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Friday, January 29, 2016

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Adhesive Hymns (Ulli Freer)


1          Polemic

In Ulli Freer’s long work of recent years, TM (of which the booklet Blvd.s is a part) the juxtaposition goes beyond the streams and jumps of earlier pieces, and amounts to an indissoluble compound of diction and discourses.  The texts, often printed large, centred on the page, have the thingness of monumental abstract canvases.  Norman Jope recently pleaded that he could not devote the possible ‘levels of time / attention (often of a crossword-solving nature) … in order to wrest some kind of personal effect’ from these enigmatic texts.  Those of us who have no desire to wrestle for reductive summary tend to be impatient of such strategies.  ‘Confronted with work as stunning as TM,’ remarks Adrian Clarke of Jope’s disquiet, ‘what are the stiff little pricks of English small press poetry to do?’ (See Responses 20 for the full exchange.) 

I believe TM (and its unpublished predecessor Rushlight) to be one of the most vigorous works of the last ten years. I believe the danger of the ‘prickish’ response to it will be the hiding of this work in Freer’s bottom drawer while he gets on with the next brilliant sequence.

Catch at least this Equipage Blvd.s (available from Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge).  There is a full Freer bibliography by Scott Thurston in Pages 239-259.

2          Analysis

Aspects of creative linkage in Blvd.s.  One complete section:

filling with waste land residuum

opium dialectic flushed up and down

in lift shaft

on gravity overdose

mulled blood oozes dormant

from this non-reflective river

whisper policy

from spindle flesh

(i)         points towards toxic waste (waste land residuum), drug addiction (opium … overdose), both chemical disintegrations in a landscape of urban decay (up and down the lift shaft), against governmental secrecy (whisper policy);

(ii)        odd adjective-noun combinations: opium dialectic, gravity overdose, mulled blood, spindle flesh - all of which involve changes in bodily states (spindle = needle);

(iii)       flushed suggests a cleansing (a word which re-appears, as do so many, paradigmatically, throughout the book) which seems uneasy in this waste, the poisoned blood, this dormant and murkily non-reflective river.  Far from flushing the text foregrounds, by opening with: filling with waste.  Spindle flesh suggests neither flushing nor filling, but an emptied, emaciated body.  Oozes dormant: oxymoronic viscous poisoning;

(iv)       Waste Land points the literary-minded to Eliot’s allegorical river, but even his, 1922, ‘sweats oil and tar’;

(v)        dialectic up and down like a lift in its shaft ODing on gravity: vacillating, frantic, never achieving stability or synthesis.  Opium dialectic could be a version of the addict’s algebra of need but also (I don’t write or in this context) an addiction to the gravity of dialectic, Western thought-mechanics, so ironically distant from the delirium of opiates.  The fix of reason may lead to the whisper policy (thought feebly or covertly enunciated and slenderly embodied in) spindle flesh;

(vi)       covert dealers playing out the same oppositions in their toxic territories.

This semantic commentary illuminates each facet of the crystal, as it were, without revealing the gem.  It is - to change metaphors - more of a compound than a mixture: I cannot simply isolate lines to bring out the juxtaposition.  Parts of Blvd.s are openly sceptical of the kinds of solution and paraphrase that Jope apparently seeks: ‘with a tv dinner take part in war / as though truth is narratively kissed’.  Even my notes above delimit the semantic compounds, turn the text, with the Judas-like kiss or narrative, to univocal simplicity.

Syntax, in the broadest sense of the word, must be taken into consideration (more of this later) but so must sound.  An alliterative linkage tenaciously declares that, away from the semantic level, these words belong together: lift / shaft; mulled blood; whisper policy; spindle flesh.  There is even visual punning: blood oozes.  It is partly this ancient device of stress-alliteration (as witnessed in Freer’s performance style) which enables the text to be both more disruptive than the arrangement commonly called juxtaposition, and also less disruptive.  It has a smoothness that blends the links in with the materials.  (Collage always seem to imply a torn quality, a violence.)  Notice how the alliterative pairs overlap with the list of above of adjective-noun combinations to confirm the doubleness.

3          Theories

In Deleuze and Guattari’s late What is Philosophy? they contrast the ‘mixtures’ of scientific thought with the ‘compounds’ of percepts and affects that create the bloc of sensation which they define as the work of art.  Percepts and affects are not the perceptions and emotions of the lived experience so beloved of empirical British literary culture.  They are what have been made of them: respectively, ‘the non-human landscapes of nature’ and ‘the non-human beings of man’.  ‘Man’ (sic) himself is only a compound, composed of percepts and affects, in the context of a work of art, fictionalised.

‘Should the heart / be redundant or floated / in juxtaposition’, asks Freer, less sure than Deleuze and Guattari of the role of the human, aware also of a different point: ‘that these juxtapositions / metronome ourselves’ seems at least an ambivalent process.  Metronomic juxtapositions may serve to regiment us (as in the indeterminacies of advertising), as much as the refrains (riornellos) that Deleuze and Guattari write of elsewhere, may help to liberate us.

The anxiety, a constituative anxiety, of ‘linguistically innovative poetry’ in this country has been clear even before Gilbert Adair provided some of us with this cumbersome term: that the discontinuities that form the surfaces of our work might prove metronomic (like advertising) and not provide ‘new continuities’ (as Adair himself demanded).  Or, in my borrowed metaphor, that the combinations might not be compounds but merely mixtures, that the linkage is not creative but simply communicative (or non-communicative). 

There is no litmus test for this.  As Deleuze and Guattari put it: ‘The only law of creation is that the compound must stand up on its own’.  The lores of creation, as I would prefer to say, are the differing means to constitute these compounds.  Indeed, for Deleuze and Guattari, ‘standing up’ can involve deformation as much as formation, and, if they offer 3 varieties of artistic compound, it is not as a strict categorisation but as a description of tendencies they have conceptualised.

The third of these varieties, ‘the opening or splitting, hollowing out sensation’ seems to approximate what I wish to call creative linkage in the work of Ulli Freer:

withdrawal, division, distension, (when … two sensations draw apart, release themselves, but so as now to be brought together by the light, the air, or the void that sinks between them or into them, like a wedge that is at once so dense and so light that it extends in every direction as the distance grows, ad forms a bloc that needs no support.

Deleuze and Guattari have sculpture as their model here (in music they associate this third variety with theme rather than the simple air or resonating motif), but I believe that the lineation, syntax, and sound in Blvd.s operate aurally as this dense-light wedge to compose a new bloc of sensation.

Andrew Duncan once developed a theory of the pulse (a word which appears throughout Blvd.s), partly in relation to Freer’s textual and performance practice.  ‘One should think of absolute stress, dominating an empty space.  You have to generate enough silence for your stress peaks to be heard.’  (See Fragmente 4)  This seems close to the Deleuzoguattarian concept, and accurate to the experience of witnessing Freer read.  Also, in the text:


strong as a pulse embedded in random


key in you spoke

The isolated ‘praxis’ holds its own against the similarly spaced ‘noise’, and is the model of (poetic and/or political) activity.  The ambiguous last line offers a turn on or a tuning in as much as a solution.  The key is not one for Jope to unlock the text.  It doesn’t unlock; it speaks.  We key in for praxis.

In an update of the influential ‘Minor Literature’ chapter of Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari comment specifically on literature.  ‘The writer uses words, but by creating a syntax that makes them pass into sensation that makes the standard language stammer, tremble, cry or even sing.’  This deforming passage into sensation is achived by undoing ‘the triple organisation of perceptions, affections and opinions, in order to substitute a monument composed of percepts, affects and blocs of sensation’.  The means for this seem to be syntax but, as Duncan observed not altogether uncritically of ‘pulse poetry’, ‘Syntax is replaced by juxtaposition’.  In Blvd.s juxtaposition is syntax.

4          Thematics


Such an odd abbreviation for an English eye (and its even odder plural: Blvd.s).  American or French?  A resonant word, politically: the blvds of Paris were designed by Haussmann to minimise the opportunities for insurrection, yet they have been the scenes of uprisings, the cobblestone happiness of 1968, for example.  Only one section relates to the title directly:

baited sidewalks blockades

ugh hugs tediously

wordless police cordoned off

enkindle hope from

alleviation sneers vaguely

dubbed to be free

elaborately stranded

dressed in spidery gabardines

rumble pulses

This is a passage of contrasts and of identity in difference, carried by the syntax of juxtaposition, or of creative linkage.  The ‘ugh’ of a (cinematic) punch eye-rhymes with the ‘hugs’ that are emotionally its opposite, however ‘tedious’.  ‘Baited … blockades … cordoned off … stranded’ suggest alienation and entrapment, rather than the object of the linkage, ‘alleviation’ and ‘hope’.  ‘Wordless police’ are ‘dubbed’, both speechless and spoken for, at once.  ‘Dubbed to be free’ sounds suspiciously like somebody else is rhetorically doing our talking for us, despite the subject matter.  (Remember, Thatcher crusaded to empower us.)  The ‘spidery gabardines’ (another unusual adjective-noun combination) connote surveillance and traps, again by that police (in ununiformed uniforms).  The Arachno-detectives.  The concluding ‘rumble pulses’ combination is oxymoronic: a rumble is a constant, a pulse is an interval, pulses a series of them.  Like the histories of the blvd.s of Paris (along which traffic both rumbles and pulses) the text links external control with the desire for liberation, the pulse of purposeful ‘praxis’ juxtaposed with purposeless interference: ‘pulse embedded in random/noise’. 

Pulses released from random noise (refrains, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms) form monuments for the future.

Pulses as links in a chain, not of communication (the traditional opposite of noise) but of creation.

March 1995                                                                      Pages362-380, January 1996

Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here. And more on the history of Pages here.