No Artificial Additives or Colourings

Alistair Noon

Ralph Hawkins, The Size of a Human Dawn (Skald, 2009)

‘In the mass of order some confusion is restored’, writes Ralph Hawkins in this collection. For all of postmodernism, chaos theory, deregulation and the difficulty in assigning agency to individuals for the mechanisms and consequences of the global market, we still live within a world of order. It’s defined by states, supranational organizations, import-export tariffs, schools with national curricula, workplaces with not-so-hidden hierarchies, malls so similar you can mix them up and wonder where the hairdresser has disappeared to, media rewording the same stories, food security for the privileged, wealth security for the mega-privileged, and borders for the regulation of migration between areas of the world economy.

If precisely that order is the author, or least senior author, of many global problems, then perhaps a bit of confusion and disruption wouldn’t go amiss. Contemporary poetics of various kinds pays lip service, less or more eloquently, to the idea of disrupting standard patterns of thinking, but practice doesn’t always match theory. In some texts, all difficulties will, sooner or later, be resolved. This can kick in at different time points – in a stereotypical slam poem after one hearing (on a really bad day during one hearing), in a stereotypical New Generation poem after two readings for example, in some variants of modernism perhaps after three or four. After this, the disruption is gone. If the poem hasn’t in the meantime delivered a stunning perception or image that its recipient would like to hold onto, it will become dispensable, a film one doesn’t need to watch again.

There is also the danger of fetishizing this disruption as something to be celebrated in its own right rather than a means to the end of heightened critical awareness, and a risk of implicitly celebrating ones own ability to deal with this kind of text, a sign of sociocultural power. But that’s a problem of the environment of reception, rather than something inherent in such texts. Polite differences of opinion, factionalism, poetry wars etc. arise partly because of differing tolerances of and liking for disruption, differing expectations about our expectations not being met, and how those might translate into perception.

The poems in The Size of a Human Dawn do indeed keep the disruption going. They are partially but not completely resolvable arguments. Take for example ‘The Barter System Doesn’t Work’, the first of a series of poems made up of nine single-line stanzas that begin the book:

The barter system doesn't work

why do we get swept (up, away) out on a sea of wishes

the days and cold lit nights now longer

my muscle architecture a ruin without bedside visitors

I’m annoyed with optimism

time is not a fire curtain,

it’s an assembly, a rushed gathering

I’ll never get to know the real thing

I give you these pork pies*

*no artificial additives or colourings
The form has something to say here: not stream of consciousness but slivers of consciousness, breaks rather than flows. Or if a stream of consciousness, then one that has been dammed at strategic points (the stanza breaks), and where the water level is regulated: the material is heterogeneous but not extraneous.

The barter system implies two sides in a transaction. Something like a clear, lyric voice speaks here, but an expectation of authenticity is denied: the rhyming slang of ‘pork pies’ is the first of several puns and wordplays in the collection. Who is this barter between? The reader and the poet? An absent visitor and the person not visited? There is a central ambiguity here: this poem is confusing the order, but also ordering the confusion.

Hawkins takes genres and refigures them – pastoral, travel, argument, history, domestic reflection, or fairy tale:

The Dream of Gerontius

Once upon a time there was an Ugly Bear
There were three of them
The Ugly Fruit resides in the bathroom next to Oil of Olay and Pond’s Cream
Have you ever seen an Ugly Bear naked, naked and bare
There they sit at the porridge table
On baby chairs and baby stools
All far too big for them
Er, doesn’t he mean the Ugly Sisters, or the Ugly Duckling? Stories we think of as being discrete units are blended here. But the poem isn’t revolved into a new unity – or do you know the story of the Ugly Fruit? ‘How many years of civilization did it take for stories / to morph into one another?’ asks the poem ‘Culture’, and the cultural is very much part of the chaos. ‘Australian Landscape’ is a reminder of how, although supposed examples of cultural difference may be constructions of otherness with their own agenda, strongly different frames of reference and conceptualizations of the world may and do exist:

They know that their magic helps people
The animal being a mountain has hooves...
The big man is a turtle, he was born for long distances
This is not the commodification of georeligious motifs of snakes and lakes into drinks mats. I think the poem successfully responds to the foreign culture, allowing in and stating its difference but without exoticizing it in a way that is ultimately xenophobic.

Several historical poems offer knowledge of the Andrew Duncan variety, i.e. you probably won’t know the names – or do you know Frank Chorizo, Gino Merano, Anaxiles, Professor Correa, Heinrich Kreipe, or Patrick Leigh Fermor? There are familiar faces there too: Pocahontas, Picasso and Petrarch. A snapshot quote from ‘The Wrong Side of the Ocean’:

Jacobus relates that in 1403 a siren was captured in the Zuider Sea

John Smith who loved Pocahontas
saw a siren in 1610

Henry Hudson’s crew saw one in the cold waters
of the North Pole near Nova Zemblya...
Time is shown here as an assembly. But though such poems do provide specific knowledge or incite perception, the key thing that’s on offer is a mode of seeing and thinking, an attempt to deal with chaos.

These poems are conductors of chaos, to take the title of Iain Sinclair’s 1996 anthology, in the sense not of the person with the baton at the front of the orchestra, but the thing that catches the lightning. What’s built up is less of an argument, more elements that could make an argument. Tom Phillip’s call in his treated Victorian novel A Humument was ‘Only Connect’; here the motto is more ‘Only Disconnect’. This reflects the inescapably partial nature of consciousness, where different continental plates collide and push up to form poetry collections, or disappear in the subduction zones.

Formal training – English at school – teaches us to seek levels of meaning in a poem, an ever-deepening extension of the surface meaning. What you can find here, though, is not levels but areas of meaning – perhaps foregrounding a more apt spatial metaphor for the aspects of poetry in general anyway. Should we always privilege the so-called deeper levels of meaning over the supposedly more superficial? They are like the central overlapping space in a Venn diagram, or a Kurt Schwitters Merz picture – collage within a wooden frame.

Be truthful, informative, relevant and clear in your contributions: philosopher of language Paul Grice’s maxims of conversation, which have turned out under intercultural examination to have a distinctly Anglocentric tinge to them, are also at the root of some Anglophone poetics. They are among a number of rules which this book – initially frustratingly, finally fascinatingly – breaks. Truthfulness is bypassed, or at least not foregrounded, in favour of plausibility; information is called into question via unexpected collage. Relevance is to be teased out, and is also sometimes problematized here by a kind of uberrelevance. Relevance can be rephrased as saying enough and no more than enough. ‘Never explain’, B. Bunting wrote, for example, ‘your reader is always as smart as you’. Well, Ralph Hawkins happily tacks on an explanation or two. ‘Sirens’, one of the metahistorical poems, detailing various sightings of sirens, ends

Here sea-sailing equates with the moral ambiguities of modern life
and the aporias human history.
This explanation itself though is part of the presentation, and can be read as a distrust or at least problematizing of the way we turn the concrete image into its meaning. We do it, and we must do it, but it may lead us astray. A scepticism towards unitary thought is implied in the form of the poems – another of these pseudo-explanations states that ‘typological conceptualizations remain shallow as far as human behaviour / is concerned (‘Shugendo’).

Interlocked with the notions of truth, information and relevance, Grice’s maxim of clarity can be rephrased as the rule of (more or less) immediate impact (not necessarily understanding) in poetry. This is broken when a reader's initial reaction is one of disorientation and worry at a personal skills shortage. It’s often this maxim that readers feel has been infringed when the poetry is somehow difficult. Ways that these poems undermine the idea of clarity include punning and pun-like behaviour:

Hither and dither

This is taking cloning one star two step
('A Man Killed by a Snake')

Not slimming but frowning
('On Reading Stephen Rodefer's Poems')

The poor and the weedy

I will carry a hippy flask
(‘He Was Angry With His Friends’)
Another is the references to the historical figures mentioned above, and the allusions to contemporary poets that can be dug out. ‘Constantinos told us of the German General’s capture’ riffs off the start of Kelvin Corcoran’s recent Homer re-write Helen Mania, ‘Yannis told us of the alternative escape route.’ One pastoral poem puns on shepherd and (Robert) Sheppard. There’s a Prufrock echo running through this book with sirens (not mermaids) lingering by the sea, mermaids elsewhere, and a crow pinned to the post (‘Pendant Themes’). These represent the contingent difficulty of specific knowledge: what does this individual term refer to – who is this person, where is this place?

They merge into procedural difficulty: what am I supposed to do with this text? What is this text implicitly expecting me to do with it? Or what can I do with it? Procedural competence impacts on our perception of contingent difficulty, but it works the other way round too: I was recently made aware by a big Prynne fan that googling all the references you don’t know in a poem is now standard practice for poetry readers in East Anglia (excuse possible contingent difficulty here).

Personally, I’m keen not to exacerbate my eyestrain by excessive computer use. And this kind of reading, and writing to be read in this way, can risk being as reductive and one-track as one that expects a poem to be readable without the brain turned on. These days even Andrew Duncan, large parts of whose work is based around knowledge unlikely to be shared by his readers, adds helpful notes at the back of his books. It also begs the question of how difficult texts could have been read before search engines came into being. Did they require the reader to spend a couple of hours in the University Library? Has Google ushered in a new phase in literature?

Options in dealing with difficulty include 1) cursing the elitism of the poet; 2) supplying a more or less plausible meaning yourself, if possible, from the context, like the learner of a foreign language (there is a threshold though of unknown words or cultural references beyond which this becomes impossible); 3) accepting a certain level of non-understanding as inevitable, both in poetry and life. These are of course procedures, and thus a kind of procedural knowledge that the reader may or may not have. The difficulty is the by-product of disruption, at whatever level, but the disruption is a route to perception.

At the same time there are also some very direct expressions in these poems, and it’s not as if the bricks-and-mortar world isn’t there and the poem is a hovercraft over the channel of language. The ship is breaking the waves alright:

and the keels of pine which stood on the Sierra Nevada
now motion over unknown waves
(‘The Text-Mess Border’)
or even more directly:

Just think of all the orphans in the world needing homes
watching the game on satellite tv.
And sublime moments when the whole of human existence is put into one line, as in the final line of this section:

Alexander was a psychopath
Stalin wore shoe-lifts
light on their feet
tool-making gone mad
('The Sighs Of Our Human Dawn')
These poems seem to me to be free-standing structures, massive grey concrete blocks set off at odd angles to each other, magically suspended in the air in a geometrical pattern, the supporting structure invisible. ‘Chaos from the beginning’, but a bit less chaos in the long term.

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