The Memory of the Drift
Did Duchamp say he wanted to become an artist because art had become a cult or because it hadn’t? I can’t remember precisely but that isn’t quite the same as saying I can’t remember at all. Though it might feel that way to anyone who wants to know the answer if they feel it matters. And I’ve heard people sneer that poetry has now withered into being just a cult. The implication of this sneering stance is that being a cult is a bad thing and something that makes poetry something for prats who ought to get a life.
Well I suppose poetry is a cult at times but at other times, like here and now in this comment piece, it is more a capricious philosophical playfulness running through the wounded exposure of overhuman viroid duration like poorly remembered source material, a kind of echo. I think after reading that last line that the sneerers will have left me by now and that I’ll be labelled a cultish apologist who should also get a life. Nevertheless we might ask just what kind of a life these sneerers have in mind as a substitute? We could develop the question a little and ask what life they’d have me have in the future, as I move forward, as I evolve?
Keith Ansell Pearson is a philosopher who clears his throat over these matters, blending Nietzsche, Deleuze and Bergson to cast a new spell of questions over what post-humanity could and should possibly be. Ansell Pearson argues against a technological determinism about what possibilities face us, denying that our future must be and therefore should be framed in terms of machine innovation and silicon substitution. He is directly arguing against the point of view of, for example, Kevin Warwick at Reading University who contends that our evolution not only can be post-biological but should be, that we should embrace the machine without and become one. I think the sneerers are in the Warwick camp. They don’t want poetry because it isn’t that kind of a machine.
Poetry can also instantiate a position of resistance to Warwick by recognising that through operations of the tongue it becomes possible to involve ‘…the fractal/ silhouette of Pan’ and ‘… that an operation/performed upon the tongue/ must transform/ the world.’ Paul Holman’s poetic sequence emerges ‘…intent/upon leaving no/record of my life,/but an absence that any/fool might occupy in/capricious play.’ (Zigzaggedness) Keith Ansell Pearson challenges zietgeisty notions of a techno-cyborg, necessary future in his philosophical/autobiographical writings and Holman too traces out an alternative, a playful seriousness extending over a sequence of poetic breathings dedicated to something peculiar, far away from where the words are returning – but in pieces. I’m going to argue that his poetry is a kind of echo machine, not the sort of machine that Warwick and the sneerers would want to approve of, or even want to understand.
So Holman is partly intent on reawakening here, again and again, time as it is experienced, of each subjective duration rather than anything objectively measured, anything like a line sectioned off into periods, elements, clocks. His poetry is the language of how time seems to be to the person in its literal metaphorical flow, where lines flow according to the rythem and timing of breathing. Thus we are in Bergsonian time, the time that structures the dramatic world of Waiting for Godot and Proust, for instance. In Godot we are presented with the experienced time world of Estragon and Vladimir which is unfolded alongside, or inside, or outside, that of Pozzo and Lucky. Time can’t be understood linearly, that perspective can’t make sense of how it is affective, how it feels in terms of breathing and sensing.
Beckett’s play takes place over an impossible duration that is years, months, weeks, days, minutes, seconds but nevertheless all the same year, month, week, day, minute, second. Being born and busy dying are simultaneous, as we all are, as it were, ‘born astride the grave’. And as this connection makes clear, the weird coexistence of heterogeneous durations suggests a philosophy of time which magical universes often expound. As Ansell Pearson notes Deleuze noting, “The living is essentially a being that has problems and resolves them at each instant”. In this then is a connection between the modernist, and post-modernist, universe and the occult. Speech rather than writing is its medium, where writing has to become a kind of speech, but one that has become almost half remembered speech, speech spoken from somewhere else and transmuted into a written echoing.
Ansell Pearson is a useful philosophical guide here. Not that he talks about the occult. But he does talk about Nietzsche and the deeply uncanny truth about self Nietzsche proposes, which is that we mustn’t have a clue about what kind of a self we are. Autobiographical ignorance is the epistemic stance he recommends. Ansell Pearson links this to an adequate notion of time, which is that of ‘hetergeneous durations’ that we mentioned above, the Godot time, which enables a sense of identities in constant formation, of identities becoming rather than being, which is what Nietzsche’s going on about. Ansell Pearson says this: ‘We are essentially unknown to ourselves and the world is essentially unknown to us. This doesn’t mean we have to invoke the ineffable or appeal to the mystery of life. While I recognise the incredible force of Wittgenstein’s closing statement in the Tractatus – of that which we cannot speak we should remain silent – I hold to the exact contrary view: philosophy exists to give expression to that which we think we can only remain silent about.’ And this shuffles us to his thinking on Bergson and Deleuze and his reminding us of Deleuze reminding us of Kant’s project: ‘If you read the Critique of Pure Reason you see that Kant has criticized not reason in general, but a reason fashioned to the habits and exigencies of Cartesian mechanism or Newtonian physics…The doctrine that I defend aims to rebuild the bridge (broken down since Kant) between metaphysics and
Holman isn’t a philosopher but is a poet and perhaps, I don’t know the guy, but perhaps a kind of wizard as well. In this he wouldn’t be alone – famously Alan Moore is one of those too. And it’s also a position that gets nimbly excavated in the cunning of several pretty hard-core arti/cultural positions and summarised in the word ‘trepidation’ as used, for example, in the sub-title of ‘The House Of Nine Squares: Letters on Neoism, Psychogeography and Epistemological Trepidation’ by Stewart Home which Invisible Books put out in 1997, the publisher of Holman’s book. That book describes itself in terms of the John Berndt’s conception of the Neoist universe way back in 1986 which is ‘…based on the house of nine squares… The Neoist is the eternal traveller in the house of nine squares, a house which can never be left since it has no doors and seems to reflect itself internally.’
The poetics of epistemological trepidation captures the energies of this strange modernist/post-modernist tradition, one which blends quaintness with detonations, simultaneously affective and cognitive. Eliot himself recognised this in his re-appropriation of the term ‘metaphysical’ to recapture the idea for poetry, but Rimbaud made it explicit when he writes, again and again – ‘ I became an adept at simple hallucination: in place of a factory I really saw a Mosque, a school of drummers led by angels, carriages on the highways of the sky, a drawing room at the bottom of a lake; monsters, mysteries; the title of a melodrama would raise horrors before me. Then I would explain my magic sophisms with the hallucination of words! Finally I came to regard as sacred the disorder of my mind. I was idle, full of sluggish fever: I envied the felicity of beasts, caterpillars that represent the innocence of limbo, moles, the sleep of virginity! My temper soured. In kinds of ballads I said farewell to the world.’ And he starts all this off with ‘Poetic quaintness played a large part in my alchemy of the world.’ (‘La vieillerie poetique avait une bonne part dans mon alchimie du verbe.’ Une Saison En Enfer)
One thing you get from this, and so one thing that a reader has to settle down as she reads, is that this is a poem, or sequence of poems, or something that reminds us of poems, or of something else that poems bring forth, like a spell or like a hallucination, or like a dance – you might think of starting with Maya Deren who worked out of a kind of New York take on Voodoo but I’d rather go with the crazy Hijikata and the Ankoku Butoh dance he invented, especially his 1959 Kinjiiki performance which Stephen Barber anatomises in his book about the dancer Revolt of the Body ‘with its savage homosexual acts derived from Mishima and Genet, to the melancholy, prostitutional princesses and sexual doll-girls of his final spectacle.’ The reference to Hans Bellmer the surrealist doll artist is explicit in Hijikata’s work and therefore spooks up an immediate uncanny bridge to reading these poems.
This dance reference, though, is a useful connection, linking everything to what the Japanese media of the 60’s called ‘the dirty avant-garde’. This kind of avant garde, according to Stephen Barber, ‘existed as a contrary refusal to the ‘clean’ traditional performing arts of Japan (such as Kagura, Noh and Kabuki)…’ and explored ‘… the extremes of the human body, of social power and of sexual acts, unearthed and revealed materials that were perceived as abject and reprehensible: anatomical detritus and illness, transsexuality and imageries of male homosexuality.’ This was an art form that existed as a challenge to political forces of repressive conservatism as well as artistic ones, though this politically revolutionary and anti-reactionary impulse was not always of the political left. The inclusion of Mishima, for example, in the group of writers and artists supporting Ankoku Butoh and preventing it from being made illegal, reminds us that not all anti-repressive forces are benign, a point Stewart Home has repeatedly made when discussing the political spectrum encompassed by the anarchist movement. But that’s not to the point. The point is simply that the extreme necromantic and hallucigenic feel of this dance form and this movement can locate both that state of becoming that Nietzsche discusses and also a geography, history and sociological displacement and abjectness that it insists upon.
Holmans’ poetic apparatus exhibits an extremity of the solitary word that resembles the apparatus of a spell which is also memory and an uncanny form of echo. Systems of memory are at the heart of the occult neoplatonists’ sacred geometry as discovered in the texts, for example, of what Ted Hughes calls the ‘phantasmagoric reminiscence of Shakespeare’s last dramas.’ Camillo’s memory theatre and Robert Fludd’s too, these were all part of what Francis Yates has examined in terms of the ‘occult subterranean’ at the heart of an attempt to synthesise Protestant and Catholic religion. This under-river of influences has, according to Ted Hughes, ‘… stirred occasionally, where revolution cracked the crust of suppression, and reached up an arm to embrace Goethe – who was wondered at. And Blake – who was deplored. And Yates – who was ridiculed.’
The ‘uncanny form of an echo’ picks up Yates’ (WB, not Francis) idea of the poet being somehow possessed by ‘a clear articulation in the air’ but does not remain with Yates but returns again to the young Eliot who is the poet who, more than Yates, is our first poet of the modern world, the world without consolations, without meaning, the poet who first understood that the link between his poetry, done in this new idiom, this new position, this new world and that of the ancient world, was threateningly posthumous. The new poetry, that inaugurated by our first great modernist poet, is thus one that has to recognise this fateful metaphysical story. It is the story that closes-off our contact with our ancient gods, our ancient sources.
Well this is the kind of stuff that everyone knows by heart these days and the young Eliot’s ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus’ works like an early prognosis of this story and one which he splices into ‘The Wasteland’. In the words of Hughes in his great essay ‘The Poetic Self’, this is a poem where ‘Eliot’s poetic self caught a moment of tranced stillness, and became very precisely aware of its own peculiar nature, inheritance and fate, and found for itself this image.’ What the self-obsession of Narcissus brings about in the well-known version of the Narcissus myth is the love of Echo. Echo loves him, but he can’t see her because of his self obsession and out of that refusal Echo fades away until she is just a voice. But there is another less well-known version.
In this version Echo doesn’t fade away pining for a rejecting love. Rather, she is loved in turn by Pan. She refuses him. Pan tears her to pieces. All that is left is her voice. ‘Adonta ta mele.’ Her still singing limbs. The Narcissus myth takes on here a maniacal, violent edge, one that picks up, and is picked up, in a rather more ‘dirty avant garde’ mode than the better known one. It is aligned to a madness, a terrible power and destructiveness, an all encompassing decapitation where the voices and memories, of thinking itself, is not just identified as being in the head but is rather scattered about in each part. (Something modern biological science is happily finding evidence of.) And the voice of Echo is one that doesn’t merely replicate the diminished returns of what is already spoken but rather transforms it, adding sorrow and other tinged meanings to the fragmenting remnants it throws back. As Ovid recognises, ‘She’s heard by all who call; her voice has life.’
It is this uncanny life that Echo brings to the voice and to the word of the modern writer’s decapitated, posthumous scribbles. The extreme anxiety, sorrow, accusation and sarcasm of the modern oevre is clarified for all in Borges’ story of Pere Menard who writes a word for word exact version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote which is yet deeper than the original in subtle meanings. Stewart Home’s discussion of plagiarism is another way of configuring this Echo myth, reminding us of how the myth can be worked as a shocking and mischievous element within a ‘dirty avant garde’ idiom . YBA Glenn Brown’s déjà vu paintings of other paintings, and American painters like Sherrie Levene and Philip Taaffe are also examples. Their work can be dismissed as dumb repetition but these dismissals tend to come from the cranky who tend to valorize romantic notions of the genius of individuality and have little sensibility for the uncanny, the spooky and the terrifying sublime at the heart of even the most mundane everyday imperfect repeat.
The echo works as a way of seeing, just as air traffic controllers, dolphins and bats use sound. The poetic voice then, isn’t actually seeing, it’s a strange thing, a kind of large seeing, the uncanny kind. So that picks up the idea of the uncanny as an echo. Heidegger is a nasty Nazi type and his philosophy an outworking of his politics so when I use ‘uncanny’ here I’m not tempted by his use of unheimlich. I want to echo his words in a way that adds to it an anti-Nazi life and destroys the Nazi bit. So it’s ‘largeness’ and ‘dreadful’ that I’m hooking it to, which Heidegger misses. Its voice is alien, exposed, unsettling, sinister and threatening. It inhabits Rilke in his poem ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes.’ Unheimlich is here an echo of Unhemlich as used by Heidegger. As such, it comes back imperfectly repeated, but better, even if it is at times word perfect, like Homesian plagiarism. Hopefully, this plagiarised creativity would have pissed off Heidegger and those who develop copyright laws. These laws are the central legal manifestation of the attempt to censor echoes and stifle creative social acts of communitarian communication, mobilising the fetishised tropes of individual originality on wheels of profiteering and aggressive Austrian-style market liberalism.
Echoes work in the enormity of space. There can’t be an echo in any spatial chamber less than 56 ½ feet, or something such like. There has to be a delay. And without an echo in such a space there can only be silence. (So copyright laws would, if successful, create only impenetrable silence, a sort of absolute stupidity!). The outline of life’s space is what poetry is describing. In this sense the idea of memory comes with the idea of size and enormity of our life. Only in a huge space can there be an echo, a memory. This reminds us that the first architecture was for describing the shape of space. So too our use of the echo is as a form of echolocation, like that of a bat, the uncanny seeing of the space shape of our life.
And memory, as echo, is tainted, accumulates new material, new shape, new mood and meaning, is an act of creativity. It isn’t just a straightforward replica, like a handprint in wet sand, an imprint of the past. It is tinged with plenitude and erosion, sadness and sorrow, definitely, but it’s tinged with other things too. Sure, things are lost, but there are gains. The sarcasm and the threat of diminishing returns, word games, reinvented sounds that carry opposites or transcribe a very different take on the recall are all there too. Longing and desire are at the heart of the myth, but also decapitation, violence, refusal, struggle. Death. A whole uncanny dirty avant garde agenda, so to speak, where what is at one angle less becomes at another more. John Hollander has much to say on this in his ‘The Figure of Echo’ way back in 1981 – the Latin ‘decem iam annos aetatem trivi in Cicerone’ echoes back as the Greek ‘One’. ‘I’ve spent ten years on Cicero.’ ‘Ass’. And Athanasius Kirchner – ‘clamore’ echoes four times back – ‘amore,’ ‘more,’ ‘ore,’ ‘re.’ ( O outcry – love – delays- hours – king.) T.S. Eliot. Toilet. Etc etc.
Puns, metaphors and suffixes are one explanation of echo where by ranging further than literal renditions the echo becomes a way back from a divine source. Echo becomes the messenger, like Hermes, like Mercury, like Prometheus, bringing us news from divine inspiration. The rabbinical bat kol is ‘daughter of the voice’ which in modern Hebrew is echo which in turn brings in Milton’s ‘ God so commanded and left the Command/Sole daughter of his voice’ from book IX of Paradise Lost.
But the modern(ist) predicament is precisely that this contract with ancient illumination and inspiration is posthumous. And this then works in terms of an alternative reading of the Echo myth, one which takes the St John opening line ‘In the beginning was the Word…’ as answering the question as to why God created, in the Word, another reality, another universe that was other than God. The echo is that of the absence of anything other than God. The Word proves the void to which the Word of God returns, proof to God that there is only God. The shape of the space required for there to be God is, paradoxically, proof of the eternal silence, the meaningless of the silence that rebounds out of the creation of the dual universe. We become God’s echo. God is Narcissus. That is the wounded discourse out of which the modern poetic sensibility grows. Dali ‘s painting of Narcissus, which is a wonderland of echo, strikes me as understanding this theology astonishingly well.
Well, if nothing else, this gets us somewhere with the title. The ‘memory’ Holman signals is this echo, the modernist sensibility that recognises the alchemical past as being both ruined, dead, posthumous and yet required nevertheless. It is the Beckett universe; ‘I can’t go on. I go on,’ but in reverse, one that gives us the fierce, fragmentary ancient memories as echoes reconfiguring the realisation that our God is ourselves reflecting ourselves back through refracting echoes of what we can’t believe, can’t know but grow out of.
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 )
Holman ‘s language here is stiff, formal, and it reads like a necessary translation of an original source. Throughout then, the voice needed to read the poetry is one that senses this reaching back to an ur-moment. The idea of the occult as a world under our own is that ancient, posthumous ground for his poetry and so reading this takes us on the occult journey from the underground back home. This takes up that key figure of the echo again, where the echo returns us home from the distance rather than vice versa. Poetry of this kind therefore takes us back home from elsewhere. We don’t start out from where we are and explore what’s out there. We start out there and work our way back.
In this we can recognise the need for explicit and implicit references to what we are not and where we are not. My favourite modernist pop star Bob Dylan called this out explicitly with his seminal album Bringing It All back Home and implicitly in all else he’s knocked out loaded. Holman whose name is a half pun on Home-Man, and a half pun on Whole –man (which is funny and weird in that it plays with the idea of whole and half and the paradox of space which asserts that when you take away a half you’re left with a whole, and take away half again and still you have a whole, ad infinitum a la Zeno) and a half pun works as an echo where the loss of the exact repeat replaces the exactness with a new liveliness which is something that endorses what might be just a found coincidence which in turn links us up with the surrealist poetics of ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’ as found in Breton and Soupault’s Magnetic Fields of 1919 and The Communicating Vessels of 1931 where Breton writes: ‘the world of dream and the real world are one and the same’ developing the analogy contained in the title so that that the mind and the world are not separate but are continuously “communicating” like two connected “vessels.” Which is Whew! Trippy or what!
In one poetic slab, Holman writes:
‘the route home
from the underworld
by two feathers crossed
on the pavement
from a bicycle
lock a cigarette
packet and a drift
matches a bus
ticket and another
feather’ (p 30)
The drift of objective chance here enables the voice to accumulate the scumble of found objects in a spontaneous juxtaposition that survives out of Lautreamont, Rimbaud and Apollinaire and translates into a poetic ‘found object’. The poem – and each of his poems work at this – seizes on a montage or collage of words that intersect with memory and desire, the echo out of space and time, in the way that early surrealists theorized into the notion of automatic writing. Automatic writing worked as found objects whereby the chance discovery gives voice in the form of an echo, rather in the manner of the children’s game of ‘the exquisite corpse.’
This game involves several people writing consecutive lines without seeing what others have written and was part of a whole set of ‘research techniques’ designed to discover an occult reality. Such writing become a sort of séance and reminds us of the work of Robert Desnos as well as how later psychedelic and chemical as well as alchemical approaches have been a constantly iterated agenda in the occult avant garde, often summarized under the rather tame nomenclature ‘syncretism’ and captured for a moment in the rather overworked idea of ‘ecstatic time’. In an interesting review of Holman’s Memory of the Drift in the on-line Geometer Magazine a couple of years ago we find this: ‘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.’ We also find under ‘syncretism’ a list of echoes: “Yaldebaoth, Sun Ra, Odradek Stadium, Faustus, Mark E Smith, Faunus, Diana, Tipharoth, Morgan le Fay, Asmodeus, Tara” which also helps support the reading that I’m suggesting throughout.
This is a poetry of returning, returning from the occult subterranean as a kind of echo. It requires to be read as a kind of translation, as if everything in each word echoes a place from which the word is coming back in a different language that nevertheless sounds the same. Like an echo, it is imperfectly rendered, misheard sometimes, headless at other times. There is no possibility of tidying the thing up, of housekeeping it into a finished, rounded up equation. It has the quality of sounds reverberating with other powers, places, tongues yet these occur without the taint of overblown rhetorical flourish that can sometimes ruin occult poetics and turn them into obscurantist rantings and self regard. This is a poetry that is tempered and disciplined but by energies that are older than the poet’s own experiences and knowledge.
There is also, then, a quality of humility in the poetic voice that serves to connect with the old ecological voices such as Snyder and McClure’s ‘fresh planet’ consciousness, Keroac’s second religiousness where ‘the land is an Indian Thing’, in fact with the whole Beat culture excavations where ‘ Everything belongs to me because I am poor’ which becomes a kind of lovely chief virtue. It also links with syncretic Sufi/Zen religious ideas such as Subud, for example, which Stewart Home’s mum in London’s swinging sixties was involved with and which Home discusses on his blog. Anyhow, like an echo, the voice in these poems is quieter, hushed, more delicate than its dreamed up sources but still capable of containing intimations of the gross power, strength and noise of those now lost origins.
So now there’s an interesting further element to reading this, and that is that of course the seemingly apolitical esoteric is not apolitical at all but links Holman, through another echoic force, to the deliberate politics of his poetics. His obvious poetic links with dirty avant gardeism and its American branch of Beat poets (see the Invisible Books backlist) couples him with the giant Olson who wrote that ‘When the police are after you, you can stay in my house’, who thought that all cops in the USA should be black or women (I’d like them all to be black women), and that ‘private is public, and public is how we behave’, the Olson who Allen Ginsberg placed in a time line of ‘Whitman’s time thru Williams and Pound to Keroac and Olson, Horace Trabel to Gregory Corso, early Eliot on to Ted Berrigan’, who is linked with the breath stop, line stop form of open verse (wherein the line ends when the breath ends) that helps you to get a grip with how to read Memory of the Drift. Olson also writes about field composition whereby the poet ‘has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined’ and who explains how in a kind of ‘projective verse’ ‘one perception must move instanter on another.’
This links with the idea of poetry as an uncanny echo, where instants of perception have a momentum which can’t be retraced or repeated but just follow on. The hip mind then is a freed up mind – so surrealist Philip Lamantia’s early definition of ‘hip’ was ‘don’t get hung up’- something the poet John Duncan emphasized in his interest in reading Gertrude Stein. The echo captures the idea of immediacy blended with the idea of loose recall. As emphasized earlier, an echo is a creative memory, is an uncanny repeat, a doppleganger perception with a strange half -life of its own beyond the control of its originator. So this poetic sequence is like that, an echo that returns us home from some place where we’ve been where there’s no straight, retained direction but just a drift of rememberances.
It has an unearthly quality that returns us to ourselves in a different, headless, more expanded sense. Like Woody Guthrie’s message that he had written on his guitar, ‘This machine kills fascists’, so too there’s a dedication to a divine freedom of the word in this poetic sequence that is courageous and necessary in these bleak and cramped times. Consciousness needs to be transformed at a radical, social level and there’s an urgent need for our poets to discern and excavate the transforming words. Transformation is the key and as Holman reminds us and as we remind ourselves of something we noted right from the start, so it’s by now a kind of echo;
performed upon the
tongue must transform
the world.’(p 72)
Welcome to the cult.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 12th, 2009.