Hold is a great
word. It's one of the best titles I've seen all year. Here, in order of
occurrence, are the first things the word 'hold' suggested to me: The hold
button on a fruit machine. Holding someone. Holding something back. The hold
of a ship. Holding forth. Holding someone's attention. The dictionary
fashioned me with several others: To be able to control the outward effects
of drinking beer; A tenure of land - smallholding; controlling influence - she
has a hold on him; to hold for - to apply
to or be relevant for; to claim; to have responsibility for; to own; to
remain fast or unbroken; to restrain; to maintain.
That's a whole load of meaning. I am frequently left cold (and lonely and
frightened) by linguistically experimental poetry, but there is an inviting
richness of association in Thurston's title that is at once encouraging and
puzzling - and that stands for his poetry, too. It seems to say, 'Come on in!
The water is a tasteless, odorless universal solvent. But it's lovely!'
Furthermore, Thurston's first full-length collection is the result of ten
years work and incorporates not only his hellishly difficult (but nonetheless
rewarding) linguistically innovative stuff, but also his beautiful, lyrical
meditations on selfhood which are powerful and well-crafted.
'Rescale', a series of 30 prose poems is stunning, taking in the
sound-associations of Sheila E. Murphy and the philosophical abstractions of
Ashbery and Creeley and doing the whole thing pretty damn well:
cleric distinguishes the west long ship who's trembling, for what has
sacrificed to art let it not take human shape. Constructed as if there was
waiting in the wings clipper; a convenient weakness.
Some later prose poems compound Thurston's mastery of the form - the flashes
of surreal brilliance in 'Let's Talk About Us':
A recoding of
a bell ringing - a clap of fanatical attitude. A fielder runs down
the side of a
mountain in posession of mouth, nose. Quick flash guard day; a
bread under leaves.
I believe it was R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe who admitted to relying on typing
errors for the majority of his early lyrics. A 'recoding of a bell ringing'
(as opposed to 'recording') is particularly rich in allusion - the meaning of
a bell ringing has changed - and it could be a church bell, an alarm bell,
the bell of Pavlovian conditioning. As in the title, there is a generosity of
association to Thurston's conjoined phrases and word-salad that outstrips
many of his contemporaries.
So Hold has been something of a
revelation for me. I don't usually appreciate linguistically innovative
poetry. For me, a lot of it goes no further than saying, 'Have you guys ever
noticed how much the word I
sounds like EYE? Or how Joan
Armatrading sounds like Joan
Armour-Trading? Like she's in the arms
race or something? Ooh, really makes you think.' Or that Fast Show sketch where a performance artist repeats the word
'carrot' twenty times and then says, smugly, 'It's lost all meaning.' That
said, I used to be so into bands like Labradford and Autechre that I could
happily listen to a washing machine for five minutes before I realised it
wasn't a song. Does that matter? I'm not sure. I think music carried on
evolving whereas innovative poetry got stuck somewhere around the 70's. The
same new ground being broken ever since - and nary a crop in sight.
So, like modern art and free-improv music, linguistically innovative poetry
is a matter of trust. And it's pretty subjective: I trust Raworth, but I
don't trust Prynne as far as I could throw his Collected. I started to trust Scott Thurston on the first
page - and by the time I'd reached his more traditionally structured
sentences (round about page 80) I felt thoroughly engaged in his vision.
Some of the shorter lyric pieces are so simple and elegant they make me want
to cry. Without ornamental dramatic event or dialogue; without withering
observations of members of the public that place the poet at an Apollonian
height; without pretence, Thurston sums up precisely what it's like to be
alive most of the time - a sort of low-level, unaccoubtable irritation:
Leaving the house for a walk,
the steps I dart
in front of
Up below the
On my return,
in front of a
Making my way across,
This is the great theme of Thurston's more lyrical writing: a meticulous, but
ultimately doomed judgement of the self. Among my favourite passages is the
following last stanza from 'Immaturity':
don't want to feel superior to
My friend who
respected me who emigrated
Where have I learnt this harsh
from? How can I escape the superior
Thurston engages with the hydra of subjectivity with a refreshingly
level-gaze and, occiationally, with ferocity and wit. 'Adult Toy' concludes:
seriousness generates a
levity in me - I would smile or laugh to combat its
Flick the fucking switch.
Anyone else notice how Ron Silliman, for such an arbiter of taste, isn't
often that good at saying why he likes something? Time and again his analysis
goes no deeper than, 'Doesn't the word 'chimp' sound great? And doesn't it
sound even better when it's next to the word 'pendulum'? Well, for that
reason alone, Chimp Pendulum is
the most significant book of its generation. Nine thumbs up.'
(That's not an actual quote). Still, if it's good enough for Silliman the
Magnificent, it's good enough for me. 'Touch Watch', the opening poem in Hold sounds great. It has as satisfying a mouth-feel as
a marinated chicken breast or al dente pasta or a tortilla chip. 'Touch Watch' is thoroughly satisfying to
read aloud - 'us two lying in a circular notch / rotating', 'full of a cage
of anticipation' - and that's all I want from it. To hell with lit theory
critiques of commerce/religion/philosophy explored through an aesthetic
hegemony of the decomposition of language and meaning: This is a celebration
of how great it is to have mouths and tongues and teeth and voice-boxes.
Elsewhere, the frenzied repetition of 'Speak for Itself' ('speak / speak for
itself / itself / no it can't speak for itself / itself / gift is a wonder /
no you mask its speech / speaking for it') becomes powerful and affecting -
in the same way that Beckett's 'Not I' gets increasingly desperate and
Sarah Law's Perihelion
opens with a sequence of twenty sonnets called 'A Clutch of Monsters'. They
are classically accomplished sonnets. And there are twenty of them. Law's opening lines are arresting and
chess with the dark.
Calcified god in your anchorhold,
hump rolls over the hill.
My heart is
crushed. My mouth is full of juice.
Uncanny, engaging and unpatronising - the poet trusts us to follow her on the
monster hunt through the sub-conscious, baffling and disarming by turns.
Law's occasional use of rhyme runs from the playful and parodic ('each
pressure point adds water to the mill, and you're / a cabbage with a mind to
kill.') to the traditionally assured (...making me wonder if thunder wears a
dress, / and all the reasoning under the sun / can stop the burning savour of
distress.') If the lines do not run to iambic pentameter, phrases within the
sonnet do - and they resonate all the more for it. 'Hot Potato' is a
can see what
drives and chases after minds,
knives. Like weights
saint into the mud.
It concludes, 'You nastily organised network of pawns. / I'm game to escape
your drill.' Ouch. I can't remember the last time I saw the form used with
such confidence and innovation. 'Psychic', the final sonnet, put me back in
the same melancholic frame of mind as Thurston's lyric poetry; the monsters
that come from within:
My own good
nature eludes me; like a flash
in a fragment
of mirror, an old bad thing
I might have
done configures and distorts me.
The sequence is followed by the title poem and its opposite - with
explanatory empigrams: 'Perihelion' is 'The point in the path of a
planet, comet, etc. that is nearest to the sun' and 'Aphelion' is 'The point in the path of a planet,
comet, etc. that is farthest from the sun'.
These poems explore cycles of feeling; the need for proximity, the need for
distance (or the imposition of either). The cosmic / interpersonal parallels
explored here outstrip the life's work of any astrologer.
'Tai Chi Sketches' are suitably ephemeral for the sequence's title. The
beautiful 'Dragonfly Touches Water' begins, 'You make love to this moment.'
It's such a relief to find a poet that lives up to their reputation as
spiritual; a poet who doesn't simply name-check Tai Chi, but is actually
capable of conjuring a moment
of brilliant meditative clarity.
I've felt the need to stop reading poetry recently - to decompress with a
pile of novels. In fact, I've been seriously asking myself whehter or not I
even like poetry. Thanks to
Sarah Law, I've decided that I probably do. There are some gorgeous moments
in 'Tai Chi Sketches':
Your chunk of
browning fruit lies on the ground,
- want to check the leaves,
chicken for his prophecy?
'Snake Creeps Down')
This boy will
steal your peanuts.
Sit for a
minute, your eyes are gone.
and a whole
house blooms in a cage
trampolining on a feather).
(From 'Repulse Monkey')
darling. Meet me in the pub
where the bad
beer sprays out acronyms,
casts a pall
over this dreadful air, where
fallen apples to their nests.
'Moving Hands Like Clouds')
The voice is so strong and unexpected here; familiar yet disorientating,
funny yet unnerving.
'Heritage' was the first time I was wrongfooted by Perihelion. 'The lashes / on her closed eyes were
innumerable' annoyed me too much to concentrate - how many eyelashes does anyone have? Innumerable, I'll wager. However, I
completely got over this on the next page in which the tide unexpectedly
drags you under 'with a planetary power.' Superb. And the following poem
'Prynne Knows My Name' is really funny. 'It is the fuming of a censor swung
through / the plunge of agnosticism.' The self-conscious comment on
name-dropping seemed like a comment on how the avant-garde have gone from an
egalitarian de-skilling of poetry to a kind of shamanic self-propagation with
as concrete a hierarchy as the Catholic church. I'm not sure if that's what I
was meant to think. I haven't been sleeping so well lately.
'The Baptism of the Neophytes' is the longest sequence in Perihelion - 40 poems, all 20 lines in length. They are the
most fragmentary and difficult poems in the collection and I've been
grappling with them for some time. They have historical / Christian /
painterly / place names like 'Madonna in Maesta', 'Ultima Cena' and 'Madonna
del Voto' This excerpt from 'Morte De S. Francesco' is indicitave:
angels tonsured by despair
their lachrymosal job
a carriage of
and deep field
of drapery -
business of cowls.
I've chased up titles and references, I've re-read them over and over, but I
can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something. And I'm quite willing to
concede that it's an education. I had to look up 'Ultima Cena' to find out
it's Spanish for Last Supper. Sigh. Barring the occasional image, 'The
Baptism of the Neophytes' runs rings around me and I'm left wanting more
information. They seem not unlike psycho-geographical travel pieces - a
recording (or recoding) of impressions and thoughts. I can respect them from
a distance - and they're far more readable than most psycho-geographical
travel pieces. And that's about as far as I get.
I'm far more comfortable with poems about puppies. 'Pet Sitting' is the best
of its kind:
puppy dissipates distress.
passed alright, but Elmo's tail
wags in zen
essence of its own atoms,
a brace of
universal zest, perfect choreography
happened to have come along.
The concluding section, to which 'Pet Sitting' belongs, is a more varied,
accessible terrain - from the elegant personal reflections of 'Give and Take'
and 'Saint Teresa Contemplates her Futures' and the terse prose-poem /
haibuns of 'Reality Principles'. 'Meditation Topics for Women' is the perfect
denoument - as witty and fascinating as all that has gone before. I shall
leave you with a couple:
8. If a
sister should levitiate, is it prudent to take photographs?
12. How many
palm crosses does it take to build a workable two-sister raft?
Luke Kennard, 2006