We’ll Photograph Everything | John Clegg brings light to the ‘obscure small epics’ of JH Prynne

 JH Prynne
Poems
Bloodaxe £25.00

For dent inflict yet amuse enamel will livid exceed
tactic nursing humid loss, nolore even alert at numb
unwind entry. Level ground pacific inversion has
wasted trapper, has few slicks. Run out portal upper

What is anyone to make of this – one of seventy-two quatrains, each beginning with a capital letter but only occasionally ending on a full stop, given as apparently a single continuous poem under the title Streak ~~~ Willing ~~~ Entourage/Artesian? Clearly, it’s unreadable in any conventional sense. There is no surprise, because the syntactic units are too small to provoke any expectation. Connections exist only between individual words. This quatrain, for instance, seems to contain a large number of words connected to dentistry: ‘dent’, ‘enamel’, ‘livid’ (as in the colour), ‘nursing’, ‘portal’ (pushing it a bit). ‘Inflict yet amuse’ (nitrous oxide to mollify pain?), ‘level’, ‘numb’, ‘pacific’, ‘wasted’, all draw on the vocabulary of anaesthetics, each word giving the same experience a different tone or vantage point. What about the ‘trapper’? Of course, one’s ‘trap’ is one’s mouth (‘shut your trap’); and returning briefly to the anaesthetics, urbandictionary.com defines ‘trapper’ as ‘a drug dealer’ (in an entry from 2005, and Streak ~~~ Willing ~~~ Entourage/Artesian was published in 2009). ‘Slicks’ might be a trademarked brand of ‘matrix bands’, for smoothly removing an impression made of a patient’s teeth. And perhaps they ‘unwind’ (or need to be unwound) as they are applied.

As ever in late Prynne, you must shift for yourself; if the words are to strike sparks off each other it is the reader who must wield them into relation. Syntax is sometimes given longer runs than this (and even in this excerpt, the sentence beginning ‘Level ground…’ is syntactically intelligible), but since the syntactical relations between the words appear to be random this is no help. The occasional excursuses into narrative or causal organization, intermittently visible in Prynne’s earlier work, no longer appear; where, before, structure existed only to be subverted, now it scarcely exists at all. There is no commerce with the reader, and any commerce with the world is granted only through the poet’s tacit avowal. If we had a sense of the process by which this stuff is produced, we might know better what to do with it; but it is just this process which Prynne has withheld from us, on the principle (as Donald Davie noted in Under Briggflatts) of ‘Never apologize, never explain’.

If the threshold was not judged so perfectly, the poetry would be excruciating or interminable. (This is traditionally the point where the jibe at a wider Cambridge poetry scene is inserted – ‘excruciating or interminable, like the work of so many who have written under Prynne’s shadow’ – but, as far as it goes, I think most of Prynne’s contemporaries pitch under the threshold rather than over it.) I think the claims for Prynne’s later work rest entirely on his negotiation of this threshold, which I envisage as the precise cusp at which sense-making becomes a strategy for the brain confronted by an opaque text. Nobody would try and untangle a poem made out of completely random character strings (or maybe they would – see ‘NHS’ by Tim Morris in Quid 6, pdf available online) or completely random word strings. But there is a boundary, at which the reader has the maximum possible work to do, a maximal difficulty which still tempts us into interpretation; and it is this I think Prynne’s later work aspires to.

This review, incidentally, will stick to the later work, especially what has been added since the 2005 edition of Poems. For readers who are new to Prynne and want a suggestion of where to start, I would recommend the early poem ‘The Glacial Question, Unsolved’, read in tandem with Thomas Roebuck and Matthew Sperling’s forty-page commentary on the same, first printed in Glossator but easy to find with Google. Alternatively, I find ‘Star Damage at Home’ Prynne’s most uncomplicatedly enjoyable poem.

For many readers, I suspect, disentangling Streak ~~~ Willing ~~~ Entourage/Artesian will be too much like a crossword puzzle with no solution. I found the most open of the additional volumes to be 2010’s Sub Songs, which – for the first time since 1994’s Her Weasels Wild Returning – is made up of single poems, covering one to three pages, and given their own titles. In ‘As Mouth Blindness’, for instance, the sense is positively clear:

Time in the news to be not silent indoors, mouth in thought
shut up chew it the choice separates its like or is lame for
wounding in what is due would tell you suffused. For both
market done and stunned in face of, great lack breeds lank
less and less, claimant for right. Flatter by great expectancy,
for so resemble by just match, no less than fitting the race
to birthright and native place, our lingo.

This poetry, in a way that I can’t imagine of Streak ~~~ Willing ~~~ Entourage/Artesian, will be immediately useful to many readers. The first clause, for instance, with its terrified final qualification ‘indoors’, who hasn’t come up against this recently? And the bovine pointlessness of ‘mouth in thought’, and then the whole underswell of cattle words, perhaps only noticed on the second pass, culminating in ‘stunned in face’, as in a slaughterhouse, which one’s first read-through resolves, perhaps, into ‘stunned | in face of’, but which shifts like the Magic Eye into ‘stunned in face | of […] claimant for right’.

This is maybe the final and, I think, clearest delineation of Prynne’s twenty-first-century preoccupation, the total corruption of political discourse revealed or brought to a head by the war on Iraq. His two ‘war poems’, ‘Refuse Collection’ (written 2004, previously unpublished) and To Pollen (2006), are likely to draw the most attention out of the new work in this volume. ‘Refuse Collection’ is three pages at high volume and high velocity, thoroughly under the influence of Keston Sutherland, fusing by collision the discourses of high finance and contemporary war-making. Since (as William Wootten argued, in an interesting PN Review article) few of Prynne’s readers are likely to imagine these discourses as extricable, this is preaching to the choir somewhat. At its most rebarbative, it sounds like a street-corner preacher decrying genetically modified crops under the same heading as Abu Ghraib:

                                           Confess sell out the
self input, yes rape yes village gunship by
apache rotor capital genital grant a seed trial.

At its least it sounds just patronizing:

Go on, do it, we’ll photograph everything, home
movies hold steady on while they is we do it,
by eye it takes oozing huge debt.

As a monologue, it’s ridiculous: evil might be banal, but it doesn’t sound like that. As poetry, though, it’s astonishing: the line-break flagging the additional meaning latent in ‘home’ (‘home in on’), the swing of ambiguity in ‘hold steady on’, the ‘huge debt’ and the oozing eye invoking the terrifying vision of justice in Exodus 21:24 (‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’).

To Pollen is deeper, slower, more considered. The Iraq war is not simply a bluff of Goldman Sachs. Military terminology and television propaganda is juxtaposed with plain cries (‘It hurt so much’) and the voices of interviewees on the news (‘No-one so much out on / the streets now, maybe later’). One hears the odd soldier:

                                                      Our prison of worthless
grief rescript to harden daily tormented undilute, why
each shot hateful and fearful right along the ravine.

One hears September 11th invoked and the argument for war almost sympathetically made, but from the victims:

                                                 There was a calamity,
this is the claim for respite alleged against us.

And everywhere in the background one hears the intonations of Andrew George’s translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, published a little before the outbreak of the war and quoted as an epigraph to the volume.

It is a triumph: a catalogue of human failure, yes, but as a participant in that failure, not the furious and infuriating Jeremiah of ‘Refuse Collection’. Prynne is at his best when the angle he starts with is deflected, when he is knocked off at a tangent, which also makes him a much funnier poet than he often gets credit for. In To Pollen the million human perspectives and refractions of language and policymaking and finance and military technology overwhelm him, and yet the poem still makes a sort of whole, or is still close enough to tempt the reader into reconstructing it. ‘There is a thrill you can get from a certain kind of dense suggestive cheesecake kind of lyric language’, Prynne said in a 1971 lecture on Charles Olson. ‘But the obscure epic, oh – and there are obscure epics, I mean, well, obscure small epics, anyway’. There are many here in evidence.

John Clegg is a contributor to the anthology New poetries VI (Carcanet, 2015).