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Tim Morris

review of Mincemeat Seesaw, by Keston Sutherland, (Cambridge: Barque, 1999) 


Part I (Themes)
Keston Sutherland's Mincemeat Seesaw takes up important issues facing younger poets, particularly in Britain, who so often seem enclosed by an aridly theoretical Language poetry on one hand, and the familiar blandishments of a tame lyricism on the other.
      This book continually asks how poetry might seek to engender the facets of its own conditionality together with its traditional appropriation of meanings which find modes of vision and release. Such a project might be usefully thought of as an 'ethics of capture', though an ethics which does not shut itself up a ritualised gathering, the efficacy of which relies only on the background radiation of a metaphysical matrix.
      There is as much pop here as scholarly dryness , and to lurch at the first instance does not drag its familiar retinue of some imaged depth betrayed. The poem allows itself a great deal, and it is at this aspect that we may feel the coming transmutation of linguistic freedom into echo-chamber, where rococo cutbacks and escape manoeuvres merely iterate this transmutation, which leaves them arid. Mincemeat Seesaw, we might say, has recognised this encroaching aridity and flirts with it. Its value lies where it does not succumb.
      To the larger building blocks first. Mincemeat Seesaw is arranged as three sections (or 'Fits') of twelve poems. 'Fit' is to the point as far as the arrangement is concerned, for how does one fit together pieces which take upon themselves, more or less blatantly, the appearance of occasional and episodic drawings from a stream of amended experience? Or perhaps, as the word implies, the burst of some critical pressure, with a hint of the epileptic?
In this way, the book's most immediate formal operation is to go some way towards de-ritualising the occasion of writing and locating a poetic of everyday context and open allowance of material. Familiar national domesticities of landscape, shopping, sex, travel and social contact are here attenuated into a modern reality which has undergone ever finer fragmentation of subjectivity's mediations, yet which retains a loyal commitment to poetry's more traditional claims of value.


      To screw down these contexts somewhat. The seesaw's first characteristic is the indiscriminate character of the events which seem both to motivate and be motivated by each poem as it appears, unrolls and disappears again. The formalised appeal to poetry's history of 'reserved' points of survey and justified culmination is present:
          On a Jut at the Cape of Good Hope
                    cannot yet despise with a baleful
          eye too slimfit
The negative presentation here is the wound of battle, even a survivalist instinct, implicating future entrapments to deny their dominance. But also present are the lower-case entrances which wish to mark their discretion and stealth, and in one case can enter the fray only via the smokescreen of an immaculate present event:
          started to rain then must get obliged to go
                    on to the go on route sallying
In this sense the ethics demand an earnest examination of necessary capture without denying the local power of words or phrases to weave a real agency into events. This agency is marked here by unexplicit 'romantic' sentiment, the reappearance of the poet's unabstracted agonies, the linguistic horizon the membrane of joy and pain. These preoccupations involve the poem with lyricism and the emphatic rather than with the ultra-refined and programmatic concerns of the language poetry it but superficially resembles, in a defamiliarising shrug which lacks a strict theoretical foundation.
      The 'ethics of capture' and the exploration of ways in which the emphatic may be authenticated from a market of agonising commitments is both the engine which has pushed Mincemeat Seesaw to relatively extended form and which has complicated its linguistic structures.
                    was a peachy rise in the mock
          up net addition to productive
                    capacity we swam through the air
          all night, fixed as a groat
                    and pelted with kisses to a ploy supple
          so far no but hacked out distract renew you
                    know death is nothing
          but a trump splinter of aggregate supply we
                    streaked through the night
          straight up put pelted with
                    all through
          the night repeat check pin not
                    too fast too what no I too
          little to make iterative, all through the night
                    a blessing I am to my own,
          only semi IRA,
                    semi tinned mackerel
Here it seems that the self-consciousness of rhythm attempts to achieve the translation of writing into adequacy with the more decidedly public immersion of political violence and ideology. We cannot be convinced, I think, that more than the replacing of one adroitness with another is taking place.

Photo of Keston Sutherland, Cambridge, 2000

Keston Sutherland

Cambridge, 2000

      Yet this is a book in which pathos-ethos relations are not simply credited, nor, in the fashion of much recent American poetry, where the politicisation of writing act and final artefact are left to fester across the poem as theory. Rather, Mincemeat Seesaw provides these relations as exemplars of both their encroaching illegitimacy and their location in a coherent life which frames them, trusted for a moment, and perhaps persuasive for longer.
      The 'I' is not banished here, nor is it left to fritter away the last of its ironic textual imaginings. It is primed, expectant, agonisingly mediated and concerned. The book's finest poem manages to control and justify that most difficult of addresses, the 'you' which attempts to claim publicity and self-correction simultaneously:
          a secular upward trend in vapid glee
                    as flowers their idle sweets exhale, relays
          love to the fathomed packhorse so-and-so,
                    the bees drowse out, investment peaks and suds
          of gayer prattle pong from washed out mouths,
                    the grace of tended variables to be borne
          not of yourselves, nor yet to tease awry
                    the flat-out frown and all it militates
          in favour of as wrapped in plastic rags
                    an Afric baby slender as an elf
          sidles in picturesque sedition, in
                    time to the beat of the fist in your heart which sprung
          open reveals the grip you achieve on love,
                    as you see fit to lunge at it, timing a gag in the dark
This address is successful, I think, because it enacts rather than pretends to complete a drama of the self and the social. The objection could be raised that the painstaking negotiation of those poetic enclosures bequeathed to the poet who can feed and clothe himself, and can freely travel to the sites of his distressed inspiration results eventually in a politics of total allowance, committed to nothing but the escape from commitment. Yet the wide allowance of event and posture does not consistently fall into this trap of a static and repeated significance.
      Instead, the book revels in its constant recomposition of elements which never achieve permanency but act to instate a dynamic ethical realm. As one poem phrases it:
                    put to the floor, which sunk
          out and stuttering may so uplifting
                    seem and be that truly too, aware
          awaits the term to deny this, it's
                    you or me and the sun
          sets up in ponderous flash wait for
                    ever so quickly and on
          what, for what to be finished...
                    ...and everything must
                    go and everything
          stays to
                    fro or sweetly
          swaying between
This charting of writing's captures, the agonies of authenticity, have begun to reach a fever pitch, and must reveal themselves as 'content', insofar as the subjective manifestations of an ambiguity which has arisen from the political context are directly addressed.
      This kind of bi-directional approach is a dialectic that can never rest, and even those images in the book which persuade through their beauty rather than their rhetorical force are usually encountered at the point the poet bids them farewell. The poetic image here does not regard itself beautified, but rather acts as a conveyance. The book's final image gathers the twin compulsions of situated commitment and its ever-present englobement by that it cannot enclose.
                    ...and yet to stay
                    is never either, cannot be put a sea-cut
          such piteous jokes and faces passed
                    up and away and ahead, to stay
          is a rising fall from the dead.
One senses from this series of poems that finally, it is the muscle of a committed and caring distinction that survives, The poet walks a fragile line between those enchantments provided by consciousness and the ethical demands of an almost unfathomable modernity. A challenge is set here, for those who may wish to rise to it.
Part II (Notes on Method)
Strapped to an aspect, each call the same, just paying respects with a brief nod, meet the family, there's some poison familiarity to get to the point, buried someplace under carcasses of vision duly amended to facts of slimming circumstance bevelled in to the setting down.
16/3/99, 19:30:47 (say) and don't know.
16/3/99, 19:30:58 (say) and do.
It has formerly wondered.
It will again, and however this unguaranteed will duly seed its certainty and remake itself.
That which must be critical courts that which does not care.
Whether it is bought or sold is of no consequence beyond our lingering which ends here. That is, we have disrespected them without remorse.
This is the coquetry of the modern writer.
It must be something else or the pain of loving. For the more one respects and is chastened, the more incorrect one is.
Some have written, some have thought to write. Some have said these may be collapsed, incorrectness corrected by respect.
Never have they demonstrated this procedure. List those processes by which the unknown is made known and trusted.
This is a facile exercise.
The objects which are not you either exist solely to be perceived or exist anyway without you or do not exist at all or are here by tacit agreement or all of these. Therefore I know what I know how to know and leave a clearing which must hurt me.
This image is a composite, or this sentence would be different were it written with the weaker hand.
The scent when I entered the room is still a delight, still unexpected. It will become less so even previous to when it really does. One could try and stop this, but would achieve nothing but a spasm, repeated over and over.
Now, clinging on regardless, the line falls away, logically never to stop, or waiting for the end which comes, if at all, as deliberately as it is started, not inversely but by the will, perverse or earnest each the same, or playing a pointless game to demonstrate nothing, or that agency will freely satisfy itself, or that point is held off beyond a moment anticipated by rhythm, or denied in rhythm's self-scrutiny and easily betrayed, the laziness it may take to continue, even a simpler desire to watch blankness slowly filled with a certain mass, pleasing to the eye which remembers or seems to a robin alighting on the canvas-backed chair looking in sharp alterations which by fancy are reproduced to prove it happened or suggest that it might, elsewhere, now his song has ended, which naturally tantalises, showing how not to succumb is lately to succumb, how the line wants little more than to continue, by a weakening pulse which stays in spite yet holds still the right, whenever it wants, or those reasons becoming until the only real ending.


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