Statement of Prejudice: Recommended by a couple of folk, having never heard of him previously, went on to write a paper partly focused on this book (see previous post), and so have read it perhaps more deeply than would otherwise be the case. Fair warning: the book depicts some graphic BDSM and the review discusses that.
Reality: This is a difficult book to write about. Essentially I had two completely distinct responses to it, the first, slightly exhilarating encounter with something entirely new, and the creeping realisation in the cold light of day that it doesn’t quite do what it says on its radical tin. So let’s do both.
Odes to TL61P is the most unusual book I’ve read in years. Its ambitious scope, its humour, its totally astute articulations of political abuse and the emptying out of meaning in contemporary culture; there are few writers in the poetry mainstream even similarly interested in politics, never mind capable of expressing with such clarity the scale of political malfeasance in neoliberal Britain.
The text itself is at times a surrealist nightmare, an assault of sensory information and white noise, a dramatized revulsion at living in a culture that so commodifies human life, subsuming it entirely to the whims of the marketplace and those who benefit most from it. All the while Sutherland renders this conflict in explicitly sexual terms, painting the world of politics as a reflection of capitalism’s sexual obsessions and corruptions. The first half of the book operates in this greatly discomfiting tone, and the deconstruction of police suppression of the Trafalgar Square protests in the middle of it all gives the critique a bit of a Dr Strangelove flavour, a logical unraveling of the unstoppable psychosis of military-capitalism reverberating from the macro-social to the intimately personal.
This idea that power corrupts even in individual romantic relationships, at the site of our deepest ties to power (to quote Mathew Abbott) is central to Odes. It was also in exploring this idea, and Odes’ presentation of it, that alarm bells quietly started. On the one hand, Sutherland’s graphic relation of his youthful romances position him both in extreme dominant and submissive roles, as male sadist and male masochist, even, memorably, a fantasy in which he is his own perfect sexual partner, sending up macho masculinity by embodying its antithesis. But how much do these accounts in their playing out of power dynamics actually question or undermine commonly held assumptions about sex? Are they supposed to? It’s notable that the book’s extensive engagement with porn’s formulations of power (and the appropriation of its vocabulary) rarely strays from the mainstream; there’s an apt point to be made that the fault is not with pornography at a conceptual level (there are many kinds of porn!) but in its blunt iteration of cultural norms.
Which might seem like a cute point, but it is a salient example of Sutherland failing or neglecting to present alternatives to the undesirable norm. While the sex scenes depicted above are graphic, frank and honest (though what is honesty when it challenges so little?), they are exclusively male-focused. The women who do appear (and gosh do I get tired of typing this!) are frequently genitals stripped of identity (‘The really beautiful woman who is yet to explain how I should fight to retain Thatcher’s rebate is now bent over into a suggestion about how to prop up the euro; I can see into her womb’), frequently figured in terms of bondage or domination, a childhood crush depicted only in terms of her frightening beauty, carrying all the implications of oppositional gender roles, several passages of weaponised Freudian theory. For one reason or another the poet repeatedly depicts women in terms of sexual degradation or subjugation; when he talks about the Occupy protests through the pov of the Met Police Commander he takes pains to put that point of view in context. Why not elsewhere? One section reads, ‘I’d sooner drown in bed forever with the women from my twenties, painting a sky of orgasms, acting insoluble. I remember the number I had beautiful sex with but not their total number.’ Is there a more culturally conventional attitude to sex than fetishizing twenty-somethings and regarding sex as a primarily first-person experience, ‘I’ more than ‘we’, a matter of accumulated personal victories? Does a book that is in other places genuinely revolutionary have nothing more complicated to say on the matter? Odes makes long-term monogamy seem positively radical. Another section opens ‘But all sex is barbaric. We are the pleasures we enjoy, the blisses we admire; and all sex is a text, wingbats in a gaping slang.’ I can’t help reading that as a fortunate outcome for a male academic. How does that play out for the folk on the other side of the relationship?
Please excuse the sarcasm, this may be a crucial point. The book’s approach to sexuality does not confront British culture’s appropriation of it as much as revel in it. And here is another point I struggled with: what does Sutherland mean? There is no obligation, of course, for an author to endorse what they present. My counter is that that relies on context; if this is satire, where is the indication that something is wrong? Odes happily deconstructs oppressive political structures while merely presenting gendered oppression apparently without commentary. If Sutherland is presenting the ills of society for a feminist purpose, he hides it much better than his more traditionally socialist beliefs, and I can find no evidence in the book to contradict this suspicion. Which is gravely disappointing in an author who elsewhere wrote ‘Class, race, gender and sexuality are not just categories supervening on individuals, but worlds of subjective experience that extend right into their capillaries and marrow’.
This was the point when my reading of the book’s truly worthy mission began to unravel. ‘You become radical when the only thing you can do to rouse the sleeping public is something truly catastrophic.’ This holds with the poet’s depictions of Millbank and Trafalgar Square, but Britain is not Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, and it might be a little premature to think in terms of violent revolution. ‘The West Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with a cabin, a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin had England’. This is a gross oversimplification of Belfast, Dublin, West Ireland, England, maybe even cabins and pigs. Placing this statement in a book primarily concerned with military atrocities in the Middle East is an easy and unhelpful conflation of both individual suffering and the historical context that allowed it to flourish. The book would have gone a long way to covering these flaws with judicious self-doubt or self-criticism, but the mode of the poetry does not allow much room for ambiguity. The fault then, which the book should understand, is not with the execution of the poetic mode but with the poetic mode itself. Read Sinéad Morrissey for a subversive text that does not collude in the exploitation it protests.
Tl;dr: Sutherland is Professor of Poetry at Sussex Uni and a Marx scholar and I’m frustratingly aware of a fair bit of his cultural theory may very well be passing me by. I’d love someone with a firmer grasp of what Sutherland’s discussing to weigh in, I have to admit feeling out of my academic depth, and there’s every chance I’m missing something that would defuse my concerns about the book. On one hand, Odes is a genuinely subversive text. On the other, it has huge blind spots absolutely of a character in contemporary British poetry and I’m unwilling to let it slide, particularly with some of the undiluted heraldry of his work on- and offline. As it is, Odes is for all intents and purposes a one-perspective show, the Self dramatized, spotlit, and much too keen on self-mythologising to be truly unsullied by the poetic (and academic) mainstream, a book that falls short of its admirably radical goals.