Jeff Hilson, Latanoprost Variations.
Jeff Hilson has always been funny. From the anacoluthic mash-up of Stretchers to the ribald sonneteering of In the Assarts, his work tends to elicit laughter more frequently than is typical for poetry. Hilson's most recent outing, Latanoprost Variations, continues this trend in striking fashion. Perhaps the least funny thing about the book is its title. For the uninitiated, "Latanoprost" likely sounds both occlusive and harsh, lacking the kind of euphony that might ingratiate it to us in lieu of sense. Hilson seems aware of this, mindfully elucidating the word in a note at the end of the book:
The title is not supposed to be obscure or misleading but it could be construed as both of these. "Latanoprost" is the name of a topical eye drop used to treat various forms of glaucoma and I found it printed on a cheap plastic pen in the flat of a friend I had recently moved in with, under the bed in fact.
As we learn what the word means, it oscillates for a moment as a kind of lexical pharmakon-- as both the cause of a scotoma in the visual/semantic field and as the very remedy for this scotoma. This dichotomy is in some ways relevant to the book as a whole.
The first thing that the reader notices about the poetry is its formal boldness, with most of the poems being longish, justified prose blocks that dispense entirely with punctuation. Thereafter, it quickly becomes clear that Latanoprost Variations is an intensely monomaniacal text. Gone are the farragoes of material that characterize much of Hilson's earlier work, and instead the poetry is marked at every turn by obsessive repetition and elaboration. Despite this newfound insularity, though, the poems are less about their given subjects than they are roundabout them, tantalized by propositions that are constantly knocked widdershins by the absence of punctuation. Below is an excerpt from the book's opener, "The Incredible Canterbury Poem":
if you listened to the kinks heres an album you might not liken if you liken the kinks try the cure if you liken marvin gaye we recommend dean martin you listened to the talking heads check out caravan you listened to boards of canada and aphex twins heres an album you might not liken since you listened to the talking heads you might liken this new release by comus
The suggestions and imperatives spool out beyond the moment of their expected terminus, becoming hilariously lost in the unchecked generativity of algorithmic recommendation. The poem is thus resistant to convincing intonation or scanning, instead approximating a kind of text-to-voice unheimlich, one utterly germane to the subject matter of robotically corralled data anthropomorphized in the service of add-tocart consumerism. The "Canterbury" of the title refers to the Canterbury scene--a progressive rock subgenre, some of whose associated artists are mentioned throughout. However, the poem is also relentlessly glitch-rich, recommending S Club 7 to fans of Gang of Four, repeatedly mispluralizing Aphex Twin, and otiosely suggesting bands that we might not "liken." By thus foregrounding the system's errancy, Hilson sets the poem up as a rebuke to the kind of accelerationism that--at its most extreme-would cede the human to the technological singularity.
So blatant a mechanization under the veneer of the human is uncanny--a weirdly inverted example of Bergson's description of the comic as "something mechanical encrusted upon the living." The danger is that such machinic churning might become too funny, automated to such a degree that the living component that makes the laughter possible disappears, leaving us with nothing but a cachinnating clockwork jester. And yet, such excess is precisely what makes the humor of Latanoprost Variations so vital. At no point are we afforded a cathartic discharge of pent-up psychic energy a la Freud, but are instead left to tarry with the surplus.
Under the weight of such surplus, poetry cannot but appear strange. The book's third poem, "A False Botanic--Forensic Poem for February," reads like a cross between a creation myth and a botanical detective story, one whose shifting quest object is never found:
As I walked out in the morning on the first day looking for the early gentian I didnt find it in the morning instead I found an allis shad
Even if we don't quite get the joke, we quickly work out its mechanics: on each day, a new trouvaille stands in for the sought-for botanical object. Despite variations in the supposititious objects and in the syntax, each reiteration of the failed quest narrative essentially follows the same logical structure, meaning that any given proposition reads almost like a synecdoche of the entire narrative. This conceit of torturous repetition-which runs throughout the book--manages to remain funny throughout, while simultaneously feeling excessive, uncontainable. Indeed, in the case of the duo "Poem About Grounds" and "Another Poem About Grounds," such uncontainability becomes blatantly indexical, mocking the very idea of titular circumscription. The first of these poems is ostensibly about British football grounds, while the second is ostensibly about pleasure grounds. However, these relationships become upended in a rich antanaclasis of grounds and groundedness. On what grounds are we entitled or urged to interpret the poems? How grounded are they in their subject matter?
Perhaps the best interrogation of grounds, however, is the magnificently titled "Optotypical Poem Including Art Garfunkel." On top of evoking optometric testing, "Optotypical" reads as an ingenious political neologism, one that rings simultaneously progressive and reactionary by interrogating the conventional gaze and collapsing back into it. The poem's sign off, "after all the eyes are fine," preserves this tension, both depathologizing all aberrant gazes and giving the particular gaze the all clear. In between, we get a febrile meditation on the excessive difficulty of looking at Art Garfunkel, who has only "approximate values in the observed spectrum." This visual amorphousness ungrounds the epistemology of the biographical gaze, rendering confident declarations such as "[he] is not a songwriter & really only an eccentric anomaly" tenuous. The fraught "optotypical" gaze runs through the poem in a mise en abyme that frames Keats, Garfunkel, and the narrator. Doubtless, the reader is also part of this "optotypical" arrangement, a fumbling art sleuth in pursuit of an ever-diffuse protagonist (one who is named "Art," no less).
The final poem of part one, the not-quite-aptly titled "A Final Poem With Full Stops," takes a major and shudder-inducing turn. Below is the opening of the poem, including its epigraph:
These deaths are not inevitable. --The Human Cost of Fortress Europe, Amnesty International suicide, suicide by drowning or suicide by hanging, suicide by jumping off a bridge. & died. roma, died or killed, died in a fire, died jumping from a train. & drowned, reportedly, run over by a car reaching the italian beach. & drowned.
The sequential ambience of the poem's placement in so funny a book is immediately unsettling. A total volte-face into full stops starkly arrests the freedom of movement that characterized the previous poems, setting up textual borders as sites of unceremonious detention in a way that formally alludes to the wider concerns of the poem's harrowing subject matter. As with the rest of the book, the poem bulges with excess, even if in an affectively far different manner than previously. We can read the litany of deaths as an unflinching rebuttal of the epigraph: in a climate of unconcern or political dereliction, these deaths are inevitable. As though hammering the point home, the deaths seem to exceed themselves, either involving a conjunctive superfluity ("suicide by jumping off a bridge. & died") or unfolding in an impossibly composite fashion ("died jumping from a train. & drowned"). But amidst the thanatological excess is also something like the opposite: a rhetorical erasure of individual death. Because not a single victim's name is given in the poem, the reader is forced to recognize a pernicious surplus, a relentless cataloguing that, rather than being ethically additive, progressively attenuates the migrant subject. Our duty, one would imagine, is to somehow retrieve the human from the mere cumulative facticity of clinical reportage.
One might have expected the book to end on this powerfully solemn note. However, the excess only continues. Part two's sole poem, "The Incredible DIY Poem," reprises "The Incredible Canterbury Poem" almost verbatim, excising the artist names to leave a series of Shandean lacunae for the reader to fill in. We are then treated to the paralipomena "Latanoprost Variations (Abandoned)" in the tripartite third to fifth section. Appended to the end of the book is a separate section called "Slates 1 & 2," a series of childishly scrawled micro-poems written in response to the Iraq War, their twee redactions and doodles evoking a discomfort not dissimilar to that of "A Final Poem With Full Stops." Latanoprost Variations is a great book. However, it is far too much to hold. Laughter is always to some degree too much. Hilson knows and shows this as well as anyone.