Kaleidoscope of Colour


Maelstrom Origami, Steve Spence (93pp, 8.95, Shearsman)


From early on, Steve Spence's compelling new collection Maelstrom Origami is concerned with the visual. The second sentence runs 'Tonight there will be a magic lantern show'. Nine-two pages later the volume closes with 'Shadows waver and sway from every doorway. / As they come closer we begin to relax'. The gap between is where Spence creates a powerful whirlpool of prose poetry in which each political fragment or cultural snippet is carefully folded into the rising and frequently disconcerting turbulence. Every minute but enigmatic twist adds a swirling force to the narrative flow.

Throughout the five sections that make up the book, I was constantly reminded of the 'push-pull' dynamic that characterises several New York School artists, particularly the cryptic surfaces of Robert Rauschenberg's 'combines' where there is a contest between images (and/or objects) over the revelation of meaning. Using montage to gain similar effect, Spence's narrative movement is concerned with mapping the evasive texture and tension of language that tries, but ultimately fails, to achieve disclosure through meaning.  Attentive to the shape and materiality of each statement, the inventiveness of his juxtapositions creates a momentum punctured only with Kafkaesque paranoia, for 'There is no second building. There is panic in / the streets':
 
                                                                       ... Did you know
          that many of the world's security services still preserve
          their most secret material on paper alone? At moments, I
          felt a huge wave of relief, at others a pang of incipient
          nostalgia. Yet he simply painted sunshine and sand again
          and again. These are the dwellers in the mushrooming
          trailer parks and this is our feeding place.


In Spence's 'media house of mirrors' his continual slanting of a subject's meaning is rendered by the rich surface of wordplay when 'what we all / need are more windows on the / world. Yet our hard hats are discarded' and where 'swimming is banned and these / figures are shown simultaneously from a range of angles'. Design, especially important for poets and painters adopting montage, is a predominant motif: 'his / pattern-cutting is / masterly and it's really / all about the lever / in your arm'. This equally applies to natural history where 'one way to understand / human behaviour is to / study its counterpart / in animals ... we all once / had a practical skill that / connected us to our food'.

Our human capacity to opt either for knowledge or self-deception is another recurrent idea that feeds and informs the incessant questioner who wants to know everything from 'who do you / complain to?' to 'will the lights stay on?' Perhaps some of these simple demands for practical information need to be read as wider philosophical statements of existential angst, for we are told to focus our curiosity about the world in the manner of a film-maker: 'you need / to search for that ideal mix of close-up and distance shot'. Similarly Spence manages to achieve coherent passages of thought even where the jump-cutting or splicing between fragments is left to be more plainly obvious and abrasively felt by the reader. This establishes the 'destabilising mode' he seeks in his writing, as he explained in his 2010 interview with Rupert Loydell for Stride.  Spence presents language as an entity not to be trusted and throughout the collection one detects his preoccupation with our failure to have genuine or meaningful everyday conversations about current affairs or to offer any authentic response to a work of art:

          Perhaps we should talk
          about the idea of crime as
          entertainment. Yet these
          pieces echo minimalist
          sculpture while also bringing
          a threatening vibe to the space.
          In the case of the mass media
          the issues are somewhat
          different but how do we then
          join up the dots in our own lives?
          'You need to get the words
          into your mouth', he said.

The virtuosity of the book, as well as its humour, is in the contrast between the worlds of public pronouncement on politics, science and art, and the more personal sphere of private conversation that frequently involves rumour and folklore. Spence's narrative arc is concerned with tracking an assortment of subjects that include: global policing, consumerism, military and ecological catastrophe, political and artistic will, marine biology and fishing practice. Then there is the matter-of-fact presentation of City financiers as akin to outlaws and 'mounted robbers':
 
          I turned briefly in my seat before vowing never
          to look back. Suddenly, the peace is disrupted by
          the sharp crack of a rifle. Bandits are, by definition,
          plugged into market networks but you can always
          return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear.


Maelstrom Origami
is an accomplished and mesmerising collection: every page presents the promise of revelation, and yet simultaneously exposes the failure of language to provide profundity or significance. Spence's artful method of connecting phrases allows the reader, as if in the act of overhearing, to break each one open to discover the absurdity that lurks within. Although deadpan in delivery, he achieves fine poetic resonance as the meaning of his astutely selected and placed fragments come satirically loose of their moorings. Spence's stylish and considered writing is 'a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour' where human miss-communication and social incoherence is necessarily contingent. Subtly prismatic, these fractured images float joyously free from the whorl on the page.

          Peter Gillies 2015