Matthew Haigh’s Black Jam

I have spent the last three months not writing a review of Matthew Haigh’s poetry chapbook, Black Jam.

Around the time of the book’s publication by Broken Sleep Books, Matthew put out an offer of review copies on Twitter, at which I immediately leapt. A couple of days later, it arrived: a slim, blood-red volume in Broken Sleep’s house style (no cover illustration, no blurb; minimal bibliographical info; ISBN barcode in sequestered black-outlined, white-filled rectangle – a little machine poem, or a single line in the ever-spooling poem of book titles). Fragilely thin books of contemporary poetry invite careful, almost reverential hands. I opened it slowly, as if to stop the words evaporating in the sudden shock of light. But the pages were icy white, the words reassuringly solid, set.

I read all the poems in one sitting. There was much to delight, much to disturb. Some of the poems were alien artefacts, crafted for a purpose unfathomable to me, while others appeared more conventional, using the frame of a conceit to explore a widely acknowledged reality. For example, the collection’s opening prose poem, ‘Maybe the flowers are already artificial’, is a musical mood piece that suggests growth and grief, but does not stabilise into a single meaning. Conversely, the meaning of ‘Dementia as Video Game Glitch’ is announced in the title (which is not say the poem is not worth reading: it is finely worded and powerful).

Anyone familiar with my reading habits and poetry will guess that I’m drawn more irresistibly to poem-as-Schrödinger’s-cat than poem-as-Newton’s-apple. Some pieces in Black Jam that resonated particularly strongly with me included ‘Clean as a bone’, ‘Variations on Dr Moreau’ and ‘You find yourself’, all of which implicate the reader in the creation of meaning, and retain a core of semantic instability even when that meaning has been decided. Here’s a stanza from ‘You find yourself’:

    You find yourself in a room of purse mouths Straight

    ahead you see a polished simstim with hazy eyes

    moving To your left another emergency

Hinting at a video game or choose-you-own adventure book, Haigh adumbrates a surreal sci-fi mis-en-scène, requiring the reader to supply missing details, construct narrative architecture. This is poetry to get lost in, word worlds that present kaleidoscope flowers, vanishing vistas. In The Plural Space, Matthew Mahaney does something similar, though in a different style. Both poets invite us to voyage away from the rigid conceptual frameworks with which we scaffold reality.

Having read Black Jam, and having promised the author a review, my attention was swallowed first by my day job, and then by a series of my own artistic projects. But Haigh’s words continued to hum in my ears:

    god is a thumbnail skeleton

    a watchman our levers

    leave it flummoxed

(‘A human may be used for looking’)

I kept going back to that tidy red chapbook, increasingly persuaded by the less enigmatic poems, those rooted in a more traditional observational praxis. Haigh’s poems about his mother, disability, and grief are beautiful, and exquisitely crafted:

    I try to bring the world to her

                                   through an iPhone’s eyes

(‘Texting a Fictional Shipping Forecast to my Housebound Mother’)

There is humour too, notably in ‘The Dud’. We all love a knob gag, right? Well, this is a near-delirious riff on the absurd appearance of male genitals. For me, it’s up there with the classic silly willy poem, ‘Mon Roi’ by Henri Michaux. This is my favourite bit of Haigh’s poem:

    a tiny king cupped in the tongue’s velvet a surprise

    but one with slackened posture who’s terribly old

 

    whose topiary of plush feathered pomp

    hangs about him tacky & foolish as fancy dress

Writing now, it strikes me that there is an impressive variety, both of topic and of tone, in Black Jam. That title, by the way, is taken from a line in ‘Poem in which the wasps want you.’ The ‘black jam’ is that of ‘swatted smeared’ wasps. Haigh’s collection bristles with frantic life, but finds grotesque beauty in death.

I think I will keep going back to this book.

———

Copies of Black Jam can be purchased from Broken Sleep Books.

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GIF as effigy / molten centre: the fiction of Shane Jesse Christmass

 

©️James Knight


Meg. Is that you, Petey?

Pause.

Petey, is that you?

Pause.

Petey?

Petey. What?

Meg. Is that you?

Petey. Yes, it’s me.

Meg. What? Are you back?

Petey. Yes.

Meg. I’ve got your cornflakes ready. Here’s your cornflakes. Are they nice?

Petey. Very nice.

Meg. I thought they’d be nice. You got your paper?

Petey. Yes.

Meg. Is it good?

Petey. Not bad.

Meg. What does it say?

Petey. Nothing much.

Meg. You read me out some nice bits yesterday.

Petey. Yes, well, I haven’t finished this one yet.

Meg. Will you tell me when you come to something good?

Petey. Yes.

Pause.

Meg. Have you been working hard this morning?

Petey. No. I just stacked up a few of the old chairs. Cleaned up a bit.

Meg. Is it nice out?

Petey. Very nice.

(From Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party)

Having buried the Author, the modern scriptor can thus no longer believe… that this hand is too slow for his thought or passion… For him, on the contrary, the hand, cut off from any voice, borne by a gesture of inscription (and not of expression), traces a field without origin – or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins.

(From Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author)

As children, we have all played that game in which a word is repeated and repeated until it sounds alien, mysterious. Its sound shocks us with its new unfamiliarity; how did we come to use the word for so long, without stopping to think about its oddness? The word “dog” is no longer English; its guttural flatness belongs to some forgotten tongue, in which words exercise savage, earthy magic. Not only does the sound “dog” no longer belong to us, its meaning has slipped away, so that the signifier won’t align with its erstwhile signified, pointing instead with stubby finger somewhere wild and unknown. “Dog” might mean a diseased tree, a fall, a curse.

The fiction of Australian writer Shane Jesse Christmass does something similar with language. Christmass’s writing is circular, repetitive, driven by linguistic units (celebrities’ full names, phrases, and clauses) that recur in different combinations, sometimes together and sometimes in combination with new linguistic units that are then repeated, recombined and played out across the narrative. Main verbs are frequently absent; the result is a nightmarish accumulation of tableaux. Take this example from early on in Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze:

The door opens. Take that. Pincers. GIF living in an upstairs place containing a soft drink dispenser, a coffee table, a double bed in the corner, a refrigerator filled with foodstuffs and amphetamines. GIF as wax effigy/molten centre. Burton blots out the elemental residue caused by GIF melting.

Much later, towards the end of the novel:

GIF cleaned smoothly, systematically. GIF living in an upstairs place containing a soft drink dispenser, a coffee table, a double bed in the corner, a refrigerator filled with foodstuffs and amphetamines. GIF as wax effigy/molten centre. Burton blots out the elemental residue caused by GIF melting.

The GIF is a frequently recurring motif in Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze, and it serves as an important symbol of Christmass’s style. Like GIFs, Christmass’s linguistic units are set in loops, reiterating maddeningly, threatening our reason and our dependency on linear development and progress. “GIF as wax effigy/molten centre” is a reformulation of Breton’s “explosante-fixe”: surrealist image as paradoxically volatile, static icon. We cannot look at an inactive volcano without visualising its violent eruption. Like his other novels Belfie Hell and Yeezus in Furs, Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze is at once oppressively circular and disquietingly protean.

Christmass’s vast word machines mangle all meaning out of proper nouns, and it is here that his work is most subversive. Celebrities become ciphers, void of significance. In Belfie Hell, the frequent reappearance of the proper noun “Shia LeBeouf” (always in this form, never just “Shia” or “LeBeouf”) wrenches this signifier away from the signified. We soon stop picturing the famous actor, or if we do, he is a flat cut-out, a copy of a copy, functioning grammatically and dramatically, but bringing no depth or richness to the narrative. Moral significance is pulverised too; “the underage guy that James Franco fucked” might initially make the reader feel uncomfortable, with its connotations of rape, but the repetition ad nauseam of the noun phrase takes out the sting, normalises it, makes us numb to the value of the words. It is a truism that the proliferation and reproduction of information in our cyber-sexualised age has eroded knowledge and meaning. Christmass’s work iterates and reiterates this point, through nowhere narratives and characters that are nonentities. Reading him is like witnessing an economy spiral towards catastrophe; the hyperinflation of an over-abundant currency (here, linguistic units) becoming more devalued, more meaningless with every reiteration. Or perhaps it is more like watching a culture grow on a Petri dish.

To borrow Barthes’ terms, Christmass is a scriptor, loopily reenacting gestures of inscription. The Author is dead, so expression is out of the question.

Body of work as Dadaist mannequin.

You’re still watching television from last night. Nothing brings your attention to it. You get up from your bed. You’re dressed in polyester drapes. The diner is closed until dinnertime. You stop, look around. Respected guests inside the Waldorf Astoria. Cocaine dissolves on a placemat. You drop what you can into a metal bucket. Laugh track gets louder. (Yeezus in Furs)

Like Robbe-Grillet’s, Christmass’s tone is artfully flat and impersonal. He assiduously avoids anything that might resemble literary language, drawing instead on utilitarian lexis rendered useless by its glitchily robotic application. The narrative voice is that of an android that can simulate a human, but with limited success. This is story-telling stripped of the ghastly spectre of the human soul, though the ghost of William Burroughs can occasionally be glimpsed between the words:

Unfamiliar cocaine deals with those who believe people are irritating. GIF profiles on dating websites. Laughing fits. Language of GIF. Burton lays flat on the packing crate. Product placements on NBC. Earl C walking leisurely down to the East Village. Holograms of Lindsay Lohan’s autopsy. Pipettes of poisonous bacteria and Dilaterol. (Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze)

A word on how to read these books. Christmass’s robotic writing is predicated on superfluity. You could read only 20% of Belfie Hell’s 300 pages and understand the novel no less than someone who has read the whole thing. It is not necessary to read any of his books sequentially, from first page to last. There is no arc. The books offer stutters and stasis, not a journey. Instead, we channel hop. But in hopping and skipping and surfing, we are confronted time and again and time and again with the hollowed-out icons of the waste land around us, the mess and mashups and detritus and delirium of life in the mad, drunken now.

Wander in, lose yourself in the burning forest of symbols.

———-

Police Force as a Corrupt Breeze and Yeezus in Furs are published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe and can be purchased here.

Belfie Hell is available from Inside the Castle here.

Garish oneiric pop art

These are the pictures I made as part of my experimental review of M K L Murphy’s novel, The Isle of Minimus. Each comprises a photo of a page from the book, over which is superimposed an object that in some way (and for a particular purpose) represents a human being: a baby doll, a first aid dummy, Barbie dolls, a mannequin. I gave each picture a border, made the colours as gaudy and unnatural as possible and, in two cases, added large symbols and references to the viewer and/or artist (eyes, cameras). I wanted the pictures to connote playing cards or perhaps the starting point for a Twentyfirst Century tarot deck. Their garishness and symbolism sprang naturally from Murphy’s book.

Each of my four pictures became the stimulus for a short text, in which I played freely with characters, themes and images found in The Isle of Minimus. The four-part text-and-image piece is not so much a review of Murphy’s book as a rear view of it, an irreverent but affectionate take on it. I approached Murphy’s theatre not from the front, with its impressive facade, but from the back alley and through the stage door.

You can read my rear view at Minor Literatures.




Donald Trump on immigration

  
Now, we have to build a fence. And it’s got to be a beauty. Who can build better than Trump? I build; it’s what I do. I build; I build nice fences, but I build great buildings. Fences are easy, believe me. I saw the other day on television people just walking across the border. They’re walking. The military is standing there holding guns and people are just walking right in front, coming into our country. It is so terrible. It is so unfair. It is so incompetent. It is so impotent. And we don’t have the best coming in. We have people that are criminals, we have people that are crooks. You can certainly have terrorists. You can certainly have Islamic terrorists. You can have anything coming across the border. We don’t do anything about it. 

  
So I would say that if I win, I would certainly start by building a very, very powerful border. I am not impotent. Who can build a better border than Trump? I can build fences to the sky. I can build electric fences to the sky. I can build electric fences to the sky that fire nukes when criminal Islamic Mexican terrorist rapist immigrants try to go near them or look at them or talk about them or imagine them. 

  
My fence will be a beauty. I get hard just thinking about all those nukes. And who’s paying for those nukes? They are! The criminal Islamic Mexican terrorist rapist immigrants. Because we need a very powerful, very beautiful border, with gun towers and men in masks and nukes all lined up and water cannon at the ready and insect repellant and weed killer and rat poison and chemical weapons. That will stop those people coming into our country.

  

A review in tweets of an apocalypse in tweets

  
On the Twitter-blue cover: a robotic eye or camera lens or egg being fertilised by one of several eerily linear spermatozoa. #reliantreview

Is a tweet still a tweet when it’s printed on paper, a butterfly pinned? One certainty: the assured, witty, understated style.#reliantreview

The collected tweets sketch out a story in 3 parts: 1. Technobabble in our technobubble. 2. Our defeat. 3. Post-apocalypse. #reliantreview

The writing is often funny, sometimes disturbing. Speculative whimsy, shot through with NOW. #reliantreview

Each tweet is immaculately conventional in its spelling, punctuation & grammar. No 😳, no #hashtags. Pre-digital sensibility. #reliantreview

Many of the tweets are brilliant. Selfies and sexbots abound. A camera points at our digitally connected loneliness. #reliantreview

Post apocalypse, Mother Earth’s interests are served by the machines that destroyed us. Irony is a dominant mode. #reliantreview

The illustrations are wonderful. Diagrammatic, deadpan, surreal, flickering between abstraction and weird figuration. #reliantreview

Reliant is a book. This is important. The tweet is used but contained. The book warns us about the dangers of technology. #reliantreview

Messages aside, the book is not a homily. We are invited into a playground where the climbing frames are made of elastic. #reliantreview

Lots of blank space on each page. The publisher would be horrified at this, but blank spaces are conducive to poetry. #reliantreview

Reliant is a quick read, but the images linger. My favourite: “I paint abstracts with my thumb out of ashes.” #reliantreview

An Owl’s Tale

  

I’m unapologetic about the fact that my favourite book is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a book that has fascinated me since I was a small child. Magical stories, or at least narratives in which the tyranny of reality is overthrown or subverted, have fascinated me since. At different stages in my childhood and adolescence I read such fiction to the exclusion of almost everything else. In my teens and twenties, intoxicated by the rhetoric of the bygone European avant-garde, I dismissed realism as an innately reactionary way of presenting the world, and although now (in my forties) I can see that my anti-realism was ill-informed and quaint, my predilection for the bizarre, the mythical and the surreal remains. Kneel Downe’s books satisfy that craving, and An Owl’s Tale does so in a particularly idiosyncratic way. 

The book is a collection of mythopoeic tales, told by Owl to a little girl called Amelia, who makes significant appearances elsewhere in Kneel’s work. The framing device of Owl’s narration allows the reader to sit at the author’s knee and accept each magical story in the same way that a young child accepts Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. This is a children’s book for adults, and it makes an enchanting alternative to the conventions of story-telling we accept as the norm when we are beset by mortgages, career ambitions, money worries, responsibilities. The language of An Owl’s Tale is artfully archaic, full of syntactic inversions and olde worlde vocabulary, but at the same time it is terse and punchy. Take this example, from “The River That Fell in Love with the Sea”:

Slipped the seasons and cold came unto the world… 

And her back turned harsh and white.

Solid.

But beneath she endured.

Grain by grain…

This style looks at first like an acquired taste, but the fluidity and confidence of Kneel’s writing carries the reader along, and the stories quickly become accessible and engaging. The book taps into ancient story-telling traditions that we greet with a smile of recognition when they manifest as “The Wolf Who Lost His Reflection” or “The Prince Without a Throne.” 

The best children’s books are objects of beauty, with windows to other worlds in the form of illustrations. An Owl’s Tale offers its adult readers the same aesthetic joy, thanks to Susan Omand’s elegant ink drawings, which introduce each tale. The combination of Susan’s pictures and Kneel’s words is powerful and exciting. 

If you love traditional tales and myths or are fascinated by the act of story-telling, you should buy this book.