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Arduity: Simon Jarvis' The Unconditional.

Five things that can be said about "The Unconditional":

The poem tells the story of a road trip to Cambridge and features four characters, QNUXMUXKYL, =x, Jobless and Agramant- none of these have a good time.

Simon Jarvis is of the view that constrained, as opposed to free, verse is a very good way of doing philosophical work. His academic work has focused on Adorno's practice, the philosophical dimensions of Wordsworth's verse and impressing upon us the continuing importance/relevance of prosody. The poem can be seen as a working out or a demonstration of the 'Prosody is really good' argument and one of the very real joys of reading the poem is to put this observation to the test.

There are films (The Sacrifice, Satantango) where nothing much happens but this nothing much occurs in really interesting ways. On my first reading I tended to get stuck on the use of digression in 'The Unconditional' as a variation on the slow cinema trope. This was a mistake because I was focused on the barriers to 'understanding' rather than going along with this particular conceit.

I'm now of the view that what might be going on is that well-worn modernist anxiety about doing justice to what Pound thought of as 'the whole shooting match'. The only evidence I have for this is that qualification is built on qualification so that, at times, there is this quite obsessive anxiety to say all of what ne eds to be said.

One of the more useful ways to read the text is to read each long sentence as a poem in itself and then 'fit' it into what might be occurring on a larger scale.

A brief example

I've tried hard to locate a passage that will adequately represent 'The Unconditional' but have failed, this is primarily due the Jarvis tendency to stick with one particular train of thought for very long periods of time. In what follows, it is important to know that Agramant is the poem's arch-villain:

  Later in Services formica teemed.
Nonsemiotic grapefruit eating all about
extended its impossible ideal.
Lay your knife and fork across your plate.
Against all furious effort the slack face
still with each gobful let some wet sign slip
to sit with meaning on the grating chin
while if de minimis a muscle there
could give no noticeable twitch that did
not paint a message in the vacant air
causing nonsemiosis to migrate
from off this world's bad grapefruit to some skies
of uninhabitable scientistic loss.
Agramant tucked into his bacon.

I've chosen the above as a demonstration of both the delights and challenges that face even the most patient reader. It is too ornate, there is too much faux self-deprecation going on but all of these irritations are startling enough (most of the time) to overcome any sense of annoyance. The above is about eating segments of grapefruit in a motorway services cafeteria. There's a lengthy and quite spiteful playing around with theory making that Jarvis finds to be suspect and there's this ornate piece of self-mockery going on that appears to be about using poetry to undermine itself. The other device is to mix refined and/or obscure terms with the colloquial (de minimis, scientistic, semiosis (tic), gobful, tucked into). The redeeming features are;

A Longer but Carefully Chosen Example.

Looking through my much-travelled copy, this is the bit that has attracted the scribbles of approval over the last four years:


                      "He wants to eat the whole world for himself
     Or want to eat it up bit could not reach.
                       With both hands he eats at the edge of the world
     then vomits for all the inverse satisfactions."
                        Refreshing vertigos of turning down
     the stocks who tumble where they choose to go 
                         like beingless becoming darkening
     and melting into inexistent air
                         or never in the noplace foundering
     against their own renihilable tide
                         changeless decay eternally unlives
      silver as unsubstantial futures fly
                         swift in their joy but swifter in despair
      resolving agony to metaphor
                         as figures there are all the loss I know
      plummeting dumbly in the intense inane 
                         Get me a quote on debris and body parts.
      Ignore the inconvenience of being dead.
                         The love their Transzendenzzusammenhang
      the more in every feature it irreals.
                          "When Imay speak of swoons and tremblings 
      know that these are not such in the sense
                          that any one might see us critically
      falter or drop, not the very reverse.
                          These words are meant transcendentally.
      To understand this see reverse of peacket.")

As with the above, readerly attention is required to follow the argument but the meter does help in making the various points. Needless to say, Jarvis is of the left and has little time for the damage done in our brave new neo-liberal world. One aspect that I haven't mentioned is the frequent use of words that aren't in the dictionary, 'irreal' and 'rhenihilable' fall into this category whereas 'Transzendenzzusammenhang' appears to be a compound German word; transcendce and context placed together. These are both Good Things. Needless to say, I'm very fond of the quote on debris and body parts which appeals to my reasonably grim sense of humour. I can just about 'stomach' the too-clever cleverness of the eat / vomit device but not without some effort and I'm not sure that the allegory (consumption / waste) is entirely successful. It's still a brilliant piece of poetry and these cropu up throughout the poem.

The Unconditional ends with; ")))))" which may or may not be a reference to Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa which is the foundational text for the Oulpo group of self-constrainers such as Georges Perec. I find Roussel's clause within clause device intensely annoying, especially as the text doen't seem to say very much. The same thing here however gives me additional cause for admiration.

All of which adds up to a completely absorbing piece of work that challenges many of our modernist assumptions about the abiding strength of the metrical line.

This needs to be read and is still available from Barque Press for 15 quid.