(REVIEW) Spandrel Routine by Jack Belloli
Responding to Jack Belloli’s recent pamphlet, Spandrel Routine (Broken Sleep, 2019), Mau Baiocco and Gloria Dawson engage in a hybrid dialogue of poetry and criticism that explores the politics and poetics of resisting disclosure’s privilege while looking for expansiveness and queer possibility in the lyric.
This is my first response:
what love’s your birthwrong disrupted, dis ordered on life
plan, I never meant to love a nation. patriotism
covered with moss always parasites itself on care to mention wind
piles enjambed with common sense, due purpose, claw
terses against verses. terse versus lack, denial or feeling? generous confessional
needing to be right about it. something this morning takes down that frame;
you do not have to be right about it, or right, or about, or it, or about it,
writing boats about herons about land about it, back, shore.
> Rest and unrest; the pivot of all these poems’ care and attention, the equivocation of time and desire. The pamphlet’s epigraph, from Thom Gunn’s poem ‘The Life of an Otter’, describes the animal’s multifarious activity as ‘functional but as if gratuitous’. This also stands (or rather moves) as a pivot throughout these restrained meditations, all formed of unrhymed couplets.
> In that same poem, Gunn outlines the otter’s body, ‘of which the speed contains its own repose.’ This is another opening of rest/unrest. Belloli’s careful lyric has this dual motion of turning in and turning out – the ‘out’ is the open field and the ‘in’ is an often surprising, unsettling, ambiguous closure:
The close watch watches me fold,
not a saint but a rabbit.
In this poem, ‘endued’, negation unfolds from closure into opening. ‘Not to’ is the refrain, almost to the point of non-meaning, but something about the couplets and the breath makes ‘not to’ into a doing of its own motion:
– and not,
Despite all that, to long for
a throat that could do it all,
This tight reaching place of ‘not to’ breaks through to ‘to come to to thought…. To have to have this morning’, and again ‘to have to’ feels both a compulsion and a submission. Negation and refusal wind the poems around themselves. In ‘disenchanted’, this appears as a dissection of the politics of ‘dating’:
refuses to say I love you, not in
this syllable, or the next. It’s
rider gets off, while a stranger buys
a stranger vodka, and the exercise
resumes by the sides of the track.
And from ‘cradled’:
If the work
makes us into history, we made
it here in beaten vessels
But what is the work? And what is the rest, is it after the work is done? When does it begin again? There is rest in unrest, ‘here lies the rest, a hot pocket’. Rest as remainder, and remainder as response. Belloli is consciously keeping the open field of linguistic meaning wide, albeit in a careful way. For example, a line like ‘we made it here in broken vessels’ displays Belloli’s rest/unrest as both ‘we made a thing here’, but also the ‘we made it’ of a journey. This second sense is more drawn on by the vessels, but their brokenness suggests also a flawed making, or a making that is also a breaking. Belloli is working to make an open poetry within the constraint of an unrhymed couplet. Constraint but also restraint; there’s much that feels artful and constructed in these poems. His use of the architectural term ‘spandrel’ (the triangular space in a rectangular-framed arch) is one indication of Belloli’s self-awareness in this constructing method. I’d like to see his wilder poems, a bit more abandon – I think as well as contemplating, his word-work could also dance.
> In the afterword, Belloli calls Spandrel Routine ‘poems that sit on the edge of prayer’. How are these poems like prayer? Firstly, repetition and development in repetition. Read slowly, ‘with care’, give attention. Slowed-down language for contemplation. I am reminded of Simone Weil, holy outsider, who conveyed to us in her writings both an extraordinary devotion and extraordinary uncertainty in relationship to God.
> I appreciate the trust that Belloli shows us in his candid afterword for the poems, in which he half-glosses them with his experience of God, the frameworks of the Church of England and his queerness. I can’t really work out if the poems need this explanation, but perhaps he needs it. It’s an apologia in the sense of an explanation but I also wonder if adding an explicitly confessional gloss on the work is also doing some obscuring of it. Even without the apology, these poems feel troublingly erotic (and isn’t the erotic always trouble?). Reading them as I did in a few weeks alongside work by Essex Hemphill, Thom Gunn, Derek Jarman and Verity Spott, my word-feelings never fell far from the odours of queer sexuality, a sexuality which, as Belloli intricately and obliquely reminds us, often doesn’t fuck. And though it would be tempting to read this as a repressed, hide-bound relic of the Church and closet before queer liberation saved us all, the fact of queer sexual life is still in a register of non-sex. If I feel ambivalent about Belloli’s afterword it’s because I feel like it’s a different task from the task of being with these poems to take on the questions Belloli is asking us and himself about the ethics of queer sexuality within the Church of England, and I feeling so strongly that poetry’s aboutness should not be easily glossed. These poems remind me of Jacob’s ladder, not the one from heaven but the delightful, perplexing wooden toy with ribbons. I really could write so much about them; I’m grateful for their work and their unrest. Here’s my second poem in response:
The beauty in here is to write, undeterred the rest is fictional, accountable
a cloud when first I wake I never knew haptic, being
dispelled against who got me a penny loaf thought bun
surging a sturdy light weight to balance earth. shocked, alarmed
all of us in the night net once in the same railway arch.
why is being having been forgotten? remembered, heaving
turned into a carpet with a blessing, kissed the substrate
of carpet thighs tattoos around eyeing up the scene.
> I am into the way that your own disclosure at the end—that your reading list this month does as much to secure a ‘queered lyric environment’ as do the poems we are talking about here—sort of upturns my own tendency to only read the queering of these poems as happening somewhere as a syntactical conceit. As a way things are indiscriminately held together in meditation, and the speaking bodies (because I think the lyric in Spandrel Routine is inexorably speaking from the body and is never absent from this circumstance, with bits everywhere: ‘Alarm well after 0638 / to make mean with the day, to cox / a torso off of its chicken legs’) are allowed to press in on one another, despite the rendered distances, the uncertainty & motility of making such movements. We were, to be sure, arriving at what would be queer from opposite angles! And I guess the appendage gives me what my impoverished + very not-queer lyric environment of late fails to do. It was useful. It primed me for a different way of negotiating Spandrel Routine: honing on its flat flexibility (taking after Common Worship?) which here, I think, does the queer work of not privileging disclosure, making a dramatic entrance of what was formerly marginal or relegated to subtext. It is just kind of, texturally, allowed to be everywhere—everywhere the poems reach out i.e. ‘To find you / twice over, under the sodium lights’. There is something suggestive that keeps popping out, ‘tongue of straw flowing / still over tightened molars’, ‘the oils and pegs you want, / the pearls, the quotes to have all / storms at the neck’.
> In speaking with you specifically I am always readily asking: what would be the political ends of this writing? Could it be either walking back into the closet through not doing/undoing the markers of what we know to be queer political literature? Is the appendage a way to amend this? Is it expansive otherwise? And finally: how much can we ask of these out of the lyric, which has run hot as a site of queer possibility for as long as we have imagined it to be the ‘thing’ (say, from Sappho to O’Hara) but is now the privileged mode for staid disclosure, relatability as a quantifiable metric, ‘I felt that’ w/e—a crisis no smaller than that which befalls ‘the novel’ or other historical forms nowadays (a problem we will never get a hold of until everyone writes a lyric, or a novel, or both; it’s not an intellectual problem ultimately).
> Contents, voice, body, address, citation, splayed out happening at once. They all seem to me to come from a place which is plainly dialogic where no part is alienable from another. I’m thinking of a poem like ‘secured’:
We divide up the ribs of
the bed. The vault above
these mews is broken into with stars; the night breaks
the landing out in feathers. We stay each other, to each
our celibate particles, and in our sleeps we con the parts
most local to us, the gaits and executions that leave
us lots of listed worth.
I like the cosmic reach between the stars and ‘the parts/most local to us’, I like how it’s speaking to me in a voice that is plainly double, that somehow I’m being stayed (as in rest, as in a stay of execution?) or conned and that whoever/whatever is behind the doing is agentially displaced among all the particles, which might just be in language as easily as in the physical world. There is such an emphasis on doubleness as a type of familiarity, even duplicity so that the poems ‘Play at flailing / fresh: play for a spark to shatter / the precint’. It’s a ‘permeating thing’ that would hold the event of transformation. I would not forget that wherever the politics, genre, lyric & queerness are headed this is also a record of prayer. Any of those things would catch one unawares. I feel—and no doubt is how I am drawn to what’s happening in Spandrel Routine—that form and politics will always have the feeling of a tease to them at the moment of their emergence.
Spandrel Routine is available from Broken Sleep Books.
Text: Mau Baiocco & Gloria Dawson