Monday, January 18, 2016

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Tune Me Gold (Maggie O'Sullivan)



Maggie O’Sullivan: In the House of the Shaman, Reality Street.


Joseph Beuys was interested in the transformative aspects of shamanism, and, like Maggie O’Sullivan, brought this practice, as metaphor, into the heart of a transformative twentieth century art.  ‘The nature of my sculpture is … change.’  Beuys provides O’Sullivan with one of the epigraphs for this work.  Sign posts.

Marks on the page; tracks across the snow that the shaman follows.  Linguistic proliferation is the nearest you’ll get to the processes of nature.

First, precision: ‘Great brilliancy and projection: the eye seemed to fall perpendicular from level to level along our trees, the nearer and further Park; all things hitting the sense with double but direct instress.’  (Hopkins, Journal, 1870)  Then, exuberance: ‘Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches, / Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and part.’  (Hopkins)

But why exuberance as sound?  Certainly ‘The whole landscape flushes on a sudden at a stir.’  But this would be to admit that sound is simply a matter of imitation.  The only way to make language shift like a lump of lard in different temperatures is to sculpt with instability inside the linguistic sign.

‘Naming’ is a poem with an apparent riddle structure.  It ends:

this is called /



The oblique and the space hold the noun, the naming word, isolate, exposed, and insufficient.  It is uselessly general though ‘tench’ is named in the thick of the poem.

Mixed Pulses etched

Finningly, brilliant corners decapitate

The creation of adverbial neologisms is a favoured technique.  ‘Finningly’ emphasises the function of the very small, independent fins in the larger movement, ‘pulses’ that are therefore ‘mixed’.  But etching and decapitation suggest both a cutting movement of fish through water and the violence of the river itself: a martial violence. 


coat Loading


echoes Anglo-Saxon (and possibly Bill Griffiths) with its compounds:



laid into rivers

has the alliterative weight of Bunting.  Fish as wounded soldier.  Maggie O’Sullivan names by naming anew.  Such ‘description’ is a displacement of its object.  What remains is a transformed language.

This work must be performed, a consequence of its exuberance.  ‘She reads unhurriedly letting the measured syllables relate to establish their rhythms in an appropriate time’ (Adrian Clarke).  There needs to be a published tape.  What happens during this performance?  I believe we may experience language in a state of becoming; it always is becoming - both in individuals and society - but never in the concentrated way O’Sullivan handles it.  A becoming in which movement and scent, for example, are ‘Uppies! Downies! Jumpies! / Fire-Sinuses!’.  An ideolect becoming dialect as an audience listens.

Maggie O’Sullivan’s poetry, then, is the very creation of meaning.  Derek Attridge, writing of lexical onomatopoeia in Peculiar Language, deals with this single form of linguistic exuberance in a way I believe is relevant to all the devices and techniques in O’Sullivan’s work.  Onomatopoeia is one example of neologism. 

All speech involves muscular movements …; and the particular aspects of this complex physical process which function in a given example of onomatopoeia depend less on the specific configurations of the phonetic sequence in question than on the meaning of the passage.  The result is a diversion of attention away from the referent in itself to the activity of referring carried out by language …  .  And it is that focus of attention on the materiality of language as it does its work of bringing meaning into being that has so often been interpreted as mimetic or iconic representation, because the experience is unquestionably one of increased vividness or intensity of signification. (pp 153-4)

The epigraph from Pound for the poem ‘Of Mutability’ announces an alchemical ‘seeking a word to make change’.  This astonishing text goes beyond neologism, beyond precision, description.  The creative exuberance produces its own linguistic transformations.  You can hear ‘groundsel’ in ‘ground all’, ‘bird in the hand’ in ‘bids in the fist’ (perhaps ‘buds’ too, appropriately bucolic to this collection, if you submit to this language’s processes).  ‘Flecks / flux / flues’ snapshots the processes like a Muybridge; flux indeed.  But the lines

flew trees / few truths /




equate the kinds of linguistic slippage in the first line here, with natural metamorphoses hinted at in the three single words.  The result is that, for O’Sullivan, in the final words of this poem, ‘GOLD / Is Recovered’.  This is not the twittering of Yeats’ gold bird of artifice and fixed eternity.  The gold, that which is produced by transformation, is the artifice.  (For O’Sullivan this is also in nature.)

A doubleness.  Reference and autonomy, for want of better words.  A tension between precision and transformation.  William Carlos Williams wrote in Spring and All of this doubleness:  

The word is not liberated, therefore able to communicate release from the fixities which destroy it until it is accurately tuned to the fact which giving it reality, by its own reality establishes its own freedom from the necessity of a word, thus freeing it and dynamizing it at the same time. 

Perhaps Williams had Gertrude Stein in mind.  Stein is present also in In the House of the Shaman in an epigraph which declares that writers, far from expressing themselves, ‘express what the world is doing’ (which is transforming, which is what the language is doing, etc.…)

The effects (I’ve outlined only a few) are thick in the material texture of O’Sullivan’s language.  The technique is total because it is so exhaustive and to describe small effects is to create a lexicon of devices which would bear as much resemblance (on the page and, particularly, as sound) as a sex manual to the experience of orgasm.  It demands an engagement with language that is unusual in activating possible responses on so many levels at once.  It has to be experienced at length before description is possible.

‘Yonderly’, a repeated coinage.  To speak of ‘yonderly’ things you must speak from ‘here’ and know the difference between the two, as a shaman does.  The real shamanism of this extraordinary language is that it is double; it belongs to the world and yet passes beyond it.

 August 1994                                                                     First Offense 10, Winter 1996

 Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here.