I/ II by Danny Hayward
by David Grundy
In its publication by Shit Valley, near hot-off-the-press as I write, Danny Hayward’s latest poem, eventually entitled ‘I/II’, is a singular textual object. Printed on something like thick tracing paper, with dense artwork by Sophie Carapetian which resembles something between the interior of a body and impacted layers of earth, it looks like nothing else I can think of recently. Some initial squinting is required at small, bold-face point 10 text. The columns of text from the next page showing through on the previous, create a kind of visual analogue for the recurrent distortions and returns of figures that motor the poem’s quasi-narrative momentum through the real dystopian cityscape of contemporary London. But the eye soon adjusts to follow the poem’s singular movement, unable to move away from the page until the end. I had a similar experience proofing Hayward’s Pragmatic Sanction a few years ago.[i] Like that book, this poem will not let up, nor let its reader let up: interruption would break the spell, however much the pacing of reading might be one of care and attention to detail. It’s that singular combination, of near-frenetic pace and extremely careful figuration of detail, even, or in fact most especially, in cases of apparent crassness or exaggeration, that so characterises his work. There is a change from Pragmatic Sanction though, in the way that detail operates – as Hayward noted in email correspondence earlier in the year, I/II strives for something of a broader canvas, still through a kind of warped, glitched computer game, or game-show, but with the strokes of the more transparent political poetry of the past clearly present: namely, the 1970s work of Marxist-era Amiri Baraka, full of vituperative denunciation, and a reckoning with the balance of revolutionary despair and revolutionary hope.
It’s worth noting at this stage that my impressions of the poem are as much from Hayward’s reading at the May Day Rooms in London earlier this year (when the poem was still titled ‘Feeling Rich’), as they are from the published version. Shoeless feet in coloured socks twitching on a plastic yoga mat, Hayward read quickly and with maximum directional force, even as that direction splintered off into asides, detours and circumnavigations, always returning to the stringency of a particular course from which it would not ultimately stray. The reading took perhaps half an hour, perhaps longer, and it was a transformative experience really, as have been several of Hayward’s readings over the years – in particular one at Wild’s Rents in London back in 2015, where he presented Pragmatic Sanction for the first time. These are fierce and believable events, which Hayward participates in with total commitment and unflinching, unsentimental generosity. There’s a real sense that the poems are written for and to a particular group, however loose-knit that might be; though they are of course available to a much broader audience, they also serve a specific function that coheres around smaller units. This might be true of much small-press activity, and the poems it serves, around the scenes in which Hayward’s work appears, but there’s something particularly true about his own poetry in this regard.
It’s because of this that a new poem by Hayward is an event, something to show us where we are and how we might begin to think about that. I don’t mean this so much in terms of influence – though there are traces of the particular contorted energies of logic and irony in his poems in a few things written recently, there aren’t many people who write in quite the same way that he does – but in terms of a singular example that provides inspiration to go on. We need these kinds of things.
What is the poem about? This is not the facile question it might be in relation to certain other kinds of poetry, for I/II feels very specific in its engagement with issues of political activism – particularly anti-fascist organising around the LD50 campaign, as well as the London mayoral election and debates around the role of electoral politics in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise as leader of the Labour party.[ii] But it’s not just a manifesto of the moment, nor simply an “issue-based” argument, and the question of feeling is important here. There’s a new emotional tenor, previously absent, or nowhere near as present, in Hayward’s oeuvre preceding. It’s important to stress that this is, in fact, a very moving poem – moving in a way that in no sense dispenses with the tools of irony, anger, sarcasm and satire that Hayward has made his own territory, and does like almost no one else, but with a new tenor that tempers, and in doing so, in fact strengthens these.
The poem is self-conscious about this. Its title is a reduction of one of its central recurring tropes, in which “Feeling I” and “Feeling II”, via various play with the SMS substitution of letters for numbers and numbers for letters, recur as horizons of possible identification and motivation to political action. The mangled complexity this process involves reaches apex around half-way through the poem:
too much 4 one mind 2 Feel
in two minds about [...]
u want 2b wearing a Mask 2 Survive 4 what
reason but 2 become 2real 4 u
to bear 2b unmasked as 4 the
benefit of Feeling I wearing a
Mask 4 Survive 2 Feelings I
2 Feel and 4 what reason unmasked
as Feeling II involved in a shadow
II deep 2 survive
Throughout, the “I” and “II” of the poem’s title become both the rhythmic lock-step of predictable repetition (1-2, 1-2, 1-2) and a kind of prog-rock or black metal double album. These are also parallels to the false choice which the poem insistently names, between the two mayoral candidates, “Mayor I” and “Mayor II”, part of the poem’s recurring cast of stick figures, shadows of former selves, headless chickens, wounded pigs, and politicians.
How’s that for a plot point. Two mayors
you need to find: one who will solve everything and the other
Here, the liberal discourse of ‘nuance’ is the real crassness which evades political commitment, even in the face of the rise of Fascism. All it can do is “announce / something nuanced about mayors etc”. Feeling turns to melancholic sentiment, “the / corridor of sentimental outrage” filled with “middle-/class disembodied screams”, “the shadow of the shadow of its former self” repeating endlessly in “a leaden scene of generative ambiguity”. These screams stretched thin, covering over the real screams of those dying and excluded by the processes the middle-class can’t quite bring themselves to face, are tinny, cartoon-like – what Amiri Baraka in 1978 called “death peeped in a teeny voice”.[iii] As Hayward writes, they “can’t do perversity or even gasp for it [...] another exercise in sentimentalism.” Nor is the target simply passive acceptance – as, indeed such passive acceptance is never simply passive. Rather, it is symptomatic of an attitude whose melancholic attachment to fading national ideals renders it all the more frightening in its latent (and not so latent) capacity for violence:
a comic haze of UV shadows
as in abstract art, class violence and national sentimentalism
in that order.
Here, the “cold ambiguity of streets stubbed out by generative ambiguity / seems like a blip lit unfaithfully by nihilism”, a “pretence of being overwhelmed”. “Welcome middle class”, the poem proclaims, then declares this class sector to be “also a stick figure / stylised as the reality of defiance / while a sheen of defiance settles on it” – “the choir of parishioners trans-/fixed by their watercolour stab wounds”, flailing, full of empty talk, in “the downsize risk of an abstract restlessness”.
All these variants on the false choice between two bad options – in other words, the false structure of equivalence, the illusion of choice promised in contemporary liberal democracy – find their visual analogue in the transparency of pages, which allows the poem to be read simultaneously in its present unfolding, and with simultaneous glimpses of the immediately preceding past and proceeding future. But aside from this, the question of feeling manifests also in a marked emotional tenor, most obviously when the poet talks about directing feelings of violence and cruelty onto themselves.
I think that in the ease of imagining cruelty on any scale
and in the therapeutic restitution
of the self to which imagined cruelty leads
I can begin to understand
how much more beautiful it is to want to smash my own head in.
From damage reflected into its own origin, the struggle to love others radiates
as it might from the torn up roots of an instinct once
opposed to fascism.
It should be stressed that this is not a moment of ‘confession’, the finally revealed ‘human face’ behind the political satirist, of a piece with the poem’s play with the wearing of masks, the drawing of faces (“with two dots for eyes”) and the like. For the idea that this numinous quality of feeling might be enough in itself is one that the poem remains utterly opposed to. Such an index of apparent tenderness, care, concern (or, more realistically, the drip-feed of ‘sympathy’) in no way carries through to the actual political commitments such tenderness or care would demand (i.e. at the very least, the practical application of the concept of solidarity). Indeed, it is a process which the poem, with its masks and shadows and stick figures, perhaps even hates: the simultaneous denial and appropriation of sentiment over feeling.
So the poem is moving both in the sense of its narrative and prosodic momentum and in terms of emotion. It also moves through a particular space. Indeed, what’s striking here is the locality of the writing, its geographically-specific references to the cityscapes of London about a million miles from the melancholy mysticism of the latest Iain Sinclair tourist guide.[iv] In contrast to the movement of compressed expansion, the time-travelling wormholes of Pragmatic Sanction, I / II moves through and in the city as the space of the diurnally monstrous, travelling
past street corners, each more grey and imprecise than the last,
each more general and symbolic than the last, past the drunks frozen
to death and the neighbours your barely speak to, each more
the essence of a ferocious contraction in reality than the last.
Such contractions, both hopelessly generalised and, in the death and suffering they register, cruelly particular, further include: “the immigration advice centre with its files / strewn everywhere”, “closed GPs”, “the huge gasometers and [...] the rotten shells of the real estate brokers”, “the unenduring day care centre [...] the right-wing sports bars, the meaningless dull light”, “nightclubs in which bombs go on and off wordlessly”, “the / shuttered restaurants and the / literal art galleries”, “the sheets of passive mist / rolling over the pawn shops and antique dealers, / each thinner and more figurative than the last”, and “the beige locking mechanism of estate agents and construction sites: / blisters rising from the unchangeable hierarchy of any surface”. Through all of this, we sense “the political and moral atmosphere / of a net closing”: a labyrinth, a trap.
The poem traverses the pleasures of false or deluded hope and the pleasures of despair, the demands of action, at times threatening to burst through its own structure, its stuttering narrative never quite beginning, irregular line lengths stuck like glue to the left margin, the jagged edge of the broken glass of Pragmatic Sanction’s prose blocks. For Hayward, the movement the poem describes risked, at the moment of its composition, seeming “unreal or gestural or just flatly sarcastic: ‘moving’ like a hammer going up and down on a nail”. The poem had been planned according to a grammatical organising grid which would surge towards a final goal. Yet, in the process of composition, the lines would fold back in themselves or retract, recurring turns of speech such as the headless chicken or the shadow of the shadow of its former self folding back in on themselves, simultaneously multiplying and remaining the same. Hayward had sought the aspirations towards which Baraka’s Marxist-Leninist poems of the 1970s frequently build towards, particularly in performance: the sense that calls for Revolution are not merely appeals to something distant and far-off, but an imminent and imminently realisable horizon, in the context of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movements around the globe, which allows each poem to move quite specifically, free of abstraction, towards the incantatory culmination of frenzy, expectation and resolution.
2017 is a very different political moment. Without this possibility, the imminent horizon cannot be drawn on as a concluding gesture, the end-point of a process of cumulative building enacted in each new poem, both beyond but animating the poem which seeks to urge it into being. What else can be built to? What can repetition build towards, how can it reveal itself as dialectically connected – interconnected global struggles against capital in the spirit of international socialism – how can it stop itself becoming a merely quantitative list with nothing to build to, papered over by a false, substitutive horizon which cannot, in the poem, be desired into being, does not possess the context to do so – and, because it must speak with immediacy to the present moment, cannot afford to do so.
One might suggest that, instead of what Hayward calls the “single vocable promise or hope” to which Baraka’s 1970s work surges, the poem moves towards defence (on which Hayward has written in a fine essay on Baraka, Nat Raha and Xu Lizhi in one of the magazines produced for the London-based reading series No Money, with which he was crucially involved).[v] The reader is constantly told to move “past” local details – figures and locations which are rendered into deliberate cartoonishness, headless chickens, stick figures, local shops, phantasms, dressed as this or as that or as each other; performers, drawings, ghosts. The poem itself names this at one point as the “cartoon economy / with its live action humans and its two departments / of viscera and mask”: a cast of characters including “Mayor I”, “Mayor II”, “Mr. Interior Minister”, “crude Teutons”, “the shadow of a shadow who is the shadow of its former self”, “the Headless Chicken Who Wears a Mask 2 Survive”, “the Beheaded Phantasm whose slogan is I have no time for you”. Yet, rather than merely emblems for the real enemy (like Baraka’s “strangler” in the poem ‘Das Kapital’, or the “Masked Man” in What was the Relationship of the Lone Ranger to the Means of Production?), they become, in the poem, the main target, as the poem is unable to build past the detail towards the final surge, backtracking on itself. The “real enemy” is always missed:
[...] looking up at
Feeling II with talk of a human face scrawled on
twice as fast, was it the Real Enemy[;]
wanting only to hate the right things,
only to come out with yet more
This sounds like a test case for despair, for a performative self-enactment of the impossibility of perspective and of organisation – a throwing-up of the hands common in the liberal reactions to Brexit, for instance. Or a contorted self-critique, a self-sabotage of a grand plan that exists as a recriminatory ruin, endlessly circling the same streets, which might anyway be part of some elaborate video-game simulation, a virtual reality environment sardonically reduplicating a condition of misery, frustration, ennui and hopeless anger. But the poem, as Hayward wished, does manage to hold onto the collective glimmer that its stick figures and crowds of phantasms parody; it does manage to move beyond self-laceration into purpose and resolve, without forcibly naming those against the conditions of their existence. With its hammer-and-nail circulations and decapitations, repetitions and circulations, I/ II steers a course past the abyss which (as in J.H. Prynne’s most recent sequence) swallows and leaves nothing, not even memory, to be spat back up or desperately held to.[vi] False hope, if it is merely compensation or melancholic extension, rather than spur to action or survival which is more than just ‘mere’ survival, is worse perhaps, or is merely the inverse, of the pleasures of a brick-walled despair. Hayward’s poem registers the slog of struggle, the boredom as well as the despair as well as the feeling of collective unity and of getting something done at the march or protest or event, must be figured, but cannot take over.
Go-to relentlessness it turns out is just an effect.
Anti-fascists have to tolerate frustration.
Draw blood from the conclusions or get their sweat kicked in."
Is it enough to say that what the poem is for might emerge, in part, from what it is against, and that that is a horizon both immediate and in some ways necessarily suspended? Probably not: it’s pat, a truism. Which side are you on is still a question. But the side is not a monolith. “Reality doesn’t have to be anything like this”. Hayward’s poem truly believes that: moving in multiple senses, it inhabits and exemplifies a commitment to a shifting thing that shifts in relation to the forces of power against which it is defined, within which it is subsumed, and by which it is threatened with erasure. No matter of “merely technical urgency”, it is a vital and revitalising text.
[i] Danny Hayward, Pragmatic Sanction (Cambridge: Materials, 2015)
[ii] LD50 was an art gallery in Dalston which promoted and aimed to host far-right, ‘neo-reactionary’ events. It was successfully shut down after an anti-Fascist campaign earlier this year. See https://shutdownld50.tumblr.com/. The implications raised by this struggle are worth pondering further. As the Shut Down LD50 website notes: “We must continue to think about how to oppose racism and fascism more broadly. Whilst some of the events at LD50 were openly fascist, it is clear that the space also took inspiration from the more everyday forms of political authoritarianism that have proliferated during the last few years, including Trump. Shutting down fascists in the long term requires that we transform the culture in which they can begin to gain popular and institutional support (and the art world is not the neutral space it often believes itself to be). We need to be able to ask larger questions, such as how to oppose Britain’s own violent border regime.”
[iii] Amiri Baraka, ‘Against Bourgeois Art’ (uncollected, but available as part of the liner notes to Baraka’s recording with David Murray and Steve McCall, New Music / New Poetry (India Navigation, 1982)). The poem lives in performance: see the aforementioned recording with Murray and McCall and, above all, the incendiary reading of the poem given at the Just Buffalo Literary Centre in December, 1978, alongside Baraka’s old friend Ed Dorn (http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Baraka.php).
[iv] Precisely the kinds of media whose attitude of comforting, melancholic helplessness is the target of much of I / II’s justified invective has, predictably, been making much of the fact that Sinclair has publicly resolved to cease writing about London, in the wake of Brexit and the apparent confusion of “locality” by digital technologies. See Sinclair’s latest, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City, published by Oneworld this year, and the various interviews, reviews and think-pieces surrounding it.
[v] In conclusion to the essay in question, Hayward writes: “I have no idea what it would be like if there were to surge into the world a poetry whose attitude of careful and defensive commitment to the real lives of suffering and exploited individuals were also as freely intensified and dynamised, and as tonally elaborated and iconised, as the postures of helplessness and impotent display that have become the ultimate tax-free havens for whatever bourgeois expressive libidinal energy is left now that high culture has slid triumphantly into administration. But I do think that a writing like this might help people to live instead of annually upgrading their experience of failing to.” (Hayward, ‘Poetry and Self-Defence’, No Money # 2: Drag and Drop, 2016) Perhaps, we might venture to suggest, I/ II is a step in this direction.
[vi] J.H. Prynne, Of · The · Abyss (Cambridge: Materials, 2017)