Poems by Laurie Duggan

Blue Hills 77

the glint of a car through a screen door
a clang of metal gates

at night the clatter of freight trucks
on the Bankstown line

the birds in this vicinity
are large or predatory

no spuggies hereabouts
to fledge

Blue Hills 78

stones in the bottom of a jar
the water yellows
        (a crossword clue)
                                          church bells
        (no certain location)

a man carries a cat box across a courtyard

Blue Hills 79 

the ridges of this place
thought a flat city
where bins clatter in a bluestone alley,

                                           that basalt edge
runs through Melbourne’s west.

someone looks out from a balcony
the way the old pass the time
                                              (texting intently)

noises off:
                       trains the far side of Royal Park
a fire alarm
mimicked by a bird

Blue Hills 80

one of those eucalypts,
pink, vague shape

of a human body,
across the road

from a Boer War veteran
stranded on the median

Blue Hills 82

the balance of colour, shape
and texture
                      a painting
of vases, bouquets,
stray objects
                            a shoe, a leaf, a bottle,
a carved bird,
                        even a painting
within the painting,
                                 perhaps a picket fence

beyond this, the idea that art
might be useful
it might help you to sell something

Blue Hills 85

the bend of this river
once paradise
a mingling of salt and fresh
and whatever lived on the ground

what was the name of this place?
(what is the name)
                              and who to ask?

the rock ledges painted by recent visitors
over a century back

a discovery of light

                          of how to work with underpainting
and not neutralize
the effect of atmosphere

Allotment 103

into the sun
across mudfields

a letterbox
mimics a barn

red berries glow
in a dark landscape

Allotment 104

a pond

the sun
at angle

outline of
a stile

dark against
dry grass,

then white

an egret
on the marsh

Allotment 109

barking dogs
turn out to be geese, a flock

over marshland,
mud islands guarded

by a spit
at Church Norton

Allotment 113

I’m in the yard at Iklectik, too early for the reading. I’m seated on an old lounge chair under a shelter hemmed with hay bales and autumn leaves, a warped geodesic dome to my right. It’s a strange oasis on prime developmental land (between Lambeth Palace and Waterloo Station). The last time I was here I heard a nightingale. Now it’s distant football practice and the rumble of trains over the viaducts. Will anybody show up? Someone in an adjacent office knocks off, bolts the shutters and turns out the lights. Paper lanterns wave in the breeze. A mangy fox trots down the path. Lights go on in the hall. Someone has entered through a back door. The fox reappears. And a man with an electric keyboard.

Allotment 116

for realism
the right of way
                     from Brogdale Road
blocked by developers

Allotment 118 

a red kite rides thermals
over Didcot

distant beeches
crown Wittenham clumps

Allotment 119 

a decadent walks his butterflies
past Goodnestone chapel to Graveney

too early in the season for the odour
of strawberries

instead, the Creek,
its sewage outfall,

Harveys in the Phoenix

In and around Peter Philpott's Wound Scar Memories

by Michael Peverett

No beginning

From A Second Life (you can read the whole marvellous lot online):

Look we haven’t come through: the boat
took us back home, of course, how silly not
to realise these truths: only here, only now
this misty island marred first by glaciers then people
why didn’t we realise we’re free of gods but not trouble
no one left to save us but our selves, each soul
bargaining in vain not to be taken home, Ukanian Ingerlund
where the longest dead control the language & the mind
why didn’t we realise we’d be wading thru this brutish mud?


Last week, coincidentally, I had a work experience student alongside. Turned out that Jake hailed from Bishop's Stortford, and at the name something stirred in my mind, connected as I thought with early morning flights to Sweden, or visits to nearby backwoods in deep Hertfordshire.

What I didn't recall, until, at the end of the day,  I picked up Wound Scar Memories, is Peter Philpott being a long-term Stortford resident. Wound Scar Memories ends with a hefty discursive dazzler about the Dark Ages; Stortford's history plays quite a big part in it, along with the Germanized Brythonic name Cerdic, later the basis of Scott's invented name Cedric in Ivanhoe. (I think Scott would have been delighted to learn of a British element in the Anglo-Saxon founder-patriarch, but that's by the by.)

The quotation I started with  exemplifies a few things about PP's praxis. His poems are fast reads and probably quite rapidly written. There's usually a couple of things to consult the notes about, but the pace is important, the switching of the thought; because dynamics is part of the whole-body expression by which we come to know each other. And in this case we soon get acquainted. The Peter of the poems, though not perhaps quite all of the man himself, is a person we know. I feel I would rather talk of a person than an instrument. And yet the years of inhabiting this praxis have had cumulative value, like someone learning to play an instrument: his latest poems are usually his best.


Here's another extract from the same collection (poem 73):

Laughter, though, sustaining
all this miraculous disorderliness
nostalgia of the non-human
– it glitters! somehow slippery as
oh, bêche-de-mer – what allows this?
joy, skipping through our mongrel lives
to the horizon, that buffet of possibilities

Here it definitely helps to read up a little about "bêche-de-mer " (Sea Cucumbers).

Not just to learn that the food has a notably slippery texture, but to more fully appreciate the poem's probing away from all angles at anthropomorphism, at heroism, at ideal human shape: at Michaelangelo's David, you might say.


... said it did not matter if no one ever read the poem, nor even if the poet forgot the poem before it was written, or if the poet was not even aware of the poem, but dreamt it and then forgot the dream. The poem had existed, and had influence upon the world. A true reader would discover it, read it from its consequences in the world. Such readers, unfortunately, were rare; but, then, so too, were poems.

From: The fragments.  A poem based on classical lyrical fragments, apparently.

Gareth Prior writing about The Ianthe Poems :

About Peter Philpott:

About A Second Life (and its predecessor Within These Latter Days)
(So far as I can make out, neither of the more recent books The Ianthe Poems and Wound Scar Memories constitutes the potential third part of this magnum opus.

Within These Latter Days


An extract from The Ianthe Poems hand-copied (under mild protest) from Blart 2 (https://issuu.com/apotheosis/docs/peter_philpot_-_dubbadea__short_). (I do think online poetry really deserves to be electronically copyable.)

oh the singing of those free children

their noses are disgusting

                        facing us and

                        gnomish like


their own visas to here

in art




                            outside this tight circles

                             justice is people

                             as wooden clogs

                             bears are burnt


                             in these streets

                             the catch?

                             great mulligatawny mops

                             strangled to live


                              moving into wobbles to

                              where it's busy


at last

terrible reptiles

typed up forms

don't eat


Something that doesn't come across in these extracts, but is a feature of all these recent poem sequences, is what I'll term "phrase transformation".  (I'm sort of basing that on the analogy of "theme transformation" in Liszt's music.)

What this means is that while each poem stands on its own (if not quite so securely as the reader may wish), some of its words and phrases are usually transmutations of words and phrases in preceding poems. Likewise, its own phrases turn up, transmuted, in the poems that follow it.  (To give a single example, "asparagus" turns into "Asperger's".)

Without going very deeply into this, there seems to be a clear connection with Peter's perception that identity is never really unitary, that origins are never origins (there's always something that comes before them), that impurity and mongrelism are the basis of life, that we all depend on each other and can't ultimately be prised apart.


Wound Scar Memories is, to a certain extent concerned with Petrarch, and it openly references those two recent Petrarchiasts Tim Atkins and Peter Hughes, poets in whose work we perhaps breathe a comparable atmosphere, relish a comparable zip and humour as in PP's writings, though in other respects all three are doing very different things.


A Divagation on Gildas

When I was writing about St Martin of Tours recently, it occurred to me that these early saints exist, not quite but almost, entirely in the hyperrealis. We don't know much about the real person or their world. We don't know their character or personality. Most of the stories about them are not designed as biography in any modern sense but to convey pious messages. Management of the hyperreal, that sphere that feeds no-one but has an addictive effect on people's imaginations, --- this management was already being skilfully exercised by the medieval church.  Though today we are swamped by the hyperreal (so that, for example, nearly all news and public debate is about mainly unreal topics) it's nothing new.

The saint can be pictured as a very small stick-figure (representing what is concretely known about the person) who is dwarfed by a loosely attached but very large, billowing nebula of hyperreality; that is, the saint's myths and legends, traditions, associations, iconography, feasts and customs, patronage and so forth.

This large hyperreal element, projecting far into the future, touches the lives of millions of people across the millennia. As the saint's hyperreal nebula grows, it absorbs more and more material, and this material derives not from the original saint but from the lives of others, so that in the end the hyperreal nebula is not only an influential control on larger communities, but is also itself a communal creation.

Shakespeare understood the mechanism of it well. With reference to today's feast:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;

[Quoted this morning on Radio 3, which I was listening to on the way to work. By the way, there was also mention of the prominence of St Crispin, as patron saint of cobblers, in Wagner's Die Meistersinger ..]


Peter Philpott, re Arthur (in Wound Scar Memories):

Probably, if he existed (ie a dude called something Artorial doing some important stuff against the "Anglo-Saxons"), a little earlier than Cerdic. Probably, too, also not a king, but a warband leader, a dux. OK -- so Gildas doesn't mention him: his On the Ruin of Britain (De Excidio Britanniae), written early or mid Sixth Century, is the only British/Welsh contemporary narrative of the post-colonial period dealing with the early "Welsh" kingdoms. It is a splenetic sermon, a rant addressed to those who know what he's talking about, in which actual leaders are transformed into political cartoon monsters. It is like trying to obtain historical information from the cartoons of Steve Bell or Martin Rowson.

("Not a Note on Some Matters with Britain", Wound Scar Memory p. 68).

PP's casual language is the perfect vehicle for engaging with and just about emerging from the stew of hyperrealism that passes for Dark-Age history. The language tacitly acknowledges, too, that any statement about a hyperrealized topic tends to become meta-statement, ie it is apt to be only about the hyperreal component that it feeds, while the core matter slips away. (That's why nearly all media stories are about media stories.)  PP recognizes that we live in "circulating words".  Cue for more seasonal verse.

1. wound scar memory

OK, then, it's dying down into winter now so
turn on the fairy lanterns to light our way
ignore this darkness, spike it all with glow
the day shrivels so we can transform our nights

that's it; that something may resist, survive
hold our lives awhile in something like delight
even if only in our most common struggle
holding off our end for what we choose as life

here, this is us as people, all of us to enjoy
circulating words, bodies & our food
that we have made together as we wish: night
with all its force awaits; we don't but
hesitant at first, then rushing, reach out & share
human solace over fate, all our delight in the air

(from the sequence "Action in the Play Zone", in Wound Scar Memory)

Let's have some sentences from Gildas, or at any rate the Englished version of Gildas.


"It is protected by the wide, and if I may so say, impassable circle of the sea on all sides, with the exception of the straits on the south coast where ships sail to Belgic Gaul."

Not so very well protected, if Gildas himself is to be believed. Here is Gildas's influential account of the Saxon incomers' rapacity and deceit.

"Then there breaks forth a brood of whelps from the lair of the savage lioness, in three cyulae (keels), as it is expressed in their language, but in ours, in ships of war under full sail, with omens and divinations. In these it was foretold, there being a prophecy firmly relied upon among them, that they should occupy the country to which the bows of their ships were turned, for three hundred years; for one hundred and fifty----that is for half the time----they should make frequent devastations. They sailed out, and at the directions of the unlucky tyrant, first fixed their dreadful talons in the eastern part of the island, as men intending to fight for the country, but more truly to assail it."

Happily, this rascally crew of foreigners were utterly routed at Mount Badon. But...

"The recollection of so hopeless a ruin of the island, and of the unlooked-for help, has been fixed in the memory of those who have survived as witnesses of both marvels. Owing to this (aid) kings, magistrates, private persons, priests, ecclesiastics, severally preserved their own rank. As they died away, when an age had succeeded ignorant of that storm, and having experience only of the present quiet, all the controlling influences of truth and justice were so shaken and overturned that, not to speak of traces, not even the remembrance of them is to be found among the ranks named above..."

Gildas' address to one of the five evil rulers, "Aurelius Caninus":

"Thou also, lion whelp, as the prophet says, what doest thou, Aurelius Caninus? Art thou not swallowed up in the same, if not more destructive, filth, as the man previously mentioned, the filth of murders, fornications, adulteries, like sea-waves rushing fatally upon thee? Hast thou not by thy hatred of thy country's peace, as if it were a deadly serpent, or by thy iniquitous thirst for civil wars and repeated spoils, closed the doors of heavenly peace and repose for thy soul? Left alone now, like a dry tree in the midst of a field, remember, I pray thee, the pride of thy fathers and brothers, with their early and untimely death. Wilt thou, because of pious deserts, an exception to almost all thy family, survive for a hundred years, or be of the years of Methuselah? No. But unless, as the Psalmist says, thou be very speedily converted to the Lord, that King will soon brandish his sword against thee; who says by the prophet: I will kill and I will make alive: I shall wound and I shall heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. Wherefore shake thyself from thy filthy dust, and turn unto Him with thy whole heart, unto Him who created thee, so that when His anger quickly kindles, thou mayest be blest, hoping in Him. But if not so, eternal pains await thee, who shalt be always tormented, without being consumed, in the dread jaws of hell."

Gildas' idealism, disappointed by the clergy of his time:

"But let us also see the following words: Ruling his own house well, having his children in subjection with all chastity. The chastity of the fathers is therefore imperfect, if that of the children is not added to it. But what shall be where neither father nor son (depraved by the example of a wicked parent) is found to be chaste? But if a man knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he show care of the church of God? Here are words that are proved by effects that admit of no doubt. Deacons in like manner must be chaste, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not following after filthy lucre, holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. But let these first be proved, and thus let them serve if they are without reproach. With a shudder, indeed, at having to linger long at these things, I can with truth make one statement, that is, all these are changed into the contrary deeds, so that the clergy are (a confession I make not without sorrow of heart) unchaste, double-tongued, drunk, greedy of filthy lucre, having the faith, and, to speak with more truth, the want of faith, in an impure conscience, ministering not as men proved good in work, but as known beforehand in evil work, and, though with innumerable charges of crime, admitted to the sacred ministry."


Vauclusian wellspring

Pine needles and drinks can on a step

There's some typically searching thoughts about Peter Philpott's Wound Scar Memories by Peter Riley in the course of a long essay in the Fortnightly Review from last July.


[This is rather a challenge to my attempt to move away from using anaphoric surnames. In this case I'll use PR for the reviewer, reserving Peter for the author.]

The essay as a whole is, I think, PR's most persuasive and elaborate attempt to articulate his longstanding rejection of the alternative/mainstream binary, and is full of detail and insight. But where I found myself most in demurral was on the topic of Wound Scar Memories, in which he finds a diehard Cantabrigian rejection of society, language and subject, which isn't the way I read it at all.  His review makes the book sound impenetrable, which it isn't; and he's oddly impervious to the drift of the argument, apparently ignoring such straightforward help as appears e.g. on the back cover of the book.  All poetry is difficult, no doubt; but here the difficulty lies far more in realizing the implications of what's being said than in the rebarbativeness of the saying.

I was, as you can see, already thinking about this poem:

13. what & who are we asking questions about here?

can we imagine this as spring now?
slow bubbling up of green &
the birds definitely pairing for their futures

what will it be like when we live different
can we be other than what we are
-- except we aren't, we're doing & changing
                           brisk, not yet decay

who'd believe we might win out against the rich
                       their armed thugs & their lawyers
                       tame poets, politicians, publicists
                       their planners & all their aspirants
                       -- not to is what is unbelievable & crushes
                       condemns to fantasy & bestial rage
                       not to believe in our future condemns
                                                                   unmakes us
                                                                   unravels the texts
                                                                   of all our lives

                       we are what we're becoming aren't we?

-- or not
               drowned & calcifying
               in the deep blue green
               the arid eye of pity

(Hedge of utterance, 13)

Hedge of utterance is the third sequence in the book, and by this stage we've moved quite a long way from the more regular sonnet-like appearance of the early poems in the first sequence Fragments of vulgar things.  Nevertheless, a hint of sonnetry (that most clinging of perfumes) remains, even here.

PR quotes the four lines beginning "who'd believe we might win out" as one of his examples of "familiar.. outbursts of rage against the 'ruling elite'..." and comments:

Not that these passages might not be an entirely inaccurate account of what’s happening in this kingdom at present, but everything about the tone is “the same old stuff”, the same hyperbolic rhetoric, after 50 years of poetical rant to no effect.

But that pays no attention to what these lines are doing in a poem that, characteristically, switches direction several times. Beginning with spring, the meditation moves on to other transformations and to life as a process of becoming.  The political wish is chiefly here for its sense of the odds being stacked against us; a political wish that has all the hallmarks of the unbelievable; preparing for the poet's paradoxical claim that "not to [sc. believe] is what is unbelievable". Hope, at this euphoric moment in the poem, is seen as intrinsic to our existence. But this euphoria switches suddenly to the contemplation of failure, recalling (from the book's opening sequence) the image of the dry Vaucluse well-head and its arid eye of pity.  This rapid sequence of thought and emotion is much more a philosophical poem than a political poem; though of course the poet would rather live in a world that isn't commandeered by the unprincipled, as we all would. But actually I feel "philosophical poem" is wrong too, because it suggests a heaviness quite at odds with this realtime bubble in language.

As for the rich, their armed thugs, etc., there's generality here; because the point isn't the specific targets or situations but to evince -- precisely -- the familiar , that is, shared, rage and desire -- the same old stuff.


That calcified wellspring is a key element in the book, and it points two ways (or perhaps more). In the introduction to the first sequence, Peter tells us:  "When we visited, at the conclusion of an unusually hot & dry summer for Provence, there was no lively watersource, but a rockbound turquoise pool marking the deep sump ... But the river ran merrily on out of the rocky drift through its gorge, regardless of its lack of a climactic wellspring ..."  

I get the impression, though, that the quietness of the source is usual in winter and summer, contrasting with turbulence in autumn and spring.
http://www.oti-delasorgue.co.uk/en-ot-delasorgue/en-principal/discover/land-heritage/our-villages/fontaine-de-vaucluse ]

No matter. For author and reader, the important thing is the mystery, the sense of contradiction. The wellspring looks inactive, a deathly dry image, yet somehow the river is still flowing.  Ultimately there's a connection with the deep scepticism about origins in Peter's closing essay about Dark Age history. We may promote a myth of pure origin, but the process of becoming is continuous and mysterious.

The image lurks in all three of the book's sequences. In the poem I've quoted, it's half-hidden in the opening lines about spring -- or a spring in spring? Then it emerges more starkly at the end of the poem: as that "arid eye of pity", perhaps impotent, or mocking, or monastic...

The source of the Sorgue at Vaucluse, at low level in summer

[Image source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fontaine_de_Vaucluse#/media/File:Fontainedev.jpg . Photo by Philipp Hertzog. ]


PR continued to worry parenthetically at Wound Scar Memories in this later article about versioning classic authors, with particular reference to the Petrarchs of Hughes, Atkins and Sheppard: http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2018/03/translation-expanded/

A couple of other short pieces I found helpful:

Ian Brinton's review : https://tearsinthefence.com/2017/07/02/wound-scar-memories-by-peter-philpott-great-works-editions/

Billy Mills' review: https://ellipticalmovements.wordpress.com/2017/07/27/recent-reading-six-more-short-reviews/

A Poem by Ralph Hawkins

Poem 2 vi.xi.17

the quiet thought in
Nordic landscape painting
think for the fish
beneath such water
the muted silence
of Vilhelm Hammershøi’s rooms

have you got your hat, toggle
oxygen supply
just breathe on me
let go
we are but
a mote of light

and sandwiches and
kiss goodbye

Cathy Park Hong

Ruins of Shangdu (=Xanadu), Inner Mongolia, China

[Image source: http://www.harbinice.com/photo-p4095-v338-yuan-shangdu-city-ruins-view.html .]

My Yellow Steppe of Xanadu, the summer residence of ancient Khans.
My cool and pleasant Kaiping Xanadu
   (from the lament of Toghon Temur Khan)

I recently got involved in a debate on the British Poets forum about populist poetry (in various senses of that term) and I found myself mentioning the Gurlesque and institutional anxiety to exclude the "Plague Ground"*, and anyway I somehow ended up surfing the web on the US side and I started to read some of Cathy Park Hong's poetry.

[*Joyelle McSweeney's term. http://exoskeleton-johannes.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/future-of-poetry-by-joyelle-mcsweeney.html ]

She's the kind of poet who has never meant a rush on this side of the Atlantic (at least not in the poetry communities I know about... but see below). Anyway here are some of her poems. Whenever I'm able to work out which of her three books they appear in, I've specified that.

Ga       The fishy consonant,
Na     The monkey vowel.
Da     The immigrant’s tongue
          as shrill or guttural.

Overture of my voice like the flash of bats.
The hyena babble and apish libretto.

Piscine skin, unblinking eyes.
Sideshow invites foreigner with the animal hide.   

(The opening lines of "Zoo")

from Translating Mo'um (2002)

"Body Builder"
"All the Aphrodisiacs"
"Hottentot Venus"

Dance Dance Revolution (2007)
From descriptions this sounds like CPH's most adventurous book, mostly in an invented polyglot lingua franca.
"Language Guide":
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 1. Services"
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 2. Preparation for Winter in the St. Petersburg Arboretum"
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 3. The Fountain Outside the Arboretum"
"St Petersburg Hotel Series: 4. Atop the St Petersburg Dome"

Here's a podcast about the book, including readings of several poems:

from Engine Empire (2012)
There's a lot of on-line reviews of this book, most being eager to summarize its intriguing narrative frames. The three sequences are "The Ballad of Our Jim", "Shangdu, My Artful Boomtown!" and "The World Cloud".

The review I liked best was https://anobiumlit.com/2012/05/03/going-husk-engine-empire-by-cathy-park-hong/ by J Zenoni -- richly interpretive but also off-message, the way a good review should be -- for instance when it refers to Wendy Cope's poem "My Lover", a poem I haven't read for a very long time. That seems to spin the populism wheel again, in a weird sort of way.

"Our Jim"
"Ballad in A"
"Ballad of Infanticide"
"A Wreath of Hummingbirds"
"Engines within the Throne"

Other poems I've found (not known which of the above collections, if any):


"They Come"

(To some extent this is about Notorious B.I.G and Tupac Shakur...)

"Morning Sun"

Cathy's challenging and upfront essay "Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde" has been much discussed.

She contends that mantras of innovative poetry like renouncing subject and voice, the whole post-identity thing, don't make sense for poets of colour. And she adds:

But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author's visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.  

Here's what she says about the avant-garde's stereotypical prejudices about poets who do "identity politics".

To be an identity politics poet is to be anti-intellectual, without literary merit, no complexity, sentimental, manufactured, feminine, niche-focused, woefully out-of-date and therefore woefully unhip, politically light, and deadliest of all, used as bait by market forces’ calculated branding of boutique liberalism. Compare that to Marxist—and often male—poets whose difficult and rigorous poetry may formally critique neoliberalism but is never “just about class” in the way that identity politics poetry is always “just about race,” with little to no aesthetic value. 

She also argues that poets of colour played more significant roles in both the early and later avant-garde than tends to be acknowledged by the avant-garde's white-heavy audiences and teachers.

And here's a follow-up from the UK perspective by Sandeep Parmar

This seems like a good moment to link to Kenan Malik's article about the British Empire and its apologists, in today's NYRB:

....Opal of opus,
beamy in sotto soot, neon hibiscus bloom,
Behole! 'Tan Hawaiian Tanya' billboard.she your
lucent Virgil, den I tekkum over es
talky Virgil.want some tea? some pelehuu?

.I tren me talk box to talk yep-pu..as you
Merrikkens say "purdy".no goods only phrases,
Betta da phrase, "purdier" da experience, I tellim
"Me vocation your vacation"


...Menny 'Merikken dumplings unhinge dim
talk holes y ejaculate oooh y hot-diggity. dis
Be de shee-it. ...but gut ripping done to erect dis Polis,
We expoiting menny aborigini to back tundra county.
But betta to scrape dat fact unda history rug.
so shh.

I usta move around like Innuit lookim for sea pelt.now
I'mma double migrant. Ceded from Coreo, ceded from
'Merikka, ceded en ceded until now I seizem
dis sizable Mouthpiece role.

(extracts from "Roles")

(first appeared as a post on my blog)

‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ - Report by Calum Gardner

‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ - symposium at Goldsmiths, London, 18th March 2017

The ‘Neurosis, Poetry, and the Present’ Symposium at the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought at Goldsmiths, University of London, organised by Daniel Katz and Benjamin Noys, brought together four speakers on the relationship between poetry and ‘neurosis’. Opening remarks by Daniel Katz drew attention to that fact that ‘neurosis’ is an ill-defined term, taking in a range of psychological states including anxiety, depression, phobia, panic, and addiction. But rather than seeing neurosis as a problem which, in the progress of things, would be solved, it was pointed out that the practice of poetry seems to be founded in states relating to neurotic sensitivities and the resultant ‘weakness’ of the position from which one speaks.


For this reason, the first talk was given by Emma Mason on ‘Critical Vulnerability and the Weakness of Poetry’, and elaborated the notion of ‘weak thinking’. Many of us have a hostile reaction to being accused of weakness, but Mason articulated the idea of ‘weak thinking’ as a critical vulnerability which might allow us to agree with those we disagree with most. Explicitly linking the idea to Brexit, Trump, and the recent far-right resurgence, Mason also positioned the work as part of both a lesbian and a Christian analysis of power.

But while very early Christianity can make a claim to speak for the weak, most institutional forms of the religion do so now from a combination of entitlement not to question and a fear of questioning. In this analysis, Mason drew on the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo and the notion of weak theology. Etymologically, to debate is to fight. To the strong, the weak thinker is the outsider, and weak forms of expression appear irrelevant. However, a critical vulnerability or weak thought might be able to disperse power. Vattimo argues for a rethinking of Catholicism, and for the support of fragility, of what makes the subject. He takes the idea of Verwindung from Heidegger, a kind of progression which, rather than getting stronger, becomes a lightening or weakening of what has gone before. The death of Jesus is the death of God – the Nietzchean moment is not a failure but the origin of the religion. The secularised position Christianity now occupies was always the point, and we have reached a point of kenosis or emptiness. ‘God’ empties Itself out to be known, twisting away from the strong terms of God to the weak terms of kenosis.

This is a charitable mode and, as Vattimo writes in his essay ‘The Shattering of the Poetic Word’, a poetic one.[i] Mason thus capped the talk with a ‘kenostic’ reading of Anne Carson’s ‘Gnosticism I’, but made an impassioned case in doing so that instrumental teaching of literature, philosophy, and any subject in the university often makes this impossible; the weakest thinkings are under the greatest attack.[ii] Questions revealed an audience interest in weak thinking, Mason explained that there is always a risk of weak thinking becoming strong, and that this remains a conversation, and said that weak thinkers are always in conversation with others and their environment and are thus never alone. Weakness can make it feel that way, but vulnerability brings one out of it.


Daniel Katz followed, with a talk entitled ‘Modernist Neurosis, Impersonal Politics’, on the political potential of the moments of loss and remainder. Neurosis is the need to leave a trace of one’s own, or of oneself, but does not thus valorise a poetry centred on self-expression; the lyric ‘I’ should be empty centre around which neurotic poetry would turn. As Katz says, ‘high heroic modernism militates against neurosis’, whereas the core of confessional poetry turns it into something normal to be managed.

This is what Lowell and Berryman do, anyway; a poem like Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’, he argues, is neurotic in the ‘wrong way’ for either modernism or confessionalism, in that it assumes ‘incompatible affective positions’ without making an attempt to reconcile them. Thinking neurotically (perhaps weakly) would let us consider a social order which relies neither on plenty nor on scarcity, the tension between which, and the affective relations between them, lie at the base of ideological struggles, as we were to see in Noys discussion of Diane di Prima in the afternoon.

Paradoxically, Katz observed, imagism removes the contour and flow of things but has often been codified by reference to the work of poets who are feminine or queer, which made increasing sense as the link between the female and queer neurosis was explored further in Natalia Cecire’s paper in the afternoon. Katz’ paper discussed Robert Duncan’s H. D. Book, which in its ‘daybook’ form models the practice of seriality, by means of which a writer can avoid the effect of ego bound up in a ‘final’ production.[iii]

Neurosis, Katz suggested, is the true ruin beneath modernism; Pound and Eliot cover it up, but it can be made sense of with a the decadent, ‘hysterical’, non-phallocentric style that H. D. opens up for Duncan. The talk, and therefore the morning, concluded with a neat aphorism: ‘if the subject of cognition cannot be the subject of politics, then the subject of neurosis must be’. This line between cognition and politics was a bolder one than I had so far dared to draw but, as the afternoon’s events revealed, neurosis was to be a more political tool than the title of the symposium might have led us to believe.


Natalia Cecire spoke after lunch about ‘The Cell, the Shell, and the Death Drive: Marianne Moore and the Open Secrets of the Natural World’. Cecire began with a close reference to D. A. Miller’s study Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style, where it is argued that Anne Elliot, Austen’s only real spinster heroine, is the site of her loss of ‘godlike’ detachment.[iv] Moore speaks of the ‘criminal ingenuity’ required to avoid getting married. A colour-coded slide demonstrated the nested grammatical forms of Moore’s poem ‘The Pangolin’, nouns wrapped in the shell-layers of modifiers.[v] Cecire related this to what Roland Barthes calls the writer’s ‘secret mythology’, style (and particularly modern[ist] style) as a form of ‘solitude’.[vi]

The ‘shell style’, Moore’s version of Austen’s ‘secret style’, is defined by Cecire in terms of Sianne Ngai’s ‘irritation’.[vii] The ‘labile and contested surfaces’ of such texts are embodied in the interactions of hard shells and variably vulnerable cells. To those of us familiar with Cecire’s illuminating work on Moore and precision, it seemed a natural move for her to discuss the multiple Moores of criticism: there is the anal-retentive, ‘syllabic’ Moore and the (often considered overly) dominant, assertive one. The reason Austen’s style is queer, in Miller’s analysis, is that the spinster functions as a ‘relay’ through which gay men can access femininity through a shared relation to marriage and reproduction (this is part of the connection between Duncan and H. D., although H. D. is not [quite] a ‘spinster’). The shell surfaces in Moore are charged with feeling as well as meaning because the shell serves as a kind of closet for Moore, and not just because of their hardened, enclosing form.

In the early days of psychoanalysis, Cecire explained, cells were thought to be miniature models for higher order functions, including psychic ones, and exposure to stimulus made them develop hard outer surfaces. At Bryn Mawr College, Moore was taught in a department which had been home to some of the pioneering cell biologists of the age, but as Cecire says, contrary to what some writing on the subject implies, Moore ‘did O.K. but not great in biology’; its real importance for the poet was to offer a means of socialising apart from her unusually close family life and to explore her sexuality, a place where she met and formed intense relationships with other women. It was possible to draw a link, not dependent on this biographical context but certainly more potent in it, between cellular biology and both spinster and queer identity.

So is the ‘preciseMoore writing from the position of a pangolin or a lab technician? Perhaps the most exciting part of the talk was Cecire’s projection of a meeting-place between queer studies and natural history. Cells can be neurotic: once they are susceptible, penetrable, and able to be touched, they can also be killed. This is the source of the shell style, which is both protective and probing; I was reminded of this paper reading Anne Boyer’s essay ‘No’: ‘The no of a poet is so often a yes in the carapace of no.’ The shell style is this kind of ‘carapace’.

The talk, which had allowed us to linger in the relative comfort of a Bryn Mawr biology classroom, finished by crashing into the present, and looked at the relevance of neurotic sensitivities to the way the media has responded to the present US presidency and its barely disguised disinformation.  The ‘epidemic of liberals “bringing fact-checkers to a knife-fight”’, says Cecire, is the product of a misrecognition of the ways in which the administration makes itself invulnerable to analysis and critique. Reading through Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s paranoid reading, it is suggested that sometimes it is neurotic reading, not fact-checking, that is best able to combat structural inequalities and the way they reproduced by the far right.


Benjamin Noys concluded with a paper entitled ‘The Cosmogony of Revolution: Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters and Anti-Neurosis’ – the discussion of anti-neurosis a self-admittedly neurotic move at the neurosis symposium. Noys’ analysis positioned the Revolutionary Letters as poems of the revolution, and of a revolution which did not happen (or hasn’t yet happened). They are poems of anti-neurosis and heavy optimisms. Indeed, di Prima’s is a revolution with no place for neurosis: it is an im-personal revolution, a smash-the-separation, natural revolution.

In many ways, the activities of May 1968 seemed to bring to life (or to be about to bring to life) some of the wishes and desires expressed in the Revolutionary Letters. However, Di Prima’s revolution sees the irruptions of ’68, the demonstrations, occupations, and riots, as merely the ‘ghost dance’ – the spiritual rehearsal – for the true revolution. The response to this dance is just as crucial: to be ‘surprised when the magic works’ undermines the potential revolutionary power of such activities. This is the politics of ‘hard optimism’, to hope against possibility and take it in your stride when the demands are fulfilled. But they must also be the right demands, and di Prima has clear ideas about what those are, as hard optimism is a rejection of other optimisms; Noys drew attention to di Prima’s railing against sci-fi utopias in Letter 19. ‘you are still / the enemy [if] you have chosen / to sacrifice the planet for a few years of some / science fiction Utopia’.[viii]

For a talk from one who made the disclaimer that he was not a ‘professional reader of poetry’ (we wonder, in this context, who would want to be?), the discussion was extremely conscious of the forms, traditions, and conventions in which di Prima was writing and which have emerged after her, refusing to collapse the Revolutionary Letters, as other readings have done, into either emotional overflow or instruction manual, and yet also acknowledging the place of both of those functions in anti-neurotic practice.


The final moments of the day saw three of the panelists (Mason had had to leave early) take questions and attempt to summarise a varied and stimulating set of discussions. In the context of the politics – from presidential to revolutionary – that the papers had raised, Katz said that even a massive social change will not solve our neuroses; ‘we’ll still be unhappy, but we might as well be unhappy in a just society’. What was most stark about the meeting point of what are often, even or perhaps especially in academic analysis, taken to be phenomena experienced by individuals, was how political and indeed revolutionary it positioned itself as being. Ultimately, the symposium was a sketch for a poetic-critical-political analysis to be achieved by attention to the lessons and practices of neurosis.


[i] Vattimo, ‘The Shattering of the Poetic Word’ in The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, trans. by Jon R. Snyder (Cambridge: Polity, 1991).
[ii] Carson, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (New York: Vintage, 2006).
[iii] Duncan, The H. D. Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011 [1984]).
[iv] Miller, Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 31.
[v] Moore, Complete Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1967).
[vi] Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967 [1953]), pp. 10-11.
[vii] Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
[viii] Diane Di Prima, The Revolutionary Letters, 3rd edn (San Francisco: City Lights, 1974), p. 21.

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