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Keston Sutherland's Odes to TL61P (pt2).

Ode 2. 1.1

Ode 2 begins with a brilliant prose section that takes in global politics, the free matket economy and the nature of poetry. In many ways this can be read as an extended rant but Sutherland manges to bring to it his own personal (as opposed to ideological) anger in way that's both subtle and provocative.

The reader does have to be awake to keep up with both the content and the pace at which things are being said. My favourite bits start with:

...in sanity you find the heart to bleed the workers dry. The authority on that is Keats with his foot in Nietzche, his elbow in the cunt of Baudelaire. Fellow poets, listen up: you are the rules that changed.

Apart from the fact that this is deply odd, it's also a very defiant statement of Suitherland's view of the role and nature of poetry in the world. The 'listen up' manages to be both defiant and touching at the same time.

And then we have:

Cooking the booklets in cream over the flames of a steamy and amorous anaemic in a crematorium, or bitterly masturbating for a magic bearhug from bond markets enduring freedom, or just bugging out on leverage in Merryl Lynch, it's the same old same old up the you know what; Brief contact is not irritating.

This, I would argue, is more than polemic because it encapsulates what goes on in the curent financial catastrophe. As a regular reader of the Finacial Times, I can vouch for the uncanny accuracy of the bitter masturbation that fuels markets and the ethereal and totally irrational nature of the bond markets. 'Bugging out on leverage' is equally accurate but not as startling- the verb doesn't seem in keeping with the image that's being constructed but this is only a minor qualm. I also have to ask if the absence of an apostrophe at the end of markets' is deliberate and whether the semi-colon before 'Brief' should be a full stop.

The passage goes on to equate the effects of capital with disease and deformity, throwing in 'Verfremdungseffekt by arbitrary searches' along the way. A quick web trawl has led to the German word referring to a Brechtian device (alienation effects). If this is the case then it doesn't quite 'work' or perhaps that might be the point. Alienation effects are those used by Brecht to ensure that the udience doesn't over-identify with characters but retains some distance so as to consider the overall dilemma that is presented. To be fair, nobody has yet come up with an adequate English translation for the term but it's difficult to see how arbitary searches (a characteristic of a police state) can be said to creat this 'effect'.

'Bill' is then addressed without any further identification: 'What do you thing of this bit, Bill? Is it just a UPC for cramp, a one-liner about a crab breathing white out? There are three potential Bills that come immediately to mind- Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Clinton or perhaps a combination of these although Wordsworth is the more likely candidate given that a further question is: 'Would you chop the words or the letters?' Incidentally, 'UPC' is apparently the accepted abbreviation for 'Universal Product Code' which is quite a combative way to describe verse.

Normally this kind of self-referential cleverness merely annoys me but Sutherland always manages to redeem himself. This particular interlude is an odd mix of the 'poetic' and the personal- 'Why do you keep coming to me in dreams?' which marks an advance on similar devices used in 'Stress Position' and the address to the reader at the end of Ode 1. As I hope to show, this personal/public 'mix' is what marks out the sequence from the rest of Sutherlan's output.

The section continues with an address to Bill and ends with 'I want a topical penis' which reads as an abrupt disruption from the 'flow' of what's gone before. Since my earlier comments on Ode 1, Sutherland has expanded on the prose/verse combination thus:

One thing I might say, in reply to the opening paragraph of your comments on the odes, is that while you must be right that they are "mostly in prose", I wonder whether they might not at the same time, and in just those justified, block passages, be something other than prose, too? Prose cannot normally be imagined to have porous edges liable to be penetrated or broken through by lines that suddenly qualify as "verse"; I don't know how to conceive it yet, but the function of that smashable edge must be somehow to introduce a generic contingency or blur, so that we are never fully "in prose". I think so anyway (though of course you may not).

There is an extended response to this on my bebrowed blog but I want to consider this particular 'smashable edge'. The first thing to get out of the way is the forementioned 'topical' which I don't fully understand. The current online edition of the OED has contains six definitions of 'topical' :

I think we can safely discount the third and fourth definitions. The second definition makes a kind of sense but a penis does belong to a particular part of the body. I'd like it to mean 'pertaining to the topics of the day' given that a good part of the content does deal with topical issues in this sense.

The verse section begins:

Witness this
beating on the cold bee leaves the hot bee feeling empty,
a hoover bag in Sapphic drag, rehearsing our suction on dust.
In a system like mortality the last word is guaranteed;
it is by definition what you always get, that's the beauty of it.
Living stops to fit the empty
cap on your desire, right
minded to allow the sight
to fade in blinded appetite.

(As with the subsequent quatrains, lines 7 and 9 should be indented).

It's worth noting that the lines gradually get more structured as they proceed and more recognisable as conventional 'verse' and that this is then followed by four regular quatrains where the second and third lines rhyme. It's also interesting that bees and dust make an appearance as they have in some of Sutherland's earlier work and that the section begins with a command on a line by itself. 'a hoover bag in Sapphic drag' is odd but ties in with the odddness of dedicating the Odes to a tumble drier. The next six lines to make a coherent kind of sense with mortality and desire thrown together- 'blinded appetite' is particularly effective. So is this an example of the 'smashable edge as Sutherland claims or is it simply some lines of verse placed at the end of some prose. If a blurring is intended then the jump from 'I want a topical penis' (not very poetic) to 'Witness this' (quite poetic) is too abrupt even though the arrangement of the lines does constitute a gradual development.

The fifth and final quatrain reads:

But look at these caricatures,
numb by numbers, empty shells,
new complexity doorbells,
jokes about what they are.

'complexity doorbells' is both clever and funny until you think about it and then it becomes a bit trite. The use of 'caricatures' doesn't feel quite right either which is a pity because the lines that proceed it are very strong indeed.

Ode 2 1.2

This is a bit shorter and terrifyingly good. The prose section muses on the banalities of the commercial world, on mortality and the poet gets quite morose about the value/efficacy of his work- 'Years of my life wasted on war, depressed and miles away' before we gat an extended play around computer devices and a product code generator which I'm taking to be a reference to the making of verse. This slides on to a couple of complex points with regard to the current financial debacle and our reaction to it.

This is much more considered and complex than earlier work and contains a degree of personal honesty intertwined with the political / ideological comment. Two acronyms are used - SKU (stock keeping unit) and E-VA (could be a range of things but is probably economic value added) and there's a bit of French in italics. The bridge between prose and verse is more effective-

The public loves to be told that it has to learn to expect less, because everyone wants everyone else to have less, and everyone is willing to have less himself if that is the price for making everyone else but him have less. What a cunt. The blood of virginity lost in space, jouissance in the puissant stars, / life
is a set up
in its own light
same principle as the banking disaster
one love used to leverage another, one life
namely another renamed the next
Vodaphone is the leverage for Buddha

Normally I'm not overly keen on the use of terms like 'cunt' and 'fuck' but this does seem to be an appropriate exclamation of despair and anger at the current peculiar mindset of the Great British public. The shift from the faux lyrical jouissance to the italicised description of life is simply brilliant and the extension of the notion of 'set up' into the recent example of economic stupidity is an example of Sutherland's more considered approach to politics.

2.1.2 finishes with:

...............You know that because this is
the end, and it is not cancelled yet; I will
likely not ever meet anyone I love so much as
you again; but I want to try some men before I die.

Which brings us out of public concerns back into the deeply personal. 'I will likely not ever' is awkward and garbled but is a reflection of the kind of stumbling difficulty that most men have in expressions of love. This slightly equivocal expression is then followed by a quite precise and defiant statement of intent. It is both startling and disturbing to read and this level of disturbance continues through the rest of the odes. The end not being 'cancelled yet' can be read as referring to this section or as something about where endings actually are.

Ode 2.1.3

This starts with a short prose section that identifies that the further loss of British military strength is a positive development resulting from the fiscal crisis and then moves into a less controlled rant incorporating 'pedalos of foam', laughing amputees and watching 'Ladies of Letters' on television. I'm sure that there is a point to this but it's one that I can't grasp other than to note that amputees make an appearance in an earlier Sutherland poem. The point about the inevitable reduction of military 'reach' is not, to my mind, so much of an 'upside' given that our strength in this regard is anyway dwarfed by the US, China and Russia even the UK's nuclear arsenal is still big enough to destroy the planet. I don't think the fact of the financia;l crisis would deter Cameron and his cronies from accompanying the Americans on yet another fiasco in Iran or North Korea or Pakistan.

This moves into ten lines of verse, some of which are puzzling. There's 'Look at it / in the eye as under it you climb through that dream grated / in returning, .......... It isn't clear either who is being referred to until you recall that a dead person is addressed in Ode 2.1 - 'why do you keep coming to me in dreams' and 'not dead for a change, not now abolished'. The lines go on in to tenderly address this dead person but in terms that are decidedly precise (if a little odd). The last three lines are:

My head does that, I am forced and even proud,
pulling you back to precision, to life by colour,
we're allowed because you're dead and I'm older,

'I am forced and even proud' combines two adjectives that don't normally go together, we usually think of being forced as being made to do something against our will and thus in a position of subjection which is anything but proud. If however, we think of being forced as being under some kind of compulsion then it is possible to feel compelled to do something and still feel proud about it. 'Back to precision, to life by colour' is extraodinary in it's clarity and what Prynne would term 'radical economy'. The use of 'we're allowed' is another echo of childhood which becomes a recurring theme as the Odes progress.

There is then a gap followed by four quatrains, in each of these lines two and three rhyme. The nature and power of love is being thought about and proclaimed, Shakespeare and John Weiners (American poet) are invoked and most of what is said seems reasonably straightforward until you look again at the third stanza;

Both routes out the window lead
to falling deaf to heavenly
pretence but by flying only
too late into trust in deafness.

I have to confess that I don't know what this means, 'routes out the window' would seem to suggest some kind of suicide which don't usuall lead to becoming deaf but lead to death or serious injury. 'Flying only / too late' sounds good but I still can't get to grips with what it means or why this stanza is included. Perhaps I need to pay this more attention.

The last quatrain seems to lament the omniscience of love- that it begins 'in everything' which is described as a cause for despair. This is puzzling but the verse does run on from the previous lines described above.