Human Matrix

New and Collected Poems, John Seed
[9.95, Shearsman Books]

One of John Seed's favourite words is 'matrix' - it crops up in quite a few of these poems which span twenty years:

     Locked within a human matrix the
     Park is quiet
               ducks drift dreaming on the murky pool
     Then converge towards us
                                  we have no bread no message
          ('History Teaches')

and 'To a matrix/a kind of language in 'After Time', for example. I wondered about this, and felt that this word was an appropriate one for characterising Seed's lattices of thought and movement. The dictionary, most poetic of collections, provided some insights. A matrix is 'an environment or material in which something develops', 'a mould in which something is cast or shaped', 'a grid-like array of elements' and comes from the Latin root word meaning 'mother'. Why all these definitions? Because Seed's work is about the tension and convergences between form as a developing or 'moulding' environment, which is both 'grid-like' and free, a place in which linguistic elements are allowed organic-play whilst being tightly controlled. He often quotes social theorists, for example, Adorno at the opening to 'Interior in the Open Air' (1993): 'even in the most sublimated work of art there is a hidden "it should be different" '. These poems have undersides which emerge if they are listened to, given time and attention. Small human elements appear within the powerful landscapes that Seed evokes,

     like milk in the yard the moon
             comes to the gate
     bright with Jupiter overhead
     (alcohol he went upstairs

The unclosed parentheses move beyond the poem, respecting the outside and the beyond of the writing.

In poems like 'Stalactite and Stalagmite' Seed's economical turn of phrase and ability to make the small speak philosophically is exemplified, 'a process of addition/human and not human'.

Even the placing on the page respects silence, with poems such as 'Back Street' presented half-way down, leaving a long breath before they begin, a kind of settling: 'these spaces the mind moves through eyes/Like beams of light in abstracto'

Seed is fascinated by the notion of the familiar as 'alien' - alienated because the human environment both is and is not under human control, a matrix that if formed by also forming. Alien because of the consumerism to which we are subject:

     Impenetrable     England's coast this
     Alien place

     Ragged clouds in the wind
     Over Holland before dawn

     Saltwater foaming on shingle along Spurn

     Alien powers

     In the mind but in space I

     Stand at the window     image
     Thrown back on glass against blackness

Here, Seed 'penetrates' and does not penetrate both the individual mind and the landscape which is attempts to contemplate.

One of my favourite pieces in the collection is 'After Walter Benjamin' in which Seed imagines 'history's angel' - the making flesh and blood of historical and political theory. It is a dramatic and energetic piece:

     Storm blowing from the beginning

     History history's angel
     Hurled backwards into the future
          tattered wings spread, ears deafened
     Watches the debris climb skyward


He beautifully explores the detritus of Capitalist life, broken objects and produce, through precise detail, the ability to defamiliarize sound and movement and repetition. Emptiness, broken streets, bricks, objects and thoughts themselves, fragmented and ownerless as the detritus itself. This is a T.S. Eliot sensibility in which the language of language is itself objectified - mentions of verbs and grammar finding their way into lists of objects and details of the environment.

In a sequence of poems from Transit Depots (1993), it becomes clear how Seed's work is developing these themes. These poems remind one of aphorisms or riddles and have the appearance of dramatic monologues through the patterning of their language. They give the impression of having been constructed from news accounts or articles, creatively spliced together to suggest voice. They may be arbitrary patternings, but this creative rendering reminds that arbitrary linguistic patterning may be no more or less than who we are. That said, the accomplishment of the poem is to go beyond and make meaning from that which is accepted as pattern. Sometimes these splicings seem empty to me, at others incredibly moving, which is almost certainly the point.

What Seed does so effortlessly is detail. In a sequence which appeared in
Three Wednesdays in July (1998) he presents 'Another Street' then 'Fictions of Space' and then homes in on 'Diamond shaped panes/carved globes of wood/Under  jutting storeys'. These are words you can run around the mouth.

The forty-eight haiku that form 'London Starting from A' are also stunning:

     St. Antholin's spire
          Watling Street still in a
               Sydenham back Garden

The London of Seed's contemplation is transformed, made alien, turned to a 'human matrix' both controlling and creative. The best of Seed's descriptions are spare, quiet, respectful of white space, and speak clearly out of silence. I'll leave you with one of the best sounds his silent words make, from the mouth of a 'little slattern girl':

     screams watercresses through the sleepy avenues.

              Abi Curtis 2005