Enter with tender hammers: Fred Carter delves into the militant politics and poetics of self-defence in Rob Kiely's simmering of a declarative void (the87press, 2020).
This Citadel, this house of hell, Is worshipped by the law. It's built upon a rock of wrong With hate and bloody straw
- Bobby Sands, ‘The Crime of Castlereagh,’ Trilogy
porcelain epoch succeeding for the most part dying for the most part married for the most part to its death
- Tongo Eisen-Martin, ‘Channels to Fall Asleep to,’ Heaven is All Goodbyes
> I’ve read Rob Kiely’s collection simmering of a declarative void roughly twice. Once during the first month of lockdown in the UK, caught between the pressure of mutual aid organising and the horrific inertia of watching misreported metrics of racialised and proletarian deaths increase day after day. Then, for a second time, after weeks of witnessing footage of militarised anti-Black police violence and insurgent protests erupting across the US. In the space of these compressive months, the rapid and militant mobilisation of communities across the world in self-defence against the necropolitical tactics of racial capitalism has articulated itself in terms that recall a passage from Danny Hayward’s description of ‘defensive poetry.’ In No Money #2, published more than four years ago, Hayward writes:
the fullest extent of the damage to which we are now exposed has become intensely changeable, mobile and dispersive, as capital has itself become changeable, mobile and dispersive within and beyond the cities in which we live and as the points of connection between exploited and despairing people thousands of miles apart have multiplied, have ramified and grown together, and at last have grown up and expanded and acquired a richer and more exacting language, so that they are no longer mathematical points or nodes on a graph of shared interests but have become instead the shared bruises, sore spots, and developed antipathies of a more substantive form of political mutuality.
Kiely’s poetry speaks keenly to the possibilities of this poetry of self-defence, both in its acute register of the ‘psychological indigestion and hyperpneic awestruckness’ that accompanies the pixelated experience of spatially distant acts of state violence and its essential recognition of ‘expressive control over basic or fundamental experiences of capitalist violence’ as an ‘urgent collective and psychological need.’ An attempt to steal back a viable language of mutuality and need from the distortions of value form. Like Incomparable Poetry, Kiely’s recently published study of Irish poetry in the wake of the financial crash, simmering is concerned with examining ‘how economics and poetry interpenetrate’; articulating ‘the ways in which contemporary life is buckled under the pressure of news cycles and financial gain.’ As Kiely’s long poem ‘How to Read’ testifies, in the decade following the bailout of the banks ‘debt decides all | debt whispers its tonality | with no interest’; this affectless metric of accounting torques the language of lyric and determines our capacity to give accounts of ourselves.
> As Hayward puts it, the defensive poet writes desperately against ‘the threat that everything that they possess will be valued at and terroristically reduced to nothing’ at the whim of finance capital. Kiely’s work rails in self-defence against this administrative idiom of commensurability and relative value, occupying its hateful diction and attempting to carve out forms of lyric speech that resist their incorporation or reduction to expressivist individualism. Revisiting Hayward’s essay in 2020, however, his provisional sketch of mutuality across distance feels ever more urgent in the thick of a pandemic, on the brink of another recession, and in the midst of spontaneous mass actions of international solidarity against the violence of the police and the carceral neoliberal state. While tracing the specific contradictions and brutalism of social relations in the ‘here, now’ of the UK and Ireland after a decade of austerity measures, the work collected in simmering also demands we move beyond insularity and digitised spectatorship towards inhabiting forms of mutual wounds and affinities that produce accomplices, not allies, in transnational struggles against racial and carceral capitalism.
> Much of Kiely’s poetry consists of a broken, torqued, and paranoid vernacular in which ‘content exceeds rage’ or otherwise ‘defaults the rent’; syntax and lineation frequently buckle under the sheer weight of its hatred for the tory state and its bourgeois cultural forms. Many of the longer sequences collected here – ‘Killing the Cop in Your Head’ (Sad Press 2017), ‘How to Read’ (Crater Press 2017), and ‘In It’ (Gang Press 2019) – are explicitly concerned with what Sean Bonney has articulated as the absolute ‘destruction of bourgeois subjectivity’; seeking out and occupying the ‘arid zone’ of sheer refusal that Bonney figured as the necessary ground of militant political commitment. In ‘How to Read,’ the phrase ‘rage inoculation’ names this defensive and studied immunity against affective exhaustion or liberal outrage fatigue. Echoing Bonney’s ‘Notes on Militant Poetics,’ the poems collected in simmering tend towards, or germinate from, the state of abjection that Frantz Fanon describes as the ‘zone of nonbeing’; ‘an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born.’
> Bonney’s citation of Fanon, here, also touches on a specific fault line in his ‘Notes’ that has been on my mind in the last few months, as its identification with Black revolutionary politics knowingly raises questions about the forms and limits of co-conspiracy that emerge in struggles against capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. With this in mind, Kiely’s work offers an interrogation of intersections between anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-racist politics in ‘defensive’ or ‘militant’ poetics, envisaging resistance to British colonial rule and necropolitical tory austerity through and within the examination of its own relation to whiteness. Following both Fanon and Bonney, simmering is fundamentally preoccupied with taxonomising and dismantling the external and internal apparatus of police reality and colonial subjectivity. If George Jackson’s prison letters offered a rubric of aridity and upheaval for Bonney’s militant poetics, Kiely is equally indebted to the carceral writings of Bobby Sands. The language surface of simmering is littered with images of alienation, abjection, and brutality that at times recall Sands’s ballads and diaries written from Long Kesh prison. Like Bonney’s ‘Notes,’ these collected poems render a ‘counterpanoptic’ perspective of carceral, colonial, and financial systems; a jittery body-horror register of mould, roaches, shit, and maggots that offers ‘an x-ray view into the infraviolence of capitalist reality.’ Fanon called this ‘the descent into real hell.’
> While the material collected here has evidently emerged out in dialogue, and in affinity, with the work of poets such as Bonney and Hayward, I’m struck by the ways in which these poems refuse, or intentionally fail, to reproduce the tropes and textures of recent militant poetry in the UK and Ireland. Often at the precise moments where Kiely’s work signals radical sentiments that have become increasingly commonplace – anti-work, anti-rent, antifa, ACAB, etc. – these poems simultaneously insist on frustrating the received parameters of pedestrian countercultural taste. ‘Clammy declamatories’ become a performative ‘tendency’ to be treated with suspicion. In an early sequence titled ‘[four poems],’ allusions to the encroaching alienation of reproductive labour in the gig economy – ‘the Amazon delivery number is squeezed onto my face’; ‘like, don’t cook just eat’ – collapse into a parody of ersatz post-internet vernacular – ‘inappropes lol sounding really dodge’ – before arriving at the following lines:
a hot bullet-hole | pooing a hollow hand clap forced into Art’s autonomy: loot this
The image of a trauma wound, here, disrupts the well-worn discourse of alienation-as-violence before abruptly cutting to an image of shit which at once punctures any sense of declamatory political urgency and affronts the gravity of the graphic violence that precedes it. It’s legitimately wrong. Yet the bathos of this scatological juxtaposition is haunted, too, by the potential inference of H-Block and the ‘dirty protest.’ Abject images of austerity, ingestion, and emaciation – ‘eat me no more | for I am thin to the point of’ – recur throughout the following stanzas, reinforcing the spectral presence of both Long Kesh and Irish Famine in these poems. While I’m conscious that reading famine, Sands, and the dirty protest into ‘[four poems]’ risks a form of critical overinterpretation, I’m also keen to explore how the ambiguous potential of these lines – the way they enfold parody, militancy, and colonial atrocity – also touches on a crucial formal tension that extends throughout the collection.
> Last time I saw Kiely read, he opened with an epigraph from Sands’s ‘The Crime of Castlereagh,’ recited a fragment of Blake, and then sang ‘Frank’s Track,’ acapella. It was haunting and jarring in equal measure, almost willing the audience to balk at this naked display of lyric naïveté and sincerity. Throughout simmering, Kiely makes use of traditional scansion and laboured full rhymes to similar effect. The first stanza of ‘In It,’ for instance, opens with a kitschy rhyming couplet – ‘minds of air | they sit and stare’ – which invokes the ballad prosody of Sands’s Trilogy. Meanwhile, ‘[four poems]’ puns inanely – ‘these the means’; ‘cross my eyes | and dot each tease’ – until ‘the words admit they like it, | getting jerked off by a phantom limb’ in a bleak parody of prosody as lyric onanism. These vulgar or anachronistic formal manoeuvres enact a dual function in Kiely’s work, at once situating its lyricism in relation to specific histories of anti-state ballad and simultaneously risking the boundaries of contemporary taste by rhyming too much, taking its satirical gestures too far, or becoming too earnest to adequately perform radical politics to the converted. In ‘[four poems],’ the ‘hollow hand clap’ of shit applause at once encodes a visceral history of state violence and expresses an unshakeable discomfort with the performance of anti-colonial and anti-state politics for social currency.
> As the reference to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory in the following line underscores, Kiely often takes a pretty desolate view of the possibilities of ‘Art’s autonomy.’ Later in the collection, ‘Killing the Cop in Your Head’ further ventilates this Adornian anxiety around the role of poetry in the production of capital, both cultural and financial, and returns repeatedly to the apparition of empty applause encapsulated in the ‘hollow hand clap’. If, as ‘[four poems]’ concludes, ‘the sad fact is | it wants to impress’ then one last ditch tactic is to simply fail to impress; to risk continuously on the edge of lyric embarrassment and Beckettian failure. In Comparable Poetry, Kiely elaborates this interest in the ways in which ‘poems don’t work and come apart at the seams.’ Throughout the book, failure as a formal property in Irish poetry is read as both internalisation of, and resistance against, financial dynamics of market collapse and crisis. In this sense, too, simmering is punctuated by moments in which ‘the mechanism comes apart’ and the breakdown of poetic devices reveals fleeting fractures in the mechanics of the free market and tears in the fabric of capitalist realism. In this sense, I want to suggest that the failure of the lines quoted above to reproduce an identifiable form of militant poetry is somehow essential to its politics and its poetics. Significantly, ‘[four poems]’ is also not about Bobby Sands and can’t be demonstrated to be. Instead, Kiely approaches state violence and insurgent anti-colonial resistance most intimately in moments that resist applause, refute interpretation, and insist that our only possible participation in the circulation of anti-state poetry is to ‘loot this’; to steal our meanings; to sabotage the production of cultural capital. Reading this work demands a poetics of ‘fetish-loot and jibes, barbed in the mind’.
> It’s unlikely, too, that the colonial etymology of ‘loot’ is lost on Kiely; simmering is poetry including what M. NourbeSe Philip reminds us is ‘the looting they call history.’ In this respect, the collection understands its decolonial work as a dialectical process, tracing the ongoing legacies of British colonialism in Ireland and simultaneously interrogating the whiteness of the anti-state tradition within which it is, however contingently, situated. Over the last months, connections between property, coloniality, and anti-Blackness have resurfaced repeatedly in conversations around the history of policing, as protestors in Minneapolis or Portland are shot with rubber-coated munitions first deployed in occupied Ireland. Links between militarised policing and property markets are starkly apparent in ‘Bats,’ which references the North Frederick Street squat and its violent eviction by gardaí working in tandem with extralegal hired enforcement. Registering the sustained presence of colonial dynamics in the Dublin housing crisis, ‘Bats’ notes the partially-effaced British license plates of the white van that these ‘goons in balaclavas’ arrived in and reminds us that ‘owning’ is nothing more than ‘the application of angle grinders’. Underscoring this ongoing antagonism, a list of unmarked dates in ‘How to Read’ stretches continuously from 1884 to 2019, figuring historical moments as incendiary devices – ‘seconds BANG hours BANG days BANG.’ Here, the erasure of subaltern history and its volatile capacity to ‘resurface’ recalls Maggie O’Sullivan’s collagist record of those killed by rubber bullets at the hands of British riot police in A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts, a text which offers a similarly oblique and palimpsestic account of state repression in Ireland. Yet, while situating itself in relation to this tradition of Irish anti-state poetry, Kiely’s work also fundamentally demands that we ‘annul the fascism stitched irrevocably | into over there,’ categorically refusing a logic that claims antifascism or anti-colonialism by the straightforward identification of an opposition.
> As Incomparable Poetry explores at length, reactions to neo-colonialism and neoliberalism in Irish poetry after the crash also manifested in resurgent forms of fascism and nationalism; a ‘reactionary flailing against an abstracted Blackness’ in defence of national and private property threatened by the collapse of the housing and futures markets. The boundaries of Irish citizenship continue to rely on the xenoracist carceral apparatus of Direct Provision and, as this review is published, asylum seekers in Kerry are on hunger strike in protest against the abject conditions of Direct Provision during Covid. Elsewhere in simmering, ‘Tinsel Shuffle Rot’ registers the sheer banality with which these forms of systemic anti-Blackness are reified and consumed as cultural commodity – ‘People listen to | Black social death as they jog.’ In ‘How to Read,’ this spectral intimacy of commodity form and coloniality – of dead labour and anti-Black violence – is rendered tangible as the substratum of the neoliberal nation state:
cargo is in the blood, blood in the cargo … a state seeing bee-white
In a tautological syntactical construction that echoes both Philip’s poetry and Marx’s famous rephrasing of Augier, ‘How to Read’ reminds us that capital comes into the world dripping with blood. The diagnostic outlined here demands a politics beyond opposition to the capitalist state or to colonial rule. It requires the abolition of whiteness and the unlearning of our attachments to property. In addition to figuring the worker in the poem, the phrase ‘bee-white’ also gestures to the perceptual disposition of bees to see ultraviolet white as neutral, registering blackness as a threat. Beyond Bonney’s desire to derange the social senses and shatter bourgeois subjectivity, then, Kiely’s work envisages the abolition of the ‘bee-white’ subject that sees through these categories of whiteness, wage labour, and capital. To come to terms with this vision, as Kiely comes up against in ‘How to Read,’ is to ‘renounce the life you have planned’; to give up the material and internal infrastructure that underpins white life and self-actualisation. The attempt to reckon with white supremacy, expressed in these terms, necessarily poses the question of whether a poetry of self-defence – a distinctive tone of defensive urgency and militant clarity etched in opposition to the exigencies of late capital – can simultaneously operate in a self-interrogatory mode.
> In this respect, Kiely’s ‘Killing the Cop in Your Head,’ ‘In It,’ and ‘How to Read,’ each interrogate what it means to become militant; to become abolitionist; to become an accomplice in dismantling the structures that protect and profit from whiteness and capital. Tiffany Lethabo King, whose own work articulates links between settler-colonialism and anti-Blackness, offers a provisional definition of decolonial thought and practice that has helped me to read these sequences. A counterweight and extension, perhaps, to Hayward’s essay on self-defence:
For me, decolonization is a process that has to do with working ourselves out of ways of thinking, feeling, and desiring that keep us stuck. […] I think that on a fundamental level the process of decolonization requires that we are undone and unmoored by the idea of living in a way that requires mass death (in its various forms) in exchange for other’s self-actualization. By become undone, I mean it really has to fuck us up in our core and make us relentless about seeking out and making alternatives possible.
At their best, Kiely’s poems do this. They fuck us up and leave us unmoored with the unshakeable knowledge of the ways in which white life depends on Black death; with the knowledge that all property depends on violence; with the knowledge that desire for the end of neoliberalism or colonialism cannot be realised without the abolition of racial capital and its carceral apparatus.
> ‘In It,’ the last poem in the collection, offers a sustained attempt to stay inside this moment of undoing. Risking overinterpretation once more, the title might be glossed as a take on Fred Moten’s long poem ‘I ran from it and was still in it,’ wherein the lifted meaning of Moten’s ‘in it’ modulates subtly with respect to Kiely’s own positionality. Throughout the poem, to stay ‘inside it’ is to stand inside of and in opposition to an interlocking system of race, finance, and property and to ask relentlessly ‘where is the outside’? For Dionne Brand, reflecting on ‘the calculus of living and dying’ that underpins the neoliberal state, the convergence of insurgent anti-racist organisation and COVID-19 has afforded a moment of ‘x-ray’ vision in which ‘all the metrics are off, if only briefly.’ In strikingly similar terms, ‘In It’ seeks out and accumulates such instances in which ‘the math of everyday’ is drastically inverted. One such moment, encapsulated in a landlord’s anxiety, returns once more to the question of ownership and property – ‘at the centre of that nervousness | is a precious oil | I must extract’. Elsewhere, other fleeting instances present more militant commitments and abolitionist visions:
another sentiment: at a poetry reading, someone spoke about their father, a prison screw in a colonial conflict. Pick one. He was executed by the other side. They said, after a moment, “Maybe he deserved to die.” Sometimes I wake up inside it. Turn what we usually feel inside out and you get close to it
Here, at the close of the collection, the reader is witness to the germinal moment of an unknown speaker expressing class treason – perhaps race treason – in condemnation of their own ancestors and in solidarity with the victims of a carceral and colonial regime. There’s a calm simplicity and directness to this statement, couched inside the uncertainty of its enjambed adverb. In syntax and in sentiment, it’s about as clear as Kiely’s writing allows. More than this, the stanza above encapsulates a gestural movement throughout the sequence towards a plural pronominal position and tentative mutual sentiment that much of the collection warily resists. As the declarative slogans of the 1990s used to say: ‘treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.’ Yet, as that hanging ‘maybe’ implies, by the end of the passage ‘we’ are still not in it, merely close to it.
> As a whole, simmering struggles ceaselessly to articulate relations between coloniality, race, and capital that resist direct encounter, and which instead must be inferred, approached, or otherwise approximated. Throughout ‘In It,’ these relations appear as an ‘enemy’ encountered at ‘amygdala level’; experienced as counterinsurgent attachments and sentiments; as desire for recognition and applause; as the hackneyed spectre of the cop in your head. As a measure of the internalised entrenchment of whiteness and property logic, Kiely’s ‘amygdala level’ might be understood as counterpart to Fanon’s account of the ‘epidermalization’ of anti-Blackness as the psychological internalisation of economic immiseration. Yet the fact that these moments are encountered only graspingly seems crucial to the function of the poetics and the politics of affinity outlined here. Throughout Incommensurable Poetry, Kiely is invested in poetic work that ‘is thoroughly of the world, damaged and fucked up by it,’ recognising specific capacities for knowledge in the imperfect, imprecise, or incomplete. His own work, too, lingers in such moments of fucking up; of becoming fucked up; of becoming unmoored. Gags repeatedly fail, clauses remain unfinished, rhyme exceeds its capacity to please. Seeking out that arid condition from which white subjectivity might begin to work toward forms of self-actualisation no longer premised on the degradation and slow death of others, failure is the constant state of the aspiring race traitor or accomplice.
> ‘How to Read’ self-consciously parodies the persistent impulse ‘to end on the smoothed out, patted down truism’, insisting ‘I can’t finish’ with a knowing smile. Yet an adamant and undaunted sincerity endures throughout simmering, refusing also to surrender the shards of earnest lyricism, formal dexterity, and defensive desire for expressive clarity that emerge sporadically across Kiely’s work. There remains a resistance to the gestural impasse of negative dialectics that have shaped so much recent radical poetry in the UK and Ireland; the tone of angst and abulia that Hayward’s ‘Poetry and Self-Defence’ seeks to move beyond. In King’s words, decolonisation is both an insurgent opposition to structures of mass death and simultaneously an ardent affirmation of life. Becoming undone and unmoored ‘is not just about the ascetic project of giving things up but fundamentally about creating new and pleasurable ways of living.’ Decolonisation and abolition, King articulates, means ‘also realising that the alternative can be much more pleasurable than the current situation that we are merely surviving.’ Hayward describes defensive poetry in similar terms, insisting that ‘a writing like this might help people to live instead of annually upgrading their experience of failing to.’ Echoing these words, ‘In It’ struggles to a close with a sentiment that shifts incrementally beyond merely reproducing life, grasping towards a world imagined otherwise. As an affirmation of the collective project of survival pending revolution, it’s about as close as Kiely comes to a declamatory statement: stolen from the simmering void:
although dying takes much time and commitment living is something some of us must do My friends: You are so much stronger Than you even know.
simmering of a declarative void is out now and available to order from the87press.
Text: Fred Carter