(SPAM Cuts) ‘Circuitous’ by Samantha Walton
In the first SPAM Cut of 2019, Fred Carter explores the Anthropocenic poetics of bodily trauma, personism and scale shift in Samantha Walton’s poem ‘Circuitous’, which you can read for free here.
> ‘The poem was a zippy discourse circus,’ says Rachel Blau DuPlessis, as she recalls buying Frank O’Hara’s Second Avenue at Shakespeare & Co, Paris, 1964. ‘Being inside’ the poem, she writes,
was like living in an alternative mind, inventing elaborated, baroque-ish narrative skits […] a show-offy zeal that took place as language urgency […] “unreadable” and totally syntactic.
Picking up Samantha Walton’s Self Heal in Lighthouse Books, Edinburgh, at the tail end of a less-electric year, the collected work instantly brought to mind DuPlessis’s breathless, effervescent recollection of O’Hara.
> As a collection, Self Heal has a comparable sense of dizzy-carousel, shape-shifting discursive spectacle. Facetiously intimate, formally vernacular, metrically dextrous, and avidly accessible all at once, the poems live in an extended state of language urgency. Walton’s ‘Circuitous’ – which thrums with acute details, astute colloquialisms, and cute lyricisms – knowingly channels O’Hara’s distinctive, ironised chatter:
Sunlight is streaming through the antique glaze
& My love for you is galling you state, over lemon polenta cake I’m paraphrasing now, but it’s something like, I am a bore-hole, & must be plumbed for minerals & despised
Yet here the lyric pivots, takes a turn into a world of higher stakes. Personal exchange and relative affluence are plunged into a vaster domain of longer-lasting extractive harm, registering the material consequences ‘deferred for modernity’s sake’. This unsettling volta also marks a scalar shift into planetary and geologic terms:
Why not just say – the water born from the rock is cool but you have been raped by industry & in many ways unnaturally encased?
In a deft rhetorical manoeuvre, the personist register slips into an apostrophic address to mineralogical resources. As Margaret Ronda puts it in her recent Remainders, lyric poetry in the thick of climate collapse often invests ‘apostrophe and prosopopoeia with new proportions’ in knee-jerk response to the emergent scalar derangements of environmental devastation.
> Throughout ‘Circuitous,’ however, this pervasive background of precarity, catastrophe, and epochal change threatens to soak into every fibre and rhetorical device. Colliding bodily trauma with biophysical and technological environments, recursive ‘injuries beep down the blackened feeding tube’; the current digital currency of ‘data’ is never quite cleansed of this material damage, indelibly marked by its ‘clarty’ origins. Rephrasing Marx rephrasing Augier: data, too, comes dripping with blood and dirt.
> Harm, thought of at the scale of the planet and of global capital, appears as a familiar and constant pressure on the terms of personal harm that exemplify the expressivist lyric. In ‘Circuitous,’ ‘nerve-ache’ nestles next to ‘flood’ while another poem in Self Heal complains, plaintively and wryly in equal measure, ‘I can’t love under these conditions’. Personism and introspection constantly threaten to topple over into reflections of environmental damage and exploitation. Still, extracting a handful of demonstrative citations that point to catastrophe scarcely does justice to the persistent sprezzatura and elastic linguistic flourish with which Walton’s poetry handles such terms.
> ‘Circuitous’ forces together disparate discourses with unnerving prosodic ease, far removed from the anxiety, opaque allusion, and syntactic disjuncture that has come to be associated with the contemporary ‘negative’ lyric. Elsewhere in the collection, ‘Poem for You’ yearns to write ‘with a point of reference […] which is you, not the rhetorical you’; frankly ‘tired of problematising’ the lyric self. On balance, Walton’s work seems to levy the complicity of late capitalist catastrophic harm at the feet of personal lyric and ‘innovative’ diffractive tactics alike.
> There’s nothing intrinsically defunct, these poems seem to suggest, about the lyric mode. Indeed, on re-reading, ‘Circuitous’ appears to tap into a lyric tradition that stretches far further back than 1960. The sunlight ‘streaming through the antique glaze’ refracts the ‘unruly sunne’ that once called ‘through windowes, and through curtaines’ to remind Donne’s speaker of a world beyond the private; a reminder that the O’Hara, too, saw himself writing personal poetry in the metaphysical tradition. In this sense, Walton sets out a series of ‘discordia concors’ in 17thcentury manner, yoking together discordant scales and affective registers; ‘the restive galaxy pushing on a string’ is pure Donne, ‘& thick-haunched bee’ pure Marvell.
> While the poem shuttles between the personal and the planetary, the private and the political, Walton appears equally as comfortable raiding the metaphysics for formal flourishes as the ‘linguistic turn’ that succeeded the New American poets. Still, the closing lines of poem return circuitously to O’Hara, echoing the light and economical metrical tread of Lunch Poems:
We pay up & the soles of I touch with my feet which correspond to the street really are responsible for the global tarnishing & prophetic rumblings of the tectonic plates beneath
Here, the poem comes to a close with an exhilarating scalar expansion, via the contemporary conceit of the ‘carbon footprint,’ from the individual step to the ‘prophetic rumblings’ of the Anthropocene. As the speaker turns to pay the bill for polenta cake, the lyric recognises the geologic agency of human activity. From the ‘solid ground’ of the opening line ‘Circuitous’ completes its circular movement to find only instability in ‘tectonic plates beneath’. Yet the thrill of ‘Circuitous’ – of Self Heal as a whole – is its affirmation of self; of carelessness; of love, despite complicity in acts of ‘global tarnishing’.
> Tired of problematising, ‘Circuitous’ is refreshingly un-hung-up on overworked critiques of lyric, offering instead a ‘baroque-ish’ alternative of versification at its most diverse, its most urgent, and at its fullest stretch. As DuPlessis wrote of reading Second Avenue in 1964:
No crises of judgment in relation to decisions. No angst! Just an insistence on scale that here seemed out of proportion to the casual intensity.
Text: Fred Carter
Image: Maria Sledmere