Signs of Life


Rampant Inertia
, Alan Halsey (114pp,Shearsman)


I was not quite sure how to begin this review, because for a while there I was lost for words, but eventually plumped for the simple approach.

Here are some examples of the poems in this book:

   a poem entitled 'England in 1836: A Digest' that is 'edited
   from Najaf Koolee Meerza Journal of a Residence in England,
   trans. Assaad Y. Kayat.'

(by the way, I notice you can get the original book very easily on Amazon -  http://www.amazon.com/Journal-Residence-England-Koolee-Meerza/dp/1115587110) I guess this is a poem as a 'digested read', and since it's actually quite entertaining the poem functions as a pretty good advertisement for a very old book, though that's probably not what was intended. And don't you just hate it when a found text is better than anything you can actually write yourself?

   a poem entitled 'Mutability Cento: a Sheffield cacophony for
   10 or more voices' that would appear to be an assemblage
   (4 pages of assemblage) of voices from an oral history of
   Sheffield

   'Sound Poems for Performance with Mick Beck' (from
   which I quote: 'Anakak! Anakela! Acaton nokata. Katanowa
   ka pi.')

   a poem called 'Sixty Dyads for David Annwn', and I quote
   a few lines:

      man      age
      since      rest
      plea       sure
      for         tune      (etc.)

(You see what he's doing here, don't you? It's clever, huh?
Quite awe     some, in fact. And you can play this game at home, too.)

   a poem called 'Idle Time Scans' that is not the only example
   in the book of juxtaposing words that sound vaguely similar,
   or comprise similar sounds, as in 'plateglass plateau' and
   'spotlit to split' 

This latter is a strategy first used by poets, when was it, 50 or 60 years ago...? It's probably further back than that. And it strikes me that all the examples I've quoted could very easily have come from poets more or less any time during that period. Did someone just mention the death of the author?

So I struggle with this stuff a little, mainly because I've been here before and I don't see anything that lifts any of it out of the ordinary to give it a sense of uniqueness (or much fresh interest, for that matter). I also struggle with the poet's desire to explicate what's happening. A central section of the volume is 'The Clinamen Transfigured' (you know, clinamen, Lucretius, Epicurus, the atomists, swerve), a mixture of image and text. But does the poet have to tell us in a note that 'the clinamen returns the language-objects photographed to the inscriptional gesture made by successive human hands in co-operation or perhaps more alluringly con-fusion with their material medium (usually stone) and the weather - 'the elements'.' I like to think poems should be able to stand up for themselves, and not need their author to prop them up, however incomprehensibly. And if ultimately the clinamen leads us to indeterminacy, well, didn't we know that already, and isn't indeterminacy almost a given these days?

Now then. I concede there is a serious concern with the workings of word and language in this poetry. Perhaps even philosophy. It would be a nonsense not to concede that. And as an area of academic concern I am more than happy for that to exist. And I would also concede wholeheartedly that Alan Halsey knows much more than I about the
logos and all of that. My general point is that the poems here are largely, with a few exceptions, either (as I pointed out earlier) retreads of old ideas or, which is worse, more or less impenetrable and often absolutely devoid of reading pleasure. It may well be, of course, that Halsey has no interest in providing 'reading pleasure' - in which case he can claim a fair measure of success.

For examples:

   Ideal weither fivoiired the Victoria
   Auteur Ittrf Club vcsteidiv for ills an
   jiuall living Dab litanies the attendance
   at time meeting n tile is flecked by the
   absence from town of many iiultir ac
      (from 'From the Horse's Mouth: A Transcript & Homage to Dr Swift')

(a racehorse's gossip, apparently)

and

   And while a coglioneria sary
   I'm not doing the cul famine
   Finish me in my genealogy
   the round is different from the idiot
   that the aquatic Malvasia
   let me in between the old scorched
   ch'anch'io if man he was
      (from 'An Internet Sieve for Aretino's Positions')

(according to the back cover blurb, this is 'fitfully failing to translate Aretino's erotica' - I seem to remember Aretino was said to have died from laughing too much; I bet he's not laughing now.)

and

   L. Ansisters...
   C. Mockersons...
   L. Noumerous sperits...
   C. Instancetaniously assended...
      (from 'Lewis & Clark: An Imaginary Conversation')

(I should perhaps have quoted a little more of this, but copying it out is really tedious and I keep spelling things rong.)

Speaking of 'imaginary conversations', I am reminded of an imaginary conversation between the poet and cricketer Jeremy Twill and the poet David Toms on
Stride back in 2012 where some of the issues here were almost addressed until Mr. Toms brought the conversation to a less than amicable close. I seem to recall that Mr. Twill questioned some of what was going on in Mr. Toms's 'innovative' poems, and the latter took umbrage.

I sincerely hope that umbrage is not taken here. Indeed, I once had a very nice tea at Mr. Halsey's house, although the relationship did not progress beyond that; one can only wonder why. But honesty compels me to say that my response to all this logoclasticity (is that a real word? Of course not. But in this context it doesn't matter) can be summed up in one word:
Seriously? However it might be dressed up with fancy words, this is poetry that would make me despair if I was the despairing type. It may have the backing of some serious editors and friends and come along in nice big books from reputable publishers, but what the hell? A reliance on existing texts betrays an absence of imagination unless you do something imaginative and interesting with them. The absence of personality in the poems suggests something else. I'm not sure what. Halsey is described on the back cover as having a 'ludic sensibility ', but with the best will in the world I can't find any evidence of that here. I have first-hand knowledge that most people have personalities, some of them very large (cf. my earlier comment about tea), but this logoplay (my word; Halsey describes himself as a 'logoclast') lacks personality except for the voices used, for example, in the 'Mutability Cento': they have personality, quite a lot of it, but they're just being used, aren't they? But they're one of the few real signs of life here. The rest is pretty dry, and if you want the top of your head blown off by poetry I don't think this is going to do it, though you might want to remove it yourself afterwards so you can scrub your brain back to life.


     Martin Stannard, 2014