The writers in question—Marianne Morris, Luke Roberts, Sophie Robinson, and Josh Stanley; Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Joseph Luna, and Timothy Thornton—start out from the devastations and dispossessions wrought by the neoliberal state, in search of a poetic response to structural violence—their theme is this precarious life that makes the lyric's deliberative care and love seem patently superfluous.
Poems, Written Between October and December 2010, by Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Joseph Luna, and Timothy Thornton. Grasp Press, 2011.
Untitled Colossal Parlour Odes, by Marianne Morris, Luke Roberts, Sophie Robinson, and Josh Stanley. Bad Press, 2011.
London was burning long before 2011's summer irruption of urban insurrection. From the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots, to the antiwar movement of the 1960s, to the Brixton and Broadwater Farm uprisings against the sanctioned police murders of black civilians in the 1980s, race, class, and anti-imperial tensions have flared in mass actions, counterblasts to liberal narratives of progress. In late 2010, unprecedented austerity cuts enacted by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government set into motion a series of protests throughout the U.K.; the two pamphlets of poetry up for discussion here respond to these cuts as part of a tradition of artistic and intellectual collaboration with social movements. The cuts in question embraced almost every sector of the already whittled-down welfare state; those targeting higher education aroused special ire amongst artists and intellectuals. These policies followed the game-changing recommendations of Lord John Browne (former CEO of BP), who proposed to shift state debt onto students by cutting all funding of non-priority subjects (humanities and social sciences foremost among them) and raising student fees by well over 200% by 2012-13. The massive protests that followed featured a range of tactics from marches to the destruction of corporate and state property. The writers in question—Marianne Morris, Luke Roberts, Sophie Robinson, and Josh Stanley; Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Joseph Luna, and Timothy Thornton—start out from the devastations and dispossessions wrought by the neoliberal state, in search of a poetic response to structural violence—their theme is this precarious life that makes the lyric's deliberative care and love seem patently superfluous.
Both pamphlets belong to the obscure subgenre of collectively authored chapbooks; the first wears its communitarian provenance on its sleeve. The arc of occasions in Poems, written between October and December 2010, part of Grasp Press's "Folds" series (of handcrafted accordion-fold books), is contained in the title. The sociopolitical impetus of these poems comes bundled together by independent presses and reading series launched over the past five years in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Cork, Manchester, and Edinburgh, and run by 20-something poets, some with official University sponsorship. Other presses and series issue hand-sewn, letterpress productions and personally distribute them (I sewed together my own copy of Ian Heames' "Bad Flowers" over drinks); still others work in the tradition of the zine or political mimeograph—i.e., Xerox and staple. Friendships and readerships are understood to be co-constitutive of writing in which semi-secret pseudonyms abound, and poets collaborate on site-specific and performance-based projects. Many have also taken their readings to the streets in the context of political actions.
Poems, written contains the work of four rather different poets, each in their twenties and based either in Brighton or London. The chronologically arranged and dated poems give the pamphlet a documentary quality enhanced by the multiple keywords drawn from the media and the writers' own first-hand accounts of the protests. Place names and police tactics flit about. “Kettling,” the practice of holding demonstrators entrapped for hours until the energy of the street dissipates, is particularly prominent. Social documentation of this sort presents a set of problems for reading. Does the book make kettling news in a way that goes beyond the liberal shock at instances of repressive violence? Writing about the largely middle-income student movements, Danny Hayward, a poet and political-theorist-friend of these writers, has criticized the practice among protesters of proudly proclaiming their “street cred” in the aftermath of a kettle, assuming that all working class youths aim to be like them. As he writes:
By imputing to working class teenagers the desire to ‘protest’ up to the point where they resemble us in the cracked mirror of our own (bourgeois) sociological concepts (i.e., up to the point when they possess the minimal resources required to compete with us – at a safe disadvantage – in education and labour markets), the conception tells us nothing about the real complexity of class based impulses or aversions or about how they might be put to work ‘on the ground’ in the production of a real movement against capital and its servant institutions.[i]
Hayward’s comments underline the dangers of viewing the anti-austerity movement as a "new" kind of response to "new" social experiences. Poems, written sharply navigates this perspectival problem of uneven systemic violence, probing the interstices of political antagonism and tenderness built into its collective authorship. The fold is not a dramatic dialogue. Distinct lyric stances take each other on in Poems, written and not without resistance and contradiction in this unevenly achieved progression.
Of the three opening poems by Francesca Lisette, the first, the only poem dated from October, sounds a dystopian, inauspicious start, mockingly demanding the stark conditions that spurred the protest:
...Make me lie in a
dark bed stripped with froth; outer
town stationary pet rumours there are
no people left and zombies parade
their dice heads serving Osborne's
roulette wheel, all the $ replaced with %.
The use of symbols rather than words here complicates the documentary tone, exhibiting skepticism toward such accounting and recounting. It is as if the straightforward narration of violence is complicit with the crippling realism of financial rationality– better to ironize the symbols that reduce lives to numbers. Lisette's taunts at the Cameron government tremble with a bravado that gives way to more ambivalent assertions:
where have your eyes gone back to,
dreamed under curricula leaf solos still
shaking the impossible X wants to
wipe you out like a fishy fanny
the difference is unrecountable.
The passage terminates in a whisper against the logic of "accountability" that shores up the vampirism of capital and the depredations of the privatizing state. One phrase that follows is a grotesque rendition of romantic lyric's impulse to embrace: "o loveable debt!" This first poem thus sets up a central task for the rest of the collection—to produce a lyric détournement of the logic of austerity.
By the second poem, dated November 2-8, with protests well under way, the psycho-geography of London is unfixed. The focus shifts from despair to the feverish sensuality of mass action. An apparently sincere first-person-plural has also emerged in this shift:
dare to breathe, i'm sorry we cant
limit push beyond oil-well slip
pulled up at midnight, your blue slender
taskforce unhooking and papering silver crosses on aching trees
The embodiment of oppression and of passion alike is figured here through prosthetic layering. Apparel comes on and off with the manipulation of slips, covers, skins and marks, substances that burn these coats off or cover them further. It all stews together—
souped in a stink of bone & brevity
what loses face to maul, what pools
love to arson, shifts light ungathered
to a narrower acid track.
—and the designation "what pools / love to arson" queries incendiary poetic passion, the finely-differentiated’s indifferent combustion .[ii] The net effect of lyric care may be its own annihilation—but this possibility goes unevaluated at this point, insofar as the valences of "arson" or even a "narrowed acid track" depend on the social content of that which they seek to abolish. Lyric cannot solve this sort of social puzzle, even as it can track its shifts and layers.
Timothy Thornton achieves a degree of care, however ironical or despairing, that seems inaccessible to the other poets. His work is beautiful and pissed off. In many hands, this combination can tend toward resignation and pseudo-theology, but Thornton remains a materialist, and he never departs from contemporary precarity’s affective, linguistic texture. His poems all date from December, after the events of 10 November, when, during a march of over 50,000 to Whitechapel, some protesters broke away to occupy and trash 30 Millbank, the corporate skyscraper that houses the Conservative party's campaign offices. The occupation and vandalism led to immediate altercations with a disproportionately violent Metropolitan police force. In the aftermath, many public figures, prominent liberals included, issued statements of moral opprobrium, denouncing the "thoughtless violence" of the protesters or dismissing them as “bad,” renegade elements, not expressions of a cornered determination, inverting calculations of the government. Thornton attempts to countenance such betrayals in his poem from December 4th, a kettle poem that seeks potential in constraint.
Thornton's poem from December 10th, the best standalone poem in the pamphlet, works through the conceit of the command with which it begins: "now stop/ the injured bird's heart." This murderous injunction follows what seems like a gentle satire of the lines by Jonny Liron that precede it, which close with "fucking myself to tears." Thornton's next words—"our hero/ ejaculates just as the hat-pin pierces the rat's/ heart; the cop's heart is felt in the ears and/ in the temples; abrasive crepe pulse, anechoic/ linen...."—begin a description of the heart as a violent organ, both central and mobile, an autonomous organ that is tactile and audible in ears and temples. These lines explode the heart as the cop goes on "rolling his stark winter sky right out/ into the bedroom and around the city's heart, lapping at the street-lamps as it goes." The regular line lengths and stanzas of Thornton’s contributions don’t resemble those of the other poets. Still, the poems are not immune to seriality. Within the context of the fold, the 12/10 poem gives an honest go at something like a socialized individuality of song:
if you see a tendon or a nerve, it
should be a heart-string, make it one, make
sure to lash it to the sky, which is as much
love for the riot helmet as it is hate for
no riot shields. Can someone please put some
towels down for the horses now, they're
getting iron dust all over the tarmac, said
the street, and little bits of tarmac on their shoes.
Something like a clock strikes. "If there are no towels just
use newspaper." Find out the badge number tenderly, by
massaging the prostate, and stop that injured
bird's heart (your hands might shake) by applying
gentle pressure (just enough to stop the beating) between
you and me (and the thumb and forefinger)
Next up is Jonny Liron, whose poems alternate between a Cambridge School lyric that questions its right to be beautiful and a sort of conceptualism formed through repetitive blocks of casual speech, permutations of pornographic and mass media languages. Sex serves as Liron’s exemplary form of undoing. He begs to be fucked. This utopian attitude toward sex sits rather uncomfortably alongside the sexual disgust that pervades the remainder of the fold, Liron's own work included. But Liron hits his stride at his most seemingly sincere. His sincerity doesn’t knowingly attend an ironic questioning of lyric beauty. Polemical, it unabashedly intervenes in the sexual politics of protest. This is actually quite difficult to pull off, verging as it can on naïve didacticism, and it is quite moving when it works, as in the following from December 10th:
In the Protest / Playground, we act out that violence that brutalised us in the first place, Coward. Coward. Coward. Piggy Piggy Piggy...
We got called pussy and prick, gay and faggot, girl.
So in turn, we reward the most stupid and scared of us, for fear of being called
Coward. Cop Lover. We bully us into obliteration, so (we) are here to refuse that.
The difficulties of creating collectivities through opposition weigh particularly on the problem of saying "we" in these lines. Any collective may override its constituent parts. "We bully us into obliteration, so (we) are here to refuse that" registers this problem without giving in to a pluralist rhetoric of diversity, voicing the felt need for a collective subject in poetic protest while registering the violence that accompanies such celebrations of homogeneous community. Liron demands a collectivity that allows autonomous spaces for sexual difference that are neither separatist nor simply marginal. Liron next moves through more violent invective, followed by what I call his "pornographs," block prose stanzas of unpunctuated sex talk. A quick sample: "I want my cunt fucked and dog cunt and cum in my mouth and throat and cunt and cum up me and on my cock your cock on my cock and cunthole and arsehole and real fucking and outside and I want your smell up my arse and your cunt and my cunt..." In some of Liron's work, the apparent fervor of the pornographs can verge on the banally gratuitous. They aim to disgust and divide "us" so that the poem's next and final line returns gently to the wounded voice of the earlier sections of the poem, this time materially seeking some space for the ecstasies of penetrability: "Young boy needs room to meet other like minded people in..." This actually works toward, if it does not itself achieve, a strategic thinking of sexual differentiation, one that might not preclude class solidarity.
Joe Luna's long, concluding poem from November obliquely comments on the other contributions, cataloguing the motifs of the fold. His lines include legible echoes of his comrades: "While aching to be fucked deeply in the heart" speaks to a conflation of Liron (fucked) and Thornton (heart), for example. For Luna, there’s sexiness in the kettle for all its forced proximity (as in Thornton) and its apparent erasure of distinction (as in Lisette's soup):
with silliness & love taut multiplies
the trauma that produces humans. here
is my head so bleed it will you make my
infant mouth stay nothing: there, if I am
fully human, what goes in and how
the square can phrase that with a charge
of infantilism or crack: head's mother
tongue's cheap trick, selling short what's smashing
but prevented, love: given half a chance
who wouldn't harm what represents us,
striking echo's pressure's fucked, surrounded
by the .mpeg of your most erotic moment,
glistening with someone else's sweat
Luna's juxtapositions of harm and care ("with silliness and love taut multiplies/ the trauma that produces humans") reflects the dialectic between love and violence I sense throughout the fold—a contradiction in which economic violence torques the subjects' love toward each other and toward the motive force of such care, namely, economic violence. Luna's frequent returns to "love" suggest an unwillingness to give up some transcendent love among us "fucked subjects." This is buttressed, however, by his prosody, and most particularly by his unusually frequent, and willfully confusing, use of apostrophes for possessives and contractions (as in "echo's pressure's fucked"). Conflation is king, not precision; not social anatomy but a soup of indifferentiation that loses analytic clarity. Transcendence then seems necessary, before being backed down by negation, as in the poem's close: "cherished hate its strangulating lifeline leftover/ politicks our love into the core of you."
But Luna's poem rails against its own maneuvers in its most memorable moment, a couplet that foregoes lexical complexity and enacts in simple declaratives the texture of complex feeling that pervades the volume. While Poems written... does not ask to be summed up as a political "message," this couplet provides at least one worthwhile slogan drawn from Catullus's "Odi et amo":
You become really scared of everything.
I hate it, and love you. That's not enough OK.
Untitled Colossal Parlour Odes, published by Marianne Morris's Bad Press, constructs its name from the titles of the poems it contains (Morris's "Untitled", Luke Roberts' "Colossal Boredom Swan Song", Sophie Robinson's "Parlour", and Josh Stanley's "Ode: for Frank O'Hara"). This volume’s four stand-alone poems (one per author) does not announce its provenance directly, but it, too, takes on the events of Fall 2010—more obliquely and mostly through the stance of refusal. These poems announce a devotion to failure, issue pledges to "nothing." The ode is loosely construed as a tonal rather than a formal structure; Robinson and Roberts's poems are composed in mostly regular stanza and line lengths, while Morris and Stanley's are irregular.
Luke Roberts's "Colossal Boredom Swan Song" is addressed, at certain moments, to "New British Poetry," the name sometimes given to the innovative, anti-"Movement" poetry most prominently encamped in Cambridge and London beginning in the 1960s.[iii] Roberts's poem was posted to the UK Poetry listserv on November 7, 2010—ostensibly composed in the wake of the austerity cuts, it speaks primarily to the discourses of late modernist British poetics. The effect is a sort of in-joke, although Roberts's frustration with the poetic attitude of solitary ethical embattlement is quite serious:
I, champion of poetry, salute the elders, put my
foot in a desk, kicking poetry with a desk lamp
strapped to my heart. Send me a sick bag to speak
to you from, leaving the pre-snow, glass headed
swans slowly tunnel through the mountain. In my dream
phones signify 'family', so synthetic brothers, sisters,
put your money all over the table. I am so tired it's
not true. I could do this all day, eating figs, eating
the remnants of New British Poetry, warring clams,
pelicans vomiting blood into boring glands, buying floor
fans to keep the city cool.
The passage is marked by terminology specific to the world of innovative British poetries— "warring clams," for instance, satirizes poetic infighting while echoing J.H. Prynne's 1977 News of Warring Clans. Roberts' masterful line breaks and his more patently absurd phraseology are driven by meter and other sonic demands: “I spoke warmly and my speech turned into a wing / and the wing broke my arms, and my arm continued to sing." The poem's violence comes from a declared determination to be done with the literary tradition the poem ostensibly continues ("continues to sing"). This is not a triumphal story ("I withdraw to my ethical bin bag, stay there/ the whole month"), but a discontinuous set of sentence-long hallucinations born out of boredom. There are continuous lexical and thematic threads, without progressive movement from one line to the next. The poem resolves with the annunciation of its desperate, promiscuous imagination: "I accept everything, every tiresome imitation of flight."
After spending time with the love and rage of Poems written, Marianne Morris's attention to ignoble feelings (envy and self-doubt) might seem beside the point. Her untitled poem begins with a repeated confession, "I do not know how to make a poetic thought/ I do not know how to make a poetic thought/ instead of envisioned." What follows, however, displays her erudition in order to mock philosophy's instrumentalization of language: "Every hawker of reason/ from Anselm of Canterbury to Jacques Rancière/ makes language her trampoline into the sublime..." Morris's poem skeptically considers women's roles in producing political poetry. Despite her gestures against ethical posturing in poetry, Morris's "Untitled" brims with the confidence of a writer railing against the privilege of her skill:
Is that what happens when you have
the body of a stout gazelle and love Pasolini
can identify that structures
of academic thought reproduce
but can't say why, have had school
paid to feed you with a hot, gummy spoon?
That spoon I spat out as if it was metal and slumped in the chair
Others swallowed the spoon, are lawyers. Others
are married with the spoon comfy there, pancreatic.
Morris isn’t comfy: "the mirror has been establishing itself all this time, / and yet all I can see in it are my errors." But she transvalues this account of lyric personhood, suggesting instead that lyric might provide, through its destructive errors, a vehicle for actual practices of care. Maybe poetry could index, perform, and demand a rhythm different from "the same old rhyme," a rhythm more like breathing alongside another person in an enclosed chamber. In this sense, the most apt metaphor might be that poetry's best practice is shotgunning a joint: "This means we are looking into mirrors of error./ This means we require each other's tenderness."
Josh Stanley's "Ode (for Frank O'Hara)" addresses the Night, apostrophized as a font of destructive potential:
Night, prevent the beautiful dawn from drawing on
the cyclical trap back to another wind up process
and as I have made the decision let me hold on with
not having made it for a little while longer in the
non-existent hell which is really a parking lot.
The five-page Ode is true to its name, rhapsodic and irregular, and it contains a number of brilliantly condensed lines ("dreams of longing that the night / alone is able to grant anti salvation killing," or, "fantasy is / an insufficient description of what can be / accomplished because I poetically go about / punching myself!") These lines push the reader on, a very good thing, since the poem is strongest at its end, where it takes on J.H. Prynne's 1971 poem about "rubbish," "L'extase de M. Poher":
Shit happens in the night like a pissed off blanket
refusing the moral life you give it, sort of
what the fuck you going to do that for
I was just trying to live it. It is always complicit
with the vast promiscuity purchased
word or unword saying "Fuck you" to
theoretical parturition – because the slime
is emphatically rubbish or out of place
and when the music stops you must slow
the rhyme too to meet this ontology of presence
by being dead in its face.
Here Stanley plays with internal rhymes and half-rhymes ("give it" "live it" "complicit") in the process of declaring a refusal to moralize, but "you must slow/ the rhyme" to be dead to the possibility of "it", the night, becoming an "ontology of presence" through "theoretical parturition." This doesn't mean that rhyme must end. Like the apostrophized night, it must not, yet it can only be affirmed through repeated invocation – "it should be somewhere else/ and there is nothing to do about it."
Sophie Robinson's "Parlour" provides the most obvious thematic link to Poems, written, shifting between scenes of policed protests and haunted domestic dreamscapes:
We fasten ourselves up like girls in parlours,
Shun sofa secrets, deaf words, these histories:
Domestic relics, my baby gods, now dead–
the sensation of it is gelatinous,
piles of cold carpet everywhere underfoot,
like snow – the room is filling with snow –
Robinson writes through the "parlour's" simultaneous publicity (the space for parlance) and privacy (the "family" room). It stages the coalition government's dismantling of social services. But the poem doesn't romanticize earlier incarnations of the welfare state; it suggests instead that queer refusals of good socialization have always been necessary in the face of seemingly benevolent forms of control and their nefarious ends. The poem circulates at first through the word "like"– both in terms of indicating resemblance, and as the expression of preference – as the edges blur between the public realm of rhetoric and the ostensible privacy of desire. Check the fourth stanza:
we're like honey – this is for you – I'm young &
I know nothing – I occupy all of your time.
I like having art poured into me wide-eyed.
Robinson drags queer passivity into the anti-austerity protest, suggesting that the solidarity forged in the kettle is not the result of revolutionary heroism but a desubjectifying passion. If Robinson writes a song for burning London, it is neither a cozy fireside sing-along nor an elegy for the funeral pyre. She writes as the deafening hiss of the flame. Where Poems, written sometimes sought transcendence, Robinson and her collaborators demand nothing, which is not quite the same as having no demands. If literary education is a luxury and not a right, if nothing is demanded of poetry, it can only be "dead in the face" of its antagonists. This might seem like a defeatist attitude, but only if we expect poetry to bring our salvation. All eight of these writers know that material struggle is what is demanded instead – if poetry can reflect this need through a real and sometimes violent force of love, then perhaps there is something to be done with it. The poem closes:
Soft fists tumble onto me like snowflakes:
this is the louse of love, this is its bite.
I am now covered in a brotherly blue,
the ultramarine of fresh men – sticky, thick.
Snow piles in each tidy corner. Elsewhere
there are fires. Mother has left the room.
The police are on their way. It is too bright
to see. A series of arms appear
to wrap around each other in blind
solidarity. This is for anyone.
A molotov cocktail sings. This is not love.
This is for no thing––
Books to buy online:
Additional books and presses of interest:
Marianne Morris, Commitment
Marianne Morris, Iran Documents
Sophie Robinson, a
Sophie Robinson, The Lotion
Josh Stanley, Contranight Escha Black
Josh Stanley, Glogy
Timothy Thornton, Jocund Day
Francesca Lisette, Teens
Luke Roberts, False Flags
Better Than Language: an anthology of new modernist poetries (ed. Chris Goode; includes Liron, Lisette, Luna, Stanley, Thornton)
Some Presses of interest:
[i] Hayward, Danny. "Adventures in the Sausage Factory: A Cursory Overview of UK University Struggles, November 2010 – July 2011." January 2012. Accessed 3/9/12 at http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/adventures-sausage-factory-cursory-overview-uk-university-struggles-november-2010-%E2%80%93-july-2011#2
[ii] See Andrea Brady's Wildfire: A Verse Essay for a brilliant performance of this problem.