back toJacket2

Jacket 20 — December 2002   |   # 20  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Pfleumer’s rolled gold

Andrew Duncan reviews

Paul Holman, The Memory of the Drift (Invisible Books, 2001, 19 pp.);
Helen Macdonald, Shaler’s Fish (Etruscan Books, 2001, 56pp.);
DS Marriott, Dogma (Barque Press, 2001, 19 pp.)

This piece is 4,700 words or about ten printed pages long

These are poets for whom there is no received opinion, so that the reviewer may find it easy to mislead the public but also has to do original work framing terms of judgment. If the poet’s affair is composed of two symbolic complexes, the poems they write and the lattice of projections and expectations through which the public partially sees their work, we may reflect that both complexes are still free (fragile and fertile) for these poets. In fact, I expect the landscape to change simply because of the amount of work now become available; reading has to be based on what’s available to be read.
      In the 1920s, Fritz Pfleumer (a freelance inventor) was working on a way of depositing gold on the tips of cigarettes (an accessory of the time) that would not come off on the lips of the gratified consumer, to leave a dead Pharaoh-like image. Having become expert on depositing metal solutions onto plastic backing, he invented recording tape. This chance find appears here because it resonates, for me, with the poetry I like: a thin film of something precious and oral, where painstaking technical changes open up startling futures.

This blur of angels
the trace
of a more brilliant
language. Some
diminish into cloud,
too rapid
[     [birds’ flicker
[                        ]
find a common shape
in flower
star, Medusa’s head:
their sign.

Sound is thinner than gold leaf. Holman’s work is based on silence and tension, syllables surfacing fleetingly as traces of some vast psychoacoustic energy. A note in The Memory of the Drift, a continuous work in 26 parts, describes the process of composition: a preset syllabic pattern (template) rigidly adhered to, text cut back to fit into it. One section was written over an erased poem. We are apparently gazing through a template (as a device of optical protection?) though which fragments of something much more massive are visible. The poet had difficulties, in a magazine, with non-isometric typefaces: i.e. where letters are different widths, so that ‘five letter spaces’ do not genuinely equate to ‘the space of five letters (side by side)’, and the matrix is not genuinely invariant in different typographies.

Even to number them turned
me stupid, docile
enough to be a medium
for their angelic

The template is composed of cells of which some mandatorily delete the text written into them (shown by deletion marks, thus [ ] ). An expanding spiral of white cycles through the second part of the book, engulfing the sonorous black, producing silence by a simple inversion.
      The conduct of the text throughout has a singularity and decisiveness, common to all three poets, which both blast them into a new and unexplored cognitive space, and lock them inside it. It is the fate of new poets to be singular before being understood. Holman poems are much more like other Holman poems than like anything else.
      I note that skrimslis an Icelandic monster, chronicled inFortean Times, possibly a sort of reptile living in lakes. Holman is apparently someone who studies cryptozoology while listening to techno music. (Or listens to zoo music while studying crypto-technology?) The reference to ‘Ben and Esther’ is not to a doo-wop group from Stamford Hill but to two stars of the punk-adornoite scene and sworn enemies of the Romanovs. The title ‘genii of the secret state’ includes a coded phrase, familiar to those who read Lobster magazine and related publications, referring to the intelligence services and their ability to make policies without parliamentary control. ‘Recovered memories’ of various events in disobedient colonies, or deniable assassinations, may have influenced his interest in erasures.


Macdonald arrives with more of a reputation than the others, since a wave of expectancy has been quivering up and down certain streets in Cambridge ever since ‘Tuist’ was published in Angel Exhaustin 1993, if not earlier still. Shaler’s Fishcontains twenty poems never seen before (at least around here), and has an prefatory quote from one Nathaniel Shaler about being given a fish and told to study it without any external help, presumably as a training in unaided (uncorrupted?) observation. Helen represented tomorrow for certain poets whose sense of their own idealism involved an investment, perhaps even a claim to property, over the pristine future. Even the way certain people were irritated by her work demonstrated a certain fear, of being overwhelmed by it, not unakin to admiration.
      The attribution of the word Cambridge to this work, as an adjective containing properties respected in the trade, was an attempt to prevent the future from happening by appropriating and normalising it. Such manœuvres do not give a reliable account of poetry dedicated to the transient present, to philosophical curiosity, and to a sense of surprise (and even bewilderment). The overall patterns made by the parts of the poem (which may on their own be as recognizable as a china jug, a swatch of fabric, and a bird) are distinctive and haunting. There is, sometimes, an interest in ornithology, and in the way an experience occurs simultaneously in several sensory modes. The excision of familiar teleologies, poetic or personal, has been fairly thorough. The appetite organising the poems, selecting, matching, and sharpening patterns, is of startling force, even if it has no name at present.
      Because the poems spend much of their time watching birds, we could envisage the poet as looking at human experience, by a delay of adjustment, with the same ‘heuristic complex’ of relating behaviour to a ‘state of mind’ with particular limits to available perception and processing power, and biases (to be called appetites). Listening to the experience, she is in fact identifying the local qualities of the equipment that detects it and plays it back: the tune does not exist outside the wood and brass of the instrument which plays it.
      Yet the converse applies, and the tune has to reach a certain complexity and simultaneity and self-absorption before we can hear what kind of wood the guitar is made from. If a goshawk is not seeing ‘the landscape’ but only a tune shaped by its own brain and optics, then... so are we. With one exception, I don’t want to get into exegeses of the detail of Macdonald’s poems.
      ‘Hitman.doc’ appears to be about a spy and assassin, the I-figure: ‘St Tropez/ hitman reads Merleau Ponty disassembling/ the .22 conceit.’ It is also named after a file type in the most popular word processing package. This is a cool assassin, with ‘musical thoughts on a heart/ shot for the afternoon’. Soft target (l.8) is one without armour, generally human, vulnerable to small arms fire. The tense and danger-defined tenor of most spy fiction allows us to register in contrast what is specific to these poems: the sense of ease, consciousness acting as a filter against banal preoccupations and their repetitive compulsions. In reality, most spy work is profoundly boring. The first lines define the tenor of the poem:

There is no bravery involved in recognition
existentialisms final take on globalising statements/ communism
your perfect petitobject/ control/ decision/ concert honest

It draws us into world politics, the designs of the leaders of the ‘Western alliance’, and implicitly the acts of adjustment which get other ideas off camera, and the ‘mechanics’ who take care of the adjustments: ‘clandestine violence and economic rationality are intertwined’ (Kees van Pijl), but pitches itself at the level of the individual consciousness, where choices are made and where paradoxes decline resolution.
      The reference to ‘Lobster27—36 on the table’ is probably about the Hull-based magazine of analysis of the Intelligence Services, rather than an academic periodical about bottom-feeders. I have Lobster36 on my table. (The file format may be a mutation of title-types like ‘The Arkadin Dossier’ or ‘The X-files’.) Lobsterhas interests in parapolitics, the secret state, transnationalised repression, psywar, disinformation, who struck John, ‘deep politics’, the ‘tables’ where business interests, bankers, officials, and the Intelligence services meet to formulate foreign policy.
      It has a link with the Dutch Marxist group (van Pijl, Henk Overbeek etc.) busy interpreting contemporary history by chronicling the contacts between business interests, academics, and government; an update of the old ‘fractions of capital’ analysis, for which capitalism is not a monolithic bloc but an arena where competing interests win or lose the competition. Carroll Quigley wrote the history of Anglo-American foreign policy up to 1966, not as a vague ‘conspiracy theory’ but as a connected story, a history of the policy-making elite. In this world, Quigley and Peter Dale Scott are the heavyweights, the authorities on a new and exotic interpretation of history. In a poetry world abrim with unemployed ideas, who could not be interested in how ideas get turned into practical policy?
      ‘the lithe muse on extremely sharp pure speed’ clarifies the word sulphatea few lines later. It helps the concentration at marginal moments and is a useful nutrient in paranoid projections. Whereas morphometrics turns anatomical form into information, ‘deep politics’ studies the economy of political information. One makes manipulation possible, the other makes it visible.
      If we turn back to the poem with this scheme in mind (about a Hitman, thoughts on parapolitics, details of preparation for a ‘job’), feelings of alarm and perplexity assail us. For, most of it is nothing to do with that. Oh. Maybe we can turn this ‘oh shit’ feeling into an ‘aha!’ sensation by theorising that the faithful prose data collector is just one agent in a mind which works by splitting itself, constantly, into several virtual minds, agents; that the efficiency of the rational agent is overdeveloped in people doing brain-work, and that the primary quality of poetry is to refresh the brain by rebalancing it; and that the poem is constructed in multiple planes, like a picture where there are multiple actions occurring at different distances from the observer; and that perhaps we have now seen its structure.
      My impression is that it is unified; that details have been broken down to a level normally unconscious to make fresh perception possible (while delaying recognition); that the order in which details happen is not essential (certainly not following a time sequence); that great care has been taken to make it beautiful and not didactic, and that indeterminacy of categorisation may correlate with a political opposition to instrumentalism; that questioning (at the conceptual level) is matched with finding (at the level of sensory detail, of which there is a great deal). This may prove useful in assessing other poems.
      I would also say that the poem is uncontentious; although it does not voice the slogans about unaccountability, media manipulation, etc., such ideas are part of the image complex invoked by the word ‘globalising’. Meanwhile, the inexplicit nature of the details offered asks for curiosity and conjecture — the primal acts of the Lobsterreader (if not of the lobster).
      The second most visible plane is the question of the influence of the weather and of visual stimuli on well-being. This is ‘clued’ by a reference to Merleau-Ponty, and we are entitled (at the risk of ignoring the post-1985 term ‘globalisation’ and the magazine issues from the late ’90s) to jump on from this philosopher to a milieu of French political violence, variously with the Resistance, the épuration, the OAS, or the security services taking out the OAS, or even the monarchists who killed Admiral Darlan. We think of Le petit soldat, perhaps Godard’s best film; of OAS killers reading Sorel and philosophising interminably.
      The point of taking a stand was to live in the present — which brings up the contents of the present moment, the influence of objects, the air, etc. ‘Globalising’ means generalising, in this context, as in global statements. (As if language were a sphere in which truth is a series of holes?) The imposition of will brings up the question of what is truly desirable, which is perhaps why we have a discussion of biophilia, EO Wilson’s theory that our ‘good place’ is the realisation of a Palaeolithic landscape which we recognise because it is ‘imprinted’ on our unconscious; why the fascination is less with cities. I relax and feel satisfied, but am I justified?
      The degree of correlation between these themes I have named (self-awareness, assassination, parapolitics, the nature of sensation, biophilia) is not high. Either I have missed the binding theme of ‘Hitman.doc’ (perhaps it’s really about lobsters?), or the obliqueness of the plane junctures is what gives the three-dimensional effect. In defining why the poem is so attractive, we realise that there is an overall feel that emerges from the decisions about phrase and line juncture, that it is like the camera-pen (camera-stylo) which Alexandre Astruc posited as personal style in film, and that these unconscious choices also frame consciousness (and give it its quality?), but we want to avoid the phrase ‘inherent rightness’ and its relations.
      Actually it seems that each separate line break is the product of a risk, a difficult balancing between unstable masses. Writing 50 brilliant lines in a poem is not ‘inherently’ different from writing 50 lines of which one is brilliant.
      To shift our gaze for a moment, there are poets who practice inconsequentiality and bore us to death and poets who focus relentlessly on one object while reciting soundbites from Heidegger and bore us to death.
      The elements of Macdonald’s style  — the avoidance of ‘functional’ awareness, the use of simultaneity, the jumps between disparate ideas, the staging of complex fields of intellectual enquiry inviting long-term attention, the reliance on personal consciousness, the preference for conjecture over stabilised facts — are available to other poets. Other poets are sensitive to nostalgia, to the odd textures of textiles or clouds. Only... we have this impression of overall perfection because she can play the music all the way through, while others give renditions full of accidents, repetitions, and drop-outs.
      There may be a link between Astruc and the author of The phenomenology of perception, Merleau-Ponty. ‘What do you think of the structure of daily life?’ ‘Maybe we can save it in post-processing.’
      There may be a link between the use of firearms (‘assembling a 22’) and observing weather conditions: at the denser edge of the room. The bullet is influenced by the medium it flies through. The point about long-distance shooting is that it achieves distantiation, one of the qualities of true art; philosophy becomes possible when you eliminate those messy interactions between object and subject.
      If you want to kill someone at a thousand yards, you have to be aware of things like moisture in the air, wind speed, tricks of the light. There is a convergence between shooting and photography, as applied optics. Accuracy of aim is also a matter of the internal consistency of the marksman: an unsteady pulse makes the barrel wobble, while inability to achieve perfect calm at the moment of firing may be a sign of emotional dividedness. The geometry of a perfect shot is a Pythagorean one, involving diet and spiritual integrity. The feedback between the self and the physical world is what phenomenology studied (or pretended to). The long throw allows us to detect very fine oscillations of the rifle, allowing a breakthrough into the fine timescale — a good place to look for the personality. Is this why the hitman is talking about the weather? Probably not.
      The feedback loop between perception and muscular response action takes place in time, which is why we can detect flaws in the loop (slight oscillations of a barrel that is supposed to be steady). All psychological activity is rhythmic and takes place in the time dimension; it is behaviour in time (responses, updates to internal models, persistence of impulses) which qualifies individual minds. A poem is an externalisation of a neurological state, and presumably we are reading the various loops in the poem as indices of the brain which produced it.
      Attention is a voluntary thing; we are interested if the poet seems interested. This is why editing a poem to make it faster is so dodgy: if the poet signals lack of engagement with a topic, the reader will take him at his word, decide the topic was boring, and lose interest. Authenticity, quite probably, is a matter of internal relationships within the poem; if these tiny and complex numerical ratios give off the wrong sound, it’s no good writing poems that move slowly (to signal ‘commitment’), or uttering banal benignities in a venerable voice.


I was sneaking a peek at Poetry from Oxford 1953, and found a poem by Peter Dale Scott (‘As songless as gulls, unable to set the anchor ringing,/ Buried among the earnest shuffle of shoals,/ I clambered among these sky-drawn hands of ribs,/ Reading their name, Mary Jane, written in fading scrolls’ — from ‘Locmariaquer’). Coincidence?
      But there is a complementary faith amongst the damned, which involves their gathering of the stones with which those who walk among the light shall stone them. The cover image of DS Marriott's Dogma is a reproduction of a Latin inscription within a circular border. Tene me ne fugia. Et revoca me i domnum evviventium in ara Callisti The unevenness of the lettering and the omission of some letters suggest a private commission; the content is certainly an epitaph; the doctrine is pagan, and so probably before the 4th century. Hold me lest I vanish; it is the soul speaking, asking to be brought back by the power of the word.
      Connected with the title, this suggests an eschatological theme: dogma is being used in a neutral sense, as something we believe but cannot reason about; it is presumably a dogma about death and resurrection — first and last things. We find that the poems are about Black history, this is their common theme; so the part about hold me lest I vanish may be the instruction to the poet, to retrieve from oblivion the lives of the obscure (a word which also means dark) and the oppressed.
      The use of Latin may recall the prominence of slavery as the economic support of the cultivated at the origins of our civilisation; probably plays a role in lending symbolic authority to the poet, raised as a Catholic. We may think of birth, into an Empire where your birthright is to treated as an inferior, as like arriving in Hell: redemption originally means ‘buying (back)’, the liberation of those who are property, was borrowed by religious language from its port of origin. I cannot identify in ara Callisti; the last word means ‘of the most beautiful’, a Greek word. (It was also a personal name — of Popes and Ali MacBeal, we think.) The inscription may be Christian (use of the word Lord rather than deus sounds Biblical), although the tene me formula is familiar to me from pagan inscriptions (for example the Pompeiian ones used by Ekelof in En Molna-elegi).
      The pamphlet opens with a series of wrenching, tragic-lyric poems, and continues with the sequence ‘Notebook of a Return’, with some formal consistency although scattered widely in time and theme.

Snow-stars drift away in ashes,
heat eyelashes down on black divas — their promises —
and what does it matter anyway
eyes wide and strong, or weak, sick, cold, castrated?
Time darkens against the breakwaters
as shattered bodies pile up, swelling in the stench and heat,
the rumble of mourning and loss


The core image is of ashes and snow,  whose nature is scored right into their nature as substances; but which yet are transient, the temporary results of thermal processes. An archaic sense of the self as something small which burns or freezes, in an age before more specialised sense organs or more complex sensations. We could also think of these soul-particles as related to the geological processes which produced the face of the earth — which produced ‘Africa’ and the seas. The imagery returns constantly to the opposition of black and white: the simplest and yet most fearfully implicative of oppositions. The pattern is fractured but yet reveals such simplicities; Dogmacan perhaps act as an index to Lative(Equipage, 1993).
      It is of interest to compare Marriott’s version with the original, in a passage of James Baldwin (who also wrote my initial quote for me). ‘When we re-entered the streets something happened to me which had the force of an optical illusion, or a nightmare. The streets were very crowded and I was facing north. People were moving in every direction but it seemed to me in that instant, that all of the people I could see, and many more than that, were moving towards me, and that everyone was white. I remember how the their faces gleamed. And I felt, like a physical sensation, a click at the nape of my neck as though some interior string connecting my head to my body had been cut. I began to walk’. (from Notes of a Native Son)
      ‘I shall take one specific case. I am on my way to an uptown movie theatre. The trip takes me through strange neighbourhoods. Walking, I sense I’m being watched. Behind me I can see blood, my blood, marking the way I’d come, collecting in puddles where I’d either stopped or lingered. I pass a knot of white men who stop speaking when they notice me, their eyes full of malevolence. I reach the movie house and go in down the rear stairwell. As I am shown to my seat all eyes are upon me. I wait, expectantly. A shadow begins to fall across the screen. My anxiety begins.’ (from ‘Photophonics’)
      Marriott’s version is much more dramatic — it goes much further. My belief is that several of the passages in the Notebooks are based on found texts — Black classics, in fact, but that a transformation process has also taken place. (Hence traces like the non-English vocablesmovie house, uptown.) The freedom of the language is based on this familiarity — the rules of a genre. The exact relationship of the texts to each other offers particular difficulties, but we can recognise the gestalt — they are scattered over a cognitive field which we can see to cover three continents and three millennia, therefore a wide subject, and therefore (as all the segments tell us) the history of Africa and Africans. The overall title clearly refers to Cahiers d’un retour au pays natal, by the martiniquais Aime Cesaire (perhaps the greatest of all the surrealists). ‘A dream, called Lubek’ clearly refers to the ship Lubeck, the first known to have carried slaves from Africa to North America. We can consider the Eurybates section as a treatment of the cultural history of Africa — specifically, of the arrival of the Greek alphabet in North Africa. This would tend to make us think in terms of incompleteness — Europe became the hinterland of the primary civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, sub-Saharan Africa, with marginal but fascinating exceptions, did not. The sand was a sea cutting the rest of Africa off from Egypt, just as the Atlantic cut off the involuntary colonistsof the American lands off from their stems in Senegal, Benin, or Angola. ‘Return’, on its own, reminds us of the nostoi (the returns) of the victorious Greeks from Troy — like Odysseus, who appears here; bloody, labyrinthine, wrecked voyages which are the basis for so many of our staple narratives. The poems relate to this African history — scarcely over our horizon, however broad its dimensions — as a hymn might relate to a body of sacred history: an intensely emotional outcry alluding to shared knowledge. They are inexplicit, free in handling, traumatic, frightening tales of seizure and becoming. The casting of much of the work in prose is slightly surprising.
      Marriott uses these texts (classics of Black literature) as tunnels through which to enter a far wider reality. The cult of the individual in poetry relates to the possessive individualism which is so close to the heart of capitalism and empire. As we know, the North Atlantic maritime economy also relied on the possession ofindividuals. This is why thinking about Black history involves a minimum of three continents as scenery — shattering the frail verbal fabric of the English poem about continuity. But of course these areEnglish poems about continuity.
      A quote (at the head of a passage by Amiri Baraka about the saxophonist John Coltrane, another strand of Black experience) claims ‘New Black Music is  this: to find the self and kill it.’ (He refers to wholly improvised jazz, the stream which began around 1965 with Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ album, an improvisation with a ‘double quintet’.) This points to the wrench which is the first commandment of this extreme poetry: the exit into the superhuman or subhuman. We do well to think of the Coltrane of the 60s when reading this poetry, although because of its anguished quality I think more of Paris in the 40s and 50s (specifically in the form of Fanon and Baldwin).
      The Photophonics section mentions Bion, who is in fact the psychoanalyst WR Bion, one of the most significant (and uninfluential) thinkers of the twentieth century. The work denies the pre-eminence of individual experience, since it deals with these broad horizons; mentioning Bion perhaps redirects us to the depths (Tiefen) of the soul, as in fact these poems sing at a level of emotional urgency which realist-mundane personal poetry is incapable of. However, their theme is anxiety — something individual because it is internal.
      There is a stratum of folk language in the poems. This would be the most identifiably Black part of English, and is of course low prestige. The line ‘Me, I got it writ on the tail of my shirt’ means ‘kiss my arse’, an obscure rustic joke found in the rockabilly classic ‘Rockin’ Chair Daddy’, by Harmonica Frank Floyd, and in a Tudor joke-book, the Merry Gestes, credited to Will Kemp. (Floyd, incidentally, was the first candidate in Sam Phillips’ search for ‘a white man who could sing like a Negro’. Told her name was on the tail of my shirt, Rockin’ chair daddy don’t have to work.) The line quoted may be something like ‘white education, black ass’. The Latin text has fugia (for literary fugiam), another example of the vernacular — the loss of final –m, as in almost all Romance languages.  
      The cover picture is about fragility but ends with sublime optimism: call me back to the lord of the living, in the altar of the most beautiful one.
      The issue with these works is really that we live with an aesthetic dominant which dates back, broadly, to the 1970s, because the most powerful work of the last ten years (‘dominant’ in bulk, reader appreciation, and artistic force) was produced by poets from the 1970s. Contemporary work reaches us late and in small quantities, and is then read as a deviation from a pattern rather than as a fulfilment of one (its own). In much the same way, connoisseurship in the 1970s was dominated by American poetry of the 1950s. The problem is first to physically get hold of these works, and then to read them responsively and without parti-pris.
      One of the most basic tasks of a reviewer is to create new vocabulary, so that we can discuss the poets who matter to us without using the old, inaccurate, vocabulary. Perhaps the first point is to state how original I think this work is, hard to assimilate to stocked orders of classification (even of pleasure), and distant from the contemporary genre of avant-garde neo-classicism.
      I regret knowing the work of most modern English poets so well, having analysed it so much; these writers offer me pure time, in the sense that the pattern of their work is genuinely uncertain, and I can face uncertainty without being blocked by memory. Characteristic of work I like (and this would apply especially to Holman, Marriott and Macdonald, as to a few others of their generation) is its grasp of time, so that external events disappear, and while inside the work one seems to have endless time to notice things.

Check out this author’s work: Bookstores in Britain, and in the United States

Jacket 20 — December 2002
  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose
Cambridge Scenic Vignettes by John Tranter

This material is copyright © Andrew Duncan and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is