J H Prynne's Al-Dente

This is the latest Prynne collection and it's very small. The pamphlet is the size of a passport and contains eight poems, all less than a page in length. It also marks a return to kind of sparse language that's halfway between that found in Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian and Sub Songs. Being a fan of the terser end of the Prynne spectrum, this is good news and I'd like to report some initial impressions.

Before we get to that, a brief digression on the process of attending to work like this, I'd like to offer a brief quote from John Peck:

Yet how else is one to get to ground, if not by trusting oneself to stop, wait, make inventory, dig, recompute, and then rise again to the encounter? It's the only honest way. David Jones might liken it to the debriefing given by a party out on reconnoiter.

This is a neat and precise summary of what arduity is trying to promote and encourage as a means of active participation in the encounter with the poem. As regular readers may know, I'm particularly fond of the emphasis on honesty and the notion of reading poetry as an encounter, in the way that Paul Celan describes. In this particular instance, I'm only just at the 'waiting' stage but that's a good place to be.

How to read Prynne

Prynne is a controversial figure for many reasons but one of the main charges that are levelled is one of being too oblique, too difficult to get even a handhold at what might be going on. There is a danger the Al Dente will be held up as a further example of the incomprehensible, the ungraspably obscure. I hope to dispell at least some of that view.

So, to use the Jones analogy this is a tentative debriefing from an brief reconnoitre undertaken in fog at night.

Compiling an Initial Inventory.

As with Sub Songs, each poem has a title and my first chosen task in making the inventory is to try and work out if there are an commonalities between these eight. My justification for this is one of Prynne's observations in Difficulties in the Translation of "Difficult" Poems:

But in certain types of "difficult" poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once.

At the moment, I'm not clear whether there are these sense-corridors running between the poems but there does seem to be some sky in most of the poems which may point to some kind of linkage and provide an early component in the list. Or, and this is much more likely, I may be clutching at straw. The first poem is Guessed which starts with:


Livid flight transom offer distortion per open
by heart to learn, cross-over.....

And this is from further down:

and yet wing out all yet yours. Up in new air
taken in flourish....

The second poem is Truth which has this

....................the night arriving as 
 it will by cloud cover................

There's nothing obvious in the third, fourth and fifth poems. The sixth is Infusion which has:

...............will discover to steady if brilliant
sky gets easily by admit iron former melted

The seventh (Subsequence is the last poem with some sky in it:

................................................love decried so
frequent bee blood sent horizon,..........................

So, my confidence begins to ebb at this point, there doesn't seem to be much of a corridor. At least these do give me a place to start the "dig".


I only had a vague idea what a transom is, I may have known once but it's faded. The unifying factor of some of the OED definitions is the lintel which has some pedigree in most things Prynne who has expressed the view that lintel has at least one root in 'threshold' which is derived from Old French rather than Latin. The two common meanings of livid are " Of a bluish leaden colour; discoloured as by a bruise; black and blue" and "furiously angry". Now, one of the secondary OED definitions relates specifically to the lintel of a trilithic, the best known examples of which are those constructed of bluestone at Stonehenge. Warming to my theme, a flight can be the action of flying, a journey on a plane, an escape or "A volley of missiles, esp. arrows. Recent excavations have revealed the body of an archer buried in the outer ring of the monument and other archers nearby- all of these identified by the presence of flint arrowheads found with them. "Cross-over" would also tie in with threshold and perhaps extend it to moving into the after-world

Of course all of this may be completely wrong but it is at least a start and fits in with the archaeological reference cue in Kazoo Dreamboats.

The next item is a bit more tricky, most of the definitions of 'wing' as a verb relate to flying but there is also to wing out which is defined as "to set a sail on a boom projecting sideways" which is always a possibility but something tells me to stay with flying, especially in view of the subsequent 'new air'- although this could also apply to sailing. Perhaps it's worth giving some thought to the immediate context:

As a brace for each in sure avid dependence
folded up by its profusion to and by, by and 
or yet wing out all yet yours. Up in new air
taken in flourish stress across is as while
can in counterpart, a cancel sheet restored.

Other than 'brace' this doesn't appear helpful and further exploration may take the dig into too many other areas. In terms of flight, wing as a noun can be the thing that birds and insects use in order to fly, it can be an aviation term denoting an air force unit, it also has religious and mythical connotations. At the moment I'm taking 'new air' as 'fresh air' although keeping in mind the possibility that air also denotes 'song', The repetion of 'yet' deserves some attention because its use here, as with 'by' appears to make no sense whatsoever. There are three general meanings for yet: moreover furthermore or also as in "Stay, let me observe this portent yet" from Ben Jonson; many (many) uses relating to time and 'although'. However 'yet' is also a verb meaning to pour in a variety of senses the most relevant hear appear to be:

Now, things become a bit more apparent because a secondary definition of profusion is "the action of pouring out; spilling, shedding, esp. of blood; an instance of this' which seems to 'fit' with the first and fourth definitions listed above. I'm going to leave this for the moment and return to the original inventory otherwise I'll get stuck here for a very long time. My only other observation is that the sixth poem is entitled Infusion which may indicate another sense corridor.

The next 'sky' reference seems reasonably straightforward in that a covering of cloud at night will block out the moon and the stars and make things darker although the onset of night by means of a covering of cloud probably indicates that there may be a lot more going on. Both 'cloud' and 'cover' are verbs as well as nouns and all four have a broad range of meanings but, for the moment, I'm sticking with the most obvious 'sense'.

Infusion's reference is much more problematic, brilliant being adjective, verb and noun in one. However, this morning's digging has revealed 'brilliant pebbles' which was part of the Reagan 'Star Wars' dismality, the pebbles being small round missiles used to destroy incoming weapons in space before they entered the atmosphere. This particular piece of strategic folly was abandoned by Clinton in 1992. Some further excavation reveals that 'intermit' can be what the OED describes as a re-fashioning of 'entermete', one of whose more minor definitions is to "put (oneself) between" although the only quote is from Thomas Wyatt in about 1542: "The hilles that doth them entremete Twene me, and those shining lyghtes" which would suggest to my simple brain that it is the hills that doing the entremeting. There's also more than an echo of the fifth definition of 'yet' above in "iron former melted", especially if 'former' is read as a kind of mould rather than relating to something in the past.

In the last sky reference 'bee blood' appears reasonably absurd unless the bees stand for workers engaging in relentless and exhausting tasks nd the blood 'stands' for the vitality that is lost in the process. Without getting too carried away, Marx's view of labour under capital was of human beings reduced to mere specks of humanity with a horizon that stretched only to the work and sleep.

I'm going to leave things there for the moment before I begin to 'compute' whether any of this points to a unifying theme(s) but the items under examination would appear to be:

It would appear that there's more than enough for some further progress to be made next time.

As an aside, I know that many poetry readers and makers can't be bothered with this level of attention. All I can say in retort is that I find this to be an involving and absorbing process and I take special delight in the discovery of the verb to 'yet'.