(REVIEW) Addons, by Dom Hale
‘Because it is a poem about and in contemporaneity, any achievement it makes is provisional, any ending quickly obsolete.’ In this review, Alex Grafen spends time with the effervescent, improvisational and ‘distressed’ lyrics of Dom Hale’s Addons, out now from brand new imprint Gong Farm.
> Addons is the first publication by Gong Farm, an imprint set up by Tom Crompton and Alex Marsh. Gong Farm grows out of Out Else, which, until recently, held bi-monthly readings at SET in Dalston. Hale read at the first Out Else on 25 April 2019 in a programme that also included Amy Evans Bauer, Luke Roberts, Camilla Isola and Laura Calcagno. Available to buy were copies of summat, short improvised pamphlets with samples of work by the performers of that evening. Addons still wears improvisation on its sleeve: colourful printed letters worm across the front cover, wilfully wonky, inked up to varying degrees. Imperfect repetition down the page serves as a small-scale iteration of the print-run. It also serves as a good précis of the contents.
> The question prompted by the title – Addons to what? – can be answered simply, if a little reductively: Scammer. Scammer, Hale’s long poem, was composed between August 2018 and late 2019, and is, as of writing, forthcoming from the 87 Press. The poems of Addons then are in the unusual situation of a patch release before the game or, to remain within the field suggested by the title, the printer before the computer, the extra cover before the basic insurance policy. The facility of the answer is complicated not only by chronology. It is also complicated by the nature of Scammer, a poem which repeatedly tests the limits of its own coherence. It does so in part by amassing disparate material and discourses. The poem’s final section, ‘The Noughties’, rapidly accumulates references to Pokémon, fluff journalism, Margaret Thatcher and Quentin Blake. The implied hub of these discourses is the poet himself as part exposed nervous receptor, part digestor and regurgitator of environments primarily cultural and political, occasionally technological. A subject-voice emerges with some consistency though with varying degrees of groundedness throughout. Coherence is also challenged by the poem’s evasion of the sort of overarching structure that might serve to marshal its contents. The closest it comes is in the titles of its sections, Bits V, W, X, Y and Z, but these point more to a back-configuration from an endpoint: 'Here I go in alphabetical order / apropos of nothing’. Addons adds on to something completed, but something whose completion was only ever a formality. Because it is a poem about and in contemporaneity, any achievement it makes is provisional, any ending quickly obsolete.
> None of the poems of Addons would have been out of place in Scammer, though some of them see the latter’s concerns and methods pushed in new directions. None of them are as long as the more extended stretches of Scammer, so we have more of a sense of poems in dialogue with a lyric tradition, and more of a sense of poems fizzing briefly into life before collapsing on themselves. Emergent across the poems are distressed lyric personae that offer brief moments of situated life; flashes of exultant anger coruscating out of a background glare; and an earwormish recycling and reworking of the sound and shape of line and phrase. The third of these is perhaps most pronounced in ‘Unjust July', which begins: ‘You up. You up. You up.' It could be a set of pestering questions, a wake-up call announcing the poem’s beginning, but its repetition pushes it towards sheer phonetic surface, like a transcribed birdsong.
> Silliness works in them as an anaesthetic, dislocating a response to a contemporaneity characterised by violent, exploitative capital. Rather than keeping the earnestness nimble by the careful balance of ironies, Hale compresses extremes into frantic proximity:
@ precisely 19:00 hours a focus group of genetically engineered lice alleviate the housing crisis.
These lines from ‘Minimal Fuss’ highlight the cliché of a ‘housing crisis’ that includes both people struggling with mortgages on second homes and people living on the street. The lice communicate a reality of verminous dwelling, while at the same time tapping into the richly overdetermined ‘vermin' and ‘parasite'. But to stress this is to lose sight of the whimsy and the determining power of sound: the lice are engineered at a precise time to answer the crisis because of rhyme as much as anything else. ‘Focus group' and 'genetically engineered’ might have been automatically generated by a search for roughly contemporary buzzwords, though Google Ngram suggests that while the star of 'focus group’ continues to rise, 'genetically engineered' peaked some time around 2001. If the contingencies of sound and contemporary cliché are formal constraints operative in the poems, constraints countered by a zealous recombination that makes them productive.
> The arrival of the poem is presented as something won from a world and time understood to be anti-poetic. Again in ‘Unjust July', we are told ‘My teeth got chipped. Something / chipped my teeth'. There is a rearrangement of words but also of agency. The chipped tooth is the punishment for speech, for taking too big a bite. But the rearrangement is a movement towards recognition of the punishers and a discovery of poetic ferment and fertility in that identification: ‘despite the economic privation etc, the human imagination starts working, being a kind of uncontrolled horse itself, and its words animate the wood’ (LZ). The poems may collapse on themselves, but, more Whackamole than Chumbawumba, they pop back up again, not only adding to the moment but rebutting it, minor incursions that can turn cliché to birdsong.
Addons is published by Gong Farm and available now to order here.
Text: Alex Grafen
Image: Gong Farm