Keston Sutherland's Stress Position pt. One.

(This was first written as two blog posts on bebrowed in 2010, and is now [Nov 2014] revised and expanded.)

I was going to write this in the manner (style?) of the prose section of this poem but then I realised that this would only make any kind of sense to those who had read it and that only I would be amused.

Let me start by saying that Stress Position is a major piece of work that makes a significant contribution to current debates about language and its relationship to the 'real', compromised world. Bits of it are also very funny with extraordinary images that, on occasion,try to get the better of themselves.

The poem is 'set' in Baghdad and features the poet, a number of historical and fictional characters and Black Beauty. Rumsfeld and Cheney also get a name check and the sky makes several appearances. The Black Beauty problem has two components, the first is that it isn't at all clear why this entirely fictional horse should be in Baghdad, the second is that there is a personal rationale for its inclusion but this won't be at all apparent to those readers who don't have direct access to the poet. It must also be said that the rationale concerns personal significance rather than some kind of universal meaning.

If Keston was bipolar (which he isn't), I'd be gently telling him to increase the lithium because the poem manages to hover on the bridge between mania and psychosis but is probably an attempt to express dialectical consciousness and produce poetry that is "as impossible as reality". The poem presents this impossiblity and uses it to inscribe a radical critique of Western imperialism, particularly with regard to torture. It also sets up a particular 'metric' (a term much used by Prynne) between aspects of the external world and the inside of Sutherland's head. This is incredibly successful in that it takes the reader on an exhilarating ride through one of our ongoing dystopias and manages to throw out a broad range of ideas at the same time.

I have a personal rule when reading poetry which is to count the lines that I wished I'd written. Stress Position is full of these so I should be overcome with envy but I'm not because Sutherland has thrown down the gauntlet to those of us who aspire to write poetry and change the world (not always at the same time). Sutherland doesn't have a good time in Stress Position, he gets gang raped in a toilet cubicle in McDonald's and loses a leg but the overall tone is rhapsodic rather than brutal. In ways the lyrically framed rape anticipates the explorations in The Odes to TL61P and its focus on childhood sexuality, whilst the rape is taking place, the protagonist's motherandsisterare waiting for him outside the cubicle.

A gastro yacht is also featured along with references to number of dishes- the significance of this escapes me but I'm working on it.

Sutherland has made a distinction between 'readers' and 'consumers' of poetry and made a passing swipe at mainstream poetry in the process. He was using Prynne as an example of a poet who demands very close attention and scorning those poets whose work can be read and fully understood in one go. With regard to Stress Position, it does demand attention but it's of a different order to that demanded by Prynne, there's no need for a word-by-word examination nor is their as much ambiguity but there's still work to be done. The "anagrammatic" Diotima makes an appearance, certain words and phrases are italicised, a lot of compound words are used and I was not at all sure about the presence of Black Beauty nor the presence of Sutherland's mother and sister whilst he gets gang raped. So the attention is more about the poetic structure rather than what the words may mean. Some words are printed in block capitals with numbers attached and I will need to work out what that's about. There's also bits of French and German that will require my reluctant attention.

Four years on, I'm still against most instances of a foreign phrase or sentence in an English language poem, this may have something to do with being a monoglot but also is another barrier to readers. The exceptions are those foreign phrases that are known and understood by those, like me, who only have English. Here's a couple of examples:

          So frigid whenever you tenderly embed them. Under the shower
   head of hot flesh in the market is the dust, mockery  fort et dure, 


          To comprehend the motion of this place, the great leaps forward
    of the counters with nothing to eat, the unpayable ransom of the happy
         meal you want, the flutes of Mavala Stop, theRes Mancipi
    porn foil, you must search out what's unstated in its blur, 
         croizade it to its truthfulmost asylum, to its shrine to what
    the idiots who serve here think is power, but what you and I
          know is not power but justice - hasten away and discover this place.

Okay, I hold the italicized phrases up as examples of things that I don't understand and need to look up but the stanza thatis quoted in full merits further discussion. I should point out that "this place" is the Baghdad McDonalds and that this is apparent from earlier stanzas. Here I need to ask how many of us are familiar with Mavala Stop and, if you are, what their 'flutes' might be? I'm more comfortable with 'croizade' as a replacement for 'crusade' but I still had to look it up.

In 2010 these are the sorts of devices that led me to begin the arduity project because I recognised (and still do) that these kinds of clevernesses can deter readers who would otherwise be prepared to pay attention to the other complexities of the work. This can now be overcome, to some extent, by the increasingly comprehensive and reliable interweb, within a few seconds I have been able to resolve most of the above, 'mancipium' however turns out to have several meanings which might 'fit'. The counter-argument then becomes the fact that most people read for pleasure and expect to read a poem or sequence all the way through without stopping to resolve a meaning.

I think that I'd now argue that most 'serious' work demands this kind of attention and that readers who want to engage should be prepared to put in some effort and concentration. My current prejudices are more to do with whether there is a non-foreign way of saying something that does the same work. Here 'croizade', when 'crusade' could be used, initially appears to be a gratuitous piece of cleverness until you read both versions out loud. It then becomes apparent that the obscurity conveys a degree of ambiguity and is a much neater fit with the rest of the stanza, please see below for some examples.

The poem is also immensely quotable I'll just give three lines as an example -

    That means that he that the dots are all joined up in a skeleton already

and that skeleton is publically wanked off, into the open darkness and the darkness spits its wet dust on a sticky mirrorball.

The other thing that the reader gradually realises is that the poem is tightly structured. Sutherland has spent a long time thinking about this before putting pen to paper and it has paid off because we stay with the various threads rather than reading the individual episodes as random and chaotic.

Ideologically, Sutherland and I are miles apart. I don't share his Marxist/Hegelian slant on things nor do I have much faith in the dialectic but I do share his outrage at American foreign policy and the forces of late capital. I also share his concerns about the way that language gets appropriated by the impossible world. I don't read poems to agree with them, I read them to be challenged and to steal ideas and Stress Position more than meets those criteria. Four years later, with another murdeous excursion to Iraq, extended to Syria and everything shameful that this is, the work seems prescient and I'm now uncomfortable with the political glibbery of my intitial response.

There is a bitchy dig at Derrida that is overly simplistic and unusually narrow. If anyone intends to take on Grammatology then you need to be very clear what you are taking on and why. In subsequent correspondence the poet has not accepted this observation. I still have some reservations which are more to do now with tone rather than intention. These are the offending lines:

           Fuck the old linguistically enervative strippogrammatology
    and its catcalls at authenticity and at inauthenticity: either you put
           up or shut up shop or you drop the musical talking shit.

I'm now of the view that poets can be as bitchy as they want providing it's not their only tone. I also need to acknowledge that I think some Derrida and other catcallers do have valid point to make whereas I'm less than fond of Adorno and Benjamin. So, my criticism may have been an attempt to perpetuate rather than mend this particular factional row. My mum (91, still going strong) is of the view that swearing only demonstrated a limited vocabulary, this clearly isn't the case here but it might be significant that this is the only place in the sequence that I can find both 'fuck' and 'shit' used in this way.

As a poet/performer, I have to say that I wouldn't express my dislike of Lacan or Zizek in one off my poems and I probably feel equally strongly as Keston does about the deconstructionists and their pals.

Sutherland will hate this but I think the whole world should read Stress Position- see below for a link to a free pdf.

Part Two.

I've now spent a bit more time with Stress Position and feel able to say some more 'developed' things about this remarkable work. I haven't yet mentioned the wedding reception which occurs during the second part of the prose section. I'm not entirely sure who is addressed in this but it's a very penetrating depiction of rage expressed in a dream-like manner and 'speaks' to me directly as to my experience of severe bipolar depression. This kind of direct and immediate response is very rare for me, especially with regard to mental illness. I think this is mostly because most madness-related material is so utterly bad but here there's a kind of bleak and quite violent sense of incapacity and frustration. This is the part that leapt out at me:

A circle of relatives is begun around us both, who stand in silence neither wanting to be recognised nor living not to be, at the wedding they are in the deepest part of the room, that is, around you, and her face continues to be exactly what it was, only there, tender and calm. Her truth is whispered about her, not in sound, will you come open and spill out hell in the papier-mãché mouth, not just sink to it, - and you are deputised to the answer that gives yes, in horror I do see, yes, these are my fists clenched and blooded in how you swallow them, why am I doing this to you, I'm freezing, and the sun light come in through the wall of windows is leant slowly across the very tender face under yours, because all you will do is suffer for this forever, you don't have to, the memos are released and in any case redacted, the wedding is not yet ruined, will you not end instead, while you can? What happened?

What this has to do with the rest of Stress Position isn't entirely clear unless we are being taken on a tour of the inside of Sutherland's head in order to be reminded of our individual complicity in the scheme of things.

There are a number of proper nouns in Stress Position, some of which may need explication. Al-Mansur was the founder of Baghdad in 762 and controlled all of the Muslim lands from North Africa to Pakistan. Diotima also makes an appearance, she was the name Holderlin gave to Susette Gontard, the love of his life, who was the wife of his employer. She is addressed both in Holderlin's poetry and his novel 'Hyperion'. Holderlin named her after Diotima of Mantinea, who was a seer in Ancient Greece and is mentioned in Plato's Symposium, scholars aren't sure whether or not she was a real historical character but Plato attributes to her the concept of Platonic love. Diotima doesn't make a big appearance- Sutherland refers to her as 'anagrammatic' and I'm still trying to work that one out.

Diotima occurs on the same line as 'Vietstock' as in "To the anagrammatic Diotima I am a bare intuition of Vietstock / so we split" Vietstock is the name given to the Vietnamese stock market and I'm a little concerned that the line is included because it sounds good rather than having any 'real' meaning. It could of course be that Sutherland is just too clever for my limited brain. I just don't see how anyone can be an intuition of a stock market.

Hakagawa also gets a mention, the only reference that I can locate to him is in Eliot's Gerontion. In Stress Position he grimaces in sympathy but not much else, unless Sutherland is referring to Eliot's interest (via F H Bradley) in how the internal workings of the mind relate to reality. If that is the case then it's reasonably clever but I'm not aware that Sutherland is overtly sympathetic to Eliot's particular brand of modernism.

We now come to the hadjiavatis - Wikipedia tells me that the name refers to a character in Greek shadow-puppet theatre who "has a tendency to flatter the powerful and his name in Greece is associated with the eternally compliant person towards the occupying and dominant establishment". The hadjiavatis appears first in quotes- "the hadjiavatis who stands / for sacrifice whether he eats or is famished, the need whatever his need / absorbed into or when you disappear, for passion in everything / where you disappear". Sutherland refers to these as 'famous words'. They're not famous enough to me. The second occurrence is in the last section of the poem- "Akinfemiwa: all the better to ignore you with / hadjiavatis vaticilectrix vs Barbie arbitration / the apparition of a frozen heart grasped in fish fingers". Akinfemiwa is a fairly common surname in Nigeria, which is referred to in an earlier stanza, but I'm not going to speculate further. Barbie could refer to the doll or Klaus Barbie (the 'butcher of Lyon') who was put on trial in France for war crimes. I've got a feeling that it refers to the latter but it could be both. Vaticilectrix is a compound word (vatic and ilectrix) but I'm still working on the second part. Now, I've worked and hadjiavatis vaticilectrix might be:a compliant seer or prophet

Type Lucas Manyane Fritzl into Google and you get loads of stuff on Josef Fritzel, the Autrian who raped and kept his daughter captive for 24 years. Two lines later he is referred to as 'Joey' but I'm still fairly mystified.

>There's also Black Beauty (the horse) who appears as part of the funniest line in the poem ("....Black Phosphorus / and I linked hoof in leg and ran away to the Al-Rashid to score">, the al-Rashid which is a posh hotel in downtown Baghdad. Mention must also be made of various generals whose names always appear in block capitals- VAMPIRE, GAS ECHO HEDGE TRIMMER etc. 'Vampire' seems reasonably straightforward but the second is far too oblique for me.

Sutherland is known as our leading Prynnist, if that's the right noun, and Jeremy appears as a footnote in the fourth part of the prose section. This is a rewrite of part of the prose in verse form with 'Prynne' inserted. The entire footnote is crossed through as if we aren't meant to read it. Sutherland is either being far too self-aware or just precious- the vast majority of people who read 'Stress Position' will be aware of the Prynne/Sutherland lineage anyway and will have made their own minds up on that particular score. If the act of elision is meant to be clever then it isn't clever enough. The original passage is in prose, ending with this:(note: rhyme cartilege with competitve advantage). and this is the note at the foot of the page.

    I'm being very afraid my brain is on
    the loose, trailing its vampire
    cuticles through Prynne
    not untrue and  not unkind
    as the skeleton recovers its bones but can't
    go again yet because it's been
                                     all over
                                                     the place.

Meat Loaf gets a mention because Bat Out of Hell was played whilst the Americans were torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Sutherland asks rhetorically which of the various versions of this album were used.

There are other names which I haven't started to tackle yet and there's an inevitably lyrical description of the dialectic which I'll deal with next time. The work itself is mentioned as not being available in WH Smith which may or may not be a reference to the Prynnist stance on publication or may refer to the fact that Sutherland runs Barque Press (with Andrea Brady) and is therefore part of the 'witty circus'.

What I omitted to do four years ago is put sufficient emphasis on the verbal brilliance on these pages, lines and trains of thought that are intelligent and inventive in a refreshingly vibrant kind of way. Here's one of the more obvious examples:

    To the dark, unlistening water hung up in tufts in the sky,
    pathic orange, and was not answered, and the rain began to fall
    like rain, an ultramontane cadentia basizans ascending
    down to the ear from the cheek upside Xiao Pac, stood on his head,
    and up to it on Capo Dot, off his. But this new wet
    itself would do, an answer is only so far, and as it fell down on
    the car of our dreams that whisked us away, we vowed:  VCS.

I'll finish this with a quote from the last section- "Because the first metaphor is the deepest", which is only funny if you like the song from which it is stolen.

Again, Stress Position is now available as a pdf from the Barque Press site. There is no excuse at all for failing to click on the link.