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Off the grid: lyric and politics in Andrea Brady's Embrace.

The most intellectually ambitious collective poetic endeavor in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century has mutated a remarkable and quite new strain of politically engaged writing. This might surprise British readers inclined to believe the routine dismissal by conservative critics of "Cambridge poetry" as a donnish pastime, or to those who have followed the careers of individual writers. For American readers the entire history of this writing remains occluded, despite the efforts of the critics Keith Tuma and Romana Huk. Therefore the first half of this essay is devoted to a back story, highly selective inasmuch as it discusses styles of political engagement within the history of one poetic group. Since literary influence resembles an urban freeway system more than a royal succession, such an account is liable to be irksome to all concerned, especially the writers to whom the second part of the essay is dedicated. The modest aim is to situate the strategies of these younger writers (and especially Andrea Brady) in their reinvention of the political lyric. A particular question is how they reconcile the lyric turn towards multiple ambiguity and a horizon of indescribable plenitude with the felt necessity to light a path toward an identifiable and attainable political objective (whatever the delay, whatever the conditionals).


Cambridge poetry begins with The English Intelligencer, a near-legendary worksheet edited by Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley between 1966 and 1968. Along with the Intelligencer's urgent format, the historical resonance of those dates flags an interventionist leftist politics; but there are further points to be made about this matrix. The first is that the small group of about thirty participants was as much a Newcastle group as a Cambridge one, and included the aggressively working-class poets Barry MacSweeney and Tom Pickard. Nor should it go unnoticed that William S. Burroughs (then living in London) and J.G. Ballard were of the number, anticipating the later Cambridge association of the novelists Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair. As geography and career paths separated the Newcastle and Cambridge groups, the so-called Cambridge School itself resolved into two wings, the Northern branch around Grosseteste Review and the Southern around Ferry Press. At that time, the Grosseteste homes of Leeds and Derbyshire yielded nothing to Newcastle in grittiness.

In its origins, the Intelligencer was a Black Mountain/Buffalo outgrowth, a product of the Olsonian force-field. It reproduced the odd combination in Olson's thought of high modernism, deep history, and phenomenology, which in J.H. Prynne's Kitchen Poems and The White Stones achieved its too-magisterial synthesis, even as The Maximus Poems were collapsing into archival fragments and phallic flourishes. The Northern wing stayed largely faithful to the Intelligencer's founding moment, its Poundian right finding a religious haven (John Riley in Russian Orthodoxy), while Peter Riley, a Northern poet although resident in Cambridge, elaborated out of sixties phenomenology an ethics and a poetics of responsiveness testable against geological time, cultural displacement, and musical improvisation. According with general British cultural geography, the Southern poets, including Prynne, showed a greater urbanity, becoming aligned with a Gramscian New Left more exercised by cultural and sexual politics than with the entrenched oppositions of labor and business or of industry and pastoral. Some even were so unorthodox as to be women.

The period from 1969 to 1971 saw Prynne's break with Olson poetically and politically. Brass (1971) is the book with which a new British poetics influenced by European dialectical lyric (especially Trakl, Celan, and Ungaretti) is inaugurated, and is a work of such power that all ambitious British poets continue to work in its shadow, knowingly or not. Its materialist poetics are the basis of a continuing distinction between British and American understandings of what a materialist poetics might entail. The materialism of Brass works at several levels. The first is epistemological. Prynne's writing drew on multiple ways of knowing, a characteristic fated to be misread as postmodern discursive relativism. In reality it was a truth-seeking by way of poetry, reconnected with the ambitions of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The second is political, refusing easy sentiment, disdaining spirituality, rooted in economics and biology, and intensely interested in the everyday signs of capitalist depredation. Brass's poems focus insistently on money and sex, and on neither score are they remotely idealist. Every step will cost, every step will hurt. The third dimension is linguistic, but quite unlike the hedonistic liberationism of some American open-field poetics. Language's materialism is asserted at every turn through its historical and social thickness; efforts to warp the expression of humanity must reckon with the deep resources as well as the resistances of this stuff.

What needs asserting here is that in Britain, "theory" in its full institutional guise arrived after the inauguration of the materialist poetics represented by Brass. This primacy of poetics is marked not only in Cambridge writing, but startlingly in the work of Tom Raworth, a poet with a genius for being ahead of the game, and in the sadly neglected formalist inventions of Andrew Crozier (for instance, Pleats (1975) and Duets (1976)). Even when theory arrived with the successor Cambridge generation of Denise Riley, Ian Patterson, Martin Thom, and Nick Totton, the poetical working-through of sexual politics by these writers was associated with activism rather than academicism. Far from donnish, this was a generation of dissident and anti-institutional intellectuals surviving on the economic margins until very recently. Although Denise Riley's work came to exemplify a convergence of poetics and theory, it was not until Drew Milne and D.S. Marriott, poetically active since the end of the 1980s, that an accord more characteristic of the American institutional avant-garde was attained--and the disdain of the Intelligencer generation for manifestos, explication, even for reviewing each other's works, came to be challenged.

Brass opened the way to a remarkably various political poetry. Its vehement disgust at a conservative government's attacks on the British postwar democratic settlement set a rhetorical standard Prynne was exercised to exceed once the main course of Thatcherism and monetarist economics followed the sallies of the early 1970s. In the book's wake can be found not only Prynne's continuing critique of the capitalist simulacrum of the natural world and its revenge on the social world; but also John James's late-1970s neo-creole arraignments of imperialism, tongue-lashing the lords of language; Denise Riley's exacting lyric unpicking and retracing of her relationship with "the category of woman"; and more recently Drew Milne's diamond-edged bits and burrs driven through ideological formations.

The poetry featured in this issue of Chicago Review might seem the due result of the collision of this literary inheritance with the political circumstances of the present day; but in fact it represents a break and a reconnection, a dialectical remobilization.

These forebears offer no direct prescription for the twenty-first century poet, because in different ways each of them encountered dire problems reconciling the demands, seductions, and waywardnesses of lyric poetry with the urgent need to bear witness against and actively challenge oppression. Denise Riley's writing career could form the basis of a study of love and impatience with lyric poetry, which at the time of writing she seems to have forsaken for a meditative prose that writes its way into, through, and past social-linguistic intensities that call for a poetic response she declines or feels unable to give. It is as though poetry teases her mercilessly for the intricate reflexiveness of her dealings. John James appears to have separated his political activism from any continuing poetic impulses, little more than fizzles, and his greatest poetry remains the product of a fleeting time when the Communist Party in the UK discovered a progressive force in youth culture and decided style was important. J.H. Prynne sometimes looks to have written himself into a corner where every burst of memory, feeling, and will is recognized as coded by Big Biotech. For Prynne only that recognition itself and its attendant pain might loosen the grip of malign economic interests, were not any temptation to individual or group exceptionalism vitiated by shame:
 All are disfigured. I saw a hole in my chest, feel
 ashamed to plead for your own life it is utter crass
 from a hole in the face word vomit lost for them, hurt
 stain so much disowned. You hear what you say over
 to get off and by right in a mutilation outburst, for
 any life at all stand-in to be shameful in a news
 flash grease trap.
 (To Pollen)

Drew Milne's various modes, including poems that holiday in lyric sportiveness, densely imbricated poems with a fierce syllable-by-syllable focus, and poems sniffing the air of the open field, suggest a similar struggle with the disposition to lyric and the penalty that might be incurred for succumbing to it. In a 2006 radio interview with Charles Bernstein, Milne discounted the possibility of politically effective lyric poetry. He argued that lyric could only influence conditions within which critique might take place and deplored poetry committed to political intervention as "illusory escapism" that substituted for "messy pragmatic struggle." This position is not so far from W.H. Auden's when he contemplated the poetic attitudinizing of his youth.

Meanwhile the most prevalent poetic practice on both sides of the Atlantic remains impotently self-expressive. Contemporary accounts of lyric as genre tend to transmute the sublime into the useless (not so difficult an alchemy)--a process nicely matched to English Departments' self-image as holdouts against the utilitarianism of modern universities.

So can political poetry have any function beyond "illusory escapism," a self-exculpation on the part of the poet, or an application for club membership? How potent can poetry's categorical uselessness be against the insatiable convertors of life into measurable value? The question answers itself, and so by imperceptible degrees uselessness elides with spirit, for only uselessness is in hailing distance of The Other, that all-purpose, shape-changing, post-everything justification for poetry, sado-masochistic sex, high-minded tourism, back-door Catholicism--mon semblable, mon frere.

Such questions mightily troubled Douglas Oliver (1937-2000), an English Intelligencer contributor of a restless disposition in art as in life. Oliver was a moralist in the broadest sense, and more concerned with the instrumentality of his work than any British contemporary. His commitment to lyric was conscientiously provisional, although it is clear that he regarded lyric poetry as possessing unique cognitive attributes, more readily accessible through inherited forms than through high modernism's organized echoes. Three longer works, The Infant and the Pearl (1985), Penniless Politics (1991), and A Salvo for Africa (2000), bear witness to the intensity and integrity of his struggle, each veering between exposition and fantasy, gorgeously-cadenced poetic exploration and clunky versification, assured comedy and unconscious foolishness. Oliver's inconsistency was Blakean in its impatience and unselfconsciousness, and akin to Blake in its passionate morality. Most extraordinary was Oliver's willingness to specify, in half-humorous but prescriptive terms, the constitution of a New Jerusalem, while the European high lyric convention (as in Prynne's poetry after the European turn of Brass) has been to evoke only a trembling horizon of possibility.

Denise Riley's writing is much more reflexive than Oliver's, but she also has declined to serve at the altar of lyric poetry as such. Riley is disposed to question the claims to lyric's surpassing value implied by its exclusive pursuit. The same goes for D.S. Marriott, whose critical and poetical strands of work likewise belong to a single political project centered on black masculinity. It may be symptomatic that these three poets, whose writing has been most deeply engaged politically, show a lesser degree of fidelity to lyric poetry than the others discussed.

Evidently these poets are skeptical of the use of art's vaunted uselessness. As lyric has become specialized and distinguished from other linguistic usages, its saving grace has been perceived from every angle as connected with its resistance to profit, instrumentality, and material progress--a perception that echoes all the way from conservative humanism to socialist melioralism, from religious authority to new theology, from formalist traditionalism to post-theory, Language-influenced poetics. Analogies could be drawn in the visual arts, where the later-embarrassing sublimity of a Rothko or Barnett Newman was succeeded by the elegant wresting of objects from their use-world, and in high-art music which is especially anxious to achieve distance from any vulgar physical stimulation. Uselessness is art's use.

The more art's uselessness has figured as an exalted reduction, the more lyric poetry has been drawn toward prosodic movement as primary, with analysis and argument conducted under the aegis of this last-ditch spirit--spirit now lodged in the ruts of lineation and the angles of enjambment. For uselessness is merely a status, while spirit is its working afflatus. About the spiritual mist, the dawn horizon trembles and shines, or as Allen Grossman has put it: "In the outlook of the lyric person the horizon has ceased to be a precinct and has become a vortex." Uselessness gives rise to spirit and spirit to the tentative sublime. In the United States this recension can be frankly religious, in the work of serious poets as different as Fanny Howe and John Peck; or the sublime can be reinstated in the material by way of the body and its voice. Did someone say textuality? The MP3 file is the new poetic eucharist.

How radically do such poetic practices differ from a more debased lyric currency, which not without poignancy offers a set of signposts to the poet's untestable and external authenticity? These seemingly opposed practices may be less different than first appears, for the unknowable is their common resort. Gesturing towards the nub of selfhood may look preposterous as long as the reader resists the solicited identification. But however disingenuous its installation of self may be, this ultimate resort of self-expressive writing, like those poetic modes that would oppose it, yearns for transcendence in the communal. How much more admirable, how different the solicitations of the polysemous blaze as it primps for numinous effect? But then, what of the danger of paralysis when confronted by real offense, or when writing under the hypercritical sway of critical theory? Go for God, or shout the house down and kick the rubble gleefully? Or concede ruefully with Drew Milne that poetry's exactions reserve it as a separate pursuit?

For the British left, Blair's alliance with Bush and the neocons under the Thatcherite banner of No Alternative announced that freedom would be limited strictly to the choice on the shelf, and that, as all other commons had been auctioned, the sense of belonging to a free people, the air of freedom had been sold. This is physically obvious to a population under closer electronic surveillance than any other in the world.

A cellular politics of cultural resistance has reemerged through the anti-war movement and in response to restrictions on mass assembly, circumstances that make ideological purity look narcissistic. Younger poets are ignoring fault-lines opened up by previous disputes, including those separating Cambridge poetry from Language poetry; the struggle against us hegemony has accelerated detente with the us cultural opposition. The process began with Drew Milne and Simon Jarvis's journal Parataxis in the early 1990s, but the exchange became more intense with Keston Sutherland's journal QUID and Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland's press Barque. Meanwhile as teachers in Cambridge, Milne and Jarvis were deeply influential, initiating a move from scholastic theory into a reenergized engagement with critique in the tradition of Hegel, Marx, and Adorno, a shift paralleled among post-Language poets of their generation in the us. Yet for all the strenuous critical and political prose accommodated by QUID and its entire lack of embarrassment with manifestos, a fierce attachment to lyric poetry persists as a declaratively political practice, as the only mode of writing able to ward off its own corruption.

This preamble introduces Andrea Brady, a British-based poet whose recent book Embrace prompts such thoughts, as well as Keston Sutherland's recent Neocosis. Intellectually, technically, and emotionally, both books make most contemporary poetry in English look trivial. Their different strategies in advancing political lyric configure the terms of this introduction: they make art that exalts uselessness look exhausted, and its fortuitous mimesis--blank plenitude--seem repellent. Lyric expansiveness, which is the exquisite afflatus of uselessness, slides too easily into more or less disguised forms of transcendence. The bind of what Lefebvre calls hypercriticism--the rigor of thought that paralyses effective action--overshadows the possibility of resolving this predicament, and maybe responsible for Sutherland's extreme linguistic violence as well as others' resort to religion. Andrea Brady's Embrace is fully cognizant of this situation, and writes in the teeth of it.


At the start Embrace retails a shocking outlook, maybe even a theory. The articulations of Lynndie England, fall-guy for the Bush administration's policy of torture in Iraq, are here staged as commensurate with the poet's own bodily and intellectual syntax, from its duties in the academic workplace to shopping in North London to orgasm. Andrea Brady has become English. In Embrace's last poem, "Saw Fit," England's body undergoes syntactical stuttering and breaks continuously repiecing her status as abused and abuser--in the familial, social, and political sense. Lynndie England's articulations show how both an American girl and the country of England have been shafted, and how both are complicit in rape.

Brady affords little wriggle-room for self-determination, willful deviance, chance, or mishap. The most insistently recurrent images of this book, beginning with the first stanza of the first poem ("every paper fed / head-side up down into slits") are of papers and objects being fitted into slots and other preformed receptors--second poem, neck-brace, third poem, stirrup, fourth poem, dish racks, and so forth. Most strikingly in "Hymn on the Nativity," "a sliding hatch clicked eight times," and in "Ammonia Crisps the Air," "my heart / slipped like a marble into the slot / toddles there even now in a cup of magnets." Elsewhere "the trap clicks through each of its twelve stations" and elsewhere again lies "each 'safe for human' interstice." This is more than a compulsive trope in a poetic rhetoric; it is compulsion felt at a very deep level. Far from being the last redoubt of integrity, the body--and centrally its sexuality, its slits and slots and dark declivities--has become the most sensitive register of abuse; the white doll, the "girl lip," evoke Hans Bellmer's puppets and the staged prostitutes of American Psycho.

Where is the poetic power to transfigure or at least to mitigate such cruelty? Here and in this book, a great poetic power undoubtedly exists. But transcendence, to call it by its usual name, is by no means the object to which Brady's unforgiving Embrace is turned. Brady's management of verse is expert, and her expertise is marshalled to defeat false hopes and sentimentality through procedures so well-honed that any tentative dawn shrinks back beneath the covers, blushing at its own political naivety. Her poems comprise stanzas made most often from extended expository sentences--this is how things are, and this is how and why things happen--held to their authoritative course by a tirelessly precise, even-toned, and intelligent lineation. For each poem the achieved assembly presents itself as the only possible arrangement. Enjambment can sound unremittingly clever:
 She was docked a time
 out by her father, she's been taking
 snaps by rule to develop in a red light
 tears to the eye Adders set on us
 in the cot, stags blocking the
 stairwell, what chance do we have
 a go at the fair bruiser on his stiff coil,
 asking for more with that apple-red cheek.
 ("How Much to Have a Go")

Brady's wit is of an unusual and maybe original kind. Since one annoying trick in contemporary poetry is the persistent ironical recon-textualizing of vernacular phrases (everyone does it--new formalist, wild analyst, whatever) it might appear as though this is what Brady is up to. But there is zero self-regard in Brady's poetry, an astonishing quality for lyric. It is as though the machinery of phrasal conversion flattens all irony, and phraseology is paid out by strips into a system of heartless consumption, construction, and exchange. The impression is reinforced by a robotically exact and polished metrics:
 It was easier for the mouth than laughing better
 exercise for the temporarium,
 though planks got stuck and exhaled drafts
 and soaped now, with the unbuttoning of your skin.
 ("Building Site")

The suppression of the comma in the first line extrudes a plank of language, each plank fed through the saw-mill at constant rate--and rare indeed that any knot or syllable should get stuck. What this amounts to is a lyric brilliance that quashes the lyric horizon that Brady's resourcefulness would promise to evoke. The reconstituted bodies of these poems always betray the perverse interests that have denied--have even smashed--the corporeal integrity from whose splintered limbs their MDF has been compressed. Not merely are these interests revealed, but their contrivances are flaunted in sets of machined traps and arrays of blades. Hence Embrace presents poetry that announces the end of the possibility of lyric poetry: for lyric stands displayed as a particular late-consumerist articulate mode expressed through meat and mind, of a cognitive order determining a range of socially-prescribed behavior--at best another mode to set alongside work, lust, and leisure.

How then does a blatant love poem like "To Be Continued" accord with this account? Surely behind these lines the generosity of John Donne is audible:
 Having weighed the alternatives, what does it
 matter spilling out of an overfed barrow
 if this explicit and unmistaking you
 for anyone else is less than perfect, cannot be
 there at the receiving end, this calibrated instrument
 still shuddering with the alert notice; not too heavy,
 not too individuated, your face the sun up
 ends the world with racing stripes
 run north to south like a tie to countries
 and to all imperfect people we might still be.

The poem ends with a wonderfully suspended and ambiguous figure, "so gorgeous / a hush falls down / the fault of language" that connects "the calibrated instrument" related in a previous line to language and to the now-conventional figuring of language in terms of grids and matrices. Language consists of a system of faults, powerfully apparent in the faults of enjambment, and at the poem's end, here in the cadence of ellipsis. The "fault of language" becomes the blessing of language, felt at its fullest when it fails, both yielding and yielding to the plenitude of love and of the poem. This extraordinary meshing, whereby the artifice of presence is allowed to dilate, even if its expression implies a bracketed theoretical distance, is related too to Donne's "Break of Day" aubade and its lewdness, its description of love-making upon waking. Brady is never shy of the quasi-pornographic, the edge where the loving and the explicit touch; faultiness and fullness meet in the structure of erotics. But whatever the final hushing's involutions, the tone is strikingly and, so far as this book is concerned, unprecedentedly affirmative.

But not so fast. The ominously-titled poem placed after "To Be Continued" is "Caught," and "Caught" closes with the line "love all over the grid," and even worse, a few lines beforehand the splendor visible from a squalid Greyhound station has been revealed as another illusion whose dazzle half-blinds our poet, leaving her winded when she careens into the penned crowd awaiting their bus:
 Behind a new panel slid in from the channel
 opens a window: the keyhole cut reveals not
 aligned nerve I see nothing
 but a blaze of pure gold At this rare
 appearance the turnstile
 puckers in its chest: that we are caught behind
 and blinking, when our lives together could swarm
 love all over the grid.

Perhaps the glimmers of love once acknowledged can never quite be extinguished, and the desired transmutation of the grid into a full comb of honey lingers like an ache, even if by this point in the book the word "could" demands the rejoinder: "under what circumstances, given the grid's comprehension and anticipation of every move, thought, and feeling?" Certainly the following pages, a framed prose text beginning and ending with "Montani Semper Liberi," the state motto of West Virginia, present only a negative answer to that question. The text, which draws on guides to the state where Lynndie England was raised, reads like a sour mash of precious Niedecker moments, folk history, tourist-board boosterism, brutal mining interests, genocide, racism, and patriarchal secret societies.

"Montani Semper Liberi" constitutes a bridge whose two-way traffic between "Caught" and "Saw Fit" troubles both poems. Can "our lives together" in "Caught," the preceding poem, then be read as signifying anything beyond the redoubt of coupledom, even if these lines in their amplitude of cadence had for a moment embraced a possible throng? Is any "us" possible? And if it is not, if the first person plural were always as fundamentally illegitimate as "Montani Semper Liberi" would imply, then could the deictics that seduce the reader into Brady's traps function any more collectively than to tap out an assurance that there is life in the next prison cell? But Brady will not allow the reader what has become a conventional exit route; for "we" is too often permissible when it is raised as "them"--they who know no better on account of the collectivity which claims them. So far as "we" are concerned, there is the freedom to contest deictic claims, but the likes of Lynndie England are relegated to nothing more than a likeness. On all sides the first person plural pronoun has an agenda.

Through such critical precision and from its title to its final page, Embrace bracingly defies the central claims of the academically influential poetics developed by Allen Grossman and Susan Stewart, and it does so with unequalled rigor, resistant to the vortex chuntering at the horizon of the most materially scrupulous lyric--even Prynne's and Sutherland's. In summary Stewart claims:
 Grossman has written that "poetry means, to put it crudely, the
 context-independence of the person, whose right of presence is not a
 contingency of history alone, and is in many respects inimical to life
 itself." Poetry is inimical to life in this sense because it frees us
 from life's transient dependence on context-bound meaning and because
 it takes a stance against death--against death's contingent, and
 monumental, claim to the significance of our individuality.

Leaving aside the fact that Stewart's own readings often substitute for vulgar contingency the most fantastic transcultural and transhistorical contextuality, and succumbing for only a moment to the temptation to mock the phrase "to put it crudely," this reformulation of the lyric poem's access to eternity remains applicable to the explicit or admitted aspirations of most British and American poetry that might be termed lyric. Stewart is over-literal in her interpretation of Grossman; his rabbinical discourse allows that in a characteristic aphorism such as "poems are a version of the destiny of the individual in God," God can legitimately be substituted by "a continuing human community," a community enfolding those who neither read not write poetry, just as the Jewish community (or Catholic) enfolds the non-observant. But eternity as community becomes a compulsory violence in real history. To that extent Stewart must be right in reading every line of lyric as choral in the broadest sense, as accompanied by every "singer" who ever lived. Hitherto the only bulwarks against such nightmare plangency, a tabernacle choir that absorbs every poet from Homer to Bruce Andrews, have been ignorance--hence the advantage of youth in lyric practice--or a violent refusal to play, which has itself become another adhesive tradition, post-Dada.

Furthermore, even in its most affirmative mode, the turn to community performs the same magic that the turn from uselessness to spirit accomplishes; the most isolated and most isolating of linguistic practices is transfigured into the very guarantor of collective humanity and its historical destiny. The useless work, the useless person, are revealed as no less than the World Spirit.

Implacably Embrace announces the auto-cancelling lyric. By this strategy Brady's work diverges even from late Prynne, and here I dissent from an impassioned but wayward review of Embrace by Marianne Morris, another transatlantic poet working in the UK. Morris refers to "younger poets writing out of Cambridge who take the practically indecipherable late work of J.H. Prynne as their cue, creating a poetic effect that is almost sculptural, layering cut images and hints of phrases over one another to create anti-linear and viscous hints of experience" and suggests that Brady's poetry escapes this condition "through the medium of desire."

"Desire" is always a problematical term, but the type of the Cambridge poet here seems defined by the construction of poetic counterfactuals whose relationship to social contingency is hard to discern despite an advertised political radicalism. This invents a "Cambridge poem" to set alongside a "Language poem." Such work (if we grant it exists) might be consistent with Stewart's view that poetry "frees us from life's transient dependence on context-bound meaning," although Prynne's recently-published discourse in Guangzhou on the corruptions of contingent language suggests he would contest any idea that the way to truth lies through decontextualization, while recognizing with Brady the unprecedented insidiousness of the forces arrayed against poetic truth. Mendacity cannot be conjured away, any more than metaphysics can disguise the reality of life's transience.

The workings of desire in Brady's poetry are more severely constrained than Morris suggests, and it is instructive to compare where Embrace ends up with the final lines of Neocosis, a recent chapbook by Keston Sutherland with whom Brady is associated as co-publisher of Barque. First Brady:
 parts not taken to the cleaners with her lovers
 taken to Bragg for abuse
 of alcohol and sexual abandon her own
 performance for her boys with a multitude of different
 stressed out by a tiger team Madonna of the spectacle
 Shit-boy watches through a pair of her smalls
 the CO gives them England's Victoria's Secret
 catalogues to loosen them up skeletal ladies
 her lewd face in the Lynch mirror the rough side her mouth opens
 again England has no high intelligence value She cannot say
 "I am a survivor" oop oop she'll make her money back
 get more out of the birth above her, men, hooded
 leave no paper trail through the wreckage
 ("Saw Fit")

Next, Sutherland:
 Papa zero aleppe: none of this is always what
 you eat to survive, surviving to sing
 a new tune all about having none of it: something
 understood not fit to be wasted on understanding,
 not brittle in the crammed mouth sick of air
 but instead flatly indisintegrable, banished by love
 and its sweetest decree to the fringes of red anti-gut,
 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.
 ("The Flood at Alcove One")

Following on a cut-and-pasted catalogue of sparklers and their product codes and prices, the lyric rejoinder of Sutherland's final lines might be music to Susan Stewart's ears; they conjure up a responsive descant across the ages from George Herbert and Lord Byron, while in the contour of its swoop and reascent this finale also tickles the off-screen spot where the cadences of Prynne's poems arrived prior to the mid-1990s. Stewart's assignment of all lyric poetry to Operation Eternity is far indeed from the furiously-driven contingent detail of neoconservative conspiracy that packs Sutherland's astonishingly active verse paragraphs--research as a release of high-pressure information recaptured in insect swarms. It is far also from the material and intractably reticulated truths of Prynne's more recent verse.

But while Sutherland's deployment of neo-romantic cadences comes packaged with corrosive agents and bitterly parodic disavowals, the affective potency of the cod finale exemplifies just what anyone is up against when dealing with social-mnemonic concentrations of linguistic affectivity--be they Biblical and hymnal prosody or the long gasps of romantic aspiration. These lines, which so intricately cross-cut neoconservative idealism, Old Testament sacrifice, and eschatology with a descent into the gut of empire, figure a particular constraint on the reach of lyric poetry. The problem is that the lyric surge operates at a level that can overwhelm or obliterate any counterflows at the semantic level. These lines thus problematically conclude the poem and the book--the curtains falling into pregnant silence--with a triumphal cadence and with a suppression of punctuation permitting a reading whereby the world is flooded with "love alone" and all other properties derive from its indisintegrable unity. Love is the only vocabulary available once language falls away.

It is true that the previous poems in Neocosis have closed brutally with such decisively dismissive phrases as: "And in any case you should get out more" and: "Larkin in the air, the net curtains nailed down"--phrases whose arbitrariness feels imposed. But endings present difficulties for Sutherland. The reference to Larkin seems oddly parochial in the circumstances; this swipe from an anachronistic British literary politics could be thought to exemplify the risks involved in confusing stale prosody with social restrictiveness, as well in taking Larkin seriously. After all, Sutherland's blistering, hectic, prolific, scabrous, and stinging poems could hardly be held, as a per contra, to justify Fox News. The danger here lies in too little mediated a relationship between poetic discourse and social-economic structures of authority, which in turn suggests the poet's exceptionalism as well as his instrumentality.

By contrast Brady's book finishes with her crudest, bitterest, and most tabloid-contingent of lines; she ends by defiling the elegance of her own prosody, loosening its stays, while challenging the reader to detect the paper trail of patriarchal authority even in this alienated poetry. The extent of her risk is shown by Morris's response, where in a tone of more-sorrow-than-anger she deplores the poem's collusiveness with a viciously sexist pillorying of Lynndie England. The riposte to Morris's increasingly agitated criticism is precisely that the poem--and the poet--knows well that its loathing is shadowed by collusion, just as every act or thought of political resistance throughout this book has been anticipated or even scripted by the interests it opposes. Actually this discomfort has been widely shared on the left where the Lynndie England case is concerned--see for instance, in addition to material cited by Morris herself, Richard Goldstein's article in The Village Voice of 10 May 2004:
 offer an image of a woman grinning at the humiliation of men and you
 allay any homosexual anxiety while tapping into the permissible
 kitten-with-a-whip fantasy. You can blame her for being unnatural even
 as you project yourself into her gaze. By fostering this reverie, the
 press helps to transform a horrible story into a source of pleasure.
 That's where Lynndie England comes in. She's not just the face of
 Torturegate; she's the dominatrix of the American dream.

The point is that Brady's "whip kitten" (a term Brady handles with kid gloves given its position in italicized and indented material separated from the body of the poem) struts her stuff at the close of a book where the very idea of a subjectivity that might voluntarily resign from its shaping by capital, patriarchy, imperialism, and every force of darkness, has been rendered untenable. Who on earth is not collusive in their thoughts and deeds? That question is what Brady in her unbearable high truthfulness will not let go. She refuses to masquerade as a privileged exception, by any means whatever, whether theoretical, poetical, or physical.

Even Brady's most affirmative moments, as in the love poem "To Be Continued" with its hush and all of its generous faults, offer the narrowest margin of possibility of an outside and a beyond that she demands but cannot expect from sexual love ("north to south like a tie to countries / and to all imperfect people we might still be"). Meanwhile for Sutherland, the inside of the body is that penetralium where air and the living water are processed for circulation, the liver being transformative where the heart is only a pump. Despite the bravura of this twist on a powerful trope, and a play with the symbols of baroque Catholicism that transform the inside into a David Lynch-like theater, Sutherland's lines sound a last post's combination of triumph and loss to an otherwise frantically distressed and distressing group of poems, their echoes summoned and dying away. The control exercised by Sutherland in this parody of a Mahlerian moment is what ultimately installs the triumph of cadence above all reservations and attacks, because its bravura could only be achieved by a poet who commands his materials and is himself therefore released from constraint.

Such a move could not be ventured by Brady, whose yearning for the hush of plenitude, the vortex she resists but whose pull she feels powerfully, cannot leave behind the accompanying thought that she has been enlisted in the choir under compulsion. What her liver deals with minute by minute is suspiciously sweet or intoxicating, and the celebration of a sexuality freed from the exercise of power, however subtle or professedly playful, is delusory.

Nonetheless, such implacable recognitions cannot be enough to sustain an art--or a tolerable life for that matter. So the womb is a matrix, so love is a by-product of the national grid, so sex and critical theory are alike puppetry. Gasping for any respite, a first faint protest might be to point to the poems Andrea Brady has made in this impossible vise, this embrace. There are poems in this book of a peculiar beauty: "To Be Continued" has been discussed, and "Hymn on the Nativity" is appropriately miraculous in its reworking of something very like sexual disgust into a kinship extending beyond the human. Next, these beautiful poems could indeed be held to "take a stance against death" without yielding to sublimity or transcendence. Within a general bleakness what they offer is a hint of warmth, and how they produce this merits some consideration since Brady's predicament is shared, whether or not it is understood. The predicament is ours, emphasizing the pronoun in keeping with the acknowledgement of possessives in the two poems, most of all in the wonderful last stanza of "Hymn on the Nativity":
 Yours is like no life I have ever lived, and now
 steams through the dismantled grate a poultice of ginger.
 What do I really need, my old seasonal question,
 lives together flexing the temper even trees skirted.
 Tuck cold behind a sheaf of rubber, tuck your chest
 under feather, and myself sleeps in your mouth.
 All I have incurred so much more I have
 to say before they lower their heads, all yours.

This is terrific poetry. Its achievement entails the poet rendering unto you what is due unto you; this makes it possible for her to dismantle the grate elsewhere so rigidly deterministic. It is a simple move in some ways, where suspicion of ourselves and the feelings, needs, and memories which make up those selves, has come to separate us from others even as we track the internal depredations of intricately abstracted forces of otherness. To worry about the capacity to love (which entails inevitably an unattainably high standard and valuation for love) can too lightly suspend your integrity, which "is like no life I have ever lived." There is a truth here extending beyond sexual love. Prating of community on the part of those representing interests ready to destroy communities at a trice when outsourcing decimates "overheads" (the makers of things being "overheads"), or of those nostalgic for bowling clubs and single-sex colleges, has done much to discredit any talk of community. It has become easier to speak of global commons than what might be held in common locally. Still, this time feels like the beginning of a new dark ages, again under the auspices of a warped religiosity, and it may be strategic to forgo the higher ground in forming cells of resistance.

The logic of Brady's position is hard to gainsay, even if sometimes one might wish her to be less rigorous. Here is a writer with all the talents, one of the most impressive lyric poets writing now in English. If her poems can be dispiriting in their cumulative effect, this is because Brady is that rarest thing, a truthful poet. The traps of this Embrace do not feel personal, and the personal scarcely survives the book as a viable category. Still, Andrea Brady is an American who has lived and worked in the UK since the mid-1990s. She lived through the delusory rejoicing at the liberation heralded by the end of Tory rule, when people reassured each other that Blair and his cabal did not mean what they said, that it was a stratagem to reassure a fearful electorate, to reassure the powerful press, to reassure the IMF, to reassure American allies, to reassure the banks. These interests were reassured and were not stupid. Further down the road American liberals were to suffer a similar education, more directly brutal. Political commentary might suggest that the tide of reaction has reached its furthest exhausted limit, but the intellectual and motivational helplessness of oppositions tells a different story. The percolation of salt and sterile water into every cranny of civic life continues insidiously, killing hopes, toxic with unfettered exploitation and the assertions of social responsibility, with an increasingly unapologetic authoritarianism and aggressive professions of religious charity.

News relies upon a rhythm of tidal advance and retreat, and two-party political systems are perfectly adapted to this pattern--a pattern so deeply embedded in the social psyche that the truth that since the end of the 1970s the tide has run all in one direction has been slow in recognition. Both fact and denial have been devastating in personal and political life. Hope has become intolerable, a self-generated electro-convulsive therapy that with each spasm damages memory and reduces the initiative toward change. At work, only a gag prevents the tongue from being bitten off. For those living in the ever-enlarging shoestring economies of major post-industrial powers, self-arraignment, self-damage, and self-medication with various opiates including millenarian beliefs have become prevalent. It is right to be deeply thankful for Embrace, for it is absolutely clear-eyed, a precise register of the present situation. Other poets may prattle of the spirit, rage obscenely, tend their gardens or seek tenure, but Brady's poems are true.

The chinks of light discernible in "To be Continued" and "Hymn on the Nativity" are therefore precious. Here, however swiftly foreclosed by a rigorous judgment, beauty, desire, and truthfulness are married, and this gives reason to believe that Andrea Brady will fight free of her grids and grates, as a poetic ancestor who silently has haunted this response to Embrace found herself unable. Her name is Laura (Riding) Jackson, or at least that was one way she identified herself, and to read her poems of the late 1930s is to encounter a self-critical spirit every bit as unvenal as Brady's. Immediately the reader must be struck by the physical resemblance of her poems to Brady's; there is the same shaping of the stanza around expository paragraphs. Yet more remarkable are the sounds of blades engaging and traps locking. Here are final three lines of two successive poems in the 1980 edition of The Poems of Laura Riding:
 The lone defiance blossoms failure,
 But risk of all by all beguiles
 Fate's wreckage into similar smiles.
 ("Doom in Bloom")

 And fingers stem closely from brain,
 Tight on the plenitudes of pain
 That from the reach of heart remain.
 ("Seizure of the World")

There is a bitter tone here unusual in Brady except in "Saw Fit." (Riding) Jackson's idea of Truth in poetry is very different--"the journey to the meeting-point where beings have a debt to pay to Being in true words spoken of themselves to one another." Rhetorically however they arrive at a similar place, since both energetically contest or even cancel the seductions exercised by the propensities of their own verse. Although (Riding) Jackson disavows an anti-capitalist intent, her description of "our treacherous time" in the Notes to her extended essay, The Telling, echoes uncannily the predicament best confronted in our own treacherous time by Andrea Brady, a truthful poet:
 The time is an end-of-world time, an end of time. We are moving in it,
 it is not moving. Or, if there is movement, it is a racing in the
 track of former movement; its forwardness is an infinity of
 repetition; our progress is an ingrowing into ourselves; our "new" is
 engulfed in history as we launch it--no future issues from our time to
 invite, and receive, the new; our future is a distillation of old
 futures, and the new we present to it is an improvisation on all the
 once-new that drifts still life-like in history.

Laura (Riding) Jackson demanded a separation from the world of history and entry into a world of truth; poetry would be too hopelessly compromised and contaminated for such a venture. But it is poetry's contamination--the touch at the Latin root of contamination--that helps me to recognize you and to cease "ingrowing into ourselves" through an urgently needed distortion into the quickening of hope.

Contamination returns this thinking to an earlier moment. What can be inferred for Andrea Brady's work and for politically engaged poetry more generally from the introductory discussion of her immediate poetic forebears? Assuming, that is, she will not in her truthfulness suffer (Riding) Jackson's fate of loquaciously-attested silence nor succumb to the metaphysical vortex. There appear to be two possibilities, both acknowledging the dilemma faced by (Riding) Jackson and now by Andrea Brady. One is the division recommended and performed by Drew Milne, whereby the infinitely productive sport of lyric poetry is given its head in a demarcated domain while political activity occurs elsewhere. The other is signaled by the examples of Douglas Oliver, Denise Riley, and D.S. Marriott, whereby lyric poetry is effectively dethroned and brought into association with a more contingent discursive and experienced world. Keston Sutherland's writing oscillates between these alternatives, driven by an enthusiastic temperament as honorable as Shelley's. Brady has internalized the condition of hypercriticism to a greater extent, but I cannot imagine she will retreat from what her poetry touches. The brilliance of her published criticism permits the expectation that her various work will ever more forcibly oppose its deep contaminations, its lyric touch, to any metaphysics however tempting or compelling.
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Author:Wilkinson, John
Publication:Chicago Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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