Silk, Shame and Shakespeare

Silk Egg: Collected Novels, Eileen R. Tabios (132pp, Shearsman Books)
Illennium, John Goodby (84pp, Shearsman)
Shakespeare's Sonnets, Philip Terry (9.95, 151pp, Carcanet)

Eileen R. Tabios's Silk Egg presents 12 'novels' in 132 pages. There are approximately 360 lines of writing across those 132 pages, and each 'novel' is divided into 7 'chapters'. If you measured out a conventional novel (or even an unconventional one), 360 lines would be around 12 pages of prose. 12 not 132: so you can see that Silk Egg is really a book of scattered prose fragments; you clearly get a lot of white space for your money; and the epithet 'novels' is surely tongue in cheek. But all that white space puts a lot of pressure on the words that do actually appear. Sometimes they live up to that great pressure, with a pleasing and telling poetic image:

     The restaurant served a metaphor for a country (from 'Cambodia');

     Which is the stronger armor? Loneliness or pride? (from 'Rarefied');

     A beautiful murderer coiled against the front door (from  'Stubborn Entry')

But such pleasures are few and far between; certainly not frequent enough to keep this self-conscious book of prose afloat. Mostly it looks like this:

     Chapter IV
          The burgundian silk once flowed into a huge, floppy bow
     that he untied. Then wrapped around her eyes.
          Afterwards, he conceded, 'Yes, color has a scent...'

     Chapter V
          '...which I would like not to become a matter of elephants
     gingerly tip-toed on circus blocks,' she continues today as if
     the lack between them had not interrupted.

Once you get past the overly poetic mode, the  poor phrasing and obfuscating syntax of Chapter V, and the clumsy discontinuity between the two 'chapters', it sort of has something
. But not very much. And all that white space simply magnifies the inherent weaknesses of the texts.

John Goodby's Illenium is a book of collaged, cut-up 'sonnets', set around Swansea and the Mumbles. It deals with issues of shame ('a shame-rage spiral' p.46), and rambles in and out of the relationships of a cast who frequent the No Sign Bar. It is often erotic, irreverent, and extremely hard to follow, as the end of 'LV' perhaps shows:

     It will be barbaric, it will be unspokenly hopeless
     Marital-martial breaks     breaks the heart
     Years, ages, will wash over it.
     The apart-parts like unto a
biftek bien cuit.
     And lone, a memory tin   memoriam
     O evening fanfaronades!

The blurb says that this is evidence of 'the "brilliantly pointless" energies of language'. Hmmm. The cut-up lines are borrowed from many different sources, from poems, to scientific experiments and parts of popular culture, and are reconfigured throughout the 72 poems, so that you begin to recognise echoes, slight transformations and recontextualisations. This self-referentiality is figured in the first poem - 'Cut-up's corny; but that's what I am / While plagiarism is required' (p.11) - sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's political, sometimes it's a comment on the poetics themselves. I liked a few of the lines ('The heart an organ for pulling out the stops' p.17), but in these kinds of cut-ups, someone else might easily have written that anyway.

And then there is Philip Terry's excellent, rambunctious Shakespeare's Sonnets, from Carcanet. If you are already interested in OuLiPo, then this is a very welcome extension to what British writers are doing within the tradition, and if you are new to the OuLiPo's use of writing rules, then this is a great introduction to what's on offer. Buy this book.

Philip Terry's OuLiPo work has already been recognised in his own
Oulipoems, his translations of Raymond Queneau and, most recently, as the editor of a 50th anniversary celebration of OuLiPo ( These Sonnets extend his work in the field, and really do transform Shakespeare's sonnet sequence into a valuable and engaging celebration of the 'energies of language'.
In a short afterword, Terry explains some of the rules and transformations he used: every time the word 'time' appears in an original sonnet, for example, he introduced vocabulary from
The Times; 'sun' from The Sun; 'star' from The Star and so on. He also utilised noun substitution frequently (N+7); subtraction and reduction of the original texts; homophonic translation into lines which sound similar but use different vocabulary; substituting critical discourses about the sonnets into the new versions; monovocalism in which only one vowel is permitted, and so on. Comparing Shakespeare's original and Terry's versions of Sonnet 1, they work thus:

     Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
     That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
     But as the riper should by time decease,
     His tender heir might bear his memory:
     But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
     Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
     Making a famine where abundance lies,
     Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
     Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
     And only herald to the gaudy spring,
     Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
     And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding:
        Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
        To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.


Clone Kylie
     That thereby beauty's rosin might never die,
     As the ripper's memory fades
     In Portman Road.
     The contract for her eyes
     Falls through
     Making a famine where abundance lies.
     So lucky in love.
     Wembley's nymph,
     Herald to the pink iPod,
Withnail and I
without content.
     Tender churl
     Pity this glutton
     To eat the grave and thee.


We desire increase from hedge funds
     That Ruby's toes might never drop,
     But his hair bare his memory,
     As ripe cheese.
     But thou (contracted to Middle Earth)
     Feed'st thy flight's male with kneecapped fowl,
     Making a famine where Adebayor lives,
     Thyself cruel to elves.
     Thou that art
     Harold to the spring,
     Buriest thy corn dolly within thine own beard,
     And mak'st waste in noggin.
     Putty                                the world.

You don't need me to point up the many transformations at play here, and you can have as much pleasure as the next person unpicking Terry's endlessly inventive intertexts. Needless to say I was laughing out loud at the idea of Kylie, our 'fairest creature', being cloned (Shakespeare's first 17 sonnets are the 'procreation sonnets'), but that such mediated beauty is, by the end, mere 'putty'. Then I was cringing, as the Ipswich Ripper who recently murdered prostitutes on Portman Road brought Shakespeare's treatise on beauty, youth and procreation into a chilling contemporary context. Portman Road is, of course, where Ipswich Town play football, which then had me laughing again at the invocation of Adebayor (replacing 'abundance'), and the use of other contemporary signifiers such as the pink iPod for 'gaudy spring' and Sauron's eye from Peter Jackson's films of the Tolkien trilogy standing in for 'contracted to thine own bright eyes'.

Terry's reformulation of Shakespeare's famous Sonnet 18 is also a favourite - in light of The Bard's original take on Romantic Love, Terry's reinvention is funny, smart, and relevant to these days of binge-drinking, late-night sexual liaisons in town centres and the rampant spread of Chlamydia amongst those who take part:

     Sonnet 18

     Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


     Shall I compare thee to a Smirnoff ad?
     Thou art more shimmering, more full of zap;
     Icy winds do freeze the Russian steppes,
     And vodka's high hath all too short a date:
     Sometimes too cold the eye of Yeltsin shines,
     And oft is his bleached complexion dimmed;
     And every drunk through drunkenness declines,
     By cancer of the liver or septicaemia untrimmed:
     But thy eternal glimmer shall not fade,
     Nor lose possession of that zip thou ow'st,
     Nor shall death brag thou sup in his shade
     When in immortal lines like these thou glowest:
     So long as men can drink and take a piss,
     So long lives thine in this

Buy this book.
Have I already said that?
OK then, Buy this Boot
No? Well Buy this Border
Don't fancy it? Well why not Buy this Borzoi
And while you're at it, Buy This, Boswell
No? Buzz this Botulism
Byzantize this Boulevard
OK, I'll say it again, just Buy this Bouquet.

       Andy Brown 2011