Tag Archives: for the white lake blot

Saying Cheese with Joe Luna

I’m going to start at the end – what does it mean to ‘say cheese’? Most of us will recognise as the phrase photographers (amateur and professional) are supposed to use to make their subjects smile and appear reasonably happy. So, saying cheese is providing an indicator of mood and of general amiability which may or may not be a reflection of what’s going on within and sometimes the effort to smile is obviously forced that it gives away the anguish that is in reality besetting the subject.

I started writing about Joe’s work (I think) in about 2011 with his inclusion in the landmark ‘Better than Language’ anthology and made the point then that the fascinating thing about the work was what seemed to be going on at one step removed from the text. Since then I’ve read ‘For the White Lake Blot‘ on Claudius App and now have in my possession a thin volume entitled ‘Astroturf’ which was published earlier this year. There’s clearly a progression going on- a development that seems to encompass both a more formal lyricism and a quite grim playfulness that’s better thought through.

I’m going to use two poems to think through what I think I mean. As ever, what follows is entirely provisional and subject to change at any time. The first is ‘Shinier & More Resistant’ which is, to use Keston Sutherland’s technical term, decidedly prosey.

It’s in four parts and I’ll start with most of the first part:

You make an infant head count or sway gallantly inside singy lips
love-peak, a crescent just there pointing at a forcefield. Gum
open the ribcage pointing at it. In deepest Earth go terminal
at singy lips or sway gallantly inside an infant headcount colouring
the picture sky blue, there is a public plague over the entrance
portable to the last incalculable fetish and a quality street that renders
people who dodge every awful agenda - recalcify their hats, their pointy
expectations, a timid want streak is overtly fucked.

It seems to me that there are several things going on here that need some thinking about. The first is the repeated ‘infant head count’ which is nearly ambiguous. In what circumstance do we count children? As someone who has dragged young people over quite difficult terrain, I would count heads in order to make sure that the group was reasonably together and that nobody had fallen by the wayside or run off (these were young offenders on remand). Any outing with a group of young people involves regular and reasonably frequent head-counts of this sort. The other kind of head count that comes to mind is when something terrible has occurred, as in a school shooting, and police need to know how many kids have escaped unscathed. There’s also the gruesome count that needs to differentiate the dead from the wounded.

There’s also the possibility that ‘infant’ is an adjective as in ‘infantile’ and the headcount my also be the kind of counting that goes on mentally- inside the head to oneself.

The other obvious ambiguity is the lips that are said to be ‘singy’- are these lips in the everyday sense of the flesh around the opening of the mouth or are they some other kind of lip? ‘Lip’ can also refer to insolence. ‘Singy’ is more problematic because it might appear to be better than it is. What I’m not going to do, for the moment is wade through the fourteen main and many more subsidiary definitions of the verb but, in making this decision, the OED reminds me that sing is also a noun whose primary definition is “the sound made by a bullet or other projectile in its flight” which would take us back into gruesome territory if the lips are the mouth of a gun or larger piece of artillery- the noise made can refer to a shell or a missile as well as a bullet. In which case ‘singy’ is at least as good as it appears.

Before I get into more casting about, I want to have a brief interlude on the function of repetition. The most obvious ‘aim’ in repeating something is to add emphasis, to stress the importance of a particular phrase or image but there’s also the way it can be used to build on or develop a theme. I’m an enormous fan of repetition that’s used in this way but here there might be a bit more going on. These phrases and ‘sway gallantly’ recur within the first four lines and they appear to be used in completely different ways, not a development but a quite radical repositioning of sense. It now occurs to me that swaying gallantly can also have quite gruesome connotations.

The poem develops into what appears to be a quite complex examination of our indifference to the wanton destruction that we continue to wreak on each other:

and in the morning happiness is totally different from what you think it is. With
out disregard for living human beings there could be no swapping, life
does appear, and life-size you split the cylinder right down the middle
and say cheese.

I don’t think I’ll be alone in finding this an accomplished and completely satisfying way to end a poem- I’ll come back to the rest of it at a later stage and give some more thought to those first four lines. I’ll also attempt to deal with the Lana Del Ray problem.

It may be that Luna’s work has always had a lyrical streak and I’ve either missed it or filed it elsewhere. However, the last poem in this remarkable collection is ‘Night Thought’ which consists of three three-line stanzas and a single line. It’s quite formal in that the last line of each of the three stanzas rhymes with the others. I want to quote the last four lines primarily because I don’t have the talent or skill to write them but really wish that I did:

I go to bed and want to feel alive in time
to listen to the only sound that doesn't either
pierce my skin, or throws my head over the sink.

Night is big and clumsy. I am thin, and weak.

The last line is wonderful and is made perfect, I would argue, by the inclusion of the comma.

Astroturf is available from Hi Zero Publications at a fiver including p and p. It’s an important addition to our cultural landscape.

Joe Luna and clever poetry

I’ve been intending to do this for a while and have been stung into action by the inclusion of some Luna poems in the Better than Language anthology. Of the current group of younger poets, Luna is at the ‘clever’ end of the spectrum in a couple of ways, he says complex things in deceptive ways and these deceptions encourage the reader to think about the unspoken world that moves around the poem. This, by any definition, is clever stuff but there are number of pitfalls with cleverness. The first of these is being clever for the sake of being clever whereby the poet uses an obscure allusion or reference to say something that could be said in a more direct manner. The next is the use of the clever as a means of plumage and/or display. The last main trap (there are many others) is when poets disguise some banality by means of intellectual glitter – a trick that is fundamentally dishonest. Even our best poets seem incapable of falling into these from time to time.

I am however always ready to be impressed by the clever phrase, the point made with wit and intelligence, the off kilter but compelling juxtaposition etc etc, but I also like to think that I’m getting better at identifying where the above misdemeanours occur.

There’s a degree of nervousness that I need to address. I’m of the view that writing about clever oblique work should be done in as clear and direct a fashion as possible without underplaying the subtleties of the work. I’m also trying to find different ways to write about poetry so what follows is more than a little experimental.

When writing about Luna’s contribution to Better than Language I made the entirely provisional observation that what might matter is not what’s in the text but what’s around it. Since then I’ve been a bit concerned that this observation is both too clever for its own good and (much worse) inaccurate. So I’ve spent some time this morning with more of Luna’s work in an attempt to kick this particular piece of glibness into touch. This went reasonably well until I came to ‘Life’ in the ‘Lovers’ collection which starts like this:

         Life harping on at its believable
he will I say not
an incision, but life
itself. Now bite one off - the observable
universe wrapped in snow, an ulcer
sinks into a song.........

I don’t intend to undertake a detailed analysis of ‘Life’ or the above extract but I do want to use it as an illustration of what I mean about stuff going on outside and around the poem. In these eight lines we’re given a very wide field to play in, ‘life itself’ ‘the observable / universe’ would indicate that we’re in some kind of abstract territory but this is undercut by the particular, ulcers, incisions, angles and a life that harps on. This kind of polarity invites me as an attentive reader to fill in the gaps between the two and to concentrate on what might be placed there. The rest of the poem continues to make this demand on me and it’s a deeply absorbing process.

I’d now like to try and pin down this particular kind of cleverness by having a closer look at ‘For the White Lake Blot” which is on the remarkable Claudius App.

In my new found determination to experiment with ways of writing about poetry, here’s a list of things that I want to say:

  1. this teeters on the brink of the hyper clever which might not be a good thing;
  2. the way that the line endings/ruptures function throws up many questions about form but that’s probably the intention;
  3. the repetition at the start of part 4 is really effective although I do accept that I’m a bit obsessed by the reiteration business and am therefore biased. As with the enjambment I could go on about this for a very long time;
  4. section three fits Prynne’s breathtakingly startling criteria, the last line comes right out of nowhere and disturbs/challenges what’s gone before;
  5. there may be a whiff of the too clever hanging over section three but this is avoided or redeemed by lines 4 and 8 which are good enough to allay any concerns about pretension;
  6. I worry about section 7’s “read my lip gloss’ (which is naff) playing off against “in kid solemnity” (which isn’t) and my concern is whether this naff/not naff ploy is deliberate or unwitting;
  7. there is an argument to be had as to whether or not the poem’s last stanza is essential or annoyingly frivolous/gratuitous/smug. What’s interesting is that I don’t yet know which side I’m on.

There are some poems that don’t work or aren’t completely successful or feel a bit forced and I think this is primarily due to the nature of the risks that Luna is taking. It is much easier to do complex or abstract poetry in a single register but Luna is employing a number of registers not only as a means of expression but also as an integral part of that expression and in the very best poems he’s nodding in the direction of what might be going on rather than telling us. The risk with this is that the registers can begin to lose clarity or edge and the normally incisive tone descends into mere parody of itself. Fortunately this is rare in Tuna’s work but ‘esque’ from the Better than Language anthology is to my mind an example things beginning to get a bit smug and empty. The poem ends with this:

Four score and seven monkeys
late appeal makes
tied to win reprieve
conscious & waving & and drowning &
bent toward the sun at your
disposal well today we are giving
back to a new
future largesse replete
in range
of all my early poetry
on weather systems in Nevada

but I could not help it

Unless we’re being really ironic here, the last five lines are really quite bad, aren’t they? The reference to weather systems is neither odd enough nor vivid enough to justify/account for the mannered weakness of the last two lines. This clunkiness isn’t representative of the vast majority of Luna’s work but it does I think indicate the kind of risks that he runs.

On a final note, in the protracted discussion with Chris Goode, I did make the point that the unifying factors for me were more about desire, playfulness and subversion than ‘queerness’. I really do not want to reignite that debate but I would like to say that Luna manages to create poems that play with desire and yearning to subvert both political and poetic forms and that this is yet another reason for being optimistic about the future of British poetry.