On J.H. Prynne, Her Weasels Wild Returning

Michael Peverett

The text of Her Weasels Wild Returning is fairly widely available (first published by Equipage (1994), reprinted in Iain Sinclair's Conductors of Chaos anthology in 1996). This note will be of limited interest if you don't have that text to hand, but I could not find another way of proceeding without quoting almost the entire poem in gobbets, which would have been truly unendurable.

The poem consists of seven sections, each consisting of two 12-line stanzas. (Numerologists have not failed to note a correspondence to the hours and days of the week, but this seems to me to go nowhere very interesting.) I will refer to the sections merely by number; Prynne's own subtitles, though sometimes highlighting valuable themes (e.g. "detour" in Section 4), are archly playful and too ungainly to be convenient.

Her Weasels Wild Returning is, despite its notorious rebarbativeness, an extremely satisfying poem to read. Part of that satisfaction arises from comprehending (what is easily seen) that the details of the text are through-composed with an acute attention to details; it's a poem that, we are soon convinced, is worth a long measure of our own attention. This is rather old-fashioned. As the plain and formal appearance on the page suggests, this is a poem for reading, not for looking at.

What it yields at once, and definably, makes it sound exciting without taking us much further: a thrilling sense of movement and speed, variety within wider unity (each of the poem's 24-line sections has its distinct character), breathtaking scope, an unflagging sense of drama that eventually leads to a tasteful resolution-that-is-not-a-resolution: grand similes, simultaneous hints of having arrived somewhere and of cyclical return.

It's more usual of course to talk about the poem's dissatisfactions. Criticism at this relatively early stage in the poem's reception is inevitably bound to confront the matter of referentiality; the success or failure of the critique being largely a matter of how well this topic is managed. My own feeling is that the poem is best described as poly-referential rather than non-referential. (Literal non-referentiality is probably an impossibility in any poem if it contains even a scrap of actual language, or even the spectral shape of language. Prynne's work, in any case, is a very long way from that frontier – compared with what is commonplace in sound and visual poetry, for example.) What I mean by poly-referential needs further definition.

When I first thought that I wanted to write about Her Weasels Wild Returning, I scrutinized the text anxiously – as I suppose others have done – in case it proved to conceal some master narrative which, if I failed to notice it, would seriously invalidate anything else I might have to say. On the whole I do not think there is a master-narrative. One can (and should) read narratives out of the text – I have read many – but I think the way it works is that when you start to pick out a story you do so by tacitly switching off the valencies of half the words. To take an obvious example, one can hardly fail to notice the many references or half-references to sailing and related nautical concepts in (especially) the first section:

                Will either sermon
    sift over, down with his line, ripped away on a plain
    deception: nothing to save on this boiling turn.
                .... her peak
    sail crowds white under....
                .... for all of it
    miss a rock indifferently.

But to the same extent that we choose to foreground this narrative in our reading, we temporarily blank out the "sermon" and the "deception" (not to mention the "assay debenture" and the "pragma cape") because they don't happen to fit. Thus in the sailing narrative, as in all the others we might choose to read off, there are dislocations and spots on the film caused by the words we are tacitly gliding over; as you might say, like the lucky dinghy that "miss[es] a rock indifferently".

There are several reasons why Prynne has managed to strew so many narratives across the same field of words. Because the grammar is everywhere incomplete or dislocated, each word is patient of an exceptional range of connotation; there is not much "insulating power of the context" to act as a limiter. Moreover many words can be taken as a variety of different parts of speech – e.g. verbs or nouns. For example

                Aviators may
    join this fork out cheaply and livid on a par
    with grades of bliss settled

where "this" momentarily proposes that "fork" is a noun, but the obtrusive presence of "fork out" immediately counter-proposes "fork" as a verb; "livid", according to the dictionary, can only be an adjective, but its resemblance to the expected verb "live" is too close to be ignored, especially when in such proximity to the near-synonym "settled", which is itself uncertainly adjectival - it might be a verb. "Fork out", incidentally, is immediately disturbed by the contradiction of "cheaply"; a very characteristic technique of pruning the primary sense (the one that demands the least reader effort or engagement) in order to release an efflorescence of flightier connotation. Compare the inherent contradictions of "steadily shocked" and "sweet vernal abscission" in passages that I discuss below.

Even a particle (like any other word, if imagined with implicit inverted commas round it) may be dwelt on as a noun. The first word of the poem is "At" and the same word recurs in its last line. Let's pick up a few of those "at"s.

    At leisure for losing outward (Section 1, first line of poem)

    at a stretch giving fresh two. (Section 2)

    at fresh extent (Section 5)

    and the air locks in, at a dab rack roaming the field. (Section 7, last line of poem)

In each of these instances the locative "at" is being put in motion and is stretched outward, which is a familiar theme in accounts of Prynneian space. "At" is also one of the themes of the poem (what does it mean to be at a particular location?), but once again I suggest not a master-theme. I think it exemplifies the way that Prynne's poems continue to re-meditate the concerns of his past writings. For these as for all the other potential narratives there turns out to be – I was going to say "plenty of room", but given the minutely active and compressed nature of the text, it's probably better to say "only just enough room".

What I am not saying here is that Her Weasels Wild Returning is polysemous like the ideal of medieval allegory, i.e. with multiple but ultimately non-contradicting "levels" of significance. What I am saying is that the same text permits partial narratives to be read off; not all the facets can glitter at once. And in fact there is contradiction and even positive isolation between these partial narratives. If "leisure" (the second word of the poem) is potentially linked with sailing boats and flying planes, these activities can also be linked with war missions and casualties – which can also be discovered here. "Rack" (in the final line, quoted above) is after all a torture-instrument, a different and less leisured kind of stretching.

It's time to expand on something I said earlier, that each of the sections has its own "character". A fairly objective way of demonstrating that is to annotate terms or clusters of terms that are emphasized by repetition within one section. The following list was noted casually and is not comprehensive.

    Section 1: save / saving / save; both / either / both / both

    Section 2: what did she hear / what for her was it exactly / what then did she hear / what brittle for her was it exactly

    Section 3: to fall / to fall; still... her reflex nearer / Her reflex nearer still

    Section 4: entry / entry; old dish / old meat on a dish

    Section 5: the slope / this slope; trim / trim

    Section 6: tied / tied; bled / blood-young

    Section 7: like / like; blood / blood

More significantly there are wider themes that characterize their sections. A fairly simple example, in Section 4, is the sudden appearance of grassy vegetation: "oat", "Sedge", "plant", "sweet vernal". The theme is demonstrably there, but the words are far from giving a pastoral softness to this section. "Oat refringence" is indeed beautiful, speaking about the silveriness of grassheads (a means of refracting the sun's heat from the tender parts of the plants). But "sweet vernal" is abruptly followed by "abscission", which botanically is the organized shedding of parts, typically associated not with spring but with autumnal break-up (e.g. leaf-fall). Its other, surgical, meaning (amputation) connects with less comfortable features of this section, e.g. "the slashed shelf life here to utter startled bleeding", or "steadily shocked by the glass screen". In the end even the momentarily beautiful oats are seen in terms of harsh economic realpolitik as crop and asset, a "premium ground" in a passage that keeps referring to the ring-fenced negotiation of ambiguous and constrained freedoms ("granted", "Dispensing", "Ask for less", "a top limit assigned", "bars", "allowed").

The most significant organizing themes of all are often hard to describe in words. I will quote the second half of Section 6:

    for as did we laugh now, in order alla breve got
    together plied.

Well actually I'll pause here for a second. Alla breve is a composer's mark above a passage of the score that is to be played twice as fast as written (e.g. a crotchet in the score is to be performed as a quaver). This precipitates a virtuoso sequence of references to time-schemes that are yoked together but are in fact unsynchronized; I count ten in this passage:

    for as did we laugh now, in order alla breve (1) got
    together plied (2). Speak what, don't look, the fresh gate (3*)
    repeals instantly the sound within (4). Exit the blood-
    young watchers: yourself alone. Even so willing to lag
    half back (5) from revised shots, what try as they might
    is hard to come by in slow recall (6). The voices bell
    on the spur, heard clear in front, go as we must (7).
    In avid incident no more but the brim fills right up
    to make a dash outward (8); to run this at a novel snip (9**)
    for all found. Sight unseen you lead, tied to the band (10)
    in short repeats as for ever and ever bright-eyed,
    abraded by tick link succession in demand restored.

* via a pun, "fresh gait".
** "snip" taken here to suggest "clip", a rapid pace.

Here as elsewhere, various narratives can be seen to glance off the words, for instance about experience vs memory, the so-called immortal past, the rhythms of immediacy, the over-laying of one person's time-experience by another's, a critique of realist accounts of experience in time, an insubordinate reluctance to be swept along by the march of events, apparent spontaneity vs historical determinism. No single narrative gives (or, to be fair, is felt to give) an adequate account of the poem's fullness; each is to some degree a coercive ordering of multiplicity.

(For a somewhat similar sequence of ideas, consider the theme of losses – more specifically, the official and euphemistic treatment of losses – in Section 2, beginning perhaps with the phrase "the rally diminished" and continuing through "cut assets", "alleviation", etc.)

I suppose I have come close to proposing that the reader's disposition to form narrative is a force harnessed by the poet that leads in general to an insight about the inadequacy of such narratives. (But without the error, what insight?) The plethora of feminine pronouns, impossible to ignore, seems to me a particularly treacherous sounding-board; in the absence of satisfactory context, they amplify with embarrassing loudness whatever stereotypical images of the feminine one happens to bring to them. This idea of a text full of salutary traps for the reader inevitably recalls seventeenth-century religious literature in the classic accounts of Stanley Fish. I don't think this formulation is quite right for Prynne, because there's nothing in the modern reader's situation that corresponds to universally-credited standards of sin and godliness. (The reader of Prynne is self-authoritative and can only get trapped by judging that a trap has closed.)

What's certain is that reading Her Weasels Wild Returning is a strenuous way to pass the time, potentially both "leisure" and "rack", but anyway leading, if you let it, towards a critical meditation of these terms. Or, it may be, of any other terms in which you choose to define the engagement. These 168 lines await many fresh voyages of discovery, many punitive invasions...

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