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Arduity: Keston Sutherland's Odes to TL61P: Ode 1

 

Introduction

'Odes to TL61P' consists of five odes and is mostly in prose. It represents a major shift in Sutherland's work and is innovative in surprising and challenging ways. It's also one of the best things to be written by anyone in the last twenty years. The sequence is also quite long so I'll try and give a brief outline before going into detail. The main themes would appear to be politics, the nature of love and sexual identity together with the workings of desire. The style ranges from polemic to frank confessional with many stages in between. The sequence is mostly in prose but this doesn't in any way diminish it's poetic 'feel'. As detailed below, the work challenges the reader on a number of different levels and is difficult to read because of the effectiveness of these challenges.

Ode 1.1

Ode 1 is in three parts, the first part having three sections. It begins with a longish prose section taking in references to Racine, Alkindus, Martin Amis, Francis Bacon, the Tefal Maxi-Fry and Fair and Lovely skin cream. The last of these is sold in India as a skin lightener by Unilever- so this may be an echo of the Lenny Henry skin bleaching footnote in 'Hot White Andy'. There is also reference made to Shelley's "Triumph of Life" in what feels like a headlong stream of consciousness dash that nevertheless makes some serious points along the way. Difficult words are also used, not many readers will be familiar with 'banausic' whilst 'augere' is Latin and 'Realitatsprufung' is annoyingly German where 'reality check' would have done instead (unless there's some deeper allusion that I'm missing). The other point to be aware of is that 'TL61P' refers to a now defunct model of tumble dryer manufactured by Hotpoint.

Some fun is had with Martin Amis, pointing out that his name is a 'liberal' anagram for 'amniotic trim', which it isn't. There is a question as to whether or not it's still okay to ridicule Amis or whether this particular sport descended into cliche about twenty five years ago. The more serious points seem to be about immediacy ('this ink on this paper' and 'thinking is going on now, and now'. The intial prose section ends with:

successfully accumulating a torrent of gratifications of the flight instinct to epistemological monogamy, and to gynaecological promiscuity, its Turkish eye shadow iconic in the corridors of mock phenomenology;

before moving on to verse which begins with The Three Bears / fantastical multiplications of sameness and then goes on to a kind of incitement to action ending with the invocation of 'your first lover'.

The next prose section is essentrially a riff on the current situation in Mexico and the atrocities committed there in order to feed America's cocaine habit. The first section ends with four lines of verse one of which announces the start of Sutherland's investigation.

The difficulties thus far will be familiar to those who have read 'Hot White Andy' and 'Stress Position'; the complex, abstract phrases, the allusions, the weird juxtapositions and the delicate balancing act between making sense and not. What signals that we might be in different territory is the pace, the sense of rush and an absence of caution that becomes more apparent as we proceed. I've mentioned most of the difficult words but there's also stuff that's conceptually challenging - 'corridors of mock phenomenology' will take some unpacking as will 'justice hurts, identifying the wordplay by discounting it'. These and others challenge the reader to either work out what might be meant or to glide over in the hope that all may become clear in the end.

The other difficulty is due to the oddness of some of the images, TL61P makes an appearance without any information as to what this might be, there is also this;

........whose decorative nitrocellulose cameo of your mother in the style of the one year old Francis Bacon dissembling a tantrum in a Tefal Maxifry half empty of Fair and Lovely......

'Stress Position' does include some oddness but nothing quite as startling as this, the idea of a one year old Francis Bacon is in itself quite scary and the reeast takes us into the realm of the bizarre, there's also a degree of cleverness in that the Maxifry is 'half-empty'. Most of us will also have to look up 'nitrocellulose' even though we can guess at a definition and then try and work out how a cameo can be both explosive and decorative.

The second section of part one begins with seven lines of intensely abstract verse, the second of which is 'pt in itching / 6' which must win some kind of prize for obscurity. The three bears (without italics) make another appearance at line 5. The following prose section takes in a discussion of use value and consumers, torture, computer games, someone called Deborah, mothers and the nature of love as addressed to a lover. There are some quite complex points being made that are almost lost in the level of abstraction and anarchic 'feel'- as with most difficult work, attention is required to get at what's being said. With Sutherland this involves carefulling unpicking each phrase as he proceeds. It also involves being able to tolerate the points at which conventional 'sense' breaks down.

This sections contains 'the use value of a thing does not concern its seller as such, but only its buyer' which is then subjected to an 'analysis' before arriving at a sobering collusion but the reader has to decide whether the reference to Nigerians is a serious point or an allusion to the appearance of a Nigerian banker in 'Hot White Andy' or simply Sutherland being too clever for his own good. Of course those new to Sutherland's work won't actually know about Akinsola Akinfemiwa. There's also the slightly too knowing description of value goining into dramatic decline "like Chekhov".

Reference is also made to Madiha Shenshel- the only response I get from Google to this name is as the general manager of an Iraqi trading company. Reference is also made to feet and dots which featured prominently in 'Stress Position' which was 'about' torture in Iraq. The section ends with 12 lines of verse ranging from the British military camp in Iraq, Danny Boy, the price of bread in 1792 and Thomas Traherne, the 17th century poet.

Sutherland has recently made reference to the 'superabundance' of stuff in his work and this would seem to bear him out. It is important however to stress that this overflow of material continues to contain a number of identifiable and reasonably coherent themes.

The third section of part one is much more straightfoward- it's a love poem containing memories of childhood and adolescence and more than a degree of self-deprecation. This is certainly a relief for the reader because it's coherent and makes sense. There's also some clever wit, Sutherland describes his belief that he will always be loved as a 'sort of creationism for tomatoes'. As well as being clever, this is the only odd bit in the section. One of the more lyrical touches is 'I want you to stare at me until our eyes trade sockets' which is placed against the 'banning of hooding in 1972' which might be an example of Sutherland trying too hard to make a reasonably straightforward (if abstract) point. The last part of section 3 is in verse and describes objects from adolescence before ending on a juxtaposition between Sutherland's first sexual partner and his current lover. This is a remarably effective ending to the first part of Ode 1 as it introduces a kind of counterweight to the abstraction that's gone before but does so in a typically enigmatic way - one line reads 'let / my arm vanish into your waking head' - we know what he means but also have to recognise that this doesn't make 'conventional sense'.

Ode 1.2

This is all in verse and consists of a single 24-line stanza. This isn't without difficulty on several levels. There's the difficult word ('parergon'), the obscure half quotation ("I saw all the members of the multiple emulate me") and one ideologically unsound phrase borrowed from rap ('lick me you batch') all of which would poit in the direction of Iraq and torture, the quote is from evidence given to the inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa. 'Parergon' is deployed in 'the Shia parergon of breath'. The effect of these lines is to introduce the first emotional challenges to the reader and also to raise the level of difficulty in understanding what's being said. Towards the end of the stanza there's a reference to Seurat and rectangles whilst the line ' for food is fast by proxy to an epic patronage' is bewildering until we recall that part of 'Stress Position' is set in the Baghdad branch of McDonalds. The level of difficulty seems to be acknowledged in the second and third lines - ' as orphic vanity spreads backwards / retromotivation for the present obscurity'.

Because this part of the Ode is in verse, the pace of things seems less frenetic. The line of thought also seems more sensible until it's read carefully - this reveals a new level of disjointedness and some bits relating to sex and sexuality which 'feel' (at this stage) a little gratuitous.

Ode1.3

This consists of a longer single stanza of verse. The first part recalls the death of a friend who is addressed - this is punctuated by a 6 line "elegy" where the line breaks are marked in (mostly) different places from those that occur on the page. There's a degree of poignancy in the main body of the stanza that's in stark contrast with part 1.2:

.........repeat yourself at me: I am
at alone in all the world a mirror
forfeit to beauty: the love I am is anything
what I live for, skin and looking at
you dead now but like at your breath still
sharp at the flesh of desiring we ran
out from, liquid across the floor
they tore down years ago, live in your hand
my face, a stick of empty fingertips.

This is striking and deliberately fractured, an example of the way in which Sutherland breaks or damages the thread in order to give it greater emphasis and also to suggest that what we're being told may not be entirely reliable. 'you dead now but like at your breath still / sharp at the flesh of desiring we ran / out from.....' doesn't make sense but is effective in bringing two lines of thought together.

The second part olf the stanza refers to the identity of TL61P which is revealed as a 'Hotpoint dryer' - readers are instructed not to bother googling this as they will discover nothing. This domestic appliance is then revealed as the 'provisional perfected shadow opposite' of love. Readers are then instructed to return to the beginning although whether this refers to the start of this section or the Ode isn't made clear.