The Slipperiness of Language

Misprint, James Womack (£9.95, Carcanet)
All Just, David Herd (£9.95, Carcanet)

‘What can we do to this word’ begins James Womack’s ‘Misprint’.

   Why not possible to make a poem
   Like a study for a painting?
      [From a Notebook]

A verbal proposition, Wittgenstein said, ‘is a picture of reality’. Under this view, a poet scribbling his impressions of the landscape will be representing reality via mechanisms that are analogous to those employed by his friend the painter, as he too opens his notebook and doodles here a line of shrubs, there a featureless cliff face.

Writing does not necessarily (as Wittgenstein insisted a picture must) contain ‘the possibility of the situation it represents’; words are more than capable of expressing an impossible landscape, of representing things that have never, and could never have occurred. ‘Misprint’ examines the tensions that this realisation creates.

Language, I imagine Womack may argue, is not only inclined towards misrepresenting reality, but also (by virtue of the complex relationship that objects have to their linguistic counterparts) inclined towards obscuring the very mechanism by which it represents reality. With no way to tell what is a picture of reality and what is is not, poetry becomes in ‘From a Notebook’ ‘like a landscape under/fog’.

As such, when Womack provides us with the web address for the U.S Department of Defense  as a title for one poem, the images that we find there do not correlate with his description of a gosu ‘
transforming targets/ into slippery sand and jelly’. When in the notes he insists that some details found in the poem ‘Tourism’ come from oral testimony, he knows that confusion will rise from his deliberate imprecision;  are we to believe that the italicised voice ( ‘not everyone// has-or wants- a historical homeland’)  has been lifted from oral testimony? If so, who was testifying and why should we believe them? The fog of words settles.

The cover of an issue of the pulp magazine Young Romance
(this particular issue adorned with the image of a crying girl, a kissing couple reflected in her sunglasses) provides the inspiration for a prose poem of the same name, a deliberation on how such dramatic images fail to reflect the text that they encase, let alone the reality that they purport to represent. Womack’s playful misinterpretation of tears as evidence of a virginal bukkake raised a wry smile.

‘Maisky Poems’ is a sequence whose titles are lifted from poems written by the Soviet diplomat Ivan Maisky whilst he spent time in prison. Womack assures us that the original poems are nothing like his; where the titles suggested snippets of a past reality; words again fail to adhere to what actually was and is the case. Womack’s notes serve constantly to titillate us with this unavoidable frustration.

‘Eurydice’  concludes the collection. The blurb tells us that it ‘draws the different strands of the collection together’; the virgin - now a statue, cleansed of her bukkake residue - reappears.

An analysis of how we can write about death given the slipperiness of language demonstrated in the pages that precede it, Eurydice begins with an epigraph that warns against resurrecting the dead in poetry for fear that they shall ‘betray nothing at all’.

Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, Eurydice suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek Myth that around which this sequence is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again.

   A man who turns to face the past is blind
   Because he forgets thing twice

Writing obscures even the most fixed of realities. Pop art tears can become something else entirely and the assurance that lines were lifted from oral testimony can assure us of nothing at all. Words, it is tempting to conclude, can have no purchase over  that which has passed into memory only. Chillingly, Eurydice backs into the mist and:

   surreptitiously, other people cut themselves
   into the film
      [III M.O.S]

The at times disparate images of David Herd’s ‘All Just’, though not surrealist in nature, bring to remembrance Federico Garcia Lorca’s ‘A Poet in New York’, a collection which similarly proffers images liberally, but with a distinct, oftentimes frustrating sparseness of connecting tissue.

The Situationist Internationals were an essentially Marxist movement. They recognised a world in which our exploration, both inner and outer, is controlled by geography and our perception of it, and  envisaged in turn a world in which  people drop ‘their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities’ in order to break from the ‘spectacle of society’. ‘All Just’ suggests this interpretation of our environment  whilst commenting on the structures that exert control, knowingly or unknowingly, on the lonely wandering soul.

‘To the historians – a letter’, a prose poem, paints a portrait of the grand shaft (a triple staircase situated in Dover and built so as to provide a means by which troops could manoeuvre quickly and safely in the event of an invasion) and the surrounding fortifications.  They were never called into the use for which they were built; parts of it are now long demolished, turned into tourist destinations or acquired and absorbed into a wider immigration control system.

As such, the poem explores the intended use of the fortifications, the ‘crowds’ of its modern day usage, its history which cannot fail to inform our understanding (present in quotes made by its designer) and the ‘imaginary’, present in the incompleteness of its modern day manifestation and the ‘possibility of controlled withdrawal’, the need for which did not materialise.

 ‘maybe there was a place here’ Herd suggests, hinting maybe that the multitude of ways in which we can understand this location combine so as to create a  non entity rather than a place; history usurping the capitalistic, touristic appropriation and vice versa. The poem concludes with a sentence structure seemingly built on skewed logic, an attempt to break from the multitude of prescribed paths of exploration and understanding:

   that the imaginary cuts deep
   This historian, ‘therefore
    off limits

The imaginary, the subjective interpretation cannot triumph over the pre existing, objective facts. History is made present for the benefit of the economy yet explicitly off limits; the citadel turned immigration removal centre a testament to this.

The first fragmented poem of  ‘On not being a man who is Piero della Francesca’ is chopped and rearranged in order to provide the remainder. Francesca’s style of painting was informed by an understanding of  geometry and perspective, each painting  essentially a reworking of the base geometric forms.  Herd provides a sequence built on a practice analogous to this, suggesting at once that though our surroundings are built with common motives, utilising common forms and materials, therein lies great possibility for creativity, subversion.

We are still ‘complicit moving equally among’, however. As in ‘To a historian – a letter’, the landscape can be reworked, but not subverted entirely. As such, ‘Song of the cigarette’ refers to an ‘inherited vocabulary’, portmanteau words providing a mild subversion that nevertheless relies on pre existing structures. Even Love can only be understood in objective terms in ‘3 notes towards a love song’ and ‘product placement’ pervades ‘Where things stand’

Despite the ‘Habeas/Corpus of just wandering about’  described in ‘We do this, we do that’, Herd relies on a prosaic depiction of the images he picks out, hoping that arranging them in various ways will provide poetic force.  The subversion that this book seemingly desires would find its kindling in this act of seeing anew. To put it in Situationist terms, Herd denies himself a détournement fix.

Having presented such prosaic fragments, Herd denies too his own agency.  ‘The poem splits’  in ‘One by one’, ‘craving sources of stability’ in a landscape that provides none. Whether this is to make a point about the difficulty of rooting poetry in rootless surroundings or not, the poetry suffers. Luckily, the ideas that are expressed fascinate enough to warrant a second read.

       © Thomas White 2012