Negotiating Territory

Emergency Window, Ross Sutherland (Penned in the Margins)

The first ‘virtual reality’ poem I came across was Doug Oliver’s ‘The Video House of Fame’, not the sort of thing you might have expected from his particular pen but it was prescient and inventive as well as hilariously funny in parts. Ross Sutherland is of the generation that have grown up with the new technologies and it’s hardly surprising that younger poets are now incorporating both the ‘form and content’ of the video game and its related thrills and anxieties into their work. Allied to this technological baseline there’s an element of storytelling which feels very Raymond Chandler or James. M. Cain, alongside the psychological S/F of Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard and William Gibson. If there’s a strong sense of pastiche in his work, which suggests the advertising industry as well as entertainment value, this is also a poetry which has a critical dimension and its value lies largely in this aspect.

While there’s clearly a heavy element of entertainment/distraction intended here, aimed mainly but not exclusively at a younger audience, as with The Simpsons, or perhaps more-tellingly, South Park, Sutherland’s work has a satirical, possibly also an ethical, dimension which embraces the dark side of things in a world increasingly hard to define, rationalise or feel comfortable in. Thus in ‘The Circus’ we get this:

   It was the year 2000, or possibly 3000.
   It was difficult to remember what my penis looked like
   amongst all those fake memory implants.

   I finished uploading The Circus.
   The city terminated my account immediately
   adding my name to a government list

   of unreliable narrators.
   All this was to be expected,
   yet the circus was irrevocable.
         (from ‘The Circus’)

There is also a strong focus on the actual process of composition in Sutherland’s work, as featured in the final section ‘The National Language’ where we are given a number of poems produced by ‘translating’ the work of famous poets using a computer programme and ‘bouncing the originals around, back and forth between different languages’. Take this extract from a ‘translation’ of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Morning at the Window’:

   With discontinuance cooking in our tunnels,
   probability rapidly stabs at tomorrow.
   Therefore, the lowest knives are at work in me.
   The provisional government is an egg! The moisture of a car’s soul!
      (from ‘New Edition of Windows’)

As a process I can imagine that this way of working can tend to become obsessive and it certainly embraces that mixture of chance versus formalism so beloved of the Oulipo. The results are quite interesting and occasionally funny though there is nothing here that really blows me away, which is probably an unfair thing to expect. As a way of re-working material from the past – a key element of the modernist project – it clearly has a traditional perspective and may provide one alternative to the process of practical criticism or close reading.

There is a more comic-book, deconstructive note to ‘Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-ha’, a re-working of Little Red Riding Hood, which again incorporates the techniques of the Oulipo, while having a somewhat knockabout feel underscored by a darker suggestiveness:

   The woman stepped inside.
   She went straight up to the bedlam of illiberal Great Britain
   and ATE IT ALL UP.
   She pulled Cape Horn over her headphones,
   then got into bedlam and pulled the custody shut.
      (from ‘Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-ha’)

And there’s quite a strong focus, as you might expect, on the subject of weaponry, as sampled in this extract from ‘Poet in Residence in a Toyshop at Midnight’:

   GUNS: each one with a clear purpose
   like the prose of Frederick Forsyth.
   Although you might not like the things it has to say.

   GUNS: a bad translation of pointing.
   Now we kill everything that interests us.
   Possibly just a faster version of how things were going already.
      (from ‘Level 3: Armoury’)

While this work is playful, energetic and saturated in the environment (if not the values) of late-consumerist society, there’s an edgy, anxiety-inducing undertone to
Emergency Window which hints at a social critique. Its author appears aware of this contradiction and the consequent tension is probably its strongest feature. That said, it’s also an enjoyable read on a less ‘critical’ plane, if you’re prepared to ‘go with the flow’. I can’t say this is the best poetry book I’ve read this year but I did find it a stimulating read once I’d managed to negotiate its territory.

      © Steve Spence 2012