more literary detritus notes

by Michael Peverett

In the New York Review of Books there's a very interesting recent article by Oliver Sacks about, among other things, unconscious plagiarism. Sacks argues that this practice is a central method of creativity. Material that we authors think inspired is material that we have found in our minds, or "made up", but whose true source has been forgotten. [I am misrepresenting Sacks, who would not use the term unconscious plagiarism (hereafter, UP) merely to describe this widespread unconscious modelling. But that's how I'm using it here, for convenience.]

Really what Sacks asserts seems quite an obvious conclusion from ideas that are extremely commonplace in other areas of psychological thinking. As with all good insights, you wonder when you've read it why you don't remember anyone saying it before; I suppose they have. If none of our other thoughts and memories and beliefs is ever without a source (and where can that source lie but in our own past experience?), then why would creativity be any different?

The mad-scientist excursus in Eric Ambler's Cause for Alarm (1938) is a UP of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).

[The next few paragraphs really require me to use a lot of awkward "she or he" constructions. Usually when this kind of situation crops up I'm one of those who like to use "they" as a makeshift non-gendered pronoun. This time, however, I'm going to try anglicizing the brand new Swedish non-gendered pronoun hen.*  Since we're blazing a trail here, I'll assume that English hen has the same grammar as it, in other words I've decided that the possessive form is going to be hens.]

The signs of UP are First, that the copied material is so close to the surface as to be naively revealing, sure indication that no conscious deception is involved (furthermore, in this case the unconscious source is a very well-known book). Second,  the copied or retained features often seem superficially insignificant in terms of  what our reasoning minds would consider the "point" of the narrative - for example, in this case, the icy setting in which the story is told, the alpen and university locales, etc.  Of course, they are not really insignificant; they supply the very engine that gives the story life, but this is at a sub-rational level. Third, despite the naive lack of deception, UP often goes undetected, because the plagiarized material is so thoroughly transmuted into its new conceptual world, the one in which the new author is saying with such conviction what hen thinks hen's inspired to say. (The flare of Zaleshoff lighting a cigarette is pure Ambler, assuredly this has nothing to do with Mary Shelley!) It distracts us from source-hunting. We find none of the usual signs of discomfort, inconsistency, halting, and patchwork that betray a deliberate appropriation of alien material. So UP is often only uncovered if we happen to stumble across the source during that brief period when our memory of the derived text is still detailed and vivid.

The Fourth sign of UP is that it has difficulty assessing itself. That indeed is precisely what gifts the new author hens necessary creative freedom. Hen can perform what hen likes with the material because hen has decontextualized it, shorn its edges, forgotten that it already bore someone else's inconvenient meaning. But sometimes a burst of UP may shoehorn itself into the wrong enterprise, which is perhaps what happens here.  Some people, indeed, regard the mad scientist section as the best part of Cause for Alarm, but I can't agree with them, even though it's brilliant. Sure, Cause for Alarm is absolutely one of Ambler's top books, but what makes it good is the account of moral myopia around armaments dealing, and then the fearful overland escape (on foot) from Fascist Italy.  In this context the mad-scientist fable is really an intrusion: I'm not impressed at all by claims that it is the book's crowning instance of a world gone mad; that notion may indeed represent Ambler's own conscious self-justification ("Crazy? Sure he is. But we're crazier"); but the truth is that the rest of his book is about something much more interesting (because much less nebulous) than just a world gone mad.

The Fifth feature of UP is the nature of the source. Though it may be a well-known book, as in this case, there has to be something remote and slantwise about its relationship to what the new author thinks hen's writing. Otherwise hen would be bound to be aware of it. For instance Shelley could never be unconscious of Milton (I meant Percy Shelley, though I could as well have meant Mary). Often, I imagine, UP crosses generic barriers entirely and is then nearly always undetected, i.e. by the audience as well as by the author. In this case Frankenstein is obviously a book from outside Ambler's own genre, a book Ambler may not have thought much about for many years. Indeed, a book, in the 1930s, that readers were not encouraged to think much about.

Naturally Ambler transmutes his unconscious source; UP, like dream-work, does not remember or care about the source's intentions. So Ambler's Beronelli is really deluded, and the only outcome of his work is a nonsensical scribble. Victor Frankenstein, on the other hand, is an out-and-out achiever, though his achievement is dreadful in its consequences. Nevertheless Ambler tunes into a feature of Frankenstein's career that is often neglected. Frankenstein is, from the first, presented as an untypical scientist. As a youth he was attracted, not to contemporary science, but to long-exploded dreamers of quasi-scientific power - Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus. At university he learns to set these fantasists aside (Ambler's scientist moves in the reverse direction); nevertheless Frankenstein remains a brilliant isolatoe who works in secret and unaided. Mary Shelley's tale is in that respect a poor symbol for the group dynamics of the technological community that developed H-bombs. It is a better symbol for the individual pursuit of some discovery. Frankenstein, however, seems not to have courted or ever thought of publicity. His, then, is a metaphysical kind of drive. In sober hindsight, he reacts with horror when he recognizes Walton's equally monomaniac drive to the North Pole; but, a little later on, his own blind enthusiasm reasserts itself in the form of a bitter sermon addressed to the eminently reasonable mutineers.

No interpretation of Frankenstein can make sense of all the elements held in solution by Shelley's tormenting prose. Its firmest structuralist rules are less about theme than about developing a space in which anguish operates without any relief: comic or sexual or religious. Anyway, its science-gone-wrong fable is one element only.  Later she gets all Godwinian about the Creature who begins life with such seeds of innocence yet whose disappointments issue in such malignity. Later still, the book begins to converge on a troubling image of "The Double".  i.e. Frankenstein and his Creature become indissolubly linked. Maybe (laying aside the book's contradictory elements) we can even interpret them as one and the same person - a sort of post-Jekyll-and-Hyde reading? This of course would make good sense of (1) the agony of Frankenstein's guilt; (2) why it's Frankenstein's own nearest and dearest who are the Creature's victims; (3) Frankenstein's stubborn silence about the Creature - because, as he himself says,  he couldn't begin talking about a Creature without everyone thinking he'd gone mad.

(As always, I recommend classics freeloaders to make their way to Librivox and Shmoop.)


A confusion of Thurstons.

I thought I would sort this out, both for my own benefit and for that of any other readers who venture into the terrains of experimental poetry and prose. But we begin with guitarists.

1. Thurston Moore: the US singer, songwriter, guitarist and main driving force of Sonic Youth. Once an aspiring poet and now a poetry publisher: his Flowers and Cream Press has published Anselm Berrigan, Ben Estes and others.
2. Scott Thurston: US guitarist, now with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
3. Scott Thurston: British experimental poet, associated with the London scene: Sub-Voicive, Veer, Robert Sheppard. Lectures at Salford. Has published, among other things, three collections for Shearsman.
4. Nick Thurston: British conceptualist writer and publisher (Information as Material). Lectures at Leeds.
5. Michael Thurston: US professor (Smith College) who has written about modernism and contemporary poetry.
6. Nick Thurston: US LA-based actor, recently starred in White Irish Drinkers.
7. Robert Thurston: US SF author.

Naturally, it's 3 and 4 who chiefly concern me (though not because they're British).


Scott Thurston (3) is not on my shelves, so my limited ideas of what he does are based on the downloadable samplers of his three Shearsman volumes (all linked by the illuminated apertures of the jackets), and also by a prose piece in Veer About 2010-2011.

internal rhyme                       a species of adder magic
I can feel your                      badge by my side
eternal flask                          leave out those signs
of relief at the end of            withdrawal symptoms

pleasure you can’t               measure the hybrids
stand at the gateway           the larger logic that makes
possible dynamic                critical constructions
you will terribly                   well un-read

This comes from the 2010 volume Internal Rhyme, I think it's the opening words.

(See also Melissa Flores-Bórquez' review of his earlier volume Hold:

There is also Reverses Heart's Reassembly (Veer 2011), which is based on Gabrielle Roth's 5Rhythms meditation dance practice. (Picked this one up from Carrie Etter.)


Nick Thurston (4) is a fairly hardline conceptualist inasmuch as he promotes strictly unoriginal writing. I say this based on: though the answers to the questions are jointly attributed to him and Simon Morris. Whatever, this email interview is as engaging a view of conceptual writing as I've read.

(Not really, not when there's Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Leevi Lehto... But anyway.)

In the interview, Nick (or Simon) says:

These books are not necessarily meant to be read at all in the conventional sense. We know people do read them and seem to get something from that experience, but it is not essential to their function. Like any other traditional artwork they are propositions to be engaged with and thought about.
This is of course true; moreover, it is true of every book. But to an unusual degree the work in this kind of artwork resides in the discussion of it.

As I've already noted, conceptualists tend to write and talk lucidly about their work. This is a surprise, in a way. Post-avant poets have usually been tortuous on the subject of their own work. Commentary has been understood as compromise with the politically indefensible; lucidity as betrayal; the preferred approach quasi-Theory-style ellipsis that conceals secret messages for friends who supposedly already have a feeling for where the artwork stands in the post-avant conversation.

But for conceptualist books the commentary itself is, often, the active centre of the work. Is it even necessary to encounter the conceptualist artwork in a direct way - to see it, or touch it? Is it necessary for it to exist, or could it be purely notional, so long as it can be described - like the Quixote of Pierre Menard? That's why it seems justifiable, perhaps, to represent Nick Thurston's work by an interview rather than any direct instantiation.

Nevertheless, it is a feature of the conceptualist book (and of every artwork) that it cannot contain how its audience engages with it. And my experience is that when we encounter any conceptualist book directly, we also discover unexpected things about it, things that were not altogether predictable from its description.

This indeed is precisely the publisher's pitch for e.g.  Goldsmith's Seven American Deaths and Disasters  (or The Weather or The Game)  - that its transcripts make revelatory reading. Same for Place's Statement of Facts. Do these works really have anything much in common with the Thurston/Morris vision of info as material? Or is conceptualism too big to talk about in generalities? Is that the sound of tearing fabric?

Or can conceptual writing be defined as the elimination of UP in favour of CP? 


Another feature of conceptualism, arguably in step with Modernism but distinctively out of step with Postmodernism, is its valorization of integrity (you can see that very clearly in the Thurston/Morris interview). The conceptualist work should make a point and should be thoroughly directed to that point; it is not just a random mash-up of any old thing. (Thus Thurston and Morris, anyway. I think Lehto would see this differently.) Here the current of the thinking diverges from the utopianism of WritersForum-style collage. In a different way it diverges from the thinking behind Keston Sutherland's concept of wrongness; in a different way again from Montevidayan plague-ground impurity.

I mention this as an only-slightly contrived segue into the contents of my backpack, which currently consists of a very battered and much-read copy of Sutherland's Stress Position (Barque 2009), a booklet which also happens to be just the right size to act as a protective slip-case for Matthew Robertson's fragments (Writers Forum Dec. 2012), and also for my counterpart driving license. Evidently I don't care what state my copy of Stress Position gets into; this poem will be available for ever. On the other hand, I am rather particularly anxious that my copy of fragments stays in good nick. Acquiring any Writers Forum publication is a triumph, especially for a provincial reader.

Matthew Robertson's fragments

The booklet is founded on a single collage of shredded print. Either Robertson has the world's bluntest shredder or he subsequently did a lot of tearing the strips into smaller striplets. Then he glued the striplets side by side and end to end. They bear half-comprehensible wordage like /Our Big/zza/rclay/e 70/ 1.49/ffic/isf/ained/. Quartered and overlaid into deepening chiaroscuro, they compose a potentially endless series of vocal scores about modern capitalism. Maybe I ought to say that the poem CAN be about modern capitalism, but the validity of that distinction is unclear.


Keston Sutherland teaches at Brighton; Matthew Robertson teaches at Bath.... OK, so there's a lot of university teachers in this post. And though I profoundly feel the force of such polemics as Ben Watson's, there's no avoiding the conclusion that a high proportion of the present-day poetry I like best is written by people whose wages come out of university purses. Nevertheless there's a conflict within me.

Marx was an admirer of Jakob Boehme, according to Ben's and Esther Leslie's interesting discussion, where he's quoted thus:

The learned men by profession, guild or privilege, the doctors and others, the colourless university writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their stiff pigtails and their distinguished pedantry and their petty hair-splitting dissertations, interposed themselves between the people and the mind, between life and science, between freedom and mankind. It was the unauthorised writers who created our literature. [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1781]

The unease around avant-poets being academics is palpable and widely shared but not easy to articulate; the feeling that there's something wrong with a situation in which making art with no audience can be an astute career move. Art with no audience should be more drastically motivated!

Anyway, I agree with Marx (unless I am simply UP-ing Marx): it is only unauthorised writers who can find anything out. Nevertheless, authority is not an absolute, authority to what anyway, etc.

It's a discussion that needs to be had, again and again.

Aside from that, academics must be, you'd suppose, the only people with the necessary time and resources to attain a not-merely-haphazard awareness of the range of modern innovative work in poetry and art and all the borderland between.

Only an academic, you would loosely think, could provide a real conspectus anthology of the experimental scene.

Yet my favourite anthologies have tended to be put together by practitioners who are merely gathering a heap of poets they like in a particular place and time; the heap does not draw a map, and this limitation makes it more open. One of these, recently, was Chris Goode's Better Than Language, which I wrote about elsewhere.

I don't see selection as an important procedure in the origin of this sort of anthology. It is more about what can be got in than what can be left out. An earlier one was Floating Capital, the Robert Sheppard/Adrian Clarke anthology of London poets from 1991. It was published in the US for curious Americans and I doubt it touched much new audience in the UK but I'm sure it did circulate to people who already cared about the London scene. The nice thing about getting into an anthology is that people go on talking about it.

As often, the introduction (an Afterword in this case) is more persuasive than the contents about what the anthology is supposed to mean. But the contents are a box of wonder; there is, indeed, a tension between them and the Afterword; poetry never wants to be tied down. The heart of the Afterword is "foregrounding the signifier" and proposals that this community of poets is bound together by awareness of Theory. That just seems to work more smoothly for the editors' own work than for some of the other inclusions. It's as if you're in a large railway station. You start to examine the platforms but one of the platforms turns out to be grassland and it is singing Strauss, and another one has a wooden leg, and there's also someone unexpected who is heaving bricks at you.

The group anthologized here were (as often, I suppose) a bunch of poets who worked together - shared stages, published each other, and performed at each other's venues. These momentary cohabitations can look sadly altered a few years later. (No doubt the same will happen to Better than Language.) Sadly altered? Well, that's a narrow way of looking at it. But the point is, experimental poetry can represent quite a small aspect of people's lives. Certainly university teaching has been important to quite a few of the contributors to Floating Capital. But in context, this does not necessarily mean a radical incursion on a creative life. The details are of individual negotiations. I begin to lose sight of that simple binary, the topic discussed earlier, i.e. academia vs. non-academia. Every person's life is unique.

Floating Capital kicked off with two eminences. Bob Cobbing lived, and Allen Fisher lives, as full-time artists. But these days Fisher is also an emeritus poetry prof at Manchester. (Cobbing died in 2002.)

            Look, a lost language, belching lines of casual innovations. Chaos, a tangle of paths landing in language's frozen throat. Don't repeat predicted alarms. Face towards sky-scraping wires. Bulldozer moves earth wall, calls it diagonal slippage. Fish bob in warm frog world and close the curve of melody.
Cobbing's "Non-Verse and Perverse - A Serious Dissertation" is, as the editors note, an uncharacteristic piece, i.e. it is neither concrete, sound nor visual. No doubt Cobbing's exemplary status is done no harm at all by the general unavailability of his work; nevertheless this piece alone is enough to prove what a formidably original practitioner he was. It is not so much the form itself, which is familiar enough now even if it wasn't in 1991: a constructed piece of prose with metrical rules like not beginning a sentence with an article, and recurring elements such as "icicle", "bob" and "fur". (And "legs". There are almost as many detached limbs in this piece as in Stress Position.) It is not the form that stands out, it is Cobbing's choreography, within that non-discursive form, of a dance of ideas that is also a tenacious and deeply-meditated statement of poetics. It looks like he wrote it without effort; these were just the ideas he exchanged every day. And here as elsewhere he never strikes me as really influenced by anyone. It isn't true, but what's true is that Cobbing's UP doesn't come from a literary pool - e.g. the detached limbs are not usefully sought in Dickens - it does come out of a truly borderline practice with hidden sources, and it is extraordinary, and exemplary.

Fisher's "Bel-Air" is a less happy selection, in my view. You can see why it was chosen: Brixton Fractals is such a great book, but I feel "Bel-Air" needs that larger context. The pseudo-narrative of the Painter and the Burglar obtrudes, and gives a misleading answer to the question, What am I supposed to be looking at here? (They should have gone with "Banda" instead, in my opinion.)

Of the other poets in Floating Capital (I am drawing on no personal knowledge, this is all just from quick Googling):

Paul Brown now runs an art bookshop and has nothing to do with the poetry world. Though The Aftermath was published by Salt in 2003, Peter Middleton has really completed his transition from poet to serious academic - the day-job, as so often, becoming the all-day job. One day I hope he might astonish us with a VLP (very long poem) of his own, but I'm certainly not counting on it.  Hazel Smith is evidently still performing and publishing; she teaches at the University of Western Sydney. Virginia Firnberg's poetry-writing phase, as I infer, didn't long outlast the anthology - she composes and teaches music. (A pity, because "swam" is a wonderful thing.)

Gilbert Adair was, in those days, still running the Sub-Voicive platform that he co-founded in 1980. Soon afterwards he left the UK (sometimes visiting, e.g. for a memorable reading of bits of  jizz rim at SV in 2001); he lives in and teaches in Hawaii. Extraordinary books continue to appear.

[As very early readers of this post will know, I confused him with - NOT to be confused with - the critic, journalist, novelist Gilbert Adair, who died in 2011. (thanks to Tony Lopez for setting me right...)]

" [F]or Bob too, there was simply no division between the engagements of living life and the imaginative processes of working..." (Maggie O'Sulllivan). It's an aspiration she's lived more deeply than most. She worked for the BBC from 1973-88; she has since supplemented her creative career by  teaching classes, creative writing residencies, etc. Just how much new new work she's producing these days is hard to judge from a distance; I'm not aware of much that's later than murmur, which already existed in some form in 2003.

Robert Sheppard teaches undergrad poetry modules, but he's still a forcefield poet. cris cheek left London in the early 1990s, taught at Dartington and now in the US, but is still of course the epitome of an interdisciplinary artist.

Adrian Clarke, so far as I know, is an active poet and nothing but (except for the usual swamp of ancillary stuff, editing, publishing, reviewing, interviewing....). Ken Edwards too is still committedly what he was then: writer, musician, publisher. Ditto Kelvin Corcoran... (but, is it just me?, he always seems an anomalous inclusion, both here and in 1998's Conductors of Chaos. I feel I want to put a different hat on before I start to read him.)

Val Pancucci is the most difficult poet to find anything out about. 80 SKINS AND 75 EGGS was published by Veer in 2004 - despite this, I imagine her as an occasional poet, or perhaps an under-the-radar poet, a very good thing to be.

It's a natural approach to an anthology, for the reader, to try to identify what is individual about each poet. One wants, after all, to be what is called an active reader. But it's a distinctive feature of Floating Capital, or rather, of the peculiar nature of its material, that it rewards reading in a quite different way: by forgetting about the individual authors and by reading it instead as an open-ended communal endeavour.

[Now read:]


The Real Life of Domingos Xavier (A vida verdadeira de Domingos Xavier), by José Luandino Vieira, was finished in 1961, just before Vieira was sentenced to many years in prison for political activity (for the MPLA).

In this insurrectionary book Domingos is imprisoned, tortured and finally dies of his treatment: his "real life" is the momentum his example gives to the Movement. The increasingly violent beatings only harden his determination not to tell; when the "new police" finally beat him to death, it's because they've lost. Interspersed with these dark chapters are the sunny if sad narratives, interrupted and impressionistic, of his wife, well-wishers and fellow-activists trying, hopefully or hopelessly, to find out what has happened to him.

Domingos smiled to himself. He thought yes, that was true, he was going to die. They were going to kill him. He was already as if dead, and the only pain which still worried him was from his legs broken at the knees. He smiled and smiled while the blood ran from his mouth, from his nose and from his ears; it soaked his tattered shirt, his body and the floor, and splashed the policeman, the walls, everything. It was good to feel it running freely like this, to feel himself empty and light. His great happiness at having kept silent poured out in his salty tears, in the urine which he could not control, and he felt it run down his legs and spread his hot and bitter smell through all the room.

Domingos lived in an industrial township by a dam construction on the Kuanza river; other scenes are in Luanda, but the sketchy impression (in a book of only 80 odd pages) is of ae entire society being portrayed: the old man's memories of piloting, the evasive mother washing cloths at the river, the despairing wife and baby staying with friends in the city, the children playing marbles in the dust, the dances and courtships of the youths. And of course the cipaios, the locals employed by the colonial administration to do most of its dirty work, including beating prisoners to a pulp; but who nevertheless may have friends within the larger community and can be an invaluable source of information about the disappeared. (The word is derived from Anglo-Indian sepoy.)

The impressionism can be instanced by the following quotations, both as it happens about the young politicized footballer Chico John, who works as a messenger for the "Company".

Ah, if some day he could show the head of accounts that he already knew how to operate the machines! He had learned to clean them after five at night, worrying in case they came back and caught him.

And with his girl-friend Bebiana:

They went slowly across the beach, at Chico's pace.

Caught him doing what? And what does it mean, "at Chico's pace" - wouldn't Chico move quickly? We can work out these conundrums, but not with absolute certainty. To leave uncertainty is a short-story writer's technique for adding depth into the text. But there's more to it than that. First, the lack of specificity allows the story the potency of universal application. Just what Domingos Xavier could have told is left intentionally shadowy. Secondly, it images (and instantiates) the unspoken in a society that dare not speak. The book describes a political mobilization, once named generically ("the Movement") but more commonly signalled by the ambiguous word companheiro. It is clearly based on Vieira's own experience within the MPLA. It is not described as an organization with a definite sphere of activities - revolutionaries do not publish that kind of thing, it's too dangerous - it is described as an experience that individuals meet with, a growth of political consciousness.

Equally shadowy is the story of what happens outside when Domingos is imprisoned. The child Zito and his grandfather Petelo are watching the Post. They pass the news of the new unknown prisoner on to Chico John, who passes it to the tailor Mussunda and Miguel; Miguel is sent on a mission, the details of which are not given - he goes up to the dam and makes contact with Sousinha, who is in hiding, and the white engineer Silvester. Presumably the main point is to know who has been taken away in order to know what may have been compromised and to take evasive action; but that's all my own inference.

The geography is confusing but not imaginary; it would convey more to a native Luandan. The obfuscation is deliberate: some locales are named while others are not, or are only named generically (e.g. Chico John's day-job is office boy for "the Company"). The dam, on whose construction Domingos worked, does exist. It is on the Kuanza river a bit upstream from Dondo (and around 100 miles from Luanda), and you can get a good look at it using the satellite view on Google Maps.

Domingos was born on "the plateau", i.e. the Huambo plateau. i.e. further upstream from the dam. Even so, we know his previous job was in the Bom Jesus sugar fields, nearer to Luanda.

Bairro Indigena - near to the area in Luanda where Grandfather Petelo and Zito live, beside the prisons where Domingos is murdered.
Bairro Operario - in the centre of Luanda.
See Intonations: A Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, from 1945 to Recent Times by Marissa Jean Moorman (Ohio University Press, 2008), especially Chapter 2, which outlines the importance for the nationalist movement of both these locations, and the Botafogo football team, and the Ngola music group - all of which make appearances in Vieira's novel.
Corimba, Samba - shore area south of central Luanda, towards Belas. Where Bebiana, Miguel, and Mama Sessa live.
Islands of Mussulo - long spit off the shore of Luanda.
Mutamba - in central Luanda near to the coast.
Muxima - further down the Kuanza from Dondo, a little closer to Luanda.
Prenda - in Luanda, south-east of the centre.
Sambizanga - township in Luanda, north of the centre and fairly close to the coast. Where Maria stays with Mr Cardoso and Mama Terry. Bairro Lixeira is in Sambizanga.
Sambizanga was also the name of the celebrated but rarely-seen 1972 film, directed by Sarah Maldoror, based on  Vieira's book (especially Maria's search for her husband). For more details, see Lusophone Africa: Beyond Independence by Fernando Arenas (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), page 109ff.
Very good discussion of Vieira's writing (and the significance of his geography) here: Transculturation and resistance in Lusophone African narrative, by Phyllis Peres, 1997, University Press of Florida.

This novella, like his other books, was written in a striking kind of mixture of literary Portuguese, slang and Kimbundu. The translator Michael Wolfers made no attempt to represent this in his English version (mindful, as he said, that for many of his readers English was a second language). Despite this, the translation gives a pretty clear sense of passing through different registers.

The Angolan independence that Vieira wanted was finally achieved in 1975, but the immediate upshot was a terrible civil war in which over half a million people died - a war prolonged, maybe, by the opposing sides within Angola receiving support from opposing Cold War players. Pretty much like the situation unfolding in Syria right now.

But maybe it is ignorant to suppose that the familiar motif of US-Russian jockeying for position is somehow significantly explanatory compared to other competition within the region - for example, between Shia and Sunni. Or is the tailor Mussunda right to argue that regional players only disguise a permanent and deeper discord: "[he] showed that there was not white, nor black, nor mulatto, but only poor and rich, and that the rich was the enemy of the poor because he wanted the other to remain poor. At this Chico was startled and argued with Mussunda...."


Stress Position, like The Real Life of Domingos Xavier, has torture as its central image. It was published in 2009, but very plainly must have been mostly written around the time that the images of Abu Ghraib abuse shocked the western media in 2004.

It's of course a very different book in other respects. To put it shallowly: in Vieira's Angola of 1961, it was all about free speech; in Sutherland's UK of 2009, it's all about corrupt speech.

The expression "stress position" is often used, in connection with war and torture, to talk about positions that cause pain and collapse. The jacket doesn't show Graner sitting on a prisoner, though. It shows a hypermobile child, a gymnast I guess, tying herself into some sort of knot. Her eyes are blanked out - part of the dehumanizing Abu Ghraib atmosphere. Her upside-down face tricks you into seeing a phantom smile, but when you turn the picture the other way you see that her mouth is just widened in sheer strain.

Stress Position, distressed

In yoga, the stress position is visited again and again; indeed an oscillation between opposed stress positions is one of the main yoga techniques for increasing suppleness.

At a military college in the US, yoga is considered excellent preparation for encountering the horrors of war.

To call torture the central image of Stress Position needs qualification, because the book doesn't do evocation of Abu Ghraib, or of anywhere else in Iraq.

It does have a disjunctive but definite action, with highlights such as losing a leg in McDonalds', and buddying up with a horse called Black Beauty. Occasionally this action seems to take place in the Al-Rashid (the Baghdad Hotel frequented by western media), but more often it's in a generalized modern westernized consumerized world that is nowhere in particular. Nevertheless the presentation of this action does echo some distinctive aspects of the Abu Ghraib atrocities; for instance their vacuity, their media-consciousness, their hideous pop sensibility.

The precise relation of the poem to the shit that went down at Abu Ghraib has been expressed in various ways, e.g. as an "enactment" of torture episodes, or as the lines being "tortured" by the constraints of the verse form.

The former makes more sense to me than the latter. What strikes me, on the contrary, about Sutherland's 7x7 stanzas is not their constraint, but their capaciousness. They are like large skips that hold any amount of jagged scrap, and comfortably assimilate it into the thrillingly but direly zestful flow of the verse. - Yes, the desperation within the poem is not about being tortured, it is about assimilating torture.

It requires two stanzas to give a basic idea of Stress Position; one isn't enough, because it won't show how each stanza is so different from the previous one. SP has no slack, every stanza has its own distinct function, which is rarely about being locally poetic. It's exactly because I'm sure of this that the poem grips so I never want to pause the reading. (This has something to do with Sutherland's miraculous union of opposites: the poem is both 1. architected, in a built way, adorned with thoroughly germane epigraphs from the classics, the print on the page looks like engraved mottoes in the austerely late-Modernist Cambridge manner - but also 2. radically a performance work, a dynamic splurge in which mock-references defeat Google and the construction is sound and energy.)

     The real dot. The pond on the floor, the pond in the shade of the trees,
the stupid infant Actaeon barging into the airing cupboard. Voided
     noise adrift resembles a human lowing, under the stairs, in the
new dream over the head, a briefing on lust for the living inviolate
     5 or something, before the trunk and artillery proliferate and
go yellow in their inflexible burlesque of standard operating reflex,
     pinscreen Corbièricules vs. the penis of the bulimic Pacman.

     Lines from the poem repeated until they obliterate what you mean
by singing them into the first place up from your lungs and virgin neck.
     The last speck of SucraSEED glints on the vinyl, bold as grit in ice,
you watch it spin into a frontal impact with the cutting stylus. Nightmares
     in expressionism, never inherent enough like a hysterectomy is
to its own prehistory blur into alien backchat, Ali, too far gone
     to return from afar, the Chinese burn on lyric square one.

The "enactment" idea has more mileage in it. It isn't difficult to observe, here and passim,  a vocabulary of inhumanity: of constraint, blows, degradation, penetration, depersonalization, administration - a persistent undertow that is stitched into narrative gestures towards commonplace and/or zany material. For example, the final section of the poem begins with bolts and ends with rivets. For example, the "virgin neck" here (in section II) has something to do with the "vestal throat" at the end of section 1. But still, what is enactment worth really? As the poem itself says: "You can't put teeth-marks in a quasi-shin."

Sutherland himself in this discussion says that readers should really be disgusted by his co-option of Iraqi/Vietnam history for the purpose of "narcissistic self-blockage". I think most people will get what's happening here, i.e. the rejection of the concept of a tasteful context for talking about war crimes; and the bare perception that the only kind of moral authority that can to any extent be defended is the one that has already ceded all claims to credibility. But how do we read this in relation to Ben Watson/Esther Leslie's strictures on postmodernism (same link as the one I gave earlier), namely that it isn't enough for the postmodern poem to dive into the incidental pleasures of capitalism, to celebrate whatever is, but as Marx says "the particular can be seen intellectually and freely only in connection with the whole". Does Sutherland's Abu Ghraib provide an explanatory context for the mess on the floor in McDonalds', or perhaps the other way round? But if that were so then the conjunction of heterogeneity wouldn't be, what Sutherland insists it is, disgusting. So I'm frankly reading Stress Position as a postmodern poem and as political because postmodern: i.e., in the way Lolita and Some Trees were political: in ways that A and Waiting for Godot weren't.


I read Leonardo Sciascia's monograph The Moro Affair (1978) alongside Peter Robb's expansive Midnight in Sicily (1996). That worked pretty well. Robb's book, though mainly about the Mafia, roams widely into politics and literature (and food), and has plenty to say both about the Moro affair, and about the Sicilian author Sciascia. It belongs to that modern genre of travel book that is really a gumbo; the author's brief being to stuff in as many juicily informative anecdotes as possible; it passes the time, you don't read it twice, but you do learn some things.

Neil Belton, introducing Sciascia's book, notes: "These were years in which paranoid conspiracy theories were the subject of everyday conversation in Italy, and often referred to something real." If you look up Aldo Moro on the English-language Wikipedia, you won't find much detail about his lengthy career in politics, but you will find a lot about his kidnapping and assassination, and most of this is conspiracy theory piled on conspiracy theory piled on Sciascia's own seminal book, which is also conspiracy theory of a modest and literary kind; inasmuch as the basic premise of CT is that it is composed by people who don't know the inside story. But Belton is right:  when it came to Italian politics, the conspiracy theories were often true. The supposedly firm demarcation, in northern Europe for instance, between responsible reportage and irresponsible speculation, broke down completely when government was sufficiently seen (despite all the secrecies that were not seen) to be epidemically corrupt, when magistrates were often mafiosi, when the courts of justice in Rome were themselves on trial, when political life meant the management of personal favours.

"Might there perhaps be some American or German significance to his denials?" In this narrative, everyone speculates, including the participants. Once Moro is forcibly isolated from the party that abandons him, no-one is altogether in the know. So Moro himself has conspiracy theories, so do his Brigate Rosse captors, so do the erstwhile Christian Democrat colleagues, and the Mafia henchman (or masters), etc.

But CT is an embedded feature of modern experience everywhere. This plays into the extreme reluctance of innovative poems to affirm that anything definite has ever happened, i.e. to use the past tense.

Partly because the information that can be authorititatively communicated by poets feels like it is of low value. Those minutiae do not matter compared to the momentous events alluded to by CT. We use the word "quotidian" of this low-grade material, and we mock poets who continue to narrate the quotidian in the pathetic hope that, telling it one more time, they'll surprise themselves by revealing some momentous element that, up to now, we've all unaccountably overlooked. (And sometimes the poem pretends that an unspecified momentous charge has been communicated to us, and places epiphanic markers round the vacuum.)

But after all, we don't have to write about the bird-table. We could take the trouble to find out about something else, and communicate it. Nevertheless, there is a residual shame in donning the bloody robes of the privileged knower, the person who knows what did happen.

Because knowing is tainted.  CT alludes to the existence of a knowledge that is momentous, but the snag is that poets don't know it, only insiders do, and insiders are probably criminals. The modern poem acknowledges this in a lament that combines a stream of the appearance of knowledge (experience in present tense) alongside a second stream of "crazed" (i.e., studiously non-defamatory) CT, the unprivileged guesswork that will somewhere, someday, occasionally turn out to be true, "in a way".


* Hen. The idea for this gender-unspecific pronoun probably came from Finnish hän. Finnish is a widely spoken minority language in Sweden, expecially in the north-east (Meänkieli).  The Finnish pronoun has struck some other Europeans as so remarkable that it has even been connected with Finland's early adoption of universal suffrage (1906); the second nation to do so after New Zealand. But from a global perspective gender-unspecificity is the norm (the Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic groups being exceptional in this respect).

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