(FEATURE) Some Letters - Pt. 1, by Joe Luna
In the first of a three-part series, Joe Luna responds closely to some vital contemporary works which engage in themes from care and mental health to the poetics of trash, possibilities of community and the financialised sensorium of late-capitalism. The following four letters discuss Click Away Close Door Say by Verity Spott (Contraband, 2017), Scammer, by Dom Hale (the87press, 2020), Three Spiders Fucking, by Robin Purves (Broken Sleep Books, 2020), and Daybreak, by William Fuller (Flood Editions, 2020), in correspondence with the authors. Each book can be purchased from its publisher.
Joe Luna is the author of Air Hunger (Plea Press, 2018) and Development Hell (Hi Zero, 2020). He lives in Brighton.
14th June, 2017
Hallo dear, herewith some overdue and very likely undercooked notes on Click Away. I think it’s an extraordinary work. It captures and expresses an enormous pain, focusing it in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced in your work before, at least not in such depth, and certainly not on such a scale. The central dialectic of care worked through mental health, mental health institutions, psychoanalysis, sexuality, and love, is a deeply – I want to say – scary one; that way of putting it seems to capture the way in which the hurt in the poem can’t cohere around a central metaphor or set of metaphors, but is rather distributed across the nodal points like skin baked into a blanket. I believe there are arguments herein, though I’m not yet sure how important they are to the work, as compared to, say, Keston [Sutherland]’s work; his influence is more formally and structurally apparent than ever before here: the long-form project, the interjections of metrical- or pseudo-metrical specimens of lyric (mounted and exhibited in frozen form), the choice of a central organiszing object in the figure of Carl Rogers (with whom the poem is enchanted and disgusted), the opening diorama of a domestic object manipulated into kaleidoscopic dizziness, etc. But as I say, whether or not argument itself is as important to this work as it is to, say, Hot White Andy [(Barque Press, 2007)] or The Odes to TL61P [(Enitharmon, 2013)], I’m not sure; my sense is that it’s not, that the poem rather insists upon the ungovernable objectivity of the poem as much as it insists upon the ungovernable and incommensurable logic of the subject reduced to “person.” This distinction isn’t a neat one, but I think it might get us toward, say, a crucial distinction between Keston’s argumentative poetics and Click Away’s, in some ways, less performative prescriptions: if Keston’s poetics is a self-acknowledged and self-analysed Marxist poetics, is there something more akin to an anarchist poetics in Click Away, that is, a feeling of freedom buried under the social application of theory (e.g. most obviously in Click Away, psychoanalysis), rather than (in Keston[’s work]) the feeling of subjective straining as the irreducible condition of radical universalism? Straining in Click Away is not the blessedness it so often resembles in Keston’s work; it is not the promise of something that helps you grow; it can instead seem more like thrashing, with men waiting round the corner ready to tie you back down to the trolley once you’re done.
The lovely irony of the incorporation of psychoanalytical material in Click Away is this: that the institutionalisation of Rogers is met with the ungovernable form of the subject as opposed to its functionality, and it is psychoanalysis in its more Freudian/Kleinian/later queer theory iterations that provides precisely the coordinates for such a position. The person-centred approach is such a joke because ‘person’ is already conceptual exchange-value, bartered against the value of the social body; care is love struggling against its confines in the institution. The slow congelation into ‘policy’ is the enemy here, as I suppose it is, more cosmically, in Sean [Bonney]’s work; the dedication to the broken is the most moving of all the poem’s various loves: I hear this as much in the broken common metre of some of the lyric interjections (which sounds to my ears precisely like that universal that cannot be touched on p.41, a really beautiful iteration of nonconformist love) as in the explicit statements of solidarity with suffering that litter the poem.
And on which note, I find myself thinking this poem is less about the conditions of care under capitalism (which, via the influence already noted, I suppose I began by assuming), than it is about the sheer possibility of the communication of suffering. The poem wants (in both senses) the vectors of systematicity that it keeps throwing out of the pram. But it cannot have them: and this is the painful fount of its ability to make suffering, and sufferance, so recklessly available for perusal. I have a note in my copy of the book on p.26 that reads those last lines of the first section as a kind of admittance that the simplicity of the simplest feelings and the complexity of the social body simply can’t be reconciled in any one state of understanding, but can, and must, be felt along the empathetic imperative built into all your most beautiful work over the last few years. How do we begin by feeling another person’s pain? I love that in your work this question is emphatically not a phenomenological one, but is instead a question of labour – in this case care work – but also the labour of reading: to work through the disproportions inherent in infinite difference, from Yazidi women to their high-functioning autistic others. That puts to bed all the short-circuited statements of solidarity that emanate daily from everyone from Kae Tempest to David Cameron.
To zoom out a little: I feel close to Click Away because of its careful delineation of grief. It seems to be a central facet of the most important contemporary poetry that it mourns, without really knowing what it’s mourning, why, or for how long. Which makes psychoanalysis particularly useful and particularly risky to lean on. I suppose I would ask, do you feel like you want your work to critique such theory, or is such theory a necessary part of the construction of the social object of the poem? Or both? How do we make the urgency to be needed into the urgent generosity of care, with all its frailties and misconnections? What is poetry to be painful for? Why must it be? Do we even need to answer these questions, or are our poems already practicing them? I don’t know if these notes make any sense, but I’d love to know if they do or not. Do let me know when you can.
With lots of love,
27th June, 2019
I’ve had a chance to sit with Scammer properly now, and I wanted to send some brief thoughts on the achievement before I see you at the weekend – long overdue as they are anyway. I think you have made a singular and extra-ordinary object here, one that I’ve been super glad to wrap my head around in various states of excitement and tiredness over the last few days; yesterday in the library it came together and fell apart in a way that prompted some beginning thoughts on form and diagnosis that I think are pertinent, as well. The achievement is polyvalent but what I mean by extra-ordinary is that you are taking the imperative from [J.H. Prynne’s] Brass about rubbish as a condition and applying it with commitment to a moment and context in which attempts to analyse ‘where we are’ slide off the screen like so much grease on a windshield, and then you take that structure of contemporaneity and work it back into the form and flow of the poem, or rather, that’s where the form of the piece points for me, and why I think it such a fine and important poetics, the rub being (of course) that such a poetics does risk making scrap of its constituent parts as they are held together by the ache of their being held together. Let’s try to see what I mean.
Repetition, for example, obtains the status of glitch, or of minor crash (a little rainbow ball of death spinning on the screen of the text), and this provides a sort of organising principle that swiftly expands in the reading to encompass repetitions of ‘I’ and ‘and’ (because once you attribute the glitch status to the obvious instances, you start to see it everywhere), and here the sort of hyper-collage that the poem inherits from its formal teachers [Kevin] Davies, [Peter] Manson, and [Stephen] Rodefer come into full flow: you really have managed to digest these modes, I think — rare in a piece this long and accomplished — and learn from the way in which the atomisation of experience in these writers is not the reaction formation to the abolition of some fictional whole, but the formal imbrication of conditions of living as a method of fidelity to consumption (at least in, e.g., Golden Age, Adjunct and Four Lectures). I thought I could feel some spirit seeping through the mesh in pp.59-62, but I look back now and see puns and recapitulation and parallelisms that I didn’t see first time round, and I think maybe I projected such a thing as a residue of imagining such a movement in late Prynne. Wit here is the fugitive condition of knowledge, which is devolved and bundled up into its derivatives: punning repetition, acrobatic katabasis, anything to keep the whole in flux.
The best poetry does teach us how the form of life makes life (im-)possible, not how (only) life is translated into forms. I wrote this in my notebook at the end of your poem and I think what I mean is that poetry like Scammer is able to capture the affective flattening- out of computer -mediation but not stop there, as so much would, but to understand that such an affective equivalence is the engine of value-scraping and data-accumulation, and it does this because you thematise those parts of the occluded subject in subjection to the object they are inside: ‘Every clause / a tab against despair.’ In the onrush of zeal and futurity upon which the poem insists, the spirited insouciance here could easily be missed, but it is there nevertheless, quite possibly only in the line-break itself. The way that the poem insists on wit as the derivative of knowledge and pleasure is itself the medium through which the poem contains a pedagogy, and does so without reliance on the conservative principles of profoundly ancient wisdom that Rodefer always, at root, came back to. Now, this could get difficult, right, and I imagine that what you said recently about having to write more quietly recently is a direct result of the furrow you’ve been ploughing in Scammer – they must be related. I myself had a similar experience in the middle of the clusterfuck that was FAILCORE when I had a sort of lyric breakdown or tantrum and wrote ‘For the White Lake Blot’ in a sort of protest against my own constantly shedding skin. Mitchel Pass here in Brighton has been experiencing something similar, which resulted in the wonderful poem in the Z-fold [Aorta Blindness (Hi Zero, 2019)]. In any case, this is all to say that I recognise your current predicament. I realise I am treating the object as a single poem, which does it an injustice, but there we go.
I believe it’s important that our poems are negative all the way down. I am adapting something Keston said in an interview once, about his poems being ‘political all the way down.’ Only therein can the movement in fidelity to despair 1) be essentially just that, articulation of that which may not be ‘ours’ but is, in essence, communal and social and relational and ruined, and also 2) be the gift that is singularly poetic, that is the shape of our language in faults and breaks and gaps that speaks of and to its constant congealing into compromise. As I finished your poem in the library yesterday I felt it trying not to end, like all good poems do, the individual life just barely visible amid the meltwater, drowning not waving, and yet still capable of saying hello, of counting its friends and telling its moments, of knowing the basics. When I re-read the poem I now (since I started writing this e-mail) see these people more often, find the effort of the person seeding itself into the poem’s elegant maw, recognise the threads of strain that dilate now and then in the glitchy prosody. I do love this way of doing things, I identify with it, and I am trying to figure out how I start to write again having so comprehensively cannibalised myself in Air Hunger (I think Data for Exits is the burp after the meal). So I apologise for the projective identifications in this e-mail, of which I’m sure there are many, but I hope too that you hear my great enthusiasm for this work and what I want to call its fugitive means, running along the edge of the mid-year dynamo with eager urgency.
With all best,
12th August, 2020
Thank you for Three Spiders Fucking, I’ve read it twice through, and I think it’s a really fine and incisive work, decidedly powerful, unexpectedly crystalline and brutalist in part, elegiac and diagnostic all at once, a maximal piece of sharp-as-glass minimalism. I hear [Prynne’s] Down Where Changed in some of its cadences, Wilkinson’s Proud Flesh but stripped to the bone, fragments of others here and there, perhaps some W.S. Graham hovering in the wings: nevertheless the prosody feels very much in tune with itself, and not begging after references as I’m sure I’m wont to do, so that whilst I can hear all sorts of echoes and hinterlands and quotations throughout, the verses nevertheless hold in frame a mourning specifically their own, the imputed bitterness of which is taken up into the tonal range of the book and not dissipated but sort of baked in to the whole: at many points and overall, as well, I had the feeling that André Green helpfully names as (something like) ‘object loss as a fundamental constituent of reality,’ and not just for the baby, but forevermore, so that the unbearable anti-pastoral (un-pastoral?) at the end of the book is the new re-growth that’s been, as it were, super-fermented by the loss that suffuses and, in a terrible, unwanted gift, nevertheless almost provides a world (‘Depression on earth’s surface / Is bounded by faults I declare, / Moving around the hospital / Heated by fermenting manure’). There is a narrative of mourning as I see it in the book, a psychological narrative but one given its coordinates by literary mediation/confirmation and intensity – so Orpheus is something like the original agony, the dream sequence/reportage its recapitulation into interpretation and self-churn, and the Rilkean elegy the dialectical formalisation and transcendence of both, after which the person is left in the unenviable state of heightened affective responsivity that denotes a massive irretrievable wound, and we can joke about it, too (‘stay with me, guys’).
The precision of naming our losses as a condition of continuance takes up so much life and time, it’s difficult to broach as a subject of wider concern. Without meaning to identify your own personal pain or to claim any comparison, I have felt something like a compositional comradeship with this feeling, and it was the deep motivational grammar of the poems in Air Hunger. Those ‘Communist children,’ I wonder if they have a chance. I don’t know if I’m getting off-track here, but how to account for losses so fundamental when the poets won’t even open their own ribcages for inspection? Or maybe they’re too eager to do so, dripping blood all over the floor, as Denise Riley proposed happened when Sean [Bonney] and Keston read [together in Falmouth, in 2012]. I’ve been thinking about that dream [in your poem] and what it means in the context of the book, and it doesn’t seem like a satire of abstruseness or hermeticism (after all, ‘No clear statement is possible’) as much as the poets’ unwillingness (or inability) to be as raw and uncooked as they insist they want to be? I remember your critique of Justin Katko’s student movement poems early last decade, in terms of Justin’s poem rather sheepishly half-claiming to want the poet to be martyred. I wonder if there is an urgency here for the means and methods of mourning to learn more from poems, rather than kill/fill the poems with despair? I think I’m really spit-balling now. When I wrote about Anna Mendelssohn a few years ago, I thought that the destructive impulses in the poems were there to clear the ground, to make the possibility of community possible again even after the absolute decimation of the subject in need of solidarity, since that was the only place it could be made as decisively and as faithfully as possible, having borne faithful witness through lament. I feel something similar in your book, though it’s nothing like Mendelssohn’s dissonant and often endlessly self-recursive mourning. Rather, the elegy of Three Spiders Fucking is sharper and quicker, partly in its brevity, partly in the use that it makes of that brevity as a snatching for the accuracy of the particular other person – again I’m thinking specifically of the stanza beginning ‘Depression on earth’s surface,’ the second half of which implies that the heart sore is both everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous and absolutely singular, and in both cases inaccessible though utterly private and personal. There is a very careful and honest speaking to the dead at the end of the stanza – ‘Except in the rest / Of the universe and / Your own nature which / In a minute gave way,' and whilst I don’t know the particular Rilke used in this section, the fact of its translation mediates the intimacy in a way that makes the verse more intimate by not claiming the absoluteness of the experience, but rather dramatising its present inaccessibility; the vowels in ‘In a minute gave way’ open up that nature, that idiom, as it disappears from view. It is a very moving and powerful moment, I think, and feel.
Lots of love, and hope to see you in the not so distant future.
13th August, 2020
Daybreak is fantastic. This letter’s been difficult to start because the book has really completely bowled me over and I’ve kept needing to collect my thoughts, right before they disperse again on contact with anything resembling an order to put them in or a form to fit them into. The book is luminous and singular and magic, its adventures in un-knowledge inseparable from its minutiae of ur-knowledge and everything else in between, thought fugitively catching up with itself or its dazzling shadow, crystal in the wind. From start to finish I find myself completely taken in and turned around, again and again, and I think this book furthermore turns around the masterful laconic derivational syntax of Playtime, and creates something new again, really right out of the starting gate with ‘Tractate’ and all the way through to ‘Windowpane’'s stunning finale. The deep grammar here moves beyond even the virtuoso multi-dimensional flow-charts of Playtime to create complex systems depicting the future ever caught up in what it doesn’t resemble in the here and now, and yet elusive and brilliant and almost, just now and then, shimmering free – as in the ‘glitter of adjacent dimensions’ discernible through Ayler. Yes, and if I had to posit a positive nodal point from which coils up and springs into light in such moments something like a screen of possibility emerging from the tendency of things to cancel out the conditions of their others in the very process of becoming them, it would indeed be devotion – a word I think you actually use here but I can’t immediately this morning locate – and devotion which I think is striated across the work and perhaps even allows it to exist. It is a more loving book than Playtime I think, because more risky and unmanageable and insane, or maybe it’s the case (how could it not be, as well) that I’ve grown with your work over the last few years and am now fully inside it with you, trying to write a genealogy of where my feelings went.
It is, I think, still my contention that the writing here really deepens and broadens the poetics of a financialized historical moment and sensorium, and represents and is a poetics deeply adequate to a world-moment in thrall to data modelling and the extraction of value therefrom, and this little thesis of mine might finally do away with what has perhaps become the unwieldy ascription to the work of irony, however multi-layered; and yet there is clearly much more than a diagnostic hard rain in these clouds of unknowing, there’s something like an implausible program of relentless re-discovery of thought’s movement away from domination, wistfully, lugubriously, sadly, so that no theoretical account of the conditions of the verse from even an excellent summarist of its temporal backflow like Joseph Vogl (e.g., and almost at random, ‘Having banked on an endlessly distended future while at the same time using up its resources, we find that the present use of the future has exhausted the reserve of time currently at our disposal’) can account for the sheer proliferation of thought at the edges of unreason in Daybreak, the light spilling over the sill. This, I think, is how I’ve come to think about a poetics in tune with the most abstract processes of life-determination in the world we live through, that is, because of its tonality, is thus able to produce a beautiful dissonance: that knowledge is produced despite, throughout, and within the very processes that determine its capture and evaluation as merely one appendage of financialized homo economicus. New life spills out of your poems as a function of the accumulated intensity of thoughtful pressing into the language to describe it. It really does work like that, I think, somehow the audacity of making new things appear can be registered as audacity because the prospect of an encounter (or a ‘bowl’) is held out with such baffling precision, whilst the idea itself is always brighter for being half-obscured.
‘Windowpane’ of course is the final movement par excellence, and within it, we achieve something like a handle on the conundrum motivating much of the work and its contours, I think: ‘The difficulty was this, that winding among us were extra forms just below the level of attention, at a threshold complicit in what we think we recall as opposed to what we try to reconstruct, a relation in other words, of weakened shadows to faded light. Each quarter we’d reserve against that, but it was never enough.' Now here is something like a description of the poetics, too, a hedging against the intensely new and original feeling that nevertheless reveals the outline of that feeling against the sunlight of the day bearing down on us. How to begin a critique of this work that does justice to its achievement? This is what I’ve been thinking the last couple of weeks, especially, as I jot down notes and try to get this letter underway. What does the form of inquiry do to the object of knowledge, and is it ever the same after any initial attempt? Can proliferation per se become a metaphysics of comforting resignation, the endless ways of not being sure calcifying into a fetish of sheer process without dynamic range or tension? Or does that inquiry itself miss the point, because proliferation in the poems hardly ever feels per se in the first place, since the great risk of this poetry is that it stakes its entire existence on the possibility that it could spiral into and out of those subterranean forms and thus inoculate the day with them, so that as readers we have to attend not to the instances of syntactical deep networks but to what they discover in surprise or, as I mentioned earlier, devotion? I don’t know any other poetry of the day that can deliver such bright surprises, emerging out of their creative overdetermination at the margins, the fully-justified prose blocks resolutely refusing to be broken down into parts that could be re-aligned or put back together, and yet requiring a readerly attention that can experience the text laterally and through each clausal loophole at the same time as pressing on into the day from start to finish. So that I feel in a sort of shimmering time capsule when I read the book, and not just when I’m stoned either, the multi-dimensional clausal proliferation sending me back behind the conditions of one thought, only as another approaches to greet it, and this process itself becomes an object that I want to look at, to turn around and over, to talk about.
Is there Blake on the horizon, or in the landscape, here? Just that I delved back into some of his longer works recently and felt a comparable dimensionality in the formal architecture: that he employs a scalar economy of, in his case, stanzaic means, re-aligning the contact points of the fluid symbolism as need be, from moral to historical to allegorical – could this kind of methodology profitably set aside the ways in which Daybreak treats the sentence in justified prose, as it ‘moves to frame what came before it, knowing there must be more to do, sailing on the verbal sea’? I see more explicit reference points here, too, like the Wyatt, and I’d love to know who and what else was spilling out of the shelves during the composition? More Husserl, and/or others? And there is a dynamism to the dissonance in some of the poems that makes me think of Dom Hale’s work, I wonder if you’ve felt the influence of some of that energy, and of Keston’s prose blocks, too? I’m dying to send you some recent work of mine, in exchange and gratitude, and will do as soon as I get the proofs back from Ian. I wonder, too, how important the visual is for you in terms of making or thinking about these poems? Do you think of diagrams of the possible systems the pages make, do you sketch these out like data visualization? Again they point for me to that kind of condition of knowledge, of that which is birthed in the algorithms in order to know what’s next and to model it, ‘And so we go and so we follow ourselves down into the habit of stuffing ourselves with nearby organisms, each of us seeking the endpoint of sallow foreknowledge in dismembered reasoning.’ Because only once this picture is painted can the ‘light foam offsite in dreams.’ It’s an extraordinary book. How do you feel about it, and how it sits with your others, especially Playtime?
There is so much more to say, and I look forward to finding the means to say it. And in the meantime, please indulge the sweetness of my unexpressed ideas, and forgive the bitterness of any that miss the whole shebang entirely.
With love from the other end of the elongated spheroid,
Text: Joe Luna