Catherine Daly, To Delite and Instruct

by Michael Peverett

A proper review of Catherine Daly's writings ought to be as informed, on-the-ball and almost as long and inventive as they are. I can't do any of that now, if ever, so instead I'll just try and give an impression of what these books are like. The way this turns out it ends up being a sort of preliminary view of To Delite and Instruct, but I think this might just be the first of a series of encounters. What Daly is producing is so voluminous yet so disparate that it feels like a literature.

Daly is a long poet, I mean she makes you drop into the long rhythms of narrative poetry but of course without a narrative anywhere in sight. You find yourself knocking back page after page, not too much pausing over microscopic intrigue. I should correct this; Daly is sometimes a long poet. Nothing I'm saying here prepares you for the thrilling close quarters of Locket where each line is a movie. Perhaps I'll have a go at that one next time.

Secret Kitty is divided into six lengths (two groups of three); but the full path through is the best way to read it. Secret Kitty starts off (in a way) lucid and empty, you think you know where you are. By somewhere around halfway through you realize (in a semi-stunned way) that things have changed, it's getting stranger and less easy to put into words how you're feeling. The last part is the wildest country. I have a general sense of lines getting longer, but I'd have to do some measuring to be sure.

(This is a fairly usual experience for the Daly reader. DaDaDa is full of them: things that get going and pick up momentum, and keep going, outrageously inventive and informed, and it's in those latter phases, when you're aware of how long it's been going on, that the deepest stuff happens.)

Lines.... Secret Kitty is more an ongoing ribbon of fragments and spaces, but it isn't difficult to read and you don't have any sense of it setting out to withhold information. Many of those long chains of fragments are overtly connected by content or sound; it's really not hard to get up on this wave and surf.

To Delite and Instruct isn't quite out yet, but you'll be able to buy it very soon. The Blue Lion imprint specializes in long experimental texts, 250 pages minimum. By any stretch To Delite and Instruct is a long book, especially if you read it as a kind of poem, which I think you should.

Immersed in Daly's writing, the outside world starts to echo it:

     Tracks 1 – 9 include reassurance messages,
     tracks 10 – 18 are music only

This is from the jewel-case of Music on Hold: tracks to greet your on hold callers, and it's very Secret Kitty. Or a tube of toothpaste:

     Please read the in-pack leaflet.
              Consultez la notice.

which is very To Delite and Instruct.

Or take another example. Around half-way through To Delite and Instruct we get into something called A Set of Six, the first part of which takes off from a paragraph in a story by Joseph Conrad called "An Anarchist". It's a hasty, not particularly high-literary story; we're not talking Heart of Darkness here. Daly's chosen paragraph (it becomes hers, is first excerpted and then warped into strange forms) is nevertheless a fantasy that mainlines into the characteristic commercial/media/language-making/social concerns of all her writing: "Of course, everybody knows the B.O.S. Ltd., with its unrivalled products: Vinobos, Jellybos, and the latest unequalled perfection, Tribos, whose nourishment is offered to you not only highly concentrated but already half digested."

I got to Conrad's "An Anarchist" by the archaic method, i.e. by taking a dusty book off a shelf. If you sat at your computer and Googled chunks of To Delite and Instruct and Secret Kitty then I think you could begin to disentangle a lot more stuff, and that would be a good way of reading - the Lives of the Decorators for example. Daly's work is paradigital for the reader as well as for the writer. I don't really like to have a computer humming when I'm reading. But I know that the reading of Daly's work needs to be at some level participatory. She's very focussed on technique: in most of her most interesting poems, she thinks up a new technique and then tries it out. The reader needs to engage on that technical level, that is, to play or produce or be creative. It's significant that in the procedural note to Boy Girl Boy (a sort of derangement of Marlowe via Microsoft Word's spelling and grammar checkers) Daly self-describes the outcomes, among other things, as "readings". This interest in technique is thus the opposite of chilly, though it won't appeal to a reader who wants emotion "already half digested".

But what I wanted to say is, I went on reading Conrad's collection of skittish stories – and lo and behold, they sounded like Catherine Daly; despite my reason telling me that nothing could be more unlike. Conrad's prose completely lost its gloss of smooth fictional English narrator, it became childlike, broken idioms, a word-game, someone trying to make a buck by writing within an economic complex.

Yet also characteristic of Daly's contact with Conrad's A Set of Six is how the Conradian paragraph is lifted raw and dripping with accidentals but with absolutely no reference to the surrounding story, nor to its themes nor to subtle insinuations of meaning. In short this is not that smoky leather-armchair literary thing known as allusion. The texts join and sparks fly off them.

The early part of the book is structured like a series of tests and imperatives about reading and writing skills. The poems (yes, I'll call them poems) are called things like "Being Aware of Sounds" and "Drawing Conclusions" – and are more fun, well, as much fun anyway, as a week-end puzzler magazine. Let's have an easy one, so you know what I'm talking about:

     Listening for the Right Word

     Underline the meaning of the words pronounced by the authority.

     piercing                          vociferous raucous rough
     clasp                               popper extract excerpt
     caper                              cavort task commission
     noise                               racket blast sheer filmy released
     grasp                              seize scope increase
     field                                 punish lead play subject
     permit                             sanction endorse consent
     ruin                                 detain begrudge bamboozle
     insinuate                         shame mollify ignominious
     contend                          vie hie pronounce

Saying anything about this risks the pomposity of explaining a joke, but still, it seems just about worth pointing out that there's a lot of different things you can do with it. One of which is to make a satisfying puzzle for your hungry wits – and you can –; another is to let your mind roam hornily or anxiously across the page. But whatever, let's keep moving on. Most of these poems, in fact, are easy, and you start almost laughing, especially when you arrive at the creative writing exercises – here's a few of my favourites:

Take anything that bores you, and, after spending a short period of time establishing what is not associated with this dull center, be dull.

Write in each room of the place you will die.

Write something which will have no effect on anything; more than modest, something that will escape notice.

Write poems that only consist of words you know. Title them with words you don't know. Revise.

Write shackled to the prosody of Saintsbury.

But to quote is to misrepresent, and these extracts are making To Delite and Instruct sound a bit too accommodating; comedy about the poetry world is too plentiful to pay for, and what I should immediately add is that most of the book without being difficult is way out of semantic range and only as funny as it's also dead serious. Hang on as you pass through that Conrad thing I wrote about earlier and you'll end up in remote places on the frontiers of reading. Most of this is hard to quote, but I want to give an impression of it. I really need to give several impressions, because this is all about transformation. Here we are in the middle of a tongue-twister kind of groove:

     But that if if if if embed effect a friend effective fed from
             BAA file in anything

     Moses supposes to Cisneros system uses who's is in use
             for moose six the NYU systems and services and
             roses and uses cous is this

     Pay off alerts the silver missiles sector sifted seven one
             symptom of this is 50 awful this is how does this all
             sectors sifted as seven-sifted disallows where's the

Lots of jaw-cracking pages later we're showered with TEFL accents but there's still a burden of where we were:

     tonu visters
     ton goo wister weed
     ton poppers

     if de if de if de de a file and Atun
     most es supposes is to sis Nero's was de Moses sis teems
             and serve ices and oozes music and systems oos is is
     pay oof all erts zifted haven tiss tis tis

And a bit later here's another transformation, by now steeped in Romantic poesy:

     Listerine deified atone Atun, which a clay / tone at most
             accepts that the summary. . .

     better serving plate and more bleater for company, my

     Sister Nero's Moses served freezes was (burned during 
             Rome?) music safe, I seep

I suppose you could compare these with Retallack's after-images, but without the sunset coolness. This day never ends, just shifts westward to another trading zone as brisk and noisy as the previous one.

To Delite and Instruct makes a sly joke of seeming to struggle to get over the 250-page mark. The last fifty pages consist, apparently, of things that are variously marked as not quite the real text; in short as padding. First we get a section headed File 'em – officespeak for Bin 'em – which appears to consist of rejected poems; and is an illuminating exercise in how our reading bows to authority; we mentally switch off, we idly cast about looking for what's wrong. It's like the sequence going deadened under a blanket of cloud. (I wrote that for effect; but any "fine writing" in To Delite and Instruct is only there for surgical exploration, as in the lesson about the sun, which samples poeticisms like "Through pollution's gloom, brown sun.... Imperial orb, empyrean... glowing disc heats our world...")

And after that the book vanishes into endpapers: a Word Hoard, an Index of First Lines, an Index of Last Lines, and a Concordance... Readers of DaDaDa will know, however, that a Daly index is a poem. In this case, the Concordance incandesces, and flings out a firebird:

You can take; You say; even you want; you know; you do do; don't you; if you must; what you think you think; You might use; do you use; you can't envision; than you did; occur to you; what you would; bores you; what you hear; after you finish; you are them; on you; You say it; You, jump; response you want; You must see;....

And so on and on, a torrent of vaguely recollected phrases that suddenly arrest us with an impassioned pleading that we never really noticed before.


DaDaDa, Salt 2003.
Boy Girl Boy, Beard of Bees 2004 (Free download)
Locket, Tupelo Press 2005
Secret Kitty, Ahadada Books 2006 (Free download)
To Delite and Instruct, Blue Lion Books 2006

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