Hanging on Your Every Word:
J.H. Prynne’s Bands Around The Throat
Despite his initial debt to Olson, even Prynne’s early works Kitchen Poems and The White Stones show a wilful interrogation of the speech-based “Projective Verse” model urging the page to become graphic score for the breath. Utterance is more often maimed and wounded by a self-conscious sense of inappropriateness and inadequacy. In “Concerning Quality, Again” the voice chides “I draw blood whenever I open my stupid mouth” (Poems 82), and the supposedly transitional collection Brass, utters perhaps the most haunting line in Prynne’s oeuvre: “... we have already induced / moral mutation in the species” (Poems 166). However, this sense of contamination is also held in check by a suspicion of any reactionary fleeing to notions of purity. The work of the 1980’s seems to constantly wrestle with issues of voice and address; not so much to abandon them as indicative of a cosy critique of “authorial presence”, but to re-instate them as necessary impurities. The text of this period that seems most merciless in its scrutiny of the positioning of the poet / speaker and what such a standpoint lays claim to is the 1987 collection Bands Around The Throat.
...The star of swords is put upon
The “star of swords” suggests an initiatory ritual where each must place their heads within a star formed by the crisscrossing of swordblades so as to risk decapitation. The “root and branch arrangement” punningly suggests both imminent dismemberment or the act of being hung from a tree; certainly the imagery of “uptake”, being “cut down” and “his dance” being “gone” suggest the act of being hung and then cut down. The broken neck imaged as “the stub of a tuning fork delivery”, and a peeled larynx, are further indications of the book’s concern with lyric uterrance and the role of the poet — images significantly interrupted by a voice that registers moral outrage and calls for restraint: “Don’t you think that’s enough...They say...”. It is also possible that this last phrase acts as a warning against the lyric voice’s propensity to stage its own vulnerability for rhetorical purposes, as it is followed by lines that seem to ironise the urgent loftiness of poetic “issue”: “The issue / hits all-time peaks in no time at all, / buy on the rumour and sell on the fact”. The “all-time peaks “ attained in “no time at all” ironise the cult of the transcendental moment that was so much a hallmark of the “egotistical sublime” of poetic genius.
In lyric poetry, only the great moment exists, the moment at which the meaningful unity of nature and soul or their meaningful divorce, the necessary and affirmed loneliness of the soul becomes eternal. At the lyrical moment the purest interiority of the soul, set apart from duration without choice, lifted above the obscurely-determined multiplicity of things, solidifies into substance; whilst alien, unknowable nature is driven from within, to agglomerate into a symbol that is illuminated throughout.Yet this relationship between soul and nature can be produced only at lyrical moments....Only in lyric poetry do these direct, sudden flashes of the substance become like lost original manuscripts suddenly made legible; only in lyric poetry is the subject, the vehicle of such experiences, transformed into the sole carrier of meaning, the only true reality.
In Bands Around The Throat, Lukács’ image of the flashing lyric moment transformed by the poet into a suddenly legible lost manuscript, is bitterly undercut by the imagery of stocks and shares: paper bonds to be cashed in at their peak moment of value — to adopt an idiom entirely appropriate for this dark and violent book: making a killing: “buy on the rumour, sell on the fact”. But it is the seemingly innocuous phrase “in no time at all” that unites the various concerns of this poem, and the collection in general. It is not just an allusion to the moment-out-of-time of lyric transcendentalism, “...the claimed nobility and anguish of such moments, the trailing remnants of a discredited sacral destiny...” to quote the “English Poetry and Emphatical Language” essay (p.150). As is often the case with Prynne’s work, a punning relationship to idiomatic speech seems apparent, and “in no time at all” recalls another phrase that seems right at the heart of this book’s concerns: “In the nick of time”. This buried phrase unites this book’s exploration of the expression and exploitation of privileged rhetoric — and the rhetoric of privilege — that lies at the foundation of the lyric stance, and the accompanying imagery of hanging and punishment. The phrase “in the nick of time” is likely derived from the practice of “neckeverse”. In medieval Europe Clergymen arraigned for felony were entitled to claim Benefit of Clergy and therefore become exempt from trial by secular court. Neckeverse refers to the practice of showing verse in Latin — usually the beginning to psalm 51 — to a defendant, whose ability to read it would save him from hanging in the “necke” of time. Later, this privilege of exemption from the sentence might be extended to any who, on their first conviction, could read. This allusion to the power of literacy feeds back into the major preoccupation of this book: how the lyric stance itself relates to a “privilege of exemption”: how it deceptively blurs what Prynne has elsewhere referred to as “...the difference between the right and the righteous, the pain of loss and the power of pain” (“A Letter To Andrew Duncan” 105).
But nonetheless the reader has to maintain a particular alertness to make out, within the ironical and self-parodic interplay of tones, the difference between the right and the righteous, the pain of loss and the power of pain. Your solicitation of an anticipatory and retrospective fear is so constant that the reader can hardly discover within the sensorium where actual pain begins and does or does not end. That is the classical difficulty for a rhetoricalised instrument: its readiness to claim the privilege of an autonomous occasion which covertly it exploits. How can you give, unless you are to present merely symptomatic malnutrition, what you claim to have taken away — the wheat from beneath the iron. (p.105).
Bands as a collection seems to be concerned with just this difficulty of a rhetoricalised instrument, and seems to demand of the reader this same alertness over how to negotiate the intensity of images of pain and punishment as they bleed into an interplay of ironical and self-parodic tones. The very titles of the poems continually re-inforce this play off / pay off stalemate stance: “No Song No Supper”, “Rates of Return”, “Punishment routines”, “Swallow your Pride”. It is a dead-end that Prynne is all too well aware of:
The use is: being used, not ethos but pathos; the counter-move is to claim knowledge while leaving unchanged what is known: returning were as tedious, in the familiar diagnosis, as go o’er. And this despite the remorse of political acknowledgement, since the wound gives power in the very moment that it marks out the victim’s observed inability to use it. The anxiety over the use of this power is not false, but is thus disconnected from active ethical consequence: it floods into its objects and into the subject alike. The method is traditionally dead-end, to have in effect no method but only repetition and abruptness. Finally, then, a despairing amor fati presides, its hatefulness the only hope of and for the real
The opening poem in Bands acts out this dead-end where “..the wound gives power in the very moment that it marks out the victim’s observed inability to use it”. The imagery of the victim in “Fool’s Bracelet” has already been noted, but in lines 7- 15 the despairing sense of hate as the only permitted hope is also there — alongside striking imagery concerning the complicity between the pain of loss and the power of pain:
“... What / don’t you want, is there no true end / to grief at joy” scathingly renders a consumer age where desire endlessly proliferates; is manufactured even as the dreams that money can buy. “non-stick like a teflon throat” is a vivid simile for the lyric voice’s culpability — its deceptive presentation of itself as immune to the very forces it is simultaneously claiming to be all engulfing. Notions of the poet — even, and especially the “avant-garde” poet — selling just such “product” to an audience that will then glow with the fake sense of indulging desires beyond the jurisdiction of the vulgar market place, has long dogged Prynne’s work: and the issue will be returned to later. Birgitta Johansson points to U.S. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder’s description of Ronald Reagan as being a possible source here. He was described as “just like a Teflon frying pan: Nothing sticks to him” (Quoted by Johanssen 180 n. 35). The lyric voice of protest and outrage is particularly dubious for its alignment with two conflicting positions: that of master — of the privileged and specialised instrument of song — and slave: an emotional and political identification with the dispossesed and victimised. This leads to a collusive position where “...Your means are power, that is, but your ends are its overthrow “ (“A Letter To Andrew Duncan” 102). The implication here is that the lyric voice has so much rhetorically invested in the self-righteous alignment with the victimised, that it is wedded to the forces it would overthrow — a poignantly marital phrase that may also chime with the “bands” of the collection’s title.
Here there is a sense of joy at defeat, and a certain vertigo of being “Beyond help” resulting in the possible hysteria of “laughing all night”. In The Oval Window, images of shifting balance recurr as part of that poem’s concern with the information processing activities of the inner ear and the shifting of otolith crystals to orient the human organism. The lines from Bands introduce a significantly nuclear dimension to the problem, with the phrase “deterrent hope”. Prynne’s sense of poetic stalemate in this — perhaps his bitterest — collection, is framed by the precarious balance of world power maintained by the Cold War. Blake, in “The Human Abstract” — a poem written in the 1790’s when the omniscient eye of the English state needed to suppress dissident forces supporting the French Revolution — well understood that fear was the vital ingredient in preserving social “order”. Blake’s line “And mutual fear brings peace” prophetically describes the Cold War dynamic, and Prynne’s phrase “detterant hope” adds a further twist. Throughout the collection images of hope and hopelessness are played off against each other. Hope is given a mock religious dimension, being constantly juxtaposed against, and often fused with, the language of stock market economics: particularly the language of “futures” and “options”. This process begins in the opening lines of “Fool’s Bracelet”:
In the day park shared by advancement
These opening lines suggest to me an ironised contemplation of death and the attendant hope for an afterlife: “a dream to pass on through”. Reeve and Kerridge have also drawn attention to the opening line of “Rates of Return” — “ Here then admit one at a time” — as suggesting “both the gates of heaven and admission to some cultural spectacle” (Nearly Too Much 34). Similarly, the opening lines from “Fool’s Bracelet” give us the contemporary scene as a society of the spectacle imaged as “the day park”, and the souls awaiting possible afterlife are deemed “waiting clients”; satirically extending the 8o’s conversion of all aspects of life into “service industries”, to religion. The irony operating throughout this collection is that both Christianity and investment banking have a vested interest in the “futures market”. Hence the merged vocabularies of hope and expectation: for an afterlife, and rising share prices. Both involve a postponement in the evaluation of the present in favour of future rewards, and so the present — “the day park” — is “shared by advancement”. If “advancement” might signal ironical commentary on the state of civilisation and its discontents as an inventory of financial gain, the fact that it is “shared” brings further poignancy. The term “shared” blurs a vocabulary of reciprocal relationships and communal commitment with the opposite vocabulary of the dvision of a company’s capital entitling the limited few to a proportion of the profits. The blurred registers of hope and expectation continue as: “It is / the next round in the sing-song by treble touches, / a high start not detained by the option / of a dream to pass right on through”.
Generally, membership in an exchange is individual, and only members can buy and sell futures contracts on the trading floor where a “pit” or “ring” is designated for the trading of each commodity. Bids and offers are made by open outcry. Members are permitted to trade for their own account as position traders or day traders (p.505).
The commodification of hope as a religious contract for the future — an afterlife bought into through a slow-maturing policy demanding unquestioning suffering in this world — relates back to the phrase “deterrent hope”. Hope for an afterlife — conditional upon the results of the day of judgement, and therefore a certain quota of fear — acts like a nuclear deterrent in its cementing of the social order by implicit threat: that of Nuclear apocalypse or damnation. Prynne’s introduction of this parallel is characteristically ambiguous and ambivalent in tone: providing the reader with exactly the difficulties in discerning “the difference between the right and the righteous, the pain of loss and the power of pain” amongst the ironical and parodic interplay of tones that he felt problematic in his letter to Andrew Duncan:
Is the “casting away” here part of the recognition that the attraction of hope relies precisely upon it remaining unrealised; upon it remaining an endlessly deferred desire? In a letter to Drew Milne, to be returned to later, Prynne claims that “The danger point about paradise was not that it wasn’t attractive...but that it wasn’t satisfactory: a defect shielded from the tests of sic et non because of the indefinite postponement attached to the definition” (Parataxis 58). And yet the “casting away” here is contextualized by being “in a spate of root filling”: the cementing of social order through fear is cruelly figured through the imagery of dental surgery and fillings; most people’s most potent image of pain. Of course, such an image of the mouth again relates to Prynne’s wider preoccupation with wounded utterance.
Even so by open outcry across
Here we have the bidding and offering conducted by the floor brokers of the trading “ring” offset by imagery suggestive of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl: “a halo of grey cinders” connotes the spread of radiation fallout, and in fact “gray” (spelt with an “a” and abbreviated to GY) is “a unit of radiation dose, equivalent to the absorption of one Joule of energy into one kilogram of matter, and equal to 100 rads” (Something in the Wind 236). The status of the myriad specialist discourses threaded through Prynne’s work has always been a central bone of contention. Bakhtinian heteroglossia? postmodern collapse of grand narratives? “legitimation crisis”? an elegiac modernist “shoring” of fragments against contemporary ruin? All these positions have tempted various critics, and all in some way return to the issue — pun intended — and status of voice in this poetry. Interestingly, Peter Gould’s Fire in the Rain: The Democratic Consequences of Chernobyl uses the nuclear accident in Russia to highlight what he calls the “process of intellectual fission” (p.ix) that characterises our age, but which he claims has been escalating since the dissolution of Natural philosophy in the seventeenth century. Gould claims that offsetting general trends towards increased specialisation and fragmentation are the sciences of “human space and time”: geography and history. These disciplines, considered through Gould’s desired holism, are like “shepherds of the intellectual world” rounding up the strays of fractured knowledge.
These are the informing strands of the geographical heritage — a tradition of synthesis connecting things together in real spaces and places, and a traditional concern for human and environmental relationships. And then Chernobyl exploded. An event of the physical world, caused by the human, and rebounding back on the living world, lay squarely in that human-environment cleft where things have to be brought together in order to understand what is really going on. The effects of that explosion travelled far in geographic space, and will be with us for generations in historical time.
The connections between bodies living and politic has been a major concern of Prynne’s work since its early focus upon “liminal” travellers such as Aristeas in “Aristeas, In Seven Years”, to the focus upon the individual body’s capacity for regenerative response and the body politic’s need to generate responsibility in Wound Response. In the already-quoted “The Ideal Star-Fighter”, the “moral mutation” diagnosed is aligned with a skewing of the relationship between these two bodies:
Now a slight meniscus floats on the moral
In the opening of “Marzipan” , from Bands, this blanching of the body politic has become a desolate image of spectral existence worryingly akin to Dante and Eliot:
We poor shadows light up again
The skewed relationship between individual body and body politic in this “wasted province” seems to have as its only bond the dubious mediating force of the “zero coupon”. Given the somewhat purgatorial connotations of “we poor shadows” as potential shades, the zero coupon as a bond in which the investor receives only one payment at maturity seems again to continue the uneasy parallel between Christian religion’s and a market economy’s mutual interest in “futures and options”. The title “Marzipan” remains obscure. The poem’s individual appearance as part of Peter Riley’s Poetical Histories series, may provide a clue. In this publication, Prynne’s poem was accompanied by a translation of the poem into French by the poet Bernard Duborg titled “massepain”. It seems likeley that Prynne’s title itself becomes a pun on its french equivalent as “mass pain”. Its status as luxury foodstuff — literally the icing on the cake — returns to the ambiguous status of the “bands” of the whole collection’s title as being both constrictions and adornment. “Marzipan” as a title is part of the book’s scrutiny of the lyric rhetoric of pained outcry as being dubiously confectionary: and of the capacity of such rhetoric to complicitly sweeten the pill that it claims to be spitting out. Hence the irony in the title of the final poem in the collection: “Swallow your Pride” (Poems 357).
Now red dust hangs, and fire drives
The image of the gold star obscured by dark vapour is suggestive: a gold star has connotations of an award — and possibly ironically alludes to the insistance upon the safety of nuclear energy that the industry constantly reinforces. “Ennui” has obviously literary connotations with a rather mannered Fin de Siècle spiritual boredom — but here this emotion is anchored to “woodsmoke”. It reminds us that the “wasted province” is not just a modern consumer-hell, but is also the forested wetlands on the border between the Ukraine and Byelorussia: land famed for its natural beauty. The “ennui” may well be that displayed by the Soviet Union towards the occupants of such territory. Evacuations of some of the most dangerous zones, such as the district of Narodichi, had not taken place as late as a month after the catastrophe. Other villages were placed under strict control, told only to eat “clean food” that never reached them. Milk, vegetables and meat from certain regions was admitted to be contaminated, and sent elsewhere to be “treated”. Of course, no one informed the village inhabitants that such precautions were futile in view of the fact that the wood being burnt for fuel and heating was as contaminated as the foodstocks. This may account for the lines “a strong sense of, well, woodsmoke / in due season makes its offering:” : especially as the accident at Chernobyl occured at the approach of the May Day Festival in the towns and villages of Ukraine, Byelorussia, Russia and the Baltic lands. As Russian journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya retrospectively described the scene:
...all over the country, as in previous years, millions of people lined the streets. It was extrememly hot. Not just mild, but hot. Children dressed in national costume, breathing radioactive fumes, danced on the Kreschatik, the main street of the Ukranian capital. On the stand, greeting the crowds, stood members of the Ukranian Politburo, government ministers, and invited guests. At almost precisely the same moment, senior civil servants were hurrying their children to Borispol airport to get them away from the scene of the catastrophe. The children of the betrayed workers and intellectuals were left behind to delight the eyes of the ministers; this was the price paid to give international opinion the illusion that all is well
The final five stanzas of “Marzipan” have much in common with Prynne’s elegy for Paul Celan “Es Lebe Der König” from Brass. This stately but foreboding poem opens with a semi-mythical, apocalyptic landscape where “Fire and honey oozes from cracks in the earth”, and contains lines that are already ambivalently marking the pitch of ennui: “Give us this love of murder and / sacred boredom, you walk in the shade of the technical house” (Poems 170). The final half of “Marzipan” recalls this savaging of the Lord’s prayer, and presents a materialised version of “Es Lebe der König”’s landscape, giving us a picture of humanity as shades walking in the debris of the technical house of advancement:
Vorsprung durch EDV,
The enigmatic “technical house” of “Es Lebe Der König” has become the irony of Vorsprung durch EDV — most probably an acronym for Emission Data Vehicle: the testing of exhaust emmisions being rendered suitably absurd in the light of the emmissions emanating from Chernobyl. These emmissions are themselves filtered through the contaminated vocabularies of religion and economics: “The Pretext / of small mercies, seasonal rebate in / the loose change: as though they were / sieving the soil itself !” Radiation is certainly loose change, and indeed the reaction to the threat of contamination was exactly to sieve the soil, as stanza 11 has it “the heartland / is dug out for a life underneath”. As Louis Mackay and Mark Thompson explain:
During the first ten days after the accident, 72 villages near Chernobyl were evacuated and abandoned for good. The decontamination measures carried out during the summer and autumn included the removal of topsoil from the most seriously affected areas, both inside and outside the exclusion zone; what was done with the topsoil is not known
The musical image of the “conductor” beating time to “flattened repeats” darkly disguises the blipping of Geiger counters, and such “repeats” mark the overloaded monotony of “All over / the same again not held back” — only to then become the “replay” possibly of television sets imaged as “the glass of dark recall”; what Jameson has called the “möbius strip of the media”. Even the potential pastoral image of seeing “..as in late spring, shrouded in mist, / the bright smooth water” is tainted. Peter Gould points out that Sweden was the first to detect Chernobyl and warn Europe; and its and Norway’s hydroelectric programs have produced picturesque lakes in glaciated valleys that are potential “ceasium sinks” for retaining nuclear fallout in the form of sediment at lake bottoms. The “thousands of feet of glacial sand” refers to the 5, 000 tons of sand, clay, lead and dolomite that were dropped from the air onto the Chernobyl reactor in the first five days of the fire (Something in the Wind, 4). The poem ends by indicating the human cost of the tragedy; and most strikingly introduces a “me” of indefinable status whose only response is horrific auto-cannibalism: “...and made me eat both gravel, dirt and mud, and last / of all, to gnaw my flesh and blood”.
...consumption to be renamed as production: the open text, the inventive, selective reader, free to opt for useful waste or wasteful utility....Isn’t it the classic freedom to eat cake, to diversify an assumed leisure and to choose out of a diversity which is precisely the commodity-spectacle of a pre-disposed array, clearwrapped in unitised portion control?
This paper has explored Prynne’s unease at the rhetoric of privilege upholding the lyric stance. And yet, he seems to find a not dissimilar rhetoric submerged within the “language” project: a notion of the specialised, elect readership who will receive their just rewards. In this way — perhaps curiously alongside a nostalgic vision of a pre-capitalist world where labour and reward are re-connected — “language” writing is seen “to provide a rewarding increase in benefits for those defined as deserving (earning) (acquring) them” (“Letter to Steve McCaffery”). For Prynne, the appropriateness of the model of market economics is not that it redefines writer-reader relations as a pact of resistance to those forces, but that it re-inscribes these relations as being complicit within such forces. In the “Letter to Allen Fisher” he discusses Down Where Changed in revealing terms:
At the historical moment of that book I believed it necessary to poke about in the reader’s appetite for guilty remorse just as much as for salved conscience, given that each so easily converts into the other (by a sort of vicious, mechanical glee). The author’s sternness is of course also a surrender, to hard-line market forces in the retailing of the unwanted. All the appetites feed off the same ersatz nourishment; the underlying confidence that there are securely enough alternative menus to provide inexhaustible choice. That, too, is the consumer’s name for dialectic: the advertiser’s apocalypse, downhill all the way. pp. 157-158.
Earlier in the same letter he explains that “The reader’s freedom was to be constantly interfered with, as an invidious commodity; pretending that there had been no immunity to the violence and yet also noticing that pretence as just that” (p.157). This seems also true of Bands Around the Throat — except that here the stakes are upped: not only is the reader’s freedom interefered with, but so is the writer’s, and most particularly any sense that the writer is immune and detached from what is described. The Bands around the throat squeeze the rhetoric of lyric privilege until it wheezes its complicity in a ghastly death-rattle. The poem “Punishment Routines” converts the capital punishment imagery of “Fool’s Bracelet” into the punishment of capital, substituting poetic immunity for impurity:
At the neckline the word you give then
This eager anticipation almost mocks readerly expectation as it is simultaneously manipulating it: we are hanging on the poem’s every word, but so is Prynne. This collection is exactly about the need to situate the poet within the frame, and to dissallow the disguise of hypocritical detachment. It is concerned with peeling the teflon coating off the larynx and making things stick. Its precariousness — and perhaps this is the central question not here discussed — centers on the status and function of irony in Prynne’s work. It is a precarious balance that remains unresolved in his work, and is particularly dramatised in Bands. The “Letters to Drew Milne” are still preoccupied by a sense of stalemate: “Shoot into the foot, I say, and only then into the air” a statement quickly qualified by: “But the honour of exhausted defeat is such a com-on!” (p.62). As the closing line of “Punishment Routines” has it: “Eat little / and speak less, bleeding inside the mouth” (Poems 350).
This piece was written in November 1997.
Gould, Peter. Fire in the Rain: The Democratic Consequences of Chernobyl. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.
Johansson, Birgitta. The Engineering of Being: an Ontological Approach to J.H. Prynne. Umea°, Sweden: Umea°; Uppsala, Sweden: Distributed by Swedish Science Press, 1997.
Mackay, Louis, and Thompson, Mark eds. Something in the Wind: Politics After Chernobyl. London: Pluto, for European Nuclear Disarmament [END] in collaboration with the Transnational Insitute [TNI], 1998.
Correspondence With Milne
Prynne, J.H. ‘A Letter to Andrew Duncan.’ Grosseteste Review15, 1983-84
Prynne, J.H. ‘A Letter to Steve McCaffery.’ The Gig 7, November 2000.
Prynne, J.H. ‘A Letter to Allen Fisher.’ Parataxis 8/9, 1996.
Prynne, J.H. ‘English Poetry and Emphatical Language.’ Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. LXXIV; 1988 (Oxford University Press, 1989).
Prynne, J.H. Poems. Fremantle: Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1999.
Prynne, J.H. ‘Reader’s Lockjaw.’ Perfect Bound 5, 1978.
Prynne, J.H. / Drew Milne, ‘Some Letters.’ Parataxis 5, Winter 1993-4.
Reeve, Neil and Kerridge, Richard.Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995.
Woelfel, Charles J. The Fitzroy Dearborn Encyclopedia of Banking and Finance. 10th ed. Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1994.
Yaroshinskaya, Alla. Chernobyl: The Forbidden Truth. trans Michèle Kahn, Julia Sallabank; Photographs by M. Metzel. Oxford: Jon Carpenter, 1994.
Jacket 24 — November 2003
This material is copyright © Simon Perril
and Jacket magazine 2003