Sunday, May 11, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Barry MacSweeney: ‘Even my Earrings Failed the Jury Vet’

I have many posts here and here and here and here about Barry MacSweeney’s work. I have posts here and here and here about politics and art.

I have decided to bring these items together in a reading of Barry MacSweeney’s poems of the 1970s and 1980s, ‘Liz Hard’ and ‘Jury Vet’. I want to bring some of the themes together in terms of a formal but political reading. This is a tall order and it is not one I feel absolutely capable that my acuity as a critic, my sensitivity as a reader and my empathy as a poet (which guides most of my positive critical evaluations) can rise to. (I know I’m tight-lipped and dismissive of work I feel negatively towards, but, hey, there are only so many hours in a day. An hour trapped watching Carol Ann Duffy droning can never be remitted at the celestial ticket office, though you can slip the experience into a poem, in my case into one of my ‘Petrarch 3s’).

There never was a separate book publication of ‘Liz Hard’/‘Jury Vet’. Written ‘May-June 1982 and 1979-1981 respectively – datings that were a surprise when I looked them up, given the reverse-chronological order the poems appear in – they were first published in the Paladin Tempers of Hazard volume ‘(published & destroyed 1993)’ the note to MacSweeney’s Wolf Tongue has it, though not before I’d bought a copy (‘12th May 1993/Wimbledon’ it says in the fly-leaf). This is a significant fact, the fact there isn’t a volume to consult about some of the formal aspects I shall be taking on.

Clive Bush calls them ‘Jury Vet Odes’, working with the titles of magazine publications of the works, so there is some evidence of this, but Marianne Morris says they were called in manuscript ‘People on Trial: Fail the Jury Vet’. (Morris 2004: 9) The title ‘Jury Vet’, Morris tells us, comes from a quotation that MacSweeney wrote on the manuscript near a photocopied image of the actress (with the eyes blacked in, classic doodling or post-punk defacement?): ‘“Even my earrings failed the jury vet” – Catherine Deneuve.’ (Morris 2004: 9) The quotation links the pervasive fashion-world with judicial process, linked in the image of judgement or, more sinisterly, interference in that process. Such a jury is a fixed one, involving the vetting of jurors so they might be selected (unknown to other parts of the judiciary) according to particular ideological preferences. To ‘fail the jury vet’ would be to be condemned to outsider status. The lady is clearly affirming she is a tramp. MacSweeney’s attention is perhaps more on the ‘people on trial’ of his abandoned title. (Perhaps it should be acknowledged that ‘Jury Vet’ itself is an abandoned work, according to MacSweeney’s note.)

It strikes me now that these poems are, in fact, formal continuations of Odes. They share something of the odes’ impaction, the recourse to headline-like phrasing or lines, the centring of the margin (a device he stole from Michael McClure’s lineation). Yet the impaction consists of compound swear-words and obscenities, the headlines are from The Abject Times rather than South Shields Gazette (the use of capitals emphasises the ranting too), the centring is irregular (Wilkinson I think notes this; I’ll find the quote). But – to stay with visual configuration of page-space – whereas the Odes (in the Trigram Odes and the Bloodaxe Wolf Tongue ) are indulged in their lineation and layout (two separate aspects of the poem’s forming, as I try to tell my students), a poem to a page, its central stem (there is a Stem Ode, I believe) stretching down the page (though it looks like up to me), these poems are presented as run-ons as though the rant must never stop. Their movement is horizontal whereas the odes dropped vertically. The titles are in capitals (nothing terribly unusual there) but they are smaller than the often-used caps of the text itself, a clear breach of a minor formal convention. It is difficult to see where one poem ends or begins. In a word, the page is squat, the text all scrunched up, and difficult to read, as eye saccades jump up and down the text looking for clues of where to settle, where a poem might begin. The centring is irregular. The use of asterisks (actually they are stars and often in loud rows) and lines to divide the text (again) horizontally (into verses? into sections? into poems?) is confusing amid this clutter. Adorno’s lecture on Punctuation (it is presented complete on ubu.web) may help with this.

Apollonian Odes: Dionysian ‘Jury Vet’. (Maybe. Too easy.)

This page arrangement is deliberate; it is not the result of bad editing or economics. It’s not the crampness of a cheap edition. It’s the boldness we discover, less in McClure, and more in Vorticist typography and early letter-based concrete poetry. BLAST and Russian constructivist Agitprop. The texts have the loudness (and urgency) associated with the manifesto, in Mary Ann Caws’ expression. Its shouty-ness, though, is not the loud but clear tones of an advertisement’s typographical sloganising, but a less coherent typographical rant, closer to versions of concrete poetry where the edge of coherence is entertained as a marginal practice of materiality.

But the ‘Jury Vet’ poems (I’ll use the phrase for both poems) are not concrete poems, and – despite the formal resistances to our reading – are recognisably poems. Let’s turn to page 106 of Wolf Tongue. Actually my eye settles rather easily because it has the poem’s title at the top of the left folio. The title ‘JURY VET LOVE  BULLET/IN’ is followed by the first line (in larger lettering!): UMBER SLEEPWEAR & ALMOST BED STARRES. Silver’. The eye ignores the ‘Silver’, though associates it with stars, despite the fact it is part of a sentence completed on the next line. These two headline like phrases seek our attention, perhaps the first line before the title: ‘Umber’ is a colour but its etymology carries implications or echoes of shadow (ombre). But I suspect a transcription adjustment: is this a truncation of the word ‘slumber’? Is this an advert for nightdresses and pyjamas? The ampersand joins noun phrase to modified noun phrase. The graphological deviation of ‘starres’ is a favoured spelling by MacSweeney, lifted from Chatterton’s fake medievalism, here rendered in reversed homage as an authentic gesture. But what are ‘bed stars’? Stars on the bedcovers, upholstery perhaps, or the movie stars that recline in bed in romantic comedies, the porn stars that pump their way to showy ejaculation on top of beds? The modifier ‘almost’ is misplaced and slightly jolts ‘stars’ towards a verb function, just enough to draw attention to itself and destabilise the lines. The materiality again asserted. The title, of course, incorporates the name of the sequence (as many of the titles do) and deserves separate attention: ‘JURY VET LOVE  BULLET/IN’ But it is a love bulletin, a report on the unstated amours of Jury Vet (the proper noun seems to function as though it were a name in some of the poems, the outsider of the process he or she is named after). But the slash across the word, cutting it, in an act of punctuational violence makes love potentially deadly, a bullet. There is also a resonance of a ‘bullet in’ something or other. (Another aside: The pun ‘Bullet/in’ I’ve used myself when we refunctioned The Staff Bulletin at B-----ds College as the Staff Bullet, a pun complicated by the fact that the Principal’s surname was Staff. Kevin and I put this roguish little publication together – number 8 so the management would find them and search out the non-existent previous seven – to expose idiocy and resist new working conditions. Oh how I miss the private venal fiefdoms of Further Education, and the resistant humour of the staff, the other, actual, staff I mean. Higher education is so corporate and the resistance minimal and unimaginative by comparison. We need MacSweeney’s bullet.)

‘Silver’ what then? ‘Silver/ pleated hems & jade velour.’ A second pair of noun phrases separated by the resolutely visual ampersand. ‘Velour’: I know it’s a fashion word and look it up: ‘n. a woollen stuff with velvet-like pile’. (‘Velutinous’ as the adjective catches my eye. Nice word.) It’s a description of fabrics, clothes, perhaps the sleepwear, and their complementary colours. ‘SCARF’ line 2 ends, bigging it up, but not a surprising lexis in context, though the context is a line-break, a sudden break, before leading on

knotted in an atmospheric
ploughshare Kiss.

End of verse. We detect the found language of fashion. I can’t un-read what I’ve read in the articles of Marianne Morris and John Wilkinson about the materials that have been formed into these poems; ‘Jury Vet’, William Rowe writes ‘is an anti-production, designed to make the event of Thatcherism impossible, no less. It does this formally by tracing the reduction of the event that could change history, to a fashion show.’ (Batchelor 2013: 82). The first of the two lines, one could imagine in a feature in Vogue saying ‘Miss Deneuve is wearing a scarf knotted in an atmospheric pose.’

But this is not what the cut of enjambment (again) offers us. We get a Kiss, capital K; it is a love bullet/in, and the ploughshares are of Biblical provenance: what the weapons of war are transformed into (bullets included) in welcome time of peace. A person enters the language, as it were, at this point, clearly not settled by this Kiss. Indeed, to be invaded while running suggests a failed attempt at escape, though it doesn’t say that.

Vermillion fingers,
sunset leather
digit pressgangs
invade his running mind.

Fashion noun phrase compounded, without copula, with fashion noun phrase, though the vermillion fingers sound invasive, even suggests a ‘million fingers’ (if we play MacSweeney’s textual slash games ourselves) that form the invasive digit pressgangs. This is not as invasive as Liz Hard’s digital inspections, of course, but perhaps the pressganging (suggesting both involuntary conscription and the gangbanging of male rape) is akin to that single fickle finger of experience:

Digit Durex



(MacSweeney 2003: 97)

It is, after all, the mind that is invaded in ‘JURY VET LOVE  BULLET/IN’, not the anus. This poem (or the first section of it which is cut off with one of those horizontal lines) ends with its own passage of solid capitals:


The same isolated ampersand opens to an exhortation to love’s milder cousin, rather than the bullet. The fashion lexis noun phrase should be no surprise. Perhaps there is a crypt word of ‘surge’ in ‘serge’ that might render the ‘pink’ fabric fleshly and sexually active. Be cuddled and be kind is a double exhortation, although perhaps ‘befuddled’ is encoded in the cuddling and the ‘be kind’ or rather ‘BE KIND’ is more desperate: the plea of a lover during rough sex perhaps.

Such details continue right through the poem (or sequence), horizontal lines (one much longer than the others, dividing the poem and driving our attention to the surface of the poem continually. As John Wilkinson says: ‘The power of Barry MacSweeney’s best poems lies in their creative and integrative summons to their reader, surprised into poetic activity which has not been advertised according to post-authorial dogma; MacSweeney’s prosody shapes the reader into a shaper.’ (Batchelor 105) I’m going to jump to the end, to the last two sections.

Varnished redhead rust woman hair blazing
on the wedding party
hotel lawn.

This is pure epiphany, beginning with a compound noun phrase, the woman is ‘varnished’ (at fingernails), ‘redhead’ (a noun operating as the adjective red-headed, and presumably denoting hair coloration, is it dyed? maybe because it’s) ‘rust’, a term that turns simple depiction of coloration to moral judgement. Is she tarnished (a crypt word beneath ‘varnished’), worn, damaged? The hair blazes, appropriately, at a wedding (this is a love bulletin, remember). Think Rebekah Brooks tossing her hair before the Parliamentary Select Committee.

The final poem (section) picks up on this impressive but ambiguous female figure (she is ‘long-legged’ and ‘cross-thonged’ we are told, bringing the focus close to her sexual organs, but without the obscenity of other poems):

You the varnished curse. You the sin

Small heaven of grins & girls.

& the doors are closed.

The hair is restored from rust to ‘METAL’ but metal hair could be nothing but a weapon, strands of thin steel, for example. The closed doors formally end the poem but lock the now fully operative (male) voice of the poem down. ‘You’, it addresses the woman, are ‘the varnished curse’. Curse condemns him but it also suggests another meaning; the ‘curse’ of menstrual flow which would make the rust analogous to bodily waste (if that’s what it is; or rather: if that’s what it represents in a poetic of wormy turds). ‘You the sin’ leaves the reader hanging for the final operative (and judgemental) word’s near anagram: sign. A sin-/sign. The doors close upon this sign, her. Which leads to the constricted ‘heaven’ of ‘grins & girls’ (rather than smiles and women or laughter and ladies, say). Male abjection arises out of this attempt to read the poem formally prettily powerfully.

Does this poem ‘sing from within degradation, against it,’ as William Rowe suggests. (102)? He’s probably closer when he says of ‘Jury Vet’ as a whole: ‘Its real concern is power. But instead of criticizing the conduct of rulers, the poem goes for the deeper question, how/power is produced, and does that by probing how the desire for the erotic fetish comes into being, who is its subject. A reader is enmeshed in the desiring machine as it assembles itself, its glistening appurtenances of fashion become flesh: an erotic body that embodies the gaze of power – what you are looking at is yourself-in-subjection. By entering right there the poem risks losing itself in the endless proliferation of objects of desire, secret of consumerism. Its tactic is to take them and write with them.’ (Rowe 99-100).

And we read with them.

(If you want to read more on form and have my project The Meaning of Form then click here for a description and a full set of links.)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places