Monday, 6 December 2010

No Problem

In the 80s an innocuous little book titled Creative Visualization was doing the rounds among my New Age friends. One of its central tenets, as I recall, was the idea of 'positive affirmation', which translated roughly into being positive about your life and any 'goals' you might want to achieve. The process involved regular repetition of phrases such as: 'I am beautiful and powerful and deserve love and happiness' or 'I am growing richer every day in every way'. The important thing about these mantras was the avoidance of the use of negative words and phrases. For example, it would be wrong to express the first phrase thus: 'I am not ugly and powerless and do not deserve to be hated and unhappy'. Well fair enough...

Somehow I resisted this kind of stuff, as I did so much else which was emanating from the increasingly burgeoning industry of self-help. I watched with awe as carpenters became acupuncturists and plumbers became cranio-sacral therapists. Their income levels apparently looked set to increase a few notches and all manner of things were about to become well and weller. Sitting on the sidelines, I observed new settlements of therapy folk arise in towns such as Totnes or Hebden Bridge. These towns boasted more alternative therapists per square mile than... well, where? San Francisco? California appeared to be the originating locus, and, indeed, 'Shakti Gawain', the author of said book, I believe, resided somewhere in that region. 'Shakti' appears to connote the exotic orient; 'Gawain' has something to do with some English ur-Christian/Celtic mythology? (I am thinking of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)

The standing joke among the few remaining skeptics in my circle was along the lines of wondering who constituted the patients within these therapy-oriented communities. Presumably, they were all working on each other; it was hard to imagine an indigenous population would be either motivated to visit or could afford the whacking fee if they did. I also observed relatively poor sympathisers spending their precious little on a weekly visit to the latest practitioner of 'metamorphic' foot massage or crystal healing.

At the time, I (not always) quietly poured scorn on the whole self-help business and its capitalist momentum. Meanwhile, 'Shakti Gawain' et al grew rich on the profits of their gifts to the world. Shakti herself has gone on to sell 10 million books, according to her website. That's a pretty healthy visualisation...

It is, then, with some humility that I approach a recent phenomenon which has been bugging me. On a recent trip to Tescos, at the checkout, I was confronted with a young woman who seemed entirely oblivious of my presence. I decided to counter this indifference with a pointed 'Thanks very much, goodbye', to which she replied, without any kind of eye contact: 'no problem'. I departed with irritation and found myself remembering this stuff about positive affirmation with not a little irony. A subsequent phone call from my dentist's receptionist which ended up on my part with a 'thanks' and on her part with a 'not a problem' compounded the issue in my mind. I found myself yearning for a more positive response, however phatic, like 'OK, good, see you on the 10th.'. Even 'have a nice day' would have been better. 'No problem' combines two negative words and I wonder when and where it arose as the universal response it has become.

I could end this blog with some kind of rallying call for the return of Shakti, but I wouldn't go that far. Clearly, I am still 'resisting'. Have a nice day!

P.S. My mate Scotter has just reminded me of another aspect of this 'no problem' response. The statement assumes that there was a problem in the first place. Presumably, an ideal customer service should be starting out from some other assumption.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Hard Sell

The phone rang yesterday morning, and the delay before anyone spoke alerted me to an automatic dialling software at the other end. I hung on. 'How are you today, sir?' came a clearly Indian-accented voice. I suppressed the 'who's asking?' response which formulated in my head. I have sympathy for workers in this kind of work; it's clearly a frontline job. I made the right kind of noises and the poor guy, obviously reading from a script, launched into a monologue about how I had been 'chosen' (one of those key words) as a 'priority' member (the key words are mounting up) of the 'British Midland Diamond Club' to be considered eligible for a British Midland credit card. I would automatically receive 20,000 'destination miles' and 6 months interest-free credit which would be applied to any amount outstanding I had on any other cards, so long as I transferred the balance etc. etc.

I had lived in Scotland for a couple of years and had taken the flight between Aberdeen and Norwich a few times. At some point, someone at the airport had offered me 'Diamond Club Membership', which I took up because it didn't appear to be costing anything. I would proceed to gather 'frequent flyer points' and so on. As far as I know, the points still exist in ghostly form somewhere. Otherwise, my exclusive membership translated into a 'hospitality lounge' at Aberdeen airport, where I could sit with the suits in a little room outside of the main crowd and drink free coffee out of polystyrene cups. Once however, in Moscow, I flashed my DCM card and was directed to a capacious lounge with only two other people there, and any amount of buffet food and wine available; this was something of a result.

The hook, for me to consider the credit card and carry on with the call, was the 20,000 'destination miles'; I imagined a few trips to the US and so on. OK, I had to spend £300 in the first 90 days of ownership, but I figured I could handle that. However, a semblance of rational brain remained despite the piggy bank, lottery-winning, free-lunch activity which the spiel, however mechanically delivered, had promoted. 'Hang on, hang on,' I said, breaking in to the monlogue. '20,000 destination miles: is that for real?' The answer was a bit fudged. I persisted: 'how does that translate in actuality? Like, a day trip to an amusement park or what?' The guy was compelled to move off script a bit and was clearly vexed. He read out a few European city names that would qualify for the amount in question. So, 'destination miles' have little or nothing to do with actual miles then, we established. I was reminded of the huge number of 'air miles' I had once collected only to discover that they could be used incrementally towards the cost of the most expensive flights etc.

The monologue moved on and lasted a full eight minutes, with only occasional input from me, as I handed over more and more personal information. I managed, I think, to interrupt the default scenario of my receiving 'offers and promotions from carefully selected third parties' and so on. By the end of the call, I was exhausted. I guess this guy stopped for a drink of water as well. I found myself hoping that, at least, my positive response might have earned him, as worker, a bit extra by way of bonus. And I had maintained, I imagined, the option to go forward with this thing or not. I had agreed an email contract, and it duly arrived a minute after I put the phone down.

This telephone worker was, on this occasion, working for MBNA, who run the majority of brand name credit cards the world over: the figure must run into the thousands. So, the lure for me had been the free flight. I don't have a credit card debt. I have cards that I use but pay off regularly. One of them is handy for foreign payments, because it makes no extra charge for currency exchange, though there's almost certainly hidden charges in there somewhere. I like to think of myself as someone who can handle owning a credit card. Occasionally, I have been late with a payment by a day or two and been penalised accordingly: £12 is the going rate. I imagine a huge number of people use their credit card in this kind of way. However, of course, there are a huge number of people who don't. I have one friend, for example, who uses the 'interest-free' period to shift his ever-increasing borrowing around from card to card. He's proud of his management of this situation. Meanwhile, his debt is increasing. It's a 'huge numbers' game.

An even larger number, maybe the majority, are paying massive, compound interest on their borrowing on credit cards. Someone has to pay the guy in the call centre's wages, the cost of my flight (if it ever materialises - I wonder what the percentage of actual take-up on this is?) and, of course, for the whole edifice which is the banking system. We are in a time of 'recession'; many banks have 'gone under'; some (those that are ideologically monumental within the system) have been 'bailed out by the taxpayer'; ordinary people have seen their pension schemes go down the drain; fingers have been pointed at the very high wages and huge bonuses received by high-end bank employees and directors, and so on. Banks and their erstwhile, ill-advised, laissez-faire lending have been blamed for this present parlous condition of capitalist economics. And yet, the system is still in place and working the same as it ever was. The only way the promotion of credit cards can work is for ordinary people to go into debt and to be servicing a loan that they can never quite surmount. Someone somewhere has done the cynical maths. X number will not go into debt; x number will pay a bit by way of late payments; x number will stumble along paying interest on their borrowing; x number will go into exponential free-fall; x number will take the bankruptcy option. The number of those who struggle to service the loan must be high enough to maintain the enterprise.

My final thought on this call is that it seems incredibly anachronistic. The credit card system and its high interest lending are entirely predicated on milking those who get sucked into debt. The anxious consumer is like Jonathan Harker in the company of the vampire sirens who keep him just alive enough to sustain their feeding habits. How can it be that this high-interest lending has not been outlawed by now? I guess it's a dumb 'elephant-in-the-room' kind of question, but it seems like one that we should be addressing.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

'Love's not so pure and abstract as they use[d] to say'

An epigraph from Sylvia Plath (Love Letter) stands at the gate of Blandine Longre's aptly named collection of poems, Clarities: 'I knew you at once./ Tree and stone glittered, without shadows'. This defamiliarised moment of clarity, this love epiphany, is suspended like a beacon over Longre's remarkable writing of diverse epiphanic experience. These poems are coming out of the chasm of experiential, momentous exchange - with clarity. But that clarity is not composed of sweetness and light: it's a carnival of grotesques and conflicting impulses, of puissant exchanges and mutilating forays and retreats. We are in the realm of emotional experience. It's a vulnerable world of affirmation, deformation, offering and denial; we all know it: it's what makes us tick.

Blandine Longre has found a language for the push/pull, the gut-wrenching/the ecstatic, the vulnerable/the guarded: the matter of our emotional, energetic composition. Her writing is fueled by a passion and an honesty, that unholy, oxymoronic coupling out of which we attempt to mediate our lives, but normally fail. Longre explores the complex variety and intensity of the 'clarity' experience, not as it exists as a rare, even fetishised, potential event, but as it has frequent bearing on all our significant perceptions. It's a dynamic component of our lives, our deals with ourselves, our mirroring exchanges and our important relationships. It constitutes our sanity and our potential for happiness - and it isn't always pretty. Longre has invited us in to the theatre of terrible reckoning, before Superego intervention closes the gate and the matter is banished to the realm of the repressed.

How to read the other and the self in the eye of the other, John Donne's ecstatic business, is a theme ('the whole discordant symphony of selfhood' [I-soul]. The intimate relationship is the most critical in this respect. Here's the first poem in full:

When the time comes

Put a distant face to your proffered name

- flesh-struck, curse-furrowed, demented (you choose)

Then in the vacant soul's retina,

look at your lone visage and foretell what

your feud of a body could not

(from where its words knelt uprightly so)

Through slaughtered days and strangled dawns

(Jolting nights in between)

no word nor rock for it

- - the fleck of your yes-eye against a no-mouth backdrop

mere distorted painlines.

Blandine Longre has tipped her hat to Donne by way of other epigraphs within this collection. There are buried allusions as well: 'sur-faces now undone as coarsely as they were/ half-donned' (Exhumation). Donne bestowed his own epigraph upon a history of love poetry with his 'John Donne, Anne Donne, undone'.

In When the time comes, Longre steps sure-footedly into the metaphysical tradition. The poem is in the form of a sonnet and contains a conceit. The imperatives, 'put', 'look', throw out the challenge to the bracketed 'you', by way of aside: 'you choose' with its hooting owl vowels. 'Lone visage' (echoing 'distant face') and a similarly echoing ('flesh-struck, curse-furrowed, demented') and characteristically concise image, 'feud of a body', are opposed. 'Its words knelt uprightly so': oh, the pious posturing of expressive intention! 'No word nor rock for it': defying concrete manifestation. As a paradigmatic literary affirmation of self, Joyce's Molly Bloom's 'yes' lingers on. Longre's 'earthy screech of she-raptures' [Expurgation] or 'my yesohyes plea' [Up and down and the reverse] correspond. Here however, the poet identifies the duplicity of 'the fleck of your yes-eye against a no-mouth backdrop' like a Rorschach mask. It's the matter of emotional ambivalence: ('mistaking a noyes for a yesno' [Up and down and the reverse])

When the time comes launches by way of the power of the imperative, heads towards the diminuendo of the past participle in perfect pairings ('slaughtered days', 'strangled dawns'), and shuts down with a bold final framing by way of remarkable condensation: 'mere distorted painlines'. 'Mere' returns 'lone'; 'distorted' returns 'feud of a body'; 'painlines' returns 'curse-furrowed'. The syllogism is complete. As an accolade to Donne, it is pitch-perfect; as a contemporary adaptation of the sonnet form, it has both phenomenal integrity and technical brilliance.

A subsequent poem takes up another theme: the provisional uncertainty or conditionality of the modal auxiliary. Avoiding the blackest eye of might addresses the power of deferred response full on. (Later poems speaks of 'shredded oughts-to-be' (Fatum) or 'the perhaps of a mutability' (Épouvante)). Though this 'might' was never more ambiguous, its more obvious rendering being 'strength' or 'power':

Avoiding the blackest eye of might

-- its overfed despotism a maddening guile

I am a field a realm a route

an expanse of everdark crops


It works either way. The 'despotism' of the conditional? The 'maddening guile' of the provisional 'might'? The might of 'might'? Certain kinds of imagery set up camp in the realm of the ambiguous. It's obvious to state that there's a resolute irreducibility about the best poetic imagery, which is why it has been written thus in the first place. One can only sit in awe of the effect. Eliot spoke of 'the image of absolute necessity' in his essays on metaphysical poetry. Pound described an image as 'that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time'. HD's early Imagiste poems come to mind: they are elusive in terms of explication and are already impervious to reduction. Some of Laura Riding's experiments are also evoked for me, as in use of the present participle here:

Wreck-born snakes refusing to embrace

their wet down (never was a river redder)

crisscrossing their anathema

begging for parched soil and dryscape

(the perhaps of a mutability)



The uniqueness that is Blandine Longre's in this collection of poems is twofold, in my opinion. Firstly, she has identified a domain: the all-powerful operation of the instincts and vicissitudes, their processes, their drives and their vital interactions. Secondly, she has found a language and a form: a vehicle for their expression. It involves neologism, courageous experiment and a fierce intelligence to maintain such sustained control over the material. There is an immanence of the object in her writing which is entirely compelling.

Blandine Longre invites us to share an intensity of seeing, comprehending, reading the other and beyond: responding to the judgment call and interpreting the momentous subtlety of the moment. She has constituted an art of the matter of seeing: seeing in a most intimate and shockingly dynamic way. The irreducible integrity of the image that Pound once envisaged is herein extant. Clarities is an astonishing debut. Blandine Longre has unleashed a new, vital, metaphysical animal upon an unsuspecting public. Be warned!

Purchase your copy here:

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Let's Get Visceral...

I am in receipt of two volumes of poetry from the newly formed Black Herald Press. Blandine Longre and Paul Stubbs have taken the bold step into publishing and have begun by publishing their own recent work. I am yet to read Blandine Longre's Clarities, though I have dipped in and caught something of the flavour and it looks very exciting. (Review to follow)
[Both books are available for purchase here:]

I have had a copy of Pauls Stubbs's second published volume, The Icon Maker (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2008), kicking around for a couple of years now. Occasionally I mislay it and I am troubled until I find it again. I read it at odd hours and have always found it strangely consoling, though 'consoling' is an adjective quite at odds with its visceral content. Stubbs addresses the condition of a world in which God is dead or departed and the religious impulse is atrophied. Flesh and bone remain, of course, in abundance. A review citation from Alice Oswald on the jacket states: 'Stubbs is one of very few living poets whose work I go back to'. I can only concur; partly because of the difficulty of consuming a whole poem in one or two or three bites - there's always more - and partly because of its stark, discomforting originality, so jarringly at odds with a contemporary idiom. As a 'culture consumer', I have got used to bite-sized poetry; there is, after all, so much to read, to listen to, to see. And this is one of the ways in which I think we are all prone to behave; we don't commonly make the effort. But Stubbs has already discerned the 'now logocentric impulse to remove Calvary from [the] mind' (Without Philosophy) and this very impulse is implicitly the foil for the kind of writing he is doing.

Then there's the idiom. 'Calvary'? There are swathes of biblical reference in his writing. It's not fashionable to resurrect the idea of God, particularly a Christian God, or, further, to address a forgotten metaphysical landscape of apparently redundant images - and icons. But again, this is precisely the point; our atrophied sensibility can barely recognise the significance of that landscape:

After the crucifixion I found
that there was very little new
work, so, forced to wait for
the body of the next God to die,
I did this: I went back into my studio,
to create masks [...] (The Icon Maker)

There's also a wry, comic edge. On first reading, one is not alert to this possibility, apart from remarking the occasional parenthetic interventions, but there's an ironic undertone at work here. The juxtaposition of the signifier, 'Calvary', with the matter-of-factness of 'there was very little new/ work' is characteristically bathetic. Then there's the list-making curiosity of: 'I did this: I went back into my studio', which says so much more than the pared down 'I went back into my studio'. This kind of repetition at first appears redundant and runs against the grain of the poetic rule of a Pound or a Frost, 'use no superfluous word'. But Stubbs has created a distinctive idiom. His repeated pronouns, his 'I's and 'it's, at first seem like poetic tics or something approaching the French use of 'c'est'. It is this latter reinforcement which has the force of edict, and I think this is closer to the disturbingly courageous voice which is Stubbs in flight. He is uncompromising and the disparity of idea and matter are characteristically yoked together as in the Donnean, Metaphysical tradition. As a lone, prophetic voice in the wilderness, Stubbs evokes the historical significance of other such voices and testaments and they become of a piece with the kind of writing he is doing.

The new, long poem, Ex Nihilo, is a tour-de-force. Building on the ground of The Icon Maker, here a world of new beginning and becoming is imagined and its logics and incidentals pursued. It's a poem about the act of creation, and the poet's rib is the Adamic starting point for a prolonged meditation on the genesis of art, creativity and poetic consciousness. The 'I' which begins the poem is an 'I' which disintegrates, fragments, as the body becomes a discorporate symbol within a Picassoesque landscape of bone-rib outcrops and Svankmajeran intrinsically motivated, corporeal assemblages. Some of the phraseology is sublime. Here we have a temporary return of 'I':

as I, I milk back my ink
from the first etymological gland
of language,
while checking out each new sensory terminus
for the arrival of what makeshift or barbaric form?

This 'I', (this not 'I'), neatly encapsulates a tradition of dancing with poetic subjectivity, but has the matter of finding a true language been better expressed? 'Milk back my ink/ from the first etymological gland/ of language' is so alliteratively concise. Then there is the matter of form.

[...] Something double-breathed
and superhuman, but not yet me, no, only this,
this breaking free of a fault, of some
yet to-be-encountered sin;
(imagine a terrible but mistaken inhabitant
of your own soul)

This is a radical extension of dédoublement: eery and intensely unsettling. An unwelcome and fearful imagining born out of the naked shudder of the rawness of the new-born soul breaks in and is not readily discarded. The liminal consciousness of the poetic 'I' suspended in its bracketed container has both the force and the near comic innocence of a child conjuring a bogeyman. The potential for 'fault' or 'sin' always lurks, but there is a nascent purity which shimmers with all the intensity of a Blakeian, Manichean vision.

The Derridean/Lacanian/Barthesian philosophical axis, which reconstituted the language/meaning problematic, launched us all into an era of 'playfulness' and has, in some measure, informed quite distinct modes of production. On the one hand it has, partially, relegitimised the ludic world of the performative lyric, a mode already established in the mid twentieth century partly in reaction to T.S. Eliot's dominance (though his homeopathic trace remains); Simon Armitage would be a prime example of this tendency. On another, there is the radically experimental world of such as Scott Thurston and Tom Raworth, in which language is 'liberated' from syntactic chains and relaunched in a paradigmatic dimension. The latter school has some bearing on any explication of Stubbs's linguistic effects, in that his acts of dislocation mess with the syntagmatic apparatus and deliver new layers of meaning, and that meaning may be unbidden, novel, unsettling and affective.

Paul Stubbs's Ex Nihilo is the antidote to a poetry publishing current which appears to admit the most trivial of efforts. Poetry is a broad church and there's no intrinsic harm in accessibility. However, Stubbs is coming from an entirely different place. He's not writing for the reader who is looking for the habitual 'performative' element, though performance there is in every scalpel's incision. The poet as surgeon diving deep for the soul, excavates the flesh, avoids his own anaesthesia and confronts that primeval landscape in an acupunctural ecstasy with only the agony of an already conscient subjectivity echoing the necessity of intervention.

This review reflects an initial immersion in Stubbs's complex poem. I will inevitably return to this book and it will doubtless haunt me as did The Icon Maker. Ex Nihilo is a poem replete with original ideas, perspectives and perceptions. It eschews the 'duplicitous form, its goodbye' in an act of creative becoming. Herein, Paul Stubbs combines the power of the makar with the vision of the savant and manages nothing less than invoking a truly original word event.

Once again, here's a link to Black Herald where you can purchase:

Monday, 10 May 2010

Preserving Culture

Sorry, I haven't
blogged for a while. I have been too busy with other things

A recent film based on the life of the Russian poet and Nobel Prizewinner, Joseph Brodsky, [A Room and a Half (2009; directed by Andrey Khrzhanovsky)], depicts the ambivalent relationship of the artist in exile to the land which has expelled him. The matter is refracted through the lens of memory and coloured by the desire to return to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the fabulous site of a childhood spent with devoted and indulgent parents. Less concerned with the facts of a life than the incidents and incidentals which compose memory and which produced a poetry of paradox and metaphysical speculation, the film dwells lovingly on the many rich details which constituted the artist's home amidst the austerity of a diet based on the potato and the queue for the bathroom in a shared housing project.

One of the recurring incidental details of the film is the mother's gentle insistence that the young Brodsky drink his daily dose of fungal water. I recall that she describes it in the film as all that remains of a very old and rare fungus, and we can see what appears to be the remnant of a large mushroom in the murky liquid of the jar. This may or may not be intended to be one and the same as the fungal culture based on tea, 'kombucha' (grib - гриб), which, like the still very popular 'kvass' (квас), a fizzy drink based on stale rye bread and sold everywhere alongside Coca Cola and Fanta, is an enduring feature of Russian life. This microbiological culture of uncertain and ancient origin. with its enigmatic health-giving properties, is the perfect symbol and embodiment of culture itself and corresponds to the health of the tribe as it is preserved and handed down from generation to generation.

In Russia, the kombucha culture also connects with the idea of peasant life. The ideal of peasant life, as erected by the Soviet ideological apparatus, developed the harsh and venerable life of the peasant to the heights of an agrarian utopianism which would include the life of the dacha, the necessity of the harvest, the elemental constitution of cooking with fire and shitting in a wooden shed. The sheaf-bearing women and scythe-bearing men, always of sturdy stock, a stock image indeed, within socialist reailst art, resonate with ideas of abundance, health and vigour, and mastery of the land; they also remind of the essential connectedness with the conditions of nature and the beasts of the earth. Such images were an essential and established component of a mnemonic landscape standing alongside the bare-chested blacksmith or the soldier bearing arms.

Kombucha has its place now within the global health industry. It looks like crap, a kind of distilled ectoplasm, and possibly tastes like crap, thus appealing to the myth that the most effective medicines are the worst-tasting ones. It is also exotic and of uncertain origin, though significantly and indisputably organic; it thus has the mythic provenance of a perfect original organism: a kind of food from the amniotic swamp from which life itself originated. Meanwhile the jar on the shelf in the kitchen is like a large test tube or container for a self-contained chemical experiment. Like those jars of pickled foetuses or preserved body parts, it has, by analogy, a special mythos and topos, not least as burlesque apparition. In this ambiguous form, as 'scientific' phenomenon and ghoulish spectacle, the preserve jar has been exploited by artists and film-makers, not least Jan Svankmajer, to evoke the provisionality and absurdity of a corporeal condition, the conduct of science and, further, the concept and matter of preservation itself.