(ESSAY) ‘This glint of light on the cut’ by Ali Graham
In this essay, Ali Graham explores writing a sequence of poetry and working comparatively with poetry and film to see what each form reveals of the other. Looking to the poetry of Geraldine Monk alongside thinkers such as Laura Mulvey, Alain Badioú, Lauren Berlant and Elizabeth Grosz, Graham writes on film's flickering and how this might be staged in poetry, how to translate the medium of cinema into poetry, how both poetry and film have motion, light and sound at stake and whether it is possible for poetry to enact a film.
> I want this film to act real.
> Cinema and poetry often put before their audience a strange temporality to which a strange grammar is inextricably knotted. Grammar is put to the end of subject formation, rather than establishment of linear time. The passage of time is put to the end of producing the work, and it is liable to jumping around. > Poetry and cinema turn on a recurring present. Their images move and sound in a here and now. This is a present that seems to have happened before it has, that has been through consideration before I meet it, an occurrence that I chase after but do not happen after. This means it is near but apart from me; detailing a position in space is inextricable from inscribing the nature of what is described.
> Folk horror’s present is also troubled; the genre’s works ‘use folklore, either aesthetically or thematically, to imbue [themselves] with a sense of the arcane for eerie, uncanny or horrific purposes’; that ‘present a clash between such arcania and its presence within or close proximity to some sort of modernity’. It restages tales of history, returning into the past from a distance, creating conflict in sameness.
> This in the sense of being near but apart is also true to these two mediums, which are not perfectly interchangeable. In the process of setting out a definition of cinema, Alain Badiou repeats ‘it’s not sufficient’ five times. After the third repetition I wonder if I have a these on my hands. Badiou posits ‘…a film is not reducible to one image’s movement, or one image-movement; it is a composition of different image-movements, which we name a sequence.’ Through naming, it becomes singular. Speaking holds these together and makes a this of them. In Badiou’s account, the speech act folds in on itself; naming the composition a sequence and noting the naming of the composition happen at once. This folding feels grammatical.
> In Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), I find a feature of grammar that also folds: the historical present. Berlant states that ‘[t]his book’s main genre for tracking the sense of the present is the impasse’; the impasse being ‘a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic’, a time of acting in accordance with ‘those processes that have not yet found their genre of event’. Folding in the sense of buckling, crumpling, of life being too much; the present being known best when colliding with its own crisis.
> ‘Dig, Cutler, dig,’ barks the alchemist O’Neill in A Field in England when it seems that the treasure he promised to the group and himself – on which he makes his claim to command – may well not exist at all, or may not be in that particular field, or those present in the field may not be able to bring the treasure out of the ground. Between these there is no difference. The field is no good; the treasure is not. He continues: ‘[t]his country is at the edge of something.’
> When watching Midsommar, I lose my nerve not even halfway through and leave the cinema. The bathos of this is in line with how my life feels when writing English radiant ground. I have got myself into a bad relationship with my life and need to leave it for my life, a different one. I realise this in part by how often I have been saying “my life”. When piss-scented mould non-
metaphorically grows thickly on my bed slats, how can my life become this life? >Most of my optimisms escape me. After work, I receive bad news, and I
A Field in England
lie face down on the pavement, put my hands over my mouth, scream into my skin and the tarmac. It happens in a weird present; I need to do it I do it when no cars are coming, when near no houses
> I am conscious of how I will appear to others; I see how I might appear in various courses of action before taking one.
> In this year my life is a creature and in the eyes of my life there is an unreadable glint.
> Witchfinder General ends with a close-up of Sara Lowes’ screaming face; dialogue escapes the circumstances. She screams after or maybe because the evil has been ended; the antagonist
Hopkins is dead. No words come after. Sara has the last word, undeniably, and she has it every time the film happens.
> This screaming is positioned human sound without the guiding hand of grammar. An unbounded need to sound. In my bad year, I sustain My Life , a “made thing…mostly made of sound”; I hold to writing. There are moments without poetry, that afford only public screaming. There are moments in English radiant ground where the screen between my life and lyric is thin; I have also been a self-shorn figure in the countryside. In this bad year sound does not always take the form of words.
A Field in England
> Screaming provides a way in to (re)configuring the troubled status of women and/or those who are gender non-compliant in horror. I note screaming and breathlessness as frequent designations/outputs of womanhood in horror. Breathless and/or screaming when fleeing danger, when distressed, when pleasured. I work aloud on ‘Young Woman Cupping Her Own Hands’, determining what poetic technique is suited to reproduction of filmic breathlessness. I use scansion and lacunae to indicate that the stress falls not on words, but on air itself:
… / my mouth admits the decision of opening three times / my mouth is refusing your name how / it / creaks / the shame of you
> Guiding this was the desire not to discount horror’s techniques outright, but to invert them; to enact them self-reflexively. Laura Mulvey argues for ‘mak[ing] way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film…transcending outworn or oppressive forms.” The scream in the final line of 'Figure Breathing’ is not described onomatopoeically. It is brought outside of itself, back to language. It does not end the sequence, either. The scream is not final. It is used because it is this moment’s best fit. After my public screaming I breathe deeply, walk home, speak to a friend, eat, sit.
> ‘The past is not a peaceful landscape lying there behind me’. Light hits the edges of things noisily. The ground is not inert.
> ‘The past is not…a country in which I can stroll wherever I please, and which will gradually show me all its secret hills and dales’. A woman is led weak-kneed up a hill by her bound hands by men, followed by watchful men and women, all in seventeenth century dress. Behind them there is a village’s worth of twentieth century houses.
> Daniel Tiffany asks, ‘[i]s it possible for lyric to maintain a kind of objectivity, to conceive a substance apart from its own body?’
> What is a glint to its light?
> In my case: can lyric poetry conceive of a film?
> I consider how to avoid becoming too removed from film while writing these poems – how to stay hovering at the screen theatre’s exit – and decide attention to medium will be key. To gesture to thirty-five millimetre film, I adopt a constraint of thirty-five characters per line for every line of the portrait-oriented figure poems. This constraint is present and knowable but not straightforwardly visible. There is a sense of a pattern, the lines being of similar lengths, but no explicit disclosure, only a sense that some thing is working.
The Wicker Man
> I realise that foregrounding of medium is central to this (re)enactment of a [film]. What is it about film that turns so much on medium? A.M.A. van de Oever emphasises that ‘it was the early cinema experience that sensitized [Shklovsky] to the medium’, when Shklovsky wrote ‘[b]y this “algebraic” method of thought we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions.’ The forms I make use of in these poems gesture to this; how the algebraic constraint of thirty-five characters turns letters to numbers, and how the landscape-oriented ‘ground’ poems extend themselves across the page as strange limbs in an uneasy welcome.
Blood on Satan's Claw
> To go beyond writing after a [film] – to enact it – I need to recreate how the medium of the film reel performs to make an encounter with a film possible. A film reel works by flickering; an image is shown momentarily, the reel moves, another image is shown. Movement is perceived because each frame is visually different. The flickering of film is iterative. The movement of the reel repeats as the reel’s images change. It is an event and relation, rather than an object. Through the reel’s movement, other movements can be reproduced; through the manoeuvrings of the reel’s body, the doings of other bodies are made perceptible.
Blood on Satan's Claw
> Poetry’s access to the visual is by the performance of its text upon the space of the page; by the gesturing of its words to their correspondent images; by its requirement that it be read (though not necessarily visually) to be experienced. In ‘Young Woman Semiconscious and in Purple’, I write:
…These are, with ease, brought in. Brought in the colour is rare, like rope. > The exertion of poetry’s bringing is conveyed by the line break; there is a pause, a moment of strain, before the colour can be detailed “rare”. A poem tells its present; a film is its present.
> A film’s flickering happens structurally. A poem can only enact a film or [film] as part of a sequence. English radiant ground is in a historical present. The poems sound in a strange now and here; the sequence has already happened out of sight and found its grammar. There are different ways of grammar. Grammar conventionally: laws and propriety, articles, instant intelligibility. Grammar differently: organising against linear time, its service of white empire. ‘The lightning of poetry is recreated in time’s gasp.’ A glint accompanied by sound happens when time is put under duress, when it is put towards un-chronology.
> The figure poems are organised as scripts, with stage directions, the text centred on the page. I break from the expectation that the stage directions will appear before the character’s name in order to acknowledge the limits of poetry in enacting film. It is possible for a film to show to its viewer without a protagonist or antagonist, not even an extra; an entire film could contain no language. I find that as of yet poetry’s subjectivity wavers, flickers, when I attempt to demarcate it.
> A poem can tell of a film, but it cannot be a film. This [film] is poetry grappling with the outer reaches of telling.
> Geraldine Monk’s Interregnum (1994) is grappling or maybe mudwrestling with the act of telling. I note the potential for enjambment to project texture. In ‘Out-thoughts…of ALICE…’, she writes:
…contra, alive. The pit against pit of rootless ease. The feed for my ungovernable core to help me fight the regime of mealtimes…
> These lines have a flickering effect. They break in such a way that the effect is not straightforward emphasis. The words are slippery, stealing away from themselves, light-fingered and shirking the behaviour of the line as a unit unto itself that a reader might expect. Slippage is happening. In the line break after ‘ungovernable’ and before ‘core’ it seem that the phrase ‘my ungovernable’ is complete, that a noun has been made of the adjective. The frame is apparently fixed in place, until it is qualified with ‘core’. > Ending a line with ‘pit’ pits the articulation of the mouth against the momentary silence of the line break; the brevity of the vowel and force of the consonants is percussive. Not a cymbal but a lone, fearful drumbeat. I intensify this in ‘Man Speaking to Locusts’:
….It peels off. I will be going away, to where it is allowed. I am colt-footed, upturning,
> Here, the irregular percussiveness of the lines ending on “it” anticipates the teetering walk of a colt. The speaker of the poem reaches the place where breaking a line on “it” is allowed. Monk’s collection tends closely to form as well as sound, as in ‘Blind Talk’:
we only believe
your truth telling
it like we
hear what we
> It was this that alerted me to the potential of staging contortions – both of speech and of the body more broadly – through form. The line breaks injure, but do not equate to the lines’ cuts producing cuts on a body. They perform breathlessness. The difficulty of gathering enough air to speak even one letter at a time; the constriction that prevents intake of air. In the ground poems, though the line lengths are variegated, they are lengthy in many places, as in ‘English radiant ground 3’:
A shout of you have been at work imagining your man, him putting hands on everything before you, he will eventually get to looking at you.
Short lines give the effect of diminishing space in ‘Blind Talk’; in my poem, long lines give the effect of protracting time. Distortions of time or space produce strain; light shines on bodies through violent tracing.
> On what ground does the folk horror genre move? Adam Scovell figures folk horror’s grammar of causes as a chain. Firstly, the topography of the landscape shapes the characters for the worse; landscape is itself a character. Isolation comes from the landscape, effecting a small number of characters; not only the landscape but its culture differs from the rest of the world; the landscape is isolating and isolated. Out of isolation comes skewed belief systems and morality; these are jarring against the film’s milieu, as well as that of the film’s production. And lastly, the climax of the skewed belief system and of the film itself is a happening/summoning, that will be violent and may be supernatural.
> ‘…[I]n many Folk Horror examples, this chain has already been established itself by the time of the film’s narrative’; this is not an account of narrative but some thing else. It is about how the film’s world comes to be. Folk horror’s frequently thicketed and tilled field milieus bring the pastoral to mind. But in folk horror, both retreat and return are rendered impossible. The pastoral meets its match; it reaches an impasse.
> The chain is the most basic component of the ground. And the ground is a figure, moving in its world as a subject as well as tracing subjects. In the opening scene of Penda’s Fen, the protagonist, Steven’s, voice sounds on unpeopled scenery. ‘I am. I am!’ he calls, and like that he is. The final poem of my sequence is a ground poem; the figure poems and the figures are contained within their scenery.
> I consider how to translate the Folk Horror Chain to poetry. Two key strands within the chain are decay and self-fulfilment. The landscape degrades because it is isolating; it is isolating because it degrades. Isolation makes for uncanniness makes for isolation. Skewed belief systems cultivate stagnation cultivates skewed belief systems. Summonings demand violence demands summonings.
> A film seeks to call up meaning through moving, sounding images; a poem seeks to call up meaning through images through moving, sounding language. The difference in mode between poetry and film necessitates different movement. Semantic satiation as technique – which forms the basis for the ground poems – corresponds to moving backwards through the folk horror chain. A word takes on a ritualistic quality when it happens too often. The word is temporarily distorted to meaningless sound. The word becomes fragmented from the surrounding language that remains meaningful; the word traces the lyric’s I, the lyric’s I no longer controls the language. It is ‘[a] grammar of…it will feel undoubtedly like a small and controlled explosion’. There is a violence in this repetition.
> I want to enact the flickering of film in poetry. Badiou’s ‘composition of image-movements’ is sequential, so I look to structure, to this which is between poems. The poems are arranged perpendicularly. They alternate; leaving the reader to rotate the pages herself, either by movement of her head or hands, is disruptive. Movement is done; there is iteration.
> The result is an intervention on habitual reading; there is no lenience given to automatic perception. In defamiliarizing, more attention is paid to the page that facilitates; to the shape of the language that is the medium. The reader must confront that to read is always to intervene. By emphasising the fragments (poems) that compose this whole (sequence), I find my glint of light on the cut, one that ‘[j]uxtapos[es], rather than isolat[es]…minimal units of meaning.’ Shklovsky asserts that we can free ourselves from automated perception by making strange. We ought to do as Tolstoy does, who ‘describes an event as if it were happening for the first time.’
> Is this not iteration? An event is repeated; it only seems not to have happened before, by the art in its telling. An event is made art by repetition that effects.
> Is this not the historical present? An event was and an event is happening newly.
The Wicker Man
My glint of light is moving on the cut
I am twice removed and reaching
The Blood on Satan's Claw
The figure is speaking the ground
The Wicker Man
Damage is incurred
I need to know you through traces
> Cut is violent in its image of injury and abruptness of sound. It is the name of what makes movement between sequences in film. A cut is frequently characterised by its suddenness and unimportance. Small flashes – glints – are happening throughout a film. These sudden and inconsequential changes will lead to a made thing of substance in the end.
> Alain Badiou concludes that ‘…cinema is an art, after all. It is the art of the fight between art and non-art.’ I was afraid poetry would get away from me when writing English radiant ground; that I would not be able to finish. I called in cinema (or cinema called me) ostensibly because it would provide a steady supply of material to write on.
> It is also that I was unsure if my making would continue to repeat. I was scared that this bad year’s creature would sever me from this art. It is also that I am cut-up and longing about my life at present.
The flickering event and the loving relation are the same
> From the audience, a known woman asks:
‘And so I’m wondering if, that conflict you’re saying is endemic to cinema, is really something to do with love, and our love of the world; that cinema is about conflict and has to be about conflict, because it is also something to do with love?’
> This is because I have been screaming in public. The ground is the only figure, inextricably. I will learn to better devote to this only world, this screen I move on. This is not the only or last bad year but love of living (in which men happen from time to time) is the why of flickering and warring against these times. I will haul this bad year through to love.
The images in this essay are included in accordance with fair dealing law, which allows for the quoting of material for purposes of discussion and criticism.
I am also thankful for:
Anne Carson’s Stacks; conversations with Al, Al, Andrew, Anna, David, Han, Hannah, Jeremy, Julia, Lotte, Mari, and Tiffany; L. Gibson’s Misherit (2019); Rebecca Tamás’ Witch (2019); Susan Howe’s The Midnight (2003).
Text: Ali Graham Lead image: Maria Sledmere
 Rosmarie Waldrop, “Thinking of Follows”, in Dissonance (if you are interested) (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005), 210.  Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (London: Edward Arnold Ltd, 1977), 47-48.  Adam Scovell, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2017), 18.  UNSW Arts & Social Sciences, “Professor Alain Badiou: Cinema and Philosophy,” YouTube video, 1:22.49, February 17 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Arwso3fy50M&t=4217s.  Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.  Ibid, 4.  Ibid, 4.  A Field in England, dir. by Ben Wheatley (2013; Channel 4 DVD, 2013 DVD).  Ibid.  Anne Boyer, “My Life”, in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2018), 54.  Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 16.  Simone de Beavouir, The Coming of Age (New York: Putnam, 1972), 365.  Ibid, 365.  Witchfinder General, dir. by Michael Reeves (1968; Prism, 2011 DVD).  Daniel Tiffany, Toy Medium (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2000), 14.  A.M.A. van de Oever, “The Medium-Sensitive Experience and the Paradigmatic Experience of the Grotesque, “Unnatural”, or “Monstrous”,” Leonardo 46, no 1. (2013): 88.  Viktor Shklovky, “Art as Technique”, in Russian Formalist Criticism : Four Essays. ed. Lee T Lemon, Marion J Reis, and Gary Saul Morson, second ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012): 21.  Vishwas Satgar, “The Anti-racism of Marxism: Past and Present”, in Racism After Apartheid: Challenges for Marxism and Anti-Racism, ed. Vishwas Satgar (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2019).  Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 84.  Geraldine Monk, Interregnum (London: Creation Books, 1994).  Adam Scovell, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing, 2017), 15-24.  Ibid, 19.  Terry Gifford, ‘Pastoral, Anti-Pastoral, and Post-Pastoral’, in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, ed. Louise Westling, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 18.  Rosmarie Waldrop, “Thinking of Follows”, in Dissonance (if you are interested), (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 210.  Viktor Shklovky, “Art as Technique”, in Russian Formalist Criticism : Four Essays. ed. Lee T Lemon, Marion J Reis, and Gary Saul Morson, second ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 22.  Stanley Cavell, “The Melodrama of the Unknown Woman”, in The Trial(s) of Psychoanalysis, ed. Françoise Meltzer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 248.  UNSW Arts & Social Sciences, “Professor Alain Badiou: Cinema and Philosophy,” YouTube video, 1:22.49, February 17 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Arwso3fy50M&t=4217s.  Rosmarie Waldrop, “The Ground Is The Only Figure: Notebook Spring 1996”, in Dissonance (if you are interested), (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005).