What The Razor Knew: Ken Edwards' No Public Language
Paperback, 184pp, 8.5x5.5ins, £10.95 / $18.50
ISBN-13 9781905700011; ISBN-10 1905700016
Reviewed by Edmund Hardy
In 1975 Ken Edwards published a pamphlet called 'Erik Satie loved children', containing 14 little poems. And now here it is again opening his No Public Language, from Shearsman, putting the 75 in the subtitle, "Selected Poems 1975-1995". They are fun and seem casually to be notes-towards-being-songs (in a manner taken a long way by John James?). In an Afterword, Edwards writes of 'Erik Satie loved children', "I still think it's quite sweet, and besides it was the first showing of what later evolved into my preferred procedures: cutting and splicing, juxtaposition, language play, composition by rhythm." The title also announces the interplay with the processes of music which Edwards will pursue. The quick fusion of one of these poems, 'Coltrane's Narrow Road', is what you think, apart from the new frying pan. Then Basho again:
a handful of stones
tossed in dark water
pink sugary flesh
In 1982 Edwards published Drumming & poems with Peter Hodgkiss' Galloping Dog Press, and this is the second book to be collected in the No Public Language volume from Shearsman. Each poem is prefaced by the listing of a particular album. Is this what Edwards was listening to when writing the poem? Should the reader listen to the album when reading?
The cross-cutting whimsy and song of the earlier work has provided an inchoate form which is here fleshed out into small grids of political commentary and social documentary of a speeded-up though not indeterminate kind (for the latter, see 1992's Good Science, Roof Books, which spans 1983-1991).
To me, the most interesting parts of Drumming & poems are those that edit and re-arrange transcribed voices of various kinds. 'Old Man, Camberwell', Edwards tells us in his notes, "uses material from an unpublished set of interviews with people who live alone". The result is a brief comedy of part-sentences:
I went straight from school
in England I know nobody
bother me I think
naturally, but I do
stutter, just from temperament.
When most people were
people if anybody
like the freedom of
vast walks, sometimes over
the moment for the past it
drives me up the wall.
On the gas fire, proper
hot food; I'm pretty
introspective by nature, so I have
a radio I don't need
for about 5 years and I
cook at weekends when I cook.
It's a ridiculous
bedsit I'm living in
a room with a bloke
I haven't been
from my childhood.
It can be read as a single sentence which is jogged forward at every line break; but each line is also enough to flicker a wildly incomplete social world past. Oral history interviews are always edited in any wider presentation (never more so than in apparently neutral formats) - Edwards takes this sometimes hidden editing and brings it out so that broken off pieces of syntax point out from these one-person families: "in England I know nobody" leads this technique on towards its compact, specific use in 'Southall', "from eye-witness accounts, mainly by Asians, of the riots of April 1979". Here we have one poem and one statement which is clearly also several statements; but it is one and several at the same time. It is a structuring of speech which can't resolve. The 'Front' is the National Front meeting which was the subject of the initial protest.
Many people shouted to them, to stop and looked very strange.
I ws in my garden & I saw this quite clearly this boy was standing
and was left unconscious he sit down protest in the garden when 2 police
rushed past him one of them hit him dropped down I got a glass
hit me on the head with entire area round the Front meeting.
I tried to run and told him like this: Move! [. . .]
The death of a teacher in the riot, Blair Peach, becomes a source for elegy in 'Drumming (Slow Return)'; to date, no-one has been arrested for his murder despite eleven eye-witnesses testifying that he was struck about the head by police. This latter sequence of pieces also tracks the Nationality Bill in winter 1980/81 and "refers to the three classes of citizenship proposed by the Bill". From Southall to Parliament? The second part of this sequence "is based on reminiscences by Isaac Gordon, a Jamaican immigrant"; the phrases refuse to stay in discrete sections, though, and each of these inputs modulates into a poem which increasingly reads as a frenetic attempt to make visible the connections between networks and physical locations:
"The blow had split his skull
from its base to his right ear.
People holding the new
citizenships would be
eligible to have
passports describing them,
splintering the bone &
bruising the brain to
a depth of an inch.
It will be necessary
to restrict the right of
entry to each of them."
Elsewhere in Drumming & poems is "What the razor knew", a collage set of variations, a cut paragraph: this is a space which does not conceal its content.
A radio broadcast is a kind of public-private radial concentric texture like a vast cloister of waves. So anyway, in 1986 Ken Edwards published Intensive Care, "Poems from The Radio Years 1982-85". To the radio, a human body is "an interference source". A page of prose which forms the second piece in the collection starts off with a standard account of Marconi, then quotes Asimov, then zooms in on "South East London, early spring", and a surveillance future of impending disaster, fore-echoing the opening of the Edwards novel to come, Futures.
'Their Daily Island Life' is the poem from which the title, No Public Language, comes ("No public language that is / fit for such a time":
No public language
That is fit
There was a country
buckled by heat & rain, corroded
near the shore
A country where a languge is "fit" - "It was always behind the wire." There's a discernible strain of Eliotic lyric throughout, heard even if the line is just "It is time". The effect is quite abrasive, in that Eliot's late tones, in their social aspect, might seem so anathema to the politics of rejection elsewhere present (though certainly not the only political contents), the "time" being the height of the new right's electoral success and the concomitant remaking of the British state. But those Eliot patterns carry so much else, too,
Why want to make time stand still?
Between lightbulb & the idea of lightbulb
Falls the shadow
That this comes from 'Five Nocturnes, After Derek Jarman', suggests how those rich textures might get political ("De - um majorettes"). Flicking through the wavelengths: a fugue for Allen Fisher; south London's class and river riven history addressed to David Jones; a poem to Zukofsky, "not melodious but with the effect / of melody", and "not That" - what song from what voices in this time: "it's like // a video of the Dungeness hum". There are three 'autobiographical' Edwards works next to each other in No Public Language. In 1984, he published 'A4 Portrait', and then in 1988 turned the paper sideways for 'A4 Landscape'. Edwards notes, "The original premise of 'A4 Portrait' was that the writing should be generated spontaneously on a daily basis, with erasure being the only permitted editorial function." The result is a series of short strip-lines in columns, each one dated like a diary for the middle of 1983; 'A4 Landscape' presents longer lines, longer poems, and longer titles – places and journeys in 1984/5. If Portrait's jottings are consciousness humming, or a hum whirred up consciously, then Landscape purports to gesture at the network of intent that perceives things out, within:
There are three 'autobiographical' Edwards works next to each other in No Public Language. In 1984, he published 'A4 Portrait', and then in 1988 turned the paper sideways for 'A4 Landscape'. Edwards notes, "The original premise of 'A4 Portrait' was that the writing should be generated spontaneously on a daily basis, with erasure being the only permitted editorial function." The result is a series of short strip-lines in columns, each one dated like a diary for the middle of 1983; 'A4 Landscape' presents longer lines, longer poems, and longer titles – places and journeys in 1984/5. If Portrait's jottings are consciousness humming, or a hum whirred up consciously, then Landscape purports to gesture at the network of intent that perceives things out, within:
28 April 84
5 pigeons on roof, 2 on parapet
Male strut (courtship) green neck puffed tip
12.07: 2 more join the group ranged on raked slates
5 fly in the air a short distance settle again after a moment
12.09: Now 11 in total all on the roof
4 of lighter body with dark barred wings, 2 self groom
13.01: No pigeons
Cromarty Forth southerly 6 perhaps increasing gale 8 later
Fair, moderate or good
Blonde, sanguine, in clinch with Irishman in bow tie
German Bight: locally 4 easterly 5 in south
The hum of Portrait is in the insistent rhythms of these pieces:
25. ix. 83
Where is the loved one going
Sugar on a glass table
Splits the light
The quiet suddenly broken
She's much happier there
She won't talk about it
Triangulation of the 5 corners
I wish you hadn't come
Get up move slowly
Across the room, a coffee cup
No coherence to it
No way of analysing
A knock on the door
And everything changes again
In 1993 Edwards then published 3,600 Weekends, which is subtitled 'An Autobiography in Several Modes'. It appears to be a kind of alphabetical circumfession, from 'Abstractedly' to Zoetrope, an autobiography which, in the best tradition, never begins. It begins:
That I walked alone in the dark city midst
That a melody stated in background decay
Became tone values deftly hot but unknown
That the sun went down thereon
Smoked into a bass line all of this
The last section in this Selected is 'from Glissando Curve', which is a previously unpublished book (it was going to be a Sun & Moon in the mid Nineties but wasn't for some reason. Another part of this phantom book forms last year's Spectacular Diseases pamphlet 'Bird Migration in the 21st Century' - reviewed here.) Sliding notes – poems from 'Sizewell Ghazal' to 'Alborada of Late Capitalism', death and rhyme schemes – of several kinds, Edwards' innovative ghazals. The first Gulf War brings news of torture and low-flying aircraft; there is a visit to Bartók's house which occasions the title's glissando curve away from silence and back (Bartók perhaps shares with Berg a great attraction to the arch). Newspaper reports of events in the Balkans form 'Wave Ghazal' which I'll quote in full:
This boy is in love with Maria
He wears a wedding ring on the wrong finger
Satellite dishes scan the troposphere
For voices warm with promise
When he finishes the fighting
he is going to Belgrade to marry her
The industrial palaces are crumbling
Voices die mutate their rays
Of dark intentionality flicker resonate
In blood bone muscle in the cathedrals
On the floor of his truck
His Kalashnikov points into the trees
Too many voices call mutate the duende
In the quantum void
The convoy's trucks clatter through the forest
On a mountain road he hears
The duende's long bow wave
On the receiving station
And somewhere there's a house
Made of blond wood filmed with dust
The spirit in that house the
Spiral in the dust