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Keston Sutherland, Poetical Works 1999-2015.

Keston Sutherland, Poetical Works 1999-2015. London: Enitharmon Press, 2015. 382pp. 20 [pounds sterling].

Keston Sutherland's Poetical Works--along with M. NourbeSe Philip's Zongl and Sean Bonney's Letters Against the Firmament-immediately takes its place among the most essential works of literature in English in this new millennium. A collection of this size and stature does more than mark a moment of consolidation, more than announce an oeuvre. It provides a framework within which to consider and appraise a series of determinate movements within the work--from "early" to "late," from minor to major, from Cambridge to Brighton--that may hitherto have escaped detection. Bound within the pages of a single volume, the poems form new constellations and unguessed-at affinities, both among themselves and with other works. Definite shifts in aesthetic temperament and vocal suppleness, clear breaks in the development of Sutherland's poetics, become clear alongside his more abiding commitments and passions.

In broad outline, three periods emerge: the Cambridge years, defined by the young poet's precocious lyricism and awry grammar; the period of transition, marked by the publication of his major long poems Hot White Andy and Stress Position (and including the brilliant satire of Neocosis), their growing interest in metrical-syllabic prose; and the fully mature rhapsodic phase of The Odes to TL61P, with its fascinating prelude The Stats on Infinity, which mark an epochal shift into block writing. Each period has its distinct pleasures and demands, and yet there are enough consistencies--of diction, syntactic torsion, tone, and voice--to navigate a movement through them that attends to their broader evolutionary arc. Neither is that arc merely autobiographical; for this is a collection that, alongside its authorial interests, tells a powerful story about the fate, and the conditions, of lyric poetry in the age of universal commodification--and amid its rising waves of dissent and revolutionary rage.

Sutherland's inveterate lyricism is glimpsed in a strophe like this (from "Dildo Ode"):
                   The standpoint
   of limbs in a flood of hate for their
                     own your life
                     tag in
   raptorial total orgasm and living riotous joy
   at kicking the faked edge of a life in
   commodity-sepia to hell and knowing it
   is a dream only in the crassest last fantasies.

This is the body convulsing, writhing in extorted Rimbaldian jouissance, under the asphyxiating pressures of a world devoid of real satisfactions. Moments such as this punctuate the often baffling semio-tectonics of Sutherland's lyric forms, and reset the nature of our attention to them under familiar romantic auspices. Yet just as often, the lyric affect has been so scrambled, subject to such a terrible vivisection, that it seems to have succumbed to scabrous negation. In the early long poem "Mincemeat Seesaw" (1999), nuggets of William Wordsworth are intercut with the language of market reports:
    a secular upward trend in vapid glee
                as flowers their idle sweets exhale, relays
   love to the fathomed packhorse so-and-so,
                the bees drowse out, investment peaks and suds
   of gamer prattle spray from washed-out mouths,
                the grace of trended variables to be borne
   not of yourselves

This satiric tendency grows stronger across Sutherland's career, preserving fossils of lyric grace within the flaccid ambient textures of a prosaic lowest common denominator. But in the early work in particular there is a countervailing (and extremely productive) interest in the ability to forge a new kind of lyric music out of paragrammaticality or the appearance of glossolalia. Here is a passage from "A Hyena Asleep in a Willow," from 2003's The Rictus Flag:
                         with the electrons unionized,
   fate bent on tongue-ionamines, a fountain
   of smoke rakes through, bit-necked
   altruism under the stars weigh up chitin on
   event speech blackout. You are as
   such precise in having gone to die event peed.

The periods shimmer with a rhythmic energy triggered by the loosening of grammatical strings. The pulse from part of speech to part of speech is rendered ecstatic. In a typical clause there is a single pivot, the verb, around which everything turns; and metrical stresses typically gravitate to those pivots. But in Sutherland's sentences, meter is almost fatally compromised, and there are multiple, undecidable joints; the syntax is more like a serpentine vertebral column, sprung and rangy, than a purposeful pair of pliers applied to meaning. The sense is of omnipresent invisible and inaudible ellipses, an inscrutable tectonics of voices, tones, moods, and styles, working its way out underneath the familiar spill of stanzas and lines. It's grammar "ratcheted up to wring the cortex dry" (Stress Position). Sometimes the cadences resolve these torsions of syntax into moments of exquisite aesthetic composure, as in "The Food at Alcove One":
    where love alone shines in beauty, and the liver
   waits agape on brass for its flame, and is licked
   forever by that flame like a mirror by your eyelids.

More often the cadence too is implicated in the manias of the difference engine, wrenched out of true by a bit of flying verbal debris or the vulgar recrudescence of a sniggering schoolboy plumpes Denken.

Take that triple-barreled noun phrase, "event speech blackout." A world that obliges us to credit such monstrous locutions as "Individual Asset Identifier" and "enterprise application architects" (both from the Odes to TL61P) has already eroded the distinction between modifier and noun, quality and thing, to the point of an irremediable dilution of language's referentiality, leaving epistemology and ontology awry. It is not unwarranted to seize hold of the logic of such nominal phrases, and apply it to other orders of experience. Sutherland's poetry is rife with grotesque noun-adjunct ganglions, where modification is rendered hypertrophic: "lips-gear scalpel batter," for instance, or "love droid voice"; "global badger-tetanus," "lie flan debit mash liability," "beauty vanilla bonds," "Yakult / spine cooler," "carnauba wax rissole," and "elf neon crossbar." The ploy is at once hysterically funny and deadly serious; it shakes an apotropaic totem of verbal absurdity at capital's pitiless extinction of true names, even as it bundles nouns into new, untold composites that the poem's light must bend around.

Names, especially those proper nouns with which we populate the celestial sphere of our twenty-four-hour news cycle, stage a comeback in Sutherland's work as its satirical energies intensify. Hot White Andy is the transitional work in this and various other respects, and its dramatis personae include one Sergey Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister), Andrey Vyshinsky (Stalinist state prosecutor), Akinsola Akinfemiwa (Chief Executive Officer of Skye Bank PLC), comedian Lenny Henry, and the eponymous hero, Andy Cheng. The poem "Roger Ailes" announces this new intensity of invective and vitriol--tempered by moments of ironic tenderness and intimacy--aimed at the directors and bit players of our world disorder, which is amply developed across the second half of the Poetical Works: Rupert Murdoch, Jeremy Hunt, Anders Hoegstroem (neo-Nazi thief of the Auschwitz Arbeit Macht Frei sign), "and other names besides, names to know and do." Against these satirized icons of neoliberal infamy, a Pynchonian counterforce assembles: Ali (Stress Position) is a vital persona, along with Gulnaz, Deborah, Stan, David, and other late survivors of the general wreckage. The growing tendency to name and shame the enemy is tempered by a will to characterize the resistance, to supply it with a "local habitation and a name," making the poems into contested force fields where antagonistic armies swirl and clash.

What some people like to call its "difficulty" is this poetry's refusal--pace a growing number of clearer passages in the later work--to surrender to "the long arabesque of equivalence" or the "rapture of transitivity." A poem is neither an anecdote, nor an argument, nor a description; or it is these things only in passing, in order to become something else. That something else--"a machine made of words," William Carlos Williams called it--obliges our language to become material in relation to itself, and critical in relation to social doxa. It cannot do this ex nihilo, but must work with the debased jargons of the public sphere--of advertising, politics, and the news, among others (Sutherland also likes instruction manuals). These materials cannot be circumvented or transcended; only by putting them under the most severe formal pressure can they begin to give up their truth content, which is finally us (dedicatee of Hot White Andy), in all our mediated, contradictory, and dissociated social relatedness. It is the purpose of radical poetry, not to compensate for or justify the wretched excuse for a world that capital has wrought, but to yield an image of its suffering social essence--of ourselves and our thwarted potentials, and all the horrors of our exploited flesh--that we might reimagine and reenact this sociality in our own terms. Worrying that you aren't "getting it" is part of the point.

A brief passage from Neutrality's (2004) "Ap Ob Nuat" (a reference to the Thai "body to body" massage industry) should indicate some of the demented energies at play throughout:
    Evidence suggests that in the male guinea pig
   you've got plastic tits. Merely to harden the
   blow not otherwise roughly squatted to, but in
   they do peel off, any case of Muslim litter
   heads cum vaginas trees etc. Corticosteroidal
   punctuation id rips thus into buzz syntax, all for
                you taking off
                 O common periplaneta
   americana lipid, capital winged with awe
   and shock to its hard bargain basement into
   the foxholes dug in my face.

The first line break here ramifies a break in the syntactic order, as two sentence parts (one pedantically expert, the other colloquially rude) are yoked by violence together, establishing a hybrid discourse of scientific experimentation on animals and body modification, which is taken up later in the "foxholes dug in my face"--the additional military register of which also resonates with the "Muslim litter" being strewn pornographically over the Middle East by "capital" (figured as a common cockroach) "winged with awe / and shock" (that linguistic detritus of the Bush regime). The sound texture is richly patterned throughout: the light i sounds of "pig," "tits," "id rips," "lipid," "syntax," and "winged" chiming with the repeated preposition "in," and the unaccented syllable of "Muslim." This is threaded against a pervasive interest in the o sound, long and short, which gathers full steam in "corticosteroidal" and "O common," and reaches a climax in "foxholes." The rhythm, beginning with those virtual back-to-back primus paeons, is tersely beaten against an underlying shift from trochaic to iambic feet, but constantly wrong-footing itself and jarring against all expectation.

Sutherland's lyrical gifts are immense. Giving them free reign would amount, however, to a travesty of the poetic vocation in a world that has butchered language in order to justify butchery. Staying true to the poetic task perversely entails its barbaric refutation, its exposure to immanent tortures by the jargons and cant of a torture-driven social order.
    "A patriot is not a missile." Nihil Obstetrics Inc. ACA
   Rojario climbs to his knees,
   divine afflatus of EN 1783,
   inwardly he kens himself the deputy April soot shower

Reading like a malfunctioning computer readout, such lines (from Hot White Andy) take to new lengths the Poundian tactic of extrinsic incorporation. But such ungainly verbal mannerisms are issued with the most painstaking attention to their sonic and rhythmic properties, nor has aesthetic pleasure been altogether obliterated from this verse's critical force fields.

The revisions Sutherland has made to Stress Position and The Stats on Infinity for their inclusion in the Poetical Works are telling in this respect. One senses that each of these revisions has been determined by a scrupulous regard for aesthetic efficiency: eliminating redundancy, trimming proper nouns back to pronouns, improving the play of wit, and increasing the rhythmic intensity of the prosody. There is a powerful moment when, in the midst of articulating its specific vision of hell, Stress Position modulates into an unexpected love lyric. Here it's revealing to watch closely the changes. A stanza in the original ends:
               was you until your head turned and your breathlessness
lit me

But in the present collection, the line reads:
               was you until your head turned and are you in breathless

The unsatisfactory, halting music of the original is rendered into an epideictic hypallage; a poor cadence is remade into a vibrant sonic image of the thing being described--a mode of the beautiful itself, whose precious rarity in this long satanic ode requires careful cultivation.

Sutherland's cogent romantic strain is something he may have become less willing to permit himself, yet its intermittent upsurge, so much molten lava from the core of a mutilated subject, remains a powerful base element of his eclectic poetics, as in "Zeroes Galore":
    what could this consciousness rise up
   to annihilate in fatal and glorious sunlight,
   by love bound together, the expugnation of all fire.

Almost Blakean, this incandescent nihilism from love once found its outraged political expression in the closing pages of "Ejector Vacua Axle," where the poet issued his first fully paraphraseable slab of polemical vers libre against the architects (and liberal apologists) of the War on Terror. But that more or less implicit defence of anti-imperialist violence from 2001 has been surgically removed from the version of the poem offered in the Poetical Works, for reasons that have everything to do with the evolution, not only of Sutherland's political ethics since that time, but of his poetics as well.

For Hot White Andy marks an epoch. That rather miraculous poem, now inextricable from its catalysing public readings, is (for want of a better analogy) Sutherland's "The Waste Land," marking a genuinely dialectical transformation of his increasingly satirical lyric art into something more capacious and arresting. Hot White Andy's many innovations--the deftly truncated lexemes, the computational glyphs, the name-dropping avuncularity of tone, and so on--merge in a self-pleasuring display of giddy release. The poem is itself formally heteroclite and polyphonic, moving through stage dialogue and short story modes, and lurching crazily from vicious satire to tender lyric in an arrhythmic heartbeat. All of which foments a new dispensation for the voice itself: as if the multiplication of modes and the unmooring of vocal discretion have allowed for an exponential expansion of horizons. The world feels larger after Hot White Andy, both in the extrinsic sense of the planetary political economy assailed by the poem, and in the immanent sense of an extensification of poetic worldliness itself.

There is a minor movement in the later parts of the book toward a kind of meta-poetry, where individual poems begin to comment on their own forms and rhetorical operations. "The Food at Alcove One" incorporates three moments of a "duck section" that "comes later," then appears in the epode--"strapped to the waist of a splitting duck / whose lids bat atavistically"--then is subject to a set of ironic instructions on how one might parse it in a "meaning you / can own." This kind of thing happens again in the opening of Hot White Andy and elsewhere, an emphasis on the sheer liberty of the poem's ability to take x for y, which (under the mounting pressures of irony) turns darkly into its opposite: the more these poems authorize us to perform semantic reductions or metaphoric flights, the less they seem willing to do anything but say exactly what they are. The growing tendency toward literalism and public address in the later work is a political countermeasure against the Munchausen bootstraps by which poetry is generally allowed to lift itself into significance out of the mire of its own complicity: what Sutherland calls the "ethic fallacy."

But the most important formal development visible on the later pages of this volume concerns the relative, and perhaps permanent, eclipse of lineation in the poems. Beginning in Stress Position, continuing in "The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts" and across the vast bulk of The Odes to TL61P, and culminating in the whole of the previously unpublished final work, Jenkins, Moore and Bird, Sutherland has progressively extinguished the line break from his work. This is not to say that he has abandoned prosody as such, as there are extremely complex rhythmic and sonic textures fretted into the resulting prose-like monoliths of text, sometimes even rhyming tetrameters--but without lineation, it is as if a certain visual logic (of constipated blockage) has been suffered to usurp the exquisite sound patterns. So too the playful wit and ambiguity that gravitates to line endings, and the sensibility that goes with that, has been sacrificed to a much more explicit formal insistence on the literal sense of poetic language as a stream of lexical units. In a series of arresting theoretical speculations about this turn in his own (and many other British poets') work, Sutherland has suggested that the specifically tubular form of what he calls "block poetry"--its crammed compression into double-justified slabs of unbroken turgid flow--entertains strong homologies with a number of interrelated phenomena: the experience of being "kettled" by police during post-GFC protest marches; the latent opportunities for a more collective mode of subjective expression; and the omnipresent pressure of capitalism's value form on the human body's native elasticity. The consequent movement away from form as such arises from the relentless pressure placed upon the brittle foundations of "the tradition" by the value-relation and its tendency to reduce all salience to a slurry of equivalence.

Yet the final irony is that, over the length of this volume, one inescapable conclusion emerges: that Sutherland is the greatest living exponent of one form among the many that he has employed, and the greatest since W. H. Auden--namely, the ode. The ode, a mode of lyric to which he has returned with a symptomatic regularity that culminates in his stunning chef d'oeuvre, The Odes to TL61P, suits Sutherland's talents better than any other form. It is the mode in which he has actuated the remarkable (and as yet unheralded) shift from coterie poet to public poet, honing a voice through which increasingly to inveigh, accuse, and anathematize the enemy, but also to celebrate, inspire, and commemorate the resistance. The ode is the most august of all forms of occasional verse; but what we mark most here is the shifting historical logic that has taken hold of the "occasion" itself, from a punctual event massively resisted (the Iraq War) to a disseminated one (the daily extraction of surplus value in a context of crisis and the declining rate of profit), and the consequent shift away from a robust subjective resilience in the face of imperial aggression, to a knowing acknowledgement of the "bloodless anathema" that poetry must resemble under a recalibrated capitalism. What is to be done with the rise of any number of intervening mediations--institutional, structural, logical, and ideological--between the existential and the economic, in which welter the shape of the event, the occasion of exploitation, gets lost? The ode is the lyric mode in which these wracking contradictions between private agony and public disorder can best be squared. Sutherland, whose investment in the form crystallizes around Wordsworth's great Intimations Ode, is either going to have to adapt his block poetry to the imperatives of that mode, or use it to blast a way out of his kettled verbal masses. Or, like John Milton and Wordsworth before him, gravitate toward epic. The dramatic fifteen-year evolution on display in this volume is enough to persuade us that he will succeed either way.
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Author:Murphet, Julian
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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