(REVIEW) Not your minute turns from the blueprint: Body Work, by Tom Betteridge (SAD Press, 2018)
Denise Bonetti <email@example.com> Mon, 10 Dec 2018, 20:21 to maria.spamzine
Hope life’s good 🙂 I’m just writing to see you if you’ve read Tom B’s new Body Work? There’s a paper I should be writing, but have been reading and rereading that pamphlet instead, or more like dipping in and out really, cause it’s so beautifully layered and expanding that you can only take so much at a time.
Don’t you think Tom’s poetry has this strange earworm quality to it? (I think he’d like the annelid comparison.) The way he choreographs words (I don’t want to use the word ‘images’) makes its way into my brain and never wants to leave. He draws these, like, lateral paths of meaning so clearly that the weeds never grow back.Tom Raworth has this bit in ‘Writers / Riders / Rioters’ that goes:
the present is surrounded with the ringing of ings which words have moss on the northside
like, words naturally arrange themselves into a system of semantic habit, which is so stable and stale that makes them grow moss, but also so rich and vibrant when it’s exploited productively. Obviously this is Raworth so it probably also means the opposite of this and so much more, but it kinda makes me want to say that the present (poem) makes the ringing of ings deviate so well that the moss can never grow again. I’d say that his poems behave like sophisticated lines in the sand, but they’re more like brutal carvings on a rock. He had a couple poems in Blackbox Manifold ages ago (I think) and there was this one bit
‘nerve truffled plume
lead pickled breast’
I think about all the time (especially when I cook). It’s so smooth. Why can I not stop thinking about it. It’s cause it’s so shameless, it wants it all – the feather-light and the corpse-heavy, never perturbed, so lucid. It plays at tasting good, but it tastes of an unrealistically blank texture. A-ha! Anyway the new pamphlet is gr8, if you haven’t read it yet look at the first poem pls – ‘OCCAM OCEAN’ (sounds like an anagram or palindrome)
It all dwells in systematic abstraction but flies so close to materiality, like a mosquito buzzing around the ear (‘Not your minute turns from the blueprint’). I love that ‘plate’ in the first phrase, too: it behaves like an adjective but feels nothing like it. I can’t help but think it’s the subject of the sentence in a parallel universe that’s created by scrambling syntax. It makes me think this is the way language should always work, and that we’re the fkn idiots living in the parallel universe in which syntax is scrambled in ordered to be as boring as possible. Idk – it’s late and I need to go back to writing boring essay syntax ‘bound to decision and the pursuit of what follows’. Lemme know ur thoughts you smart queen
Maria Sledmere <firstname.lastname@example.org> Wed, 12 Dec 2018, 17:30 to denise.spamzine
Life is good thanks. I’m sitting in the attic of the law building and I can hear the construction work going on and every time I leave I look out at the skyline and slivers of infrastructural alteration. I was walking along the road earlier because the pavement was closed off for construction and cba crossing and the high-vis guy was like, ‘you’ll not see Christmas walking on the road like that’, but I guess I misheard him saying something else because I was really engrossed in this old Slowdive album, so I just smiled sweetly. Anyway, that got me thinking back to the question of erasure, which I think is pretty vital to Body Work.Have been carrying this pamphlet in my bag for so long that the cover has started to peel and revealing speckles of white underneath, like the text itself is ready to reveal itself, and yes I was thinking Barthes and strip-tease and paratextual enticement.
So I had to google the word annelid and now can’t get the phrase ‘segmented worm’ out of my ear/head/throat (gross!). I was thinking about what sort of stains are on the cover of this book, you know, with Hrafnhildur Halldórsdóttir’s gouache/pencil work. A stain is one thing stuck to another. Gouache is a funny kinda substance that is half watery gauze, half binding, thick, gummy akin to acrylic. Wet, it will easily smudge. My thumb keeps bleeding where the skin thins, hardens, peels and sloughs off. Tom’s poems are kinda mucilaginous in parts (v. insecty, molluscky, sap emission; but also they have a crispness and precision, like cuts of leaf). Things that smudge or fall in flakes. Bodies are maybe whatever we leave behind. I didn’t want to mention Hookworms the band because of the singer’s sexual abuse scandal BUT it seems significant that a group named after an earworm/type of parasitic larvae would have a song called ‘Negative Space’. Like what we eat into in the process of making, existing, remixing. Is language a rash, the result of these parasitic inf(l)ections?
I’ve been to a couple of reading groups on microbiomes lately, and we were thinking through this idea of how acknowledging your bodily composition in terms of myriad genes and organisms challenges conventional, bounded notions of ‘self’. What kinds of affects does this produce? There’s a weirdness to that, in Mark Fisher’s sense of the weird as ‘that which does not belong’, that which ‘brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation)’. Fisher suggests that the form most conducive to rendering the weird might be montage. So I was thinking about how montage involves splicings, gaps, juxtapositions, cuts and suddenness. I mean you open the very first poem of Body Work, ‘Occam Ocean’, and see that its prose-poetic paragraph compacting is split in the middle by the juncture of line break and indent. And ofc the title recalling Occam’s razor, the philosophic principle by which in the case of two explanations for an occurrence, it’s best to go with the one that requires least speculation. Razor things down and erase speculation? What are we left with, more of the Rreal? Lately I’ve been hankering for cleaner prose, crisp lines, simpler solutions. The Anthropocene is all of a goddamn tangle. Do I want to follow the myriad threads or just cut cut cut – who gets to do that?
Did you ever cut a worm in two as a kid?
Okay so I love how ‘Occam Ocean’ might promise, title-wise, this clean prosaic expanse (like the oxymoron of expanding ocean and occam’s, which requires surely a condensing), but what we get is clustering, motion, shiver, containment. The sensual trash magickk of P. Manson! The little syncope of this thing or that, the ‘maple neck’, vibrating canes, ‘chambered breath bowed into the driest soundboard’. These aren’t like ‘Latour litanies’ because they are not like concrete OOO segments of things; idk, they are more about processes and mutable assemblages, emphasis on action and change, sometimes transmission, things inside things. Lynn Margulis and symbiogenesis. How things interact, communicate up close; all of a mutable, prose-poetic swallow. It’s actually an incredible intimate pamphlet, don’t you think? I feel inside a thing inside a thing inside a thing. I feel a vague ecological sorrow, which gnaws at introspective tendency. The clue to that, you might see, is the cutaway phrase, ’emo Chord’ in ‘String Growth’.
Collapse all tears allowing echo retreat'; these lyric lines of 'Glissando' expression, smoothing and shimmering over cuts and junctures: a slide between notes. I used to play trombone and I wish I cld articulate linguistically what kinds of lip vibration occur when you attempt a glissando and feel it slide down your arm muscle but then also through your chest as you try to sustain a sound. It's maybe the way you glide through a scattered poem, with your eye, which is different ofc to the spikier way you'd have to read it aloud, stuck on the vowels. Stuttering. I would love to hear Nat Raha perform these poems, because she does such wonderful things with punctuation and bodily performance, a kind of grammar of breath and cough and click. Reading over the more field erasure poems like 'O--NE' and 'String Growth', it's easy to say something like ~vibrant materialism~ here, but as usual I reach for Steven Connor on noise. Return to the ear, which is 'vulnerable' and 'resembles the skin in being the organ of exposure and reception'. I love what Connor says about Levinas' perspective on 'the awareness of the vacant anonymity of being, of an abstract, encompassing sense that "there is"' being 'an experience of noise'. <3 Acknowledging that breath in the void, that is not nothing but a sparkling something, entails a sense of noise. I am here in the attic of the law building, listening to construction, the type of my fingers on the keys. Someone is murmuring of their distress. What is the difference between living and existing, and being and nothing?
‘Suppose we had a finely tuned, ultrasensitive instrument that we could use to zoom in on and tune in to the nuances and subtleties of nothingness. But what would it mean to zoom in on nothingness, to look and listen with ever-increasing sensitivity and acuity, to move to finer and finer scales of detail of…?’
When she asks, 'What is the measure of nothingness?' I think surely it is a bodily measure, as everything is: 'bound', as Tom puts it, 'to decision and the pursuit of what follows'. Of course 'what follows' recalls Derrida's 'The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)', where he's just out the shower and watching his cat watching his phallus, etc. What kinds of dislocation occur. But I mean in all that grandeur of encounter, there's still anthropocentricism. Tom gives you this cinematic CUT, like the instructive 'keen SNAP' that occurs in 'Occam Ocean' to dramatise 'Still, pondsnails whir and blindly source [...] a working leaf shutter'. Soever the language enacts the slurs of the snails up close. We look for the answer to the question of ellipsis, the more to follow [what follows]: inevitable, a question. Sometimes Tom is writing about silence ('then silence confronts an earful underhand') but the music of his language does all the noise, so we just can't have nothingness: there is always a vibrational residue that speaks of something in miniature, atomic, happening.
Ofc with the ear again I am thinking of the ear at the start of Lynch's Blue Velvet and how it's covered in rasping wee insects whose hum is a sort of white noise of trauma that runs through Lumberton's suburban idyllicism.
And so what happens next is I flip open to the following page of Body Work and there is 'String Growth', one of Tom's sprawling erasure poems, which for more than a split-second resembles hundreds of crawling, shimmering ants. I actually think my earliest childhood memory is of looking down at my bare feet on the patio of our old house in Hertfordshire and seeing red ants run over my toes. Then looking up to a greying, English sky. Constantly struck by the cinematic image of that, its splicing out of time: the vividness of insects on human flesh, then milky smog of skyward nothingness. 'String Growth', the accompanying notes to Body Work tell me, is an erasure poem of the Chordoma Foundation's 'Understanding Chordoma' information page.
Erasure can expose sequences of nightmare at work in the lexis and syntax of the text on which it parasitically feeds. I am scared to go on the Chordoma Foundation's website, for fear that just reading or saying the word 'tumour' will activate some kind of malignant growth in my body. And so something of the word chord as a sonorous relation between materials (bodily, textual; textural, cellular). Chordomas are tumours often located in the spine and so I find myself looking for the undulating shape of a spine in the scatter-text of Tom's poem. My eyes cascade down textual spines. Why is it sometimes I otherwise latch upon a 'keystone' word which then extends with adjacent resonance? Musical abnormalities accumulate. Thought swells.
And yea I wonder how this fits into what you say about the poems being 'so smooth'. Like Lynch's waxen silicone ear. Because even though fragmentation makes me think of bits and jaggedness etc, there's this sheen of aestheticism to Tom's work that makes me think of gloopiness, fullness, thereness but also the glaze of potential nothingness. Like in Barad's sense, or miniaturised ecological window shopping - a la Morton's Romantic consumerism? Or do we get into the things themselves? What are your thoughts on the question of recalcitrance? Maybe cos he named a previous pamphlet Pedicure I've just got varnish on my mind. Things an insect might stick to, and be amberized in. Mm..
’[…] Phosphorus crystals may be white, red, burgundyor alight as urine passes’
I keep a stone of citrine under my pillow sometimes. It is supposed to alleviate nightmares and 'manifest abundance'. It is the colour of a rich, dehydrated piss and sometimes when I come back to bed after peeing in the night I think it's some kind of organ lain on my bedsheets, hopped out of my body, and I have to stop my heart and breathe. Is that syncope?
On the <topic of piss>, isn't there a sort of caustic quality, even to the smoothness? Like it is working at making a brittleness of its sheen? And that is what poetry is, cracking the veneer of language or something? Punctuational insects dwelling in splits and fissures? It is nice and cool in Tom's poetry, a place for thinning the self and dwelling. Even though the lexis is so rich and dense, it still seems slender somehow; there's a suppleness. Tease threads of your silk(worm).
Was thinking about what Lisa Robertson says about 'commodiousness' in poetry and what kinds of space there are for the reader here, because I don't think there is much space at all, in the conventional humanly readerly sense. Maybe what I mean by (straw man: Romantic) lyric, which requires something of declarative expansiveness? The density and clutter of specialist language in Body Work makes me feel like a worm, trying to hook my way lusciously into a line: 'espalier's / strains unfinished by the scarp trellis' ('Body Work'), 'rooted to a middle-ground / no more than motion defibrillates'. And I become a parasite on the body of the text, which is a parasite on the body, which is made up of millions of (para)sites. Para ofc meaning side by side, which made me think of Haraway's sympoeisis (making-with) but also, admittedly, Limmy's madeup psychic show, Paraside (lalalol what you were saying about the scrambling parallel universe maybe, is that a lalaLacian Real which necessitates ululation, stammering? Complex remixing musicality of language throughout Body Work as summoning?). Going back to my incidental Slowdive reference earlier, maybe there's a shoegaze thing here, like setting up these 'noise-worlds' which shimmer indiscriminately behind/inside/through the semiotic oscillations of lyric? Is shoegaze a form of sonic gouache? Well it is certainly an ontic form of seduction, where I can't pick out the instruments of expression but I look for them hungrily in the haze. And the idea that transmission between worlds (the living/dead, human/nonhuman) might require a strain of humour (like haha but also meant in the sense of bodily humours?). For instance, shoegaze is decidedly not a humorous genre, but it sort of works on bodily humours, sometimes giving me the bends, or the blurry spaced-out feeling of having one's pleasure receptor's caressed by sound. Was wondering how YOU experienced the space and physicality of the poems -- was there anything u found FUNNY or sufficiently sultry as to produce a long and gorgeous sigh?
Mm and aren't there these tasty, cute moments of wow like 'tropic glut' ('O--NE') and 'prism arousal' ('Body Work') and 'clamour to emboss' ('Sapling').
Come to think of it, there are quite a lot of trees in Body Work, at the very least between 'Sapling' and 'Copsing', but also resonance in 'Awning', 'Annual' (which mentions 'yield', 'Thicket', 'sky-light muddle' etc) and 'Georgel' (georgics, idk?). Something about sprawl and thread: like the action of branches as arboreal mirror for threads of viruses, threads of code?
Side note: Can a person in a crowd of people experience canopy-shyness? Emily Berry has this lovely poem about crying and canopies and language.
Ways to dwell in inertia, violence, suspense ('Poem for July') as a 'clearing' within the pamphlet? Body Work as a title seems to combine two distinct fields: car repair and alternative medicine (hence mention of plants, cancers and crystals). The question of holistic approach, therapeutics, restoration. The sheen of metal, the sheen of health. O wise one of la letteratura del contemporaneo, pray tell your thoughts on possible Ballardian comparisons? Like obv v. different but I was struck by something to do with the cut-up structures of The Atrocity Exhibition and the way erasure works in Tom's work (probably in a more precise, attentive way, like the specialist's collage of tiny skins and digits, as opposed to grander themes of mediation that explode all over Ballard's work? -- generalising for the sake of interest obv).
Longing for a 'carvery [of] / uncommoning / rave'. Some kind of party you'd give up your skin for (is skin mere synecdoche of identity here?). Maybe the rave is what you were saying about scrambling.
Anyway, I hope your essay is going well. I must go read Hillis Miller's thoughts on Ariadne's thread, maybe make a tea. I've been getting these headaches lately, dawn to dusk & beyond, like the kind you get after being swimming (chlorine headache) or after crying (hormone headache). Pressurisation. I wonder if I have a parasite in my brain? So tonite I will probs lie awake, sleepless, listening for tinnitus :(
With warmth, Maria