Tin Pan Arcadia, Robert Sheppard
[136pp, 10.99, Salt]
Hymns to the God in which my Typewriter Believes, Robert Sheppard
[93pp, 8.50, Stride]

These two most recent books by Robert Sheppard, the latter published this year and the former in 2004, signify, in turn, the completion of Sheppard's major work of the eighties and nineties, Twentieth Century Blues and the inauguration of new formal and textual concerns. Taken together however one can read across continuities between these books, not least in the inclusion of the text 'Pentimento' in Hymns, subtitled 'what happened next to Twentieth Century Blues' which the author describes as making use of three withdrawn texts from the earlier project. Another continuity is the reworking of old notes for Empty Diary poems as 'Impersonal Belonging' - Empty Diaries being another major showing of texts from Twentieth Century Blues, published by Stride in 1998.

To begin with
Tin Pan Arcadia, the title already speaks of the dystopic vision that Sheppard unfolded in Empty Diaries and later in The Lores. The conjunction of Tin Pan Alley - the cacophonous hub of popular music production in New York at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth - and the antique vision of paradise embodied in the word 'Arcadia', articulates in miniature the dominant formal means of Sheppard's writing, which he has described as an attempt to 'link the unlinkable'. As with The Lores, TPA is haunted by the multiple collisions between art and history in the twentieth century and, as a result of this collision, restlessly undertakes a major meditation on the ethical position of the artist. This meditation is pursued through the most dizzying array of formal approaches and thematic concerns, from vignettes of Thatcherite Britain through excavated fictional histories of the blues to a near hysterical fantasy on Robinson Crusoe. What is consistent within this welter however is the sense of address: tributes to jazz greats like Davis and Sinatra sit alongside engagements with writers living and dead: Lorca, Angela Carter, William Burroughs beside Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth. Andrew Marvell is here, but so is the Earl of Rochester. It is key to Sheppard's sense of the task of the writer in confronting history that the means of this can come through engagements with other writers and this is an approach which is carried forward in Hymns.

TPA is haunted too by the means of production and reproduction that litter the twentieth century. The pun on recording and recoding is key: 'street recordings' 'secret videos' 'walkman refusals' (p. 11) 'recording tape hanging from the branches' (p. 40) and 'old election posters' (p. 110) are markers of the way in which the book is drawn to the aura of historical objects whilst repulsed by the way in which such means of reproduction are used to control and manipulate: 'boys on the piazza listening / to hours of hissing leader / tape passing the heads of natural / outrage' (p. 15). The latter lines are from a text called 'Killing Boxes', Sheppard's sustained critique of the representation of the first Gulf War.

Many of Sheppard's poems operate with a kind of ghostly narrative: fragmented utterances abound cutting into images of violence and sexual violence - the whole (be)coming apart at the seams. The poems however are also at pains to reflect on their own poetics. The second part of 'Sharp Talk and Amended Signatures' announces 'commentaries in which the zeitgeist is ordinary perception, just things. A disruptive poetics is called for' (p.10) and it is this disruptive poetics that 'refuses to mean this world' (p. 17) whilst acknowledging the power of the 'polyphonic sentence' as it 'means a world' (p. 13). To name, to witness, to reflect; in language, in poetry, on history is for Sheppard a profoundly ethical act, one which is nevertheless caught up in the currents of desire: 'an ethic of pleasure in the shadow of responsibility' (p. 57).

If pleasure, desire and even love is part of the social fabric that binds us to others and to ourselves Sheppard catches its demise most succinctly in the conclusion to the sharply observed but outlandishly titled 'Abjective Stutter Expectorates Laugh of the Human' where the stranger caught on the bus is exposed in the announcement: 'It's taken / nearly one hundred / Years for her to fall in self-less love with herself (
Ha-ha, has it?' (p. 93). This vision of subjectivity emptied out by consumerism does run the risk of being only skin-deep however, whilst the more extended argument of the (also absurdly titled) '31 Basalt Wind Chimes for the Window Box of Earthly Pleasures' is perhaps the key exploration of this theme at length. The poem's title is in fact a rather good joke on Joseph Beuys' sculpture 'The End of the Twentieth Century' - the title also of a strand of Twentieth Century Blues of which this poem is number two - in the way in which it imagines the enormous basalt blocks that form Beuys' piece as dainty hanging objects that can chime. The poem is built of short paragraphs each announced with a large 'o': possibly symbolising Beuys' blocks in themselves or the conical sections cut out, wrapped in felt and reinserted into each block (as well as the Romantic exhortation 'oh!' and/or the shape of an open mouth):


A single voice on a single page - there's music enough. The newspaper vendor
cries: '


Plonk (see plunk); his rush of pleasure haunts the paths of sense with sensation


But that spooky charm is not earthly goodness as one would want to know it!

(pp. 105-6)

Like many other places in Sheppard's poetry the voice is at once ventriloquial in its deep ironising of public discourse and in earnest in terms of the theme it tries to grasp: 'a sensation that is almost an emotion an aubade an algorithmic simulation' 'constituents of pleasure are not to be taken for granted' (both p. 107) 'the right to pleasure, as under statute. A unit of pleasure, its animus (Who needs devils with gods like that?' (p. 108) A fuller account of these statements might trace the influence of recent French thought on the understanding of the relationship between body and mind and the implications this has for politics, but the comparison and contrast Sheppard makes between 'right' and 'unit' in the above quotation seems to capture the argument in microcosm - that the human risks imprisoning itself in the name of liberating desire. As a paragraph from near the end of this poem puts it: 'the infectious eye catches pleasure being caused. The unhasty song when responsibility descants as response' (p. 109). This section conveys a reading of contemporary subjectivity as bound into mutual monitoring and censuring of desire; leading to an avoidance of responsibility when it amounts to a necessity to respond to the world one finds oneself in.

A significant part of the pleasure that I gain from reading Sheppard's work is in this relative freedom to pursue connections, to build readings, to take responsibility for myself in my encounter with this text without feeling that I am not permitted to read in this way. True, the relentlessly fragmented and fragmenting formal patterns of this text are a challenge which not all readers will wish to undertake, and certainly the more, shall I say, excessive instances of sexual imagery and genuinely
bad language ('You fucker!' she says for the first time in English art' (p. 113)!) will put some readers off. This is not a comfortable book to read, intellectually or emotionally, because the realities of which it speaks are uncomfortable realities: the sexism of western societies, the widespread oppression of poor nations, the relentless presence of consumerism are all fuel for its unabashed anger. To tame and tidy up this powerful feeling into more regular and polite forms and patterns of argument would simply fail to convince. Reading this book leaves one with a sense of horror at the injustices conducted in our names every minute of every hour of every day, in the past as well as in the present. It is a testimony to Sheppard's bravery as a writer that he leaves no impulse in himself unacknowledged or disregarded. It's all here in livid, snarling technicolour - a deconstruction of the self spilled all over the face of society.

The pace, tone and rhythms of
Hymns to the God in which my Typewriter Believes hit a more lyrical waveform than much of TPA, and yet its basic m.o. is very similar. If anything, Hymns is more directly concerned in many poems with coming to terms with the nightmare of history in terms of the Holocaust, as poems dedicated to Charlotte Saloman and responding to Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, indicate. This is a continuing project informed by Jacques Derrida's response to Jean-Francois Lyotard's book The Differend on the ethics of writing. Derrida's exhortation 'one must make links with Auschwitz' haunts Hymns as much as Twentieth Century Blues, and also anticipates the ethical base of the continuing engagements with not only other writers in general, but with specific works in particular: a method which Sheppard calls 'texts or commentaries'. However it is clear that for Sheppard what constitutes a text can as well be the multiple texts generated by the occurences of September 11 - wryly and poignantly reflected on in 'Closing the Books: Locking the Chests' ('How once we were to have become so simply human' (p. 31)) - as well as the successive drafts of Anne Sexton's poem 'Wallflower' which are commented upon individually in the title poem.

There is a risk of course in tying-in poems so specifically to 'source' texts from which they gain their creative impetus. Sheppard points out that his poems were composed as 'responses to, writings through, alongside, against, out of other works of art' but that 'they were intended to be read independently as well as in relation to'. Sheppard also provides a list of his sources but comments 'this is not a reading list'. The slightly contradictory nature of this statement underwrites my view that whilst it is not necessary to have knowledge of the texts that Sheppard responds to, it helps. My reading of the poems when I knew the source text was richer for being able to make this connection. With innovative writing such as Sheppard's - whose basic aesthetic premise is, to use Roland Barthes' distinction, to generate a writerly, rather than a readerly experience of a text - it seems to be almost essential to an understanding of the book that as many of its original sources can be acquired and responded to as possible. This allows one to get closer to the act of writing, in a way the poems themselves would appear to encourage.

The way in which these texts hover between their existence on the page and another text elsewhere does nothing more than make the concept of intertextuality a self-conscious part of its construction. All texts do this, but some do it more than others. The risk for this reader in places was a sense of the text as a wilful simulacrum of another text, one that in essence didn't stand in its own right. The fact that some of these texts are also free translations (of poems by Mandelstam and Baudelaire) makes the point even more urgent. I gain more from these poems by reading the Mandelstam and the Baudelaire - as I do by knowing the drafts of Ann Sexton's 'Wallflower' - because I get closer to my sense of what interests Sheppard about them and why he might respond to them in the way he does. Sheppard's work risks putting off readers who want their books to appear as independent, self-sufficient, portable art works in which they may set sail with no further equipment. I confess that sometimes I am one of these readers, and the by turns frustrating and illuminating experiences I had whilst reading this book seem to have devolved from this double aspect of when references are recognised and when not. The truth is that one always brings something to a reading or a writing, but one can't bring everything. My advice is to pursue the texts in Sheppard's sources if the poem interests you - it will repay dividends.

What do the poems in the book look and feel like, what are they about? Beyond the general organising theme of the intersections between literature and history and the ethical dimension that the book enacts, the specific stagings of poems in the first section of the book 'Texts or Commentaries' find us confronting the image of the female artist (Saloman, Loy, Sexton) caught up in the male gaze; a couple wrestling with each other at 'the wrong end of unreal relations, worked-up emotions too abrasive to delight' ('Impersonal Belonging' p. 14); the body splayed out and dissected as the guts of history: 'Squeeze / My Skull Until Some Sense Squitters / Out' ('Echo's Clones' p. 19). One of the most effective techniques Sheppard utilises is a kind of over-punctuated prose, breaking down syntax into implosive and suggestive patternings, often counterpointed by pun and repetition:

It's written. Off. Writing. Of. Our loves. Over your lives. Through your lines.
('Pentimento', p. 40)

The Reader of Bernhard Schlink' constitutes the second section of the book with its urgent meditation on history as it accompanies, shadows and mirrors Schlink's text:

The past is read as a dream. Read
in a dream. Mis-read in a dream as merely a dream.
(p. 47)

The past is faceless. Isn't faced. Evinces few responsibilities.
(p. 49)

The poetry of Paul Celan is alluded to by the image of 'Black Milk' (p. 48) from Celan's famous 'Todesfugue' (aka 'A Death Fugue') and the French writer and member of Oulipo, Georges Perec, is quoted as a critical frame: 'the literature of the concentration camp does not get attacked'. The poem as a whole explores a poetics of writing as it relates to history, articulated in statements such as: 'Forgetting is louder than memory' (p. 59), 'History has learnt to read itself' (p. 60), 'Commentary on a text is a decoy' (p. 61), 'Of the other stories. That didn't escape. Other readings' (p. 62). A unique moment in this text however is when the writer turns us aside for just a moment to allow us to glimpse the scene in which he is actually reading (writing):

I read 'We were freezing' and I am. Two days away. The house will not warm. Fish at the bottom of the tank. Shut down. We clutch a radiator all evening. [...] 'We were freezing' is the last sentence in the world I want to read. But I may not disavow it. I must vow to my hearing this saying'
(p. 50)

The way in which this sudden shift reframes the poem is hugely appealing and momentarily lightens the dense texture of the piece.

The final section 'Hot Between Poems' might be considered the most playful and diverse. Here are the versions of Baudelaire and Mandelstam, short odes, Oulipean transformations of Sephardic song and a remarkable text made of several smaller poems called 'In Memory of the Anti-Poem' dedicated to Czech collagist and poet Ji-i Kol-a-. The opening of this last takes us to a Prague street where the sounds of a typewriter being used are heard through the open window of a police station. The piece seems haunted by this obsolete emblem of production and reproduction caught up with power and art: the ultimate symbol of the twentieth century writer - comparable to how Beuys' use of the grand piano makes it function symbolically as the grave of western culture. However Sheppard's typewriter is more positive, or at least multi-valenced: the policeman is imagined typing 'indictment / absurdist epic / or intricate typogram' (p. 81) and it appears in the section called 'anti-titled un-poem' as the stimulus for a synaesthetic vision of words and diacritical marks in the air - the sound of the first poem seen - leading to 'the re-invention of the typewriter' (p. 85). It is also present in the final poem (from which the title of this review is taken) in which 'the final anti-poem' is 'written with our eyes shut / with the rattle of the typewriter' (p. 87). Other notes in this unpredictable piece include the hilarious take on 'praxilla's adonis or the first antipoem 5th century b.c.' featuring an anti-cucumber (!) and two 'evidential' poems formed of quotations from Kolar and referencing Kolar's own 'evident' poems which were primarily graphic statements. The first of these makes links again with Auschwitz in collecting the evidence of the holocaust: 'glazed room full of hair [...] artificial limbs / cooking
utensils' (p. 83) whilst the second suggests an uneasy conclusion for a book still haunted by the twentieth century: 'I too / fell prey to / 'the poetical illusions of that great and beautiful epoch / that was up to its eyes in guilt' (p. 87).

Sheppard's activities as a critic are well worth seeking out as a compliment to and context for his poetic work (his
The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents 1950-2000 was published by Liverpool University Press last year, and he has also written recently on Iain Sinclair) but it is remarkable to hear in a recent interview with Edmund Hardy at "intercapillaryspace" that Sheppard is also turning his attention to prose fiction. This reader for one eagerly awaits the published results.

Scott Thurston, July 2006.