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Reading Keston Sutherland.

A less brief introduction to Keston Sutherland.

In 2010, this was a brief introduction to Keston's work but four years later it seems to me that something broader is required to do justice to what Might Be Going On. In my opinion and that of more than a few others, Keston is producing the most important work in the UK. I know that's a big claim and that there are many other contenders but the fact is that this material manages to work in several dimensions at once and does this with enormous energy and skill. I'm going to set out several headings that in my head reflect the key aspects of his work. These are not in any way fixed but hopefully readers will find it of some use.

Exuberance and Vulnerability.

In 2010 I wrote that " there is such an intensity to his longer poems that the reader begins to fear for his well-being and stability" and observed that sometimes the exuberance and the energy of the flow masks the fact that some of the phrases don't make sense. I'd like to amend both of these. Self-exposure in the Poem is a tricky business, my main objection is that it is far too often done for 'effect' in order to manipulate the reader. However, Sutherland appears to be making himself more honestly/cleanly vulnerable in order to make a number of quite sophisticated 'points'. With regard to exuberance, having watched various readings over the interweb I was of the view that he read too quickly and didn't give listeners the opportunity to catch some of the phrases. Last year, however, I attended the London launch of The Odes to TL61P and have now had several other thoughts although I might not have changed my mind.

To start with the vulnerable, in Stress Position the protagonist is gang raped by a group of American soldiers in the toilets of the Baghdad McDonald's. Most readers would expect this scene to be recounted in terms of outrage and anger but instead we get:

           With their cocks, one then another, making tender excuses over
    my head and about me, racked in their denim and boots, in their sick white skin
           solecistic in the summer urine and the white breast stretched
    in a warm list over the T-wall of the toilet, mad albino plait
           push into me I love you they fill my guts change my flavour
    and if I walk outside she will take me by the hand and I will continue
           with her to the town centre and shopping passionately erect and tiny

The 'she' is the protagonist's mother who is sat outside the cubicles with his sister.

I thought I was very familiar with all of SP but now I find I've previously missed this:

    I am the tiny one and I know whose face it is but I will not say.
           I stare from my infantile not bloodshot eyes at the penis cut into
    the door demanding it give me intensity to live forever with,
           rip at my newborn hair and set my fizzy face screaming.

I'll deal with power of secrets below but here I just want to point out the almost self-willed violence of the sexual assault and the horror of childhood abuse. It is very rare for this level of honesty and accuracy to be expressed with such skillful dexterity.

With regard to exuberance and energy, anyone who reads Sutherland will often find themselves carried away by both the energy and verbal brilliance and in some way come to share/participate in Keston's almost obseesive love of the form and what it can do. As I remark above, what we would normally think of as 'sense' isn't always achieved but we forgive because it seems to echo and critique the skewed logic that informs our daily lives. I'd like to give a couple of examples, this is the opening of 1.2 of the second ode:

    Still ringing the still obvious thing for side to side
    hard pressed ears ring up inside sales in justice scales
    by invoicing their vanished males in arabesques that
    Sky regales or JP Morgan rigs to drip on Qtel for the
    Gaza Strip when god in heaven trickles down relieving
    Blair and turning brown the olive trees are burning
    down the neck detached at no dispute the settlements
    are absolute I ask a wreath fit on so hard the brain is
    crushed like upstart lard deposited in spongy rats who
    make our doctors bureaucrats mock children up as
    innocents to prosper as their effluents and gnaw on
    skulls in cellars stocked with shadows by the awed
    and shocked.

(The above is prose but I've preserved the line breaks as they occur in the published version.)

To grasp the energy of the above, read it to yourself then read it out loud and then read it out loud very quickly. In terms of subject matter a wide range of topics/issues are 'covered' from the provision of decent telecomms to Gaza to the increasingly unmedical burden placed on gps, the supposed innocence of children and on to the innocent victims of the American 'strategy' when invading Iraq in 2003. In terms of verbal brilliance, I'm a sucker for the well-turned phrase and am particularly impressed by 'the brain is crushed like upstart lard deposited in spongy rats', regardless of the fact that the 'point' may not make sense. Those who have tried the above exercise will note the absence of punctuation and the need to decide where the pauses for breath and meaning should be placed. I'm of the view that the exuberance is best expressed at full speed.

My second example is from the first part of Stress Position:

            And after the reconstruction wraps up, then what? Black comedy
    channel hopped to blanching antiphon, the subject in spite
            of remedy lives to see its cone dysfunction rule the world
    out of sight and cannot mind, paralyze Apollo on a sunbed
            its phlegmatic phenomonology makes mincemeat of skull holes,
    blinkers of bliss. Nothing but pork and grits, the Pakistani
            for Halliburton snaps at the third asking, sensing the eyes    

SP was first published in 2009, five years later the state that never was, except as a construct of imperialism, is falling murderously apart and the West now has a new demon to bomb to bits. I had to check antiphon, it turns out to be both an element of religious music/chanting and the name of a poetry mag which does indeed (at first glance) appear to be in the blanching business. That aside, this should jar because of the leaps from one target to the next but it doesn't because of the skill involved and the celebration of language even in the angriest of polemic.

The Absurd and the Secret.

Whilst absurdity has always been a strong element in Keston's work, it blooms into full flower in The Odes to TL61P. There seems to be one S Becket lurking in the shadows here, the major exponent of how bad things really are but Keston takes this to a more opaque level of angry despair:

    All three parties whipped their members. Invisibility
    spreads up from the hand into the arm and shoulder,
    so that the economy resembles an archaic torso
    whose python is thus at liberty to ingurgitate its
    lyre; love is very childish to the point of no return;
    there is, merely there must be, in the universe a planet
    identical to the one you are on, but for the solitary
    adjustment that the person who is you on it now and
    who was already you on it when you were still here on
    this, and who will be you here on this when at last you
    are there on it, if you are, has never once agreed to
    indecipherably blur, not for a second there, or less, into
    anything that is worth being merely about you, nor
    ever once asked if you are here, now, on this, are you
    there, or what you are here on this when at last you
    are there on it, if you are, has never once agreed to 
    indecipherably blur, not for a second there, or less, into
    anything that is worth being merely about you, nor
    ever once asked if you are here, now, on this, are you
    there, or what you are here on this for if you are, or
    why you are not yet on that like he is, and doesn't
    drink like you do here, or smoke so much drugs, and
    for such a good reason that the mere rumour of its
    existence is a light whose dimmer is natural broken,
    that neither of you get.

This is the first part of a 'paragraph' from the third Ode and I hope it illustrates the absurdist thread. The repetition of 'you' and 'there' and 'here' is amusing but deadly serious at the same time. I'm fond of the absurd and feel that it's often needed as a kind of antidote to the complexities that surround it but I'm not entirely sure, in this instance, that the 'message' is prominent enough amongst the verbal flummery (which I'm normally very keen on. I wouldn't mind if the underlying thread wasn't so central to the nature of Keston's politics. This, of course, may just reflect my needs rather than the needs of the sequence.

There are many bits that completely work for me, such as this;

    Whatever the point is, it's here to stay; and there's a
    lesson in that for us all, if we're not too proud to pretend
    there is. But in a flash we are only too proud. You ask
    yourself if you can be excused. In the future my ghosts
    will multiply the more people I know die, and my ghosts
    will multiply more quickly the more people I know die
    quickly, the SKU for everyone alive is EV-A, and the rate 
    of multiplication will grow quicker until in the end the
    future is nothing but my ghosts, not even me; this is a
    comic poem, scatterbrained Iraqis.

I only know what SKU stands for (stock keeping unit) because the Great British Co-op asked about it when they bought our company, given Keston's politics it is fair to assume that EV-A is economic value added rather than 'extravehicular unit'. As for the 'comic' poem quip, I think it uses humour in many forms but that it does so to make a very serious, and distrubing 'point'.

With regard to the secret, the underlying secret of the Odes is the unacknowledged fact that children have sexual feelings and desires. This has all sorts of uncomfortable ramifications for the world in which we live and it is something that parents (mine included) fret over and, at all costs, keep secret and encourage their children to collude with this suppression. Of course there are a number of other secrets that we'd rather not confront (the fact that the vast amount of sexual abuse is perpertrated by fathers on their children springs to mind) but these are not as much of a threat as this more nuanced and challenging 'truth' about children.

At the risk of overreading, I would also argue that, when quite young, we will be encouraged to suppress ourselves continues through to adult life, thus encouraging our passivity in the political sphere. One of the reasons that the British public accepted the austerity measures was because, at some deep level, we felt that we deserved it, blamed ourselves and overlooked the real cause, the depridations and inanities of the neo-liberal rhetoric that continues to infect the world.

Keston breaks the secret by writing about his own desires and experiences this is from the third ode:

    on a cross-section of mushy pea? I put Christian in my
    mouth  under the blanket, played with him as if gargling.
    I didn't know what to do, so it felt better, authentically
    childish. I had to sleep in his bed because my mother put
    me there, as if killing our father; I could hear her sobbing
    downstairs at being stood up but not listen to it. Later
    that night I had to have been asleep. He asked later that we
    keep it secret, once we had learned that you can do
    that. I was fine with that, though I also felt that it was
    somehow melancholy that such a simple act of
    pleasure between people still roughly equal at that age
    should need to be made into a source of fear, when all
    we had to fear was other people.

For me, this encapsulates what the Odes are essentially 'about' and we need to think about and act upon the implications that this particular secret implies. It is a tragic indictment that paedophiles are the only ones currently to acknowledge this and to make ruthless use of it in their attacks on children. End of short speech.


I'll keep this brief. Keston Sutherland is a Marxist, he is absolutely committed to the thoughts and ideas put forward by Marx yet this isn't immediately apparent from his poetry, which comes across as being more socialist than communist. It is however immediately obvious in most of his criticism which is dense but occasionally brilliant. I was once 'against' political poetry but Keston's work (and that of J H Prynne) has been instrumental in changing my mind.