Friday, 28 January 2011

UEA Writers #5 - Andy Spragg w/illustration by Natalie Orme

lois scélérates

The first to be heard
is scattering coins
before the pipes and plaster
give way.

Our braves are caught in the foundry gaze,
an irradiated fat quench of things -
as foot-notes go it's all
prepped papers,
and faultline economics
and an absence of trust.

Beleaguering, the yelp does not get tied
down in specifics – the day doubles,
then stretches beyond remand.

In the past a mistake was made,
there are over a hundred
ways to clarify butter.

Running down on under-privilege

an ill judge of statues, he stands to one side and tries to measure
the space by sight alone. Where would alabaster best serve his
composing eye? In the alcove there is a leaden shade, brush it
out - a fill of scraps, an acquirement of novel depths, the sum of
his diagram. Meanwhile, a chorus is shrinking from the foreground,
a few muffled expressions, musical tongues forward to find a
mooring in amongst the clutter.

Taking in edges

The shape is an uproar of angles – there
is a spit-shine rise in its proportions
alleviating one acoustic shape after
another. Ducking monuments and
a matter – those shades in granite
are strict or serious relief.

Andrew Spragg is a poet, performer and critic. He has a blog at He is a founding member of the Norwich Poetry Choir and writes regularly for Rhythm Circus and Bonafide Magazine. In recent months he has completed the script for SHOEBOX, a performance piece staged by The Effort in 2010. He was Literature Coordinator for this year’s Norwich Fringe Festival.

He is currently working with flautist Julie Groves as performance group 'Between Soundings'.

He studied at UEA and obtained a BA in American Literature and Creative Writing. He remembers Norwich fondly.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Notes #1 -- Derrida's Writing and Difference in-the-world

Unveiling Deconstruction, and Working-Towards

It is evident from the beginning of Writing and Difference that the misinterpretations of Derrida’s work that still absurdly and doggedly remain in place, framed by the frankly moronic utterances of certain “philosophers, as well as literary critics” who believe it conveys the notion that “just anything is possible”, that Derridean philosophy is “a license for arbitrary freeplay in flagrant disregard of all established rules of...the interpretative communities”[1] are founded on nothing but misreading, wilful or not. As Derrida himself has clearly stated, “A written sign, in the usual sense of the word, is a mark which a given context” [my italics][2] – context, not text, as many have claimed, including Derrida’s former teacher, Michel Foucault, who, frustrated by the flaws he perceived in Derrida’s essay ‘Cogito and the History of Madness’ in relation to his (Foucault’s) own work, reinforced this misconception, dismissing deconstruction as a “historically well-determined little pedagogy...which teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text”[3]. Not only is this a patent fallacy, as the short reading of it I will offer should show, one that is exposed as so by even the most cursory close reading, but Derrida himself contradicts many of the accusations which have been flung his way in the first essay of the collection. After arguing that “to dream of reducing it [in this case structuralism, but essentially anything that can be read as a ‘text’] to a sign of the times is to dream of violence”[4], he writes:

By keeping to the legitimate intention of protecting the internal truth and meaning of the work from historicism, biographism or risks losing any attentiveness to the internal historicity of the work itself, in its relationship to a subjective origin that is not simply psychological or risks overlooking another history, more difficult to conceive: the history of the meaning of the work itself, its operation. (WD, 15) 

This is not stating that the only way of reading a text is by reading the text, ignoring its historical context; it is opening up the deconstruction of the absolutism of a historicist (or any ideological) approach to interpretation. Simply, history (or whichever discourse from which one works) is discourse, not fact. It is text, and subject to the same rules as any other text. His philosophy is not anti-history, it is against the blind assumption of a priori truth. Evidence for this appears throughout Writing and Difference, not least in the essay Foucault took offence to, in which it is explicitly stated that one can never escape historicity – “one can protest it [the logocentric view of history and Reason] only from within it”(WD, 42).

The early essays in the collection situate Derrida’s thought very much within historical discourse, I would say irrefutably so, before shifting their attention towards a deconstructive approach to reading and meaning. Also from the above quoted essay: “Philosophy is perhaps the reassurance given against the anguish of being mad at the point of greatest proximity to madness”(WD, 72). Madness, in Writing and Difference, stands for what a logocentric system, transdiscourse, has refused to confront “by virtue of the historical enunciation” through which’s absolutist lens “philosophy tranquilises itself and excludes madness [and] also betrays itself...enters into a crisis and a forgetting of itself that are an essential and necessary period of its movement”. Derrida’s philosophy refuses to tranquilise itself, refuses to be put off by the “other light” of ‘madness’, from a logocentric viewpoint seemingly “black and hardly natural”; it (in both senses of the word) admits play, deferral (differance) and shows it to be the truest position from which to think, to be: “I philosophise only in terror, but in the confessed terror of going mad”(WD, 75-6).

The key essay is, of course, the much-anthologised ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, in which, via a masterful reading of Levi-Strauss, Derrida outlines the ‘two interpretations of interpretation’:

1) The first interpretation seeks to decipher, “dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile”(WD, 369).

2) The other disregards the notion of true origin, “affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism”, man being he who “has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and end of play”(WD, 370).

Why the need for to look at interpretation rather than simply interpreting? Because, much as pre-Heidegger the notion of Being was always simply assumed, and “the question of the meaning of Being” was held “to be superfluous”[5] due to the assumed obviousness of the ‘answer’, interpretation and the act of reading, what it is to derive meaning from a system of signs, has been “neutralised or reduced” by its being given “a centre or [by] referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin” – “to orient, balance and organise”. All of which served to limit the “play of the structure”, gave it a “total form”(WD, 352) . Derrida deconstructs this idea, drawing on the “Nietzschean critique of metaphysics [and] concepts of Being and truth”, the “Freudian critique of self-presence” and the “Heideggerian destruction [destructuring] of metaphysics, of onto-theology, of the determination of Being as presence”(WD, 354), to expose the centre as a myth, to decentre it, as this centre was never “anything which had somehow existed before it” was defined as the centre: merely a “process of signification which orders the displacements and substitutions for this law of central presence”, “not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play” – no longer can we think of it as a “present being”(WD, 353-4) . Because in language there is no transcendental signified, because language is a system of differences and binaries, deconstruction works so effortlessly: “language bears within itself the necessity of its own critique” [my italics][WD, 358]. Thus, the two interpretations of interpretation.

It is worth looking more closely at the two interpretations, for they are very much key to understanding what Derrida’s work is doing throughout his career. The first interpretation aims to “question systematically and rigorously the history” of discourse, to concern itself with “the founding concepts of the entire history of philosophy” – “probably the most daring way of making a step outside of philosophy” – which is “much more difficult to conceive than is generally imagined” and tends to result in being “swallowed up in metaphysics” never actually “disengaging from it”(WD, 358-9) .

The second interpretation, which, beneficially, may “avoid the possibly sterilising effects of the first one” involves accepting the need but inadequacy of the discourses we have, conserving them while “here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools which can still be used.” We remove from them their “truth value” and are ready to “abandon them” should “other instruments appear more useful” – this “is how the language of the social sciences criticises itself”.

Of course, Derrida never sets this up as an absolutist binary – “there is no question of any choosing” between the two interpretations. Instead, ideally for Derrida and, in my opinion, for all discourse, one accepts the enlightened pragmatism of the second interpretation as a kind of default position (while obviously not ceasing to question and deconstruct said position) while working towards and believing in the first, difficulty or even impossibility aside. This is deconstruction – not a systematic negation, wanton nihilism, but a truth-seeking tool; not an end in itself, nor anything in itself, but a way of seeing as clearly as one can see from an essentially postlapsarian state.

So far, so explicatory. I am not interested in merely pointing out what Derrida is doing; it’s been done before, far better than I could hope to. What I am interested in is using deconstruction authentically, in both the Heideggerian sense of the term and in relation to the context (i.e. Derrida’s philosophy) from which I’ve taken it, and there is one very small part of Writing and Difference that offers the beginning of a framework towards doing this. It is a very simple statement from early in the book relating to the ‘silence of madness’, the neglected state otherness – the unknowableness of the ‘essence’ of things outside of language, away from their names – was, and still is, consigned to by an essentially logocentric society:

to state the difficulty, to state the difficulty of stating, is not yet to surmount it – quite the contrary. (WD, 44) 

It is not enough, especially now, to merely point out that there is no absolute, no transcendental signified, no way of accessing ‘essence’, the pre-sign; now we must do something towards it, we must move forwards, we must approach the borders, the “walls which all discourse runs up against”[6], and not simply stop. We must bang our fists against them and swell in the sound, and look for the flakes that may or may not crumble from it. This is what I want to begin to work towards in my dissertation, and what I will work towards in my life, be it academically or otherwise. It is this exhausted, damaging logocentric and essentially capitalistic prohibition of ‘madness’, of otherness, of whatever word you want to give it, that is the reason for the pitiful state of our society, or at least for our education system, which, improved, would stand a chance at actually making a difference in changing our society for the better. For opening up learning, and allowing it to be for its own sake, not simply as preparation for a job. Not simply because that’s just what you do: school, exams, gap year posing with little black children (photos taken on a camera the money you paid for which could probably, for a short while at least, radically improve their lives), university and light alcoholism, job marriage kids. Again, this isn’t a novel proposal, is barely different, as far as I’m aware, from what Derrida and Foucault and many others have been arguing for years. But I consider it important, valid and valuable in that it’s an area that is neglected by universities at an undergrad level. Surely we should be better teaching students to think for themselves, and exposing them to the work that can enable them to do so, that can provide them with the necessary tools. I would like to be a part of working towards this.



1. Rodolphe Gasché, "Infrastructures and Systematicity," in Deconstruction and Philosophy, ed. John Sallis (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987), pp. 3-4

2. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982), p. 317

3. Michel Foucault, History of Madness, trans. J. Murphy and J. Khalfa (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 573

4. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Oxon: Routledge, 2008), p. 2

5. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, J. Glenn Gray and David Farrell Krell (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 8

6. George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life (London: Phoenix, 1998) p. 64

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

One Essay - Joshua Jones

Building an Argument Towards Being: Dwelling in and on music

In ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’[1], Martin Heidegger formulated a model of Being around the interconnectedness of ‘building’ and ‘dwelling’. Simply put, “Building is really dwelling” and “Dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on the earth”[PLT, 146]. Building and dwelling are not separate activities: “to build is in itself already to dwell”[145]. He sources this theory through situating his meaning of the word bauen, to build, in the Old High German word for ‘building’, buan, which primarily means ‘to dwell’, and signifies ‘to remain, to stay in place’ . From this he traces the “original meaning” up to contemporary German: “ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be”. Bin belongs to the old version of bauen; thus, “ich bin, du bist mean I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is buan, dwelling” . John Burnside, in The Asylum Dance[2], draws heavily on this concept: the idea that mortals “must ever learn to dwell”, that we are perennially homeless and that this homelessness is our home, a continual searching for and deferral of “the essence of dwelling”[PLT, 160-1]. Burnside incorporates this idea at and as the collection’s core, creating a poetry that is continually moving, continually finding and losing ground in time and place, seeing and letting the seen dissolve, documenting the yearning for “anything/we can use to make a dwelling in this world”[AD, 8]. The motion of deferral is the only stasis, and it is only in this never completed ‘building’ that we can truly dwell, can truly be. But how does this relate to music, and, more specifically, how does this relate to the music I would like to discuss in this essay? By looking at a selection of songs, as well as work by Roland Barthes, all the while bearing in mind the shared ontological stance of Heidegger and Burnside, I would like to show their interrelatedness; how, despite using different language (or no language at all), they are all, so to speak, playing in the same key, and when considered together coalesce into what is, for me (for what else, ultimately, is music, but for me?), an acceptably complete aesthetic-ontological approach to experiencing music.

Of all the Sunset Rubdown (Spencer Krug) songs, ‘Coming to at Dawn’ features the least instrumentation. It consists solely of Krug’s vocals and piano, the two interweaving each other’s minutely varied melodies. It is precisely this minimalism that makes the song interesting to look at here. Krug is the kind of songwriter whose lyrics matter very much in terms of appreciating the music as a whole, and despite the disparity between performance and page, the poeticity of his writing is evident even on paper. Nonetheless, it is his delivery that fuels the song, and it is the way the voice wraps around the words alongside the piano’s chords and arpeggios that renders ‘Coming to at Dawn’ important. The song conveys the sense of having compressed words and music down to their most naked form, their most bodily, which is reinforced by its lack of production. There is a tone of intimacy, of confession – not ‘confessional’ in an autobiographical sense (his songwriting is more mythological than personal), but in the sense that a body is performing. The term ‘body’, as used by Barthes in his later works, acts as a reinscribing of ‘the subject’, in opposition to, say, the conscious Cartesian self and, as in its famous cogito ‘I think therefore I am’, its focus on the ‘mind’. It is the ‘something other’ than conventionally logical and logocentric modes of understanding: “there is a chance of ‘avant-garde’ when it is the body...that writes”[3]. In music, Barthes listens not for what is “articulated” but what “is at once outside of meaning and non-meaning”[4], for signifiance over what is signified. He listens for the ‘grain’ of the voice, for “the body in the singing voice, in the writing hand, in the performing limb”[5]. The word ‘grain’ implies physicality, bodiliness, but it also signifies, for Barthes, something unquantifiable, unknowable, something one reaches for and simultaneously experiences and constructs – in this case in the act of listening to music – but which cannot be logically proven or even adequately explained.

The speaker in ‘Coming to at Dawn’ seeks to “Obliterate the memory of coming to at dawn, knowing only that the night has gone”[6], and the song itself is a performance of this act of obliteration. As the song progresses, “the night” as signifier and concept expands, becoming the passing of something both ‘natural’ (“wipe the grass stains from the cloth”) and primal:

Obliterate the raspberries and the wild cherry juices
That you trailed along the floor of the whore-house that you used
As a store room for your fox furs[...]

It becomes a site in which the conventionally ‘natural’ mingles with the underbelly of desire, the hunger of the id, and the impossibility of reclaiming a lost presence. The act of failing to remember exactly as it was is the obliteration. But it is not so much the specific content of the lyrics that expresses this as the phrasing. One example would be: “o-BLITerate the/MEM-ory of/COM-ing to at/ Dawn”, the way the stressed syllables slowly soften, linger on into the next stress, until there is the slightest pause before ‘dawn’, on which the piano line concludes itself and the voice sings just a note or two higher, reflecting the remove from “the night” in which “dawn” resides. Another example would be the way two different lines are elevated from the rest of the song due to the emphasised descending chords on the piano and vocal melody, each occurring once, in which an attempt to remember is made and celebrated but acknowledged as futile, before returning to the refrain of “Obliterate the memory...”. One listens as much to what is being said as how it is being said: the unconventional, impassioned lone voice, its tremors and flights around and via the sole piano track, the lack of an established self and, in its place, a body yearning to escape from the absence of a lost presence and into something else, into something other. All of which builds towards the song’s final assertion that

There is a tower with a winding set of stairs
You will descend into the absolute light.
Into the absoluteness of light
And become aware.

It is a desire that echoes the Barthesian notion of the aesthetic experience of listening to the grain of the voice, and is the point the song is building towards, the state of “becom[ing] aware”, which recalls the Heideggerian notion of Being equalling building/dwelling. One follows the song’s moving body, its building body (again, the word ‘grain’ seems apt in relation to the physicality of building), toward its own ‘completion’, which of course it and we can never really experience: the “absoluteness of light” ends the song; it cannot be depicted truly in all its absoluteness. Instead it is experienced via the ending of the song, which is now no longer essential – it is no longer concerned with forgetting/obliterating what was before, and has reached the inexpressible present moment, its dwelling place, its home; and the listener’s experience replicates this: they are directed towards a state of being one can attain via art by a song that itself yearns to build a site, a home, in which it can dwell. And while at the end of the song one can point out that it never really arrived at the place it sought, instead stopping just before it at “the walls which all discourse runs up against”[7] , it is in experiencing the body of the music that we experience the song’s building – in which all the keys necessary to comprehending the song’s dwelling reside, and in which a listener can experience a feeling of Being despite not necessarily being able to adequately explain it.

Burnside’s poetry, reaching for this same site (or non-site), echoes the song’s urging. Whenever his speaker encounters the possibility of a moment of Being, a moment of dwelling, he defers the impossibility of expressing it into talk of music and light (“head tilted to a night-sky packed with light/I waited for a music I could feel”[AD, 11]), in the process reinforcing the potential music has to situate Being. The other prominent theme in The Asylum Dance is childhood; or rather the absence inherent in any recollection of childhood, the remembrance retroactively altering that which is being recalled – one will never be able to remember the past as it was. The second song I would like to look at, Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part One’, expands on and provides solutions to the difficulty of reconstruction. It begins with a series of whimsical non-sequiturs:

When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers
And how you built a tower tumbling through the trees
In holy rattlesnakes that fell all round my feet[8]

sung over the top of elemental chords from a lone guitar. The singer’s (Jeff Mangum’s) voice is idiosyncratic and nasal yet loud and confident, throwing itself into the lines and holding notes seemingly for the sake of it. His singing, regardless of what is being sung, contains an undefined jouissance at simply being sounded, a relish for the creation of sound perfectly befitting the song, which, as the rest of the band kicks in, veers into slightly more locatable images. It becomes apparent that its subject is childhood, and it dips between lucidly unclear images of innocence stretching towards experience and the spectacle of parents’ relationship coming apart. Like an Ashbery poem, tense and speaker mutate, in the process decentring any stable self one could seek to find as well as disrupting the fictive present moment in which the song is being performed. As an unannounced ‘we’ “lay and learn what each other’s bodies were for”, it is revealed that “Mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder, and Dad would spill the garbage all across the floor”. This disparity in subject matter, sung triumphantly, is embedded within a woozy music, brass and wind instruments spilling everywhere, sounding like the internal experience of a drunken child at a parade being remembered by the same euphorically intoxicated adult. The song is its march, building towards something that will not be concluded – it is the procession, the spatter of memory and the movement of the music, that matters, along with the celebration that is the voice. Childhood cannot be adequately recalled as it was; Mangum’s lyrics, which on paper would lose a lot of their immediate quality, link with the voice and music to create a nonlinear impressionistic version of the wholly subjective experience of remembering what has gone, and it is only in the music that this idea can be understood. Which is, I believe, an important point for the efficacy of music: Burnside can indicate this reconstructive act’s need to operate ‘otherly’, but can only do so by reaching language’s limit points. Krug’s and Mangum’s music goes a step further, not dissimilarly to the idea of the divide between theory and practice. Their music acts out the ideas proposed by Heidegger and Burnside, becomes ‘living’ embodiments of the striving towards Being that is building/dwelling. ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part One’ creates a site in which what has gone can return, less hampered by the ideological problems posed by linguistic reconstruction. Of course, these ideas are obviously not inherent in the music, nor am I implying that Mangum and Krug are deliberately intending to convey Heideggerian theory musically – the ideas are reconstructed in listening and interpreting and, in this case, being elucidated and narrativised by my essay, filtered through my own ideological position and my subjective experience of life and of interpreting the abstract, and they arguably lose their force in the process of being diluted into the comparative finitude of language. This is unavoidable if one is to attempt to legibly express oneself. Language is continually building, continually deferring, always has the potential to guide and house Being (which, as established, is never static); music is too, albeit with different tools. It is for this reason that I would argue music comes closer to that which comes before the sign, the lost ‘original’ presence, the S[9]; that music can enact that which language can only point towards, even if language is very much essential to understanding music’s effects.

Sigur Rós are a perfect example of this. Their lyrics are to a Western audience largely incomprehensible: they are sung in Icelandic. More interestingly, a large number of the band’s songs are sung in ‘Hopelandic’, which is not so much an invented language as a “form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument. Jónsi [lyricist and singer] likens it with what singers sometimes do when they’ve decided on the melody but haven’t written the lyrics yet”[10] . While it is by no means original to describe vocals (and lyrics)[11] as just another instrument, Sigur Rós are interesting in that they’ve become very popular in this country, entering the mainstream charts and soundtracking any number of adverts and films, and yet they are singing not only in a language most people don’t understand, but also in a non-language, and it is very difficult for any listener without a knowledge of Icelandic to tell the difference. Listening to Sigur Rós becomes, from this perspective, a strange experience – the possibility of concrete signification is taken away from the listener. One has, so to speak, no idea what they’re going on about. The listener can, of course, simply apply a meaning to the ‘tone’ of the songs and neatly cross-out any uneasiness they may otherwise feel, but that would be beside the point. Instead, one can allow one’s control of the listening experience to be taken away from them, be cast into the realm of the signifier, of signifiance. But, unlike that Barthesian ideal, there is no body in their music. Or rather, the music is not so much nonhuman as unbodily. One cannot detect “the body in the singing voice” or in the otherworldly instrumentation. Instead, the band open up the possibility of a less immediately personal understanding of music. Their songs are a womblike site. One can be submerged in them[12] , can hear the trace of a time – unremembered – in which words did not yet exist. In many ways their music is re-enacting the ultimate lost presence, that of not yet being born – something every human being has (and yet has not) experienced. The music is thus not so much subjective as intersubjective, and yet never really explicable as such. It is a building, a homeseeking, a drive towards the originary dwelling place, a place, one could argue, of pure being. One listens to the words purely for the tactile pleasure of their signifiance the same way as one listens to the music: words/music ceases to be a binary. Of course, this place of ‘pure being’ implied by the song is just that – an implication. It is not something that can be attained. Rather it is the building towards it that constitutes the possibility of it and becomes, in the process, it, in the only tangible way possible.

So how do all of these approaches and interpretations relate to one another? And do they not simply highlight my failure to talk about music? In the case of the latter, I would argue not, and will do so in attempt to explain the former. Music, it seems, is both pre- and post-linguistic: it ‘better’ expresses the S, but at the same time can only do so in relation to language. It may offer up a purer (which is not necessarily what I am arguing) version of that which cannot be contained within words, but it only does so in the context of a linguistic society – we can only really understand it, or express it, linguistically, and it can only be purer than language if there is a language for it to be purer than. Perhaps that is not the case, though. Is not dance – the effects of music on the body – an expression of what music is doing? Of course it is, but even dancing, if it is to be discussed in a linguistic context (this essay), must be deferred into language. What the three songs I’ve discussed evidence is the way that what is arguably the purpose of existence – learning to be, building a dwelling – is so easily locatable in music, and so difficultly explained. If we listen for ‘the grain of the voice’, for the body of the music, we are searching for a recognition of the desire to be in another, for that ‘something other’ that resituates understanding. If, for example, I was to not write an essay drawing on philosophical sources and instead try and depict the same thing in a performative piece, would I not still be simply seeking to house my thought in a more fluid, less logocentric mode of understanding, trying to build a better place in which to dwell, from which to experience? That still wouldn’t bring me any closer to the music I love, nor would it bring the reader closer to it, to my subjectivity, to the possibility of an utterable intersubjectivity. Music makes this a possibility, and the songs, philosophy and poetry I have discussed enact and embody this possibility, each riffing in the same key. The movement of music and the building of dwelling echo each other, and the movement of a subject towards both is in many ways synonymous. One can sit passively and cower before “the not-pursued/each glimmer on the cusp/of touch/or loss”[AD, 18] , or one can pursue, can celebrate, as Mangum’s voice does, the moments of touch, of Being, and the moments of loss, as in Krug’s phrasing, that make possible the pursuit of Being. I don’t claim this to be any truer or falser than any other ontology of music – as stated, music is ultimately for me. Nonetheless, it is through language that we can come to terms with music, which is both diminished and furthered by it; and through music we can experience a jouissance that hints towards an experience of Being that language can only struggle to express. Understanding and articulating this is, I believe, as close to expressing what music is, subjectively, as is possible.

1. Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) pp. 145-61
2. John Burnside, The Asylum Dance (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000)
3. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, trans. Linda Coverdale (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985) p. 191
4. Roland Barthes, ‘Music, Voice, Language’ in Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representations, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) p. 284
5. Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’ in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representations, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) p. 276
6. Sunset Rubdown, ‘Coming to at Dawn’, Introducing Moonface (Global Symphonic, 2009)
7. George Steiner, George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life (London: Phoenix, 1998) p. 64
8. Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘King of Carrot Flowers Part One’, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Domino, 2005)
9. See Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London: Verso, 2008)
11. Any number of bands spring to mind, the most immediate example being My Bloody Valentine on Loveless.
12. It is not surprising that the canny Wes Anderson chose their song ‘Starálfur’ for the final underwater scene of The Life Aquatic

Friday, 7 January 2011

Three Reviews - Don Paterson, Sarah Howe and Joe Dunthorne

Don Paterson - Rain (Faber, 2009)
by Robert Van Egghen

I recently broke one of the unwritten rules of twenty-first century life and read the reader comments section of an online newspaper. It was a well-intentioned article about getting more children reading poetry. Most of the comments were dismissive, hostile or obscene, or sometimes all three. One though was quite baffling – “all modern poets are crap, apart from Don Paterson”.

You could be forgiven for assuming then, on the basis of that comment, that Paterson must be some sort of literary giant, towering above all other poets and rendering their efforts obsolete. Well then…you would be wrong. Rain is a good collection, but ultimately it falls short.

The good comes in the disorienting quality of the poems – the wry playfulness of ‘Two Trees’ where, having seemingly built the poem up to end with a great revelation, Paterson shrugs “trees are all this poem is about”; the nagging sense of loss in ‘The Swing’ where the narrator describes putting up a swing for his children but having done so sees only “the child that would not come”. But then, just like Frank and Nancy, Paterson goes and spoils it all by ladling big dollops of sentiment everywhere.

While the lesson, or moral, of the poem is left implicit (can the narrator not have a child, or are they choosing not to have one?), lines like “the bright sweep of its radar arc / is all the human dream” distort the focus of the poem, while the poem’s culmination in “I gave the empty seat a push / and nothing made a sound”, which desperately wants to be an earth-shattering ending but isn’t, ends up leaving us with the sense that Paterson has missed his cue. This is also the case with ‘The Circle’, written for his son. Yet, while you cannot dispute the sentiment or the context, Paterson’s ending the poem with “look at the little avatar / of your muddy water-jar / filling with the perfect ring / singing under everything” again means that what starts out as a subtle dialogue between father and son ends up striving for something metaphysical and missing it.

The poem for his other son, ‘Why Do You Stay Up So Late’ is better, and quite moving in its stark depiction of the complexities of the father-son relationship with the son trying to understand what it is his father does, ending with the bleak couplet “then I paint it with the tear to make it bright. / That is why I sit up through the night”. Yet too often, one of Rain’s main strengths, the formality of Paterson’s poetry, ends up becoming one of its greatest weaknesses.

The title poem apart, where the lyric acquires the force to brush such concerns aside, Paterson’s verse too often seems sing-song, as if the main focus of the poem is to find a good rhyme. ‘The Rain at Sea’ would be much more effective if it did not contain such clunky rhymes as “There would be all hell to pay. / I turned and shut my eyes and lay”. Yet, just when it seems that Paterson has rather overdone it, ‘The Lie’ appears, building its mystery slowly through its hypnotic AABA rhyme scheme before bringing the whole thing crashing down and leaving us dazed and disoriented with the ferocity of it all.

Rain then is a confusing collection; sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes both at the same time, and never clear whether Paterson meant it to be this way or not. It is a deeply earnest book, and yet it contains an ode to a goddess of Georgian techno. It beseeches us that “I fell to somewhere far below the earth” but at the end reassures us “none of this matters”. Paterson’s mastery of clear, direct English is to be admired, but the existential musings get tiring and the sentiment wears off after a couple of readings. Rain ultimately seems a strangely faceless collection, and what was so enchanting initially seems to have evaporated – the poetic equivalent of the Cheshire Cat.

Sarah Howe – a certain Chinese encyclopedia (Tall-Lighthouse, 2009)
by Joshua Jones

Sarah Howe’s debut pamphlet (part of Tall-Lighthouse’s Pilot series) is a strong beginning to her poetry career. She seems to operate in three modes: elegant lyric poetry, honed imagism and the lightly experimental, yet manages for the most part to retain a unity of tone. Though none of the poems are compelling enough to immediately rave about, or original enough to be beguiled by, the consistent strength and craft of this short collection is more than enough to satisfy for now, and hint at not only a lot more quality work to come, but a hybridity of style that is sorely missing from a lot of young poets I read, and that promises a rewardingly diverse debut full length as and when it comes.

In ‘Earthward’, a crystal clear meditation on the image of “the shadowplay/of trees/against the blinds” is compared to the way

        you stare

at a pale face across the bed
        so long
you hardly see it –
        fingers trembling,
vague as a street
        at night[...]

Which is a gorgeous piece of writing. However, as the short piece concludes, it morphs from merely pretty to subtle profoundity:

        they shook
with a gusting stutter
        more restless still
for being not
        the thing itself.

The way it blurs the personally observant and phenomenological questioning with such grace is the key to the poem’s success. And it is this understated yet assured grace that allows a collection of sometimes disparate styles of writing to feel so comfortable together.

My other favourite is ‘Yangtze’, the most interesting of the three that are explicitly about the poet’s dual heritage. It opens with solid images: “The moon glimmers/in the brown channel”, “Declining cliffs/sink beneath vast water”. But as it progresses the poem itself begins to sink beneath its certainty of what it sees and records: “below/a sunken valley persists”, and a fisherman’s nets “catch not fish/but the wizened finger/of a submerged branch”. The lines begin to break more abruptly, the voice deliberately becomes even less sure of itself, and it ends with a repetition of the opening lines. The unknown, the new, the journey into a strange land the speaker feels, but isn’t, a part of, is brilliantly conveyed through the writing’s shifting epistemological register.

I have very few complaints about any of the rest of the poems. There are stutter-steps in some of them, the odd clunky line break (‘Hypothesis’) or overwrought technique (‘Night in Arizona’). But each of the pieces are a pleasure to read, and I look forward to following Howe’s development as one of the most consistently quality new poets I’ve read.

Joe Dunthorne - Faber New Poets 5 (Faber, 2010)
by Joshua Jones

This is a decent, if not exactly groundbreaking pamphlet. I’ve been uncertain as to whether or not I should bother reviewing the Faber series. My views on them are paradoxical, and inevitably end in disappointment: I expect something great, and they have such potential to bring new poetry to a wider audience; yet I also expect them to be bland and to neglect the more interesting, less mainstream styles and writers. Katchinska’s was excellent, and I really enjoyed Sam Riviere’s. There are others I won’t even comment on, and just one I’m yet to read. I was going to write about Jack Underwood’s, but I think I’ll just wait until he gets a full collection out.

Anyway, back to Dunthorne. It has compelling moments. ‘Cave Dive’ is beautiful, and succeeds through not overwringing its extended metaphor. Time and memory blur, ending with beguiling fluid clarity: “From his lips/he scatters balls of glass”. ‘Sestina for My Friends’ is absolutely hilarious; I have nothing to fault. It’s funny and light, at the same time as being subversively intelligent, self-aware and succinctly contemporaneous.

The rest of the poems are fine. They’re meticulously constructed, but they read more like an MA portfolio than a debut publication. I want to be stunned by a new poet, I want them to justify me reading them and not one of the other, equally talented, equally MA’ed writers less lucky or connected. Dunthorne, sadly, doesn’t do that here. The poems are, however, well-written enough and have enough character to keep my eyes open for a collection from him as and when.

Which brings me to the last poem, ‘Workshop Dream’. It’s very funny, recalling the New York poets and all their acolytes in tone and featuring the laugh out loud line

We stepped out onto the beach. The water
made the sound: cliché, cliché, cliché.

It is both a celebration and a satire of an individual’s collaboration with MA Creative Writing culture. The problem is it doesn’t really penetrate. It’s perfectly enjoyable, a wry admission, but little more. One could, if one were so inclined, read it as a shrug-shouldered laugh in the face of less commercially visible/viable work that doesn’t wear its shiny, clinical postgrad badge bright for all to see (and thus tends to be more ignored). The other issue it brings to mind is what I’ll call The Luke Kennard effect. So many young male poets today simply read like less talented versions of Luke Kennard. Perhaps I’ve just read too much Kennard, but masses of poets seem content enough not to/unaware enough to step out of the shadow of the American-influenced absurdist postmodern/poststructural satire he has perfected. The wonderful line quoted above, for example, is pretty much exactly the same as a line from a Kennard poem (owls cooing ‘Ted Hughes, Ted Hughes’, and another of his poems, from The Harbour Beyond the Movie, does the same kind of thing. Can’t remember which off the top of my head).

I would feel bad about writing around Dunthorne’s poetry instead of solely about it, but I don’t. It’s not original or engaging enough, for me, and there are plenty of other poets whose work deserves and demands more attention. So, while it’s a polished, funny short collection, it’s simply not in the same league as a lot of other good writers around at the moment (Michael Pederson, for example, or Laura Elliott, or Agnes Lehoczky, &c, &c). Still, his novel Submarine is really fucking good, one of the best first novels I’ve read in the last few years. So maybe buy that instead and ignore my bitching about his poetry.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011


To anyone interested there is a discussion going on here that it would be great to get others involved in. If I don't already Facebook have you then do please add me.!/josh1jones/posts/175389205834778

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Six Poems - Micheal Pederson

On Breathing Room III

By Anthony Gormley

I step backwards into it,
a paradigm of time
and space: stacked, propped

and columned. As foes
of forgotten brotherhoods,
perspectives rage

war. Structure shifts, from
sitting-down to standing-up,
moving to stock-still;

atoms split, electrons trill.
Inside these walls is plenty,
outside is rush and panic,

the to-and-fro of workplace
and dinner-date. It’s not just
a clock but mechanical zeniths

and a cache of interfering
science. The exhibition closes
but the cafe, proffering syrups

and sugars, remains open, delivering
an epiphany: I, too, am science
and precedent is everywhere,

when layers as complex
as trifle pudding, have started
back at recipe.

Feathers and Cream (fourteen)

When each part of you tweets,
like the voiced pipes
of some elaborate organ,
you’re not a thing grown thin -
that puny frame, its bag of bones,
its winsome skin, will coruscate
and carousel.

Such a shift; where settled nights
in Carluke are suddenly prized
and more lionized than both
sides of America, than French
fables where, in chateaux, wine
is quaffed and laughter puffs
like excitable bonfires.

The crux of it is I was prickly
for you to know, a wily seadog:
flaunting an admiration over aptitude
for stars - more troublesome
than torpid, louder than numb.
Imagine having missed this!

Within two chapters I’ve outrun
night’s galactic mischief[1], balanced
out the receipts of my recklessness[2]
and in a, divinely timed,
and thrilling plumage,

It’s like when a car radio loses it frequency
spilling down a deep fissure,
then just as you forgot about the music
it bursts back, trumpeting
your favourite song.

So today, as pylons streak the sky
a ferocious sun sets over Glasgow,
bleeding, looking almost African,
it’s now it could be true -
we’re not so different you and I. [3]

[1] Krakens stalking the ship, kamikaze meteors circling our shadows.
[2] The addled, smelted, hazy and heavy.
[3] Things that didn’t fit:
(i) that (topsy-turvy) smile;
(ii) the little soldiers in your voice; their pockets full of cherry bombs.

Pet Cemetery

The fence around Jesmond Dene
punctuates the perimeter,
like Saturn’s ringed sentries;
a sharp wind shoves
with bullish force.

Below Armstrong’s Bridge
in Colman’s Field, the names
of pets on graves evoke
our retinal cartwheeling:

‘Bruce, Rough Collie
Sadly missed.’

‘Poppet, Poodle
A dear friend.’

These pedigree stones,
are powdered daily, nowt
but a little moss, seeping out
of cracks; there’s something in this,
totems of how backwards
things can be.

As we vent spleen, the wind blusters
into full cantata, shakes
the surrounding alpines, shapes
silhouettes in the furs;
sky decants darkness, rains
erupt and our courage crumbles.

So hand-in-hand we’ll dash
from the Dene, a single stiffened
apparition, whimpering,
slavering, as dogs do.

Hello Bréon, it’s nice meet you

- please ignore the scratches,
I’ve been browning in gutters,
amongst wet cigarettes and the last
flecks of Camden’s lanceolated leaves.

As things stand: faith is grubby,
sweet premise pale, the railings, too,
have lost their stockings - nowt
but dankness underneath.

I’ve noticed your stories don’t involve
sticky risings, Senegalese dealers
or Lambeth car-parks and I’m very
intrigued; alas for fear

you’d think me mad
(or a poor secret-keeper), I snub
the amber squalls which haemorrhage
through the firmament. For you,

too, blaze, thatching synergies,
talking of six continents
operating like organs. It was years
further when I spoke of the stars:

blinking blinking, as night
flinched beneath them.
To which you replied Ahhh
the Stars! I thought you’d never ask.

Quitting Cheese

My discontentment resides in Nottingham
along with some choice pubs
and a favourite day: The Tap, The Stage,
a trip to the park one afternoon
when everything was fresh; the clouds
shrugged out a little rain, the sun
huffed around them, our eyeballs
beamed, an animated white.

Picnicking was rife: foragers
raided the shrubbery, old relics
handed-out hippy wisdom and we
feasted on each other, spinning
the conversational equivalent
of a Roly-Poly; living ubiquitously,
drinking a lot - I wasn’t, even once,
an arsehole, just overused memory.

When we revisited Nottingham
the gaggle had gone and the winds
came and scraped against our bones;
we are a banquet folding
into a cheese cube too many,
bellyache, that fateful feeling
of having peaked too early.

Michael Pedersen is a 25 year old poet of Caledonian stock - his inaugural chapbook 'Part-Truths' is available from Koo Press - it was listed by the Poetry Book Society and was 2010 Callum MacDonald Memorial Award finalist. His sequel chapbook 'The Basic Algebra of Buttering Bread' is available from Windfall Books - please see  

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