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  • Amy Grandvoinet

(REVIEW) Fruits of the Usufruct: fred spoliar’s goodlands, by Amy Grandvoinet

oodlands held up in front of a rowan tree with red-berries in front of colourful houses

Amy Grandvoinet traverses an abundance of sonnets in fred spoliar’s goodlands (Veer2, 2022), entering through an opening page that’s ‘a gate made of fourteen blanked out lines’, to parse open words such as ‘usufruct’, which wriggle like worms occupying the ground.

A thrill is reading fred spoliar’s goodlands (2022). Getting acquainted with SPAM zine really quite recently, I found fred spoliar’s earlier tome, With the Boys (2021), at its online shop with utmost glee. So striking were the odd globby plants on its cover, amid strange sleeping beings. I snapped it up, and giggled hard; as did my friends – my own faux boys. With the Boys is brim full of mischief, and Praise Be to God so is goodlands. Wonderfully, it is all about people and the urban outdoors. And in a very unique way, at a point in history that’s saturated with city-based ‘nature writing’, etc. etc. Delivered from Veer Books from big big London allll the way to Aberystwyth and through my letter-box, plop! fell goodlands onto the doormat. Ripping open the cardboard packet, I read the book’s blurb: Dom Hale says fred spoliar writes ‘warped sonnets’ on the land ‘where no one needs to bother with the word “psychogeography” and your favourite poets play on forever’. I’m researching literary psychogeographies at the moment, and am enthralled. A Neapolitan ice-cream design beckons, as a sign-post to ‘goodlands’ floats gothic-ly mid-air. Alluring. Foreboding. Let me in, please.

A quick word on psychogeography to get it out of the way. Psychogeography is a fraught term. It is often defined as something like the study of the effects of the environment, whether organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. It’s about musing on how our surroundings make us feel and act, simply by going about urban spaces a bit flâneur-ishly. It didn’t start off as a literary thing, but – boy – has it become one. Since its origins with avant-garde collectives, the Lettrist and Situationist Internationals in the 1950s and 60s, various contemporary London writers have become associated with the term. I’ll not name names. It’s been discussed on BBC Radio 4, and has even manifested as the name of a column in the Independent newspaper. It’s a phenomenon that seems today to have somewhat conceptually colonised ways of engaging with the architectures and locales of late-stage capitalism. Psychogeography’s got fair clout, but can m a y b e be a bit culty-repetitive.

That the word psychogeography – ssshhhhhh – is paired on fred spoliar’s goodlands with a negative tells me this is probably gonna be badass political poetry about places, but full of special surprises.

O yes, that is right.

goodlands is a lyrical masterwork on the UK’s troubled capital, described both barren and flourishing. Its title, fred spoliar’s end-notes suggest, is taken from Frances W. Kay’s Goodlands: A Meditation and History on the Great Plains (2011), which details resistance to productivist conquest and agricultural modernisaton in Canada and North America since the mid sixteenth-century. Goodlands is also a village on the island of Mauritius, a main site of the British Empire’s sugar industry till its independence in 1968. goodlands steeps itself in these difficult narratives of the bereft and of bounty.

We enter goodlands, subtitled ‘sonnets on land’, through an opening page that’s a gate made of fourteen blanked-out lines. Is it to Eden? Is it to prison? What on Earth will we find there? Preliminary verse gives an unnerving mix of phenomena: ‘flesh-flower’, an ‘ornament tower math-braided’, ‘aesthetics of crushed’, the notion of being ‘turned on by the colour of cherries in a bath’, ‘rose failure’ and more, in what fred spoliar calls ‘a schizoid alteration of euphoria and melancholy’. Infrastructure freaks the hearts of the populace, but everyone peels into their most-desired pronouns, and all is ‘ay speakable and basic like fruit’. Fragile and uncertain is the beginning of goodlands.

Next comes a prose-y preamble, the prospect of warped sonnets tantalisingly further delayed. fred spoliar mockingly roams about, luxuriantly: ‘Let’s go for a walk’ – like those who ‘extract their leisure from the land’. goodlands now takes us through infertile soils, the infinite golf course, gentrification, landlordism, uneven opulence, a surveillance paradise built by the Baddies. At the same time, they also question any ‘back to the land’ back-lash of a ‘volkish pastoralia’ and of ‘bourgeois nature lovers’, and all those who ‘hitch art to the ethical plough of the hopes and drag / redemptive fruit from the poisoned mental earth’. goodlands presents a fray where conflicting parties grab at land’s value left, right, and centre, then does something different. goodlands laments upon ‘why we can’t have nice things’, utters a ‘sacred fuck you’, then the sonnets gladly commence.

fred spoliar’s first sonnet is ‘sonnet on land and usufruct’. Usufruct, to me, is one of goodlands’s juiciest words. Googling it, you will soon find out it is a noun meaning ‘the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance’. Wikipedia gives additional news, which is that the word comes from civil law’s ‘Usus (use, as in usage of or access to)’ as ‘the right to use or enjoy a thing possessed, directly and without altering it’, and ‘Fructus (fruit, as in the fruits of production)’ as ‘the right to derive profit from a thing possessed’, and concludes ‘Generally, a usufruct is a system in which a person or group of persons uses the real property (often land) of another’. Stuck in a global economic dictatorship – that’s ‘U (capital)’ fred spoliar says – that can’t seem to stop taking others’ riches and claiming the land as its own, the sonnets of goodlands tell you: stage a usufruct. The sonnets of goodlands tell you: take right back. The sonnets of goodlands tell you: seize back the stolen fruits. The sonnets of goodlands tell you: never-mind those Baddies.

An abundance of eighteen more sonnets – plus a few more bonus poems too – ensue, as ‘sonnet on land and harmony’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land (to my senses)’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land as horror’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘found sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, ‘sonnet on land’, and ‘last sonnet: the oil burns long (no volta)’. They contain all-sorts of mysterious morsels dubious and delicious, for example: ‘based cash gardens’ and ‘cash based soil’, ‘aged shrubs’, ‘dreams’, ‘mammal kissing mammal’, ‘financial botherance’, ‘A webinar on trespass shown in hell’, ‘free rain’, ‘clicking flowers’, ‘hot lyric vanilla’, ‘sandwich paper’, ‘dearth of birds’, ‘photic everything’, ‘blackberries’, ‘court pink idleness’, ‘auroric screaming’, ‘scrubbed palaces’, ‘kids’, ‘dew’, ‘a crane wading back / on foot from the big tesco’, ‘wild dogrose whoosh’, ‘a teal pillbox’, ‘vermilion infinity pool’, ‘banks i will burn’, ‘we cry’.

All awkward and lovely – in despair and celebration – fred spoliar’s words wriggle like worms occupying the ground. They say: ‘now all I / do is wriggle helpless vocals in the enemy garden’.

And sometimes there are actual worms wriggling around in goodlands’s thirty-six pages. Like this: ‘~’. Sometimes wriggling alone, and sometimes wriggling together in long happy rows and parades.

Those worm-words and ~ worms are powerful. Those worm-words and ~ words prepare the ground. Those worm-words and ~ worms will bring us fruit. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), as recently discussed by Greta Gerwig, suggested that a perfect world – which once ‘was good’ and where ‘branches hung with copious fruit’ – might not need poetry. fred spoliar shows that so long as we’re captive to our present day’s property-rigged tricky reality, we’ll need lots of it.

Please, fred spoliar, give us some more.

fred spoliar turns the planet’s propertied troubles into a complex poetic feast. I don’t want to give more spoilars. Please BUY fred spoliar’s goodlands NOW to taste all of its devious delights.


Text: Amy Grandvoinet

Image: Amy Grandvoinet

Published: 15/12/2023


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