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  • Michael Black

(SPAM Cuts) 'leaf person' by Callie Gardner

A road sign called 'Hythe Rd' is visible under a thick overhang of pink flowers atop a brown wooden fence.
Image: Maria Sledmere

Michael Black unearths an archive and understory of precarity in this SPAM Cut of Callie Gardner’s poem, ‘leaf person’, published by the87Press for their ‘Digital Poetics’ series.

‘Hythe’ is Old English, meaning a haven or landing place; it connotes security, or the possible withholding of hospitality. The word can be used figuratively, but 'hythe' also means a harbour. Its metonym, a town in Kent, was blighted by the bubonic plague in 1348 and in 1400. Hythe is also the name used by independent publisher, the87Press, for its online forum, which published ‘leaf person’ by Callie Gardner in August 2020, for the 14th instalment of the 87’s ‘Digital Poetics’ series. In Of Hospitality (1997), Anne Dufourmantelle wrote that Derrida’s ‘poetic hospitality’ searched for that which ‘does not belong to the order of the day, the visible, and memory’ (Derrida and Dufourmantelle, trans. Rachel Bowlby, 2000). She adds: while this Derridean hospitality intimates a ‘silence around which discourse is ordered, and that a poem sometimes discovers’, there can yet be no ‘unveiling’ because of ‘language’s moment of effacement’. This tension is manifest in the87Press’ use of Hythe as semantic basis for a digital poetic platform. This online space makes possible ‘poetic hospitality’ without seeking to order the discourse it proliferates.

Gardner’s poem is far from conventionally silent, though. It teaches us that being sensitive to a precarious living situation is key to understanding ‘leaf person’. It begins in a scene of nature where nature will be problematised, as it so often is in Gardner’s work: ‘walking in the woods, i read a leaf person, / a jenny haniver of the forest floor’. Jenny Haniver refers to an artificially dried out and preserved carcass of a ray or a skate, designed to look like a basilisk or dragon. They proved popular in the early modern period, especially marketable among seafarers.

Jenny Haniver is an Anglicisation of ‘Jeunes d’Anvers’, French for ‘a youth from Antwerp’, because the Belgian Port was one of the sites where there was a market for these grotesque items. Taxidermy, taxonomy, mythology and poetry unite somehow through the figure of the Jenny Haniver in Gardner’s poem. Alongside this market, there was a growing tendency, among zoologists and pseudoscientists, to illustrate the Jenny Haniver, to anthropomorphise it, making it into a sea monk or bishop, or something more like a mermaid. Many examples are available from google image searches; I will leave you to seek out these images should you wish. Needless to say, they do not look like creatures you want to meet.

Gardner’s imagery is not hopeful about housing markets, because the Jenny Haniver is a rent in the ‘leaf person’ of the poem:

a jenny hanniver of the forest floor, their mouth a ripped-up rictus of matter or paper, whichever worsens the houseprice worser, when we all know bay leaves they leave beliefs. the text offers you a tissue but it’s merely a sad old approximation – a minimum in this time –

The gentrifying ‘bay leaves’ scarcely offer any inspiring ‘beliefs’, only making the sound of two puns which sap the term ‘leaf person’ from having much energy.

Attending conferences and writing academic essays, the poem finds itself ‘unconscious’, self-consciously mocking, rather than listening to the motions of intellectualism:

unconscious, I swam into the kettle of the mind’s eye, a floatsome, jectsome harp on about the keynote squeaker, whose paws in questioning clasped a slim vibration, a resonant phrase whose meaning tended to be mistaken. narrow woods shout through the city in vein attempts to judge themselves the heart of the matter. and I felt like i new […]

A weak, minute kind of pastoral becomes entangled with urban space. There seems to be little chance for precise communication amongst the pauses and verbose authority of intellectualism.

Towards the end of the first section of the poem, into the second and third, the lines of poetry become more fragmented, white space becoming part of the typographical layout:

this was often assumed, that they offered arcane transport from the arrived world, where we lay, stupefied, law-kissed, milk-drunk, and awaiting the Christ child to come with my parcel. sorry we missed you.

The news that a parcel could not arrive is presented in the fragmented voice of an ‘ostrakon’. It conjures up an ancient kind of graphic and verbal defacement that makes broken pieces of pottery one’s own. In archaeology, ostraca are broken shards of larger earthenware on which words or images have been scratched or marked with simple, direct techniques. Most of the surviving examples come from Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt. Sometimes they seem to contain very private messages, but they also had a votive function in Ancient Greek democracy, used as political instruments. What might be lost here is the opportunity for the ‘leaf person’ to inscribe themselves in acts of meaningful political expression. Instead there is only the constant traffic of consumer-surveillance capitalism.

In the image of the ‘Christ child’ delivering a parcel, there is a bathetic or subversive treatment of the Judaeo-Christian idea of the second coming. Like many critics, when thinking of history as messianic, I keep returning to Walter Benjamin’s figure of the angel of history that corresponds to the Golem in Judaism, a figure also engaged by Paul Klee's painting, Angelus Novus (1920). In ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), Benjamin wrote of the Klee painting that the angel’s ‘face is turned toward the past’:

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. […] This storm is what we call progress. (Trans. Hannah Arendt)

Where I think Gardner’s poem is Benjaminian is through its sense that no poetic litany, incantation, or historical archive can be sufficient to capture unstoppable material and –– in the context of ‘leaf person’ –– ecological, financial and environmental destruction. The site of the ‘treehouse’ in the poem does not offer a grounding support to withstand the worsening house price, it merely:

belies a fatal disconnection from the threads that web together the world under the moon, motionable and peripatetic by nurture, but guarded as a consequence of the merry-go-town or upland, down […]

Gardner avoids making the anxiety wrought by increasing rent prices, merely a matter of markets, choosing to explore our relation to place within psychoanalytic categories like the unhomely. One of their great inspirations, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, also attested to the difficulties of poetry to address itself to the expectation to communicate, writing in ‘Literary Historian’ (1971):

I remember them saying, these poems, their something for someone at sometime for me too, at one time.
That got in the way; so I sent them away back into history–– just temporarily.

Poetry can only address itself back into history, or engage a sense of the future ‘temporarily’ and provisionally. This might be what makes poetics precarious, and is a central tenet within Gardner’s poetics of economic precarity.

In the second section, ‘leaf person’ adopts a lyric chorus: ‘paeans, the song of souls’, remembering a time before immense urbanisation, before ‘parks are fiddle, / cities are smut’: ‘recreation. queens, kings, lords and merchants. / dedicated ground, battle-soaked, brittle-titled, iron clad, sign-posted’.

Another of Forrest-Thomson’s poems is entitled ‘Not Pastoral Enough’. Similar to the semantics in this title, ‘leaf person’ conveys dissatisfaction that nature might never be satisfying:

you can read leaves, even if you cannot speak them; needle’s a kind of leaf, although somehow it never seems vertible enough. trees are a pyramid scheme anyway, free debt to the earth

What is ‘free debt’ given ‘to the earth’? It isn’t part of capitalist debt between large nation states, nor a ‘pyramid scheme’ forgetting the deep time of trees. It is different from what we usually think debt is: hierarchical, prescriptive, bound by schedule, inescapable. In contrast, Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey talk of another kind of debt opposed to the extension of permanent ‘credit’:

It is not credit we seek nor even debt but bad debt which is to say real debt, the debt that cannot be repaid, the debt at a distance, the debt without creditor, the black debt, the queer debt, the criminal debt. Excessive debt, incalculable debt, debt for no reason, debt broken from credit, debt as its own principle. (Moten and Harvey, 2003)

The impressionistic movement of these words is open to endless reformulation. Moten and Harvey seem to capture the cycles of deprivation of struggle in a precarious, neo-liberal casualisation of work. Fred Moten read at the87Press' recent VOCABUBBLERS event. These kinds of ‘debt’ are both local and international –– I think it is something similar that Gardner is aiming at when mentioning ‘free debt / to the earth’.

In the final third section, the ‘leaf person’ becomes a ‘bookish / natural sun’, quite possibly a filial, familial pun, but also a solar presence who finds ‘no leaves remaining / to be overturned’. There does not seem to be hopeful sunlit photosynthesis in the ‘sacred revelation’ put forward, because it comprises ‘the shadows of / praying hands’ and rapid identity shifts, when individuals are ‘changing their names’ with each career ‘advance’. However, in some lines, there is a more positive commitment to speech that conveys truth directly. In the absence of a ‘resurrection’, one must be a ‘belief person; get thee to a mummery, carry / on the show – more content, more argument, another verso’. Yet even then there might be ludic, ironic distancing, a deferral of commitment and a sense of provisional belief. Both academia and social media are tackled here; it isn’t clear if this is sage advice or not, to partake in a ‘mummery’. Lastly, there is a pleasing attention to the discrete and particular in this last section. The ‘leaf person’ becomes ever more ‘bookish’ and typographical:

a text unweaves in reverse, each letter made of leaves, each leaf hoarding a library in each cell, which is where the monks worked patiently at their washing of skins, and their illuminations.

The ‘leaf person’ promises to divest subjectivity of algorithmic logic through sensitivity to each minute bit of text. Instead of data, there is recognition of ‘some / character i know in the leaf-face, reversed, as elsewhere / in the building a bell is heard to ring’. The scholastic and empathetic impulse is shown to withstand occasionally necessary diversions into a ‘mummery’. It’s about being a relieved person.

Text: Michael Black

Published: 11/6/21


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