(REVIEW) Annihilation, monopoly by Robert Burton
Mau Baiocco takes us inside the ongoing awakening, and productive mode of forgetting of Robert Burton’s poems from Annihilation, monopoly (Veer 2, 2020). In a pamphlet ‘that seems to begin everywhere at once’, Baiocco draws threads between the poems and the changeable Prose Architectures of Renee Gladman, a reistance to prescriptive vocalisation in poetry and the acts of deferral created through glitches and their exploitation in video games.
The poems in Robert Burton's Annihilation, monopoly (Veer 2, 2020) seem to be composed at the moment of an ongoing awakening, a provisional stitching together of abstraction, colour, intimacy and perception. The experience Burton writes about is not yet seamless; it does not display the unity of a visual field, an image or a metaphor. Is it even an experience? 'A kind of / Perspective / Imposed animate / As you wake you can leave your / Enclosure'. The hypnagogic moment between sleep and waking in these poems represents a sort of freedom, an enveloping state where language 'Thickens / Strata / Stretches meaning'. This haze from where our days begin is where we are most vulnerable and porous to the world, where we can conceive of 'My room or your room / Becoming any space'.
Awakening like this can be a joyful experience. Dissociated from our bodies, as we are in the moments before drifting into or out of sleep, we sense the flow between the interior and the exterior, the mental and the physical as a pleasurable disconnect, a type of experience that waking life would otherwise conceal: 'The limits of a body / May be self imposed'. Annihilation, monopoly insists that we can enjoy this distended moment, even militate from it, writing the 'Society levelling / Dream disintegration.' These poems search for resources we can make use of for this task, in the everyday langage that surrounds us. In places, it feels like reading the dream double of common words, a site of useful hauntings and associations that emerge when our attention is gently skewed.
It is difficult to start talking about a pamphlet which seems to begin everywhere at once. The lines are short, staccato and may seem disconnected from preceding and succeeding lines, but only in the sense that disconnection orients you towards a larger structure, a horizon. The second poem, 'Speech boulevard' plays with this sense of structure or geography, a stanza reads:
Cloud iamb Predetermined as tram Fire brushing the overhead Amphibrach line
Are the structures of sound, the iamb and amphibrach, to be found on the ground, as a foundation, or in the air, as a sort of skyline? The fiction of scansion — where poets make use of regular and predictable patterns of sound that lay encoded within words — can be thought of as a widespread terrestrial metaphor, the imaginary of a stable ground within language. The more prescriptive a poem's vocalisation is, the more resemblance its conditions for reading are to the environment of the British public school and university system where English poetry's system of scansion originates. But what if, instead, our grid comes from elsewhere? If the rhythms are to be drawn from the air? 'See how syllables are birds', Burton writes. I am reminded of something like Renee Gladman's Prose Architectures, where a kind of handwriting/drawing stretches across the page, suggesting both a city's skyline and a script. I can never make out if Gladman's prose structures emerge from the floor or descend from the sky. From the ground up, they appear incredibly precarious, like a city on stilts; from the air down they have the voluminous and gaseous outline of a cloud. In either case they represent a challenge for reading the city through a supposedly stable foundation or code, the reduction of this experience into easy-to-parse comprehension.
In their excellent series of newsletters, the second moon letters, Callie Gardner writes that Gladman's strange cities highlight the many possibilities of resistance to practices of reading or decoding, where over-reading replaces experience and 'behaviour is ever more curtailed and policed, whether inside our minds or by actual cops.' Throughout Annihilation, monopoly a similar move recurs. In the next poem, 'Funky Kong is an asshole':
Faced with words I don't Know I Look them up and forget them Right away
Reading is a productive form of forgetting, not a technique to fill in gaps in our knowledge and remembering but to generate them instead. In this poem, there is a concern that to be 'Recognized is defused', a sense that 'New possible exploits are / Shut down / Predictable.' The poems feel like instances of dream fugitivity, where poems do not attempt to translate the precise memory of the dream,or the city. Instead, the spaces created here are suggestions, sketches of negativity. One way of potentially reading Annihilation, monopoly is as a compilation of such evasive manoeuvres, unexpected motion, the steady generation of absences and gaps from which action and desire can spring, the invention of a dream one cannot remember.
Several video games are referenced and seen through refracted language in the pamphlet. A more straightforward way to read the 'New possible exploits' in the paragraph above is as a reference to the glitch that allows one to overcome the game's design or internal limits. While writing this piece, I came across a video of someone playing as Funky Kong, setting a lap record through glitches and exploits on the legendary Mario Kart stage Rainbow Road. Funky Kong glides and screams throughout the stage, exploiting the famous looping rainbow tracks to make new paths in the spaces between them. At first I did not think there was any poetry in it; there might still not be, but I started to think about how looking for a glitch or an exploit is a matter of deferral, the only place left to go once a game has been finished. I begin to believe there might be a way to draw on every experience past the limit one believes has been imposed on it.
I no longer play many video games, their distraction and pull too attractive to justify spending time on them. I still often think of them, about how they have remained a remarkably static form since their inception: most games are transpositions of certain fundamental motions (aiming, dodging, moving) onto a stylised representation that accurately mirrors one's physical input. There is no critique of a game more damning than saying the controls don't seem to work, that the interaction between input and output — and with it the integrity of the player's position — is damaged. In poetry, I can find a pleasure that games often miss when they are closely mirroring my input, the sense of disproportion and loss of control: that either the reader or the text has an autonomy of movement beyond the other, and that the only way to engage is through the creative expansion of either oneself or the poem onto a shared terrain. You can speak the language of the poems you love; you share in their autonomy.
Glitches are usually thought of as the hallmark of poor and rushed game design. Yet we know that glitches, too, can be a dialogue, a secret language where players and developers communicate through an awareness of each other's limits. The poems in Annihilation, monopoly sit within this sense of the glitch and the limit, threatening to exceed them. Sometimes the search for the glitch can bring the whole system down with it: the 'Dead monitor / Possibilities / Blue screen of nothing'. Not all the systems we are in dialogue with are benevolent partners in play. Capitalism constantly confronts us with an awareness that we are not in a world of our own making and agency, that larger imperatives are at play behind our actions. Yet this awareness is not steady or constant; large parts of ourselves are given to internalising or shielding from it. To write through to a glimmer or flash of awareness, totally specific to oneself, is an important part of the political work of poetry. At times it feels like the entire poems in Annihilation, monopoly are angled towards making these discoveries, like finding a glitch by accident while exploring the system, tapping on its walls:
You're still where you were at its start Your pay Worth less Every day
Annihilation, monopoly is shot through with feelings of systemic dysfunction and escape, varied stagings of perhaps the most important imperative still available to workers today: 'Neglect your work'. Forgetting, evasion, misreading, sound play, encounters with the real beauty and mistakes of it all — all these are tactics available within refusal, not the restitution of productivity but its insistent negation. 'Cloud laying / Not wanting to work today / Stoned and hurting'. New to me, is how Burton insists on ease in these poems, a comfort within the fluidity of one's positions and desires, yet without compromising their integrity. I find, in a late go at them, that the poems can be read aloud without any resistance or difficulty. I lift my feet off the ground.
You can order a copy of Annihilation, monopoly, by Robert Burton via Veer 2 here!
Text: Mau Baiocco
Image 1: Mau Baiocco
Image 2: Renee Gladman, Prose Archtitectures