(REVIEW) Enemie Anonimous, by Paul Ingram
Alex Grafen traces the baroque blandness, the power of rhetoric, the justification of poetry’s marginalisation in the email form of Paul Ingram’s Enemie Anonimous (Beir Bua Press, 2023).
2023 saw the closure of the small publisher, Beir Bua Press, run by Michelle Moloney King, and one of its final books was Paul Ingram’s Enemie Anonimous (2023), a sequence of poems in the form of threatening emails. Each poem is constructed according to a similar principle and with two constituent parts:
1) the capitalised title, in the form ‘EMAIL TO A[N]’ followed by the addressee identified by job title, in a role in some way involved in the ‘convoluted networks of government outsourcing, independent agencies and consultancy services’ (‘Introduction’)
2) the email’s body, a repurposed threatening letter written and sent by the Luddites, or participants in the Swing Riots and Rebecca Riots. These protests of 19th-century agricultural and textiles workers in England and Wales fought against various laws and developments understood to be injurious to their livelihood. In the letters, violence is threatened unless their demands for the cessation of these injuries are met. The primary editorial intervention on the body of the letters is the blacking out of names that aren’t pseudonyms thus: Captain Swing.
Extracts from the sequence have been published in Erotoplasty, Tentacular and Pamenar Press Magazine. Published as a book, the titles become more striking in their banality, the letters turned emails more remarkable in the variety and power of their rhetoric. The first are baroque in their blandness. A humble screw is transfigured, pumpkin-like, into:
A PRISONER CUSTODY OFFICER AT GEOAMEY UK PROVIDING SECURE ESCORT SERVICES FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE ON BEHALF OF THE YOUTH CUSTODY SERVICE WITHIN HM PRISON AND PROBATION SERVICE AT THE MINISTRY OF JUSTICE.
The job sounds similar to another addressee, the:
PROJECT MANAGER AT DELOITTE OVERSEEING A REPORT ON THE FUTURE OF THE CREATIVE ECONOMY FOR THE DEPARTMENT FOR DIGITAL CULTURE MEDIA AND SPORT.
This sense of similarity is achieved by their parallel presentation within the sequence, the parallel syntax Ingram deploys, and because they are both symptoms of a state inviting private companies to manage and profit from its populace. In short, we are encouraged to understand that the jobs sound the same because they are the same.
Against this homogeneity, the bodies of the poems cannot be captured by a single formula. The tone is dextrous. One letter deploys a pastiche of legalese:
if you dont quit these Premises in a fornights time we must come and remove you.
Another is apocalyptic:
there is dredfull Praprations goen forwards for the Great Destruction.
A third balances swagger and delicacy:
As for the constable and the policemen, Becca her children heeds no more of them than the Grass-hopers which fly in the summer.
A fourth is both blunt indignation and calculated apostrophe:
O good God is it Bearable to work and famish.
They are invulnerable to the standardisation of the language. Phonetic rendering gives a clear and immediate voice across the years: ‘with great reaserlusen we will not bear it no longer’. The variety of spelling allows the emergence of new and instructive puns: ‘detarmied’, ‘Padrole the streets’, ‘pease and plenty’. The syntax is mobile, with sinuous run-on sentences and, in one case, fragments like flashes of light:
We, shall. set no. time but. take opertunity as it serves. you may perhaps evade it. for a time but we shall. be warey. and sure. for our resolution. is not to be shaken.
There’s even lyric in a ‘hard and humorous’ vein (Freer):
Revenge for thee is on the Wing, from thy determined Capt. Swing
The effect of the juxtaposition with the titles is to reactivate their menace, but also to recoup some victory from documents of a defeat, a counter to the condescension with which the rioters tend to be remembered.
The black rectangles that punctuate the letters give an update in two ways: firstly, by presenting the letters as if they were documents accessed by a Freedom of Information request; secondly, by eliding the historical targets so their place can be filled by the new addressees. That the new targets are addressed by job title means that the anonymity persists, and there is a balance established with the anonymity of the Enemies Anonimous themselves, whose identity is gathered under the legendary figures who give the riots their names: Ned Ludd, Captain Swing, Rebecca and others. This anonymity works in a few ways. It suggests that both sides are more significant as social forces than as individuals; in both cases, this submersion is willed and pragmatic. In the foreword to Writings of the Luddites, one of the anthologies Ingram draws on for Enemie Anonimous, Adrian Randall notes that the threatening letter ‘enabled workers to present demands in a form that protected individuals from the sorts of employer retaliation that face-to-face meetings risked.’ On the other side, the job titles correspond to individuals with names and faces, both of which can be found out easily enough with a search on LinkedIn. In the original letters, the correspondence between name and flesh is what gives the written threat of physical violence its force. However, both are fleeting. The individuals are profoundly replaceable. To have one’s identity reduced to the harmful work you do is earned punishment, but the reduction is also a reminder of the limitation of the threat, at least on one axis: act on it, ‘Shoot thee first old Bellsybub’, and a new occupier will step in in a few days.
Enemie Anonimous does not settle the question of the efficacy or the historical meaning of the rioters’ letters, but reanimates and redirects them, allowing the potential for the question to be tested afresh in a new context.
That context is new not only as a historical period but also as a genre. The tendency to identify poetry with the incantatory and magical, points to one way to alleviate the embarrassment of its cultural marginalism. It’s not obvious that a spell needs an audience to be effective. Enemie Anonimous points to an alternative way to draw on and justify that marginalism. Poetry’s eccentricity might provide it with an alibi, allowing it to express what would be unacceptable or culpable in other, more exposed genres, whose general reception has evolved to be more literal-minded. A live poetry might be measured by the way in which it strains at the borders of what it is permitted to say or to threaten:
Burn up all ever thing an set fier tu the Gurnray.
Note: While Beir Bua Press has ceased publication, some copies are available from the author (@scabsarerats). Longer excerpts from the series are linked in the review body.
Text: Alex Grafen
Image: Alex Grafen