The Satirical Sequence: Made In Sheffield
John Birtwhistle, Eventualities (London: Anvil Press, 2013)
David Kennedy & Christine Kennedy, Women’s Experimental Poetry in Britain: Body, Time & Locale (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013)
Alan Halsey, sound poem by Alan Halsey performed with Mick Beck on tenor sax in a video by Bo Meson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe_LmNqA7ro&feature=youtu.be
CUSP: recollections of poetry in transition, edited by Geraldine Monk (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2012)
Helen Mort, Division Street (London: Chatto & Windus, 2013)
Sequences have satirical potential, one might argue, for ten plausible reasons: the enemy is wily and ubiquitous, therefore a long game is necessary; switches in tack are useful in close combat; comedy can deliver more toxins when the stings are many; light cast on a complex shape needs differing angles; the temporal and discursive logic of power needs to be both matched and disabled by shadowplay; the enemy is also the poet’s own authority and the reader’s assumptions, and these need to be twisted into the sequential form; history is one damn thing after another; the stanza is not room enough for a running promenade; it takes time to stage the torsions created by reasons rubbing against affects under sardonic shapeshifting quizzical lights; the logic of argument in language is always the case. Satirical sequence work has been coming out of Sheffield a while, partly because, as one very knowledgeable expert on urban history remarked to me the other day, the city is and has been the most persistently socialist metropolis in England, and therefore hosts energies oppositional to all parties; and partly because its own sequences, its own history, has been so blocked and end-stopped by the forces with the power to do hurt. That does not mean, of course, that satire will arise, necessarily. As John Birtwhistle remarks watching his newborn son guzzling ‘half the dug / into his grateful gob’: ‘Small hopes from him / of the harsh satirist / his age will require’. We may persist in being thankful to the world for its luxuries and commodities: but the age demands harsh satire, for very survival.
Sheffield has oppositional energy because of a long radical history, but it is Orgreave and the savagery of the oppression of the miners’ strike that haunts the memory. Helen Mort’s sequence on Orgreave, ‘Scab’, uses the plural voicing a sequence can encourage both to track the folk memory of the strike and its memorialization, and to recall her own guilty shedding of class and locale by going to Cambridge. This is felt, now, as a collusion with the governmental forces, even as picket line transgressing scab-work. This may seem harsh, yet it is part of the sequence’s power that the double tale is told with some edge of comedy to the dramatizations. Mort uses the sequence to turn upon herself as maker, finding a guilty analogue to the act of writing ‘Scab’ in the dubious theatrics of Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the strike in 2001, featuring, as her note tells us, ‘eight hundred people, many of whom were ex-miners or police involved in the original encounter’. The third section of the sequence ponders the re-enactment as analogue to its own late ordering:
This is a re-enactment.
When I blow the whistle, charge
but not before. On my instruction,
throw your missiles in the air.
On my instruction, tackle him,
then kick him when he’s down,
kick him in the bollocks, boot him
like a man in flames. Now harder,
kick him till he doesn’t know his name.
The director’s imperatives fuse into the poet-as-maker’s prurient collusion in the violence, the language of violence (‘Please note / the language used for authenticity: / example – scab, example – cunt’) drawing the stanza into theatricalizing mimickry of the Orgreave field of forces. The poetry re-enacts the battle only to turn its most bollock-kicking satire on its own complicities. One clause stands out of this painful exercise in self-cauterizing satirics: ‘like a man in flames’. The line reaches outside its own staged guilt and outrage, and touches on a tougher, more sharply edged comedy: the Swiftian comedy of the flayed difference of the victim beneath jackboot brutalities. ‘In flames’ speaks to a hellishly voyeuristic sadism that is not just a consequence of the guilty re-enactment: but takes on board the violent theatricality that governed the police action in 1984. The lines as a long sequence may be about the guilt of metaphorically crossing the picket line by sipping port in Cambridge; what this Swiftian flash of horror does is to turn the lines of poetry into lines of satirical force against the theatrical logic of police instructions. This isn’t quite Bill Griffiths, perhaps; but the sequence is a very real achievement, staging the historical sequence from battle through mediatization to real imaginative cooperative pain beyond mere by-stander guilt.
John Birthwhistle has been a while away from poetry, having spent some years as librettist; and Eventualities bears some of traces of a writer trying his hand at half-forgotten modes – we have imitation-translations, versions of classical forms, very occasional verses, etc. But there is one brave sequence in the collection which meditates on the army barracks near Birtwhistle’s Sheffield home. ‘To Live by the Barracks’. The sequence allows for traditional theme and variation musings as from an observer keeping a notebook of thoughts on the theme ‘city barracks’, as with the opening section which incorporates the title: ‘TO LIVE BY THE BARRACKS // is to live beside monks / going about their secret ministry’. The satire is mild enough, but telling once unpacked: likening the soldiers to monks or Coleridge’s frost intimates that the military in the UK hold the same power as medieval monasteries once did over the land; and that their action is secret, like a nighttime, freezing, ‘natural’, invisible force. It also suggests that poetry lives ‘beside’ or ‘by’ power, satirically turning the lines against the poem itself as Helen Mort does with ‘Scab’: the lines of poetry may live alongside the secret Ministry of Defence, or they may be as secretly living off them. The satirical sequence ends beautifully and strangely:
of an evening
a red light at the tip of a radio mast
the sacred heart of Mars
Again, the barracks inhabit the city as something transgressive and secret, like a red light district. Yet the zone is also powerfully in charge of all communication networks (the radio mast), including, it is suggested, the network of poetry and its ‘evening’ bucolics. The cityscape is illumined by the secret ministry as though by a distant planet, but it is not only martial, but occupies the space of old religion: the MoD beats at the heart of the city, sign of an act of consecration of the country to its military ventures and institutions. John Birtwhistle’s ‘To Live by the Barracks’ is a fresh and witty parsing of the secret state through 15 sequential moves around the militarized zone at the sacred heart of the UK.
Geraldine Monk has edited a charming and visionary set of reminiscences of the postwar alternative Revival poetry scene, with acts of witness from Chris Torrance, Tom Pickard, Peter Riley, Roy Fisher and many others. It builds up a picture of isolates turning so little into so much as each poet grasped their chances and forced culture and community out of the dead and dying cultural landscapes of the UK. In an interview between Alan Halsey and David Annwn, Halsey reflects on the satirical quality of his own poetry-making: ‘I think that the balance between seriousness (serious rage, perhaps) and humour is one of the resonance between your work and mine’. That balance is clear in the sound poem one can see him perform within Bo Meson’s video and text about the Krakatoa volcanic eruption. Halsey’s text is raw and savage, with the phonemes making up ‘Krakatoa’ used to unleash a verbal flaming torrent, which then subsides, in performance, to a whisper, only to re-explode as Anak Krakatoa. Taking the text as text, we can read halfway through the sequence:
kArtA kArAkA rApUIOrcAttA
AgArAcAttA kEIAtO tAUkEIA
The phonetic play stages a ‘Polynesian’ otherness as language, whilst as sound event staging the eruption of the volcano as sound poetry itself, its oppositional ‘serious rage’ as a revolution of the word within the static vocabularies and alphabetical sequences of rational language. The capitalization is awry, used to signal intensities of affect as against signals of order, and drifting in and out of the sounds’ violence are ghost words, the ‘orang’ of ‘orangutan’, the ‘karaka’ as cracking of surfaces, the ‘acatta’ of attack on meanings, the vowels erupting within consonantal proprieties. This explosiveness is explosiveness of satire itself (remember Auden on Wyndham Lewis as satirist: ‘lonely old volcano’), bursting the sequence of phonemes, speaking for a poetics of dirty violent serious rage within a comedic display of nonsense and impulsive voicings (as by an angry ‘orang’) of the political unconscious. This may not have the clairvoyant satirical intent of Halsey’s more overtly languaged satires, as with the sublime ‘Perspectives of the Reach’ with its destabilizing assault on Keith Fieling’s History of England, or the ‘different order’ of satirical knowing and saying unlocking the hold of ‘military domains’ and their ‘legible order’ of ‘Song-Cycle 1991’. At the same time, the sound poem asserts its own energies as collective, as unEnglish, as in touch with the globe under threat from the climate changes unleashed by rampant capital. We have the ‘harsh satirist’ the age requires: his name is Alan Halsey.
Christine Kennedy and David Kennedy do wonderful, diligent and meticulous work putting their case for experimental women’s poetry in Britain, presenting a comprehensive and convincing argument about the alliance of feminism and theory that suddenly released such a superb seam of poems and poets from Forrest-Thomson through Monk, O’Sullivan, Bergvall to Andrea Brady and Emily Critchley. The readings are always clear, lucid, passionate; the sense of the common project germane; the relishing of the specificities original and fresh. The book as a whole escapes naive essentialism through the intricacy of the readings, the passion of the advocacy and the simple justice of the case. The attention is fine, too, upon the comic panache of many of the projects, from Denise Riley’s toad in ‘The Castalian Spring’ to Brady’s relentlessness in Wildfire. The Kennedys take Brady’s analysis of poetry’s situatedness within modern consumerist networks as too cynical: and yet, surely, the analysis of that situatedness, because it involves its own procedures in the analysis (as Mort's and Birtwhistle’s sequences do), creates satirical fire, wildfire, that ripples beyond the statements locally made: ‘My paper is bogus – no pre-nup is airtight, / and its mark holds you in confusion as its proof-weight / of harmlessness’. The Kennedys remark that ‘the sequence’s combination of self-doubt and the paradox that clear public language is a mode of concealment’; but are wary of how little room for manoeuvre is left in the final analysis: ‘the reader is offered little in the way of escape’. That is because the way of escape is in the statement of the problem: the poem pretends satirically to be a legal engagement or bond between reader and poet, but the confession of ‘harmlessness’ is also at the same time a riddling act of comic confusion which undoes the legalities of poetry’s claims. All paper is bogus, this is the satirical sense that begins to fire up at the edge of the material poem itself. And it is a tribute to this very useful collection of essays that such fire and energy, satirical, counter-sequential, is communicated as a collective and not lonely volcanic event at the margins.
[Adam Piette is co-editor of Blackbox Manifold, author of Remembering and the Sound of Words, Imagination at War, and The Literary Cold War: 1945 to Vietnam]
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