Turning a Page: The State of Poetry Criticism 2011-18

[NB: This report was first published in the Brixton Review of Books (No. 6, Summer 2019). It is reprinted with kind permission of the BRB editors Michael Caines, Tess Davidson, and Alice Wadsworth. I’m a big fan of the magazine, it publishes excellent people, and you can subscribe on the BRB website.]

In the six years between 2011 and 2016, British and Irish poetry magazines and newspapers published critical work by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) critics 130 times. That was just 3.7 per cent of the total number of such critical pieces for those years. In the two years since the launch of the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics scheme in 2017, BAME critics have appeared in the same publications 115 times, 8.3 per cent of the total. The Ledbury scheme has desmonstrably spearheaded this rapid, vital change; but these successes must be taken in context as part of a fight for an inclusive poetry culture dating back many years.

In 2005, Bernardine Evaristo prompted Arts Council England to investigate the lack of BAME poets publishing in these islands. With the additional support of other British arts councils and the London writer development agency Spread the Word, the subsequently published report, Free Verse, discovered that under than 1 per cent of books published by major presses were by BAME poets. The Complete Works programme mentored its first ten BAME poets in 2010, and eight years later, that figure stands above 16 per cent; even Faber has begun to redress its institutional whiteness, publishing Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons in 2017, Zaffar Kunial’s Us in 2018, and Mary Jean Chan’s Flèche this year. As Evaristo argues, however, poetry in this country in the 1980s and 90s was far more receptive to BAME poets, as the prominence of John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, Benjamin Zephaniah, E. A. Markham and Linton Kwesi Johnson demonstrated.[1] What Evaristo identified was not just a contemporary failure but a significant recession.

Besides the poets, what about the people who write about poetry? In my initial study, “The State of Poetry Criticism”[2], I found that between April 2015 and May 2017, only 4.4 per cent of reviews across seven major poetry platforms were written by BAME critics. Yet there are some signs of change. In 2015, for example, only ten articles by BAME critics were published, 1.3 per cent of the year’s total; the corresponding figure for 2018 was sixty-two, 8.5 per cent of the year’s total.

There have also been negative responses to what, in historical terms, might feel like a sudden change. In the past year, Michael Schmidt, publisher of Carcanet Poetry, editor of PN Review and mentor in The Complete Works, has written a series of editorials in PN Review in which he decries “identity politics”, describes a recent willingness to hold prominent white male artists responsible for their actions as “censorship”[3], and relates his own feeling of being “silenced” and “anathematised” for being “a white male in the vale of years with what used to be regarded as a good education”.[4] Like Peter Riley before him[5], Schmidt argues that a prescriptiveness imposed on work by BAME poets by publishers and critics is a manner of “censorship”. Both Riley and Schmidt omit the fact that publishers and critics remain overwhelmingly white, and that their decision to police the borders of BAME poets’ work maintains the centrality and cultural influence of white poets, critics, publishers and editors, not to mention the curators of “good educations”. In both cases, senior white figures instrumentalize their ostensible concern for BAME poets’ wellbeing to defend their own positions of power. Riley condemned Claudia Rankine for “parading the wound” in Citizen: An American lyric (Rankine won the Forward Prize for which Riley was shortlisted); Schmidt swiftly proceeds to defend the work of Woody Allen and James Levine against “censors”, elevating two (alleged) sexual abusers to the ranks of D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov.

As many have noted, to those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression, and as a series of studies have shown, we remain far from equal. Programmes like The Complete Works and the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics have made tangible inroads for a still relatively small number of BAME poets and critics, but even this slight shift represents significant change.

*

Resuming the work of my survey published online in 2017, I had two main questions: whose poetry is reviewed? and whose reviews are commissioned and published? The set on critical writing now includes data from twenty-eight magazines dating from January 2011 to December 2018, a total of 4,866 articles reviewing 7,711 books. Those magazines are: Acumen, Antiphon Poetry, Bare Fiction, The Compass, The Guardian, Gutter, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, London Grip, the London Review of Books, Magma, Modern Poetry in Translation, Mslexia, The North, Oxford Poetry, PN Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, Poetry Review, The Poetry School, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poetry Wales, Sabotage Reviews, Southwords, The Stinging Fly, Stride, the Times Literary Supplement and The Wolf.

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. The figures do not cover other important intersections of cultural exclusion such as class, disability, education or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. Regarding race, my terms are unsatisfactorily binary; this is, in part, due to greater accuracy often being impossible without self-reporting. As many writers have noted[6], neither BAME nor Person of Colour are ideal terms; both involve significant erasure of cultural, racial and national experiences and traditions. I hope that the outcomes of this study justify the employment of reductive terminology. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as Black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9 per cent of the total UK population, 4.9 per cent in Ireland. While I do not believe in the imposition of arbitrary quotas, it is, at the very least, useful to have such a basic demographic benchmark in mind when trying to determine what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.[7]

Of 4,866 articles published between January 2011 and December 2018, 245 were written by BAME critics, 5.03 per cent of the total. Of the twenty-six magazines and newspapers in the study still regularly publishing, only five surpassed this basic figure: Poetry Review (14.5 per cent), Poetry London (18.3 per cent), Oxford Poetry (18.5 per cent), The Poetry School (20.4 per cent) and Modern Poetry in Translation (21.4 per cent). Nine magazines published 1 per cent or fewer BAME critics.

Particular attention is due to the London Review of Books. The LRB has published seventy articles by thirty-three critics covering eighty-six books since January 2011. Every one of their critics is white, 83 per cent are men, and every one of the books reviewed is by a white poet. The magazine publishes poems with greater regularity: six of the 388 poems published since January 2011 are by BAME poets (1.5 per cent). 70.6 per cent of all  poems published are by men, including twenty-eight by August Kleinzahler, twenty-seven by John Burnside, twenty-two by David Harsent and nineteen by Frederick Seidel; these four poets account for 24.7 per cent of all poems published in the magazine during those eight years.

The country’s other major literary journal, the Times Literary Supplement, has a similar record. Though one of only five platforms to publish more than twenty articles by BAME critics, this constitutes 3.6 per cent of its total. Contrary to trends observed elsewhere in the data, most of these articles were published before 2016: nineteen before and five after. Much like the LRB, the TLS published just seven poems by BAME poets (1.3 per cent), and 72.2 per cent by men. Before December 2018, the last BAME poet to publish in the TLS was Imtiaz Dharker, on February 5, 2016.

Much like the TLS, PN Review’s publication of BAME reviewers has also regressed sharply. The magazine published thirteen articles by BAME critics between January 2011 and October 2013; there then follows a period of three years and four months, or twenty consecutive issues, without a single review by a BAME critic. Since March 2017, there have been just three articles published by BAME critics, and an excellent regular column by Vahni Capildeo does not cover for the magazine’s failures elsewhere. Despite this, PN Review has been a consistent publisher of BAME poets throughout the data set: 206 of their 2,100 published poems between 2011 and 2018 are by BAME poets (9.8 per cent, well above the national average of 8.3 per cent).

More encouraging examples do exist. In Poetry London, for example, twenty-one articles by BAME critics were published between 2011 and 2016, 11.9 per cent of the total for those years. In 2017–18, the magazine has published nineteen articles by BAME critics, 29.7 per cent of their total. An even more remarkable change has happened at Poetry Review: between 2011 and 2016, the magazine published fourteen articles by BAME critics (6.1 per cent); between 2017 and 2018, that number has more than doubled to thirty, a full 40 per cent of its total in the past two years. These increases are consistent with the magazines’ publication of poems: Poetry London’s publication of BAME poets rose from 7 per cent in 2011–16 to 16.2 per cent in 2017–8; Poetry Review’s publication of BAME poets rose from 16.1 per cent to 28.2 per cent over the same periods.

The Complete Works and the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics programmes have played a huge role in recent changes. Similar to The Complete Works’ mentorship of poets, the Ledbury scheme aims to provide BAME critics with training and opportunities to develop their craft. Of the 245 articles by BAME critics in the data set, 117 were written by fellows of one or both programmes, 47.8 per cent of the total. This increase has, perhaps unsurprisingly, coincided with an increase in critical attention toward BAME poets, and with BAME poets publishing in higher numbers. In total, 627 of the 7,711 books reviewed in the data set were written by BAME poets (8.13 per cent). The figure fluctuated around 6 per cent between 2011 and 2016, with a peak in 2016 (7.7 per cent) and a trough in 2013 (4.9 per cent). In the past two years, this figure has doubled, to 12.9 per cent in 2017 and 13.1 per cent in 2018. Though I do not have exact figures, it seems that more books by BAME poets are being published year on year, particularly by small presses such as Nine Arches (in 2019 the press will have published collections by Theresa Lola, Ian Humphreys, Roy McFarlane and Tom Sastry) and Penned in the Margins (Anthony Anaxagorou, Raymond Antrobus). Veteran publishers such as Carcanet (Jane Yeh, Vahni Capildeo and Kei Miller) and Bloodaxe (Chen Chen, Vidyan Ravinthiran and Legna Rodriguez Iglesias), meanwhile, continue their good work with more established poets. There is a close relationship between BAME poets’ access to major publishers and BAME critics’ access to major journals: one enables, requires, demands the other.

While there have been significant advances in the reception of BAME poets and critics in recent years, it remains the case that these small steps are supported by a small number of institutions and individuals, and the possibility of backlash and regression is significant. For instance, the publication of poems by BAME poets reached record highs of 10.8 per cent in 2016 and 10.9% in 2017 but fell to 8.4 per cent in 2018. There have also been numerous instances of high-profile white journalists responding to work by BAME poets with ignorance (for example, Kate Kellaway’s description of “oriental poise”[8] in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade) or outright hostility, as in the September 2018 issue of Acumen, whose front cover asked, “Has poetry been hijacked?”[9] The author of the essay in question, Paul Gittins, refers to “a Guardian journalist” before quoting a piece by the poet and academic Sandeep Parmar.[10] Gittins refers to Parmar using male pronouns, before condemning attempts to decolonize literary culture as “threatening the very identity of poetry”. Gittins conflates the “identity” of poetry as a medium with that of white poets, and frames this country’s white critics (95 per cent of the total), white poets (92 per cent) and white prizewinners (88 per cent) as an embattled minority. He also follows Riley and Schmidt in claiming that his concerns are primarily for the welfare of BAME poets, describing Parmar’s article as “condescending” for suggesting “they apparently need a favourable quota system to enter the prize lists”. Parmar’s article makes no such proposal, and Gittins’s memory seems short: no BAME poet had ever won the Forward Prize for Best Collection prior to 2014, and the T. S. Eliot Prize only once before 2015; almost two-thirds of all BAME shortlistings have been in the past five years. White authors repeatedly position ourselves as central, unmarked, natural occupants of cultural space, even as concerned guardians of BAME poets, however much our supposed advocacy rejects even the slightest structural change. It is possible, indeed vital, for white critics to spend time and energy questioning our biases, educating ourselves about our colonial histories and how we continue to benefit from them, and listening at least as carefully to work by BAME poets as we do to white poets, showing respect to the literary canons and traditions in which they situate themselves. Part of this work, however, must include raising up BAME voices ahead of our own: the Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critics programme has demonstrated an abundance of extraordinarily capable candidates.

[1] Evaristo, Free Verse Report, 2007, 3.

[2] Dave Coates, “The State of Poetry Criticism”, DavePoems (May 29, 2017). https://davepoems.wordpress.com/2017/05/29/the-state-of-poetry-criticism/

[3] Editorial, PN Review 242 (July–Aug 2019), https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10244

[4] Editorial, PN Review 245 (Jan–Feb 2019), https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10385

[5] Peter Riley, “Vahni Capildeo”, Fortnightly Review, April 12, 2016, http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2016/04/vahni-capildeo/

[6] See, for example, Courttia Newland, Nikesh Shukla et al, “Beyond PoC and BAME: The terminology we use to define ourselves”, Media Diversified, July 16, 2016, https://mediadiversified.org/2016/07/16/past-poc-and-bame-the-terminology-we-use-to-define-ourselves/

[7] Office of National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census

[8] Kate Kellaway, “The Best Poetry Books of 2015”, Observer, December 8 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/08/best-poetry-books-2015-clive-james-claudia-rankine

[9] Paul Gittins, “Hijacking Poetry”, Acumen 92 (September 2018). The use of the highly loaded term “hijacking” in reference to BAME people should not be overlooked.

[10] Sandeep Parmar, “Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo”, The Guardian, 20 Oct 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/oct/20/why-the-ts-eliot-prize-shortlist-hails-a-return-to-the-status-quo

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Rebecca Tamás – WITCH

Some disclosures: Have met the poet once briefly, spoken a few times on social media. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. I requested and received a text copy of the essay “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult”, published by The White Review, from Tamás in the process of researching this piece. A heads up for those who need it: the book thoughtfully and carefully critiques violence against women, particularly in a political context – Tamás has discussed in an interview her wish to prevent such scenes from becoming ‘spectacles of women’s pain’. Deepest thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

Review: It’s difficult to know where to start in discussing Rebecca Tamás’ first full-length collection, WITCH. The poems incorporate a huge amount of visual and aural information: in terms of discussing recurring themes (physical pleasure, solidarity between women, fluidity of identity, understanding the past to imagine the future, the sanctity of living, and some non-living, things) and images (dirt/silt/mulch, ash, trees, neon, honey, the colour blue), there is simply too much for any single review to cover. Arguably this is the ideal situation for such a many-minded, open-hearted book.

WITCH spends much of its time following its eponymous character, an immortal being witnessing, on a near-geological scale, the warp and weft of human history. The book playfully casts its ideal reader/listener in one of the few mortal characters in the book, the ‘petrol station boy’ who appears in ‘WITCH EUROPE’ and ‘WITCH AFTER’. He seems genuinely enthusiastic to hear what the witch has to say, and ‘shares a cigarette with her / under the no smoking sign which is his way of saying / I don’t know what to be sorry for but I am sorry’: the witch reserves her stories for those willing to do the work of careful listening. WITCH is precise and agile in its tonal and syntactical shifts: there are many occasions in which it feels like a poem is on the verge of hyperbole, of drifting away from its solid emotional core, but re-centres itself immediately with some casual turn of phrase that takes the breath away. For an example, here’s a short passage from ‘WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES’, noting the gear-change into the last line:

‘the witch wonders what happiness could possibly look like
at some point it went wrong and even though she’s very old
she doesn’t know exactly when that point was
but she’s thinking that the most likely is probably Orpheus
when Orpheus was singing it was so marvellous and Eurydice sang too
obviously they were a great couple’

Earlier, the poem locates the forced feeding of the suffragettes in a history of punitive measures against women, like the scold’s bridle. Here, space is made for a moment that almost dismissively punctures the gravity and distance of both history and myth, one which allows that deflation to bring home the poem’s drama. It continues:

‘Orpheus went back to get Eurydice from death as we know
but he wouldn’t let her make her own way out of the rubble seek into the scratch of
each step that is not knowing always not knowing […]
her song is still down there somewhere’

One of the great strengths of WITCH is its instinct for when to be explicit (that is, make an uncomfortable truth unignorable) and when to trust the reader’s engagement. In the myth, Eurydice is a treasure to be won and lost by Orpheus, here she is a person. It’s a simple change, but one that reorients the entire scene: the poem draws out echoes between Orpheus and the prison guards, who both fatally considered their charges incapable of self-determination. The poem explores how political change rarely comes with ‘lots of clear light pouring in gold fantastic gold’, more often with undignified physical suffering, that ‘the smell of freedom is the smell of vomit’. The final image is one of visionary anger, the witch conjuring a scene that sustains her mind when her body is made abject:

‘all the fires coursing up the townhouses […]
were all already there cracking and flailing
and spitting
the pleasure of seeing everyone see it
their white eyes fat with flames
it is all burning it has all been burning us’

 

*             *             *

 

‘WITCH MARS’, ‘WITCH EARTH’ and ‘WITCH VOLCANO’, meanwhile, are characterised by weariness and a wish for escape. Often this manifests formally, as the propulsive lines seen elsewhere waver and halt, becoming structurally simpler than the rest of the collection:

‘mars is just lovely […]
witch says to herself that no one has ever been hurt here […]
no one has corrupted mystics still pure and flashing like neon signs’ (‘WITCH MARS’)

‘what the earth deserves
so much
so much more
than dead bodies […]

the earth likes wolves at least
you can give it wolves
you can give it
that’ (‘WITCH EARTH’)

‘Witch lies on the volcano
amongst creeping language […]

the witch has too many reasons to part from the earth but she won’t part […]
she cannot go home from the world’ (‘WITCH VOLCANO’)

In each of these instances – as in ‘WITCH AND THE SUFFRAGETTES’ – a moment of profound sadness is countered, however forlornly, by imaginative force. In ‘WITCH VOLCANO’, the witch seems to recover her strength, or at least starts moving again, after watching a congregation of ghosts in what feels like a communal ritual of healing:

‘ghosts are pink and blue and gold            agile birds
they are safe when they can change
safe when they can mourn and have voice to mourn
safe when they can hurt                                safe and entirely shattering
all of them crowding up into each other’s skinny arms
transparent clever yearning bodies and eyes […]

the witch watches the charged belonging air
rubs her foot in the salt lava
intimate and hot as god’

The ghosts manifest as an emblem of ideal community: their ghostliness allows them to present their ‘organs pulsing and held out like gifts’ to each other, a surreal enactment of one of the book’s key principles, the relative paucity of hard boundaries between one self and another. (This is grimly echoed in ‘WITCH FIRE’, as the deathless witch’s body disintegrates into many others at the stake.) As Tamás notes in an interview with Alice Hiller, the book celebrates ‘being amorphous, open’, and that ‘The witch doesn’t really believe in gender. […] Witch is male. Witch is female.’

While this mode of thought – disdainful toward taxonomy, faithful to mess – informs much of the book’s communitarianism, anti-facism and socialism, it might be worth hovering around gender a second longer. In her essay in The White Review, “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and the Language of the Occult”, Tamás talks about Silvia Federici’s landmark study, Caliban and the Witch, which examines how the category ‘witch’ is delineated and propagated by early colonialist European states as a pretext for wiping out generations of women’s social power and shared knowledge in the witch hunts of 1580-1630. Prior to this, the ‘devil’ was a capable, if easily defeated, trickster in most European folklore; during the witch hunts he was co-opted as an inversion of social norms, playing strongly on stories of him offering sexual and social freedoms outwith the authority of husband and state. In WITCH the devil explicitly exhibits genderfluidity through his ability to shapeshift, an embodied freedom from binaries, in a way that harmonises with the book’s opposition to political strictures.

Tamás is an excellent storyteller, WITCH accommodates an impressive amount of emotional and scholarly information, and it is absolutely possible to relish the messy, intimate, glorious relationship the witch and the devil enjoy without considering any of the above. When placed in their literary-historical context, however, as representatives of those excluded and punished in the name of social cohesion, the layers of meaning and possibility that constitute ‘WITCH AND THE DEVIL’ begin to become apparent. There’s too much of it to quote satisfactorily, but here’s a taste:

‘when the witch first met the devil the devil was
a beautiful man and a beautiful woman
the devil had long eyelashes and a body that was hard and soft
at the same time so that you wanted to hold him
and also be held by her […]

the devil liked getting up early which is what the witch liked so they would go out
before anyone else was around and they would act out satanic rituals in the woods […]
and also the light had the green tint of rusted copper and took part in the celebrations […]
the witch didn’t just feel like she was getting what she wanted she felt like everyone
everywhere was getting what they wanted’

The specifics of their relationship are, like much of the witch’s life, marked by hyperreality: one could easily read blood sacrifices as a spooky proxy for long walks on the beach. The early parts of the poem run away with themselves rhythmically, absent of decelerative punctuation, and the descriptions of their sex life – ‘the devil had all the sexual organs you could / want’ – exhibit perhaps the richest blend of earnest joy, comedy by exaggeration, and thematic seriousness in the whole book. A real treasure is the poem’s treatment of the witch and devil’s breakup (if that’s what’s meant by goodbye), a mature and loving conversation:

‘when the witch said goodbye to the devil
they didn’t get overtly emotional but they held onto each other
for a long time until there was a flow of breath back and forth
that was entirely equal in the air passing through their mouths’

I can’t recall many poems that not only explore sexual/romantic relationships as loci of nuanced mutuality and regard the end of said relationship not as failure, but change, but also extrapolate that thread into its broader political thinking. As the devil notes in an intimate moment: ‘you had to make a decision are you prepared to destroy yourself / for freedom even though it will be really awful and maybe worse than not freedom’. The lovers’ sensitivity and, unlike Orpheus, willingness to let go at the right time, informs and is informed by their attitudes to the world at large.

 

*             *             *

 

Alongside the witch poems are twenty-one spells. In Tarot, the twenty-first Major Arcana is The World, associated with the completion of a cycle or fulfilment of what is willed, and often represented by a figure both male and female, heavenly and mundane. This feels like too much of a coincidence not to be intentional. It may be that the spells are intended to be read like tarot cards, a suggestive space for self-reflection that does not require or even encourage a conclusive answer. Though the witch poems often abide by obscure logic, they are identifiably in the process of forming a narrative or argument; the spell poems feel like momentary embodiments of the moods of those poems, their rational scaffolding forgone. ‘spell for joy’ begins:

‘THESUN THESUN THESUN

nothing can be trusted!
raise up your rinsed hands!
terrible fury and becoming!
take off your clothes!’

The poem seems more interested in the visceral effect of reading these words than in their logical force as conjoined thoughts, in this case the idea that ‘joy’ as an experience is also a kind of recklessness, a conscious rejection of security and stability. These could be read as speech acts by the witch herself, a shift from third to first person and an outlet from the boundaries of being narrativized. Although a very different experience to the acts of readerly empathy required in the witch poems, the experience of digesting:

‘I see a shaking which is total and absolute fear

one day yr gonna die!

the hot impossible apple of
your perfection’

is a little unsettling, but has a weird carefulness to it, a camaraderie, and there is unmistakable love in those last lines. I keep hearing ‘one day yr gonna die!’ while going about my business over the past few days, a chipper, ominous earworm.

This positive estrangement is perhaps most powerfully articulated in ‘spell for reality’, a poem that stands out among the spells for its calm and thoughtful pacing, the relatively clear provocation in the first lines, ‘what do you do when the answer to / too much is absolutely nothing?’ The poem carries echoes of MacNeice’s ‘Snow’, which Tamás studies in her White Review essay, in its worrying around the edges of perception, of accepting that the ‘more’ between MacNeice’s ‘snow and huge roses’ might be ultimately unsayable, but no less real for it. ‘spell for reality’ continues:

‘sometimes the ashy body in the ground seems
to have all the answers
ultimate realness             nasty truth as the final only truth
why then             this stupid relentless yearning for snow
why the                honey   and talking’

What Tamás and MacNeice seem to agree upon is that human beings are, finally, as subject to the whims of nature as any other creature. By exploring these fundamental questions about the nature and sanctity of living things, their inscrutable yearnings, the fire and the honey, they also recognise that there is something more to it than meets the eye, and that wondering about what that more might be is a fine way to spend what life we have.

 

*             *             *

 

WITCH feels like the right book at the right time. It’s a book that valorises political literacy, and figures its own feminist and socialist beliefs as inextricable from its aesthetics. What comes across most clearly is that this collection is, at heart, a gift. The witch is constantly mindful of who might need her strength, who might need her understanding, who deserves either or both. Tamás and Sarah Shin’s anthology, Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry, demonstrated the appetite for an approach to ritual, spirituality, and philosophical inquiry. It is clear that ‘witch’ means a great many different things to a great many different people, and WITCH opens those possibilities ever further.

 

Further reading: Rebecca Tamás – “The Songs of Hecate: Poetry and Occult Language”, The White Review

Alice Hiller – “I Wanted to Think About the Possibility of a Revolution Based on Female Principles: Interview with Rebecca Tamás”

Rebecca Tamás – “The Enchantment of Disenchantment: Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’ & Ecopoetic Potential”, Wild Court

Patricia Ferguson – “Filth and Glory: Review of WITCH by Rebecca Tamás”, EcoTheo Review

Silvia Federici – Caliban and the Witch: The Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia)

Sarah Shin & Rebecca Tamás, eds. – Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry (Ignota Press)

Katie West & Jasmine Elliott, eds. – Becoming Dangerous: Witchy Femmes, Queer Conjurers, and Magical Rebels (Fiction & Feeling)

Fiona Benson – Vertigo & Ghost

Some disclosures: Haven’t met the poet; saw her read at StAnza Poetry Festival a few years ago, she is an incredible performer. A general heads-up that the book depicts and strongly critiques abuses of power, particularly sexual violence, in very direct ways. I wouldn’t recommend reading it all in one sitting, at least not without planning some downtime afterwards. I’m grateful, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this piece.

Review: Vertigo & Ghost (2014) is Fiona Benson’s second collection, after the highly acclaimed Bright Travellers in 2014. Vertigo & Ghost builds on a lot from that first collection, particularly its explorations of the physical and emotional tolls exacted by motherhood, and speakers in both books are saturated by a pervasive feeling of embattled psychological isolation, a lyric self pitted against the world. What was ever-present but manageable in Bright Travellers has intensified here, becoming something remorseless, all-devouring, a corrupted force of nature.

What the few reviews of Vertigo & Ghost to date have focused on and most enthusiastically praised, with good reason, is the book’s opening sequence, ‘Zeus’, with a strong focus on the title character’s charisma, self-involvement and infantile, murderous sociopathy. Positioning Zeus as main character and focal point, however, might run counter to the sequence’s intentions. The sequence feels like a struggle for expression between the halting, affectively flat, painstaking speech of the unnamed narrator (and often what feels like a distinct omniscient narrator who shares similar intonations) and the blithe, trumpeting self-congratulation of the title character; it feels like a true depiction of the unfair power structures within the narrative that Zeus’ name overwrites everything.

It’s worth looking closely at the poem that precedes all of this, ‘Ace of Bass’ (the poem is spelled differently to the 90s pop group), which stands alone both formally and tonally. The poem inhabits in earthy detail a summer in the speaker’s adolescence at boarding school, the retrospective cheesiness and gaudiness that characterised the cultural moment, perhaps epitomised by Ace of Base’s Swede-reggae single ‘The Sign’, which spent the entire summer of 1994 on UK radio. The speaker’s self-image uses the same palette, her ‘teenage heart / [like] a glossy, maraschino cherry’, as ‘hormones poured into me / like an incredible chemical cocktail / into a tall iced glass’. The poem itself is a single, unstoppable sentence, its grammatical and substantial meanings meeting at its conclusion:

‘and we talked about who’d done what with whom
and how it felt, all of us quickening,
and sex wasn’t here yet, but it was coming,
and we were running towards it,
its gorgeous euphoric mist;
pushing into our own starved bodies at night
for relief, like the after-calm might last,
like there was a deep well of love on the other side.’

This friction between past naivety and present wisdom make a heartbreaking conditional in the final line, the tension between the imagined continuity of love, pop music and playground solidarity and reality. The double meaning of ‘deep well’, as a plentiful resource when full and a dangerous hazard when empty, encapsulates this turn with terrible precision.

After the fireworks of ‘Ace of Bass’, the first poem in ‘Zeus’ is painfully stark. Its speaker is vulnerable, chastened, and smaller, and the two narrators could be considered as the same character in different moments. Where in ‘Ace of Bass’ there was ‘colour streaming from my iridescent body’, ‘Zeus’ begins:

‘days I talked with Zeus
I ate only ice
felt the blood trouble and burn
under my skin […]

bullet-proof glass
and a speaker-phone between us
and still I wasn’t safe’

The sequence begins with Zeus in custody, and apparently convicted. The poem seems to question how, even from this statistically unlikely starting point, Zeus might be held accountable, or what would constitute justice or even closure under the circumstances. The sequence plays as a gruelling, episodic series of witness statements and evidence records. With their incorporation of supernatural elements, however, the poems are far more unconventional and generically fraught than their popular forerunners. There is no struggle between equally brilliant representatives of good and evil: the sequence’s foundation is the understanding not only the vast differences in power between perpetrator and survivor, but the narrative frames naturally predisposed to his version of events. Among the evidence presented are versions of the Metamorphoses, which locate their depictions of trauma within broader contexts of the women’s families. ‘[transformation: Io]’ and ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ both include the attempts of Io and Callisto’s parents to heal their children, and, as poems, feel like pointed rebuttals to the tradition of Ovidian versions that treat violence and suffering primarily as spectacle, and have no interest in real-world implications for protagonist or reader. ‘[transformation: Callisto]’ concludes, ‘Go ahead, Zeus. Constellate this’, perhaps implicating the tellers of Ovidian stories into the systems of violence as Zeus himself.

As the sequence progresses, the narrative fact of Zeus’ omnipotence becomes an irreconcilable obstacle: he is imprisoned, drugged, thrown in an oubliette (the bleak inverse of the ‘deep well’ in ‘Ace of Bass’), and electrocuted, to no avail. The final poem is removed from the narrative proper, as signalled by its title: ‘[translation from the annals: Ganymede]’, a category which has not appeared to this point, and is the weirdest poem in the book. The sequence has previously depicted the casual presence of the mythical in the mundane; this poem is from another world entirely, in which the speaker (implicitly not the one we have travelled with thus far) is on an interstellar spacecraft with quasi-angelic beings known as the Powers:

‘I had not been in proximity with the Powers before,
and was afraid of their full-skin tattoos and body-jewels
and their ease with weapons. I did not fully understand
their dialect, and between themselves they talked
in an ancient language of the seraphim. […]

Sometimes I’d wake
soaked in sweat and hear the Powers singing
on a scale other than our own, high and screeching,
vibrating in a way that made me heave up yellow bile.’

Nothing in the book prepared me for this blend of biblical, science-fictional and Lovecraftian notes. Perhaps this poem is a grim reflection of the book’s first, the rhetorical energy of ‘Ace of Bass’ converted into this poem’s startling imagination; both feel breathless, high-speed and doomed. The Powers have been tending to Zeus’ dismembered corpse, scattered across the cosmos – a gruesome mirror of Zeus’ own murder of the eponymous prince – its various organs still alive and ‘whistl[ing] to each other’. The mission to extract information from Zeus about the location of Ganymede’s body is a failure, and worse:

‘The pieces would not yield
the boy’s location, though the synapses of the brain
lit up like a firework display when questioned.
The parts whistled to one another
like abusive masters to their kicked-in, wary dogs,
some ‘come-to-heel’, some barely stifled threat
and the cages themselves began to agitate and sing
and I became something beyond afraid.’

Benson’s carefully crafted Zeus is obsessed by the minutiae of his own interests – see his childishly repeated list of things he ‘likes’, their cruel tedium – and interested in nothing but his ability to exercise power. No punishment will change the fact of his godhood, which has corrupted him absolutely: the events of ‘[Ganymede]’, for all their hopelessness, seem to represent a best-case scenario. The haunting closing lines, ‘And still the cables rattled and shook, and still I am afraid’, are a reminder that this poem is not a conclusion to the narrative proper, which ended with ‘[votive]’, a forlorn prayer to Hera to ‘Keep him in the prison of your vigilance’; the sequence’s action comes after ‘[Ganymede]’, the terrible implication that not even this prison will hold forever. ‘Zeus’ is a remarkable work, walking a difficult line between its harsh critique of aestheticized violence and reproducing its effects, a fully realised portrait of abuse and manipulation.

 

*             *             *

 

Vertigo & Ghost’s second half is a very different proposition, more in keeping with the short lyrics that constitute Bright Travellers. A comparative study could be made between the long sequence in Benson’s debut, ‘Love Letter to Vincent’ and ‘Zeus’ here, in particular the depiction of Van Gogh as self-interested, petty and careless, and the intensification embodied by Zeus. In ‘Sunflowers’, the speaker describes how: ‘I listen to you move in the other room / and I burn’; this is echoed in how the speaker feels her blood ‘trouble and burn’ in the opening poem of ‘Zeus’. If there are shared roots between the two sequences, a major point of divergence is in the narrator’s affective response, the turn from desire to fury. Though the poems in the second half of Vertigo & Ghost are drawn together thematically rather than dramatically, questions of isolation, escape, familial care and physical autonomy still feel prime in Benson’s thinking. The most obvious connective tissue between the book’s two parts is in the repeated presence of stars and the night sky, everything that seems to represent an otherworld to the poems’ immediate settings. ‘Two Sparrows’, the second poem in the book’s second half, talks about its subjects in spiritual terms – ‘already elect, condemned’, ‘a spirit at play’, ‘his heart’s […] true empyrean’ – and ‘Marcela Sonnets 3 & 4’ set more soul-swallows ‘moving their tents between the constellations’; in ‘Fly’, the speaker draws these ideas into a more human meditation on spiritual escape and self-destruction:

‘I wanted to take myself off like a misshapen jumper,
a badly fitting frock. I wanted
to peel it off and burn it in the garden
with the rubbish […] And what sliver
of my stripped and pelted soul there still remained,
I’d have it gone, smoked out, shunned,
fled not into the Milky Way,
that shining path of souls, but the in-between,
the nothing.’

Though the following lines self-deprecate this passage as ‘so Wagnerian’, it’s hard to miss its dramatic flourishes moving from the everyday of jumpers and frocks into an ecstatic void: the poem feels sad, worn down, but unafraid. This draw toward oblivion, or something like it, animates two more poems in this section:

‘And here is that storm again,

wrenching at your roots,
insisting that you fly now
little horse, little flower,

into the dark,
its million
whistling stars’ (‘Ectopic / Yellow Seahorse’)

‘should the blue heron lift
from the tightening shallows
there will be love, release;
look now at the white stars falling,
the night-sky-blue of heron, rising.’ (‘Blue Heron’)

However compromised a resolution the final poem in ‘Zeus’ offered, it feels significant that it happened among the stars, and that the Powers are one among many flighted creatures in the book, from termites to bats to swans: the book’s thoughts about stargazing and flight, both avian and metaphysical, seem bound up with its meditations on freedom and death. It feels like the poems cannot quite put their faith a place of peace and safety (or freedom from earthly commitments) without rendering it as a no-place where life is untenable, nor do they shy from imagining the voyage there in consistently gentle and wistful terms. Perhaps the Powers are the amalgamation of all these imaginative processes: they viscerally terrify the speaker, their bodies ‘infected / and larval’, but, as wardens of Zeus, they are clearly a force of justice, speakers of angelic tongues, though the book has little time for religious convention, and little surety of ‘benevolence, or God’.

Though not explicitly a sequence, the poems in the second section feel very much in conversation, a long subtextual narrative in which preoccupations flow into and through one another. In ‘Wildebeest’, the metaphysical takes a back seat to the immediately embodied, and the proceeding poems on motherhood are intensely graphic achievements. ‘Wildebeest’ is set during childbirth, and Benson again uses a single, long, syntactically complex sentence to propel a poem in which the body becomes part-object, part-instinctual creature. ‘Wildebeest’ feels eager to immerse itself in its linguistic work:

‘and I was both the flood
and the furious corral
from which you were expelled –
trampled and pressed
and hammered like metal, […]

as if I were giving birth
to some fierce, Taurean star
spoked at the rim,
thorned like the sun’

The poem confronts and foregrounds the physical toll of childbirth and ends with the briefest moment of calm, as the baby is ‘brought from water / now ruddled with blood […] dark-haired like your sister, / incarnate, loved.’, as the astrological once again sneaks into the poem’s thinking. A page later, however, ‘Afterbirth’ takes pains to complicate the relationship between speaker and newborn, again using the blunt reality of the speaker’s body as a focal point, again in a single, multifaceted sentence. The pyrotechnics of ‘Wildebeest’, however, are curtailed and leaden:

‘sweet stink
of torn labia
under warm water […]

its acid sting.
Ragged animal
I stagger back

to my bed –
smell of blood
all over the ward’

Benson’s skill with conveying sense with sound alone is a true wonder. The poems in this section are compelling in how they dramatize the nervous, frantic energy they describe – a fall into a swimming pool, the threat of illness, the joy and exhaustion of chasing after ‘our glorious, stampeding daughters’ –  alongside a deep cognizance of pervasive gendered violence so vividly rendered in ‘Zeus’, which hovers around the margins of these poems every bit as much as the stars and their deathly quietude. A few poems in this passage, as Alexa Winik noted in the most recent Poetry Review, fall short in leaving too little room to explore the details of violence worldwide: the image of ‘the tribesman carrying your husband’s genitals / and a bloody machete’ in ‘Hide and Seek’ may be a stylised nightmare, but it appears beside more plainspoken references to the Holocaust and contemporary human trafficking, and its colonialist overtones are uncomfortable. As Winik argues, ‘That Benson attempts a self-critique here only seems to strengthen the impression of a missed opportunity, namely for a robust acknowledgement of the speaker’s own positionality […] in relation to the pain of others’. Vertigo & Ghost is immensely rich in its capacity to convey difficult interpersonal relationships without judgement, particularly between the speaker and her family, and the relative paucity of nuance in a few poems set far from home is all the more noticeable for it.

Vertigo & Ghost ends strongly with ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’, named after a military jet designed for air-to-ground strikes, of which the Royal Air Force owns 160. The poem does excellent work in figuring many of the book’s recurring thoughts in a deceptively straightforward scene, told with Benson’s characteristic flair for rendering raw, nervous energy through sound and syntax alone. Thinking back to the ‘Zeus’ sequence, the Eurofighter is presented as an unholy, apocalyptic beast, as one of the speaker’s children runs for safety, leaving the baby outside:

‘all this in the odd, dead pause of the lag –
then sound catches up with the plane
and now its grey belly’s right over our house
with a metallic, grinding scream
like the sky’s being chainsawed open
and the baby’s face drops to a square of pure fear’

The poem’s conclusion, in which the poet imaginatively connects the jet overhead to the people killed by it, is more affecting than the example above for remaining grounded in its emotional moment:

‘and it’s all right now I tell her again and again,
but it’s never all right now […]
my daughter in my arms can’t steady me –
always some woman is running to catch up her children,
we dig them out of the rubble in parts like plaster dolls –
Mary Mother of God have mercy, mercy on us all.’

The poem seems to have ‘Zeus’ in mind: the invocation of Mary recalling of Hera in ‘[votive]’, Ganymede’s mother’s search for her son, the image of women running from danger. ‘Eurofighter Typhoon’ might be a coda to the sequence, a reminder that the god’s violence is not merely interpersonal, but part of a system of national and international power whose origins lie uncomfortably close to home. Vertigo & Ghost is a powerfully discomforting book, its poems knotted and uncompromising, all harsh self-critique and virtuosic fury. This review could’ve been twice as long to give space for exceptional poems like ‘Haruspex’ (‘It is true, / I hear voices / and talk to myself. / I am done with shame.’) and ‘Village’ (‘And I felt love for my small and human life down there, / its tenderness’), every bit as impressive as the work of the spectacular first half.

Further Reading: Alexa Winik’s review in Poetry Review 109:1 (Spring 2019, contents page here)

Benson in conversation with Daisy Johnson on the London Review Bookshop podcast

Benson in conversation with Emily Berry on the Poetry Review podcast

Declan Ryan’s review in The White Review

Tristram Fane Saunders’ review in The Telegraph

Kate Kellaway’s review in The Observer

Nat Raha – Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines

Some disclosures: Nat is a friend, and a fellow resident in Edinburgh. Raha’s poetry and criticism are grounded in radical transfeminism and Marxist theory, about which i know relatively little, and reference transphobia, misogyny and racism, of which i have no personal experience. Please note that due to wordpress’ limited formatting options, the quoted poems are not exactly as they appear in the book. Gratitude, as ever, is due to Muireann Crowley for significant edits to this review.

Review: Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines (2018) is an unusual book. It is Raha’s first full collection, but strictly speaking it is an assembly of five of the poet’s zines, pamphlets and one-off projects, each written and published between 2012 and 2017. Through dedications to and epigraphs from Vahni Capildeo, mendoza and Sean Bonney, the book situates itself within its immediate literary contexts, alongside contemporary poets whose work similarly worries at the seams of language and its relationship to cultural and political power. On the page, the poems shift unpredictably through the white space, often leaving words or phrases crossed out or marginalised, marked with non-standard punctuation, or with ambiguous relation to the main text, as in the frequent use of cut-and-pasted newsprint and archive photography. The poems’ typography often seems to deny the reader the opportunity to slow down or decompress by leaving precious little blank space on the page. As a book deeply invested in questioning how political noise often drowns out sincere discourse, it’s a highly effective strategy. (Her publication in the magazine EOAGH shows some of these effects in action: the magazine publishes a jpeg file rather than attempt to reproduce the effects of the typesetting.) It’s worth noting that this is musical as well as visual notation: in the video above, Raha translates the poems’ idiosyncratic punctuation into sound, sometimes as a sharp inhale, deliberate stutter or recorded loop.

It’s worth noting that Boiler House’s beautiful production is not exactly how the original poems appeared, though there are signs that fidelity to the original publications was a high priority: looking between my copy of Raha’s pamphlet, de/compositions, and its reproduction in Of Sirens, precious little has been altered. It feels consistent with the book’s sharp attention to local and historical contexts that a concerted effort has been made to retain the materiality of Raha’s original works; ‘The Marriage of George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith (Epithalamion)’, for example, was originally a flyer distributed during London Pride 2013. The conditions under which these poems were written and published are presented as a core aspect of their meaning and expression, making Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines, alongside its literary strengths, a fascinating historical document.

Examining the book’s structure and themes as a unity, then, is a little more difficult than usual. In recent years, collections by debut or early-career poets are often arranged around a central theme or subject, a single metaphorical domain around which the smaller domains of their individual poems orbit. I’m thinking of language in Harry Josephine Giles’ Tonguit (2015), shame in Sophie Robinson’s Rabbit (2018), or articulating the self in Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), for example; though admittedly broad categories, the extent to which individual poems consistently touch on these central thoughts feels deeply purposeful, as the collection is shaped by rhetorical argument rather than Raha’s chronicles and archives. The five discrete sections of Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines are arranged chronologically, and many poems carry dates, times, and places as part of the text: the book is at pains to locate itself in time and place; the names of companies, Acts of Parliament, activists and writers abound. The book is not the pristine proof of a lyric vision, but a detailed journal of an artist’s evolutions and aesthetic experimentation over the course of several years. The themes and recurring images across these sequences, then, are the consequence of the poet’s sustained engagement with questions of government, culture and citizenship.

 

*             *             *

 

Raha’s rendering of myriad political actions into an aesthetic domain is difficult to articulate prosaically, and near impossible to quote without reproducing the entire piece. The poems are often possessed of alarming velocity, each phrase or image charging or melding into the next, an accumulating residue of meaning that often wrongfoots the reader or removes the grammatical tissue one might expect to logically connect the poem’s ideas. For example, from the book’s first section, here’s the closing passage of ‘the modern legal system is not for saving you’:

‘trans* collective global loss / break
the pillars / amnesiac /
burying the ribbon & its referents
/ deviance struck off the // official
history of civil rights according us freed –
compelled through the prohibitions’

The poem seems to alternate between richly suggestive, if oblique, allusion (‘burying the ribbon & its referents’) and deceptively straightforward, if grammatically off-kilter, statement (‘the sanction / of good / of / socially-necessary incarceration’). The poem’s purpose is clear enough – its subtitle is ‘in absolute solidarity with CeCe McDonald’, a Black trans woman and civil rights activist incarcerated in a men’s prison at the time of the poem’s composition – but its ideas do not unfold neatly; to think of one issue at a time is not an option, and Raha’s poem seems to embody the act of holding many concurrent threads simultaneously, not least the difficulty of the task. The closing lines draw together the social-historical trend of dominant cultures sanitising official histories and ‘compelled through the prohibitions’, an ambiguous statement that feels heavy with frustration. In ‘(shoes, danube)’, the book’s recurring concern with the recording and relating of history – both as social narrative about the past and as personal experience of an event or moment – plays out, specifically in terms of the body and physical space:

‘,, my eyeslide and accumulate /
laid ‘cross generations we are
retelling to days of us, arms as

wrapped quiet / ‘til we
instigate politics

echo out immediate universe

/ its frail coherences. grasped
for preservation / memory ground out

, churning
emotives :: what we can

gain in space & archive / #
amnesiac quotidian & demolition’

On the page, these lines are interpolated with fragments of photocopied words and newsprint, which literally undercut what appears to be the poem’s primary text. The words ‘poverty […] of future wealth / abolition’ are obscured or upside-down, but legible, and their relationship to the poem’s ‘frail coherences’, ‘memory’, or ‘churning / emotives’, and their intended impact on the reader, are open to interpretation. The poem’s generationally long view, made faintly parodic by its archaic abbreviation of ‘across’, is countered by the poem’s awareness of how individual and collective narratives are maintained and destroyed: by things as banal as physical archives and a personal will to forget.

 

*             *             *

 

Throughout the collection, there is a constant awareness of the fragility of Raha’s own place within a national culture, and the means by which queer, trans and BAME people are excluded from who counts as a citizen, either legally or culturally. In ‘(society will execute itself)’, a poem which begins, ‘we have already lost the 2015 general / vows austere realpolitik blessed’, are the following lines, italicised and in the margins:

traumas of hunger
& work
& hetcultures
bleaching the minds
our history
felt
reversed

Meanwhile, in what appears to be the main body of the poem – it’s significant that throughout the book, such categories are largely unfit for purpose – reads ‘the formations of life we have been inventing since / every decade / shackled us closer’. The poem holds in tension this pairing of ideas, between the relationship of the poem’s speaker to ‘het’ culture, and the unspecified ‘our/us’ that the poem returns to. The dramatic movement, as far as one can be unequivocally defined, shifts from the seats of political power, to the personal adaptability necessary for simple survival, to the poem’s imagining of what might be possible in a world free from the dehumanising bottom lines of capitalism, ‘<< our possible beyond / << value’s conceptions and births’. It’s a movement that recurs throughout the book’s sections, across its years of thought: understanding the past is what enables any viable conception of the future.

The poem seems to hold several trains of thought in concert, as Raha’s analysis of late capitalism harmonises with queer theories about the strangeness of the experience of time. In “Queerness and Translation: From Linear Time to Playtime”, an essay in Modern Poetry in Translation (2018:2), Mary Jean Chan describes a very similar process of resisting social norms in favour of a truer experience of reality, in the present, in memory and in imagining the future:

‘I am eager to re-read and re-write my life as an ongoing poem, but no longer in linear time. Linear time suffocates; it forces the now into the future and refuses any meaningful engagement with the past. I want, instead, to inhabit a state of play – a form of playtime – where time dissolves’

What Chan formulates personally, Raha seems to explore socially: if widespread and radical social change is not immediately realisable, then let us be playful; under such conditions the imagination is a powerful tool. Of Sirens’ penultimate section, £/€xctinctions, is aware of its standing at a precipice; its foreword from the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James reads, ‘mankind has obviously reached the end of something. the crisis is absolute.’ The book’s most intense passage of political anxiety and critique works in tandem with its most strident attempts at envisioning a viable future. Where the majority of the poems in this section are densely woven and finely focused, ‘of future’s england / its stratifications’ is a remarkable rhetorical and tonal shift, as waves of data are let loose. Where other poems’ logic is traceable, however obliquely, ‘of future’s england’ momentarily dispenses with the need to connect its vast number of urgent nodes:

‘of future’s england / its stratifications
& the economic,
of the economic &
sarah reed
, of sanctioned benefits & health blackouts
& the economic
of sectioned nerves & muscles & the mental health act 2007
& the economic, of the economic / remedial productivity
& demands on all bodies &

psychologically sanctioned work, of
sectors glowing eviscerate working  &
the economic

of terror’s industry & the safety
of europe from itself’

The poem’s exaggeration of refrain and repetition highlight how much the book employs these tactics more subtly throughout, how despite the unconventional typography and grammar, these poems are designed to be spoken aloud. ‘of future’s england’ seems to enact the speaker’s attempts to remain forewarned and forearmed and retain their sanity, as a list of radical authors and activists occasions:

‘momentary reprieve & laughter & hands &

carnivals & the economic, of love’s purr here &

the economic’

As the poem’s conclusion suggests, even these brief interludes, these recovery periods, cannot quite expel the ‘quotidian terror & the conservative party / & the dismayed capital of the economic’. The crisis is absolute.

 

*             *             *

 

In their original incarnations, each of the sections of Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines stood alone as its own entity, and so it’s not quite a criticism that on my first reading, a sense of fatigue set in toward the end of £/€xctinctions: the imposition of fatigue as a means of social control is a key theme in Raha’s work, and it’s not wild to suggest that my experience may have been sympathetic. In any case, the movement from this atmosphere into the warmer, more careful, but no less impassioned de/compositions would have been far less affecting if not for the grimmer, bleaker poems that went before. The section begins with ‘[strid manig nines]’, dedicated to fellow experimentalist poet mendoza, the first of several pieces foregrounding friendship, love and physical intimacy in a time of nationalist crisis and authoritarian creep. It’s followed by ‘(after Vahni’s reading)’, a poem that stands out in the section for being relatively forthright and strident in its emotional expression:

‘the scope of purity & such myths / your

aggression utterly
entrancing to
-night, –

think the trails of roving & vicious girls
most detested & what we’ve been dreaming for
centuries’

The tonal contrast to £/€xctinctions is fairly stark, even if the subject is familiar. Previously, the work performed by Raha’s poems was in naming and detailing the exact means by which the state and its cultural agents enforced their will; now that there seems to be little good in repeating oneself, it feels as though the poems have license to come much closer to home. ‘(after Vahni’s reading)‘ shifts from social panorama to the intimacy of a poetry reading, a specific, charged emotional experience from which the poem draws its hope and energy. There’s something of a nostalgic tone about many of the poems in the final section, as if its lattermost position within the book has also occasioned a time for taking inventory, to understand its own aesthetic past alongside its other histories. Spotters’ badge, meanwhile, to one of the book’s very few full stops:

‘our softsteel english
shoes / beauty potent in cobble
/ fend off all satistics / a

book of ourselves, in living.’

Even if punctuation is unconventional in Of Sirens, its deployment here feels purposeful, permitting itself to reach toward a note of optimism in a collection in which such notes are few and far between. The collection’s final poem, ‘on the vision of yur futures, ruptured isles…’ ensures the book finishes in a stance of looking into an imagined future, inhabiting a state of possibility, however remote, of radical change. Again, the poem grounds itself first in the here and now, ‘the / gems of our arms & care’, its sine qua non of political thought; the collection repeatedly mentions arms at points of both emotional and political intensity, and it’s no surprise to see the image here. The book closes with a gorgeous coalescence of utopianism and lyricism, and i think it would be a shame to spoil it here, or take it out of its proper context, looking grim-hopefully towards ‘all foreseeable days’.

 

*             *             *

 

The question of how, or even whether, art and poetry should interact directly with political practicalities is unlikely to ever be resolved, but Of Sirens takes up the challenge with all due gravity, and kudos are due to Boiler House for the obvious care and attention that allowed the book to appear as an industry-standard first collection without sacrificing its diy origins. It’s testament to the weight of the work represented by Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines that this review only touches the surface of a variety of topics the poems contend with; ten other readers could write ten other reviews without crossing paths, and that’s before locating Raha’s work within its multiple poetic traditions. As mentioned earlier, the book is an unusual document, but this is also one of its great strengths, a work that strives to preserve what dominant historical narratives overlook, embodying an archive and record all of its own.

 

Further Reading:

Nat Raha – “Radical Transfeminism, Transfeminine Brokenness”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 116:3 (2017)

Nat Raha – “The Limits of Trans Liberalism”, Verso, (September 2015)

Mary Jean Chan – “Queerness as Translation: From Linear Time to Playtime”, Modern Poetry in Translation (2018:2)

Garry Mac – Introduction to We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology (404 Ink)

Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)

Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury); see also Eddo-Lodge’s About Race podcast

 

Postscript:

I know a few people are hoping for a follow-up from me regarding my last essay: this is not it, nor will one be forthcoming here. For those seeking related reading, i recommend Jack Belloli’s generous and thoughtful essay, “Owning the Post-Libs: On Toby Martinez de las Rivas”, on his blog, or Helen Charman’s insightful review of Jericho Brown’s The New Testament and Martinez de las Rivas’ Black Sun, “Communality and Consequence” in the most recent Poetry London. Thank you for reading, and death to fascism.

On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Before approaching the subject of this essay, I want to say first that every member of the 2018 Forward Prize judging panel is a professional I respect. Their job is unenviable, given how much time deliberating on the 100+ entries must take, the visibility of the task and the inevitably large number of disappointed parties. It’s also worth noting that this is possibly the most challenging, exciting, ambitious group of books I’ve ever seen on a UK prize list, and I tweeted at the time how much good news it embodied.

What this essay critiques is our (white, influential, safe members of the community) collective willingness to overlook the exclusionary politics and destructive behaviours of poetry’s leading lights. This year has been an object lesson on how the abusive-but-powerful face few consequences, and those solely from grass roots activism. It would be fitting, then, that a poet pushing nakedly fascist ideology should gain the highest honour in our community. I hope beyond reason he does not.

I don’t say any of what follows lightly, and I should have spoken sooner. I write this late in the day because I selfishly feared for the professional and personal relationships it might jeopardise. The Forward Arts Foundation have supported my work with books, invitations to award ceremonies, and financially through my Patreon campaign. I write this in haste because Martinez de las Rivas is a tendentious and damaging thinker, his presence on the shortlist is diametrically opposed to the Foundation’s principles, and I fear what he might do with the international platform a victory would provide.

In his 1932 Doctrine of Fascism, Benito Mussolini narrated his own version of the contexts of Italian fascism, and how his fascism must operate:

‘Granted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the ‘right’, a Fascist century. If the 19th century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the ‘collective’ century, and therefore the century of the State.

The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.

…everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state.’

First, a falsehood is established: in the nineteenth century, left-wing or liberal thinking went too far. Fascism is, by its nature, a response to an invented threat; the brutality European fascism aspired toward required a vast fiction to justify itself. These acts are explicitly embodied in the all-powerful State, the ‘spiritual values’ of the Church, and the body of a single, anti-democratic leader. Nothing outside this narrow definition of nationhood has worth; the nation’s acts of genocide, therefore, are not only justifiable but an inevitable conclusion.

Fascism places at the heart of its ideology a lie from which all else follows. No good faith discussion can be had against fascism, as it does not care for truth, only power. The possibility of good faith discussion is what is at stake. The specifically British incarnation of this ideology is founded on the myth of benevolent empire, and the god-given superiority of the white men who operated its vast mechanisms. The recorded facts, that generations of our ancestors willingly committed atrocities to fuel centuries of global dominion, and maintained our control of imperial benefits when empire was supposedly over, are aggressively denied; see the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, or the various European leaders who have told former colonial subjects to simply ‘move on’ from their centuries of suffering.

In an interview with Lucy Mercer for the LA Review of Books, Martinez de las Rivas makes his dedication to instilling his poetry with his politics explicit:

‘In part, it’s a book that attempts to come to terms with the intense fear of disintegration that drove Terror – the fear of nothingness. There are many poems about the dead or dying, so the idea of the body that suffers is important, as well as the body that might be consoled through care, through physical love — ultimately, through divine love. Other poems are concerned with the larger body of the state, and the importance to me of the coherence of that body, so readers might detect positions that are, perhaps, monarchist, Unionist, and Anglican.’ [emphasis mine]

I keenly await critiques from those conservative critics who complain of there being excessive ‘politics’ in the poetry of marginalised authors denouncing Martinez de las Rivas’ explicitly ideological agenda. Here, Martinez de las Rivas muddies the water of Christian compassion by erasing the poor and outcast for whom Christ’s consolation was primarily reserved. Bizarrely, given the anti-imperial, anti-establishment consistencies in Jesus of Nazareth’s thinking, Martinez de las Rivas draws a straight line between the physical body of the holy individual and the symbolic body of a national culture and State. He prompts the reader to ‘detect’ his own submission to crown, Church and State because his creative work is a vehicle for these positions, a means to a political end.

The fiction of a simpler, purer Britain appears repeatedly in Martinez de las Rivas’ framing of the degraded, incoherent, post-modern ‘urban’ and the regal, paradisal ‘rural’. Later in the same interview with Mercer:

‘As you suggest, there is a certain notion of England that is important, too. Hostile to the metropolis, hostile to a particular kind of urbane sophistication, loyal to a kind of Blakean vision of the English countryside as a precursor to, or allegory of, paradise.’

Given that the English countryside is heaven, what does that make the metropolis, and the people who live in each? Martinez de las Rivas continues:

‘Some time after Terror went to press I was toying around with images and motifs. I sketched a much larger circle into a document and infilled it with black, and I was suddenly aware of it as a presence separate from me; or as the objective expression of something intimately mine. […] And I can only conclude, from the text, that it means many things. In one poem it is a symbol of vengeance rising over London’ [emphasis mine]

Black Sun is titled after a figure which stands, most prominently in the poet’s mind, as a symbol of divine retribution against the country’s biggest and most racially diverse city; in the book, a solid black circle appears several times, most forcefully in the end matter, where the word ‘Judgement’ is repeated dozens of times behind it, before turning white on the opposite page. Given the appropriation by many conservatives of Blake’s Jerusalem, along with its myth of an English nation graced by Christ himself, it is no surprise to see him invoked here. Martinez de las Rivas embraces a myth of English purity and simplicity, ignoring the historical facts illuminated by Jay Bernard, for example, that England (and Europe at large) has never been purely white. Black Britons existed long before the modern conception of the term, Blake’s paradise was made possible by outsourcing its horrors to the victims of empire, Britain exported a vision of itself as true home to some of its colonial subjects as a means of cultural control. Martinez de las Rivas’ vision of his homeland is built around a vast fiction that centres white bodies and erases all else. Finally in the interview, he explains his reasons for so intensely imagining an England returned to a state of prelapsarian purity:

‘All of which — as much as I love Spain — has only served to intensify a kind of longing in me for an England that I remember and love intensely, but to which I have no real recourse now. So if that vision is overdone, there are good reasons for it.’

Again, the fiction that such a pure nation ever existed is necessary to justify his thinking. Martinez de las Rivas frames himself has the real victim: of modernity, of urbanity, of diversity, brought low by loving his nation too much. The violence his vision would necessarily entail – cultural cleansing, mass deportation, genocide, the return of the strong body of the imperial State – is erased by his one and only recourse to emotion. Either the cultural complexity of the ‘urban’ or the coherent national body may be preserved, and Martinez de las Rivas is clear which he would prefer. What exists outside his ideal State cannot exist, much less have value.

 

*             *             *

 

This line of thinking is nothing new for Martinez de las Rivas. Here is the first sentence of his essay ‘Conflict and Change in the Poetic Theologies of C.H. Sisson and Jack Clemo’, published in PN Review, issue 217 (May-June 2014):

‘In the last few years, ‘radical’ as an epithet in poetry has come to be shorthand for a very particular kind of writing: politically submissive to Marxist dogma, syntactically committed to what is now termed the ‘interrupted lyric’, historically associated in the UK with the Cambridge School, and metaphysically derived from a range of post-structuralist continental thinkers.’

As with Mussolini’s rendering of ‘socialism’ and ‘liberalism’, there is no substance to his definitions, no solid referent, though it presents itself very correctly and properly and would absolutely pass in polite conversation. Missing from Martinez de las Rivas’ opening thesis is the following: who uses ‘radical’ in this way, who is writing this kind of poetry, what evidence he has that they are Marxist, what being ‘politically submissive’ to Marxism means in practice, which Marxist ‘dogma’ in particular they are submissive to, what it means to be ‘syntactically committed’ to anything, who has used the term ‘interrupted lyric’ and about whom, how they are associated with the Cambridge School, who exactly the Cambridge School is, how these historical associations manifest, who the range of post-structuralist thinkers are, what the post-structuralist thinkers think regarding poetry, and how the poets’ writing is derived from those thinkers. And yet, for all the worthlessness of this sentence as a critical thought, a) you, and most certainly subscribers to PN Review, probably know exactly who he’s talking about; b) it takes far longer to break down and critique the vast number of fallacies he has committed than to commit them in the first place; c) in trying to understand what he means on a clause by clause basis, I have completely missed its substance and purpose: Martinez de las Rivas wants right wing politics in poetry, needs a strawman to justify it, and so has created one. While I sit here puzzling through his word salad, he and those sympathic to his airy generalities have already won. Here’s the next passage:

‘But postmodern theories of text and analysis have long since become commonplace in the discourse both of the academy and wider culture, and perhaps the truly radical now would be to see a deep political shift from the left to the right, or the substitution of a committed neo-­Georgian ruralism for a (de)constructivist urbanism in the halls of innovative poetics. The fact that such unbreakable taboos exist reveals the limited aspirations of the so-called radicalism of the recent avant-garde, if, by that, we mean an art which might genuinely shake itself, and, as a consequence, us.’ [emphasis mine]

And here’s the payoff. Because contemporary poetry is in thrall to Marx, it follows that the only solution is to make it fascist. The wild conclusion is reached so quickly, and so quickly leads to another wild conclusion, that it is difficult to respond rationally (which postmodern theories? both academic and ‘wider’ culture? which specific aspects of wider culture? where are these ‘halls’ if not in the academy? if desiring right-wing politics in art is an unbreakable taboo, how did you just break it? why is ‘shaking’ desirable? Who is shaking and who is being shaken? etc). Note also how neo-Georgian ruralism (the revival of King and country) sits in opposition to the deconstructed ‘urbanism’; this counterpoint of regal solidity and urban degradation is a recurring theme. Again, Martinez de las Rivas does not define what ‘urbanism’ means, or what the ‘unbreakable taboos’ of the leftist avant garde are, because he knows his readers will make the leap. ‘Urbanism’ is a dog whistle, and it means all the unclean, deconstructed folk who live in cities. And we all know who lives in cities. ‘Unbreakable taboos’, meanwhile, is a very obvious nod toward the fictional narrative of left-wing sensitivity, usually made by people who destroy a country because their passports aren’t blue. This ‘nazis are the real punk rock / socialists are the real fascists’ narrative has been parroted by any number of soft focus profiles of ethnonationalists in national newspapers for years across the anglophone world. Again, these obvious double-standards are features, not flaws; the consistent element is that white men control of the terms of any conversation, and may change the rules as we please.

 

*             *             *

 

But Martinez de las Rivas is a poet, and it is only fair to discuss his poetry. Here’s the poem shared on the Forward Arts website, ‘At Lullington Church/To My Daughter’:

‘In my kingdom it is winter forever.
The snow falls & there is no time nor day –
no distinction between things, no compare,
no flaw to taint our rudimentary clay.

The falcon has flown away with history,
the bullfinch sheathed in ice & snow, the bare
branch shall never know its May,
nor husband teach the vanity of despair.

Nothing disturbs its peaceful sleep, no dream
of life, no hope, no falsifying dawn
alleviate the blank space within the frame –
no words to speak, no beauty to adorn.

Until she wakes and finds herself alone,
you are her rock, Lord. Lord, you are stone.
Lully, Lulley, Lully, Lulley.

Martinez de las Rivas is correct: I detect his monarchism, Unionism and Anglicanism quite distinctly: this is a wish for paradise for the poet’s daughter, divinely provided and protected from history. I have no reason to believe he has lied about all his other beliefs about the necessary purity of the body politic. That final turn, in which the daughter wakes, alone but for the Lord’s presence, can only work if what goes previously is considered a positive, desirable space, or at least a safe one. I cannot read this poem critically without acknowledging the poet’s beliefs: it’s what the poet wants me to do, for one thing. I cannot engage with his theoretical dream of a white nation without seeing it in his practice, its ham-fisted reference to the historical falconry of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, another poem written by a high church Protestant with dreams of pure nationhood ruled by aristocracy, who also gravely feared the unclean, unholy masses ‘slouching toward Bethlehem’.

Here are lines from ‘To a Metropolitan Poet’, also from Black Sun:

‘Christ, I can’t stand these popinjays,
so deep in theory, so ostentatiously tolerant.
[…] This is so fucking point-
less, Tobe. You are not theirs, finally, or even
hís, that sees beauty where no other can.’

Martinez de las Rivas violently rejects the idea of sincere ‘tolerance’, the theories (which theories?) of these insubstantial dandies in opposition to his own, rock-solid, faith in a god that ‘holds the rod & sits in judgement’, who may well be a ‘portion of my / self’. The metropolitans stand outside his ideal nation, and barely exist, much less have value.

Here are lines from ‘England’, which opens the book’s middle section, a positioning Andrew Frayn identifies as ‘suggesting its centrality to [Martinez de las Rivas’] identity’:

Hermosa, let me try a final
octave turning south into a wind that stubbornly
flitters through torn pennants of sacking,
purrs in the steel tubes of the gate;
that drives each ponderous & docile cloud
slowly out across the State that is only
an image of the body inviolate,
the nation that extends through all time & space.’

The immaculate body is the nation, the nation is England, England is the eternal nation of heaven. Mussolini: ‘The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist… everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state’. In the poetry of Martinez de las Rivas, Christ’s body is the white nation, a totalising image of purity and political control.

 

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Poetry is not truth. The world is confusing, human bodies are flawed and compromised instruments, and subject to constant, unpredictable change. The theories we construct around or through poetry are subject to constant revision as we attempt to forge better tools for understanding each other and the world we inhabit, in all its messiness and compromise. Fascism, white nationalism, ethnonationalism, totalitarianism all attempt to erase these complications, to reduce life and its value down to a singularity, a uniformity, that which is most easily controlled and exploited. They are marked by their capacity to appear normal, invisible where possible and virtuous where necessary, innocent in the face of imagined threats from within and without.

Martinez de las Rivas’ exaltation alongside three American poets, one Trinidadian poet and one Trinidadian/British poet is bitterly disappointing, and should not be allowed to pass without comment. He is not fit to stand alongside those whose writing has endured and clarified the very conditions his own writing so eagerly espouses. The Forward Prize is not only an award, though the award is substantial; it is an opportunity to become a power player in the poetry community, to headline festivals, feature in national dailies, boost one’s allies and, in however small a way, shape poetry culture in these islands. There is a one-in-five chance that this power will fall to a poet whose politics are violently retrograde and exclusionary by design, whose idea of paradise lies in the racist fantasies of the most reactionary English nationalism.

As I argued earlier, one reason white nationalism has been so successful is plausible deniability, the safety of nods and winks. There will almost certainly be people who read this essay and see nothing but conspiracy theory and speculation, rather than a series of red flags, the visible residue of a totalising ideology. That is fine. If that is where you are right now, I was never going to convince you. But at least, I tell myself as I write this, I have put it where we can both see it. Thank you for reading.

 

Postscript: it has come to my attention that Martinez de las Rivas wrote and published a poem called ‘elegy for the young hitler’. That feels relevant.

Further postscript: here is a photograph of Taylor Wilson, a neo-nazi convicted of a terrorist attack on an Amtrak train in America. Wilson is carrying the symbol of the Black Sun. The man on the right of the photo is James Fields, a neo-nazi who murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.

[Data Resource] The State of Poetry and Poetry Criticism in the UK and Ireland, Jan 2012 – Mar 2018

Editorial staff from some of the outlets included in the most recent iteration of this study have requested more detailed data than was analysed in the report published by the Centre for New and International Writing, so I’ve made that available in full here.

For clarity: the data for ‘Poetry Criticism’ concerns reviews of individual books, and not critical essays, cultural criticism, features, interviews or other works of critical prose. I hope to study these in the future under their own category.

NB: The data collected here is accurate up to March 2018; as the data for 2018 is incomplete, it should not be taken as indicative of any ongoing trends. In this iteration, my data for The White Review has significant gaps, due to incomplete archives in the library where I was researching.

The limitations of the terms used in this study have been outlined in previous publications, and still apply here. Clicking on the tables will open a larger version in a separate tab on your browser, or you can download them as .xlsx files using the links below.

Poetry criticism:

Download as Excel Spreadsheet

Poetry:

Download as Excel Spreadsheet

The Lyric is in Another Castle: Poetry and Video Games

Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death by talking about writing this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley for insightful close reading and structural editing. A reader’s note: this is a bit of a long’un, and it’s divided into three sections. Take them as you will. Video games and poetry. Here goes.

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Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the twice Ted Hughes Prize-nominated Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.

But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s onward:

The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.

Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:

Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader/player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.

But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of the first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:

How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. auntie pixelante has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how this level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question pixelante poses is:

How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, just by playing the game?

pixelante goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. pixelante describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.

This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The interpretive limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatization of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.

How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second, hope you like weird, inscrutable feelings”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly within the reader-player’s comprehension throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona, or fictional poetry tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.

The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.

This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader for what’s to come. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no pressing need to go back up the page, or back along the line.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Kevin’s interiority and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.

This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language, imagery and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole with a congratulatory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a musical full stop, a syntactic flourish to impress a sense completion upon the reader. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t feel half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.

Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often laid out with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.

 

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A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away,  or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.

In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous cleaner, an unnamed Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:

The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is still trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.

There are points of reference in the janitor’s experiences I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about, and my own experience of, wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not the buzz of overcoming a set-piece challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.

The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:

I stood at the dangerous shore.

Already this is a bit weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.

Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.

This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to parse, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it.

It feels like the sea’s words have prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though they are possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.

And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.

If the previous line didn’t alert the reader that something untoward is afoot, now it’s clear the poem has shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as they describe what seems like a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its restraint is now unsettling in its absence of concern. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, the import of ‘the sign of the anchor’, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed.

I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.

Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.

This last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe in the opening lines, their relatively petty discomforts; bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement in itself. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable urgency. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.

My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to mere confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present their tools and related obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss the context in which they are best employed, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity.

 

*

 

A recent trend in single-poet collections – to my knowledge, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017), for example, all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.

As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, seems less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and vatic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:

‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’

Ellams in #Afterhours:

‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’

Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:

‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’

For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains. (It’s worth that the Ted Hughes Prize has a history of recognising formally unconventional projects.) Are such prosaic interludes a distant cousin of videogaming’s ‘casual’ modes, which take lengths to make games playable and enjoyable to everyone and not just the initiated, time- and resource-abundant few?

Broken fourth walls are somewhat harder to categorise in games, and it’s also rare that the game is the work of a single developer. A noteworthy exception on both counts is The Beginner’s Guide (2015). Here, real-life developer Davey Wreden voiced an in-game character named Davey Wreden who had stolen a series of short games made by a friend and arranged them as his own game with his own critical commentary, which he named The Beginner’s Guide. This briefly but embarrassingly short-circuited a critical community ill-equipped for drawing nuanced distinctions between game creators and their creations.

An altogether less metatextually fraught example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). Foddy is the developer and narrator of the game, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:

(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)

Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:

“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
– Atticus

The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to apologise for the game’s difficulty, comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, reassure the player that rest is necessary and important; he is a determinedly nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.

 

*

 

I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m sticking to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe it’s that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational.  If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks for playing.

 

Works Cited:

Poetry

Kirstin Irving and Jon Stone (eds.) – Coin Opera & Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Harry Giles – Raik

R.A. Villanueva – Reliquaria

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Seamus Heaney – The Haw Lantern, The Spirit Level

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Sophie Collins – Who is Mary Sue?

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

 

Games

Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero

Infinite Fall – Night in the Woods

Nintendo – Super Mario Bros

auntie pixelante – To the Right, Hold on Tight

Coffee Stain Publishing – Goat Simulator

tinyBuild GAMES – Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Everything Unlimited Ltd. – The Beginner’s Guide

Bennett Foddy – Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy