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This is how Keston Sutherland’s long poem Hot White Andy begins, and this is where my reading must begin, with this new sound in poetry:
Lavrov and the Stock Wizard levitate over to
the blackened dogmatic catwalk and you eat them. Now swap
buy for eat, then fuck for buy, then ruminate for fuck,
phlegmophrenic, want to go to the windfarm,
Your • kids menu lips swinging in the Cathex-Wizz monoplex;
Your • face lifting triple its age in Wuhan die-cut peel lids;
ng pick Your out the reregulated loner PAT to to screw white
chocolate to the bone. The tension in an unsprung
r trap co
→ The tension in an unsprung trap.
ck QUANT unpruned wing: sdeigne of JOCK
of how I together grateful anyway I was
Its sacked glass, Punto
→ What is
be done on the sly is manic gargling, to
to blacken the air in hot manic recitative from a storm throat,
WLa-15 types to Tungsten electrodes Aaron Zhong,
feazing that throat into fire / under its
hot life the rope light thrashes I in its suds, [is] Your chichi news noose
/ Dr. Unicef Cheng budget slasher movie hype on Late Review
I keep dreaming about you every single night last
night I you making love Stan, I didn’t know him then
it hurts, and I disappear but the nights stick.
Abner Jon Louima Burge Cheng.
This continues; the end-break is introduced so as to provide a sample sufficient for useful commentary. According to contemporary norms of poetic discourse, does this sample tend towards text or speech? Neither: this is heteroglossical script, it is text to be spoken and it is speech transcribed. An italicised marker for vocal emphasis is followed by a bullet point–sign directing a vocal presentation from text, could be reading-out, could be improvisation. The arrows reference computer code, an invisibly functional language.
What is the status of ‘ng’? It is a common Chinese surname and linked therefore to ‘Zhong’ and ‘Cheng’. But also a digraph representing the velar nasal, ‘ŋ’ in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and in Sutherland’s readings of the poem becomes a gulp strangely transposed to the high palate and nose — so ‘ng’ is both a name and a noise, an arbitrary signifier. The swapping in the third line implies a transformational grammar, where words can be dropped into basic syntactical structures and some kind of sense must emerge; but is followed at once by the brilliant neologism ‘phlegmophrenic’ which, it so happens, describes the trajectory of the preceding swaps. They make sense in other words, in this word ‘phlegmophrenic’, not just formally. What is ‘sdeigne’? Is it even sayable? It must be, because it appears in Spenser’s Amoretti, sonnet 5, ‘sdeigne of foul dishonor’, and presumably is pronounced somewhat like ‘stain’, transitional between a garbling of the Old French ‘desteindre’ and the modern spelling. But also it is an obvious anagram of ‘design’, either by accident or design. ‘Cathex-Wizz’ makes sense only as a spoken pun on ‘cathexis’, while ‘monoplex’ must be a back-formation from ‘multiplex’. It is a relief to discover that WLa-15 is indeed a type of tungsten electrode. ‘PAT’ is a little more obscure; the most attractive search engine result proposes the ‘Process Analytical Technology’ employed by the Federal Drug Agency to test the safety of new compounds, and therefore picks up ‘reregulated’ — where, incidentally, no, not incidentally, the suppression of the hyphen creates a stutter recurring in the same line in ‘to to screw’.
The way this text looks with its slashes and square brackets and arrows and bullet points at capitals and italics, does not resemble a familiar reading script; it’s reminiscent of an avant-garde musical score, the kind of score more likely to be framed on a gallery wall than placed under the nose of a jobbing musician. But this score produces a terrifically exciting reading, a reading which on the three occasions I have seen it performed, has threatened to disarticulate the reading poet into a demented puppet. The puppet of text. The puppet of babble on simultaneously-broadcasting channels. This is something new. (Check out ‘Keston Sutherland’ on YouTube for a performance at Miami University, Ohio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWMTted_5tA)
But this poetic script bears no fraternal relationship to the textual blocking and dislocating performed by the most radical products of American Language writing; because at the same time that this heteroglossical script runs and seems to divert from any semantic track in favour of a virtuoso play with sound and the forms of rhetoric, it entertains designs which are quite lucid and elucidable. As Marx’s commodities spoke, Sutherland’s consumables eat: consumerism is re-materialised here, with a vengeance. The first sentence sketches a brief history: Peter Lavrovich Lavrov was a nineteenth-century Russian socialist revolutionary who anticipated Mao Zedong in recognising that in countries where capitalist development was rudimentary, the peasantry could be an engine of socialist transformation. But Lavrov has morphed into Sergey Lavrov, a career bureaucrat and now Russia’s Foreign Minister. The ‘Stock Wizard’ sounds like a Warren Buffett, a wizard with stocks whose wizardry is a routine (‘stock’) trope disguising a malign economic system. These seemingly opposed figures continue to be propelled along ‘the blackened dogmatic catwalk’ of twentieth century history, but have become, like anything, anyone else, consumer choices. They are eaten eucharistically. The buy-fuck-ruminate substitutions run along the same lines as the Sadeian philosophy providing the poem with an epigraph: eating shit and buggering the host are the logic of Philosophy in the Boudoir. ‘Ruminate’ here returns thinking to the physical process of digestion; this is what consumerism does, you just take things in and then dump them.
Not only is the chosen passage open to interpretation, but it deploys elaborate contrivances of poetic artifice. The passage after the indent is obsessed with throat constriction, starting with ‘gargling’, bursting out in ‘recitative from a storm throat’, then ‘feazing that throat’ — ‘feazing’ being a nautical term for unravelling a rope — and once unravelled ‘the rope light thrashes I in its suds’ before constricting again in ‘Your chichi news noose’, where the word ‘chichi’ sounds like a stuttered Chinese but is derived from chee-chee, a racist term for the ‘hybrid minced English’ spoken by ‘half-breeds’ in India (and derived, according to the OED, from a dismissive Hindi word corresponding to ‘Fie!’ (really?!), and originally meaning filth). Again, Sutherland suppresses the hyphen in ‘chi-chi’. (As a further shade of meaning, pace the OED I have usually heard ‘chi-chi’ used mistakenly as a variant on ‘chic’.) The chi-chi rope is what causes Sutherland to choke in his public reading; the outbursts of rage from his throat are fully as much of the sewn-up economy and the stitched-up present as any other linguistic phenomenon. What comes out of his throat is the stuff that chokes him when it heard to come from the television, or should I say monitor. From the very start the stitch-up has been announced, perfectly performed in ‘Your • face lifting triple its age in Wuhan die-cut peel lids’ where Chinese factories produce Western faces.
No wonder Sutherland chokes in regurgitating his ‘I’. This is script as autocue, but autocue as in autopilot, that is, I am spoken by my script (I don’t just follow it) and the body rebels. If lyric poetry as a mode promises an override to autocue, the technology of override must vary according to the linguistic programme it would detourn or transcend. There have been times where a song or a roar or stately measure would do the job. Sutherland does it at full throttle. Some poems in the run-up to this poem, such as ‘Song of the Wanking Iraqi’ in his earlier chapbook Neutrality, seemed a little theoretical in their combination of pornography and politics, not that examples in the ‘real world’ have been hard to come by with the Iraq adventure; but the poems were a little too self-conscious owing to their genetic inheritance. This strain has gone with Hot White Andy. The intelligence and poetic resource are astonishing but are not advertised; this poetry really does come across as speech from the scaffold with a noose about the neck, and of an irresistible authority and eloquence. For make no mistake; the remnants of dignity and authority are not to be sacrificed out of liberal guilt. If you can get above yourself, do, by all means.
Philosophy in the Boudoir up against Poetry by the Back-door is what we get in Hot White Andy, for this poem unreels or feazes from the random selection of a Chinese businessman, located through Google, as a love object. This selection is inspired, in two important ways. First, the stock wizard of ‘love’ has become another consumer distraction, and is treated as such. Second, Andy Cheng is Chinese, and the complex mutual buttressing of the Western capitalist and nominally communist Chinese economies is enacted in the sexual relationship with Cheng, as the poem’s consumption of Chinese names anticipates the arrival of Chenglish as a global language — or rather, a new version of Chi-chi. The poem also gobbles a play, personal score-settling (what did Joan Retallack do to deserve this?), classical literary allusions, e-mail messages from a Nigerian seeking investments in a scam, snatches of French and German theory, every kind of stuff, but all of it urgently, desiringly driven. Nothing is wasted or treated casually — take the line before the opening passage breaks off: ‘nights stick’ sounds like ‘night stick’, and the pentameter ‘Abner Jon Louima Burge Cheng’ then trusses up Abner Lousima, a Haitian immigrant beaten up and sodomised with a bathroom plunger by New York City cops in 1997, and Jon Burge, a Chicago cop infamous for torturing confessions out of suspects, including use of a violet wand to deliver electric shocks up the rectum.
Now jump to close to the end of this poem to get a feel of where Sutherland gets to:
My bed is by the window.
I speak to you. You are impossible to forget,
the face ecstasy screams under,
lighting the world you damage and repossess.
I am communicating this.
You undiminishably are what I mean by all
love defiant under
the shadow of a dispassionate end in the right head.
These verses continue in such form, and lead to their last-line confession of ‘my desire for the next big thing: CHINA.’ But at this point what should be noticed, no, what must be blindingly obvious, is the beauty of these lines as they emerge out of Chi-chi and say something perfectly true. Granted utter corruption makes the world hectic and language too, the statement that ‘my bed is by the window’ stays madness with Dr Johnson’s kick. But successfully to stay madness under present conditions, doesn’t demand one capitulate to ‘a dispassionate end in the right head.’ The idea that ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’ was apt, maybe, in talking about ‘adventurists’ among nationalist fighters, but has been applied too indiscriminately to poets. Arbitrary passion lights the path to lucidity in Hot White Andy; the loved one who stands for rampant and sexed-up consumption does light the world, and what makes love ‘defiant’ is that here is a consumer durable which cannot be wholly consumed — love’s object (Andy Cheng) remains defiantly undiminished, however it is circled or squared. Which is not all these verses have to say, and which is not so clear-cut, for they are complicated by being a repetition striving to stop so gross a stutter, these cadences heaved up from history, to get the mouth going once again; they are yet more and infinitely complicated by the ironies of their setting and saying, but remain defiantly undiminished. Like love, lyric isn’t something it’s possible just to do, as you might do macramé; you have to know how, surely, but know-how has to enter the prepared polarising zone, and the conditions for entry get more difficult and demanding all the time. Yes, they do, because lyric and love are not like dietary improvements or any other assessable privilege, and the circumstances (time, especially) that seem to favour them can truly diminish them. Desire’s polarisation fails to take. Only through being choked in chi-chi excess can Sutherland throw up a beautiful lyricism. And brazen as you like, he is spoken by it in the veritable model of lyric intimacy: ‘I now say it, without you to your face’. Not that the poem rests here. This oasis is virtual after all — well, both virtual and the only gold beyond assay. Love of Andy Cheng.
Hot White Andy was published first in Chicago Review’s British Poetry issue in Spring 2007, and Sutherland took it on tour to various US academic venues that April. Towards the end of 2007 it was republished rather elegantly by Barque in the UK as a chapbook, and can be bought from their website for a paltry sum (go to http://www.barquepress.com/andy.html). The present review seems to be the first of a poem I think the most remarkable poem in English published this century. Having seen the shell-shocked response of two very different audiences I am at a loss to account for the speechlessness unless we’ve been outdone in our jabber and feel abashed (I’m assuming there is some kind of operative ‘we’ about, I hope so). The poem is doing some work nonetheless. A passion for new British poetry was admitted to me more than a year after this poem had been detonated in their heads, by some graduate students on a major poetics program in the US. But given the absence of print or internet commentary, I feel compelled to write a fan letter rather than a critique, and to say a possible poetic future starts here — and if it doesn’t, I suppose I can go and grow vegetables.
John Wilkinson is a Research Professor in the Department of English,
University of Notre Dame. His most recent book of poetry is Lake Shore
Drive (2006) and a collection of criticism, The Lyric Touch: Essays on
the poetry of excess was published in 2007. Reluctant to let 2008 pass
unsullied, he will publish a new group of poems, Down to Earth. Salt
(Cambridge, UK) is responsible for all these books. In 2008 Barque issued the DVD
River Pearls, John Wilkinson’s video record of the first Pearl River
Poetry Conference, Guangzhou