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Experiments in reading: The Odes to TL61P by Keston Sutherland.

Part One.

You've been reading this in various drafts since 2010 and now you have the Real Thing and you've read it a couple of times and you went to the Dalston launch where Keston read bits of it gloriously out of sequence and you've blogged on the Odes / Stress Position debate and now it's time to get to grips with it.

One of your better Sutherland-related observations is that his work makes reasonable sense until you read the actual words rather than let the words wash over you. The first couple of pages appear to bear this out and you're not sure how you feel about this so you start slowly with the first few lines:


    Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
    and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
    in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
    hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
    grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
    whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
    preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
    devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
    prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
    eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
    swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
    are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument

You acknowledge to yourself the energy and the thrust, you also like the confidence of 'only kidding' which you'll come back to shortly but first you decided to think about this 'head' that is unscrewed. You recognise that this particular noun has many, many meanings from head of lettuce through to human head and on to the head of an oil well and this last might be appropriate given that this results in burning. The other thing you notice is 'each' which indicates, as there's only one head involved, that the head is unscrewed, emits truths and is then screwed back down again. You know enough about the rest of the poem to gather that this may relate to the theme of the tyranny of secrets and the absolute need to break them but you may, as usual, be rushing ahead of yourself. These 'truths' are also a bit of a worry because Keston's previous truths tend to have been coloured by his Marxian perspective and Stress Position makes fairly explicit his distaste with the/my relativist tendency. You don't recall being conscious of this getting extended in your previous readings and hope that these kind of truths relate to secrets rather than some kind of universal positivism.

You can't resist having a peek at the OED definitions for 'head' and are staggered by the number and by the fact that you'd forgotten or overlooked so many but it does appear that the well head / flare stack may be the best analogy. The ever-improving Wikipedia tells you that flare stacks are used to burn off the natural gas that comes to the surface (the head of the well) with the oil and that there are normally efficient valves that can stop and start the flow as required. You also recognise that there's more than one meaning to 'screw'. This could all be very wide of the mark especially if you take the next two lines into account but it might be significant that these truths burn there way out and then 'fly away'. You start with the obvious, truths are abstract and completely incapable of either burning or flying. There is however, in the world of secrets, that the content of some truths is so dangerous and corrosive that it is exposed and then flies away. You now hate yourself because you've just leapt to Edward Snowden currently in the noplace of Moscow airport and to the slow burn of secrets locked away in Welsh care homes. You then re-read just to make sure that this is a track that you want to go down and realise that 'burn out' also has connotations of becoming exhausted, stressed, demoralised and no longer fit for the tsk that you have started. You try to bear this in mind as you come up against these stacked basements.

You don't want to be too clever or overly poetic but you can't resist clocking the proximity of basement to abasement and then decide that this is silly, the point is that these burning truths have flown away from their source and are now above these stacks which are flooded with this Very Early snot. This is where the absence of sense may start to kick in but you persevere. Of course, a stack of basements is difficult to envisage because a basement is the room usually at the bottom of the 'stack' of other rooms. So if another basement is placed on top of it then that basement becomes a room because it is no longer at the base of the stack.

You consider a different approach but first realise that this Welsh care home thing relates not just to institutional and political secrets but also the truth that an abusing adult will take enormous pains to conceal. You then move on to state secrets and the fact that many of these cover up various forms of abuse from torture through to eavesdropping and reading my e-mails. The different approach turns out to be the function of the basement.

Basements are hidden from view, rarely visited and (in movies at least) the scene of very many bad things. People are killed, bodies are dismembered, the 'truth' is extracted in the basement precisely because it is hidden from view, indeed it might even be metaphor for the underbelly of the modern state. We know, thank to the release of truths, that the US and UK arranged for torture to be carried out in basements all over the world and that the use of 'stacks' may simply mean 'very many'.

The snot problem is in part resolved by the discovery that it is only nasal mucus that is snot and that the term is "viscous substance secreted by the mucous cells and glands of animals to provide protection, lubrication, etc" which ties in a bit more with the grisly business of inflicting pain on others.

You may now be wavering between the sense and non-sense positions but you still have your suspicions that this is as it is because it contains more than a touch of the absurd and you've just spent ninety minutes or so reading things into something that were never there. This nagging doubt is not at all helped by the prospect of the hairless Janine.

Now you've read the Enitharmon blurb and you feel a little more confident about the fray to come. Before you get to the hairless Janine you need to start with "elevating the impeccable" and (by careful re-reading) you gather that it is the truths of line one that are doing the lifting. You haven't checked but you're taking "elevating" to indicating some kind of raising up. People are elevated to the peerage, priests are elevated to become bishops etc. There's also elevations in terms of building plans but you don't think that elevating is involved in producing these. So, these truths that have burned their way out are now lifting this woman / girl who is said to be "impeccable". You don't understand how something abstract like a truth can do something physical like rising somebody up. Then you recall that to elevate can also mean to inspire and / or lift to a higher state of consciousness which would be more in line with an abstraction like truth. In leftist terms the Truth about Capital should inspire people to join the struggle nd the fact that it doesn't is now one of those tricky and hence ignored elephants in the room.

You then decide to think about "impeccable" and realise that this is quite a complex adjective that doesn't quite mean "flawless" but might indicate that someone is beyond reproach, difficult to criticise, we say "impeccably turned out", for example, to indicate that somebody has achieved the highest level in terms of both sartorial elegance and general appearance, usually in the context of a specific event.

You look at the OED which gently informs you that, when applied to people, the word means "Not capable of or liable to sin; exempt from the possibility of sinning or doing wrong". When applied to things it means "faultless, unerring". Now, this doesn't work for you, neither of these seem to mirror your experience and use of the word in the ordinary world that most of us inhabit. You then realise that there is a note next to the definition which points out that this hasn't been updated since 1899 and you follow the link to something called Oxford Dictionaries Online which tells you that the "incapable of sin" definition relates to theology and is now considered to be rare whilst the main definition is now "in accordance with the highest standards, faultless". You are still not happy because in your head it applies to n action or quality that is above criticism which doesn't seem quite the same as without fault.

You've had a response to the first of these readings re the identity of Janine: "Since we're speculating... a (carefully circumscribed) internet search brought up adult film actress Janine Lindemulder. I'll leave it to someone else to confirm her depilation, but the reference seems to fit with a recurring theme/trope of the poem; it also obviously adds another semantic valence to much of the quoted passage. Couldn't decide if your 'nagging' doubt was about this line of inquiry, so I'll tastelessly broach it for you." You're holding out for Alasdair Gray's "Janine 1982" because it's vaguely literary although you also know that porn is a bit of a sub-theme (technical term) in The Odes. Of course "impeccable" in its theological sense doesn't easily fit with either of these characters but some sense may be made of the theology of truth and the elevation to heaven of those without sin.

You move on to "hereafter congenitally depilated" and this is one of those places where sense seems to go a bit adrift. If we're to take 'congenital'to mean something that is present since birth then 'hereafter' as in 'from now on' doesn't make sense. The other observation is that some of us don't have much hair at all when we're born but in this instance it would appear that someone has shorn Janine at birth and she has stayed that way or that she has been regularly depilated ever since. At this point your brain loses patience with itself and you begin to feel that this close examination may be an exercise in futility. As a last throw of this particular dice, you check the verb nd discover that there is a secondary definition: "To deprive of it's skin, decorticate, peel". Given that your previous reading had detected at least one reference to torture, this changes things around a bit. Removing someone's skin is a particularly barbaric thing to do and flaying felons was for centuries a mainstay of our penal system and (you're guessing) an important activity still deployed by states in basements around the world. You don't want to get carried away with the God thing but many martyrs were flayed alive and many of these were said to be incapable of sin. You're also reminded that flagellants flourished across Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries so you check the wikipedia page that informs you that whipping yourself is much older than that.

You seem to recall that Prynne has used "congenital" in the fairly recent past and you try to remember where but fail and, anyway, knowing this probably won't be that much help.

You move on to the Janine problem and fall across a remarkable site called "whosdatedwho.com" which contains a list of 63 Janines who might be considered to be celebrities. You love this stuff, Janine Lindemulder (porn star, probably depilated) tops the list with over 413,00 views but there's also Janine Pommy Vega who is listed as a poet and activist and a further moment's search reveals a youtube video of her with Fairly Short Hair. This makes much more sense but you also notice Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, a leading French psychoanalyst who described the 1968 protesters as totalitarian stalinists who were affected by a sordid infantilism caught up in an Oedipal revolt against the father. You hope against hope that this is the Janine in question but then you notice Janine Mellor, the Britsh actress who played Kelsey Phillips in the BBC's 'Casualty'.....

You then realise that you've spent over a thousand words on just over one line and vow to do better next time.