A Wonderful Thing

Flesh, Paul Stubbs (8.50, Black Herald Press)

Challenging concepts, developed into a project-length exploration. A rarity in contemporary poetry; even the experimental scene is patchier in these than it should be.

Paul Stubbs' poetry is full of such ambition - pursued with a terrifying metaphysical and theological energy. It comes from an almost forgotten (and intensely unfashionable) idea of poetry as the threshold, the outer limit, for linguistic exploration of self and existence. The war-zone between transcendence and decay: metaphysical, ontological, eschatological:

     ...and with metal or steel not flesh grafted onto his bones

     as he emerges  clear of the final ruinous city of the world

     (its floating brick-wombs , its hose-sustainable hells,) but with

               a now incorruptible look in his

               eyes when seen through the

               magnifying glass or telescope...

Not a good-fit for the UK 'poetry scene'. No simpering laughs or flatulent gasps. No residencies with the bovine, composing epistles to the cretins, over 'gut-bucket' burgers -  with a free pint and first collection prize thrown in.

The usual English comparisons simply don't apply. No post-ironic surrealism, no still-born 'experiments in form', no drip-dry epiphanies by tremulous yet sickly seers.

Even Hill seems less intense - almost anecdotal - in comparison. It may sound absurd, but Milton is the only English reference I can make - even then, there's no narrative element in Stubbs. But the poem's almost symphonic opening reminded me of Lucifer's (and co-conspirators') devastated awakening, the stumbling slow dawn of the fallen angels:

     ...And so flesh, yes, remember...So just what would become of us all

     then without it? Would we, upon some far-flung shore of

               the universe, merely crouch at

               that point in time where the flesh-tides

               of all other beings collide?

More than Stubbs' Ex Nihilo, this poem has a rising drive throughout, a sense of manic compulsion in the writing. Inevitably we are reminded of Une Saison en Enfer - the suicidal attempt to refashion an entire mode of expression, a new poetry, from the scraps available and the poet's mind. And also the energizing sense of disgust at the artistic limitations, in any mode of expression (hence the references to the painter Francis Bacon):

     (All eschatological self-adjustment

      whether theological or otherwise

      achieved by fingering now of the

      fossil of already dead words.)


This is 'outsider art' from its content, despite its complete absence of any contemporary references. The sheer erudition is breathtaking and uncompromising - the Hill comparison can be made again, but there's no sense of Hill's wilful obscurity (and what that hides). Stubbs worries away at his obsessions, risks everything doing so, but in full sight.

As a reader, I was taken along by this energy, commitment and daring - despite having very little interest (I thought) in the central questions he addresses. And that is surely a significant compliment.

The tone, the feel of this long poem, is one of jagged syntactical switches, with dizzying shifts in perspective (although I would have liked more of these in register). Vertiginous would be the poetic word, which is - tellingly - often applied to Milton:

     Yes, but with now

            a new and unclassifiable start for religion

            when the astronaut, upon an alien planet,

            inside of a grotto, or deep red mountainous

            cave, he re-discovers it: a chalk-drawing of Christ,...

Stubbs is co-founder of The Black Herald Press. Their books are beautiful productions. What a wonderful thing, to react with such disgust and publish from Paris - emulating the great role it played in early/mid 20th-century English literature.

Of course, we also have a thriving non-mainstream poetry scene, with some magnificent presses and poets. The projection of that, both here and abroad, is the problem. Tom Raworth and Hill are increasingly international figures, as is Roy Fisher (although more in the Anglophone world). 

But the French look on in stunned horror, at figures like Duffy and Armitage. The former recently read at the legendary Shakespeare and Co., on the Left Bank. It went unreported in the English press, but apparently a small group of avant-gardists, dressed in gorilla costumes and armed with strawberry flans, disrupted the flow of epiphanies.

Oh witches, poverty, hate - I have entrusted my treasure to you.

         Paul Sutton 2013