(REVIEW) ABBODIES COLD: SPECTRE, by nicky melville
Fred Carter takes a close look at nicky melville's ABBODIES COLD: SPECTRE (Sad Press, 2020) — a vital work for our current political landscape — through multiple lenses, connections and (coincidences?). In this extended review, Carter delves into the links between erasure poetry and apophenia, the mimicry of birdsong in the poem and considers nicky's language as 'written from within the teeth of power or etched against them'. Within these numerous connective threads, Carter asks 'whether literature is ever a form of vengeance, or if poetry is ever good-enough?'
Sleep nowhere. Every morning inside my wages I lie in wait for those who sleep, I sleep on their chests and never speak. Never Take this as spectral evidence. Meaning. Fuck death. Sean Bonney, ‘serotonin: after Katerina Gogou,’ (2016)
ABBODIES COLD: SPECTRE (2020) is an irreducible declaration of disquieted refusalism and dogged recommitment to our capacity for collective joy. I need it. The second instalment of nicky melville’s episodic project picks up where ABBODIES (2017) left off, refracting the slow and banal violence of austerity through a series of increasingly strained conspiracy theories; riffing off extra-terrestrial sightings and cryptic Brexit references in ABBA songs while paying idiosyncratic homage to Will Rowe’s translation of Néstor Perlongher’s ‘Corpses.’ This time around, the entire Bond franchise and the unsettlingly familiar coagulation of gendered violence, sovereign power, and state surveillance that it codifies are folded into nicky’s associative serial poem of spy cops, spectral evidence, and never-ending spinoffs. 
I’ve come to understand the idiomatic and idiosyncratic internal logics of nicky’s work in relation to the forms of clandestine irony that anarchist anthropologist James C. Scott calls ‘hidden transcripts’; tactics for illicit communication that remain illegible to the bosses or the dominant discourses that they ceaselessly détourn. Impersonations, idle gossip, and improvisatory workers’ songs all congeal, for Scott, to form a vernacular samizdat of ‘linguistic codes, dialects, and gestures’ shaped by living out this ‘dialectic of disguise and surveillance that pervades relations between the weak and the strong.’ In this sense, hidden transcripts are not so much a form of cultural production as a series of tactics for sabotage, stealing, skiving off, avoiding work. nicky’s songs, pirated from ABBA medleys and Bond film intros, are anti-work in all its forms. For all its self-referential idiolect and its paranoiac obsessions with hidden messages, ABBODIES remains utterly available to its readers. We’re not required labour for our meanings and there’s no cover charge, no aptitude test. Both ABBODIES COLD and its prequel are an extended or inverted in-joke in which anyone who wants to imagine the end of Boris Johnson is invited to take part. Anyone who is ‘sick and tired / of / a country that works.’
My first encounter with nicky’s poetry was a series of erasures composed from universal credit paperwork; insurgent interventions that insist on the possibility of carving out alternatives to the crushing violence of vacated language with which the DWP routinely takes lives or metes out the conditions of bare life. Those erasures, later published as part of nicky’s installation DOLE, eventually came to physically occupy the language and the concrete architecture of the job centre. Transferring found poetry and bathroom-stall graffiti onto the walls and floors of what used to be Argyle House DSS office, the installation echoes Situationist slogans that appeared across Paris from the early 1960s to the occupations of 1968. ‘Ne travaillez jamais,’ as Guy Debord wrote; ‘never work.’ In the language of the Home Office, ICE, and MI6 that resounds and recurs throughout ABBODIES COLD, ‘words are the new weapons.’ In Nicky’s work, poetry takes its place among the weapons of the weak. It scratches its own name into a ScotGov desk with an inkless Bic.
As a form of composition, erasure relies on revealing patterns or hidden subtexts in the public transcripts of its source materials. Often, it’s an explicitly subaltern strategy for reclaiming lateral agencies or recognising forms of latent resistance embedded within a hegemonic discourse. As Jacques Derrida puts it, in a memorable passage from Spectres of Marx that appears as an almost imperceptibly faint subtext alongside the body of nicky’s poem; ‘hegemony still organizes the repression and thus confirmation of a haunting.’ Throughout ABBODIES, erasure is also linked intimately with apophenia: the condition of compulsively recognising uncanny patterns, connections, or hidden messages in the incoherent data streams of the everyday. Continuing the conspiracy-driven logic of its prequel, ABBODIES COLD keeps insisting on its hyper-associative practice:
Scratched out lyrics are a recurrent feature, leaving spectral residues of erased signs that both are and aren’t there: ‘visible traces of untraceable a-causal principles in the universe.’ Elsewhere, associative digressions threaten to overwhelm the language’s capacity to cohere as verse and, more than once, the poem overflows into pages-long footnotes of proliferating correlations and non-coincidences that recall the overwhelming deluge of diaristic prose-poetry that makes up Peter Manson’s Adjunct: An Undigest. Over the last few years, Ellen Dillon has written at length about the ways in which Manson engages pareidolia as a practice for reading and translating poetry, suggesting that this apophenic attention to phonetic patternicity and anagrammatic language-play are intrinsic to strategies for readings of linguistically innovative or language-focused writing. In ABBODIES COLD, apophenia, pareidolia, and paranoia are self-consciously paraded as the organising illogic of its composition. More than a compositional conceit, the function of these paranoiac links between seemingly discrete phenomena like Spectre and Cambridge Analytica is also to suggest that these organisations, factual and fabricated, are both symptoms of the same structural or algorithmic violence. They are, mundanely rather than fictitiously, actually out to immiserate us. Going ‘cuckoo’ or ‘cracking up,’ as nicky has it, might simply be a symptom of living out the current contradictions.
Perhaps more so than ABBODIES, this collection often stumbles across its own breaks, gaps, or strikethroughs into moments of despair or despondency in the face of fatal border policing, nationalist nostalgia, and that ‘tentacular evil’ of Thatcherite neoliberalism still playing itself out across food banks, benefit sanctions, and our skeletal, outsourced social services. Specific lines from the prequel, like the recognition of a friend who has ‘aged 10 years / in one winter,’ resurface to remind us that those bodies are still ‘on the line.’ David, who appeared in ABBODIES three years ago, is still unhoused and still sleeping on Waverley Bridge. References to intimate friendships and memories of early childhood are often achingly tender. Erasure, as Hugo García Manríquez tells us, ‘doesn’t only bring to light heretofore hidden resonances within master texts but can also draw attention to those voices, bodies, and histories erased’ under capital. All the while, in the margins of the text, scarcely-legible annotations register ‘the appearance of fascism’ in ghost-print. There’s a sense of the cold finally becoming too much as the poem returns, via the repurposed diction of a dismal Pierce Brosnan film, to this recurrent doubt that haunts ABBODIES COLD:
There are so many ways of taking vengeance on the world sometimes literature is not enough
Something approximating this thought has been following me around for the last nine months. I want to ask nicky what he thinks now: whether literature is ever a form of vengeance, or if poetry is ever good-enough.
In early August, a friend of ours vents into twitter: ‘I don’t even want a permanent job at this stage, I just want revenge,’ and it picks up 7.9k likes. In late September, nicky and I go for a walk through the woods near where we live and chat about birdwatching, our precarious terms of hourly-paid work, and the vicarious forms of living together that remain possible in a pandemic. Waving at the trees, he reminds me of these lines from a Brecht poem:
What kinds of time are they, when A talk about trees is almost a crime Because it implies silence about so many horrors?
‘The man who laughs,’ Brecht writes, ‘has simply not yet heard / the terrible news.’ Of course, Brecht also wrote that ‘in the dark times there will be singing / singing about the dark times.’ Having heard so many passages from ABBODIES COLD performed live over the last few years, when I read it back to myself I can’t help but hear the fragments of ABBA or Shirley Bassey tunes being literally sung in nicky’s dulcet tones; scraps of song erupting out of the churning mass of apophenic references and stolen language. The poem is also punctuated by a half-sung, half-hollered mimicry of birdsong, in homage to the Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. A stage direction reads: ‘[loudly sing] cuckoo!’ When nicky says he’s cracking up, he’s also always cracking us up. If ABBODIES is preoccupied with stealing from pop songs and cinematic catchphrases, satirising and displacing public transcripts like a cuckoo squatting nests, then those acts of theft or ‘ref / errance’ are a practice we share in and revel in. These polyglot regurgitations of pop songs, bird calls, and other glossolalia are unapologetically entertaining, continually perpetuating a kind of desperate joy or inanity-in-common. Like the ‘big freak’ of folk balladry that opens Sean Bonney’s The Commons, the cuckoo’s song is a clarion call for co-conspirators; skivers, trespassers, and dole scroungers.
Sharing in this irreverent counter-script and its indigent counter-logic, it seems pretty evident that satire has never belonged to the bootlicking punditry who claim it. Watching Spitting Image, it’s too easy to sign off on this last year as the final throws of the much-publicised death of satire. ABBODIES, on the other hand, reminds us that satire has fundamentally never been a toothless and derisive distancing tactic for those who can afford distance, or at least never just that. As Rob Kiely tells us, it's also ‘a daily practice, scrawled on bathroom walls and sunscreens on vans and sprinkled through conversation.’ In this destituent sense, satire is a collective tactic for making work bearable, for avoiding doing work, and for imagining the end of work. In 1977, insurrectionary anarchist Alfredo M. Bonanno penned a caustic anti-work critique of the solemnity of the workerist left and a staunch defence of militant playfulness, arguing that ‘the great seriousness of the world of work and productivity’ fundamentally conspires to hide ‘a total lack of seriousness.’ Work, for Bonanno, is ‘the realm of the unreal.’ ‘On the contrary,’ he insists:
the refusal of this stupid world, the pursuit of joy, dreams, utopia, in its declared ‘lack of seriousness,’ hides the most serious thing in life: the refusal of death.
This pretty much says it all, for me, about the terms with which ABBODIES COLD weaponises its delirious and delinquent satirical bite, refusing the bitter austerity of a country that works according to the current fascist calculus of ‘excess deaths’ and expendable ‘key workers.’ Those words are weapons. Fuck death.
In a luminous review of ABBODIES COLD, Colin Herd glosses nicky’s ‘cuckoo!’ refrain in relation to a popular 14th century song about the cuckoo’s call. The song’s recurrent imperative ‘ne swik thu naver nu,’ he tells us, is usually translated to modern English as ‘never stop now.’ In keeping with Nicky’s relentless détournement of the Bond franchise, though, Colin reads this as a sideways reference to the unauthorised 1983 spin-off Never Say Never Again. Reading his review, I hear echoes of Brecht, distorted through this bootlegged, b-list Bond film:
But of the oppressed, many now say: What we want will never happen. Whoever is alive must never say ‘never’! Certainty is never certain. It will not stay the way it is. When the rulers have already spoken Then the ruled will start to speak. Who dares say ‘never’?
As nicky would say: ‘coincidence, my arse.’ To my mind, the double negative ‘never say never’ also goes hand in hand with Debord’s declaration of total absenteeism, ‘never work.’ ‘Never,’ in each of these instances, is the negation of the negation; the irruption of a ‘vernacular counter-language’ against the official script of the Bond flick or the universal credit application form. That insurrectionary moment that Brecht invokes — when the rulers have spoken and the ruled start to speak— emerges, too, from this dialectic of hidden and public transcripts. For Scott, the notion of a hidden transcript helps us understand ‘those rare moments of political electricity when, often for the first time in memory, the hidden transcript is spoken directly and publicly in the teeth of power.’ This description stops short of saying ‘truth to power,’ and I’m grateful for that. nicky’s poetry, though, is written from within the teeth of power or etched against them; to borrow a phrase from Callie Gardner, it is poetry composed ‘in the teeth of or against the serious.’ The irruption of this idiolect into public space — in print, in performance, or sketched in biro across the walls of state offices — is a reminder of fugitive forms embedded in the banal brutality of this ‘return to normal’ and an affirmation that it cannot not stay the way it is. ‘Boris Johnson must come to an end.’
END [TIMES] NOTE 001:
When I began writing this piece, ‘The Spectre’ by Jackson C. Frank came on Spotify shuffle. The algorithm must really have been working overtime ever since because by the time I was writing the last words, I was listening to Hole’s Unplugged (Live 1995) and Courtney Love covers a song by notorious producer and murderer Phil Spector. Spooky! ‘It’s a really sick song,’ Love says, then sings ‘He Hit Me & it Felt Like a Kiss.’ ‘A feminist anthem,’ she says. In ABBODIES COLD, nicky uses the gendered violence of the Bond films and Sean Connery’s glorification of domestic abuse to think about the total misogyny and heteromasculinity we’re exposed to from childhood. Coincidence? After reading nicky’s book, Cass and I were doing Connery impressions around the flat. Then, the week I finished this piece, he finally died and everyone seemed to have forgotten he was an abusive piece of shit. Shocking, poshitively shocking. EdinburghLive said he wanted his ashes scattered in Fountainbridge, across the road from my flat in Edinburgh. Last month, though, I moved to Kalmar in Sweden, home of a minor celebrity called Gunnar James Bond Schäfer who owns a house called ‘Goldeneye,’ as well as the 007 Museum in nearby Nybro. According to the website, it’s ‘the only James Bond museum in the world.’ Gunnar added ‘James Bond’ to his name in 2008 and obsessively collects cars, costumes, and memorabilia from Bond films. He genuinely thinks he’s James Bond. He even has a hovercraft. A boat called ‘Goldeneye’ has appeared in the marina by the university, Cass says it can’t be a coincidence.
ABBODIES COLD: SPECTRE is out now and available to order from Sad Press.
Text: Fred Carter