Missing Things

The Method, Rob Stanton (80pp, 8.99, Penned in the Margins)
From Parts Becoming Whole
, Joanne Ashcroft (76pp, 7.00, Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

At the centre of Rob Stanton's The Method (yet another attractive and finely produced volume from Tom Chivers' Penned in the Margins), and spanning nearly half of this debut collection, is the long and highly rewarding sonnet sequence 'The Tuymans Sonnets'. Splicing between the elliptical and the discursive, the ekphrastic and the idiosyncratic, these sonnets linger long after the last. They are their own world. Relics remain, asking, somehow, for a response, or maybe just a listening.

Tuyman is a more than appropriate model for Stanton's method. Like Tuyman's art, Stanton's poetry makes much of the distance between representation and life lived, word and thing. Speaking of the seeming banality of many of Tuyman's paintings, one commentator has remarked how 'Tuymans's paintings consciously fall desperately short of the iconic, becoming vestiges posed as counterfeit emblems for that which cannot be conveyed.' The same, I think, holds for Stanton's poetry. Stanton's poems are distant, detached, but they are also insistent and demanding. Much of what matters lies in these sites of silence.

It's a theme which, perhaps unsurprisingly, runs throughout the collection, from the austere but alluring minimalism of the opening poem, 'The Account' to the closing 'The Wait', which is both an end and an ellipsis. It is also a theme which finds its visual echo in Henry Simmonds's fine cover of washed out canvas. 

This is all appropriate enough. As Gilles Deleuze knew so well, 'When a language is so strained
that it starts to stutter, or to murmur or stammer ... then language in its entirety reaches the limit that marks its outside and makes it confront silence. When a language is strained in this way, language in its entirety is submitted to a pressure that makes it fall silent.' But even in this silence there is always something that misses, that fails fathom, and that has always already: 'there was something like a word that could not be pronounced, even when one succeeded in saying it and perhaps because one had, at every instant, and as if there were not enough instants for the purpose, to say it, to think it' (Maurice Blanchot)

Read this book. Rae Armountrout is right: Stanton is a poet to watch. He is also a poet to follow. All advocates of the method will, I'm sure, lead long and illumined lives. For my own part, I shall endeavour to practice the method for thirty minutes each morning after breakfast, weekday or sabbath, for some time to come.

Published by those fine diners at The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, From Parts Becoming Whole is another debut collection, this time by Joanne Ashcroft. By her own admission Ashcroft is interested in procedural poetics, using 'procedures to systematically pick words out of a text' which are then used to create poems. 'I love the creative process of this technique,' Ashcroft comments, 'it's fascinating to see how the character of the original text comes through in the new piece.'

And From Parts Becoming Whole
certainly does make you look at language differently. In Ashcroft's hands, language here is stretched, manipulated, tied, cut, and left to fall where it will. As Rosmarie Waldrop knows so well, it's the edges that give off sparks. My problem, I think, is that I wasn't always entirely sure how to read Ashcroft's collection, in what regard, and with what focus. From the title, there's the sense that the collection wants to fashion a whole out its various parts. But that seems a curiously conservative aim for a poetry that exhibits at every turn a keen working interest in the techniques collage, juxtaposition and discontinuity and Ashcroft's poetry seems too smart for that kind of summary.

Perhaps the problem is me. It's crass, I know, but I think I would have liked some kind of key, some kind of supplement: a measure of scale, even if false, makeshift, inadequate. I never have been able to set off exploring without map, compass, and Nordic poles as prop and accompaniment, no matter how spontaneous and in the moment I have declared myself to be. Or maybe I just would have liked to have known more about the source texts, to have been able to retrace the steps of composition. I want to see a poem's form. I want to see what makes it. I'm less interested in the whole than I am in the parts. I'm probably a bad reader.

I prefer the language games in Part II, 'Ear', to the cut-up poems of the first part, 'Heart'. This, I think, is where the collection really comes alive. And it's also the section of the volume that comes closest to Ashcroft's statement that she's most 'interested in words for the way they sound rather than their meaning.' 'The Abs' is a good example of what Ashcroft is after:

     abeyance of
     aberration to  abfraction

     ablution to   abneural
     of abort

     to abstriction   of abulia

     abutment of
     abvolt   to abzyme

As with Gertrude Stein, Tom Raworth, Raymond Queneau, Lyn Hejinian, Jeremy Over and Emily Critchley, here prepositions seem tasked to do just as much work as anything else in the poem, even that of the repeated prefix and, in its starting and stopping, language sticks and sounds in interesting ways.

I think, for me, the problem is simply that the least successful poems in this collection feel too much like exercises: they're technically interesting, informed, accomplished and so on, but across the volume as a whole the range becomes too broad, too full of variations on a theme. I'd have liked to see poems such as the excellent 'January 2. 1820' or 'From a Sequence of Letters' pushed further, both technically and conceptually. On the evidence here, Ashcroft is more than capable of this but in the future Ashcroft's sights might, I think, be more ambitiously set.

And yet, for all that, there's something oddly haunting about Ashcroft's collection, there's something about its parts that remains long after the whole has past, like all the most interesting poetry should. And I can't quite locate where it is that Ashcroft's poetry sticks and what about it there is that strikes: its halting assurance, its tone that trammels, variously, either side of the line between tender and torn? It lodges, and as it does so, something falls loose. Despite everything, I like it. Somehow, the days are different because of this.

     Nikolai Duffy 2011