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  • Ben Philipps

(REVIEW) Diclinous Think Junk: Terra Forming, by Chloë Proctor

Photo of Chloë Proctor’s Terra Forming (Broken Sleep Books, 2023). The book is on a wooden surface and has a grey cloudy background with gold lettering in the foreground.

Chloë Proctor’s Terra Forming (Broken Sleep Books, 2023), is a textual flowering, sporous, generative, digging into the mulch: Ben Philipps traverses the work’s many pluralities, thinking with Sianne Ngai and Donna Haraway on the way to uncovering an ‘interconnected affect’.

‘Situation astonishment:’ are the first two words of Chloë Proctor’s haunting, refractory debut collection Terra Forming (2023). What’s the situation? After the colon: ‘stuplifying mutually semantic readership’. ‘Stuplifying’ calls on Sianne Ngai’s notion, in Ugly Feelings (2007), of the ‘stuplime’, which happens at the intersection of ‘astonishment and boredom’. Combinatory affects summon neologism. Ngai writes that the stuplime ‘ask[s] us to ask what ways of responding our culture makes available to us, and under what conditions’. Well, so do weird words. Proctor wants the ‘mutually semantic readership’ to arise into ‘conceived collective’. Has everyone in the collective read Ngai? If not, they might be stuplified by an apparent typo, a glitchy ‘l’ lurking in the opening line. I see somewhere in or around ‘stuplifying’ ghosts of other words — ‘stipulate’, ‘amplify’, ‘multiple’. Proctor stipulates a multiplicity: ‘branch thinking needs reader filaments’. This opening poem, ‘Bitter Incoherence’, is written in dense shorthand, like notes from a theory-laden lecture: ‘temporal losses being human-exceptionalist / idea’. Crammed with colons, the poem reads as a garbled manifesto. ‘Bored text benefitting specific poetics’. Boredom (as Ngai observes) is one response to avant-garde work, work boring its way through language; and ‘specific’ here plays with dual meanings of particular and human, the poetics of a species. ‘[play gains things]’: sense accumulates past the point of semantic corruption, a hoarding of readings. This is thick language, amassing under the sign of the negative infinitive — ‘to not get it’. Proctor’s work wants mutation, alterity, ‘Involuting thickness’. A hermeneutics of certainty is a naturalistic fallacy, the spurious assignation of final sense a retreat into the already known. Knowledge as private property, cultural capital: if you’re sure, you don’t need anyone, or anything, else.

Proctor isn’t the first to perceive camaraderie between experimental writing and radical politics, but her poethical strategies have the cut of the concrete. ‘Strong and stable is linguistics of Holocene’, she writes in the poem ‘Sinistrorse’. If I’m not mistaken this line in Yoda-speak apes one of last-Prime-Minister-but-two Theresa May’s most inane catchphrases, pointing up with mordant verve parallel catastrophes of discourse and epoch. In Terra Forming’s prose coda ‘Soil/Soul’ — an essay on soul music doubling as autocommentary — Proctor describes one function of poetry as ‘establishing the value of formal disruption off the page, in signposting earthiversal political, emotional, and linguistic connectivity’. I don’t know if a disruptive poetics establishes the value of organised disobedience — I don’t know that art can actually inculcate basic commitments — but commitment is invigorated and articulated by it; and art scouts new forms, acting, as Proctor says, as a signpost toward the possible. ‘Soil/Soul’ reframes the collection’s relation to an experimental mode. At times the tune is vindication — ‘This is not maudlin poetics’ — and at others explanation: ‘I want to exist in the state of “what”, in the “non-” before sense is made’. I like this glimpse of the artist (still chatting) as she steps down from the stage, it’s in keeping with her repudiation of closed systems, finality. And the solipsism of the programmatic writer: if ‘poetic sense’ is a kind of ‘departure’, as in ‘Bitter Incoherence’, it makes no kind of sense at all to go it alone.

It’s perhaps along these collaborative lines that Proctor includes the sequence ‘An obsession of s p o r e s’, which, we’re told, grew out of ‘an experiment in semantic levelling’ conducted via a Twitter bot (@sporesbot). Screencaps of the bot’s creations are featured alongside printed poems. It’s unnerving to see tweets in paperback monochrome, figuring the digital midden as an object of anthropo-biological study. In an online talk with Michelle Moloney King (editor of Beir Bua Press), Proctor remarks that ‘Twitter is a strange ecosystem’. ‘An obsession of s p o r e s’ digs into the mulch, our glowing exuviae. The poems are either mostly or entirely aleatory, collaged from a ‘chance-based source of found text’. Moments of poetic delight take place in the uncanny valley of the randomly generated. At one point, ‘pollinate’ sits above ‘surprises’ in the matrix of repurposed words, prompting in me a welter of association. I see words drifting from source anther to poetic stigma, finding new and fecund valences in a textual flowering. In an earlier poem Proctor writes of ‘diclinous think junk’, the weft of ‘i’ and ‘c’ sounds a kind of aural micro-pollination as cognitive detritus melds and clicks: into poetry. But all the while, in ‘s p o r e s’, I know it’s me making these connections, who has been recruited as one of ‘Bitter Incoherence’s invoked ‘Linguistic-litter-pickers’. I’m involved. From ‘Saprotrophic’:

To speak polyphyletic is to “we” or “us” where “mono” is the register To spore where streamlined

Polyphyly is mixed evolutionary origin: what would it be like to speak further than homo sapiens? It might be sporous, egalitarian, generative. Terra Forming is obsessed with visions of plurality. Panicles and protrusions abound. In ‘Sinistrorse’ there’s an injunction of sorts to ‘Pronounce “we” with tentacle diction’ — utterance as appendage, grasping at connectivity. ‘Bitter Incoherence’ talks of ‘A parsing paradox becoming-with Hyphae’, a failure of grammatical sense-making as mycelial emergence. Proliferation (I’ve just noticed how ‘life’ forms inside the word) without scarcity.

Communitarian wish manifests in (the poem called) ‘Hyphae’, where Proctor rings changes on a ‘Pronoun Key’ — proposing variant meanings of ‘We1’ (‘“The Public”’) ‘us3’ (‘Of community seeking’ vs ‘She [a leader]’), and so on. ‘We3 always means ‘Proposed communal model’, but behind the Marxist-managerial register gathers plangency, a yearning for actualisation: ‘can it be so that / we3 in practice is possible’. In one section ‘our’ is glossed as ‘Mine?’. Empathy is automatic in neo-grammar, boundaries dissolve: ‘the grief is ours’. Lyric is still somewhere present in this poem ‘refracting punctuation / at a slant’: it’s hard not to hear in ‘space enough for us2’ the ghost of ‘us two’, a vestigial dyad transformed through new lexis.

Similarly, the most conceptual work — for instance, algorithmic chance poetry — always retains a trace of creative presence. The collection’s author note says Proctor’s poetry ‘grapples with generating grammar ecologies and with exploring alternative patterns of sense making’. Grappling with exploring? Layered verbs of struggle and quest, the search for new meaning conducted at a necessary remove. The collection’s epigraph is from Donna Haraway, telling us ‘It matters what matters we use to think other matters with’. Elsewhere Haraway writes in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991) how ‘relations with “nature” must […] be imagined as genuinely social and actively relational’. Rethinking our relations with nature requires holding conventional semantics/semiotics — call them, ingratiatingly, ‘second nature’ — at a critical distance. But also keeping them in view. Proctor describes herself as a ‘fungal poet-person’, an adroit phrasing allowing slight friction between person(a) and saprotrophic imaginary. There’s nothing more human than trying to escape the human; here lies Proctor’s motivating dialectic. She writes in ‘Soul/Soil’ of a stratum of ‘exchangeable emotion’ informing her evasive subject positioning: a non-semantic plane of interconnected affect, the root system of a dreamed future forest. Proctor’s ‘soulful wail’ is the sound of the human voice grieving beyond itself. Intricacies of experimental method are shifted expressions of pain, loss, and fear. ‘An eventuality of extinctions / conjure this quickened dialect’, we read in ‘Dermodex’. Crisis demands not only response but wholly new modalities of responding. Proctor heeds this call, her dazzling fungal grammar charged with lament and hope.

Texts Mentioned

Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Harvard University Press, 2007)

Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (Routledge, 1991)


Text: Ben Philipps

Image: Ben Philipps

Published: 17/03/2023


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