greetings to Metambesen (Robert Kelly etc)

There's no let-up in the steady flow of attractive US poetry, a situation that any UK reader must view with some envy,  no matter how committed to the gnarly scene over here. I wonder as we all do what it means, what the history and condition of cultural life must be that allows such a river.

Nevertheless there's sometimes also a recognition, there as here, that you can't conveniently sell the good stuff and it's better to just make it available.

The Metambesen offerings are enjoyable and above all free. (As regular readers will know, this reviewer discriminates positively in favour of poetry that doesn't cost anything.)

Metambesen is a new publishing site (PDF chapbooks) based out of Annandale-on-Hudson  put together by Robert Kelly and others. Annandale-on-Hudson is in the Hudson Valley (surprise) in the northern part of Dutchess County (nice archaic spelling there), in upstate New York (according to all but the most exclusive definitions of "upstate"). It's the location of Bard College, where Kelly has taught for about half a century, and not far south of Albany, another place with significant modern poetry connections.

("Metambesen" is not a term you forgot from Fichte but the name of a creek in the area, of native American origin.)

Robert Kelly: The Language of Eden

Or, if you read the PDF cover,


which I think says something more about the book. It's a talkative 80 pages written in 2002, and is interesting to contrast with  (to say nothing of his fify other books) the more recent poem GRAVITY FEED, which you can find on his blog.

Robert Kelly's blog:

The Language of Eden is a prolonged, intimate, wide-ranging, often anguished conversation between a patient and an analyst. Gradually these roles metamorphose, but still they have a clarity of definition unusual in post-modern narrative.

and now our time is up
usually I mind it when you say that
but I’m glad not to talk about children
you’re really fixated on my having them why
not on your having them just what you think about them

but the divan’s empty now
I always want to know who cleans his office
his invisible wife his illegal immigrant au pair

I imagine her sitting in his chair in the dark
then stretching out along the patient’s couch
where she has no right
no right but the dark


Dipping into the book is one thing. But the invitation is clear, to read it from beginning to end. I don't know if people ever do that with free books. Anyway here's a a more lyrical part from near the beginning:

but all I wanted
was to see the porcupine
climb up the pine tree the rattlesnake
lie sleepy in the morning sun
some deer gaze at me from the woodlot’s edge
when you see an animal it means you’re thinking

all summer I was thinking
and not a word I had to say
I watched the thermometer go up and down

rigid interpretation
sailing ships and steamers plunging
smokestacks like the valves of trumpets

holy trinity going far away
does music ever come back
but when an animal looks at you it means you’re wrong

sometimes the bird can’t tolerate
eerie smell of the closets
where the winter coats have talked too long

sometimes a coat never comes home

Eléna Rivera: Overture

Here's a sequence about autumn, change, accidents, writing. The scaffolding works all through the poem. That might at least be one reason for thinking of Jane Cooper; the other irrelevant author who came to mind is Tua Forsström; neither of them closely related to the US-modernist sphere in which I supposed Rivera operated. But I mean these as compliments. The poetry is compressed and undecorated, so that maximal value is placed on small sounds and under-meanings.

Have to have a high idea of what we do
No matter the stakes
No matter if the writing hasn't been read yet
A leaf is picked up and put in a plastic bag
                                        the word floats into view
Impatient with pronouncements
Of every variety
Trying to convince ourselves
Doing the ‘‘right’‘ thing

Rivera has published quite a few other books, including The Perforated Map (Shearsman, 2011)

Tamas Panitz: The Empty Stations

The first two poems are, in part, about the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut. As the 28 pages proceed the chapbook is seen to cover a lot of fast-moving ground, more than you'd guess from this opening, even though the second one is also about a park smelling of shit.

The following lines represent a small move early within the title poem (my favourite one), but they'll give you an idea:

Smell of soup after midnight from downstairs. Like lovers tramp across the
frozen tidal river the tides a cold terror of latent pasts: a dream (but I was
going to write demon) ridden primordial soup

warms open. It’s summer, barley & rosemary & the green man. Who says
the seasons come in order.

George Quasha: free floating instant nations (preverbs)

Quasha has published several previous selections of preverbs - a concept, supposedly suggested by William Blake, of something anterior to and more contingent than a proverb. Quasha has written persuasively about the "preverb" idea; he has a gift for coming up with appealing and original artistic concepts, as previously seen, for instance, in his remarkable sculptures known as axial stones.

But back to the preverbs. Something needs to stick, and that's here from the start.

I say me as if I were a tree.
I appear to be looking up because I am.
I’m on this journey because I have feet.
Facing down on horny earth in a phrase.
The syntax is make sense before it’s too late.

The poems are sexual, sensual, spiritual, body- belly- and earth- centred. Trees, clouds and sensations of free floating are recurrent features. Whether the word "nations" really deserves to be in the book-title is more debateable.  Of course I don't grasp much of the thought's detail from so fleeting a contact, though I can see the persistent lines of thought as they overflow from one poem to the next. One such thought-line is around syntax, poetics, and language.

I know it’s a poem when it teaches me language lip first.

Eyeland (The Cuttyhunk Photographs of Charlotte Mandell with texts by Lynn Behrendt, Billie Chernicoff, Robert Kelly, and Tamas Panitz)

That is, Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts, a place of wide horizons and white weatherboarding.The poems began as comments on an online photo album by Charlotte Mandell (Robert Kelly's wife):  poems by and for a small group.

I think it's highly problematic to write a poem about a photo that the reader can see for themselves. The picture is always in competition with the poem and it always wins. The poem, trying to get away from the the drastic particularity of the photo, can drown in its own symbolism. But for all these pitfalls, it's so tempting to try. Would Tamas Panitz's line about "the orange shawl"  even be possible without the the beautiful photo alongside it?

 Or take the symbolism just as it is, and it can make a lucid kind of discourse.

I knew Tivoli was a rose
roses, heads heavy with dew
heavy with admiration
yours and mine, women
tired of telling you their names
tired of being so transparent
so obvious we can only fling ourselves
more deeply into who we are.    (Billie Chernicoff)

There's a good deal of happenstance in a book with such conversational origins and that's what produces the moments I valued most.


crippled by gentility

by Michael Peverett

There is class war on the internet as everywhere else. And I'm as implicated as everyone else, and (thinking of myself as a player here, because I've now written so many literary pieces) I keep noticing common literary/journalistic expressions that I just would never use, because of personal snobbery and because I want people to see that I've got more class than to write crap like that (which really means that I'm not being told what to write by paymasters, because no-one gives a toss about what I write).

1. "a gem of a book"

Pure Hustle is a gem of book ... (Jo Shapcott on Kate Potts' debut collection for Bloodaxe.) BTW, since we're taking potshots, the worthy but ancient Bloodaxe website desperately needs a facelift. Can you imagine it, you can't even browse in the books, there's no samplers! So the only things Kate Potts has got to promote her probably unique gifts are two worthless blurbs, Shapcott's heartwarming "gem of a book.. pure gold..." and Jen Hadfield's woolly stab at a more surreal style ("this assonance-jellied, beetle-drawer of a pamphlet..."). Is this of any use to anyone? Contrast, of course, the Shearsman or Salt websites: you can really discover a whole lot about, say (pause...), Sascha Aurora Akhtar's The Grimoire of Grimalkin.. Hey, I like this book a lot; that wasn't in the script. I thought Salt had stopped publishing my kind of books (NB I was right, but you can still buy some old things). Anyway, you see what I mean? That's what a publishing website needs to do, isn't it? The business of a publisher is to publish, not just print.

[You can read about Kate Potts' book here, though:]


"This gem of a book" - most appropriately used of debut collections: attempting to suggest a cherished personal discovery that one has hugged to oneself for ages before coyly, earnestly, almost reluctantly, feeling impelled to speak of it among friends.

Of course we do not use expressions like this in the alt-poetry world.  (We pretend that we don't have any friends, while mainstreamers pretend that they don't live in an economy.)  Perhaps we view the gushingness of "this gem of a book" as further evidence that mainstreamers in general don't have any thoughts about poetry worth attending to, while they continue to believe that we don't  really care for poetry at all but just use it to promote our own personal agendas; both very true insights.

The more generalized expression used by both these blurbers: "This A of a B" now appears to survive only in the provincial world of books, long since discarded from more fashionable media spheres (who used to say "this colossus of a performance", "this determined beauty of an anti-single" etc).

More distantly, it makes me think of:

A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

Essentially all these expressions are about asserting (creating) value, i.e. they attempt to propose a heroic scena in which swords are magic and heroes can hold up stone bridges with their bare hands. Used in reviews, this transmutes into a heroic/commercial nexus, i.e. in which you can BUY THE ACTION: bucklers, bridges and all.

2.  "in defence of"


Yup. That's it. No, I mean, that's one of the things I would never, ever write: an article entitled "In Defence Of" something. But lots of people do. Try Googling "in defence of" ... well,  anything. Modernism, moral imperialism, moral absolutes, mothers, monarchy, moderate aesthetic formalism, model-based inference in phylogeography, Morgan Tsvangirai, and that's just the MOs.

Gillian Beer in defence of rhyme (Guardian, Jan 13th 2007): "Rhyme is often dismissed as conventional, old-fashioned and childish. Not so, argues Gillian Beer, who believes its potential to persuade and surprise should not be underestimated". That's the subEditor speaking, with his brisk "Not so". The article that follows is often intelligent, not at all original, and eventually sinks under the oppressive discomfort of trying to pretend to be a perky topical must-read: "One difficulty in discussing the effects of rhyme is that these are manifold and diverse," the author laments helplessly.

(Bit of a soft target, you're thinking? I know. The fact is that I've lost contact with the original article that inspired this particular snobbery; I can't even remember if it was about poetry or not.)

So why are people so fond of titling their articles "In Defence of X"? Because it vaguely reminds them of other articles they've read. They think it's a clever quote from something, was it Shelley? (No, it wasn't.) Even if it was a clever quote, I'd despise it because it wasn't a cleverer one. Think of all those other vague appropriations of forgotten quotations: I want to say that entitling your essay "Post-Structuralism and Its Discontents" (Globalization, Simulation, The Euro...), so far from differentiating you, in fact places you on just the same beery level as if you write "The Great British Barbecue" (Pudding, Christmas..).

But the real reason why cool people don't use "In Defence Of..." is this. Consider the scenario: you use it to stand up for something that is, in your opinion, under attack. In other words, you tell the world that you're going to come on a bit reactionary here. Obviously, you're saying it oh-so-knowingly so as to prove that you're not REALLY a reactionary. (Keston Sutherland could possibly get away with that, but absolutely no-one else can.) But it won't work. Your title proves exactly the opposite. It proves you have a taste for sitting among reactionary furniture, so probably you ARE a reactionary, it's just that you're so reactionary that you don't even realize how reactionary you are. Actions speak louder than words. (And it's a safe bet that though you're finding relief in giving vent to some of your reactionary views now, you're still holding back on all the worst ones.)

But, wait a minute, doesn't it make a difference WHAT you're defending? No, not really. Never defend. It's A. defensive behaviour B. A lost cause. C. Suggests the puzzled blinking of an owl in daylight. D. Proves you're in denial.

And by the way, the perhaps exemplary object that you've set out to defend is now, thanks to your own bungling, tainted by association with the reactionary attitudes encoded in the word "defence".

You think I'm joking. Well, take Michael Pollan's big-selling "In Defence of Food". Main assertion, that there's no point taking any nutritional supplements because you cannot reduce food, which is so chemically complex, to a small number of active principles. I can't help noticing that the same argument would seem to condemn all medicine or pharmaceutics; it asserts an obfuscatory integrity of nature and makes experiment or investigation as impious as to question the ways of God. Interesting argument, nonetheless. But hold on! Soon the author is complaining that people don't even sit down together to a family meal these days! And if you want to know what real food is, then it's whatever your grandmother would have recognized! .... The author together with his cherished damsel (defended object: "Food" in this instance) are equally betrayed from within by these mindless DailyMailisms.

There's a more important reason than any of that. Attack and Defence are like Good and Evil, they tend to reduce the complexity of nature to the ancient binary systems, always more or less inaccurate, that humans rightly fall back on in extreme emergencies when action of some sort is paramount and layers of complexity must be stripped from the vision. At all other times, binary is pointlessly wrong.

3.  "oft-presented".

Now that's nasty, isn't it? Evidently, the word "oft" is a poeticism and has no idiomatic existence today, supposing it ever did. Nevertheless some people love to use it when they're writing. Well, I don't. Oh but surely this is just about personal taste? No, it's about class struggle. But it doesn't necessarily work the way you might assume. In this case, middlebrow huxters write things like "oft-denied" or "oft-imperilled" in order to demonstrate, as they suppose, that they have some culture about them, that they're at ease with public writing. Highbrow huxters would be ashamed to do the same, because their secret conviction is that their writing is sufficiently commended by its own essence to obviate the need for pathetic decoration with such faded blossoms as this.

4.   "I'm reminded of"

People are very funny when writing about other people's poetry books. When it's the kind of poetry that I mostly follow, the uppermost experience is usually puzzlement, and this can be signalled in various ways. If a modern poet is lucky enough to get a review at all, it is usually just a ragbag of "I'm reminded of".

This phrase means that the critic is about to introduce something that, within the critic's personal imagination, has a vague connection with the book under review. At the same time, the phrase signals that the critic realizes that this association, this something, is in all probability purely personal to the critic, and is not at all likely to be known to the poet; and is probably an evanescent impression that oughtn't even to be mentioned, but hey.

[Something similar to this is when the reviewer confides "I happened to be reading such-and-such last night and ..." ... followed by quotation from tangentially relevant book.]

There seems to be a consensual recognition that a review of a book is not a study of the author's work. It is sufficiently justified, so this consensus runs, by being written by a reader and by honestly recording how it strikes them. But does this mean that the reader's happenstancial experiences are all grist to the mill? Traditionally, I'd say no. In former days the reviewer aimed for typicality, or rather pretended to do so. Now that this is rightly discredited, the modern reviewer is encouraged to confide the random synchronicities of their readerly life, even when only flimsily connected to the book in hand. I think that's how it's meant to work.

5.   "There is a sense of"

This timidly risks proffering an interpretation, while ready to snatch it away at the first hint of a frown.

Perhaps it is meant to evoke the enormously long, calm middle-distance musing that I remember from university tutorials. I hate the way these manners still persist.

6.  "only to"

Where Christopher Reid’s ‘A Scattering’ provides a mechanism by which the bereavement process can be structured around the writing process, 'Eurydice' suggests that it cannot. As in the Greek myth around which this sequence is loosely structured, Eurydice is resurrected only to fade away once again. .... it is tempting to conclude .... Chillingly, .... etc etc. (Stride review of James Womack by Thomas White.)

Is it fair of me to single out out "only to", surely that's unobjectionable??

Well, perhaps it is as regards the quotation I've taken up, but it strikes a disagreeable note in me nevertheless. It's something to do with being knowing, with consciously seeing all round a subject, and with abusing the short and easie way to seeing all round a subject, which is reductiveness. You fancy that in the hierarchy of knowingness, Thomas White sits somewhere above Christopher Reid who himself sits above Ovid who sits above poor naive old Orpheus. White, above all, knew where the story would end almost before it began. Yet to me (doubtless excessively reverential) this hierarchy is upside-down. The commentator should never sit above the subject, you can't see through your own butt.

7.  "who should know better"

This chiding schoolmasterly phrase is inexplicably popular among critics who, I think, would want to reject its implications if they thought them over. Borrowing the enemy's weapons is good in war but bad in criticism, is the way I see it.

8. "serves to"

This is a cliché of literary criticism and scholarship that became ridiculously popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and is still seen today. I'm taking these examples from Anne Righter's Shakespeare and The Idea of The Play (1962), but any university library would yield tens of thousands of examples.

The comparison made between life and the theatre serves, in this instance, to define the depth and realism of the play world itself. (p. 60)
Like the valedictory remark of Subtle Shift, his comment serves to recognize the contrived, somewhat artificial nature of the action now terminated. (p. 68)
Used within the confines of a play, the metaphor served not only to dignify the theatre but also to bridge the space between the stage and the more permanent realm inhabited by the spectators. (p. 76)
Used within the 'reality' of the play itself, they also serve to remind the audience that elements of illusion are present in ordinary life, and that between the world and the stage there exists a complicated interplay of resemblance that is part of the perfection and nobility of the drama itself as a form. (p. 78)

Obviously part of my objection to this kind of commentary is that it's too knowing (as per 6); the scholar-critic takes it for granted that s/he knows why the author has done something. In Righter's case, this knowingness is probably unintended. She is apt to state that such-and-such a passage "serves to" support her thesis, when it might seem to serve to do other things that are a lot more obvious. (I mean just how many times do you need to remind an audience of the connection between play and world? Isn't it one of the amazing things about drama that it's one of the most obvious things there is, that "make-believe" is something that a young child "gets" without any help whatever?)

The other part of my objection, and I admit this is more speculative, is that this expression encodes a master-and-servant view of the world. I am all right with services as something provided by servers (computers) or by companies. But I'm uncomfortable with people serving and I'm uncomfortable with a view of the world or nature as something whose main function is to serve us. And I extend this to the materials of art. I don't believe that the artist's relationship to her/his materials is one of using them to serve her/him. I see the relationship as more human and more tentative. The artist, as I see it, participates with materials (such as language or vocabulary) that are already imbued with a certain life because of their context within interpretive communities.

9. "itself"

We live of course in an era where art tends be self-conscious and self-reflexive and self-referring. Somehow this has been seen by many not as lamebrained mannerism but as a revolutionary brilliance that they have been keen to associate with and to mimic. (The truth is, it's nothing but a heat-sink for controlled dispersal of those instinctive revolutionary restlessnesses that one hesitates to employ to any purpose.)

Personally I was bored of it in 1976 and I haven't become much less bored of it since.

Most literary commentators are not Derridas. Their wielding of self-reflexive argument amounts to little more than arriving at the word "itself".

What the hell am I talking about?

...interweaves political intrigue, personal responsibilities and the ways in which the forces of history are played out in the struggles of individual human lives. But its true subject is perhaps the role of narration and the limits of storytelling itself.

(Jacket note to the Edinburgh Edition of Scott's Peveril of the Peak.)

Can you hear the triumphalism in that ending? The author believes that by arriving at the word "itself" they have achieved a climax beyond which no other is necessary or even possible. Like Anselm defining (or rather, manhandling) God into "that than which nothing more Godly can be conceived".

But why did and does this snake-swallowing-its-tail manoeuvre have (in the eyes of its authors) such incredible prestige? I believe it's to do with the disenfranchisement of the first-year Arts student who suddenly ceases to acquire any further information about the world, while her/his colleagues continue to dully mug up on economics, technology, genetics, chemistry, medicine, civil engineering and political history. Meanwhile the Arts student is left with her /his swift intelligence intact, but without any knowledge. (I know. I was one.) The outcome is that the Arts student becomes addicted to arguments of this form: "If that were true then it would also undercut your statement since this itself would by implicated by what you claim."  It's a form of argument that requires hardly any knowledge about the subject under discussion, and for that very reason (an inner consciousness of comparative ignorance) it seems to the author almost miraculously clever, the first couple of times you bring it off. A lot of people never get over the thrill of it.

NB Yes, St Anselm was an Arts student.

10. "It is as if"

It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.

(Emily Wilson, The Death of Socrates (2007))

Ah, fancy! "It is as if" introduces a thought with the concession that it has no basis in fact, substituting for this slight concession the rarely-kept promise of a brilliant dash of intellectual play. Obviously I have no sense of humour left. I note that Seneca did commit suicide ("all but incapable"?), and that his slow bloodflow was due to being old, and almost certainly not to reading Plato. I also note that contrasting Rome disparagingly with Greece has a long literary tradition. Why was anyone bothering with this, in 2007? What was this, actually, but bookmaking, that is, very old wine in new bottles?

("Nicely summed up", according to the columnist who requoted it.)

11. "extraordinary"

This is more spoken than written. If you listen to or watch any arts program (I'm basing this mainly on BBC Radio 3), then you'll find that the interview is paved not only with plugs, awards, anniversaries and anecdotes of the famous but with the regular utterance of the word "extraordinary", used to self-complacently gratulate shared moments in the speaker's own life-experience. A generous reading of this interview-mannerism is that it honourably recognizes the distinction of others and encourages the listening art-lovers to see their own art-loving lives in terms of a series of "extraordinary" events shared with art-makers; though one must point out that even this generous reading boils down to an encouragement to spend more money. An ungenerous reading (heaven forbid) would interpret it as someone working hard to define themselves as within a hagiographised elite, and reporting a certain wonder at finding themselves there. So far from this sense of wonder being disabling, it is actually legitimizing, since it is well-known that members of the elite are A. humble B. born to it.

12. "not dissimilar to"

Another vague pretext for the imminent incorporation of dubiously relevant mental clutter, as per 4 and 10, above.

But really, I'm including this only as an excuse to quote Prynne, writing about the opening lines of Tintern Abbey.

The present visit is made 'again' after this double interval [sc. five summers/winters], part-clement and part-forbidding, and 'again' is a marker word which is itself repeated, so that these linked doublings establish a rhythm not dissimilar to the rhetorical patterns of the renaissance handbooks, or the looping journeys of a tour of visitations. 

 (from the essay "Tintern Abbey, Once Again" in Glossator (Fall, 2009))

The quotation is meant to be a welcome refreshment (plus, don't you think clement and forbidding would be a good pair of concepts to characterize Prynne's poems?).

How much more suggestive is that word "visitations" than (what one more commonly achieves on a tour) mere "visits" !

Ah, poetry!

But still, "not dissimilar to" remains a burbling reminder of dubious relevance. How have the repetitions within Wordsworth's text been amplified in Prynne's commentary! - a commentary that very much enjoys overflowing the bounds of its subject. Attentiveness is one thing - but amplification, that's something else, there's a fuzziness in it. In this case the amplification is done by raking in some bits and pieces that the poem doesn't hint at (those very unspecified renaissance handbooks, for example) and by doubling the doublings again and again, not omitting to apply the essential assurance of the word "itself" (see 9, above).

Well, it's no good getting too hung up over vocabulary. Prynne's essay - it was written in 2001, in fact - is exemplary, its sentences full of depth-charges (four examples: "variations of nature and nurture" in unripe apples; the latency, absence and promise in "murmur"; connection of orchard tufts to youth; and the contemplative threshold of "natural unhoused wandering and its mimicry by the traveller on tour"). Anyway, that's enough of praise for now.

[This pallid eviscerated UK poetics-related whine is a stub. You can help Mikipedia by expanding it.]

D.S Marriott poetry links

I've got to thank Peter Riley for belatedly bringing D. S. Marriott to stage centre in my personal theatre of UK poetry. His recent piece is here:

It's an article that's both admirable for the detail of its tussle and vulnerable to some rather obvious objections (for example, in its willingness to characterize "Caribbean" poetry, and its clumsy attempt to connect/contrast Marriott's poetry with said characterization).  But detailing these easy objections distracts from the more urgent issues that Riley exposes.

They are often most urgent when most mean, as in the paragraph that forcibly connects Marriott's poetry with John Burnside's, both of whom Riley caricatures reductively as going: Look at me, I have a special psychological condition. The exemplary obverse, of course, is Riley's own poetry: here the psychological condition of the poet, as a topic of any importance, seems to disappear from view. Riley may misunderstand Marriott (or Burnside, or both), but anyway this is a discussion worth having. Personally, I feel Riley's critique depends on a conception of normal psychological experience that ultimately isn't true and in many contexts isn't even helpful. One of those contexts, surely, is the disturbing places that Marriott's poems go to.

While fully recognizing the formidable skilfulness of  Marriott's writing (as who could not), Riley basically finds it depressing and a dead end. Well, that's my own reductive caricature of a many-layered essay, and you too might find that the encounter prompts contrary conclusions.

Riley's view of Marriott's poetry is part of a wider dispute with theorizing and any poetry that takes its propositions seriously. On the other hand,  John Wilkinson's 2013 review claims that while Marriott's poetry has close links to certain thinkers (e.g. Franz Fanon, Gillian Rose), "the extensive sweep of his poetry resists any ready purchase, and for readers raised on French Theory or post-Heideggerian thought its way of thinking may be incomprehensible".

Marriott's own cultural studies books (On Black Men, Haunted Life) are most likely the best introduction to this aspect of the poetry. For a stunning example of this side of his work, see the essay "Inventions of Existence" listed below.

This isn't, and isn't meant to be, an exhaustive bibliography of Marriott on the internet. It's structured around the big collections and his most recent chapbook, and it comprises enough poems to make even the most cautious of poetry fans decide whether it's time to shell out for a Marriott book, plus a few articles and other materials that I've found useful in thinking about his work.

Incognegro (Salt, 2006)

Sampler, including "The Ghost of Averages", "Someone Killed Them", "Orange & Green", "The 'Secret' of This Form Itself":

Review of Incognegro (Salt, 2006) by Abena Sutherland, in Intercapillary Space

Very informative review of the pamphlet Dogma (Barque, 2001) by Andrew Duncan, in Jacket 20 (Dec 2002). The poems from Dogma ended up in Incognegro.

Hoodoo Voodoo (Shearsman 2008)

Sampler, including "On The Whiteness of the Whale", "The Ishmael Poems", "The Dream of Melby Dotson":

"The Levees" in Jacket 31 (2006):

From "Speak Low: Poem to Jonas",  in Intercapillary Space:

["Jonas" is Stephen Jonas, US poet who died in 1970. Here's some poems by him:  ]

The Bloods (Shearsman 2011)

Sampler, including "Lorem Ipsum", "The Virus Called Smith", "Black Sunlight", "Sirens", "Trueblood", "The Dog Enchanter" :

"Pot Kettle Black" and "Into the Pit" in Blart 1. (But watch out, the pages are in the wrong order.)

"Riverflesh", in Blackbox Manifold

In Neuter (Equipage 2013)

Review by John Wilkinson, in Blackbox Manifold:

other bits and pieces: 

Review by Cristian Castro of Marriott's Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity (Rutgers, 2007).

David Marriott: Inventions of Existence: Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, Sociogeny,
and "the Damned" (The New Centennial Review, Volume 11, Number 3, Winter 2011,

pp. 45-89) is available online here:

(You might have to join up. Just bullshit them with that Independent Researcher guff.)

Michael Thurston and Nigel Alderman, Reading Postwar British and Irish Poetry (Wiley, 2014) has a few illuminating pages on Marriott's poems. You can read them if you check out the eBook version on Google Books.


A Poem By Benjamin Mullen


can man

the final

writer’s still
unrewritten word

can men imagine
measureless caverns

measureless there
in imagination

the thing
measuring all

and abandoned
behind the day

the unread
written warning

‘Abandon all’ (in its

‘Abandon all who enter here
you who enter here’

kindle poems

I don't have a Kindle. And so far as I can see the alt- poetry world isn't particularly interested in the paperless format, yet. At some point there may be a tipping point. Basically because Kindle editions are so cheap compared to paper. Price isn't usually thought of as an important factor in selling alt-poetry, but O Publishers, it might be more of a differentiator than you think. That's all I'm saying.

Anyhow, this is all just an excuse for a couple of recommendations if you want some light Kindle reading. (And obviously I haven't read them myself, just glanced at the samplers, which are even cheaper of course.)

1. Complicities: British Poetry 1945 - 2007 ed. Robin Purves and Sam Ladkin (Literaria Pragensia, 2007) . Kindle edition £2.02.  Essays by various hands (Sutherland, Prynne, Marriott, Dworkin, Cooke and a dozen others) on disparate modern-UK-poetry-related topics. There's something young-fogeyish about the title, hell, about the idea that a book like this embodies. (Remember the young fogeys? Oh well.)  Nevertheless it seems like a promising primer if you want to understand the kind of things people say in Sussex circles.

The sampler contains the editors' not-too-convincing introduction, plus three pieces: Robin Purves' typically excellent essay: this is about whether W.S. Graham's poetry does or does not show the influence of Heidegger's philosophy. I couldn't care less, you might reasonably respond, as I did. But that's not really the point. Every question turns out to be absorbing once someone really deep-dives into it as Purves does. His essay makes both the poet and the philosopher begin to seem significant, and above all the problematics of this whole question of "influence". Also Thomas Day on Geoffrey Hill, which I'm afraid I can't be bothered to read, and a substantial part of a Keston Sutherland essay on Prynne that is really a work of profound beauty and power.

2. Hidden Agendas: Unreported Poetics ed. Louis Armand (Literaria Pragensia, 2010). Kindle Edition £2.03. This is another collection of essays - an even more interesting one, in my judgment.

"Beyond a type of Luddite mentality, there is a view counter to the pervasive Google-ization of the web which invites a certain difficulty in making particular types of archival material immediately locatable. Ubu Web's self removal from the Google search engine points to a growing aversion to the market cult of accessibility and the tyranny of distribution (mediated and regulated by proprietary bodies such as Google, Amazon, et al.)."

This is from Armand's terrific Introduction and of course there is a massive irony in talking about Kindle editions in this context. This collection is in a sense Armand's follow-up to Avant-Post, a 2006 collection in the same series, but this time the focus is on "marginality" and this is a much sharper focus than "avant-garde", which is swamped by irrelevant baggage.

Anyway the sampler gives us two wonderful bits of literary history, Kyle Schlesinger on Asa Benveniste and a large chunk of Robert Sheppard on the eighties London scene and Bob Cobbing. The latter gives, I think, a better flavour of the striking intellectual/creative discussions within that scene than anything I've read elsewhere. Revelatory. Other contents include Stephanie Strickland on digital poetry, D.J. Huppatz on Flarf, plus Allen Fisher, Jena Osman, John Wilkinson....

You can see why the Kindle format makes sense for these hefty essay collections. But what actual poetry can you get in Kindle editions? Here's what I turned up in a desultory search:

Keston Sutherland. Yes, you can get the Odes to TL61P, but at £5.89 this is not much of a saving and paper is probably the best way to go. The sampler is frustrating (a dozen pages of preamble, some sort of epigraph and only one page of actual ode.)

Wesleyan University Press, including:

John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath (Wesleyan Poetry Classics). Kindle edition, £6.87. Wow. Just wow.
and Peter Gizzi (especially Threshold Songs- £4.42), and Jena Osman's Public Figures (2012), rather expensive at £12.35, which is a big shame.

On the other hand, BlazeVOX books. Including brilliant things like Tom Clark's At the Fair (2010) and Amy King's Slaves To Do These Things (2009) - ridiculously cheap at £0.77 each.

Major UK publishers of alt-poetry (Shearsman, Reality Street, Barque) have not taken up Kindle.

Salt have, but they hardly publish any alt-poetry any more. I know I would hugely enjoy reading Luke Kennard's The Harbour Beyond The Movie (2010), - Kindle edition £3.08 - though I probably never will.

More significant is the availability of quite a few Carcanet books on Kindle. Tom Pickard, Philip Terry, Tom Raworth, Christine Brooke-Rose, Peter Riley, Roger Langley, Thomas A. Clark, Christopher Middleton, Andrew Crozier might be variously acceptable to our hypothetical Kindler.  (Prices vary; they are not very much cheaper than the paperbacks.)

And Penguin, of course, are on Kindle, so you can get half a dozen Alice Notley books, as well as a few classics by Ginsberg, Berrigan, and Kyger. Like Carcanet, they pitch the kindle price almost as high as the paperback price.

Not forgetting!..:

James Russell, Neurotrash (Like This Press, 2013, £2.05)


A poem by Amy Cutler

Rumpele stilt

Don’t you know / nobody can love you / or your name’s best memory. A little rattle ghost  
or rumble shank. I think I’ve forgotten him. Everything was easier before I knew yours.  

By stilt or stalk or cruel amusement, every frumpypigskin guessed your virtue. I think 
I’ve forgotten him. And down by the spinning heart I drew every word for every curse.   

I’ll go with Shortribs, Sheepshanks, or Laceleg: a poor girl’s milling tune. I think  
I’ve forgotten him now. Dear, it’s not possible to kill off anything in rumpled words.  

Nor any kind of woodland thing in the linguistic heart, but “something still murmurs  
and roams about in the graveyards of language”. Junker, whine-screamer, little noise.  

Tim Allen: Settings etc.

by Michael Peverett

I have now finished The Voice Thrower (Shearsman, 2012). The only snag is, I didn't really start it, not at the beginning anyway. I sort of dived in somewhere in the middle and just kept going. I remember doing this with War and Peace many years ago, and even now I still haven't got around to reading the start of it. Come to think of it,  I did the same last week with Fortunata and Jacinta. It's just too intimidating to be on page 13 of a 1000-page novel. Picking it up half-way through takes some of the pressure off. Then I say to myself, Never mind, I'll just read it for a bit, see if I like it..

The Voice Thrower isn't a 1000-page novel, but it is a 333-stanza poem, unrelieved by section breaks and packed with narratives, often several going on at the same time. Narratives are often interrupted, typically by words that act like switch-points on a railway line to route us to a new destination. John Hall uses the word "chiasmatic" to describe this feature. Example:

                                    and you don't really care who

you are it's the world out there that counts 2ten while
Britannia sits on her shield ouch then rolls a penny....

(pp. 72-73)


The full list of Tim Allen books that I've got is:

Settings (Shearsman, 2008)

The Voice Thrower (Shearsman, 2012)

An Anabranch with Slug (Knives Forks And Spoons, 2011)

incidental harvest (21 untitled poems) (Oystercatcher, 2011)

And, in effect, my Tim Allen reading list is further enhanced by the four poems from Default Soul that recently appeared in Intercapillary Space (which I think are top stuff).


Then there is Andrew Duncan interviewing Tim Allen in Don't Start Me Talking.  Conveniently for us internet freeloaders, the interview is in the sampler. The interview begins with a page or two of Tim's long poem Sea ExChange and is altogether the handiest novice introduction to who he is. I say that because aside from his own poetry Tim is a massive part of modern UK poetry history. I'm not really happy with putting it that way, because it isn't what I want to talk about, but it's true. The rest of this essay assumes you understand who Tim Allen is. And now I want to foreground the poetry. A lot of it is still I think unpublished and unfinalized. But there's enough of it out there to see that it matters.
Numerous questions arise vaguely in my mind - and are linked, too, to all that I know of Tim's many Terrible Work reviews and his pellucid input on the British-Poets forum. (No, I simply can't refer to him as "Allen". I've never met him - I've never met anyone - but I feel I've known him a long time. We've exchanged an email or two. So Tim it is.)  It is possible to avoid those questions. The constant invention and entertainment even lull them to sleep, in a way. In that respect though not in most others Tim's work affects me like Giles Goodland's does. (I am not sure the comparison would be very welcome to either author.) There's certainly a case to be made for comparing the endless inventiveness of Goodland's gnomes with the pataphysical nuggets that are strewn across the Settings and most easily appreciated when compiled into its advert-appendix of "Setting Examples". But what I really mean is, their books are definitely classifiable as post-avant writing but there's a sort of broad appeal about them too. You could enjoy Settings without being a card-carrying post-avant and probably without even being very interested in poetry or the poetry world at all; which is pretty much what I said about Goodland's What the Things Sang (Oulipo work tends to share this characteristic.) But it's kind of odd, when you reflect that Tim himself must have read more modern poetry than anyone else alive.

Anyway, I can't get rid of the questions, so let's put them out there. There are only two, and to help navigate the chaotic structure of this essay I'll just name them now: dreams and class. In the end, they are bound up together, but you have a few paragraphs to sit through before I'll be able to get to that point. So first up, dreams.


At night the brain is an illuminated formal garden but at day it is a reformed cult through which you walk naked without feet in your boots. (Settings, Set 34)

Tim's read everything, but it's quite difficult - that is, I find it difficult - to say exactly what poets or what praxis he's aligned with. Continental and transatlantic influences have seeped into an imagination that is eminently local, concrete and detailed. Tim has mentioned surrealism a few times - e.g. in that interview, "an early obsession with surrealism"  - but of course surrealism in a broad sense is very vast, while surrealism in a narrow sense is too distant and too long ago to give many bearings. No, it's not helpful to call him a surrealist.

But at any rate, you can't read his poetry for very long without noticing how interested it is in dreams, ghosts, apparitions and transformed realities of all sorts. But the poem is only to a certain extent in the dream, it is amphibian and only intermittently committed to dream logic. Interrupting it and sometimes entangled with it is a writing about the act of dreaming, which you can call meta-surrealism if you want to but I don't want to.

Your dream was of a scruffy shambles (a realism made of newspaper)  (Sea ExChange)

One night way back I dreamed I was fencing I had just cultivated my first cloak-and-dagger goatee but I gave my opponent a close shave we kept on talking about the Russian novel that had to change school buses as we feigned and thrusted, My sword rusted, well it had too, it came after thrusted. I flew at him with my trust in the dream gone but fell from the extravagantly arch window of the story into the streets of Moscow... (Settings, Set 13)

It was a real sleep not one of those pretend ones it was so real I knew it was the last sleep of my life I would wake from its lake and stay awake for (an) eternity remembering its deeply impertinent dreams of second-hand oracle following their signifying chain back back into as much past as could be scooped from my imaginary lives. (Settings, Set 21)

I think I am dreaming precognitively of a cigarette packet called Diplomat but naked and alone writing a postcard in a laundromat. (Settings, Set 63)

What is the meaning of these dreams, or more specifically, of these dreams here? And why the jerk-back, the very Wide-Awake-Club atmosphere of Tim's writing which always seems to have a clear-eyed morning air about it though the ontological levels keep shifting in a perpetual dream-work?

Casting around for influences in the poets Tim admires, I did find one thing he does that you can also find in Lyn Hejinian. It is an exact,surprising discrimination expressed in simple words, often involving self-scrutiny of inner irrationalities.

All rivers' left banks remind me of Paris, not to see or sit upon but to hear spoken of.

(My Life, "One begins as a student but becomes a friend of clouds")

A similar situation arises with the need to sleep while not needing sleep itself.

(Settings, Set 29)

Never been beach combing but I've combed the beach many times...

(Settings, Set 57)

Hejinian's observation is that bits of language - in this case the words "left bank" - may have associations that are not shared by (are even negated by) the things those bits of language refer to. So real riversides aren't reminiscent of Paris, but when someone talks about the left bank of a river you find yourself thinking of Paris. Part of the relevance of this topic, in My Life, is Hejinian's own experience of student activism. It is not merely a funny old observation, though in respect that we can probably all relate to it, there's comedy in the air.

I suppose the thematic relevance of the first Tim Allen quote doesn't need stressing; he is almost as interested in sleeping as in dreaming. The distinction made here (and reversed later in the same Set) is hard to get clear in the mind, a characteristic feature of pataphysics. But it sounds as if it ought to be there. Consider these analogies: Elena needs a walk, but doesn't need to go anywhere; or, Elena and Kim feel like going shopping though they don't have anything they want to buy. These analogies are commonplace, but when we turn back to the poem again our confidence fades into puzzlement.  Is sleeping really an activity? And is sleep a goal that you might gain by sleeping?

The second of Tim's passing comments also turns on a disconnection between language and what it refers to. Combing the beach is one thing, self-identifying as a beachcomber is another. Perhaps a vague revulsion from the ancient Daily Express column "Beachcomber" plays a part in this (Tim's cultural memory for such things is long and deep). More generally the discrimination might register a distaste for being labelled, but I don't think this formulation quite gets to it. On the whole the sentence strikes me as reasonably and amusedly open to the possibility of one day going beach combing. But its question is, what would that mean, what would it feel like? The sensitized reader will think at once of Tim's understated resistance to, or stubborn sense of wonder at, being a poet, although he formidably writes poems (a prime theme of Set 66 among others).

And this makes me think, as a good medievalist is bound to, of how the dream in old poems is a figure (indeed an implied poetic) for poetic inspiration. A shady topic in this context, maybe: - the "height of poetic inspiration", Tim almost-sneers somewhere near the start of Set 3.


The basic question about society is to do with Tim Allen as a working-class writer - or at any rate, a non-university writer.  Allen (oh, so it's Allen now is it?) doesn't stake out out any mythical renegade territory (as, perhaps, Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney..). All his writings are replete with an authorial persona, but nothing he tells us about himself claims any tribute. Nevertheless the question emerges all the stronger, does Tim Allen's work embody a distinctively non-middle-class vision, and is that the main thing that it's about?

This isn't such a small thing. The poetry world, and to a large infected degree the poetry that comes out of it, is massively middle-class. You can argue the same thing for culture as a whole, but especially what is called high culture. The BBC, as a structure for culture, is middle-class in its bones. The middle-classness of poetry, while perhaps less overt than the middle-classness of classical music, is barely any less fundamental. Literacy itself has its roots well set in class distinction. You can more easily lay that background aside when it comes to fiction - some genre fiction especially - but poetry always carries its history around with it.

Mention of the BBC, bastion of the mainstream, may imply to some that I'm specifically connecting this middle-classness with mainstream poetry. There's a case to be made for that (as per Andrew Duncan's use of "conservatism"), but it's not my point. Middle-classness is eminently in the fibre of the post-avant wing of the poetry community too. Sometimes I think it flourishes there in a kind of pure atavistic form that couldn't possibly survive the waters of the mainstream but only here, where a nod to the Frankfurt School pardons everything. Or again, I believe that quite unusually conservative mindsets can find themselves oddly drawn towards hypermodern cells because they identify strongly with hatred of the merely modern. Advanced formal conceptions and radical politics often coexist with breathtakingly class-conscious behaviours, with the whole snooty game of segregating elites and oneupmanship and patronage and tactical silences. But this is not material for witch-hunts. I do not claim any immunity from these vices and I am talking as much about structures as we hapless individuals who inhabit them.

I feel, anyway, fairly convinced that Allen's poetry occupies a critical distance from his poetics and this critical distance has to do with a consciousness of belonging to the class that did not build the poetry world.

"The basis is the poet’s necessity to act on a language and its forms which has deteriorated through boss usages." (Eric Mottram writing about Bill Griffiths - in "‘Every New Book Hacking on Barz’ : The Poetry of Bill Griffiths" (1983), reprinted in the Salt Companion.) That formula seems about right for Tim Allen's writing, too, but not quite. Griffiths, with the Royal College of Music and UCL behind him, had a necessarily different relationship to counter-culture than Allen's, who at 16 was working in W.H. Smith's in Weymouth. (Isolated fact stolen from the aforementioned interview. I actually have no idea if the contrast in background is as clear-cut as I'm saying.) After all, there is an arrogance in feeling equipped to detect and act on deterioration - as if one possessed the culture as of right. I don't know if Griffiths had that arrogance, but I'm sure Allen does not.

[... Just in passing, though, Griffiths and Allen are both absolute masters of rendering demotic speech, and there has to be some influence there.]

A primary school teacher; an Argyle fan; a poetry fan; a music fan... and that's it. (The modesty was always there in Terrible Work days too. Tim never seemed to claim that what he was doing was at the same level of seriousness as Cambridge reviewers, he was just saying if poetry books were good or bad.) The modesty is attractive of course. Is it also limiting? The hard-copy Terrible Work of the 1990s was an incredible achievement and, I hope, seriously influential on our poetry. It ought to have been, it asked so many searching questions. People who take exception to Tim's unblushing use of the term "mainstream" probably have no idea of how much mainstream poetry he read and even published, how granular his awareness of different poetries on the ground, not just multiple varieties of innovative and mainstream but the little tribal enclaves who know of no poetry but their own and are hardly ever discussed or even noticed in bastions of poetic thinking, but can't honestly be ignored when you are forced to mingle with the small rabble of regional reading events and magazines. But was it as paradigm-shifting as it should have been? Tim always asked those big questions in a sotto voce way while seeming to be addressing some purely local issue. The messages required (but refused to demand) an attuned ear. The online version of Terrible Work never mustered momentum, and was almost ruined by clunky web design.

I can't help but reflect that Tim was uniquely placed to write accessibly about the whole gamut of British poetry from a non-mainstream perspective and there could (should?) have been a Tim Allen blog to match Silliman's in its heyday (kind of fitting, too, because Ron Silliman is one of Tim's fave poets). Maybe the problem was that the blogosphere came just too late for him - he'd already said his piece. Or maybe something else. Something to do with why so much of his own poetry is still unpublished and unpromoted. Something about his detestation of how the poetry world works. Some sure ethical instinct that whatever else you do you must never seize the moment, an aversion to power. (You could never imagine Tim on this kind of list.)

Or look at it another way. Settings and The Voice Thrower are big thorny books packed full of difficult progressions and bewildering flights of imagination, but if you think about the vocabulary you realize that what's totally absent is the kind of stolen technical or archaic terms that are wielded by a lot of the poets that you and I read. e.g "abscission" (J. H. Prynne), "fungible" (John Wilkinson), "reminated" (Allen Fisher), "anarthria" (Timothy Thornton), "ergon" (Andrea Brady). I get a quite different feeling when Tim occasionally uses a word that I have to look up like "autochthonous" or "aporia" (it turns up in the quotation below); I think he's completely internalized those words though I haven't and they just come out naturally. Maybe you won't agree with me.

My hypothesis is that Tim Allen's work looks away from the enormous word-hoard of academia because it's looking for value in a different way and finds it not in a community of the wise but in a critical view from outside the places where these terms come into use (critical in a quite different sense than Drew Milne's when he says "The critical poem alone is still open", which I take basically in Horkheimer's sense) . It is not the words, but the behaviour of the users of the words, that constantly preoccupies these writings. Much of Settings is (as Allen says in that interview) structured by pataphysics, it gains traction not by hooking into civilized discourse but by the musings of outlaw philosophy. It would be a mistake not to recognize the highly consistent critique that runs through these good-natured remarks.

"This might not be the most pressing question for News Night but it's the one I find myself asking is there a difference or not between the quality of experience of someone who for example writes about their experience in what we call a moving and highly successful way and that of someone who writes of their experience in a poor uninspiring way? I'm not talking about literary worth itself but of the aporia between such value and the experiential reality. It could be extended to include those who do not write about their experiences except that's already implied in both options. I spent hours trying to talk about this once then the sun came up and I admitted defeat." (Set 49)
The passage feints at making one of those Hejinian-style qualifications, this time to place "those who do not write about their experiences" as some kind of untroublesome side-issue, when they are really the elephant in the room. But I think the poem knows better. People who write are a small and untypical minority; it's unclear how their experience, whatever its personal merits, has relevance to the hosts of non-writing people who make up the working (or indeed non-working) world. And it seems to me here, by the way, that bringing together "highly successful" and "poor" within this sentence makes it impossible to set aside its class implications.

This Set 49 concludes with a stark description of seeing a dog being run over that's unquestionably "moving and highly successful" (as if the words were not already ironized enough). But maybe the "poor uninspiring" approach has something to be said for it too. This is where Tim and I would part company, because he has always, so far as I can see, believed in the value of discriminating value in poetry and has not shown any interest in walking away from those tussles into a relativistic conception of artefacts. But anyway, I want to come back to the dream question and conclude, I hope, simply. One way in which working-class and other alienated writers have invaded the middle-class citadel of literature is by focussing on the integrity of the personal experience they bring with them, which asserts and presupposes an integrity of imagination within the writer. Dreams, being as personal as they are, might seem a paradigmatic instance of the kind of material that can import this fresh blood into dessicated culture. But Tim's characteristic stance of writing not the dreams but the act of dreaming is analogous to the critical position he takes up in relation to the poetry world, with the difference that the critical view is now directed at his own inner experience. What kind of integrity is there in our dreams - there certainly is some - when the dreams themselves are to some degree (but just as certainly) artefacts of a larger and already-infected culture? It's a question raised with endless energetic subtlety and endless comic ramifications in these open-ended writings.  (I had to re-write that last sentence to take out the word "explored". I don't do "explored".)


It is possible to read Tim Allen's work when you're in a bad mood, and in not too long a time you'll forget about your bad mood and feel interested in what you're reading, as interested and soothed as when you open the window and look down at people walking in the street. (I really would have loved to spend more time here going on about the depth of Portland and Plymouth life in these poems.) But prior to that, while the bad mood still goes on, you might wonder if the big books ever really get far off the ground. Shouldn't a work on the scale of Settings more tangibly throw its weight around, attempt to pull off something bigger? Part of a much larger discussion, of course: a core aesthetic issue of the new sentence in all its forms, this resolute refusal to crystallize.

The other doubt arises from Nathan Thompson's review (blurbed on the back of The Voice Thrower), where he says that the experience of reading Allen is ("exciting... infuriating...") an alternation of being mindblown and of wanting to chuck it out of window. Probably Thompson intended both states to be taken as complimentary (cf. Joseph Dewey on Ken Edwards: "the prose at once shimmers and infuriates, engages and intimidates"), but (in a bad mood) Thompson's enthusiastic acclaim is seen to conceal a charge of chronic inconsistency.

And this does have something about it. Read Set 8, first paragraph - incalculably brilliant account of prog-rock to punk and the way artistry of youth music works (9/10). But the second para is a nothing (3/10), and the third sort of stumbles back upright in some rock god's open day at his stately home (7/10). Move on to Set 9. The first para seems pointless on hippos nine times but then suddenly comes into focus with "The serrated edge of heaven and the buttery curves of hell moved blankly like Elizabethan war" (5/10).  Para 2 is more or less great and as a bonus contains one of the text's secret spaces between fi and b (see also Set 13, Set 23) (9/10). Para 3 fires off some puns, and only one of them is good (4/10), and then para 4 switches to acute diary entry (8/10). Up, down, up, down, up.

I believe there is nothing accidental about this; that it's to do with the expressed intention of rendering successive paragraphs in different modes, and perhaps it's also to do with the necessary injection of what Tim calls "lightness". It may be intrinsic to this approach that it won't appeal to any reader all the time. When I go back to the first para of Set 9 I suddenly think I see that it's about equilibrium in nature and macroeconomics in society and the equipoise of heavy weights and I instantly want to upgrade my mark.

It's true there are a few Settings that are more cohesive. At one point I had the idea of writing titles for them but I got no further than titling Set 37 "Open Prison" and Set 50 "Ireland", which is what the most casual of readers could do. These occasional concentrations are as nothing compared to the prevailing sense of a dispersed poetic scena in which themes and images recur across the poems. At another point I started to count the number of horses and stopped at seven. Not too little, but not so very many either. It's because of the large scope of the imaginative field i.e. the sheer number of interlinked themes (so that, in fact, they are not themes in a narrowing way at all) that I consider Settings the most amazing and also the most challenging of the books considered here.

You've probably noticed that I keep saying "poems" when the book is all prose. Tim has more to say about that in an Afterword, the essential gist of which is that the Sets are poems but aren't prose poems. And I agree with that completely. He refers to North American Language poetry but I think you could probably also say the same of Une saison en enfer.


In his ever-useful notes Tim says that The Voice Thrower might be difficult to read. Well yes it is, and as you read it you are acutely aware of the massiveness of those 333 stanzas, but I personally find it a lot easier going than Settings. When all is said, rhythm has a forward momentum, it is like a connected narrative in that respect. The Voice Thrower swings. (Point of clarification: I have read it all now. Lots of times.)

There's no good place to start a long quote, but we'll pick it up here, with my interspersed notes.

                                    Sober despair spat forth 4x4

art crit copy but every 4th was an oath in the mouth of
a rhetorical oaf who never did get to sew his oats into
a Shreddy Old Labour old labour how lovely are your
branches? That oldtime politics over a pint of newtime religion.

World Warp 1 raps Beatles or Stones & Wapping lies
Robin Hood the redbreast freerunning along business
park roofs When the screws turned the otherway they
screwed the one with the screw loose Red Rum spook poked

cowpatter from an open-top halfdoor portrait halfway
up a grand staircase in a mansion full of aint-halfmad
prisoners running off so fast on the spot they've been
redshifted Tense not accruable when the languaged mind scan

ning timeless untruths hurls a decoy decree for a phil
ologist to digest its workmanlike nift e.g. a doggedly
calculated degree concludes: compared with a whore
a horse has a voice but hey hoe it's the hoarse throated heehaw

whore with a hobby but not a hubby painting a sunset
behind papiermâché hills The nag won't reach Vortic
ist trainingcamp by sunset or even by moonlight filter
ed blog waffle banging on about rights another narrative threat

ening to narrow a life like the poems bout mum&dad

1. forth..4th..oath..oaf..oats - typical Voice Thrower progression by pun association.
2. Shreddies, interwoven breakfast cereal (cf. sewn oats).
3. Old Labour; originally-pejorative term for the Labour Party as it had been before Tony Blair skinned and boned it for public consumption in the mid-90s (around the time that The Voice Thrower was first being drafted). The poem has a lot to say about Old Labour and I suppose this is partly about political views in the Allen household.
4. branches, i.e. local units. These are habitual structures in Tim's regionalist thinking. Quoting the English translation of "O Tannenbaum", which has the same melody as "The Red Flag", the Labour Party song that Blair was not the first to find inconveniently socialist.
5. oldtime religion - quoting a Captain Beefheart song.
6. Beatles or Stones - another Beefheart song.
7. redbreast, Red. Leitmotiv of the entire poem.
8. Red Rum, in captivity. ( I'm feeling like the spectre of Shergar also lurks here.) Introduces a horse theme which continues through subsequent stanzas. As I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few horse references in Settings, too; and at least one of them - I can't track it down, though - is in a prison context.
9. open-top halfdoor. i.e. a stable door.
10. hobby - horse!
11. sunset, sunset. Related to the "red" leitmotiv.
12. narrow. i.e. mainstream poetry, stereotypically characterized by parental narratives.

Some may see a certain irony in The Voice Thrower being, as Tim acknowledges, about his mum Nan Allen (1919-1990, née Hannah Lawton). It's her red hair and politics that shimmers behind all those glancing references to red sunsets. But for the most part it isn't anecdotal about her; Tim's more interested in dreams than in memories. Perhaps not the best way of putting it, when there's so much autobiography in all his texts. But to express it a little better, the centre of interest is in what memories do rather than in what they are. A retained memory carries a payload just like every other object.



Like The Voice Thrower, this existed in an ur-form in the 1990s.

OK, so "anabranch" IS a stolen technical term. But Tim explains it in a note, so it doesn't count as far as I'm concerned.

An Anabranch with Slug is a pantoum, i.e. lines 2 and 4 of each stanza are repeated as lines 1 and 3 of the next one. It is a more immense pantoum than might appear from a casual glance at the slim booklet (KFS have chosen to present it in the tiny print more commonly associated with cheap editions of the Collected Byron).

This information will send a shiver down the spine of anyone who detests pointless repetition as much as I do. If you are one of those people, you will already have sussed that the only tolerable way to read a pantoum is to skip every other stanza and hey presto, a poem with no repetitions. Unfortunately before the first page is out Tim has already blocked off that dodge by starting to break the pattern with imperfect repetitions, so it's time to stop whingeing and enjoy it instead. And besides, "Repetition...challenges our inclination to isolate, identify and limit the burden of meaning given to an event (the sentence or line)." (Lyn Hejinian, "The Rejection of Closure", which Tim quotes here.) Hejinian says some acute things about repetition, but they are too narrow because she's doing her thinking within a literary context - i.e. quoting Gertrude Stein's words on the topic, which are a dead end.  The core 20th c. art in thinking about repetition is music. Repetition in music can have a million shades of meaning, as almost any 70-minute DJ mix will tell you, and that's the kind of repetition-palette that's relevant to a poem like Anabranch where every repetition has a different effect, where repetition is a language in itself.

The poem is subtitled Robotic Pastoral in honour of Raymond Rousel. How deeply Rousel has influenced the poem's procedures I'm too ignorant to guess. It comes across at any rate as the purest of these poems, unclouded by anything resembling a meaning yet still pervasively comic and very clearly the work of its author, so to speak. I mean that nearly every line has Tim Allen's stamp on it, and that really isn't, I believe, what Lyn Hejinian was talking about.

I'm saying unclouded by meaning but that isn't really true. Slender narratives wriggle through these pages. For example the sun screams at the anabranch and then at the slug, before the heavens go through a series of transformations, so they are sometimes quite large and gentle and at other times quite small and angry. You can extract these, but the real excitement is in the wild buffeting of the lines against each other. Reading it is like turning a kaleidoscope. Here's a sample:

i share all your fears
 healthy interview of church triumphant breeds laughing stock
the child mastered the difficult sequence
 abandoned to an indifferent frenzy of primary rust colours

healthy interview of church triumphant breeds laughing stock
 the forehead of a flatmate glows like a judge's pate
abandoned to a different frenzy of trusted rhyming colours
 mewling at Christmas listless to Torus R Us to buy a toy purse

the forehead of my flat-mate grows like a judge's wig
 lift span trace-flag menace freely
listless at Christmas mewling into Torus R Us to cross fox off list
 displaced previous ones replace previous resumptions

lift span trace-flag menace freely
 abnormal series bunched not but figured hot and wet
displaced previous ones replaced previous presumptions
 effigy cold and dry

abnormal series bunched not but figured hot and wet
 blew the kid's reputation right off the scale reaching streamers of rail....


I'm putting this one in for completeness, but I don't think I'm going to say very much about it. The 21 poems have an economy that deliberately courts the accusation of slightness. The quality of needing-to-be-seen-to-be-substantial is distinctly absent. There's a confident sense of being in no hurry. The poems are short on words, some of them are jokes (pretty good jokes about the poetry world, mostly), and the author is quite prepared to spend two thirds of a poem on build-up in order to make one line fly. This poem typifies all of that:

i felt sorry for the fish that died for art

no creature should have to die for art

a branch above water

a reflection of the branch in the water

The line that flies is the last one, of course: hopefully I don't need to spell out what happens. But I do want to propose that some of its charge comes from the opening couplet; you could not simply throw that part of the poem away. This moment of serenity comes bearing a question (with topical reference to Damien Hirst, Marco Evaristti, Cildo Meireles? -- Or Ruggero Deodato, Francis Ford Coppola?). It comes in a context where fish do die, where the haiku-ish purity of the ending is seen to be at best a product of, not merely separate from, a more troublesome world.


[I've been writing this for almost a year, and I'm happy to report that in the mean time a few more Tim Allen works have crept out into the shivering dawn. I thought for one mad second of reviewing them here but I realized I'd be painting the bridge forever. Anyway, the ones I know of are:

Tattered by Magnets (Knives Forks And Spoons, 2014).  You can sample this and it looks very wonderful.

Copyright (Department, 2014)

The Carousing Duck (zimZalla, 2014)

Default Soul (Red Ceilings Press, 2014) ]

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