Peter Philpott

A response to Paul Holman’s The Memory of the Drift (Shearsman, 2007)

I have found The Memory of the Drift a constantly engaging text ever since I picked up a copy of the original publication (Invisible Books, 2001) from a CCCP bookstall. I remember discussing it with Andrew Duncan, another fan of the writer, and its appealing but also challenging blend of modernist procedure and magical vocabulary. The new enlarged edition (further books added to the original text, now labelled Book I) carries on the work in a different, transformed manner (as indeed the text deals with transformation). I’ll try to avoid too much direct explication – particularly as I think Holman’s writing hinges upon the inexplicable. I’ll focus on what its attractions are for me, and where I found some curious links with concerns in other reading I was doing as I thought about this piece. Since the bringing together of different worlds sharing some coincidental spark is an element within The Memory of the Drift, that seems quite right to me.

In The Memory of the Drift we encounter at once a world of magic operations we inhabit (in different forms) throughout. It starts thus, with a memorable introit:

He selected the great
closed helmet: it
might have fitted god
or hobgoblin. The
borrowed tape of star
music pleased him:
his trumpet of Helium
(p 9)

“He”, sometimes within the poem “Paul”, sometimes “I” – an unstable identity. The donning of the helmet I link with graphic comic images – Dream in Gaiman’s Sandman putting on his iconic headgear. “or hobgoblin” – that’s an odd one, from something slightly kitschy maybe, a child’s tale or Lovecraft doing Dunsany. “The borrowed tape” – nicely placing us sometime from 70s to 90s, in a studentish world. Helium? Difficult element to make trumpets from; but Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Helium (A Princess of Mars etc), a good place to find a suitable instrument I bet. The emphatic line-cuts match with curious opening & closing half-rhymes to give a monumental quality to the little verse.

These are some of the bits Holman uses to make his mechanism, which sets the whole poem, what comes after, in motion. The opening poems of each of the four books operate for me as similar springboards for a specific wandering or movement. The most casual reader will locate soon lots of vocabulary derived from magic or occultist lexes, with topoi and characters from these worlds. Holman’s poetry has appeared in both “literary” locations, and occultist: Silverstar: a Journal of New Magick (a web journal).

This magical involvement could be in many ways a stumbling-block – I retain a solid atheism, coupled with a dumb native empiricism. Suppose I discover poet X, whom I value, is, say, a fervent Christian? My response to her writing might well change. And yet ….. Ritual magick, like Christian faith, ought to be a major problem in responding to a poet. But disbelief in the system does not hinder response to its language, as the system acts both as a source of richly connotative language and meaningful episodes, and also as a constraint.

Constraint lies at the base of The Memory of the Drift, as its first part was created using very precise and arbitrary formal operations upon text. Holman discusses this in a postscript and notes to the original edition – he performed operations involving character/space counts: “This is achieved through a long process of superimposition and erasure”). These operations are less apparent in the later sections of The Memory of the Drift, and the Shearsman edition doesn’t print this explicatory material, but I think the text alone of the first book with its clear and obvious transformations of sets of words (”kernels” Holman calls them), and sections where lacunae are precisely measured make the point evident about the processes involved.

So, it’s the worlds of magick and of Late Modernism, apparently diverse, yet both system-dependent operations. What brings them together is that also both employ the language of speech-acts – spells or rules – language that effects the world. Or can.

Both sets of actions, magic and art-making, derive from the obsessive rituals we need in a fragmented world to hold it (or don’t I mean ourselves?) together. The fragmentation is integral to Holman’s project – a wonderful variety of forms, of fluid voices and characters. (I value poets who are heterogeneous over those who merely work at a single scriptorial mechanism, a predictable voice doing predictable things to predictable content.) The world we inhabit in reading The Memory of the Drift is a very unstable and frightening place. It knows this, and often foregrounds the defence activities we make against the threatening chaos:

I had no choice
but to undo the spell
which language had cast
upon me when, in
the days of autonomia,
I first met one by whom I
was to be consumed
and then made
afresh: she taught me
that an operation
performed upon the
tongue must transform
the world.
(p 72)

I enjoy the slight stiffness & strangeness in the language here – like a translation. At times there are, on the other hand, carefully polished fragments. Holman (I presume) has written three big paragraphs at the back of the Shearsman edition that help with connections. Whence, “the detached sentence, made radiant by its association with Little Sparta, is a preferred model”. Hmm. Not a radiance I would have picked up on, nor would link with these poems, but then I find Finlay greatly oversold. His magic rarely works on me. But the link indicates, I would assert, how our shock reactions to this chaotic world can be embodied in small-scale defensive positions, armed against all comers in a truly lapidary fashion. The Memory of the Drift indeed ends with a sequence of such gnomic sentences:

Purposeful crow, I gaze through a tongue of flame at the feather you shed: the needle of the compass points towards the star-goddess.
(p 85)

“Star” is often used in these poems as an adjective, sometimes as a very precise reference (”not Sirius but Procyon”). The female figure is variously named or approached throughout the text – which can be read as an erotic fable, a series of almost Gravesian encounters between the inherently fallible male and some powerful other of which it is important that she is female. I’m sure we’ve all seen tongues of flame in our more successful magic rituals. A crow is common nature, but imbued with powerful connotations. Its shed feather is a sign: a common motif in the book is that of detritus filled with signifying power, whether of arbitrary rules, magic assemblages or paranoid obsession. This magic is all around us – just difficult to pin down or work with. The art is to be alive to the connections

and drift through them.

It is like encountering an alien and unknowable world at times (viz our world), and trying to make sense of this with the categories we hold onto; but they just aren’t the categories this world operates by.

But what are we to make of the scenes themselves? Some see in the lady with her hands raised a goddess, or a priestess. The gesture looks significant so that we seem to be on the threshold of knowing what the whole sequence means, but the enigma and ambiguity are never fully unravelled. If the lady is the deceased for whom the tomb was prepared, the it is perhaps her again on the left wall.
Graeme Barker & Tom Rasmussen, The Etruscans (Blackwell, 2000), p 216, discussing “The Tomb of the Baron” at Tarquinia.

This drift of reference is both a political stance, a refusal of the over-coherent ideology of the systems that post-Enlightenment rationality tries to lock us into. I give here an idealised Adornoesque reading, where that miserable old bugger has joined the students rather than been assaulted by them. The poem refers back quite often to a now nostalgic bohemian milieu; a world of discovering early Allen Fisher, knowing a bloke who might be in Combat 18, many lives of ephemerality and small-scale intense but often mistaken purpose.

And the result too of being headless – a term Holman emphasises in his comments. This is an unfortunate state for a protagonist; but one we’d all likely suffer. Poem 37 is good here, and like the opening poem gives us a moment of narrative. He’s taken the green chapel challenge, and lost his head, poor schmuck, as we all would. Swinging it by his hair, he has to face the consequences. “Loss, and what may follow” as it has been put elsewhere.

Fortunately, when decapitated we can still read Bataille, to whom the acephalous was deeply significant – picking it up from Gnostic gems of demons. Holman knows this stuff, recognising for example that bastard Yalbebaoth who made this world, and made it such a botched Friday-afternoon job. In response:

Early Neolithic societies were acephalous (that is, without elaborate ranking of individuals), but they seem to have developed elaborate initiation rites for particular age and sex groups as a way of maintaining group unity and the traditional social boundaries within it.
(Barker & Rasmussen, op cit, p 47)

My co-walker
traced the lemniscus
around the two black-
bird eggs my daughter’s cat
had left out-
side the back door
I did not share
his delight in clouds
and unemphatic asexual
nudity but sank
down into the mud earth:
wet, humid, stagnant, occult.
Too wayward to heed
the slow thought of metals,
I adopted the death posture . . .
(p 66 – another poem opening a section)

So we create our rituals with what is there: the cultural detritus and the ground it’s placed on. We don’t do “traditional” of course, and I include Holman with his resort to bricolage and fragmentation in that. We’re out of the Neolithic, in some age of vast cultural flux, ethnogenesis and confusion, a weird repeat of the “Dark Ages”. “It may have been names rather than ethnically distinct people that lasted across the centuries.” (John Moorhead, The Roman Empire Divided 400-700 [Longman, 2001], p 16, talking of Goths (or goths?).)

“Yaldebaoth, Sun Ra, Odradek Stadium, Faustus, Mark E Smith, Faunus, Diana, Tiphareth, Morgan le Fay, Asmodeus, Tara”

O syncretism! as we used to call postmodernism. These names are like the magic signals seen on the pavement:

the route home
from the underworld
is marked
by two feathers crossed
on the pavement
the clear
plastic tube
from a bicycle
lock a cigarette
packet and a drift
of spilled
matches a bus
ticket and another
(p 30)

Instants that punch through the walls. I don’t know the validity of the systems one can use to do this any more – or indeed, maybe we need to avoid the systems – they just are arbitrary machines for producing a sense of meaning. But this is a human need:

Ecstatic time can only find itself in the vision of things that puerile chance causes brusquely to appear: cadavers, nudity, explosions, spilled blood, abysses, sunbursts, and thunder.
Georges Bataille, “Propositions” in ed Allan Stoeckl, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Manchester UP, 1985), p 200.

The “ecstasy” is occasional (let’s keep calm here!). It is capable of being worked on, constrained and channelled (Book I is about this), it appears through a range of guises. In the poem’s progress through time there seems to be some element of shift from a London-based urban drift (what I’ve labelled above as student/bohemian) to a rural world, both lush and ordinary (”In the pub garden” begins one very extraordinary poem). The poet’s daughter recurs as a grounding, domestically real motif

What I see then in The Memory of the Drift is a process set in motion, repeatedly, of transformation and creation, as a psychically necessary self-defence, using a range of materials, much you might say discarded from normal discourse or thinking, but retaining still a certain haunting glamour. This is like the poetry of Elisabeth Bletsoe (Landscape from a Dream, Shearsman, 2008) – powered by homeopathy! – but it works (at least in the poems.) The fragmentation, the patchiness of the reception within it, is much greater with Holman, and a part of the nature of the work and what’s going on it is its refusal of unity other than in the texture itself, and its foregrounded awareness of process. It uses the material as the position from which to do a free run across our ruinous culture, finding various bits of firmness to spring from that we had thought discarded.

Holman also invokes Olson on the Shearsman commentary – and network-like images are repeated in both editions that remind me inescapably of Olson’s “Figure of Outward” glyph (or sigil?) that launches Maximus: “It is (really, like they say) the enlargement of a sliver of perforated tin ceiling found on the floor of a bar room in a ghost town in Arizona” (Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems, [Jargon/Corinth, 1960], Editor’s Note). Holman’s project lacks, probably fortunately, that huge impossible aggressive lunge out of Olson’s epic. Drift is better, and maybe indeed a more accurate description of the motor of human history than the heroic Volkerwänderung Olson in typical American fashion fantasised over.

Both Holman’s chosen images are graphically matched by the cover of the Shearsman edition: wispy cirrus slowly drifting above an American desert mesa. A mesh or system. Insubstantial and unsustainable as magic; but an inescapable and compelling site for the projection of meaning, for which the discarded is always most powerful if we want a contrary meaning., as we must to survive. This position is true of paranoid obsession, of magic, and of modernist art – Holman’s small press published several fine works, but the one I return to is Loose Watch: A Lost and Found Times Anthology (1998) – contemporary American neo-dada, launched out from found texts. Practical magic, I’d say.

Peter Philpott was born in Martock, Somerset in 1949. He attended the University of Keele. He lives in Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire, and taught English and media in further education colleges in Essex until his retirement in 2008. From 1971 to 1981, initially with Bill Symondson, he ran Great Works magazine and small press; and started the website in 2001. His publications include What Was Shown (Ferry Press, 1980), Some Action Upon the World (Grosseteste, 1982), and Textual Possessions (Shearsman, 2004), and he appeared in the anthology A Various Art (ed Andrew Crozier & Tim Longville, Carcanet, 1987). He also performed as vocalist for The Playground in the late 1980s.

This profile was first published in Geometer.