Tag Archives: stress position

Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position pt2

I’ve now spent a bit more time with Stress Position and feel able to say a bit more about this remarkable work. I haven’t yet mentioned the wedding reception which occurs during the second part of the prose section. I’m not entirely sure who is addressed in this but it’s a very  penetrating depiction of rage expressed in a dream-like manner.  What this has to do with the rest of Stress Position isn’t entirely clear unless we are being taken on a tour of the inside of Sutherland’s head in order to be reminded of our individual complicity in the scheme of things.

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

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

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

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

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

There’s also Black Beauty (the horse) who appears as part of the funniest line in the poem and the al-Rashid which is a posh hotel in downtown Baghdad. Mention must also be made of various generals whose names always appear in block capitals- VAMPIRE, GAS ECHO HEDGE TRIMMER etc. ‘Vampire’ seems reasonably straightforward but the second is far too oblique for me.

Sutherland is known as the main Prynnist, if that’s the right noun, and Jeremy appears as a footnote in the fourth part of the prose section. This is a rewrite of part of the prose in verse form with ‘Prynne’ inserted. The entire footnote is crossed through as if we aren’t meant to read it. Sutherland is either being far too self-aware or just precious- the vast majority of people who read ‘Stress Position’ will be aware of the Prynne/Sutherland lineage anyway and will have made their own minds up on that particular score. If the act of elision is meant to be clever then it isn’t clever enough.

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

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

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

Stress Position is available from Barque Press. Try buying it now.

Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position

I was going to write this in the manner (style?) of the prose section of this poem but then I realised that this would only make any kind of sense to those who had read it and that only I would be amused.
Let me start by saying that Stress Position is a major piece of work that makes a significant contribution to current debates about language and its relationship to the ‘real’, compromised world. Bits of it are also very funny with extraordinary images.
The poem is ‘set’ in Baghdad and features the poet, a number of historical and fictional characters and Black Beauty. Rumsfeld and Cheney also get a name check and the sky makes several appearances.
If Keston was bipolar (which he isn’t), I’d be gently telling him to increase the lithium because the poem manages to hover on the bridge between mania and psychosis but is probably an attempt to express dialectical consciousness and produce poetry that is “as impossible as reality”.
So, the poem would appear to be a radical critique of American imperialism particularly with regard to torture but it also sets up a particular ‘metric’ (a term much used by Prynne) between aspects of the external world and the inside of Sutherland’s head. This is incredibly successful in that it takes the reader on an exhilarating ride through dystopia and manages to throw out a broad range of ideas at the same time.
I have a personal rule when reading poetry which is to count the lines that I wished I’d written. Stress Position is full of these so I should be overcome with envy but I’m not because Sutherland has thrown down the gauntlet to those of us who aspire to write poetry and change the world (not always at the same time).
Sutherland doesn’t have a good time in Stress Position, he gets gang raped in a toilet cubicle in McDonald’s and loses a leg but the overall tone is rhapsodic rather than brutal. A gastro yacht is also featured along with references to number of dishes- the significance of this escapes me but I’m working on it.
Sutherland has made a distinction between ‘readers’ and ‘consumers’ of poetry and made a passing swipe at mainstream poetry in the process. He was using Prynne as an example of a poet who demands very close attention and scorning those poets whose work can be read and fully understood in one go. With regard to Stress Position, the poem does demand attention but it’s of a different order to that demanded by Prynne, there’s no need for a word-by-word examination nor is their as much ambiguity but there’s still work to be done. The “anagrammatic” Diotima makes an appearance, certain words and phrases are italicised, a lot of compound words are used and I’m not at all sure about the presence of Black Beauty nor the presence of Sutherland’s mother before he gets gang raped. So the attention is more about the poetic structure rather than what the words may mean. Some words are printed in block capitals with numbers attached and I will need to work out what that’s about. There’s also bits of French and German that will require my attention.
The poem is also immensely quotable I’ll just give three lines as an example-

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

and that skeleton is publically wanked off, into the open darkness

and the darkness spits its wet dust on a sticky mirrorball.

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

Ideologically, Sutherland and I are miles apart. I don’t share his Marxist/Hegelian slant on things nor do I have much faith in the dialectic but I do share his outrage at American foreign policy and the forces of late capital. I also share his concerns about the way that language gets appropriated by the impossible world. I don’t read poems to agree with them, I read them to be challenged and to steal ideas and Stress Position more than meets those criteria.

There is a bitchy dig at Derrida that is overly simplistic. If you are going to take on Grammatology then you need to be very clear what you are taking on and why.

Sutherland will hate this but I think the whole world should read Stress Position – it’s available from Barque Press for £6.