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!

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