Tag Archives: maze hunger strike

Poem 9 in J H Prynne’s ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’

It seems like ages since I last wrote about this particular sequence and I’ve been reading it again to try and get some balance or context with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Before getting to this particular poem, it might be as well to recap what I’ve been able to glean:

  • there are twelve poems in the sequence and each of these contain six quatrains, line length is roughly equal throughout;
  • none of the poems have titles, it is only feasible to assume that each page contains a single poem because of the full stop at the end of the sixth quatrain;
  • all of the poems are incredibly austere with this poem being more austere than most
  • one of the themes relates to the recent civil war in Ulster that we insist on referring to as ‘The Troubles’
  • another theme may be one of the last two or three financial ‘shocks’;
  • there may also be elements of self parody

I’m referring to this as Poem 9 because it’s a lot quicker than typing ‘the poem that is on page 9’ every time. This is it:

But relics intercept pernix go shifted snowfall, base
gimbal evermore he treats he shall forested. Rail time
and snicker by valid proximal, up slink bone you have
the same fill-track,fill even. Open gamble fine edge

Languish they to him, proof very rapid die-cast hair
cracking transverse mill end. Gone for tell this label
extract side to slide towards honey guided fit thirst
guarantor. Invent shack slim to heart mute doorway

Tepid or fumble exit better false by mime sacrosanct
hinge settled, spooned off for him next stop soon, next
heat to blink famous. Fitment to stagger pin owning
balance phalanx summit slay the day the way sump lit

He advises this too. It's for advent for shall or rested
occlusion pale object both sides, grill access delivery
ethic suck notice her ferric his to bind synthetic sip
alum entangled. Broadly infill bunker tremble ostive

Bit parcel same to find strong too. Odds to sublet cut
fancy triage up late give to win adventure, mild have
him taken. Suffix shall marry resection at principle
get stuck as metric hinder him, same slam. As grasp

Buy yet colouring traffic incidental locks but turning
say off awry, quick relent, store. How brain up patter
fond him to you sheer fathom, how. Entrain by per limit
resume and plan, fetch too, all incriminate allowed on.

Many of you will not be shocked, given the above, that Robert Potts (poetry editor at the TLS) has described ‘Streak’ as ‘impenetrable’. I hope to show that this isn’t the case but I also concede that these poems require careful readerly attention if they are going to yield anything at all.

I’ve found that there are several ways of approaching this stuff and the most profitable is usually to identify those phrases that do make ‘sense’ and try to expand out from there. It’s also as well to keep in mindwaht might be going on in other parts of the sequence. As I’ve said, Ulster seems to be a recurring theme as is repetition although it’s not entirely clear yet whether this is a subject or a device. The other method of entry is to identify and try to define what the odd or obscure words might be doing. The problem with this is that it can lead to too many choices so I’ll start with those phrases that seem to be reasonably clear.

When you read through looking for these, it is surprising how many there are, ‘you have the same fill-track’ is the first and might open some of what’s around it. In music a ‘fill’ is used to hold the listener’s attention during a break or gap in the phrases of the melody so I’m guessing that the ‘fill-track’ is the track or channel of the recording that contains the fill. Musical fills aren’t meant to be either spectacular or stunning but simply structured and reasonably short. Wikipedia tells me that musicians are “expected to be able to select and perform stylistically appropriate fills from a collection of stock fills and phrases” and that ” the tempo is not changed at all……….An important point to remember is that the flow of the music should not be sacrificed to the technicality of the fill”.

So this is something that isn’t part of the main event but is something ‘stock’ or off the peg that is used to keep things going. ‘Same’ is a word that recurs throughout the sequence but rarely specifies what it relates to which has led me to speculate in the past that for more than twenty years the various combatants deployed the same routines of murder and atrocity and dressed these up in the same tired rhetoric. It could be then that this same fill-track is the steady rhythm of violence between the paramilitaries and with the British Army. The ‘you’ in this sense could be the reader or the Great British Public who were initially outraged by attacks on the mainland but same became accustomed to the regular patterns referred to above or it could refer to both. Or neither.

I’m nominating ‘next stop soon’ as a phrase that also makes sense but is more difficult to relate to what surrounds it. The next stop would most obviously refer to either a bus or train journey but in the context of the civil way, stop could also refer to one of the many ceasefires discussed, promised and waited for especially during the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Bus stops and train stations (two of each) were bombed between 2 and 3 pm on Bloody Friday when 9 people were killed and 130 were injured. The OED defines the verb spoon as “to lift or transfer by means of a spoon. Chiefly with preps. and advs., as into, off, out, up” but also gives “In sailing, to run before the wind or sea; to scud. Also with away” neither of which are much help until I can work out the identity of ‘him’. It is eminently possible to have buckets of fun with ‘next heat to blink famous’ but I’ll try to restrict myself to the more obvious possibilities. Heat may be the heat of an explosion or gunfire or it may be increased pressure from the security services or it may be about the various pressures to reach a settlement. To blink as a verb has its ‘ordinary meaning’ but others include- “To deceive”, “To start out of the way, so as to elude anything” and “To avoid, flinch from”. There’s also a coursing term which means to temporarily elude the dogs. Those who have got this far down the page will observe that ‘blink’ is also a noun. The OED gives us these definitions:

  • a trick, stratagem;
  • boughs thrown to turn aside deer from their course; also, feathers, etc. on a thread to scare birds;
  • a sudden or momentary gleam of light from the sun, a fire, etc.; a slight flash; a peep of light; a twinkling gleam, as of the stars; a gleam of sunshine between showers: also poet. ‘glimmer’;
  • a ‘glimmer’ or ‘spark’ of anything good;
  • a brief gleam of mental sunshine;
  • a glance (usually, a bright, cheerful glance); a glimpse;
  • the action or an act of blinking;
  • the time taken by a glance; an instant, the twinkling of an eye;
  • a fisherman’s name for the mackerel when about a year old.

There’s also an iceblink and a blink comparator but I think that we can rule these out. So this may be a brief ray or gleam of hope and it may be famous because it became recognised as a turning point in the conflict, or it may be a famous piece of deception or evasion, or it may be neither of these. I am taking ‘famous’ to have its usual meaning although it can also mean ‘notorious’. At this stage it’s hard to choose from the many alternatives and I probably need to think a bit more about the rest of the poem first.

The other reasonably tangible phrase is ‘He advises this too’ but I have yet to work out what ‘this refers to’ or who ‘he’ might be.The rest of the sentence isn’t yielding any possible answers at the moment

As for the unusual words, I’m taking ‘pernix’ to mean nimble or quick or as an adverb as in ‘intercept quickly’. I have absolutely no idea about ostive so any help or guidance would be much appreciated. Conversely ‘gimbal’ has several possibilities;

  • a finger-ring (rarely an ear-ring) so constructed as to admit of being divided into two (sometimes into three) rings;
  • joints, connecting links (in machinery);
  • a hinge;
  • a kind of pastry work that is hard, about the thickness of one’s little finger, form’d round, and made in the shape of a ring;
  • contrivance by means of which articles for use at sea (esp. the compass and the chronometer) are suspended so as to keep a horizontal position. It usually consists of a pair of rings moving on pivots in such a way as to have a free motion in two directions at right angles, so as to counteract the motion of the vessel.

For the moment, I’m going with ‘hinge’ but only because the word is used in verse 3 and I really can’t get my brain around applying the fourth definition (yet).

‘Snicker’ is a little more amenable, either to mean ‘snigger’ as noun or verb or a horse suffering from the glanders or a knife. However I can’t see what any of these might have to do with ‘rail time’ although I don’t know what that’s about either.

Finally (for now), the sequence does seem to focus on the Maze hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 at the end of which ten Republican prisoners had starved themselves to death. The OED definition of ‘sacrosanct’ is “Of persons and things, esp. obligations, laws, etc.: Secured by a religious sanction from violation, infringement, or encroachment; inviolable, sacred” and other poems seem to contain references to the support that some elements of the Catholic church gave to these men and promoted them as martyrs in their community. So it would seem likely that ‘mime sacrosanct’ might be a sarcastic reference to that support. Or (of course) it may refer to something else that I haven’t thought of.

I will return to this in the next week or so, primarily because I do still find this sequence compelling and enjoy trying to work my way through.

J H Prynne and ardency in Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian

In the past I’ve taken the ‘forensic’ route with the above sequence, reproducing one of the poems and then trying to identify those phrases that might make some kind of sense. I find this process to be both absorbing and addictive so this is an attempt to wean myself off ‘close’ reading and give some consideration to the sequence as a whole.

I’m still making the assumption that the poems in ‘Streak’ are linked in ways other than the fact that each consists of six quatrains and that one of these linkages relates to the recent civil war in Ulster with a specific focus on the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. Having re-read the sequence a couple of times I think I’ve identified a number of places where things become more than a little intense.

Before identifying these, I’d like to give some consideration to what Prynne says in ‘Field Notes’ about Wordsworth’s use of ‘O’ in ‘The Solitary Reaper’. I don’t want to precis the finer points of his analysis, which is both complicated and wonderful, but I do want to point out that for him the use of ‘O’ in poetry is an expression of strong emotion and/or feeling. I also want to think about this:

The motive for ardency is in part supplied by the scarcely bridgeable rift between the possibly actual and the intensely desired (the two senses of listen even in deep memory this separation must remain a disruption to unified human consciousness, which may in this era locate one of the primal tasks of the poet of this kind to make danger or desire upon the surface of the universal earth.

The ‘point’ of this is that ‘oh’ does occur in the ‘Streak’ sequence and there appear to be other statements of intense feeling as well. With regard to Ulster, is it reasonable to characterise British involvement in the recent ‘Troubles’ as attempting in part to resolve the gulf between what was possible and what was desired by the various factions. This, of course, could be yet another example of me running away with myself but it does seem worth bearing in mind at this stage.

Now we come to timing and the fact that ‘Streak’ was the first work to be published after ‘Field Notes’ and the observation that ‘To Pollen’ doesn’t contain a single ‘Oh’. The only other relevant observation is that the above seems to be a quite ardent/fervent expression of what poetry (of this kind) might be about at a quite deep level.

‘Streak’ almost begins with an ‘oh’, this is the first stanza and a bit of the first poem-

Inside the tight closed box off it was it was out
a same summer box oh then at must closed on all
or maybe often maybe open to one side glaze be
in part to spill affirm partial along a rim ballast

Ready known,…………….

Beginning to think about ‘oh then at must’ I think I see what Robert Potts meant when he described this sequence in one word – “impenetrable” but there are do appear to be a number of ways in. The first is to ask what difference would there be if the ‘oh’ wasn’t present. When I say ‘oh then’ this tends to indicate that I have just realised something and am extrapolating from it. For example, if I’m told that it is raining I may respond with ‘oh, then I won’t go for a walk until later’ because walking in the rain isn’t much fun.

I’m struggling to see how ‘at must’ relates in any way to ardency especially when placed with this flurry of repetition. There is a very, very slight possibility that ‘must’ is actually the Middle English variant of ‘most’ and a slightly greater chance that it is used as an expression of ” a command, obligation, or necessity; (hence) an obligation, a duty; a compulsion” (OED). I’m currently inclined towards ” Expressing a fixed or certain futurity: am (is, are) fated or certain to, shall certainly or inevitably” because it seems to fit best with the certainty of ‘it was it was’ and contrasts with the maybes in the following line.

The second use of ‘oh’ occurs in the fifth stanza of the same poem-

Recital to side, same with to side livid in part
newly profuse did civic offer on a dial, sweep
flight oh disposal profligate buck more in and
ready. Tantric cube up tight seam, signal limit

The previous stanza ends with a full stop so this extract does contain the full sentence. Things may be a bit clearer in this instance. The notorious use of internment (imprisonment without trial) by the British government between 1971 and 1975 resulted in a rise in the membership of paramilitary groups. So ‘sweep flight’ may refer to the initial arrests and ‘profligate disposal’ to the fact that many (over 1900) were incarcerated whilst ‘buck more in and ready’ may refer to internment causing more individuals to go against ‘normal’ law-abiding practices and to join the IRA and other groups and to be ready to participate in violent acts. If this is the case then ‘oh’ here is likely to represent an ardent (as in keenly felt) lament or disappointment at the brutality and crass stupidity that characterised so much of British policy throughout the seventies.

The third ‘oh’ takes me back into bafflement territory although there are a few more footholds-

let lid flicker, stand up. Said what choice spoken

Quickly at a brag do they when not or if profound
same brows matching oh weigh out lamp for show fly
forward, must do. Weed wet they say would you de-
lay hard trimming fast the sluice unclued eye into.

I have spent ten minutes in the company of rules 88 and 89 of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and can now confirm that a jockey ‘weighs out’ before a race and weighs in after it and that the rules about this are quite complex. This, of course, does not help with either the bafflement or the ardency. The eagle-eyed amongst you will note the proximity of ‘must’ and some may recall that ‘lamp’ as a verb can mean to strike or to thrash, especially in northern dialect. So somebody may be being beaten up in order to either deter or intimidate others. ‘Brag’ as a verb can mean both arrogant and boastful language and a ” Show, pomp, display; pompous demeanour or carriage” which brings to my mind the deeply weird Orange marches that continue to be such a source of conflict.

If this particular ‘oh’ does not indicate ardency then might it indicate a kind of bored resignation because all parties during the Troubles continued to make the same mistakes and adopt the same nonsensical ‘positions’. There’s also the slim possibility that the verification involved in weighing out a jockey might nod towards the actions of the independent group set up to monitor if the IRA was actually disarming.

The fourth ‘oh’ (from the eighth poem) doesn’t offer any obvious footholds-

at the boundary. Draw back torted, for fraction unlit
decept inner bark what frame oh how not even upright

Is the surface entire all for them compose him runnel
delegate incision, enjoy the permit gates, be tint likely
pitch acid hob. Loop for fray unpick over flint skies.

I’m not going to even attempt the ‘torted’. ‘decept’, ‘runnel’ route because that is likely to take me into forensic fretting over signification and what I’m trying to do here is to examine the nature of the ‘oh’. It can of course be argued that in order to grasp the oh then I need to understand the context. I accept this but also point out that this particular ‘oh’ seems to be another expression of either dismay, exasperation or disappointment and doesn’t seem to contain very much ardency- although we can be ardently exasperated, can’t we?

The final ‘oh’ (from the penultimate poem) is a bit more promising-

folder wasted in a cratch, into that. Did they wear better
busy neck-piece jesting harmonious interlock bundle tag
agreement oh same training striker defect. All same lock

‘Same’ is repeated throughout the sequence and one day I will try and make sense of the various ways in which it is deployed. Is this particular same involved in some kind of coaching or education? Does ‘striker’ refer to hunger striker and what might this defect be? The strike was in part an extension of the blanket protest against the withdrawal of political status for IRA prisoners and the requirement that such prisoners should wear ‘ordinary’ prison uniform. I’d like to think that this ‘oh’ is an expression of fervent regret but that might be more about my feelings about the hunger strike than Prynne’s.

None of this is terribly helpful in terms of ‘joining up the dots’ and doesn’t bode well for trying to do the same with other recurring features but it does lead me to think much more about the sequence as a whole which is a Good Thing. Incidentally, there are references to keenly felt emotions that are completely ‘oh’ free…