Catching hold of the wrong end of the sticks


Bardo
, Ken Edwards. (64pp, 8.00, Knives, Forks and Spoons Press)
Lyrical Diagrams, David Greenslade (text), Carolina Vasquez (images).
   (112pp, 9.95, Shearsman)
 
 

Both these collections use to fine effect an ensemble of prose poems and images. As Ken Edwards explains in the note at the end of Bardo, his book is 'a modern rewrite' of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but with 'the port and old town of Hastings as its backdrop'. Bardo is a lyrical exploration of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and also a postmodern subversion of this very exploration. It can by turns, and in the same moment, be haunting, meditative and, in a delightful way, downright silly. At the beginning we are introduced to three persons or voices, who reappear at various stages throughout the book. The first two have fragmentary dialogues (which reminded me occasionally of Beckett) while the third is a more haunting and ironic presence, as in this example from 'The house':
 
   The second person: "That business about 'your life flashing
   before you'. It's about making sense of it, making a story
   before it's too late. But if you look at it that way it's always
   too late. Just as you realise, Ah, that's what it was...'"
 
   The first person replies with a few impromptu words. I can't
   remember what they were.
 
   The third person smiles, but says nothing - perhaps sipping
   reflectively from a wineglass.
 
The seven images, interspersed among the texts, and working implicitly as section dividers, are all photographs taken by the author. The first five photographs are given a colour as a title. Sometimes this is the colour that predominates in the image, for example in the snow in 'white'. At other times, the colour referred to may be just one of different colours in the image: for example, the only yellow in 'yellow' is the colour of two seagulls' beaks. This works well in that it entices the viewer into really lingering over the individual components of the photograph and the way they relate to one another. The last two photographs are called 'rainbow' and 'millions of colours'.  Neither of the photographs actually have that much colour at first glance, but looking again we start to see all the different shades and to notice the way colours blend almost imperceptibly into one another. For example, in 'rainbow', there is no rainbow, but we really begin to notice the different kinds of blue in a sea as it gets deeper and stretches towards a sky, in which, of course, there are more blues to meditate on. The images, like the text, are a search to see how The Tibetan Book of the Dead (in which, as Edwards explains, each of the seven days has a colour) might be applicable to how we live here, now, in a province in England and both tied to, and trapped by, a more global, technologically-driven world. At the same time, they reveal the impossibility of this search, thus creating another kind of investigation altogether.  It is in the end the subversive quality of this investigation, with all its juxtapositions and surprises, which makes this book such a delight to read. And here I shall leave the last word with Ken Edwards. From 'Sleepwalk':
 
                                                                 Green blood. But I'm
 
   not me, I need to change trains here. Cold steel. Three
   hundred dark things sniffing around your crotch.
 
   No, I'm not myself, and this house isn't my house.
 

While Ken Edwards takes other texts as the starting point for his 'own' work, David Greenslade starts from diagrams, not only to navigate in prose poems the possible meanings of the diagrams themselves (meanings which fluctuate and shimmer and change their aspect continually) but also as kind of jumping off point into the unknown, to see where language will take him as it in some sense abandons the diagrams before finally returning to them from a new and unexpected angle. It does of course take a very skilled poet to pull this off. Fortunately, David Greenslade is such a poet.
 
Each of the pages in Lyrical Diagrams
contains both a diagram and 'related' prose poem (in a couple of cases, the prose poem spills over onto a second page). There is something about Carolina's black-and-white sketches which is both (deliberately) banal and arresting at the same time. Drawn in a minimalist style, they could sometimes be a doodle, sometimes a child's two-dimensional portrait, sometimes an illustration from a technical manual, sometimes an arithmetical table. There is throughout a subtle surreal quality, and it is this perhaps which when combined with the very ordinary appearance of the 'diagrams' arrests and holds our attention. Most interesting of all is the way, David Greenslade 'interprets' the diagrams, to highlight the strangeness and otherness of ordinary things we would not normally pay any attention to, for example some asterisks drawn on a very rough sketch of pots and pans to show perhaps where the light shines when the pots and pans have been washed. He transports us to the kind of world
inhabited by the Mad Hatter:
 
   The sound of an asterisk is like tinkling glass, a silver bell
   or possibly the higher notes of a xylophone. These annoying
   self-satisfied noises drive me nuts. I've got nothing against
   asterisks but I won't have them near my pots and pans,
   especially the heavy iron ones. They're fine in other people's
   kitchens, even other people's mouths but when my stuff
   glows it sizzles with gongs and deep boomshankas, not
   with tinsel and crystal.
 
Even a glance over the Table of Contents is enough to intrigue. The prose poems are arranged in alphabetical order and have such titles as 'Cow at the Window',  'Customer Response Voucher',  'The Good Thumb', 'No Neck' and 'Nose Job'. They are very much an invitation to be ready for 'any eventuality' and a plea for us not to be browbeaten by 'the usual crew of This World Steam Engine Realists' which 'opposes these programs'. In the playfulness of these prose poems, strange and wondrous truths emerge. Yes, we may - as Greenslade puts it in 'Bundle's Repetition - catch hold of the wrong end of the stick, but then a story will arrive 'and put our pangs to rights'.
 
           Ian Seed, 2012