SJ Fowler's 'The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner' Reviewed by Colin Lee Marshall
SJ Fowler’s most recent book of poetry, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, is permeated with error at almost every stratum of its composition. A keen eye will pick up (before the book has even properly begun) that such erroneousness is not only premeditated, but also intransigent. As we are informed on the copyright page: ALL ERRATA IS INTENTIONAL, AND THIS WORK HAS BEEN THOROUGHLY PROOFED. Lapsed agreement between verb and noun occurs in at least three other places throughout the collection: “the past are taking over” (‘Atacama’); “otherwise it’s just noises” (‘Wortwedding’); “I see a tower with a clock & remembers” (the first ‘Epithalamia’ sequence). But these examples barely hint at the extent to which error – to use that term as a broad catch-all for a panoply of different schemes and tropes – infects the grammar, lexis, and even the sequencing of the poems.
It isn’t feasible to enumerate even half of the errors of the text within the space of this review; nonetheless, one might tease out a few of their constellations in an attempt to get something of a handle of the book. While initially it might be tempting to read constructions such as “I’m a emotional epic” or “a herd of buffalo’s trying to fly is AIDS apparent heir” as mere stylistic filigree – discrete ludic bursts that don’t transcend their local effects – a close reading will cause such errors to accrete into various densities of suggestion (if not blatant argument) that seem essential to the philosophical thrust of the book.
Perhaps unsurprisingly – given the apparent extent of Fowler’s travelling (both domestically and abroad) as part of his various poetic and curatorial commitments – The Rottweiler’s Guide is studded with geographic and topographic references (Granada, lublin [sic], Hackney Town Hall, etc.). However, Fowler also moves beyond planet Earth, plundering liberally from a number of well-known pop-cultural heterocosms (those of the Star Wars, Pokemon, and Game of Thrones franchises salient amongst them). These alternate terrestrial moorings and defections throw up interesting questions about Fowler’s engagement with the so-called ‘real world’. And yet, the distinction between worlds is often misleading; for even when the poetry is ostensibly rooted in a recognizable historical event or situation, things are seldom straightforward.
The loaded title of the book’s best poem, ‘Wolves in Chernobyl’, adumbrates a landscape and fosters certain expectations even before we have begun to read the main body of the text. But as it turns out, the titular wolves don’t make a single appearance, and amongst the poem’s nine sections perhaps fewer than half of the lines evoke the Chernobyl disaster—and then only tangentially, and always as necessarily buttressed by knowledge of the title. Instead, amidst the usual peppering of errors (“couples sunbath around the cooling ponds”; “do not eat green vegetables / or milk”; “a parents plot of land”) the poem unfolds largely as a series of gentle philosophical ruminations on “wood” (perhaps an indirect reference to The Red Forest) and “the thing”, lacerated only occasionally by unambiguous moments of toxicity or levity. By invoking disaster thus, only to then sidestep a direct reckoning with it, Fowler perhaps risks inviting the charge of flippancy. But not only are the occasional lacerations of ‘Wolves in Chernobyl’ far more effective than any overwrought sentimentality could be, they also force us to confront the politics of our personal reactions to uncomfortable material. Consider the following excerpt from the same poem:
a foal had been born with eight legs
piglets without eyes
calves without heads or ribs.
deformities due to inbreeding
The easy thing would be to dismiss this as mere levity, to decry the poet’s insensitivity to the very disaster that he is only too happy to invoke. But from a different point of view, it might be seen as a tactic by which to draw attention to the complicity involved in reading a poem about Chernobyl. Here, the error becomes our own. We have likely been reading about the radioactive fauna of a restricted region, only then to be hit with a paraprosdokian – “deformities due to inbreeding” – that denies us our moment of cathartic confirmation, and simultaneously skewers the presumptuousness of our attempt to subsume the actual disaster into our understanding of it.
But it is more typically through modifications to language itself that Fowler unsettles the act of easy assumption. At the end of the poem ‘Scent’ (via the rendering of a hairdresser’s comment, only partially overheard) the modifications are orthographical:
[…] “…exicans have been decapitating
peeple for thousands of years
it doesn’t mean there,
what it means here.”
The aphaeresis of “…exicans” is a sly lexical analogue to the decapitations to which the text refers—assuming, of course, that we take “…exicans” to be an aphaeretic rendering of “Mexicans”. Irrespective of whether we make this readerly decision, and supply the missing ‘M’, the sense of violence, of complicity in what things “mean”, and of ultimate detachment from what they are is insurmountable. This is further reinforced by the fact that “peeple" are being decapitated, and not ‘people’. ‘Peeple’ and ‘people’ are homophones (what looks like it should be a diphthong in the standard spelling isn’t) and as such, whoever overheard the hairdresser’s words would not have been able to infer any orthographical difference by sound alone. Contextually, the subtle de-anthropomorphic tweak makes perfect sense, given the implication that the value of human life is lower in the culture in question than it is in the “here” of the utterance; but the homophony preserves the problem of whether we are to read this as satire, or as a straight-faced semantic downgrade—a problem compounded by the ambiguity as to whether these are words cognized as heard, words cognized as (vicariously) spoken, or words that have been tinkered with at the extradiegetic level. Regardless, the text aims deliberately to upset the facile imputation of the spoken words—and perhaps, by extension, any facile imputations that we might be tempted to make upon reading it.
At around the halfway point of the collection, the pages of the book turn grey, so as clearly to demarcate the ‘Wortwedding’ sequence of prose poems (originally written as part of a collaboration with the artist Alessandra Eramo.) This stark demarcation is entirely appropriate, given that – in the context of the The Rottweiler’s Guide as a whole – ‘Wortwedding’ seems utterly like a foreign body, an interpolated text. In this section of the book, Fowler unleashes a logorrheic, largely unpunctuated sequence of eight different “lessons”, at times making metapoetic references to what he perceives as the work’s infelicities or longeurs. It might seem a brave decision for Fowler to have included this particularly challenging and protruberant sequence in the collection; but not only does ‘Wortwedding’ add a further dimension to the prevailing tenor of error, it contains some of the book’s most interesting material:
be varied in your words […] otherwise it’s just noises
(but that isn’t interesting asks the one in the front row who will learn)
like choke choke choked laugh laugh chalk chalk chalked
the mind is not a violin to be tuned […]
Here, rote pedagogy and earnest learning are contrasted with the idea of liberated disobedience. The erroneous doublings of what we recognize as the present tense (and, in the case of the word “laugh”, the apparent absence of any but the present tense) are simultaneously a rebuke to the rigidities of standard verbal conjugation, and an instantiation of the very “noises” that their supposed variation aims to sidestep. In one way or another, the yoke of language remains, yet through poetic play one might open up interstices through which meaning can elude the pedagogical fescue.
Such creative rebuttals to prescriptive grammar allow Fowler to write things like “and in so did” (‘Atacama’) instead of ‘and in so doing’. But perhaps eschewing authority in this way isn’t an empty means of dissent as much as it is a legitimate groping for new semantic possibilities. Any unquestioning trust in existing grammatical structures has to presume that these structures will admit of no error, and one of Fowler’s preferred ways of exposing the precariousness of such trust is by robbing declarative statements of their conviction. If we look once again at the above excerpt from ‘Wortwedding’, we can see that what appeared to be a statement (at least according to one possible parsing of its polysemic syntax) has been branded a question: “but that isn’t interesting asks the one in the front row who will learn”. Such confidence, which belies the uncertainty of the one “who will learn”, occurs in similar fashion earlier in the book: “and have you I’ve / noticed the disproportionate amount / of enormous men who are the police?” (‘calling the doctor makes me feel better’). Revealed here through punctuation (rather than through exposition, as in ‘Wortwedding’) the question forces a jarring shift of cadence. Re-routed in the midst of its utterance, the sentence flits uneasily back and forth between the poles of authority and deferral, forcing, if not readerly choice itself, then at least a reflection on the ethics of such choice.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge the obvious fact that error in The Rottweiler’s Guide serves to disrupt the trajectories of some of the book’s more traditional themes (love, death, marriage etc.); but so too would it be remiss to limit error solely (or even primarily) to this function. Fowler’s main achievement (or so it seems to me) consists in intensifying a certain kind of cognitive dissonance—a dissonance that emanates from the hinterland of creative agency between text and reader. We read constructions such as “just fourteen years of visit” (‘that god blesses them fuck drogue’) or “in every / slice of year round” (‘calling the doctor’), and can’t help but feel their irregularity, however much we may wish to defer to the new temporal conditions that they appear to conjure. Even when presented with constructions that are couched as imperatives, meaning is typically compromised through solecism (“wish me not to make me glow, but diminish my desire”—‘Wolves in Chernobyl’) so that there is a constant tension between the urge to extract a clear command from the rubble, and the urge to allow the errors to short-circuit any imperative force. How we read these error-strewn poems is governed by shifting degrees of resolution and abeyance, and by a constant reappraisal of which of these two states is the more appropriate.