Tag Archives: statement of facts

Vanessa Place’s Tragodia

Vanessa Place is the scariest poet on the planet. I know this must be true because I’m quoted to that effect on the back of the two paperbacks that I’ve just bought in order to complete my reading of the above trilogy. In addition one K Goldsmith is quoted with: “arguably the most challenging, complex and controversial literature being written today”; Rae Armantrout with Vanessa Place “is writing terminal poetry” and Stephanie Hochet calls Place “etrange et forte” and “n’est pas un femme banale”.

I’ve written in the past about Place and how essential she is for the future of poetry, I’ve also been critical of some of her material that Isn’t Very Good and entered into a debate as to whether or not she has killed poetry (she hasn’t). My admiration started with reading “Statement of Facts” which immediately impressed me as strategically the most important event in poetry for many years. I probably need to explain – I’m of the view that the Poetry Problem stems from the fact that it continues to run on some notion of the poetic that was already clapped out by the end of the 16th century. This has led to the belief that radical breaks/fissures are needed to challenge and undermine this state of affairs- the Tragodia trilogy is the least compromised and most coherent of the current batch of breaks.

The first part of the trilogy is “Statement of Facts” which uses court documents to narrate some of the assaults carried out by Mark Wayne Rathbun aka the ‘Belmont Shore Rapist”. This is followed by an account of Rathbun’s arrest together with what appears to be a detailed precis of the dna evidence presented at trial and the defence experts’ rebuttal of this.

The other two parts both have this preface:

All quotations and accounts in this book were taken directly from the trial transcripts of cases that Vanessa Place handled on appeal. All these transcripts and the appellate briefs filed in each case, are matters of public record. However, the names of the people herein, as well as other direct modes of identification, have been changed to protect their privacy.

Place has said that she has plagiarised herself in making Tragodia. We’ll come to that later – the second part is “Statement of the Case” which has 33 statements setting out the grounds of appeal against a range of convictions. The third is “Argument” which is 33 densely worded attempts to demonstrate why specific convictions should be reversed.

The eighteenth statement and the fifth argument relate to the Belmont Shore case and conviction and I’m going to use those to show why this material is so very important. Before doing this I need to admit to a couple of biases, I’m a fan of documentary poetry and especially that which has some kind of archival base. My own creative endeavours in the recent past have looked at Bloody Sunday and the Shipman Inquiry as sources of material for thinking bout evidence and the need to bear witness, to give voice to experience.

What follows doesn’t make easy or comfortable reading, the details are factually presented but graphic accounts of rape that most will find difficult to read. This is a brief extract:

On April 2, 2000, Francine J. was living alone on Marakita, in Long Beach; by 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., she had showered and gone to sleep, wearing an old short nightgown. As was her habit, Francine J. had locked all doors: she also had sticks behind the doors and windows except for the bathroom window, which she kept partially open for ventilation. Francine J. woke to find a hall light on which she never used, and then someone “pounced” on her. A gloved hand was put over her face, a finger into her mouth; Francine J. bit down hard. The glove felt rough, like a work glove. A man rolled up Francine J.’s nightgown and used it to cover her eyes and ears, tying it in the back, and putting her hands behind her. He told Francine J., “Do as I say and I won’t hurt you.” Francine J. said she would, and asked him please not to hurt her. The man asked Francine J. what her name was, and if she was alone; Francine J. told him her name, and said she had a friend who occasionally came in after midnight to sleep at the house. Francine J. lied about the friend. (RT D-35-D-39, D-49)

The man asked how long it had been since Francine J.’d been sexually active, she said it had been many years. The man put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina, removed his penis, and told Francine J. to put his penis in her mouth. As she did, she noticed the man had a “metal ring” around his penis. At some point, the man took his penis from Francine J.’s mouth and put it back into her vagina; periodically, he had her change positions from her back to her side, removing his penis to do so. Francine J. didn’t remember how many times this happened, though it was more than twice. The man told Francine J. to lie face down; Francine J. became worried he would anally penetrate her, and asked him not to, because she had hemorrhoids. He did not. The man had Francine J. orally copulate him again. Francine J. could not recall if she orally copulated him two or three times. During the encounter, the man left and went to the bathroom more than once. After the second oral copulation, he went to the bathroom, returned, and put his penis in Francine J.’s vagina again. At some point, Francine J. asked the man for a drink of water; he gave her the bottle she kept on her bed stand. Francine J. could not remember if the man touched her breasts. Francine J. was in a lot of pain as the attack happened shortly before she had hip replacement surgery; she told the man about her discomfort, and he put a pillow on the night stand to support her leg. (RT D-39-D-42, D-46-D-49)

After a while, Francine J. told the man she was in a great deal of pain; he asked her for five more minutes, and after five minutes, left, telling her not to move for twenty minutes. She didn’t hear him, and he repeated the instruction. About ten minutes later, Francine J. went into her dining room, found the sliding glass door open, then called the emergency number. (RT D-44-D-45) The police arrived, and took Francine J. to be examined by a forensic nurse specialist. Francine J. had bruises on her body, and one breast was reddened, in addition to “pinpoint” bruises and multiple tears around her labia and outside her genitalia. Swabs were taken from Francine J.’s right shoulder, left breast, right breast and mouth, transported to the police station and then to the crime laboratory; a reference swab was taken at a subsequent date and transported to the crime lab. (RT D-45, 1355-1358, 1411-1412, 1437-1439, 1441, 1444-1445)

During the assault, Francine J.’s nightgown periodically “slipped a little” so she would catch “glimpses” of her assailant’s face. The man’s hair was either dark blonde or light brown, “loose curls” on top and short on the sides, a “neat haircut.” She thought his eyes slanted a little on the outside, and noted he had “quite a bit” of body hair, but not dark or black body hair. Francine J. told police he had a medium build, “not a real big heavy guy”; she testified he seemed “not real tall,” with more of a slender build. The room was lit by a light from outside Francine J.’s bedroom window, the small nightlight in the base of her night stand lamp, at one point, the light from the television after the man asked Francine J. to turn it on. Francine J. said her attacker did not look dark, and described him to police as white. (RT D-43-D-44, D-49-D-53, 1440).

On May 1, 2000, Francine J. called Detective Kriskovic and told her she’d received a telephone call from a man; after the caller hung up, Francine J. recognized his voice as her attacker’s. Francine J. testified she wasn’t “100 percent sure” it was the same man, but it was a voice that was similar. (RT D-57-D-58)

“Statement of Facts” contains many of these accounts and the cumulative effect of reading these is disturbing at quite a deep level. These are then followed by a detailed record of Rathbun’s interrogation:

The interrogation resumed the next morning at 9:45 a.m.; appellant was asked if he remembered his rights, appellant said he did, and agreed to continue. Kriskovic told appellant he would be charged with all the DNA cases and, if convicted, would face a long prison term, possibly life. Appellant said he wished none of it had happened, and that he knew what he was doing was wrong when he was doing it; Kriskovic asked him what he meant by that, appellant said wasn’t it obvious he was making all of the bad decisions and wrong choices. Kriskovic asked if raping women was wrong; appellant said he knew it was wrong. Kriskovic asked if doing these things was contrary to the way his mother had raised him; appellant said yes. Kriskovic asked how appellant prepared himself when he entered his victims’ homes; appellant said sometimes he would enter the home, then undress, and would usually ask the victims to give him ten minutes to dress inside the house and leave. Appellant said he never stole anything from his victims. (RT 1241-1243, 1282, 1289) Kriskovic asked appellant about the attack on Rosalie M.: appellant said a friend named Donnovan Seeks or Sikes dropped him off near the Hilton in Huntington Beach, where he planned to meet other friends. Instead, appellant walked into the nearby trailer park, and broke into Rosalie M.’s trailer through her window; Rosalie M.’s trailer was located near the rear of the park. (RT 1244-1245)

According to Kriskovic, when questioned about the Gloria C. attack, appellant said it was possible he’d taken some of the louvered panes from her kitchen window, but if he did, it was not because offingerprints. When asked about the attack on Francine J., appellant said he had never worn a “cock ring.” When asked if he orally copulated his victims, appellant said he hadn’t; when asked if he’d forced his victims to orally copulate him, appellant said he hadn’t; later, appellant said maybe he had. He then indicated he had worn a cock ring once, and that the ring had been given him by an acquaintance. When asked if he’d ever identified himself to his victims, appellant said he didn’t remember, asked what names the victims recalled, then denied identifying himself as Max or Tito to any of the victims. (RT 1244-1246, 1309-1310).

This is followed by the dna evidence presented by different experts. Each of the experts also has a paragraph outlining his or her credentials in this field. This is from one expert’s work:

According to Fedor’s analysis, appellant’s standard genetic profile at the thirteen tested loci included, at the D3S1358 marker, 16 and 17 alleles, at the VWA marker, a 14, 16, and at D18S51, 14, 14. (RT 1463-1466) As retested, Dorothy C.’s breast swab was a mixture: a mixture can be discerned if there are more than two genetic traits at any one genetic marker.28 The presence of a Y chromosome indicated the other donor was a male; once Dorothy C.’s profile was deemed the minor donor, due to the relative degree of intensity, the remainder created the major donor profile. The chance a man unrelated to appellant could have been the major donor was one in forty-seven sextillion. There are six billion people on earth. (RT 1467-1471, 1569-1570)

Retesting the Barbara B. sample, Fedor determined the DNA profile from the sperm cells taken from the right buttocks swab matched appellant’s; the chance of a coincidental match was one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. Barbara B.’s right and left breast swabs also included appellant’s profile, with the same one in eight hundred forty-four septillion chance of a coincidental match. Appellant’s random match probability on Barbara B.’s external genital swab was one in seven trillion. Fedor assumed two contributors to the mix. (RT 1471-1475, 1491, 1503, 1605-1607-1608) The Marion J. breast swab was a mixture; appellant’s random match probability was one in nine septillion. The Marion J. external genital sample did not test positive for male DNA, and there was foreign female DNA in the sample: at the
VWA marker, Marion J. was a 14, 18, and the mixture shows a 14, 18 and a 16, 23. At D21S11, Marion J. was 29, 32.2; there was also 31.2 and 30. Sometimes, with some ethnicities, the Y chromosome does not amplify properly. (RT 1475-1477, 1597-1601) Appellant’s random match probability for a portion of the prepared DNA from the fecal material taken from Carol R.’s window was one in eight hundred forty five septillion, and his match for another portion one in eight hundred forty-four septillion. (RT 1477-1479, 1491-1492, 1502-1503, 1514-1515) The Esther R. nipple swab was a mixture, Esther R.’s DNA was subtracted, and the remaining profile matched to appellant with a one in nine septillion probability ratio. At VWA on Esther R.’s external genital swab, there was a 23 marker which belonged to neither appellant (14, 16) nor Esther R. (14, 15): the sample does not contain sperm, and the male components appear in the mixture to a lesser degree than the female: Fedor could not determine whether the male donor left the 23 allele, or how many people contributed to the mixture. Fedor still matched appellant to the external genital swab sample at a probability of one in nine septillion. (RT 1479-1482) In both the Marion J. and Esther R. genital swabs, there were
unaccounted-for 16, 23 alleles at VWA. (RT 1601-1603)

I first read ‘Statement of Facts’ a couple of years ago and immediately understood that it is radically different from the usual conceptual material because of its absolute refusal to compromise with accepted notions of the poetic but also because of the ‘breadth’ of the content. There isn’t any compromise because the material itself isn’t in any way fiddled about with, dressed up nor adjusted in the name of literature / poetry. It isn’t difficult to understand the language until we get some bits of the dn testing, the details of the assaults are absolutely explicit and relentless – in the same way that Bolano’s 2066 catalogues the torture and murder of women in northern Mexico – in recognition that the rejection of ‘style’ is the only way to deal adequately with some events.

It’s easy to get carried away by the impact of the assaults in all their terrible detail but what might be more relevant is the progressive presentation of evidence and what various parties might wish to do with it. We start with the victims’ accounts and the evidence collected/gathered at the time and then move on to what the defendant is alleged to have said during the police interrogation and then on to multiple aspects of the allele problem and what dna might have to say about the ‘truth’.

In the case of the Belmont Shore Rapist the nature of confession as witness is the focal point of both the statement setting out the grounds of appeal and the argument against conviction. The appellant’s counsel argue that the courts refusal to admit expert testimony with regard to false confessions denied Rathbun a fair trial. This is the second paragraph of the grounds:

Pretrial, the court denied two defense requests to appoint an expert for purposes of presenting expert testimony on the phenomenon of false confessions, finding the evidence was inadmissible under People v Kelly (1976) 17 Cal.3d 24, inadmissible as expert testimony, irrelevant as to the facts of appellant’s case, and inadmissible pursuant to Evidence Code section 352.(CT 375-410, 412, 483-553; RT C-1, 385-395, 402-503, 834-835; Ex Parte Motion RT 1-7) The court denied defense request for discovery of DNA evidence relating to uncharged incidents, finding such incidents inherently irrelevant. (CT 648-683; RT C-9-C-12, 69-75). The court granted the State’s motion to exclude evidence of third party culpability. (CT 341-345, 714-738; RT699-708) Pursuant to People v Smith (2003) 107 Cal.App.4th 646, the court ruled evidence of mixed source sample testing would be admitted, admissible under the third prong of People v Kelly, supra 17 Cal.3d24, and under a separate admissibility challenge based on
People v Pizarro
2003 110 Cal.App.4th 530 (CT 739-788, 804=808; RT37-43, 47-58, 61-69, 76-142, 151-196, 200-260, 268-301, 334-338)

There are a further three paragraphs highlighting different aspects of the case, these are followed by a list of the 64 charges that Rathbun was convicted of and the sentence that he received for each. He was sentenced to a total of 1040 years, plus 10 life terms. The act of testifying in criminal cases is done in front of and facillitated by the state and this process is surrounded by all kinds of documented paraphernalia which are used and referred to so as to underpin what we think of as the ‘rule of law’. One of the many (many) issues raised in my mind by ‘Tragodia’ is the over-abundance of references and the names given to these references as if to add further credibility to the criminal justice system and that this may be an example of what Prynne means when he talks about how complicit language is in oppression.

Before we go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m of the view that Rathbun was guilty of these crimes and that it would have been an absolute travesty if he had been released on appeal. This is despite the fact that the behaviour of the police appears to have been extremely inept, Rathbun was subjected to six hours of questioning but only the sixth was taped. There is a marked difference between the full and frank confession described in the officers’ notes of the first five hours and the monosyllabic answers that Rathbun gave on the tape. He was told that he could speak to his mother (he was concerned that the media would contact her before he could tell her what was going on) only after the interrogation had been completed. I also think that the appeal is clutching at straws with regard to expert evidence on false confessions, not because the phenomenon is unlikely but because there is only one documented ‘version’ of the first five hours. Place presents the argument for appeal in its entirety – this is a brief extract of the part dealing with false confessions:

In People v Page, supra, 2 Cal.App.4th 184, expert testimony had been allowed on general factors which might influence somebody to falsely confess, examples of those factors, and evidence of relevant psychological experiments in the field; the trial court excluded opinion evidence on reliability of defendant’s confession, though counsel was able to argue application of the expert testimony to that confession. The First District found no constitutional violation in the exclusion because this “marginally curtailed” testimony did not deprive defendant of the ability to present evidence on the circumstances of his interrogation, ‘merely affected the way the defense could link the theories presented by the expert to the evidence introduced at trial. It did not prevent it from making that connection” (Id., at p.187.) There was no abuse of discretion under 801 because there had been no “wholesale” exclusion, citing People v McDonald (1984) Cal.3d 351, 370-371, the Page court reiterated that expert testimony is permitted where the testimony does not seek to “take over the jury’s task of judging credibility….does not tell the jury that any particular witness is or is not truthful……, “but rather informs the jury of factors that might affect the issue of credibility” “in a typical case and to the extent that it my refer to the particular circumstances” of the present case, may be limited to explaining “the potential effects of those circumstances….” People v Page, supra, 2Cal app 4th at p.188, original emphasis.)

So, why is this so important? Firstly it shows how startling work can be made without the usual poetic window dressing, secondly it demonstrates that there re other ways to say Really Big Things and that truly ‘open’ texts like this have just as much power to move and evoke as what is considered to be great poetry.

I think I need to make it clear that the primary importance of ‘Tragodia’ relates to strategy, given that there is a kind of tiredness in the overpoeticised material that is what most people consider to be contemporary poetry – this represents the kind of ‘jolt’ that may cause the ruptures of change that are needed.

Poetry and Politics and Truth, a response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

Rather than respond to your recent comments re the above in the comments threads, I thought I’d attempt a more considered response here. It also gives me the opportunity to review the last stated Bebrowed position on this knotty conundrum. I consider myself to be deeply political, most of my adult life has been spent in various forms of what many would think of as ‘extreme’ political activity and I was a member of the CPGB (Gramscian/Marxism Today faction) for about five years until it disbanded even though I have never considered myself to be a Marxist. I also have a lifelong passion for poetry and have held the view that the two don’t mix in that I wouldn’t turn to a poem for ideological ‘positions’ just as I wouldn’t hope to find poetics in political activity. I also feel that there’s too much of the political in politics and too much poetry in poetry.

I really struggle with the fact that many poems are written about political problems that will have absolutely no influence whatsoever on those problems regardless of the stance that those poets take. I’m also deeply suspicious of poets that pick ‘easy’ targets and will shortly give some examples of these.

None of the above is helped by the annoying fact that most of the best poems currently being written do commit most of the above crimes. In my ideal world all poets would be working out the implications of what Levinas described as ‘the sadness of self-interest’ together with Foucault’s view that the primary struggle is with the fascist that lurks within each of us. I also accept that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon so I’m left with these vaguely marxian poets who are producing brilliant poems but dismal politics.

And then there’s Geoffrey Hill who has described himself as a ‘hierarchical Tory’ and whose work is a really fascinatingly incongruous mix of knee-jerk polemic and quite thoughtful analysis- but only when applied to events before 1670.

You say that there’s no space for God in this material yet there’s certainly a lot of God in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and I think I could make a case for God in later Prynne. My own view is that poets are much better with theology than they are with politics and that the best God poems are those that express doubt rather than conviction (R S Thomas, Paul Celan, George Herbert). I’m also of the view that it is entirely possible to get pleasure from poems a standpoint that I find politically and morally repellent- Book V of the Faerie Queen and most of Pound’s Cantos spring to mind.

There is some work that is politically sophisticated and strategically correct and is being undertaken at the conceptualist end of the spectrum by Vanessa Place and Caroline Bergvall both of which make me feel more than a degree of what we used to call solidarity.

There’s also a younger group of poets who are in the process of recasting the personal and the political – I quote from some of these below.

With regard to Truth, I’m one of those intellectually flabby relativists that manage to be loathed by Richard Dawkins and the current pope in equal measure but there are Cambridge poets who are concerned primarily with truthful poetry and with a concern for authenticity but this usually coloured by dialectical processes and an interest in contradiction. My only excuse is Richard Rorty’s view that we should concentrate on that which is useful without too much regard for truth-value because doing things the other way round does get us into all kinds of trouble.

Incidentally, I really don’t want Bourdieu to be correct but he is- you don’t need to be a committed leftist to be persuaded. The escape from the iron cage is inevitably subjective but my money’s on Place, Bergvall, Neil Pattison, Johnny Liron and Jonty Tiplady- each of these for very different reasons (see below).

The Desire problem.

Bear with me but this does seem to get to the core of the poetry/politics problem. In 2010 Keston Sutherland began circulating ‘The Odes to T61LP’ which is the bravest sequence that I think I’ve ever read because it deals in an honest an open way with sexual identity and desire and childhood sexuality and confronts every single aspect of the British male persona. Timothy Thornton is an extraordinarily talented younger poet who is dealing with desire in a uniquely lyrical way.

I am and will remain critical of Sutherland’s Marxist certainty but (and this is the problem) I don’t know of anyone else with this degree of talent and critical insight.

The Polemic problem.

Poets, even Milton, are bad at polemic and shouldn’t do it. In fact, it is the repeated attempts to do this adequately that makes me most annoyed about things Cambridge/Brighton. I’ve been re-looking at some recent examples for this piece and they just make me unaccountably cross. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ doesn’t make me cross but it’s still an ‘easy’ target, isn’t it?

The Streak~~Willing~~Artesian~~Entourage exception.

I’ll vote for this being the best political work of the last twenty years precisely because it refuses to simplify, take sides or otherwise pontificate and it is wonderfully austere. I also think it is politically important because it confronts some fundamentals that have been ignored by all shades of the political spectrum.

Examples.

I’ve attempted to put together a number of quotes to do with politics. This selection is based on my own reading and is entirely subjective but it does at least provide a bit of a map for further discussion / debate. I’ll do something similar with both God and Truth at a later stage

This is from ‘Statement of Facts’ by Vanessa Place-

Counts 10, 11, 12 and 14: Jane Doe #3: Marion J.

Marion J. was living alone in a house on Colorado Street Long Beach on July 31, 1998; around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m., she returned home with a friend from Ralphs. The friend left without coming inside the house, and when Marion J. went in, she noticed her five cats were under the bed and her back door was open. She closed and locked the door, and took a shower. Her friend called around 2:15 or 2:30 to let Marion J. know she’d arrived home safely; Marion J., who had been
laying on her bed waiting for the call, then fell asleep. (RT 866-868) She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck. Marion J. said she wouldn’t scream, the man pulled her nightgown over her head and told her to open her legs, she did, and he put his penis in her vagina. The man then took his penis out of Marion J., lifted her leg and reinserted his penis. Next, the man turned Marion J. over and put his penis in her vagina a third time while pulling her hair back. Marion J. was bleeding; the man got a towel from the bathroom, wiped her, laid on the bed, and told Marion J. to get on top of him because it would be easier for her to “control it.” Marion J. did, and the man’s penis again went into her vagina. (RT 868-870, 875)

And so is this-

On Marion J.’s mixed breast swab sample, there are six peaks (11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) at D-8; Fedor’s handwritten notes indicate two of the peaks (11, 15) are possible stutter. (Defense Exhibit Y; RT 1570- 1571) Stutter is a PCR artifact, and does not represent actual DNA in the sample. Fedor wrote “possible” because those peaks could be
DNA, but did not report them as because he did not think they were reliably present, i.e., he thought they were stutter rather than additional DNA. His conclusion was based on the position of the alleles, and their shorter peaks; another analyst could conclude they were real. The Identifiler software has a Kazam macro which is to filter out stutter based on the manufacturer’s research; the macro did not identify 11 and 15 as stutter. Fedor did not know what the stutter limit is for D-8; there is no fixed laboratory standard. The Identifiler user manual indicates the limit at D-8 is 8.2 percent. (RT 1571-1575, 1577-1578, 1593-1594) Similarly, at D-21, the computer recognized an allele,
meaning there was an allele present of at least 150 RFU intensity. (RT 1579-1580)

This is from Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’-

Dame Justice no longer worries unduly. She no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth; or land; or health; or education or how to work out well-being for the mostest; or the bestest ways of valuing people’s skills or establishing fair and durable structures; or thinking long-term; or facilitating technological access; or revisiting the rules of international exchange; or the balance of import/export; or the value of local trade; or determining the boundaries between life and death; or between breathing and unbreathing; or feeling and unfeeling; or animate and inanimate; or how to get out of the deep labyrinthine social moral spiritual physiological bankrupcy engineered by the brutal omnipathological so-called transnational traficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperdfunded plunderterprrize. Sgot to be said she can be pretty longwinded. Speaks in subsections.

1a. Must fall. 1b. Should fall. 2a. Could Fall. 3a. Will Fall.

This is from Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’-

Be housed, clutched, inert. Receive, that wave earthed
in keratin
Dark’s cuticle
then fastening dark hand, recede. Conductive, slow
strings waist, a focus vantage stills, in weaning light

that houses break. Elaborately plaited fingers
crack on a shell in the breech. By coastal
rolling, granules secure and justified, flowingly
the solvencies peak and burn in type ; infant salts
the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

This is from Jonny Liron’s ‘6.XII’-

                language and theories de cauterize
and un captivate the attention of a
child bent fixed hell for leather of
fucking like a pretend dog, this should
be what you stand for, not the press
or forgetting.

This is the end of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘Superanus’-

Nice to wonder about with you,
nice to stay fat,
nice never truly to be a polygraph.

Worth it that the woods be sovereign
what matters is that any of it
happened at all,
the children a little fucked (concept to pop to sex) up
and Formby in Albania like Big Bird to Catanou
did quite well with that toaster.

Around now climate change arrives.

Having just re-read the above, I worry that this selection might appear too wilfully oblique and insufficiently specific but I am trying to honestly highlight those things that make ‘sense’ to me and I really am far too old to worry about the niceties of correctness or the rigours of a party line.

Is poetry too poetic?

I come to this in wavering mode. On the one hand it can (and is about to be) argued that poetry is the main problem with poetry just as politics is the main problem with politics. On the other hand I can point to the work of some of our younger poets (particularly Timothy Thornton and Francesca Lisette) as examples of really strong poetic poets who are moving the form in new and exciting directions.

I need to clarify what I mean by the nature of the problem. The first issue is introspection and the sad fact that most poems a written in and from aspects of poetic lineage. We are all guilty of this, I have spent many years attempting to write in a similar fashion to poets that I admire because I think this is a good way to do poetry and also because I like to think that I ‘get’ what they are about. The second issue relates to what I think of as the heightened language problem. It is absolutely correct to say that poetry in a variety of ways concentrates, refines, energises and thus heightens our language practice but I am concerned that there is too much heightening going on.

Poetry that plainly says what needs to be said.

I’m going to start with a quote from George Herbert because it’s what reminded me of the current poetry problem and because it gives me an opportunity to identify contemporary poets who make matters worse. This is the first verse of ‘Jordan’:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

I would argue that the problem is best exemplified by the ‘false hair’, the ‘winding stair’ and the ‘painted chair’. The first time I read these lines I thought of Prynne’s austerity and his stated aim to say how things are and then I realised that he’s frequently guilty of creating a winding stair. In fact it’s the complexities of the stair that I find so compelling. Then I recalled those moments where the austerity is ruptured by false hair moments. ‘To Pollen’ is mostly unlyrical in that the phrases are blunt and completely without heightening. The third poem in the sequence ends with “Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined” which just isn’t poetic. The twentieth poem however has:

will explain how that works, how bravery is planted
in a celestial soil like dust that we are

and ends with:

for good cheer brave hearts never in vain as under
starry skies commit acts of stupendous cocky turpitude.

The first of these is a bitter and sarcastic quote of what the clergy say about warfare whilst the second undermines the lyrical description of our soldiers with the last three words, especially ‘cocky’ which is almost anti-poetic.

I’m ready to concede that Prynne is a special case in all kinds of ways and that the above two examples (ruptures which are intended to take our breath away) can be seen as attacks on Herbert’s false hair but I wonder whether their cleverness can be seen as part of the winding stair. Prynne does all kinds of winding stairs, he does radical ambiguity, he does secondary and tertiary meanings, he does obscure references all of which might appear at variance with his desire to say how things are.

Poetry made with false hair.

I’m guessing that this extract from Simon Jarvis’ F0 is what Herbert had in mind:

The grey shades fall across the lintel and the steppes of lack still roll their perfect carpet out
Not like something upon which it is death to tread rather like some death which we are to be and to tread.
The sun is still felt to go down as this planet spins over it
No less lit when it turns away
Than is this inside
No darker or lighter than a thought.

There’s the poetic twists of the first line (‘shades fall’, steppes of lack’) followed by the repetition ruse in the second and the mannered syntax and distorted perspective of the last four. I speak as fan of Jarvis and consider him to be one of our most accomplished poets but I think this, by being too poetic, is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.

On this theme, it is widely acknowledged that nobody does the English landscape as well as Geoffrey Hill, this is conceded even by those who dislike the rest of his output. It is therefore of some note that Hill is at his most poetic (and playing with false hairs) in this particular mode. This is the beginning of “In Ipsley Church Lane 2”:

Sage green through olive to oxidised copper
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossoms come off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown. Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog.

As poetry this is very accomplished and poetic (‘rainward’, drizzle shaking itself etc) with a lyricism that’s at odds with the rougher speech and language struggles that occur in his less popular and more challenging work. This, I feel, tells us a lot about what many critics and readers expect from poetry, that it should have false hair and embellish rather than heighten language.

The Dogme interlude.

(Bear with me, this does make a kind of sense.)

Last night I was watching the Mark Cousins thing on the history of film and he was interviewing Lars von Trier. Lars was explaining what he did with the camera in ‘Breaking the Waves’ and Cousins remarked that Godard did something similar in the early sixties. Lars smiled at this and gently explains that Godard was/is still caught up in the cinematic tradition of making film whereas he wanted to get rid of all that.

The point is that those who do poetry perhaps need to get rid of all that as well. It’s interesting that at Dogme hq there is Dreyer’s editing desk and perhaps poets and critics should take a look at “The Passion of Joan of Arc’ to be reminded of just how much can be done with less.

I’ve never been keen on Dogme because I’m not keen on artificial constraints but some ‘rules’ might be helpful in solving the poetry problem or at least in beginning to think about the problem.

The Stress Position Dither.

As I’ve already said there’s a degree of wavering in my head on this because of the brilliance of some of the poetic and lyrical stuff currently being written. There’s also the problem presented by the first part of Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ which is written in metrical 7 line stanzas. The poem as a whole is a searing indictment of the dismal Iraq fiasco in general and the use of torture in particular. This is one of the stanzas:

   Wash your mouth, the rustle of sweetened Diyala inflected by affix
FACE 2, affix CONE GUTS 6, the life you rifle down
battering the slash of blood in procrustean sewage, never bespoke
free karaoke? The revolving door that leads to the emerald
has seven doors and seven plates of glass, the man who pushes
it round, who pushes the push bars, who pushes the meaning onward
himself is the spicy diglyceride, pre-cum for oil and water.

Regular readers will know that I’m a great fan of ‘Stress Position’ and consider it to be one of the best achievements in the last twenty five years. I also recognise that the above containsseveral examples of what I’m trying to identify as the problem. There’s the mannered use of words and phrases (‘rustle’, ‘procrustean sewage’ etc), the faux portentousness of revolving doors and the meaning being pushed onward and the repetition of ‘push’ are all tricks of the trade that we could do without.

The dither kicks in when I can recognise the inherent value of the work as a whole and can recognise why the first part is constructed in this way yet feel (uneasily) that the deployment of the poetic bag of tricks is very bad for the future of poetry in the current scheme of things. The other bit of wavering with regard to ‘Stress Position’ is my minority view that the prose section depicting a wedding reception is the most successful and effective part of the work.

John Ashbery and the Winding Stair.

Unlike George Herbert, I don’t have that much of a problem with the ‘winding stair’ and would argue that most ‘good structure’ is in the intelligent and subtle use of form and language. I do however worry about the ongoing influence of Ashbery on both sides of the Atlantic because I feel that his work epitomises what Herbert was trying to get at. I’m going to be glib and suggest that Ashbery is the current poet of the chattering classes, lauded in the quality press and taught extensively in North America and the UK. I remain a great admirer of Ashbery’s earlier work and of the effort that he has put in to champion other poets. It doen’t take a lot of attentive reading to come to the conclusion that most of his later work is fairly self-regarding and repetitive as if Ashbery has found his own winding stair, is sticking to it and wants us all to admire it. I accept that Ashbery can do this because he is John Ashbery and has the absolute right not to care about wider issues. I also feel that, given his ‘profile’ that this kind of stuff is very, very bad for poetry.

The Painted Chair and the Truth

For Herbert, God was the truth, his poems ends with ‘My God, My King!’ as an example of all that plain poetry needs to say. This may be entirely sufficient for religious poetry but doesn’t tally with the situation of poetry today. I would argue that poetry will only survive, other than as a niche for academics and hobbyists, if it challenges, disturbs and confronts our comfortable notions of the truth. The most successful poems that I have read in the ‘challenge and disturb’ department attempt tp say truthful things about difficult subjects- J H Prynne on the ‘Troubles’ Vanessa Place on rape and the nature of evidence and Keston Sutherland on the sexual identities of children. These are disturbing because none of them, as subjects, have easy solutions and the poets do not pretend to provide answers to the challenges that they provoke.

Reading and re-reading ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’, ‘Statement of Facts’ and the yet-to-be-published ‘Odes’ is a disturbing experience but also one that has convinced me that this is the kind of relentlessly honest poetry that must survive and flourish.

Jacket 2, Vanessa Place, Erica Baum and Caroline Bergvall

Jacket 2 is now live and continues the excellent work of John Tranter and co. I considered the original incarnation to be fairly essential for those of us who take an active interest in contemporary poetry and criticism even though I have ranted in the past about some of the more pretentious contributions on Prynne.
So, I approached Jacket 2 with a mixture of trepidation excitement. The launch issue dispels any concerns that I may have had. There is an interview with Caroline Bergvall whose “Meddle English” I’m currently reading, a feature on Erica Baum’s “Dog Ear” which I wrote about last years and an exchange between Divya Victor and Vanessa Place which features “Statement of Facts” which I wrote about on arduity last month.

My relationship with Ms Place is becoming more complex which is a good thing. I first came across her stuff in the last issue of the Cambridge Literary Review and didn’t like it much but liked the idea (conceit) behind it enough to work out the reason for my dislike. I then came across “Statement of Facts” on Ubuweb and was staggered and thus goaded into writing the ‘conceptualist’ page on arduity. I was then alerted to the recording of her reading at last year’s cross-genre festival and became a complete convert- as in this woman can do no wrong and even when she is wrong it is still a wrong that I’m happy to defend.

The exchange in Jacket2 embodies much of what I disliked about the earlier version. There is mention of Bataille, Arendt, Kant, Adorno and others as if to add some notion of academic credibility but which has the effect of deterring most interested readers. The exchange isn’t as revealing as other interviews that Place has given mainly because this has all the insiderist smugness of the conceptualist coterie. There are some interesting points made about appropriation and about the function of text and speech that give me further food for thought and anything that brings Place’s work to a wider audience has to be a good thing- even though I would have been deterred by this without some prior knowledge.
Place makes some really good points and then makes some others that sound good but aren’t – arguments about authenticity and appropriation aren’t the same as ‘lies and truth’ and I’m not sure that lies are the opposite of truth in this particular context even though it sounds right.

I think that I’ve said all that I need to about “Dog Ear” except to note that I’m now of the view that the spectral “Card Catalogue” is probably the better work.

Caroline Bergvall takes language and the visual representation of language very very seriously but her work isn’t either sombre or portentous. Having read the interview in Jacket I wish I’d gone to see her Southampton show (I had the opportunity, it’s quite nearby and I wanted to see it…) when I had the chance. “Meddle English” is, as you’d expect an extended riff on all things Chaucer mixed in with bits of Russell Hoban and some earlier stuff that’s probably a bit too close to the dialogue from “A Clockwork Orange”.

I am however very fond of “Untitled” primarily because it uses a kind of repetition which is masquerading as notation. Here’s the last two lines of the third stanza:

piano ALL horns WITHOUT ONE GUT horns bass TRYIN horns MAKEITREAL
horns bass piano BUT COMPARED TO WHAT horns bass

There’s also an instance of repetition in “Goan Atom (Doll)” but I want to save that for the next part of the slow poetry manifesto. The interviewer is a bit fawning and doesn’t really ask particularly searching questions but it’s certainly a good introduction to the work and the thinking behind it.
One final point, before we get any further can they please fix the navigation- something even vaguely usable would be an enormous improvement on the current offering.