(FEATURE) Some Notes on Muss Sill by Candace Hill
In this encounter with Candace Hill's Muss Sill (Distance No Object, 2020), Maria Sledmere corresponds with fred spoliar to explore the book's performance of a vibrant, querying, syncopating, rotary, blitzed poethics.
‘I learned that protest begins with this silence in which more than one takes part.’
— Christa Wolf, Cassandra
My breath scrap material
of the unrelated word is none
or other, ‘The underlying browned mess
small flowers make having been
left too long’ is the flip side of the book
now disturbed by
not-closure, the probability of mulch scent,
how it felt hearing the father
I passed by the river
as he said the words
‘GOLDEN BROWN’ to his child, so I could
also ‘[rotate] in any porous receptacle’
for water to feel
into glassy sentencing
which is how we review things
from the angles of a shapely afternoon
I have been admiring Candace Hill’s Instagram, whose handle is beautifully @landscape, and so to covet definition I am only thinking, what is an example of landscape? Can I get there? And google would offer me beautiful landscape ideas, design queries, layout suggestions, beautiful photographs landscape aligned — I think in these times, tired of the everyday, glitching portraiture of the face which is Zoom, I have developed a fresh appreciation for landscape. Hill’s painted works are vibrant, disorientations of gesture, emission, stroke, brush and swirl. There are also more processual examples, such as
Her caption for this image is ‘How it all starts , pretty unreadable & doodlable , a Muss Sill process made for rearranging & changing. Tonight’s the rearranged uprooted Kennedy rose garden. Pretty much why & don’t care . Vote’. I can’t stop thinking about the syntax of this caption, the immediacy and mess of the world thrown into, it’s wonderful. What makes a poem or event ‘doodlable’? Come inside and scribble with me, the work’s not finished. The great thing about the poems of Muss Sill, maybe you’ll agree, is their texture and density. We’ve talked about how they’re difficult to read out loud (although we tried, in that bar in Croydon, with the Guinness and cricket fans), and the fact of that ‘resistance’ in language is so appealing to me…I think it always seizes you back into the event of the poem, so you begin thinking ‘Tonight’s’! ‘Before we begin, if it is ever possible to begin, or to begin again, there is touch’ writes Sarah Jackson in Tactile Poetics: Touch and Contemporary Writing (2015). Or something like, the poems announce themselves the way a material does when you feel it. You might remember the feel of the material but it has to be touched, and touched again. What you remember is not the material so much as the feel of the touch. And I’m thinking a Muss Sill process (which the back cover describes as both ‘noun, verb’, to be pronounced ‘muse-seal’) is something like drawing from the ‘underlying’ mess of something ‘been left too long’ in its ‘porous receptacle’, else ‘the window sill dust over time when left wanting’. What of dust itself is left wanting? You can always disturb dust, have it changed and rearranged and you can never really control that; it flies away from you. It is you. ‘The ephemeral dust that we are is contained in the form of existence, urging our becomings to be replayed over and over’, writes Michael Marder in Dust (2016). And this process of sentences uprooted, rose hips replenished as form on the page, splash bits of ink and dust glide, that’s it: you could stew it down to the simple imperative: ‘vote’. It is at once a delicacy and force, it bears repeat.
Is a caption what’s left on the windowsill, which you sort of read sideways from your otherwise gaze at the painting? I have been thinking about eye strain and like how often I will look away from the Zoom call at the objects in my room, on my desk, instead of the screen and how that might be a kind of Muss Sill attentiveness. There is so much sweep in these poems, who deliver rich descriptions and movements between narrative, declaration, event, often to shrug against the labour of definitive interpretation, ‘A quick glance will tell you that much’ (‘Color Without Any Medium Tone’). Which is like some kind of manifesto for art…? In these poems you can have perfumes, adventure novels, angels, palisades, weather, imperative: ‘Make some thing rain / Lose the us 4 if it hurricanes / An oar still erect / Functions at the junction’ (‘Enslaved Peuliar’). At the side of these poems, Barthes-style, are some bracketed citations — ‘(a riff on J. Johns)’, ‘(Duke Ellington)’ etc — and I’m wondering about the trellis effect of these references, which again make the eye glide sideways. What is told in that glance? A palisade is a wall or enclosure, a kind of leaf cell whose chloroplasts absorb ‘a major portion of the light energy used by the leaf’. So a palisade would be the sight of defence or even photosynthesis. How the poem lights up and what energy it can harness for the drama therein: which is a habit of speech, a passion, a traumatic history, a lot action, disruption, nudge and swerve (I’m not sure what a ‘peuliar’ is, I can only assume it’s Hill’s typically beautiful and peculiar way of spelling peculiar). I’m with David Grundy when he says of the poems, ‘Sometimes ecstatically beside themselves, sometimes in the position of the sardonic observer standing to the side, the poems are clearly the product of a very particular, very individual linguistic consciousness’ and playing within the tensions of the sashay of this speech and stammering which is coming up to the subject at the side, or by negation, for instance: ‘Well it certainly isn’t Pablo Picasso’s flatness in Portrait of a Young Girl / anti art’ (‘Color Without Any Medium Tone’).
Is there something to say here about how dimension works in poetry, I mean by definition TEXTURE would be three or even four-dimensional. I remember we were talking about how the book stages a tension of like Matisse versus Picasso…? In ‘Color Without Any Medium Tone’ Hill writes in response to Picasso’s quote about painting being ‘an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy’: ‘A simple strategy mineral waters more than a conquerer / would you like / it comes in plastic that’ll cause a new ocean of / perspective’. A colour without any medium tone would be LIGHT or DARK, right, not in the range as such but defining the territory of the range? How do we feel about the concept of ‘medium’ in this book, its encounter with betweennesss as such? But also medium as a placeholder or mode of transmission, value, function ‘the medium of money’. Water is a medium, sure, but what about plastic? I’m sure it’s in all kinds of painterly mediums. And is it that a ‘strategy mineral’ waters (verb) ‘more than a conquerer’ or are these ‘simple strategy mineral waters’ (presumably in seductive plastic bottles) ‘more than a conquerer’ and is this about their power or market domination or violence or what? I mean there are heaps of stories about mineral water companies perpetuating colonial violence through extractive practices, for example in the Six Nations of the Grand River indigenous reserve in Ontario, where locals have to do without running water while Nestlé ‘extracts millions of litres of water daily from Six Nations treaty land’. Hill just brilliantly piles on the critique with this kind of customer service sarcasm, ‘would you like’, as if you’re at the counter reading the poem and there’s this gleaming bottle of water in your face. You have to confront the material histories behind it; with me, the reader’s face distorted back in plastic reflection. And there she is reminding us also that its plastic will ‘cause a new ocean of / perspective’, which of course recalls the microplastics crisis in oceans around the world, especially in the North Pacific, and apparently it’s always much worse than what we thought or can see. I wanted to ask you about trash in these poems, something like the colourful clash and collation, broken off syntax, trace and fugitivity, gathering up of language and fragment. We silly humans say cliché things like
Gaze at the ocean
and see the expanse of this
grief as more than yours
And I think Candace Hill’s poetry thinks quick in a way that does this whole anthropocene simultaneity thing while recognising specific historical and present, everyday contexts in which various kinds of atrocity, ‘tensions’, loss and longing play out. Between her very singular perspective, that idiosyncrasy that Grundy identifies, and other kinds of collective experience: ‘We sawed without suitable / permission angels decision / They removed us homies’ (‘Enslaved Peuliar’). Alice Notley argues that
Poetry is primarily the line; a poem tends to think by making quick sound associations forced upon it by the exigency of an approaching white margin. It thinks with music and thinks better—faster, more deeply, with more possibility of unexpectedness—than a work in prose does. [...] I, for one, wanted the line, with the white space around.
- Notley, Coming After: Essays on Poetry (2008)
In Muss Sill, there’s this syncopating, Steinian rhythm sometimes, other times a stream, enjambment for miles, leap between scales and the assemblage of adjectives. I’m remembering something Lisa Robertson once said, deliciously, maybe in a PoemTalk interview with Charles Bernstein, about breaking the ~rules~ by giving a noun up to three adjectives. The salaciously tender blue moon. It’s being honest about the chintzy and complicated way you see things, desire as such (the chase of description before naming it), refusing to pare your language down to that crisp, dangerous fodder copy which might be ‘modernised Jim crow hay’ (‘Wrongful Imprisonment’) and the perpetuation of future division.
We need poetry to interrupt! ‘Um um um um / Stutter stutter stutter / Omission of jay words / Grunts my incomplete sentencers’ (‘Poetry of Incoherence’). The words are blue jays, they are j-words, maybe they don’t come from jstor; they aren’t here. And is it the prison sentencer writing the sentence or simply another kind of plural expression, laying these many lines that are uniquely the speakers, ‘my’. These Joycean slippages of spelling and variant capitalisation, stammering into language, show up the endless potential of interpretation here (these poems are rich, dense and vibrant as one of Hill’s tapestries), but also that Notleyish quickness which, coupled with Hill’s natural feel for musicality, make the poetry think ‘better—faster, more deeply, with more possibility of unexpectedness’. Maybe it’s a kind of nutrition, ‘nuts pisstashiode in gestural abstraction studies’ (‘Not to Worry’) poised dialectically between fulfilment and emptiness, climax and bathos, form and meaning, energy dense. I feel sentenced in a good way, like someone beaming light into me so I could see more things at once. The voice has this keen ability for concatenating event or making these cuts/contrasts/montages and calls to attention: ‘Wrongful imprisonment can you hear me up / In damn Antarctica touching freedoms / insatiable angel cold as hell’. You’ve got the oxymoronic ‘cold as hell’ and the idea of ice caps and Antarctica, the southernmost continent (cold but lower, somehow close to hell) populated strangely with angels, which would otherwise be up above, in heaven? And the heavenly call to the muse ‘can you hear me up’ is an apostrophe to the act or event of ‘Wrongful imprisonment’?
What do you think about angels, they seem to be all over this book?
How are things threading together for you, or not? Which bits of the tapestry really get teased?
To write a ‘poetry of incoherence’, surely, is an act of refusal. I’m thinking with Verity Spott’s ‘Against Trans* Manifestos’ when they write,
I suppose what we’ve been trying to do so far is establish a language space that deliberately alienates anyone and anything that enforces the gender binary. Pretty simple. Really easy actually; pinpoint every harmonic lie on the map and structurally dismember them.
I think about this quote all the time and how it broke open writing for me in this brilliant way which was totally three-dimensional, like writing to smash geodes instead of polishing the outer edge of a cold hard diamond gender, engendering, identity. And it wouldn’t be to fix that language space, but something about finding its possibility conditions and then beginning to ‘establish’. All this stuff I’ve been saying about texture is so much of trying to write about a way of reading that feels into and with but is also abraded by, caressed or even skewered: ‘People hate puzzling things / Don’t lie & say you don’t spy / Out arts Ambiguity’ (‘Poetry of Incoherence’). The pomposity of critical claims for reading ambiguity and so forth are obviously made blatant by the snarky reifying capitalisation, and I love it. I am thinking about language as a map and how the pinpointing would also be to perforate the smooth, ‘harmonic lie’ of a certain racialised and gendered discourse which tries to close us down. So we're back to the porous receptacle, a preferable language space of mess, muss, material excess, to the impermeable realm of familiar, regulatory discourse. Her approach is less the territorial, accumulative mode of art curation and more like a sympoiesis which lets words and things and beings do their thinking-with, drawing readers into the pleasure and labour of meaning’s production while refusing to set the event of reading on a plinth. You have to find ways of breathing with the humble mess of the browning flowers on the sill. I’m putting them in my mouth, or crushing them against you! Getting messed up, mussed up, in the viscous mediums of her process. Poetry where it’s like musing but also mussing your reader’s hair as maybe you gaze into distances but it’s raining heavily and someone cascades past as their ‘Air Jordans flourish’ — leap! — and memories very painfully imprinting on both.
Hill often writes in a fricative code of colour, luminosity, music and matter, a code which is always plural and generative: ‘The other kind of like engagement / blitzed green over antique / white vains in corners reflecting further than / Oil can or less who’d like to say’ . She’s playing with the possible agency of oil, but ‘can’ also functions as a noun here (again, containment). I’m thinking ‘white vains’ could be something about vanity and whiteness (in chiaroscuro with the oil, if petroleum, but could it be paint?) or some arterial meaning or even the trade signifier of ‘white vans’ (as my autocorrect insists) and a ‘like engagement’ might be a similar engagement or else the social media ‘engagement’ of a ‘like’, for instance on Facebook, which signifies some kind of approval or gesture of value. And all of this language ‘blitzed green’ with the verdigris of time and what thick signifiance that lyric carries (as a vein does, a van does) and weathers, is weathered by.
What rhythm of word or breath would get through this? Charles Mingus’ concept of ‘rotary perception’ is interesting here:
There once was a word used–swing. Swing went in one direction, it was linear, and everything had to be played with an obvious pulse and that’s very restrictive. If you get a mental picture of the beat existing within a circle, you’re more free to improvise. People used to think the notes had to fall on the centre of the beats in the bar at intervals like a metronome, with three or four men in the rhythm section accenting the same pulse. That’s like parade music or dance music. But imagine a circle surrounding each beat–each guy can play his notes anywhere in that circle and it gives him a feeling he has more space. The notes fall anywhere inside the circle but the original feeling for the beat isn’t changed.
–– Mingus, Beneath the Underdog (1971)
This idea of a circular orientation brings me back to the ‘rotating’ mess of the flowers in their receptacle. Are they on display; is this some kind of still life gesture of vibrational, quantum performance? The way Hill uses indentation sometimes, I wonder if that’s a way of gesturing to the lines’ rotation, like sometimes you want to read them write round into the next line and back again, taking a breather in the space. And there’s this celebration of aleatory and the fugitive in ‘rotary perception’ which is characteristic of Hill’s work. I don’t know if you can quite call it abstract expressionist (what is that in poetry, idk maybe flarf?), but there’s certainly at play this game of affective intensity which constantly deconstructs itself through image and rhythm, relying much less on punctuation than syntax and the weight of the ‘strokes’ of words themselves in sequence: ‘crescents bite repeat simple deconstruction / of such not trying 2 bend over break / butter in-between Common gestures’ better’. The alliteration here makes butter or bees of the meaning (bees come up a lot in Muss Sill, have you noticed, I’m calmed by them), something like a hum or melting over, the labour at once and the substance extracted. This is tactile language that you have to tease at, literally twist the line, bend it. Teach me crochet! What is the ‘Common’ of gestures we might try to arrive at here? Is is what Spott calls a ‘language space’? And what is the work of establishing this, its resistance to certain kinds of interpretation? ‘I worry about thinking / I worry about poetry / Without meaning’, reflects the speaker in ‘On the Veranda’. If ‘Lazy Be Figuration’, then what kinds of representation beyond figuration are at work, and far more interesting? I think about the idea of protest itself as simply beginning when more than one of us takes part. And that ‘orange matters more’, we just have to feel it, and to ‘slap you with an ochre paint transfigureactional’ (‘Lazy Be Figuration’); to represent, ACT, stay across, beyond — make this happen.
What are your thoughts?
Muss Sill is out now and available to order from Distance No Object.
Text: Maria Sledmere