programme and
‘bouncing the originals around, back and forth between different languages’.
Take this extract from a ‘translation’ of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Morning at the
With discontinuance cooking in our tunnels,
probability rapidly stabs
Therefore, the lowest
knives are at work in me.
government is an egg! The moisture of a car’s soul!
‘New Edition of Windows’)
As a process I can imagine that this way of working can tend to become
obsessive and it certainly embraces that mixture of chance versus formalism
so beloved of the Oulipo. The results are quite interesting and occasionally
funny though there is nothing here that really blows me away, which is
probably an unfair thing to expect. As a way of re-working material from the
past – a key element of the modernist project – it clearly has a traditional
perspective and may provide one alternative to the process of practical
criticism or close reading.
There is a more comic-book, deconstructive note to ‘Liverish Red-Blooded
Riffraff Hoo-ha’, a re-working of Little Red Riding Hood, which again
incorporates the techniques of the Oulipo, while having a somewhat knockabout
feel underscored by a darker suggestiveness:
The woman stepped inside.
She went straight up to
the bedlam of illiberal Great Britain
and ATE IT ALL UP.
She pulled Cape Horn over
then got into bedlam and
pulled the custody shut.
‘Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-ha’)
And there’s quite a strong focus, as you might expect, on the subject of
weaponry, as sampled in this extract from ‘Poet in Residence in a Toyshop at
GUNS: each one with a
like the prose of
Although you might not
like the things it has to say.
GUNS: a bad translation
Now we kill everything
that interests us.
Possibly just a faster
version of how things were going already.
‘Level 3: Armoury’)
While this work is playful, energetic and saturated in the environment (if
not the values) of late-consumerist society, there’s an edgy,
anxiety-inducing undertone to Emergency Window which hints at a social critique. Its author
appears aware of this contradiction and the consequent tension is probably
its strongest feature. That said, it’s also an enjoyable read on a less
‘critical’ plane, if you’re prepared to ‘go with the flow’. I can’t say this
is the best poetry book I’ve read this year but I did find it a stimulating
read once I’d managed to negotiate its territory.