February 08, 2011

Review of Poetry Pamphlets: Monk & Annwn, Skoulding & Davidson and McGuinness

Writing about web page http://www.newwelshreview.com/backissue_details.asp?issueID=31&issueNumber=79

Book front cover
Geraldine Monk and David Annwn, It Means Nothing to Me, West House Books. ZoŽ Skoulding and Ian Davidson, Dark Wires, West House Books. Patrick McGuinness, 19th Century Blues, Smith Doorstop.
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[Many thanks to The New Welsh Review in which this article first appeared in 2008.]

Identity and language are considered in fruitful and demanding ways in a number of recent chapbooks. The most challenging of these recent pamphlets is Geraldine Monk’s and David Annwn’s It Means Nothing to Me, which, as the title suggests, plays with the idea of meaning and experiments with language in a style parallel to that of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys a clear, obvious message in a personal, anecdotal style, then this poetry will seem difficult. If you are interested in how the structures of language define and control human beings, however, then this pamphlet-long poem is for you, because Monk and Annwn challenge all of our assumptions about language:

deep ina
lingo place
forgotten speech

Throwing out ordinary syntax and rejecting the need to make sense, Monk and Annwn create a bricolage which tests narrative and meaning in the same way that a “far out” piece of jazz tests melody and tunefulness. The repetition of the title, It Means Nothing to Me, might indicate that the compound words, obscure lexis and nonsensical style are simply an indication of the meaninglessness and inadequacies of language in an arbitrary world. There is some sense, however, in the nonsense of this poetry. Monk and Annwn create a new language intimately bound up with mystery and the refusal to reduce everything to the familiar:

the mystery
the mystery
something to

This is challenging poetry that makes the reader work hard in a quest for understanding, but it also offers rich rewards in making the reader a part of creating the poem’s meaning.

Dark Wires, a pamphlet from Zoë Skoulding and Ian Davidson, the editors of Skald, also experiments with language. Like It Means Nothing to Me, Dark Wires is written by two poets, but while Monk and Annwn spiral away from any obvious personal voice, Dark Wires does seem to have a unified poetic speaker. This unity is interesting simply for the fact that it challenges the all-too-common assumption that the poet and the speaker are one and the same.

Dark Wires rejects a powerful or commanding voice, and takes the detritus of everyday life as its subject: the swollen matter of the garden, the kitchen’s paraphernalia, the mouldering basement and the bric-a-brac of living. In all of these locations, mundane objects are levers for the poetic experience:

chemical reactions of gypsum plaster formed a hard skin over the
work a wall does the way it holds up the roof and how the joists tie
in beneath the disturbed meniscus of boiling water spring greens

The language in this ‘Kitchen poem’ is full of resonance in phrases like ‘chemical reactions of gypsum plaster’ and ‘the disturbed meniscus of boiling water’. What is experimental is how it challenges grammar and syntax so that one clause runs into another and the lack of punctuation means that words can be read as part of one sentence or another. There is also a sense of the interconnectedness of the human body and the external world in the comparisons of plaster and skin, the cartilage of the meniscus and the surface tension of water. In this kind of poetry, boundaries blur between the inside and outside, between the human body and the external world. ‘Abasement Garden’ describes how the narrator ‘pushed out every shoot / a spring wound; ‘Shoals’ offers ‘a forest of blood’; and in ‘Skin and Bone’, the narrator describes how ‘something got under my skin maybe / a few short barbs breaking out into tissue’. The emphasis recalls Kristeva’s development of the term “abject” as a way to explain human anxiety about the boundedness of the body and threats to its wholeness. Skoulding’s and Davidson’s poetry embraces the body’s vulnerability and admits that human beings are not hermetically sealed units.

While Dark Wires reclaims an interconnectedness for human beings, Patrick McGuinness’ 19th Century Blues seems to be looking back to a period before isolating modernity truly began. McGuinness reframes the traumatic breakdown of nineteenth-century grand narratives through contemporary concerns. The couplet, ‘Déjà-Vu’, which opens the pamphlet (and closes it in a reversed form) represents McGuinness’ poetic project:

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:
forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

McGuinness’ tone is riddling; it suggests questions. Which two tenses are grappling? Is this a reference to the reconciliation of the past and present? Or does it refer to prolepsis and a sense of the future in the present moment? The predicament of McGuinness’ poetic speaker is rather like that of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history caught between the past and the future, between remembering and forgetting. Like the angel of history, the speaker would like to ‘stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed’ but ‘a storm propels him into the future’.

Consequently, subjects for McGuinness’ poems are emptiness, loss and the obliteration of the self. In this poetics, silence and nothingness become a powerful mode of communication, so that, in ‘The Age of the Empty Chair’, the lack in the chair suggests change ‘the way a sail suggests the wind, the way a shell holds / a recording of the waves’. There are some remarkable descriptions in this pamphlet that record the power of the diminutive, the minor and the obscure: the quality of dust in ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’; the ‘Black Box’ that records a marriage; and the ‘long white knotted cry’ of snow in ‘The Thaw’.

This preoccupation with the transitory and the fleeting returns to the question of language, even if it is a more subtle probing of how the arbitrary meaning of words defines human culture. The speaker in ‘Montréal’ studies the airport Arrivals Board and watches as

Montreal collapses into London and returns
as Montréal;
as if the French passed through
a fording of English to find itself more French.

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