Warring Inscriptions: J. H. Prynne's To Pollen
J. H. Prynne's latest sequence of poetry, To Pollen (Barque Press, 2006), consists of twenty-one thirteen-line poems, each one placed centrally upon the page, each one a visual and linguistic tablet: a drug, medicinal or dangerous; an echo of ancient recording devices, originally mnemonic; also the carrier of the first epic poem, Gilgamesh. And it is with Gilgamesh which Prynne begins; specifically, with a few beautiful, elegiac lines from one of the smaller fragments of tablet, reportedly found in the Old Babylonian city of Sippar (now Tell Abu Habbah), 16 miles outside of Baghdad. Thus does To Pollen inscribe its signals: it is a poem at the other end of a poetic lineage which still deals with hubris, death, leadership and the nature of mourning and loss; it is also concerned with the contemporary context in which these issues are most critical, the Middle East, and in particular the war in Iraq. When Prynne gave a rare reading at Sussex University in December 2006, he chose 'Refuse Collection', written in response to the Iraq war and published with other poems directly addressing the conflict in Keston Sutherland's Iraquid. It was the writing of this poem that Prynne claimed as the impetus behind the conception of To Pollen. While not epic in any traditional sense, To Pollen certainly journeys. Events in Iraq have global consequences so the poem-sequence disperses itself allusively all over the place: from a family picnic on what could be Gaza beach, ending in explosion; to Forest Gate, London, site of the unlawful shooting of an innocent Muslim by British Police; from Doha, just outside of which is the large US military airbase where planes take off to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq; to invoking, through the slippage of 'twin steps' (p. 13), the Word Trade Center Towers, symbolic 'beginning' of the destruction for most of the West's media and its political apologists.
A poem 'about' war is necessarily a poem about language since for politicians – although obviously not primarily for the civilians affected or the soldiers involved - wars are fought as much on the grounds of perceived public opinion as they are in the streets of Beirut or Basra. The language that interests To Pollen is legion-voiced: it is the forced pathos of newspaper reportage; the military checklist, instruction manual and the imperatives of command; the financier's investment speak which accounts for war in the dollars of reconstruction projects coolly taken from state to private hands ('transfer price tags'). More surprisingly, there is a language of geological landscapes, those that are 'mafic, ingrained', with a 'seam' here and a 'cliff' or two there, scattered with 'clastic deformity'; a landscape, then, which testifies to a violent formation undergone over time, foreshadowing the violence presently being played out upon its surfaces and in its face and, simultaneously, reminding us of a history predating even the Babylonian richness conjured by the introduction of Gilgamesh. These geological accretions constitute a metaphorics for the way in which language forms, coalesces, remains but also how it is manipulated, fragmented, ripped out of the seam of its context to force something as nebulous as, say, the 'war on terror' to have linguistic, military, political and juridical impact.
Throughout To Pollen there is a constant marking of writing and scripts, a movement within language which reminds us of the movement and development of language, of writing: its disparate purposes, different histories, its multitudinous effects. This is achieved through a continual usage of words related to writing and signing, engraving and scrivening: the scribe is never far away. I want to isolate the particular moments which repeat but modify 'script', instances which inscribe the act of writing itself, like a poem-signature, but which also carry an allusion to the one who reads (as the numerous copyists of Gilgamesh once did) the writing that first and foremost is not his or hers. Poem two opens:
More to pollen ascript for elated finish, above scale'Ascript': enrolled or registered, signed up like the troops who volunteer for the armed forces, fully expectant of an 'elated finish'. But the word also carries the sense of 'a-script', not a script or an a-typical script, one that is difficult to read or decipher, a sort of 'encryption path' (p. 16) for readers. This section of the poem is 'ascript' writing: it is hard, if not impossible, to distinguish which words might carry the stress, nearly every word claiming for itself a clunky equality with its neighbours, slowing the reader down, forcing a clear and marching enunciation if read aloud. We are forced to become Prynne's amateur actors (the 'histrion' of poem four), stumbling our way through an unfamiliar linguistic terrain. Roughly the first third of the poem is syntactically dense in this way, deliberately and systematically obstructive at the level of meaning not through loss but through an excess which has an inexorable if regular kind of energy and propulsion.
at draw tact elicit did both clamber all in fused
Next we are presented with the 'whirling dared inscript' of poem four, a section which alludes obliquely to the US election fraud, with its mention of 'tournament' and the 'no count made up numbers / domestic to probable' (p. 8). By poem twelve we have an 'essential script / migration runs in parallel reserve'. Two poems on, there is the more unusual 'chant from memory scrip', a small scrap of writing embedded in memory which supplements 'as no / books' for those who '[w]ear orange a star', a pointed reference to the incarcerated of Guantanamo Bay (p. 18). It is in this poem too that we are presented with language as a sort of juggernaut or armoured humvee:
Just say words to crush a limit, they do that as isAs is clear, by this point the poem is becoming more lucid, yielding meaning more directly and immediately; it is easier here to identify where the word stress falls, to reconstruct the elided punctuation, while at the same time the lines and their breaks still allow words to slide to one another's side: both 'the way' and 'jurisdiction' are weaponised, even if that jurisdiction is also, perhaps consequentially, 'rendered null'. Within the recto poem, the inscription is visceral but also violent: 'inscribe private bones of a limb' (p. 19). Finally, at the close of poem seventeen there is the forcefully resounding lament:
all well known the way is beyond limit weaponised
jurisdiction rendered null. (p. 18)
Our prison of worthlessThe wavering between a grief rewritten or written over and a grief which is ordered or decreed neatly posits the question of agency: who writes our grief, who ordains that we have to grieve by creating the conditions of loss? Who, indeed, robs our grief of worth? Hence, then, the almost innocent confusion expressed by the 'why' which also stands as a reason, an explanation, and at the same time captures an exclamatory surprise, that of the sniper-shot that cuts across an empty street.
grief rescript to harden daily tormented undilute, why
each shot hateful and fearful right along the ravine. (p. 21)
The tracing of these embodiments of 'script' sketched here serves to highlight a notable transformation that is effected as the poem-sequence progresses. At the risk of being grossly reductive, it is broadly the case that the opening poems are more difficult on the reader than their later counterparts. While by no means the only effect, this difficulty is didactic. It is not that the poems teach the reader, through an accustoming process, how to read them, as one discussant at the Prynne reading suggested. Instead, the poems evolve in such a way as to teach us about how we read and how our reading is intertwined with desires to read in particular ways. By the time we reach the more comprehendible sections of To Pollen, we should have learnt to be suspicious of the desire for translucency which the complexity of the earlier poems is likely to have initially provoked. The way in which Prynne specifically nurtures this distrust is by interpolating, within the sections which are most syntactically disturbing, a surprisingly lyrical moment, a life-line, we could call it:
More to pollen ascript for elated finish, above scaleThe clarity of 'Shoot quickly now. It hurt so much.' stands out starkly against its dense and difficult surroundings; a reader is more than likely to grasp onto the rare and apparently plain simplicity of two such sentences: they constitute a poetic shock, a two-line parody of either side, military command and victim lament, cause and effect neatly lined up. 'It hurt so much' are in fact the words of 9 year-old Eman Waleed from Haditha, Iraq, whose leg was torn by shrapnel when US Marines burst into her house and massacred before her eyes most of the civilian occupants, her family members, in supposed retaliation for the death of a fellow soldier in a roadside bomb which had gone off near the house the day before. The atrocity and manifest injustice of this event scores out, overwrites, any pleasure or any relief a reader might have felt at the oasis provided by this piece of poetic purity.
at draw tact elicit did both clamber all in fused
aloud. Shoot quickly now. It hurt so much. As to
submit engraver likeness mirror from terror alto style
lifted at furnish to a stroke. (p. 6)
This inscription of the victim's voice bequeaths it a lyrical intensity which fits with Prynne's second epigraph, taken from The Pages of Day and Night by the Arabic poet Adonis. To Pollen functions as an address 'to' Adonis's poem 'Pollen', the opening lines of which are quoted by Prynne, and inverts the title of Adonis's next poem in my edition, 'Pollen II'. Prynne's title obviously draws attention to dissemination and dispersal; homophonically, it leads us towards the Greek polis and its semantic relation to the poli, the many. At the same time, it replies or returns to The Pages of Day and Night. Thus it is also an address to the legacies of lyric poetry which Prynne exists within, albeit with a lot more prowling suspicion than Adonis, whose poetry-in-exile is both lyric testimony and lament. Prynne's lyrical invocations are knowingly inscribed, such as the not-to-be-trusted, anxious tenderness of the 'check' list of a soldier preparing for an attack or manoeuvre (p. 17) and in the ventriloquism of victims' voices, like Waleed or Mr Kahar, from Forest Gate, whose haunting statement 'I saw a hole in my chest' (p. 25) marks the moment he realised he had been shot by the police. Adonis's 'Pollen' claims that 'A voice is the dawn of language'1 which, when coupled with these victim voices, broaches the possibility of a new language of testimony. However, not only voices provide these flash-points of intense clarity but also the familiar images that adorn the newspapers, the pictured dead who 'are always we know / it dark-skinned' (p. 21) and their photo-frozen grief.
These moments raise questions which are not easily answered. Is to incorporate Waleed's voice without identifying it just another example of exploitation, reducing her to a manipulative trick in a poet's repertoire, a sly tripping up of the reader or a gauntlet for literary detection? It is only through being a victim that she comes into being in the media in English at all. It is no surprise that discussions of To Pollen always worry away at these victim voices and clearly set-apart instants, and not merely, I think, because they are 'easy'; in fact, I think they are what give the poem sequence a magnificent complexity. By being embedded in such a way these unnamed voices and anonymous photoshots are taken from their reference points, away from their individual victims and contexts, unless the reader deliberately hunts them down or dredges up the memory of a newspaper report. Several effects from this: it serves to highlight that their voices in the media or their pictures on the web and in the papers of the West are usually ripped away from a reference point in any case. They always were 'exemplary' victims, examples of police fear and incompetence, examples of US military brutality or Iraqi suffering. In realising this, we can question the extent to which journalists can ever really testify to violence; not that their work and the information they uncover is not important, but that the medium is not one in which testimony can be truly individual or owned by the victim in any way. Secondly, in making the voices part of the poem and not connected explicitly to the circumstances in which they came into print, they become more painfully close, more personal and easier for the reader to hear in a way which can move them: they become the voice of the everyman or everywoman, every casualty, even every soldier, for it is just as imaginable that a soldier gets shot in the chest and begs for his life as it is a civilian. This is a disturbing paradox that lyric poetry has always exploited through the slippage of the first person, the 'I' of a poem which is irresistibly also 'me'. The poem is able to induce emotive responses to the power of lyricism, to the flashes of clarity and to the passion propelling claims and condemnations such as 'The ground is hot with vanity' (p. 22). Yet, while we may well feel moved by To Pollen, simultaneously exposed are the mechanisms of that emotional response, revealing us as complicit in the sort of distant compassion and impotent indignation fostered by the structure and style of reportage and by our often trite consumption of news and the images accompanying it: the poem disturbingly and inclusively invokes 'we' and 'us' throughout. That To Pollen continually displaces the ground usually occupied by the masque of liberal sympathy, confronting us instead with violent linguistic effects at geographic, military, financial, interpersonal and political levels is its greatest strength and a testament to its palpable convictions.
Prynne's poem is committed to a type of ethics which is intimately interested in the problems and possibilities of witnessing and marking the sort of suffering that violence causes, and particularly how such a task can be undertaken within the poetic tradition. Where epic and lyric meet, in Prynne's carefully chosen epigraphs, is on the physical ground of the Middle East and the poetic themes of loss, mourning and remembrance. To Pollen is a complex and difficult journey which does not blanch at raising or responding to complex and difficult circumstances, not least those posed by the diverse language-uses it draws upon and how those are inscribed and reinscribed, not just by the military or media but by the poet and the reader too.
1 Adonis, 'Pollen', The Pages of Day and Night, trans. Samuel Hazo (Marlboro, Vermont: The Marlboro Press, 2000), p. 89.