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Friday, 9 October 2015

David Troupes on Poetry, Comics and Time

In her article ‘Miremur Stellam: Poetry and Comics’ (Poetry Wales, vol. 50 no. 1), Chrissy Williams remarks, ‘trying to unpack the language of comics, the language of panel transitions and the blanks left for the reader’s mind to fill in, I began to see more and more similarities between comics and poetry’. Me and her both.

As an undergraduate at UMass Amherst fifteen years ago two things began in earnest for me: the serious pursuit of poetry, and the parallel and entirely unserious pursuit of comics. The latter arrived in the form of Buttercup Festival, a means of self-distraction-cum-self-expression which has, in the intervening years, journeyed from the pages of UMass’s student newspaper to the pages of the PN Review via an array of other student and independent periodicals.

I consider myself a dabbler in the world of comics, but even dabbling in comics can throw a revealing light on the mechanics of poetry. Much of this, to my thinking now, comes down to considerations of not just timing, but time itself. A quick look at one of my favorite Buttercup Festival strips, will suggest what I mean. Series 2 no. 15 (have a look) is a two-panelled strip with little action and little dialogue. The joke, if that’s the word for it, is to suggest that the jay’s moment of poise and freedom would, if imitated by the protagonist, end in painful, flopping disaster.

The panel sizes matter: the first is expansive and detailed, the second tighter and more selective. The first clearly contains more chronological or objective time, especially if we include whatever implied misadventure landed the protagonist so high up that tree. But both panels represent the same amount of what I will call emotional or subjective time: the brief, isolated moment of the second panel is as memorable as the larger, slower context painted by the first. The untenable, hanging, beaks-up energy on which the strip ends is permanently arriving, permanently fleeting. The moment is obliterated as soon as we turn away. That is how sequential art plays with time, making subtle emotional movements permanently available.

The interplay between chronological time and emotional time – that is to say between the detail within a panel and the movement between multiple panels – translated into poetry, becomes roughly the interplay between line/stanza length and line/stanza breaks. Here’s a portion of ‘Indian Paintbrushes’, the first of my New Poetries pieces:

Now our daughter

in her chair

and watches quietly the green berries. Up in the weeds

eat each other like fish.

In composing these lines and deciding on the breaks, I am thinking entirely in terms of subjective time: the gentle isolation of our daughter’s waking into its own one-word line; the long, comparatively rich line in which she looks upwards at the berries and sky, watching them for a spell of time; the way this focuses again on the exclusive fascination of noticing the stars.

I don’t want to sound too dogmatic or mechanical about all this. These elements of comics and poems don’t perfectly correspond, and I’ll certainly also break lines for metrical or aural reasons. But this awareness of how time can work in poetry – with a jagged array of line lengths playing against a regular pattern of stanza length to suggest the way subjective time moves within objective time – has arrived as much through my engagement with comics as with poetry.

Friday, 25 September 2015

John McAuliffe on Adam Crothers' 'A Fit Against'

A Fit Against by Adam Crothers

The left hand knows what the right rear leg wants.
The centaur’s cento splices Black Beauty and Frankenstein.

He likes to correct people, tells them Beauty’s 
the name of the scientist, actually. Gulping 
horse at the head end means he pumps
out hay at the arse. ‘Hay pressed-o!’ he shrieks 

to nervous applause. Oh for some bolts, oh

for a bow. But he’s no Sagittarius, no. Half 
Libra, half Gemini: a tough couple of births. 
He rarely remembers which came first
in the Year of the Second Opinion.

It isn’t immensely important. His lovers
feed him sugar lumps or are arrested. Twilight: 

a coin-spinner guillotines tiny sandwiches. 

from New Poetries VI © Adam Crothers 

Adam Crothers’ poems plug factoids into statements. ‘The centaur’s cento splices Black Beauty and Frankenstein’, declares ‘A Fit Against’, one of the many sonnets into which he fits his little sonic explosions and non-sequiturs:  It continues, ‘He likes to correct people, tells them Beauty’s / the name of the scientist, actually.’ Why the italics? Why ‘actually’? All a reader can do is stand back and admire the mad sounds that ensue. And when the centaur’s lower half takes over, Frankenstein stays in the picture: ‘”Hay pressed-o!” he shrieks / to nervous applause. Oh for some bolts, oh // for a bow.’

This is playful, creative destruction, the sort which divides readers into those who might ‘take a fit against’ it, and those who are happy to be carried along by its associative pot shots. When he refers to the ‘Year of the Second Opinion’, he freely admits that he himself cannot remember ‘which came first’ and, as soon as he says, ‘It isn’t immensely important’, there is a typical, consequential twist in the poem’s long tail, ‘His lovers / feed him sugar lumps or are arrested.’

Crothers’ artful sonnet and stitch-up satire will remind readers of others, especially 1970s Muldoon with its hybrid mules and unicorns (and its centaurs which ‘thunder down the long road to Damascus”), and also of the poet and one-time Muldoon scholar, Michael Robbins, whose aliens and predators could easily slip into Crothers’ rhyme-heavy blues. It’s good to hear that kind of noise in contemporary British poetry, a noise in which no line is missing Crothers’ particular, fitful, jolting attention to phrase and idiom.

John McAuliffe's latest book is The Way In (The Gallery Press). 

Monday, 14 September 2015

David Troupes on History and Text

I was googling the name of a certain hill in Ludlow, Massachusetts. It’s not a remarkable hill, apart from a bit of outcropping rock which offers views of the surrounding woods and a few distant hill-lines. It would only be of very local interest, and the search results were thin, but one caught my eye: a digitized version of a book published in 1855.

A History of Western Massachusetts, by Josiah Gilbert Holland, is a massive, multi-volume work of tediously indiscriminate detail. It includes encyclopaedic accounts of the founding citizens, notable clergy and wartime contributions for each of the dozens of towns in the state’s four western counties. Brain-bleedingly dull catalogues of sawmill operations alternate with doubtful but exciting reports of border skirmishes with native tribes, all of it thickly glazed with self-assured Protestant moralism and a belief in America’s divine mandate. Reading it – and I’ve read a lot of it – makes clear just how much has changed in the United States’ collective psyche. And of course, in other ways, how little has changed. There is no sense of embarrassment in Holland’s prose – no sense of regret, for instance, as he narrates the steady dislocation of the Native American peoples. It’s difficult to say how much regret we own or express now.

The books reads strangely to a modern audience in other ways as well. Published in 1855, it can take no account of the American Civil War, a conflict which in many ways continues to define the nation. There are local ironies, too. Holland could have no idea that in 1938 four towns, three of whose histories he had detailed, would come to an abrupt end with the damming of the Swift River and the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir, the enormous artificial lake from which Boston, 65 miles away, now drinks. He refers to Mount Pomeroy and Mount Liza in the town of Geenwich; these are now islands, rising over their drowned township.

The books fascinated me. The strangeness of seeing the past discussed as present, and the further past framed so differently than it would be now, opened a space for my own thinking, and so for poetry. I began work on a loose family of poems under the title God of Corn, four of which appear in New Poetries VI. The central preoccupation of these poems – land, and the way we live in it – is essentially the same as for the rest of my poetry, but the occasion of this hoary, borey text lets me attempt connections across greater spaces of time and culture. If, in these times of environmental crisis, we are seeing the final flowering of many mistakes, God of Corn lets me consider those mistakes a little closer to their source. The fictive personas I create for that world are projections of myself, of course, but beginning each poem with a passage or line from Holland’s text ensures at least an initial quantity of something foreign, a complicating term in the equation, an intertextuality I cannot hope to manage.

Where the bound is sunk, there
this freedom ends. Yet the man we are
so desires the farm
as he walks by, walking late—
wants to jump the fence, join
the fire, stand
in the crowd of the fire
and be a part
of that burning, a part of that having.

(‘The Allotments of Land Were Divided’)

The tangle of truths and ironies I intend with these lines, the way the emotion sets off against Holland’s legalistic description of property allotments with which the poem begins, is both a seeking out of some decisive folly of the past, and a mirror for my own here-and-how confusion.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Nyla Matuk on André Naffis-Sahely’s "A Kind of Love"

A Kind of Love by André Naffis-Sahely

We loved luxury and ate like pigs, 
but our room, unborn as yet,
was bare; it was a new building,
and when we moved in, the landlord

looked us over and said: ‘No noise 
after eleven please’. Obediently, 
for the most part, we adhered,
and kept the ancient record player

(among the only things of mine
to survive the neglect and the moths) 

at its lowest; although money
was scarce, vinyl records were cheap

and we took advantage.
Halfway through the tenancy,
I got your name mixed up with 

another woman’s and, quite rightly,

without a word, you took your leave; 
taking very little except the needle 
you knew full well was irreplaceable, 
unlike our short-lived kind of love.


from New Poetries VI © André Naffis-Sahely

André Naffis-Sahely’s “A Kind of Love” is a study of attachment and loss (love and death) but also a story of indulgence and deprivation, and the poet has managed to stitch together these correlated themes to present, by the end of the poem, a twist on what begins as a happily-ever-after narrative.

Excesses meet enforced stoicism when a couple in love with luxury moves into a bare room, an antiseptic space in a new building where the landlord requests “no noise after eleven please,” which hints at a dearth of the night-time lovemaking noises one might expect to hear from two bon-vivants living under the same roof. An ancient record player is also played low—foreshadowing already that walking on eggshells may have been the order of the day, a kind of dance that begs to be transgressed. And transgressed, it ends up, when the speaker confuses his lover’s name with the name of another woman; the kind of ‘skip’ to be expected when playing vinyl, when being so careful that the seemingly mundane, the taken-for-fact, is entirely wronged. One almost can’t help making such a slip, like laughing at a serious matter due to nervousness. And in this misprision, full ruination ensues.

On departure, the lover takes the record player needle, the one irreplaceable possession of the speaker’s which, thus considered, should have been thought at least as valuable as his lover’s name, but alas, was not. Like devouring a sumptuous meal (“we ate like pigs”) too quickly, the naming error underscored the “short-lived kind of love” i.e., one that is impossible to develop further especially in a place where noise must be minimized after 11. In this poem of reckoning on a chapter in the past, a living condition (no noise), a word (the wrong woman’s name) and an object (the record player needle) all conspire to achieve a totality of qualified, compromised love, “a kind of love.”

Monday, 7 September 2015

Rebecca Watts on Ben Rogers' "Mackerel Salad"

Mackerel Salad by Ben Rogers

Turned left out of the room, and returned for the security pass. 
Conversation about pass, do you need it to get out.
Should it be possible for a building to require you to need a pass to 

     get out. 
Pressed button to get into stairwell and then because the light was 
     flashing alternate green and orange you didn’t need the pass to 
     get out. 
Turned right out of the building, many going the opposite way, and
     while doing so planned to get mackerel salad.
Crossed the road to a traffic island, thought about the odds of getting 

     hit by a truck.
Odds increase of getting hit if you’re thinking about something else 
     while crossing, including thinking about the odds of getting hit.
Crossed the road from traffic island to other pavement, saw an
     advertisement for mortgages.
Pros for mortgages: the image of yellow flowers on a wooden 

     countertop. Cons for mortgages: the word mort means death and 
     gage means count.
Momentary contemplation about the countdown to death while passing
     a man with dice on his tie.
Entered the usual café and bought the mackerel salad, served by a 

     woman with glasses who didn’t quite make eye contact while 
     smiling so was actually smiling at some air space.
Took the mackerel salad to a square in front of a church, thought about
     wavering prayer and murmuring candles. 
Consideration of the paving arranged in circular patterns.
Started to pace round the square following the circular patterns, 
     stepping on the individual paving slabs and not touching cracks.
Are they assembled to cater for some sort of ritual.
Do they reflect some sort of astral cartography.
How did Pluto feel when it was told it was not a planet.
Pluto doesn’t feel things, because it’s elemental.
Thought that it’s hard to know that for absolutely sure.
Decided to ring a friend, and it went straight to answerphone, a 
     recorded woman’s voice neither of us know.
Didn’t leave a message because of having heard sound of own voice on
     previous occasion and it sounding like someone else.
On that basis you might not speak at all.
Decided on a bench, sat on the right hand side nearer the coffee stall 
     and ate first fork of mackerel salad.
Man at the coffee stall recommends the white chocolate and cherry
     flapjack to a woman in a dark red coat, but she doesn’t buy it. 
Thought about the different reds, thought about predators in fairy 
Read on phone an old post from days ago about someone giving up 
     using their phone for the day the next day, although they will still 
     use the internet.
Thought about being in a wilderness where phones won’t work.
The wilderness had parched olive trees and powdery dirt, as well as
     stagnant water and reeds nearby to the right and up a narrow path,
     if you can call it that, on the left.
The woman said earlier that this was the last day of the salad.
Thought that some last days go without you noticing, is it better if you
     notice. Recalled the air conditioning unit in gated car park of a 
     building south-west from the square towards the river, how when 
     passing it it used to have a ticking sound that created the sense 
     time was running out.
The last few times it has stopped ticking.
The sky isn’t a mackerel one because the clouds are too large. 
The wind can’t decide where it’s going. 

from New Poetries VI © Ben Rogers

Though I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, I am with the speaker all the way to the penultimate line of ‘Mackerel Salad’. I’ve turned into the corridor and spun back into the office with him before I’ve even decided whether to read the poem, and now you mention it I’m not sure whether we can get out without the pass, which is a mildly disturbing thought, because if the technology, with its inscrutable flashy-light logic, is in charge, and the power fails, how would we… But stop. One must not let one’s anxious thoughts speed along to their pre-set destinations of doom. One must take regular lunchtime walks and practise allowing such thoughts simply to drift, like clouds, across the blue sky of one’s awareness.

The poem reflects on and experiments with states of control and letting go. The very act of narrating a lunch break seems defiant: Take that, office job – I am creative – see how I observe and render into sentences the curious details of daily life, even while sandwiched in your dominion! The speaker imposes narrative order onto this borrowed hour, documenting post hoc his actions and thought-topics: ‘Crossed the road to a traffic island, thought about the odds of getting hit by a truck’; ‘Took the mackerel salad to a square in front of a church, thought about wavering prayer and murmuring candles’.  Yet he also gives us some thoughts unmediated, allowing them to evade narration, to hang there in the poem’s consciousness, without pursuing them: ‘Are they assembled to cater for some sort of ritual. / Do they reflect some sort of astral cartography. / How did Pluto feel when it was told it was not a planet.’ No question marks, because no searching for answers. Such equanimity, however, is hard to maintain; the slip into extrapolation leads too easily to conclusions, which can be fearful: ‘On that basis you might not speak at all.’

The speaker is a creature of habit (the imposition of control again) who’s nevertheless experimenting with spontaneity (freedom from pre-conceits). It’s ‘the usual café’ and ‘the mackerel salad’, but ‘a square in front of a church’, suggesting this particular lunch spot is unfamiliar. His pacing is ritualistic – neurotic even – but creative thoughts are liberated by it.

Competing with these instances of liberation are life’s pervasive provocations to eliminate potentiality through decision: whether to ring a friend, whether to leave a message, which bench to sit on, which side of the bench, flapjack or no and if so which flavour… It’s no wonder the mind throws up a vision of a wilderness – some sparse place where we might avoid the onslaught. But fresh anxiety follows fast on this image of loneliness – the fear of time running out, provoked by the sudden recognition, in the memory, of a change in a familiar sight and sound, which then takes on a darker significance.

How far we’ve travelled, in only a few steps. The poem mirrors how the mind works: the syntax of thought compressed in the race to keep up with itself; notions that are vivid though not fully articulated, juxtaposed with sentences that arise fully formed from we know not where.

I love it. Which is why the last line feels wrong. Should it be possible for a poem representing the flow of consciousness to have a last line. No! The poem should go on as long as we have mind to read it, for the cessation of the flow of consciousness is the one event we definitely can’t apprehend consciously. Here only is the artifice exposed: the poem is not consciousness, and must end somewhere.

That it abandons its project with the wind’s disorientation is apt. In this image, indecision is a feature of liberty rather than constraint: the wind ‘can’t decide’ because it isn’t capable of decision, and in its mindless swirling lies its power. Or is the emphasis otherwise – is this rather a triumphant realisation – that while ‘the wind can’t decide where it’s going’, can only blow about insensibly, he is infinite in faculty?

Friday, 4 September 2015

Claudine Toutoungi on John Clegg's "Lacklight"

Lacklight by John Clegg

At first we didn’t call the dark ‘the dark’;
we saw it as a kind of ersatz light,
a soupy substitute which shucked the hems
and wrinkles from our objects. That was nice.

And later on we came to love the dark
For what it really was –admired how
(unlike a candle) it could fill a room,
(unlike a torch) it focused everywhere,

(unlike a streetlamp) it undid the moths,
(unlike a porchlight) anywhere was home,
(unlike a star) it couldn’t be our scale.
In utter darkness, we were halfway down.

Then came the age of lacklight, loss of measure,
darkness turned inside to cast a darkness
on itself. Though ‘age’ would make it finite.
Perhaps we’re stuck there, straining in the lacklight.

Still, across the last however long,
I’ve noticed something budding, vaguely sensed
a nerve untie and reconnect itself.
I think my lacklight eye is almost open.

from New Poetries VI © John Clegg

I need to confess that I am little obsessed with this poem. I have been saying it to friends and acquaintances  – really anyone who passes through my kitchen long enough to hear it – and enjoying saying it enormously for a while now. This is partly due to the poem’s devilish simplicity. Phrases such as, ‘That was nice,’ and ‘..we came to love the dark’ are disarmingly pleasing to utter, as is the term ‘lacklight’ itself, with its playful echoes of lacklustre and lackadaisical. And yet there is nothing simple at all about this poem, which is why it has me in its grip.

One of its complex aspects is that from the outset we are made complicit with the speaker. The fact that darkness is being rebranded first as ‘ersatz light’, then as the invented term ‘lacklight, in a manner that calls to mind Orwellian doublespeak, is not a state of affairs outside forces have inflicted on us. We chose this. That ‘we’ rings out three times in the first two stanzas and so Clegg embroils us all in the murk, deftly evoking how self-delusion gains collective momentum in a society that’s ‘halfway down’. Clegg establishes a terrifyingly topsy-turvy world in which an Emperor’s New Clothes-like conspiracy exists, one where darkness gains plaudits and light none at all.   

And the plaudits are so persuasive! Of course a candle or a torch’s force is only partial, whereas darkness is total. Of course darkness provides universal cover and offers to even out differences in status. It’s startling how the neat syntax and assured repetitions of the bracketed phrases so easily convince us of their authority. We are swept along from the second stanza into the third with a delicious sense of certainty until, abruptly, we are brought up short by: ‘In utter darkness, we were halfway down’, and are floored. What does ‘halfway down’ signify? Inertia? Hell? Moral turpitude? Existential angst? Your guess is as good as mine, but wherever or whatever it is, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go there.

Except, devastatingly, Clegg’s last two stanzas seem to suggest we already are there. Gone are the oh-so-carefully balanced phrases of earlier. In their place exists only confusion, disruption ‘loss of measure’, conveyed in the horrifying line: ‘darkness turned inside to cast a darkness/on itself.’ The deliberately cumbersome enjambment, the fact that now the ‘we’ has become querulous and questioning, ‘Perhaps we’re stuck there’– all serve to unsettle us deeply.

Is there hope? Maybe a shred. On the one hand, the speaker, by the last stanza is freed from the ‘we’ of earlier verses, which might foreshadow a moment of individual clarity. But just as we contemplate this possibility, Clegg undermines it. For the speaker here seems less clear than ever before. They can’t be definite about time (‘however long’). They can’t be certain about what’s going on with their own body (‘vaguely sensed’). The last line begins not with a confident assertion but a hypothesis (‘I think’) Might the speaker simply be more alone, more self-deluded than ever before? Clegg is, in this ending, masterfully ambiguous, ceding control of the narrative to a body part; the eye. I’m a little squeamish about eyes and never more so than in Clegg’s near-final image, conjured with exquisite economy, which has ‘a nerve untie and reconnect itself’. It is the speaker’s eye, acting semi-independently of its owner, that seems to be adapting to the gloom. There are overtones here of mutation, even of synthetic alteration. The effect is destabilizing. Yet, adaptation and resilience are good things, surely? There’s no neat conclusion here – the poem evades simplistic moralising at all costs, but Clegg’s final line is still indubitably ominous: ‘I think my lacklight eye is almost open’.  What will happen when the eye does open? Will the speaker be enlightened or more lost than ever? We don’t know. But the way in which the term ‘lacklight’ has crept into the line itself suggests we should be on our guard.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Joey Connolly on Ben Rogers' "Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation"

Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation by Ben Rogers

The sort of plant someone might grip a name on, a name 

lodged on a bath’s corner ledge. A trickle from the pot, 
shot with loam. Each leaf is an open hand with gaps 
between the fingers, which imply a loose hold on money, 
and which could connect to having a blank with names. 
A name that doesn’t make you think of cheese. The plant 
is a disorder that hangs over you, a shadow over a sheet 
of water you cannot name, a shade you associate with
the metallic weight of regret. In the mirror, your face
has a tug to it you don’t want to name. There’s a folly
to the multi feather-duster effect that the fronds have

as your father parades the plant down the hall on a plate 
whose pattern you don’t have the wherewithal to name.
The plant has achieved a size where it can no longer perch 

and has been delivered to a new home behind the television, 
there being no name like home. The television is in the room 
named the living room, to distinguish it from the other 
rooms. The fire reaches out to feather the guard. If the fire 
were solid you’d name it a bed of thorns. Your mother
prods for a new channel, but before she does the news 
broadcaster with a name you can’t name announces
the death of a name you can’t name who appeared in a show 

with a name you can’t name. The leaves reach out to smother 
the television. The carpet’s name is soft earth, the wallpaper’s 
name is mountain slate, the ceiling’s name is a heart turned
to ice. The next trivia question in order to win a slice
named a cheese is to name the plant in the corner. Another 

time, the plant there will be named a Norwegian spruce.
The window’s names are outside, reality, growing up
and danger. This time though, the plant is unnameable.

Your parents have left the room, and you are left on the sofa 
with your name, a word that reflects you but you see
through. A glass word and a plant that can’t nurse. You imagine 

the plant will move again, and in years to come will plunge
its many feet into hills spun with pine and flint. Returning 

again to your name, it’s not your name any more, and doesn’t 
even taste like a name, let alone name like a name. 

from New Poetries VI © Ben Rogers

There are still other made-up countries
Where we can hide forever,
Wasted with eternal desire and sadness,
Sucking the sherberts, crooning the tunes, naming the names.
                               John Ashbery, ‘Hop o’ My Thumb’

*Click on the image above to enlarge it

‘Monstera Deliciosa’ is the name of a plant, also called the ‘Swiss-cheese plant’ because of the holes in its leaves; it’s defined by the gaps in it. ‘Semantic satiation’ is the name of that thing where you hear a word so many times it becomes meaningless. ‘Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation’ is a poem by Ben Rogers, in New Poetries VI. But it’s also true to say that ‘Monstera Deliciosa/Semantic Satiation’ is the name of a poem by Ben Rogers, in New Poetries VI. The words, weirdly, seem to be both the name of the thing and the thing itself.

This is a poem obsessed with names, and the activity of naming. Naming, I think, is the delicious monster of the poetry world; it’s the violence poets can’t help but do to the world as they obsessively describe and redescribe – name and rename – the objects around and inside them, as they project themselves, sometimes forcefully, onto the world. Its deliciousness is the beauty and the power it can hold; its monstrousness is in its rapacious processing of phenomena and experience into something else, something somehow usable.

In the poem, Ben Rogers is mounts a full scale expedition around the different things that names can do. By the time we reach the second line we’ve had two possible models of names: they can be things to be ‘gripped onto’ objects, separate-to but joined-with. Alternatively, names can stand in for things: the plant’s name, rather than the plant, ending up on the bath’s corner ledge. Because this is a poem: it can’t have things in, it can only have the names of things. This goes on – the poem cycles through loads of cool ideas relating to how names work, but we don’t have time to discuss them all now. I’ll just skip to my favourite bit, which is this: ‘The window’s names are outside, reality, growing up / and danger.’ With the brilliantly placed line-break, what seemed to be a clever and entertaining poem about words snaps complexly into something a lot more emotionally involved.

Windows represent the point at which the outside world is made present and accessible, and for the narrator of this poem, that outside, external world represents danger. Suddenly, the obsession with replacing objects with their names makes sense as a defense mechanism. To conceive of language as replacing the world, rather than as being a window onto it – a way of looking at it – is a way of pushing away the terrifying chaos and disorder of the noumenal, inhuman world of things-in-themselves. The monsters of the too-real world are tamed by naming them. It’s the oldest spell in the book.

And taming is necessary; the window has sprouted four names (note it’s the ‘window’s names’ and not the ‘windows’ names’) which conjures some weird and unsustainable proliferation of designations, like cells dividing too rapidly, and of the same order of creepiness as what we feel when plants grow too fast, the natural world as implacable and voracious. Nature – by standing in opposition to the human – is often a potent symbol of otherness; think of Heart of Darkness, or of the thistles and bulls in Ted Hughes (or nature in all its narrative-shucking glory in Sarah Lindsay’s Debt to the Bone-eating Snotflower).

‘This time, though, the plant is unnameable.’ By now, the plant can’t be contained by its verbal packaging; for a narrator trying with increasing desperation to block-out the exterior world with a wall of words, this is catastrophic. ‘Your parents have left the room’ – some kind of grounding locus of authority is suddenly absent – ‘and you are left on the sofa, / with your name.’ At this point, the narrator is exposed to his own survival strategy, and becomes vulnerable to being neutered into language in exactly the same way as the rest of the world has – for security – been. The narrator’s name is ‘A glass word and a plant that can’t nurse’; there is no nourishment here, only a brittle fragility. The poem ends when ‘your name … doesn’t … name like a name.’ The poem, by this point, has reached the point of semantic satiation; the word ‘name’ stops making sense. This isn’t a stylistic or formal nicety, though: the poem stops here because it literally can’t go any further. It’s obsessed with names, and now they’ve stopped naming things, there’s nothing left.

Again, though, I get the impression that there’s a human psychodrama taking place here, and not just linguistic trickery. Even apart from that danger associated with the external world, there are numerous ominous reachings in this poem; there is ‘a disorder that hangs over you’ (‘disorder’ as chaos, as a lack of order, but also as implicative of a psychiatric disorder); there’s the ‘pattern you don’t have the wherewithal to name’; the way the ‘fire reaches out to feather the guard’ and the ‘leaves reach out to smother the television’. This is a world in which mental stability is constantly under threat from the reaching out of one thing into another. Boundaries are scarily permeable, and neat languagey categories are wont to break down. There’s a huge desire for the safety of pure solipsism, with those dangerous windows bricked up. If, as Wittgenstein wanted to argue, language is the only way out from the crushing loneliness of existential solipsism, then when names and words fail – become meaningless with semantic satiation – we’re left in a very lonely place indeed. Ben’s poem, with great humour and wit, sketches this dry quandary into a plush technicolour.