Never to have compromised with transcendence: Tony Trehy’s 50 Heads

Philip Davenport

‘Regeneration of small, empty ghost-towns with no raison

d’etre. Failure to predict. Not having had the experience;

to organise oneself in front, to chair the panel…’

The corporate press release, the executive summary, the committee minutes: Tony Trehy’s 50 Heads is written in the code of closed meetings and comes with its own inner bureaucracy. The first poem in the book is titled Content and the collection ends with Apology. Between these two bits of business, the rest are delivered in a disrupted alphabetic order, like pieces of agenda. Trehy has ingested corporate speak in a great body-wrenching toot – and with his exhale he gives us a Xanadu of bright blue glass towers and besuited people whose own bodies are their only contact with nature. These are the ‘discrete breathers’ (in physics, a non-linear wave form, here a rather beautiful appropriation to represent the human) who inhabit the blocks. Using their vocab, he both mocks and remakes the very idea of the poetic:
‘with engineering software, public sector financial

incompetence, flattened out epiphenomenal justifications –

sighs, epiphanous sighs; for the irreflexive how the

autumn sunlight patterns dust over wood grain

intersected with baritone shadows: 1’

The modernist block on the cover of the book is echoed by the solid rectangle of each page of verse. Trehy’s unit of composition is the box of text and he adheres as closely to this as a sonneteer. The line breaks are immaculate, each bringing surprise, or its own turn. A brutalist box is often used as a form by others, but rarely with such precision. Verses begin with a 0 and end with 1, between which the variants are infinite.

In this regeneration, the idea of the poem as mnemonic is reversed. The versifying is shot through with scientific and mathematical terminology that disrupts sentences into a series of thoughts that never quite survive the moment of expression – the language kills them. The effect is the closest written simulacrum to the process of forgetting that I’ve ever encountered. I read these poems, but cannot hold them. They make the impossibility of remembering their core. Rather than the ringing of rhyme and cadence, these are closer to the recollection of trauma, melting as they come close. And they are themselves wreathed in amnesia.
‘Children haunt with the smell of butcher, cost and

elections deplete memory of us, heroes, our movements

recorded and forgotten, from one traffic light junction to

the next top of the range sports car accelerates’

50 Heads is very much a book of the head; touching is forbidden. Here, repulsion is posited as a valid, non-neurotic response to the physical proximity of the world, especially other humans. Episodes are re-told in careful, almost weary, detail, without hysteria. The position is not an authorial pose for the sake of irony or shock. It is a clear proposal: closeness is a danger that might force a compromise in thought and that above all must not occur.

For this is a manifesto championing the need to think, without sentiment, without sloppiness, without apology, without striving to be popular. Only then will transcendence arise. The alternative is compromise and with it the inevitability of living in Porlock with a head full of crap:
‘drowned out formants immobilised in narrow happy-

clappy tunes. La la la for the rest complete transfusions’

People here stream and ebb like lost particles, or formulae in an overworked mind. They eddy around one another, they merge and they break apart as waves. There are the breathers, the epigones, telomeres, formants… terms reminiscent of the Alphas and Epsilons of our best-loved dystopia. However the writer is here inside the snare with everybody else, just as heartbroken.

Maleness and the pathos of un/feeling underscore the work. Trehy is a remarkably consistent voice for the male dilemma, a delicate human mired in technical manuals. They are poems that tell of immense distress and distance. They are fearful and contrite and trapped, they depict emotional crisis with the thesaurus of science and maths and corporate blandness. This conundrum is, to mismatch images, at the heart of the heads. Emotionality expressed without the usual signifiers. The brisk one-word titles of the poems indicate the disquiet underneath: CBT, Compromise, Doubt, Hesitation, Underachievement… In this communique, friendship becomes Reciprocity. A meditation on fragility prompted by a fall in the snow (see Tony’s hilariously daft preamble to this poem at The Other Room website) is Lassitude. Trehy writes inside his self-imposed dilemma brilliantly – using the very deficiency in expression as his tools for saying.

But this isn’t merely the trope of male inarticulacy that’s dissecting itself, it’s by implication all the boardrooms and governmental think tanks that rule our lives. Which gives the book its rage. Turning their jargon on itself so that it becomes feral, Trehy is welcome in a time of official lapdog poets. New work as jagged as this, un-dumbed, uncompromising, is a scarcity – a rare, raw vision.

Trehy has built his new century Xanadu, with its own sweet nip of madness, its treasures and favoured. Akhenaten’s daughters are here, lolling in a sports car amongst a drift of autumn colours. Rosebud is burning in the cellar. And of course the demons are present too, and the correct terror.
‘system of fear to curl up with eschatology, a smell like

tobacco, tired leather and urine and loss: you can’t

remember the end all the time.’


50 Heads by Tony Trehy published by Apple Pie Editions ISBN 978-0953967-5-5

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