(FEATURE) Some Letters - Pt.2, by Joe Luna
In the second of a three-part series (you can read part one here), Joe Luna navigates poetical judgement, poetry as therapy, and the reimagining of revolutionary desire as a means of affective and emotional continuation, through a vital collection of four poems. The following two letters discuss Keston Sutherland’s Scherzos Benjyosos (The Last Books, 2020) in correspondence with the author. Page numbering refers to the pre-publication manuscript and not the published product. Scherzos Benjyosos can be purchased from the publisher, here.
Joe Luna is the author of Air Hunger (Plea Press, 2018) and Development Hell (Hi Zero, 2020). He lives in Brighton.
August 17th, 2020
I’m writing you this letter for your birthday – happy birthday! – on the first of the Scherzos, because I studied it on Friday night and if don’t get this letter off tonight (edit: Monday morning), I won’t have time to study the others and write properly on the whole shebang before Tuesday, though hopefully some of the notes I have scribbled here might be indicative or applicable to the whole (or, if not, perhaps you can strip them to applicability). It’s been a weird couple of days, in the oikos on my own for the first time in forever, all my anxieties playing ping-pong with each other, without the human softening that would distract or dampen them, so that I’ve barely been able to relax, and I hope this is going to make some sense.
Firstly, I think the architecture is quite starkly amazing, and the tercets themselves beautifully spezzato – your starkest, rawest yet – both totally incompatible and intensely of a relation with the cartography of the whole. Because I’ve been reading Bill [Fuller]’s book [Daybreak (Flood Editions, 2020)] I’ve been comparing in my head the different systems or dimensions of narrative conditions or dramatic conceit that are enacted in both of your works, and in your blocks the deepening malbowges of dramatic scene do generally stay true to their tonic key, eventually; that is, the transpositions are audible, and are themselves managed through very faithful grammatical consistency at the narrative level, allowing the sub-levels to expand and contract like alveoli, while the central scene/conceit remains the subject waiting to go into therapy and trying (in his head) disingenuously to console a woman (mother/therapist) which brings him agonies of guilt until he is reassured by the voice beginning 'Hey little Christian,' which then holds the narrative macro-reins until the end of the Scherzo (unless it is Christian himself who does so, replying to this voice; I’m not 100% sure; either way I discern what must be something of the musical structure you’re working with in terms of a compositional model). There are probably better ways of making the point I’m trying to make, but the point is that the poem is peopled by these structures and I think that makes my appreciation of the whole object quite radically simple in some ways: it has a beginning, middle, and end, and it tells a story. I think the story is about how it is possible to survive as a child without enough or any love, in the air or in the maturational environment, and I think the poem makes this the challenge of its complexity, to do justice to this tenet, and to find out how much can be usefully or successfully gleaned from it.. The structural priorities of the work rest within these narrative relations, making it your most Beckettian work to date, as well. All this is to say that, again quite simply, I have not read a work of yours before in which what happens and to whom is this important at the level of narrative, and it has been a great excitement to discover this priority in your work after I’ve spent much of the last year trying to make things happen inside Development Hell in such a way that the reader would need to hold on to a prosodical feature early on and remember its significance for the significance of later features to be discerned and held on to, a cumulative video game mechanic more in my mind here than Schubert or Chopin, but with, I hope, an equally singular musical idiom.
Is this the first of your major works in which the centrally loved object is not wrong, or detestable? What kind of shift does this represent in your work, I wonder? Ben or Benjy is far from [Roger] Aisles, or [the Hotpoint washer-dryer replacement-part code] TL61P. Anyway, there seems to be a competition in the poem between two or three essential positions, if I can call them that, and I have to try to get them straight in my mind, I think: the first is that the poem dramatises the process of discovering and convincing oneself of the importance of a psychic refuge, the height (the depth) of which comes in the passage in which the significance of 'find[ing] a way out' is reduced by convincing self-sophistry in order to convince oneself that actually, finding a way out is the real 'hiding as if running away'; the non plus ultra of this position is dialectically unstable, however, because it is 'because the only thing that matters is being a poet,' which of course is the condition of what I’m reading existing in the first place. Hmmm. I don’t think I actually buy that way out. In any case that’s a risky line, isn’t it, because it puts an enormous pressure on what you certainly do believe, in many ways: I suppose the way of believing it here must be exposed to such pressure and risk as to discover its truth. There is another position or argument that is important to the poem, I think, and that is something like the following: that the relativisation of suffering (e.g. trying unsuccessfully to say to the woman 'it will be OK' on p.1) and its essentially reformist tendencies are as inadequate as convincing oneself that there’s nothing we can possibly do because the only thing to be done is the total break with everything, which is what the descent into the psychic refuge on pp.4-5 ironises, right? The figure of this bind is the imaginary person – think of them, which motif returns, I think, three times in all, once finally on p.5 most directly and starkly: 'Think of a person,' right at the edge and centre of relativism and universalism. I read the description of making our violence better than theirs on p.5 as what happens to revolutionary desire when it is only desire, only instinctual, only gratificatory, so that, in effect, the poem argues that the imputed equivalence between communist and fascist violence can only be equivalent if considered purely in terms of psychical gratification: desire without a concept of justice or equality. And this concept of justice or equality is what the poem can’t give, can’t sketch or press into positively, only incense to flare up in negative outline, which outline is named in the tercets: 'Everything you want will come back as the inability / To love it for the way it can’t be held'. I think perhaps this is one reason for the proliferation of holes in your work. Mouths, asses. The holes are the outlines of the positive vision which the poem adumbrates with such ferocity and beautiful damage. There is no concept of equality or justice, without what it would feel like to be OK. There will be no adequate concept of justice felt in the social body until the social body can do justice to the experience of suffering. Justice as a social concept is not possible without a poetics of love: this is the radical Marxian poetics in full play here. But then, are we stuck in a feedback loop of poetic proportions? This is perhaps the danger of my closely reading only one of the poems at a time – no doubt this whole 'position' that I’ve sketched will be put into macro-relation with others further on, or further down.
Nevertheless, this is a depressed poem, and the whole is false, I think, more powerfully than in many other of your poems. The poem’s resources and energies are sluiced through conditionals and counterfactuals, except for the very opening gambit: that 'I' am sitting somewhere, doing this. Again we come back to a kind of edge-of-relativism-and-universalism. Because the poem sets so much stock by 'finding a way out,' the lack of one by poetic means feels almost wilfully obscure – even, perhaps, part of the refuge! Back of this poem, back of its poetics, back of so much of your poems, lies love, love lying, love as the name of what can’t be held or held to, but is the promise of its exposure in the sun: the great hope of this poetry, that it will be, finally, in the end, redeemed? There is an almost Douglas Oliver-esque power to the end of the first Scherzo – that the prosaic 'simple thing' of remembering being someone who is not the person you wish you could be is finally both the condition of desire and its screw-cap logic. Again, I’m sure the shape of this song will be inflected by what’s to come and the movement of the whole quadratic equation. But I must say I felt flattened by this poem in ways I haven’t experienced before, a movement in counterpoint to the extreme sharpness and consistent surprises of the clausal accumulations and extensions into thought discovering itself, and discovering itself, and discovering itself. It is a poem of a more definitively psychical experience than many of your poems, I think, perhaps even all of them: in this first Scherzo the financial-industrial-mechanical leans into the poem to colour it or to make excuses, rather than to provide any serious structural role, I think, as in the almost self-referential proliferating significance of 'clearinghouse,' or the section on 'bearings,' which felt almost like you were alluding to the materials to be found in previous poems of yours, gesturing towards an idiom. Poetical history seems less important, too; the most visible quotations to me are both Cavalcanti, in Pound and Rosetti, so that the poem regresses through the historical record in this sense, though never getting to the source: the source would of course be the rawest conceit, the most powerfully mediated spontaneity of looking in love, of love encased within the gaze of looking; such a thrill, by the way, to see you using Poundish Cavalcanti, for selfish reasons, having employed the Poundish Cavalcantian gaze in Ten Zones [(Hi Zero, 2014)] in order, in my case, to try to allude to the sheer power and particularity of that gaze, its looking in love that I now think of as being particularly transformed in the mid-20th century by the telematic embrace of data visualization (that is, looking and knowing are fused in media history by the technocratic optical systems that have since become such a ubiquitous feature of the capitalist sensorium. I put all this badly this morning, but I think Orit Halpern’s book Beautiful Data [(Duke University Press, 2014)] is really great on this, and was very important to what goes on inside Development Hell). All this taken into account, I get the overwhelming feeling that you are trying to unlearn ways of writing poetry in order to keep writing. This, here in the first Scherzo, is not the coincidence of the accumulation of value and subjective development that are so historically and logically entwined in The Odes [to TL61P (Enitharmon, 2013)], but something more deeply concerned with psychical complexity and psychic pre-conditions, before critique can open up ways of describing a subject.
There is a simple wish in/to this poem, as I said earlier, that makes it very stark and raw, very humble, in its designs: to be an act of solidarity with hurt or lonely suffering. Your poem makes me want to test out some thought experiments, viz: it really must be true that if a person is taken care of lovingly and in a loving environment then how could they do terrible things and be hateful and bad? (I think this was Oliver’s position, in so many words; there is an instructive exchange with J.H. Prynne in the letters from the 1980s about Hume’s example of the 'gouty toe,' and how no decent person would ever step on it, which I think at once captures Oliver’s desire to hold on to some version of a radically essential(ist) encounter-with-the-other, but which is also stymied by the weakness of the example and the reliance on a base level of 'decency' which has been, somehow, spiritually corrupted by Thatcherism: it doesn’t really add up, in his epistolary theorising, though a far greater bid for the same prize is made in the best of his works); it must be equally true that there are, as you pointed out in The Odes, a million different kinds of love, so that the wish for everyone to be OK can never be a revolutionary one: the infinity of the subject and the infinity of capital are too deeply interwoven for that, there are too many other factors at stake. And yet, finally, what a simple thing it is to desire for humanity, and for the world, how easy is it, finally, to imagine a world of cooperation and camaraderie and not murderous exploitation till death. Is the ease of this imaginary itself a kind of refuge? Because such 'ease' naturally transforms itself into a bitter repudiation of the conditions that prevent love, and thus a bitter repudiation of all the real things that make people transmute all their hateful psychic complexities into their children? And so round we go again. The dynamics of the poem point me down these paths, for better or ill. The fascination of the refuge itself becomes possible to get out and away from and into life only by the confrontation with the horror of not being loved enough, and thereby acknowledging the link I suggested above, between a concept of justice and a poetics of love: in this case, self-love? Is there a moral challenge here, too, practically a classical one? To know thyself? Or is this all inflected by the macro-narrative conceit, that, after all, this is someone waiting for therapy, trying to look like they’re thinking? And if so, what does that conceit do to the thought contained herein?
Psychologism is finally as inert as purely historical materialism without psychological inflection; this has been one of the many great gifts of insight of your poetry for me over the years, and the great task your poetry seems to have set itself, since The Odes is how to work through each of these categories in such a way that yields knowledge capable of poetical judgement. Poetical judgement and not philosophical judgement, because no philosophical order of thought could sew up the situation, only poetry can give us the thoughtful-feeling of life in its current state and what it could be, only in poetry is this possibility really made manifest as the condition of movement and of communication. Cancel all the exits, make the exit cancel, cancel visibility. The poets who want poems to give us the correct answers to particular questions of inequality and oppression have misread poetry as a socially benevolent institution, instead of a scene of relations of power that can be animated to show the deep grammar of those questions, their real workings out in social life and imagination. That seems to me to be one way of summing up things at the moment. I suppose I should study the rest of the Scherzos before coming to any premature conclusions, but I hope some of this makes sense, or, if not, makes un-sense in its attempt to work things out from the page. I think I probably get right off-track in the last (penultimate) paragraph, but by its end have come back round to the tonic key. In any case, I think it is an extraordinarily powerful poem, at times deeply upsetting, and carefully, delicately moving. Write back when you get half a chance, let me know how any of these thoughts land, if they land at all, or if they fly past like so many airborne droplets.
August 30th, 2020
I began tonight with all the intention of trying to lash some thoughts to the mast before life overtakes us, but re-reading again and most especially the verses of the fourth (which have entered my system with such acute recall, as if I could’ve dreamt their faltering luminescence), I’m sort of happily coming to the conclusion that I’ll need more time to make the reply I want and wanted to, and that perhaps it would be good to do so, since there is so much striking originality in the work (especially the whole fourth) that any summary would be premature for sure. I did struggle through [Scherzos] two and three at first, and felt almost affronted that I wasn’t getting the points I was in the first one; though I now see that experience as one of, a kind of, formal distention of (the experience of) the compositional logics animating the first and last; that’s not to say I didn’t construe their (two and three’s) dynamism as internally just as musically, just that they are, I think, the viscera of the deep recesses, and what I’m more confident naming at this point is the effect of the bounded continuum of the whole feeling the poem adduces in me, for me, which necessitates emphasising its splitting seams, the sheer daggers of the first and fourth. Wowee! I mean, good shit man. I can’t say how really pleased I am you’ve written this poem, it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck thinking about it. And all sorts of things when I read it, skipping, as I have been, between the movements and grammars; at this juncture I can’t answer my own questions in my previous letter and that you said would be so answer’d, but I think what’s happened is that the fourth has pause-buffered me into a whole other dimension of reaction, through which I’m still swimming back to the start.
No other poetry makes such a vivid grab for the possible world at the same time as encompassing with such appetite the impediments to its imagination, its narcissistic fantastical omnipotence. I’m trying this out, like you do in therapy, a line at a time. And there are so many things and shapes and nodes I want to get to as well, from the financial structure of futurity that pegs hope to 'going on regardless,' itself producing and emerging from survival in the form of the crash, and hence, of crisis and its affective generational reboot (there is bitterness in the loss here too, that I think is new; or at least newly, tonally, indiscrete), to the specimen of despair and the shit utopia in the third, to the elasticated conceit of the therapist/mother figure, to the Prynnian refluxes on pp.58-59, to the fact that the middle two movements seem self-consciously to be illuminated, teeming dead ends, from which one and four, either side, reach outside their conditions of entry; all of these moments and more need more attention! I think one way of putting my current state is that I see the development of the arguments as I began to sketch them in my letter about one – especially as regards the nature of survival – but am, as yet, not sure how they pan out, by the lights of the poem’s internal logics. Nevertheless I’m outside it currently, the poem, writing about it in language instead of reading it in life, as we all are, most of the time, doing life, getting on with it, so that, finally, I don’t hesitate to see the beauty of this poem as a gift in the name of survival, which is slippery because the poem is at pains to negate that which reimagines (whether through coercion or torture) revolutionary desire as a means of affective and emotional continuation, whilst on the turn, in the electric flame of the fourth, it once again turns to the singular world of the single life, in all its production, and you, the poet, its product, and the crushing plea to stop committing suicide, which wouldn’t end it, but would mean you weren’t there from the start, and could be someone completely different, but could nonetheless keep thinking...
I loathe an ellipsis but it will have to stand for the moment. Maybe what I hate – certainly, I do hate it, I want to reassure myself – is the absence in myself of a shred of hope that any speck of world will ever come into view that leaves no-one hungry. On certain nights I might imagine the network of the poem churning me up in knots, as I imagine it has done for you, through the toils of its creation and incessant recreation. I think what I’m getting at is that I think there is an incredible risk here, a virtually magical one, that is itself the condition of a child, a beautiful envy, full of trust, in the good, that might be. I think that’s beautiful, I must do, even as I’m still trying this out. I think I stand by my claim in the first letter that, in many ways, or maybe just in one simple way, this is the simplest poem you’ve ever written; I mean in terms of the outer casing of one and four and the innards of two and three, I think I really feel it that starkly, like a drowning ballad, where the cause of the murder is everything and also one single definite thing. Of course, the internal combustion of the inner/outer, inside/outside matrix will be found (by readers and scholars and commentators) to articulate this and that about the contemporary idiom into which we shape ourselves along capital’s rivulets, I’ve no doubt about that; I think that this poem will prove to be the reader’s barcode, even, and I use this kind of language to try to step aside that, not to negate the value of the render. But the whole gist and its corkscrew to the heart has really hit me in the sternum, and I need to register that, tonight. I’d love to talk to you about some individual bits more, too, as soon as I can load some more hi-resolution thoughts. The [Moishe] Postone dig, for example, which is really funny; but maybe Postone had some pretty wild thoughts about the nature of time that I think might even do justice to the kinds of exit moves that the Scherzos narrate, even by counter-example?
The way you describe the fourth [Scherzo] knotting back up with the first gives me a sense of the four together as more vertically striated than I had at first delineated them; thanks for that. I can, of course, see how writing the fourth would be enormously cathartic, liberating; liveable. I have felt my innards shift a bunch of times since March, and feel like I am at present cocooned against the slow disintegration of everything, including the cocoon, which in any case is an, or the, agent of disintegration, is even the disintegrator par excellence, but as I said before there are these poems, aren’t there, by you, and me, and virtuous others whom I love for keeping this part of me alive, without which nothing would ever be worth living. That the oral bliss of getting wasted that your poem knows all too well is the closest we can get to a world without damage, which is itself the means of further damage, and without which I wouldn’t be able to write you this letter tonight – that this, after everything, is a materialist argument about the shackles on the imagination, whilst in the same breath being the most potent example of imagination’s inadequacy; this, all this, is what makes your poem really speak to me, tonight. I want to get wasted with it forever. And maybe that’s another refuge; because how could it not be. And so, and so.
Text: Joe Luna