Absurd Narratives


Darwin
, Tony Lopez (Acts of Language)


A book with a title such as this one inevitably comes 'loaded with baggage', as they say, yet Lopez's latest collection, forty four pages long and presented in prose sections, has a lightness of touch even where its montaged sentences are dark in nature and suggestion. There is an abundance of material culled from a wide variety of sources, much of which deals with aspects of science and natural history yet the only direct references to 'Darwin' obviously relate to a different person altogether, a minor fraudster who:

                    pleaded guilty to seven charges of
     deception and one charge of making false statements to
     procure a passport.

I'm not sure what Ruth Padel would make of this but Lopez's absurd 'narratives' weave a rich tapestry of ideas and associations which are often skewed but thought provoking as well as being extremely rich in their textural balance and euphony. Themes recur and are reprised and satisfying connections and disconnections are repeated along the way. One such is the use of camouflage in nature as related to the man-made camouflage used to disguise tanks in the desert during World War Two. Within such commentaries lie the kernel of a social critique and while I've often been dazzled by the aesthetic surface glitter of Lopez's poetry his ability to combine this with a political angle is both subtle and impressive.

There is enormous wit and humour here and sometimes you can't avoid out-loud laughter:

                                                                         My work is
     now nearly finished; but it will take me many more years
     to complete it, and my health is far from strong.

The tone here is one of high seriousness, but the absurdity of its contradiction  undermines the tone and when preceded by the sentence - 'America is bankrolling Afghanistan' - the context becomes more sinister and yet more absurd still. This method of taking material from existing sources and then rewriting or simply changing the 'meaning' by the shifting context caused by juxtaposition has been around for a very long time now but Lopez proves there is still plenty of life, as well as variety, in this form of processing. There is beauty as well, even where the lyricism may appear redundant or settled within a comic situation - 'They glitter like stardust in the afternoon sunlight'.
It's also possible that this way of working gets us nearer to giving a more complete picture of the interconnectedness of things than a more linear model would suggest. The book's title has more relevance given such a reading.

Other sources of cultural reference include the films of Alfred Hitchcock (the reader will probably think immediately of The
Birds) and abstract expressionist painting, motifs which recur every now and then and help support the overall framework. Although some of the juxtapositions seem more random and some work better than others, Lopez is frequently provocative and exploring in his use of material and never misses a trick when it comes to challenging received wisdom:

                                                                    To edit memory, sim-
     ply enter the new value of memory into the cell and press
     the enter key on the keyboard. The term 'intrinsic nature'
     is an expression that has caused more trouble than it has
     been worth.

Within these two sentences lies an encapsulation of the long debate between science and religion and the nature of the human condition and artificial intelligence. No judgements are expressed but I get the feeling that Lopez is as disapproving of the social Darwinians and their descendents as he is of religious fundamentalists. The context gives a comic tone to the writing which aids the entertainment factor and perhaps makes Lopez's 'dark materials' more palatable, but the serious nature of the project is still evident.

There is not as much material relating to economic activity and the machinations of the market as in previous recent collections by Lopez, perhaps again due to the book's title, but the relationships between the human species and other members of the animal kingdom are to the fore - particularly with regard to our nocturnal flying friends:

     Most crimes against bats occur in the lofts and cellars
     of private homes and will never be reported.

     Bat conservationists want to persuade builders that peo-
     ple and bats can live together.

This is a subject which recurs several times and although it is possible to detect a certain comic element within the framing, there is also a less clear suggestion that our relationship with the natural world is deeply flawed. The further hint, due to the 'domestic' nature of the conflict, suggests the darker subject of domestic violence and abuse. I'm reminded here of listening to Morrissey talking recently on the radio about his abhorrence, from an early age, of the existence of abattoirs, and his equally precocious perception that this wasn't a problem for most people.

A further example of this lies in what I take to be culled newsprint extracts relating to the plight of whales recently found returning to the Gulf of Mexico in an apparently exhausted and starving condition:

                                   Skinny whales arrived in Mexico after
     swimming from the far reaches of the Arctic Ocean.

As far as I can recall the evidence for the state of the whales' condition has yet to be gathered but it looks as though over-fishing and pollution has had a devastating effect on the mammals' food source. Similar snippets relating to the fate of the disappearing bluefin tuna, a fact seemingly attributable to an increasing demand for sushi, appear throughout this text. While Lopez 's approach is very different from, say, Heathcote Williams' passionate, singularly-focussed and information-loaded polemics against the capitalist despoilers of the planet, Darwin
does seem, in the main, to have an ecological thrust as its main agenda, unsurprisingly perhaps, for a concerned citizen in times such as ours.

There's still plenty of scope for satire and comedy within this writing and the apparent celerity and sense of movement can appear interestingly at odds with the overall smoothness of the text. I doubt that the non-sequitur has ever been so well-used to create such a seamless effect.  Lyrical moments also feature:

                                                                 These plays pro-
     vide a sort of comfort food for viewers too discerning  to
     watch reality TV. Gentle winds blow away every unhelpful
     thought. Other reporters said the monks were unable to leave.
     In citizenship, for example, what is a Lembit Opik?

The cover incorporates a very painterly-looking photograph of an Icelandic landscape by John S. Webb.

        Steve Spence 2009