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(REVIEW) Pain Journal Issue 3


In this review, Maria Sledmere draws out the material poetics of intimacy, glimmer, memory and salt in issue 3 of Pain Journal, from Partus Press, asking what kinds of dream-writing and ecopoetics we might find among the tangle, the camaraderie, the trace.

> Pain is an immaculate journal of new poetry and short, creative essays, edited by Vala Thorodds and Luke Allan, published by Partus Press and designed by Studio Lamont. Folding out the cover of issue 3, you’ll find an epigraph from Robert Creeley’s ‘The Flower’: ‘Pain is a flower like that one, / like this one, / like that one, / like this one’. Pain is a making, a sap, a sort of seedling and fruiting of where we are in the years. It likens itself to more than we’d tend to acknowledge. A blood, a fur of skin, a flower. It’s such a luxury to hold issue 3 in its peachy, matte dust jacket, admiring the beautiful type and the list of contributors. There’s an air of the covetable to Pain: maybe it’s the print quality, maybe it’s the poetry, maybe it’s the curation. I think it’s also something to do with the cover, dominated by the sans serif title PAIN: when I read this walking in the street, I make some kind of statement. It feels charged with the ambiguity of some high fashion statement, and yet what lucky readers are we that something of the contents may tell the pain — we don’t just wear it.

> Where to start! These are lush poems of communication, intimacy, sensation. Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Gleam & delicacies’ is a surreal and elliptical lyric of superstitious glimmer. Poetry as ‘a trap for the superstitions’. I find myself googling what a ‘glowfruit’ is and find some reddit discussions around the appearance of ‘glowfruit trees’ in Sims games. There’s this line, ‘I still have wild glowfruit trees. Do you?’, which feels like a summons, a challenge. Enter into this logic with me, where the one-time event of the glowfruit’s arrival has seeded the game’s eternal time. Someone comments, ‘They seem kind of random to me’. I had forgotten the magic of games and their luxurious richness and dream logic of glitches and hacks and splintered paths of narrative. Perhaps my childhood adoration of Sega and Nintendo was my way into poetry. The opening veils of an overlain world. Sigurðardóttir’s poetics have that quality of drifting between rooms and scenes, or falling between bodies and scales by one gesture of a linebreak, the slide of a button control, ‘I give birth to suns / for the morning hoax / slippery planets’. It reminds me of David O’Reilly’s video game, Everything, where you can move between a roving shrub, a celestial body and an oil rig in the space of ten minutes. What is meant by a ‘nighthaired waiter’? There is a dream-hand that extends to our proprioceptive venturing, that offers casual refusal (‘I didn’t come here to toothbrush the wolf’) by way of assembling the real and its purpose. The real which feels more like a ‘silhouette’.

> Significant, perhaps, that this poem of mirror-tricks and shimmers stands opposite Ruby Silk’s ‘Re:’, a poem that takes the banal conceit of email and pulling on tights in the swimming pool changing room to figure something of desire and its thirst. ‘we communicate drily’, the poem begins, ending with a slide on the nature of being quenched, on the question. Both poems forego punctuation, and more or less carry themselves on the turns of language: objects form a multiple syntax of moving between. Their cleanness on the page is perhaps what makes them gleam, they seem to hold their own. The gleam is present elsewhere in the issue, with Eloise Hendy’s ‘scrubland’ beginning, in the manner of Marianne Moore moving into Plath territory, ‘i too have a gleaming future. / a future like a fish scale, the eye / of a small bird’. Trauma or remembered pain is a matter of scale(s) and perception, of the body and its existential whittling, whitening. The speaker asks about whiteness, light, memory and dream: ‘all that spilt milk. all that gleaming’. You could say the gleam is metonymy for shame, the beaming cheeks, the sense of glowing or almost burning there in the situation. No capitals, a whittling. The idea of ‘nonsense’ itself, whittling down to the first gleam, its tender origin: ‘as a girl i was very soft’. The way the lines and stanzas slip, enjambed between, the idea of a passing through. The speaker offers her hurts: her fish eye, her pale appetite, her starved future, her dreams of fish bones and choking. ‘be gentle with me’, she implores. I think of this line from the film Lady Bird (2018), after Lady Bird loses her virginity under a pretence of shared experience and the boy Kyle is like ‘Do you have any awareness about how many civilians we’ve killed since invasion in Iraq started?’ and she replies, ‘SHUT UP. SHUT UP. Different things can be sad. It’s not all war’. ‘as an adult i am softer still’, Hendy writes, as though softening herself into the palest ghost and somehow becoming defiant, ‘my hand / is an arrowhead. a future / like a fish eye’.

> It’s no surprise that Pain is tinged with other existential tremors, those of the body and the world, of ecology and domesticity, of sex and dust. Helen Charman’s ‘In the pocket of Big Pig’ wears high theory cool on its sleeve as it sweeps into the muck and dirt of where we are. The movement of ‘manmade’ materials into the ‘natural’ is an aesthetic act: ‘Plastic / can holders entwine themselves around the / sea kelp — to tame and smooth frizz’. In that em-dash I feel the lines reaching out, the kelp and the twine and the human arms, the bristles. Does poetry do more than brush back the mess of the world, or tease it back into static? What are the ethics of pain’s poetic entanglement?

ecopoets try again and again to convince us of the

whiteness of the snow drift.

I like            

muddy ducklings              

dirty reedbeds                


(Charman, ‘In the pocket of Big Pig’)

If ‘muddy ducklings’ has that childlike assonance of storybook rhyme, ‘dirty reedbeds’ feels adult, insistent, dark. The place where you tangle and possibly drown. Turning away from the pristine ‘snow drift’ that pulls us into the picturesque, an ecopoetics that continues the aesthetic throwback of nature poetry before it, this is an anthropocene poetics of living in a fraught, affectively entangled now: ‘I think we’re nostalgic for more than VHS when we / fuck in front of the Blue Planet poster misty-eyed as if / we’ll ever get to show the oceans to our own kids’. Sex is ambivalently yoked to procreation in the ‘misty-eyed’ act of fucking to get back to something primal, deep and planetary. The world as it once supposedly was and exists now mostly as mediation: scenes on tv, posters for Blue Planet. And the word ‘fuck’ for sex that feels iterative rather than tender, two bodies trying to make something of what they have, an intensified point in time and space, a mediation or trace of each other.

> A similar kind of iterative sweetness and friction occurs in Jack Underwood’s ‘Behind the Face of Great White Shark’, where some new entry to the ecosystem upsets the home, ‘Since we brought you home from the hospital / I have begged these hours to a stub’. Enter the metaphoric playground of sharks and dogs, worms, rats, beans and bananas. Something of this new love, the baby perhaps, the shark or the tender thirsty thing at dawn, is a hurt: ‘I admit I have been sick / since we met, pursuing this love-wound / like a moon beyond the windscreen’. A love you’d drive to all through the night, to arrive back where you started, chaste in your own ‘dawn kitchen’ with a moony look in your eye. I think of Dorothea Lasky’s ‘wild lyric I’, the one she discusses in her new book Animal: this playful and manipulative ‘metaphysical I’ that ‘can harness all fragmented senses of self and use them whenever it needs to’. Underwood’s I thrashes like a shark on the sick shores of a new love, a birthing tide, dark and light. An I that threatens violence, desire from all angles and limbs ‘fucking ambidextrously’; an I that ‘can keep you safe inland’, that pulls you into its glow, for this is just ‘the lesser work of living’.

> It is tricky to identify highlights from a journal where, as with amberflora (whose sensibilities resonate here), the selections are impeccable: focused, resonant, but also lovely alone. Nina Mingya Powles’ ‘The Harbour’ has something of Clarice Lispector’s radiance, pressed into a teeming poetics of its own. Its section titles add an epistolary quality, italicised as they are, ‘Dear whales,’, ‘Dear dreamer,’. Post-Arika, with all talk of Moby Dick and the mathematics of the whale, it seems these cetaceans are having a real moment. Powles’ address to the whale is elegiac, ‘I can pinpoint all the places you have died, / where I’ve buried you’. She’s putting pressure on the work of metaphor, the whale as so much more than whale, the whale as what cannot be contained, the whale that cannot contain itself. Her whale is more of a comrade, a friend:

When I looked out of the train

and saw your deep blue body and

you saw mine you stayed close to me, swimming alongside.

We were both travelling home.

What if ecopoetics, or anthropocene poetics, were something more like this surprising camaraderie? Does it matter whether the encounter was imagined or actually happened? Running through Pain is this suffering silk with its shadows and texture of echo and gleam, ‘the dream is wet skin against her hands / the fact is echolocation’ (Powles). I’ve been thinking about what the tensile ethics of this fugitive touch are: the touch of the image, the whale and the speaker on the train, the relative distance of speed and time between them, the hospitality she extends to the animal she is also. ‘I’ll show you my mother’s potted orchids’, in a world where to cross one human threshold is to know that later the sea will be deep enough for you once more. Pain asks how much of each other we need to hold. There’s this passage from Hélène Cixous’ novel Hyperdream (2006) that speaks to this:

I hear it, I hear a murmur your skin speaks, a blood thinks, I hear your thought running under the skin I hear your life thinking under the neat eternal spotless silk. I read with my life. I am torn. At the same time I am healed and glued back together again. During this time the world suffers and dies […]

What is the murmur of our speaking skins, our thinking blood? The body that dreams? One pain can open the next, there’s a gesture of infinity, the way that Anne Boyer identifies in her ‘meditation on modern illness’, The Undying (2019): ‘My new calamity meant it was possible to feel every cell at once and, in these, every mitochondrion, and that it was possible, too, to have a millionfold shitshow of sensations in locations newly realised’. To have your body illumined, intensified, surged to the end of each nerve and cell with this searing consciousness. When I had shingles, I felt real dreams; they seemed to extend to a million tips, concentrated in clusters on the skin of my belly. Real dreams/real hurt. Is a body in pain the body that dreams the most, from her almost-paralysis in sensory excess? I think poems like Powles are asking these questions, declaring, spacing, opening up, leaving us on the brink of a blank that is its own quiet sublime, ‘everything is so !’. And if ‘the fact is letting go’, what of the fact have we been holding all along? Is this like Creeley, gesturing towards this or that flower, as a way of describing, to insist on it. Something we ask as children: does a flower or a plant feel pain? Pain, pain. There it is in the world, it just is, like a flower, or something more tiny and abrasive, salt after salt. A period.

> Rowland Bagnall’s essay ‘The Metal We Call Salt’ closes the journal with a meditation on the poetry of Philip Levine and Elizabeth Bishop, writers who ‘[address] the delicate failure of poetry to say the things which can’t be said’. This is Creeley, surely, with the flowers which stand for the shapeless pain. I’m reminded of a line from Rachael Allen’s ‘Kingdomland’: ‘the glass and salt my crooked pathway; impassable glass and salt’. The glittering remainders which excoriate the entry and exit of threshold, painful debris of the sea. This is the ‘tantalising’ poetics that Bagnall writes of, words that ‘say that they are lost for words’, words that gift and withhold by their material gesture: words that carry traces of what they may be. Salt-tanged and gleaming as glass. ‘What got revealed when the layers of leaves / Were blown backwards?’ Ralf Webb asks, in his ‘Three Sonnets’. What is it to walk over the crunching ‘pathway’ of such poems for pain, ana-cathartic as they move into, above, through, around and from the wound and its ferric sting? The essay also looks at the paintings of John Salt and photographs of Mark Ruwedel, considering how as a preservative and purifier, salt as both an archival and corrosive mineral: art as what consumes and reveals, what glints with the not yet spoken. Salt in the wound for pain will sting, but it will clear. These poems are such interfusions, sweetness and dreams, the ‘torn’: healed and suffering of a life and a world, coming over. And, for just a while, Pain will hold you together, soft in its peachy embrace.

Pain issue 3 is out now and available to purchase here.


Text: Maria Sledmere

Published: 5/1/20


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