David Vichnar of Equus Press continues his series of mini-reviews covering the best of contemporary independent small-press production, each instalment dedicated to some (usually three) of their most recent & interesting titles. In the eighth instalment, the focus is on Paul Hawkins & Sarer Scotthorne’s Hesterglock Press.
According to their mission statement, Hesterglock makes “positive links between non-profit & literary / artistic / political worth, as opposed to predominant corporate, capitalist values of financial return” with an N.B. to the effect that “No neoliberal capitalism, or any sort of capitalism. We prefer revolutionaries. No homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, violence, abuse or misogyny.”
In this instalment of collective mini-reviews, focus will be on four recent experimental books from Hesterglock’s “Prote(s)xt imprint”, by Kathryn Hummel, Matthew Turner, Catherine Vidler, Louis Armand & John Kinsella.
Kathryn Hummel is a poetic nomad, tracing—in a recent interview—the beginnings of her poetry-writing back to her Australian “Peace-Corps” mission in Bangladesh in 2007, which “afforded her the opportunity to get to know people on an un-official level; turned me into a flâneuse of Dhaka.” And so Hummel’s poetry is also nomadic—or more precisely, translocal, existing at once in places as different as a beach near Sydney & the Indian state of Goa.
A Few Franks for Dearest Dominic took shape in 2017 between Bangalore & Dhaka. By Hummel’s own account in “A note on the Franking Process,” functioned as self-therapy | sobering-up after “one of my habitual accidents” & “the alchemy of being with someone who fancied me as much as I did them” which lasted “about a week.” A trauma to the body & the soul, then. Yet the setting of the opening poem “Bondi Beach”, is recognisably Australian, & Southeast Asia features only in faint recollections. The speaker of the second poem, an “Indian friend (from India) who’s an advocate”, apostrophises “dearest Dominic”, wishing him to “live always as though you’re constructing | castles of sand on Bondi Beach” (3).
The sunbathed, salt-sprayed & sand-covered locales of the poems are mostly general enough to allow for a translocal poetic equivalence between “home” & “abroad”. As Hummel writes in her Postface, “in these poems, fantasy is shuffled around, shifting as often as the people addressed or described; as often as the person signified by ‘I.’” And so Hummel’s texts engage with the binaries of presence/absence (cf. “The absence I accepted yesterday must be reckoned again today” ), self/other (““When sleep arrives, it is of a superficial variety & does nothing to solder the dichotomy I make of myself” ), progress/regress (“Yet this I cite to myself: each progressive step is contrary” ), & abstract/ physical (“well-rehearsed lines bleed out meaning beneath | the literal” ), which they playfully deconstruct.
This playful deconstruction happens by way of engaging with the materiality of language: as in “Speculum”, where the exhortation of “let’s get back | to our origins || let’s strip down to etymology” yields such opportune phrases as “scallop || scalpel?”, “our methods are same-same. | mirrored, en effet” & “a few francs | freshly franked” (6). Or as in the final poem, “Pondicherry”, where “the last au revoir might | really mean jamais,” & where etymology is conjured up again, only to be abjured: “you ask me about its etymology. I hypothesise, the way | I do, with my quick answers for everything | ever-wary of the accuracy of facts I only need to know for others” (15).
Mathew Turner’s Other Rooms contains three novellas concerned with emplacement, locality, in-betweenness, & the everywhere-at-once outreach of existence lived online. As the “Foreword” has it, “These stories are a series of stretched & compressed thresholds between contradictory states. Told through architecture, they explore the luxury of being able to compartmentalise parts of our lives & the violence at the junction between them when they finally collide again.” The stories “have a tendency—like many people on social media—to pretend to be in one place while really being somewhere else.” Or, as argued in a review for Queen Mob’s Tea House by Judson Hamilton, these three stories are “about how we interface […] with the physical space around us, toggling as we do between our phones & the real world,” a toggle which is marked by another major theme, isolation, where “it’s hard not to see a subtle critique of the gentle self-quarantine of social media.”
The eponymous Part One, “Other Rooms”, is a nouveau-romanesque account of a first-person narrator sharing a flat with his mother whom he never interacts with: “It’s strange to live with a person you have never seen.” When it comes to descriptions of living bodies, Turner’s language conjures up some unexpected metaphors while remaining true to surface structures: “Her appearance was delineated by voids; the features that caught the light were sliced away, & those remaining moved around out of focus like alcohol separating from water, leaving behind only isotropic contours.” In passages such as, “The bed was pushed against the same wall as mine, so I could hear her—we mirrored each other when we moved […] when I cleared my throat, she would reply by evacuating hers,” Turner is after the to-&-fro mechanics of even the most purely “biological” processes of life. Robbe-Grilletesque is Tuner’s occupation with surfaces, dimensions of bodies, & objects in space, which clearly comes to its own in his geometrical descriptions of the apartment:
The four squares that made up the rooms in the flat were of equal size, they were similar to a small grid of pixels, & we had interacted like pixels too: we always had. […] we functioned alone without any direct contact. Just as pixels form a picture without crossing one another.
But more subtly nouveau-romanesque are the indirectly hinted-at mental processes that shine through these descriptive exercises: “From within the foreign volume at my mother’s flat, I would lie in bed most evenings & think about its spatial layout—or what I imagined it to be.” Here, as in Jealousy,geometrical description verges on “imaginative” reckonings, and in the narrator’s final admission—“I had returned to the flat with the intention of looking after her in the final months she had left ]…] but at the time I couldn’t step across the threshold”—the reader is left with the disturbing possibility that everything in the narrative is… fiction?
Foregrounding liminality thematically is Part Two called “Threshold”, featuring another nameless first-person protagonist, this time with at least a profession (an artist), a specified antagonist (waiting in a hotel lobby for Robinson, art collector & past lover), & a mission (train trip to an airport gallery for a show-opening). What Marc Augé has termed Non-Places & studied as symptoms of modernity, Turner wittily meditates upon in quasi-existential terms as stuff of fiction:
I liked hotel rooms for their liminality, for their ability to facilitate the inhabitation of a realm between reality & fantasy. They also existed in a weird place between order & chaos; you can mess around with them as much as you like […] & still, when you return at the end of the day everything will be back in its place. […] If only people were a similarly self-reordering system.
In a most memorable scene, we come into indirect touch with death, as the train grinds to a halt due to an “accident on the track”: “I felt tense in my seat, poised for the moment that the train would pass over the point on the track where the body had been, but of course I wouldn’t feel anything.” This “inability to feel” becomes once again literalized as this most physical encounter with the finitude of bodily existence turns into digital data to feed into the big algorithm: “I scrolled through twitter […] Robinson had posted a selfie with the body in the background, & the caption read: “Bad day at the office.”
Part Three, “Meridian”, is a psychogeographical miniature that reads like Iain Sinclair on Googlemaps GPS. Here, our nameless first-person protagonist spends his day “at ground zero, flatlined at 0° 00’ 00.00””, walking between two meridian markers in London after a walk as pallbearer with his grandmother’s coffin. And so, once again, dynamis & stasis, physicality & virtuality become strangely blended: the narrator’s day at ground zero, on the move yet geographically null, is a reenactment of his grandmother’s final journey: “The coffin was lighter than I predicted it would be. My grandmother was absolutely still inside, but still moving, on one more journey directly down the aisle.” And so, the narrator’s walk from Greenwich via Canary Wharf (“Margaret Thatcher’s cock”) via Wood Street via Walthamstow towards Pole Hill gets likened to the virtual movement through the matrix of videogames:
In video games it is often more efficient for the scenery to move around the protagonist, instead of allowing them to move freely through fictional landscapes; the lead of any video game explores the world by staying resolutely still, ensnared in a deception of locomotion.
Moving on aimlessly, constantly distracted by digital alerts & looked-for/-up pieces of trivia, Turner has his narrator turn his psychogeographic walk along the meridian into a meditation on contemporary flaneurism & practice of situationism under the condition of late capitalism:
We move through the streets and, not giving it our full attention, are always distracted from the present line of thought; we glance at our phones incessantly & take pictures to look at afterwards instead of experiencing the moment in real time. A phenomenon that calls for a new word to replace those aging notions of flâneur & the dérive, because instead, we “buffer”, akin to that moment when the red line on a YouTube video reaches the grey line & everything stops: the new content is loading but we are yet to experience it. This is how we experience our environment now, we amass details & pictures as we walk only we don’t let them play out in our heads as an immediate experience, instead we wait, we buffer at a standstill.
The purposelessness & stasis of the narrator’s pilgrimage are meant of course not only as a mourning tribute to the “departed,” but also as a counter towards the utilitarian, consumerist “onward” movement of capitalist progress as materialized in the online world of social media occupying our “smart” technology:
Moving forward is the spatial progression of optimism, towards something better, more knowledge, a greater understanding. Online we only move forward; on to the next page & the next, along the endless scroll of twitter, apparently making progress, yet, it’s like reading the pages of the manuscript: once you have read one page you put it to the back of all the pages, & all with the impression of moving forward through it, you nevertheless end up back at the first pages again, just where you started.
And finally, of course, in perfect accordance with Turner’s foregrounding of the inter-penetrability of fact & fiction, of the “real” & fantasy, the trip along the meridian turns out fictional itself—taking place nowhere but within the nexus of the smartphone GPS service & the narrator’s powers of imagination: “Surrounded by coffee cups, I had been occupying the same seat all day; I don’t think I really looked up once while planning my walk between the two illusive points on my phone, & imagining what it would be like.” In this increasingly less real world of ours we inhabit, Turner’s writing seems to suggest, fiction could do worse than function as a therapeutic thorn in its side, keeping the fictions we make about our reality at least honest to themselves.
Catherine Vidler’s output, judging simply by the titles of her collections—deleted sonnets (Penteract Press, 2019), Lost Sonnets (Timglaset, 2018), collected composite lost sonnets (SOd press, 2018), table sets (no press, 2017), table set poems (Penteract Press, 2017)—is invested in the poetic exploration of the themes of erasure, deletion, loss, permutation, & recombination.
Vidler’s 2_154_77_79_38 is no exception to this in that it—the title composed of two identical sequences of 64 numbers—features two sets of variations on 64 Shakespeare sonnets. As she explains in her Preface, the first series consists of poems “using only words contained in the Shakespeare sonnet of the same number, & in the same number of syllables as that number”; the second of the same base material with the additional use of a fold-in method according to which “the first word is paired with the last, the second with the second last word, & so on” until the “required syllable count” is arrived at. Thus, “2_” yields “Excuse” in sequence one & “|when cold|” in sequence two; “4_” has “Acceptable” & “unthrifty be |”, “9_” shows forth “A place. An Ah! A makeless love” & “is commits | it shame | for murderous |”, & so on.
Apart from its amusingness & heuristic value, this Oulipian exercise in constraint & combinatorics (the N+7 method comes strongly to mind) raises a few interesting conceptual questions. First of all, if according to the Romantic adage, poetry is “the right/best words in the right/best order,” then Vidler’s project asks what happens to the selfsame words once their order is disturbed? Once they cease to combine & signify in any syntactically conventional fashion? Once they cease to “mean” & merely begin to “be”? And second of all, since all these are “Shakespeare’s words” before they are “Vidler’s”, the question becomes how will these words—endowed with cultural prestige & an unparalleled level of fetishization—fare when transplanted into Vidler’s book, where they become liberated from their instrumental functionality & allowed to return to their originary strangeness? When, stripped of their “aura” & paratextual apparatus that confers their status on them, they stand in front of us—denuded & trivial?
These are questions unaddressed by the project itself, but hovering over the pages of Vidler’s Shakespearean word-salad. However, every once in a while Vidler’s re-combinatory mumbo jumbo does yield insight into, and critical comment upon, its source text, as in no. 46: “My outward heart. My inward eye. My outward eye. My inward heart. My crystal thoughts. My impanneled quest. My closet appearance. My part-appearance. This mortal picture’s love-pierc’d plea.” Now of course, Shakespeare’s No. 46 is the notorious legal dispute re: the merits of the heart’s and the eyes’ claim to be the sole possessor of the beloved, an amusing mix of psychological & physiological ideas that do not amount to much apart from the legalese in which they are set. By foregrounding the first-person possessive, Vidler reminds us just how much, in Shakespeare, the speaker’s ego goes into the construction of the beloved’s portrait, while also pointing out to the less savoury aspects of “owning” someone through feelings.
Another example of Vidler’s combinatorics shedding some intriguing interpretive light on her source-text is her No. 123:
I present nothing brief. I make nothing less than sight-records, sight-records of continual desire, sight-records of desire for thee. I make haste. I make more and more of them. I present them. I might desire more Time but I do not defy Time. Dates change. Dressings change. Built pyramids change. I change. We change. Registers change. Newer to former. Continual change. I rather admire this strange Time: ever-present, ever-past, ever-novel, ever-old, ever-told, ever-heard, ever-true. Ever-brief, ever-less.
Now, Shakespeare’s No. 123 addresses the ideas of change and growth by contrasting the ever-shifting biological/historical time with the constancy/duration of psychology (“one’s own true self”) & timelessness of the written word. Vidler’s Oulipian mash-up zooms in on its key words (“haste,” “more”, “Time”, “change”, “desire”, “continual”), creating an almost Beckettian minimalist meditation on the “ever-lessness” of time-bound existence, “hasting” through it yet “rather admir[ing] this strange Time.”
Written in collaboration between Louis Armand & John Kinsella from 2012 to 2020, Monument opens upon “the Thames fog […] down at the British Museum” (No. 97) & performs its countdown all the way to No. 1, with its “museumed bric-a-brac” & “lion array chase”, all done with “stone elbows, plaster of Paris” (No. 1), in a hundred formally quite unusual sonnets. To Joe Darlington, reviewing Monument for Manchester Review of Books, these “short, punchy squares of text” look “no bigger than the description cards stuck beside museum pieces.” But this one hundred fourteen-liners can also be said to function as visual emblems—textual monuments—of the sort of idols erected by our culture of capitalist realism, for whose toppling Monument calls on every page.
If Monument, as one of its descriptions has it, undertakes “a tearing down of the museum of complacency, exposing foundations constructed from the tyranny of capital, obliterating the proprietary imprint,” then one of its key meta-questions is, What would a “poetry” toppling the very monument of poetry, the false idol erected in its name, the very commodification of its genre, look like? For such meta-poetry to be possible, I think three basic criteria need to be met, & Monument does fit the bill.
First of all, it needs to both fulfil & challenge formal restrictions—it needs to break the rules it is following. Monument does this by formally adhering to the well-worn genre of the sonnet, while stretching, inflating, & otherwise disturbing its prescriptive rule of 14 lines. Most conspicuously so, in the opening section:
Is this an end to torment? To the Great Cause? To Progress? To Civilisation? To Life As We Know It? To the gods of Chichen Itza? To the Pleasure Principle? To Knowledge? To your local Synthetic Chicken Franchise? To the Saturday Night Game? To the future of Martian exploration? To Xanadu? To race-, wage- & gender- slavery? To free optional extras? To certainty? To ideology? To evolution? To eat-all-you-can lunchtime specials? To literacy, the novel, the book, poetry? To poverty? To property? To patriarchy? To posterity? To perpetuity? To peeled pre-washed potatoes in plastic vacuum packs? Is this finally
the end of the party? Of the road? Of the line? Of “us”? Of innocence? Of your favourite TV show? Of the Big Dream? Of the Revolution? Of days in the sun? Of your season pass? Of beachfront Caribbean tax havens? Of the shelf-life’s shelf-life? Of the Autumn Sale? Is it just the end of the Beginning or really the beginning of the End? Of the Free World? Of America? Of Mickey Mouse? Of boredom? Of our sentimental academic “sense of
ending”? The categorical End to end all “ends”? The end, at last, of The End? The closing act with the forty-foot flag & chamber orchestra & the monument praising the bigots & the monument spouting its own virtues & the monument tipping its hat & the monument firing blanks at the sunset & the monument whipping up a frenzy of landfall & the monument telescoping botany & the monument collecting data & the male monument calling the Nereids to its side, eye on the bikini machine & usurping Dr Goldfoot & Vinny Price
topping out the scales busting her lungs?
These are, we get to understand, the four “lines” of “verse” in Monument, its first “quatrain.” What immediately becomes evident is that here, strings of ideas & trains of thought are more important than slavish adherence to a random number of lines, whose randomness is most clearly brought home by making the cuts in-between lines themselves as randomised (cf. “sense of / ending?”) as possible.
Second of all, its language needs to be as “unpoetic,” “direct” & “rough-&-ready” as possible, while remaining connotative, ambiguous & richly referential enough to remain “poetry.” On this note, one has the feeling Armand & Kinsella write not so much with as against one another, like one plays chess with/against one’s opponent—Darlington calls this “a collision of contemporary imagery, like two self-driving cars meeting at an unfortunate intersection.” To illustrate again, here’s a passage from No. 93:
and believe you me they have Christmas in July here, though wary of
tongue cancer from the cheroots smoked naked for Instagram generational acclimatisation, acclaiming that
New York vault predisposed to mazes and the code laid in, safe-cracking, a jiggling coincidence to
detonate Macy’s love-chests, it’s glorious white DNA missives, its away in the manger
slow groove in which no saviour gets a say, or a feed once the soup kitchen serving moment is passed, and yes,
Zedd’s dead, and yes, the Gimp loses out however you look at it, and fuck you is permission to make a
rape joke and win an Academy, and we all know what that says about statues and/or monuments in the
paisley litmus-light of the Hudson, the King of Prague not quite loving the communists but writing with
relish after being kicked off the hayride
The result of the clash & synergy between two poetic sensibilities as broadly imaginative as Armand’s & Kinsella’s is a feeling akin to word-assemblage, one however whose power of denotation has not been impaired in the abstraction. “Christmas in July” obviously refers to Armand’s & Kinsella’s shared antipodean roots (from which both have done much willed uprooting); “detonate Macy’s love-chests” riffs on one of Monument’s chief thematic concerns—the possibilities of resistance in a culture of ostensible all-permissibility—ditto “a fuck you is permission to make a / rape joke and win an Academy”; “Zedd’s dead” & “the Gimp” refer of course to Pulp Fiction & “the King of Prague not quite loving the communists but writing with /relish after being kicked off the hayride” refers clearly to Ginsberg in 1965 in (Armand’s neo-native) Prague.
Thirdly, its subject matter needs to topple the monument of poetry just as it demythologises all the other mythologies of cultural capital. It needs to be cheekily iconoclastic while taking perverse pleasure in the unleashed spectacle of doom: “inflection night defection night deflection night infection night / cantankerous cuntunkerous contonkerous centenkerous cintinkerous / flossing his bootstraps to pull himself off by with his prize dentures” (no. 74). And so, there is obscenity & depravity galore, with “literature” little more than yet another algorithmic ego-trip amid other virtual libidinal gratification mechanisms: “rate me on Goodsucks five stars I own yr IP address rise & shine it’s a new trading day Good Morning Hong Kong!” (no. 86) Every now & then Armand & Kinsella embrace the infantile dada nonsense punning (“If you can’t fuck it, drop a bomb on it: diligence just before the finishing line scores a 10 every time” [no. 92]; “Everything / abreast is relative. Every breast is a relative. Etc.” [no. 70]). They display their Kafkaesque credentials (“(Welcome to the Penal Colony! We just can’t get enough!) […] Convention’s just another word for shitting downriver – someone else’s problem = someone else’s problem, babe” [no. 60]), while also busy riffing on such contemporary cultural iconoclasts as Stewart Home (“Don’t try to fake it, be black and proud or white and angry. For instant redemption send CA$H! (Your drug of choice!)” [no. 50]).
Last but not least, the full package of meta-poetry needs to be “absolutely modern” à la Rimbaud, it needs to speak to the “historical now” of 2020. And so we hear of how “Jesus was a thorn in the side of Trump Tower before and after, a shoe-in for the redneck agenda (Green Day)” (no. 87), and of how “They wanna build a wall? Help ‘em make it twice as high – that’s democracy for you, everyone pullin’ _together” (no. 90). Trumpism comes in for a common thrashing shared with Brexitism, religious fundamentalism, racism, nationalism, & all the other favourite hosts of the 2020 Reality TV reruns of the 1930s insanity on which the historical avantgarde waged its poetic wars. Or in one triplet that says it all, “Dad & Dave, Butt & Taff, Mutt & Jeff, the Clinton All Stars, / post-Mr Squiggle Electro Twins, the Doodles Sisters, Zaphod Beeblebrox / counterpointing the lush and lushless” (no. 52). Here is the whole shebang: an Australian radio drama, popcultural couplings from Finnegans Wake, Parliament-Funkadelic, an Aussie children’s TV series, “the Doodles Sisters” (???), & the “Worst Dressed Sentient Being in the Known Universe.”
Armand & Kinsella’s exhibition of our culture in freefall is done in poetry unprettified, poetry refusing to be polite, poetry full of the noise & distraction & stupidity & outrageousness & tedium & entertainingness we have lately come to enjoy so desperately. If the picture it paints is one of “the immense panorama of futility which is contemporary history,” then so be it—it does for a freshly post-Trumpian & post-covid culture what Joyce’s Ulysses had done for post-WW1 Europe. One hundred years later, it continues unabashedly in the unfinished project of radical avant-gardism, keeping its message such that it “stays news.”
My next instalment, in two-three weeks’ time, will be devoted to a 2020/21 miscellany, ft. the recent work of Ansgar Allen, Joe Darlington, Rikki Ducornet & René Georg Vasicek.
© David Vichnar, 2021