Translating the Coal Forests by Camilla Nelson and Steven Hitchens isn’t exactly poetry. That is, the object ‘Translating the Coal Forests’ expresses itself – and reshapes the expressiveness of its words – in several ways which are extra-linguistic, extra-poetic. It’s a tiny object, a fragile bundle of speckled grey paper, roughly recycled, with scraps of print from the paper’s previous life showing brokenly through, together with delicate semi-transparent leaves holding the small, definite print. The whole thing is bound tissue-delicately, as if struggling to retain its wholeness, the previous lives of its material pressing it apart from within. The pages are joined in places like a book, in other places like a concertina, so there’s no defined order in which to read the fragments of poetry. Layers of poetry on each translucent sheet show through to the page you’re reading. Just as the thing falls to pieces with the touch involved in reading, the words and sentences of the text dissolve and reform themselves grammatically, metrically and narratively. Syntactic fragments, phrases and words are cut off midway through – or are only ambiguously words at all – or recur unexpectedly, remixed with phrases from elsewhere. No sentence is confidently, fully, only itself.
And what of the words? The text reads as a collage of scientific treatise, reference book, computer glitch and unmeditated personal expression. Who is that person doing the expressing, though?
C consists of four parts: could, silt & S
or refuse long enough to have Johnny foreigner take root in
your front garden
Reading this, we get the uncomfortable feeling that it’s the coal forests – those huge, primeval forests turned to the fossil fuels we’re currently exploiting to burn down the world – talking, and that it’s us, humanity, regarded as Johnny foreigner. The elliptical indexicality of the text along with the fragility of the publication itself adds up to a convincing demonstration of the attacked and collapsing natural world projecting its own turmoil on to the text which aims to describe it. The language which would denote that world (either poetically or scientifically) is here unable to stand aloof from the destruction it points at, the damaged signifier mirroring the damaged signified.
This is poetically as well as politically effective. As the object begins to inform the reading of its words, they become increasingly significant. The innocuous word ‘omelettes’ suddenly calls to mind the eggs mercilessly broken in its production, the natural cost of consumption. This –
Ah – the name-producing carbon of the pencil
and the hand, producing material
from which remains nothing else remains.
If, one excludes, the different piano playing always in the
– draws omelette-level of significances around writing, the (im)personal creation of meaning, ‘remains’ as survivor, ‘remains’ as reject, extinction and exclusion together into the image of the ‘different piano’ – that inhuman other ‘playing always in the / background’. It’s strong, affecting stuff, harmonising form and content – text and object, meaning and implication – meaningfully together.
Bendigo, by Fiona Cameron, too, has an oblique approach to its social commentary. The poem is a long dramatic monologue in six parts, narrated by a mother in the process of day-to-day life with a young child, and is addressed largely to that child. We learn at the opening that ‘Bendigo means you want / something’ and, at least for a while, the text forms around this recurrent exclamation: Bendigo. The baby’s wants (what it desires, but also what it lacks) structure the poem.
The most striking formal aspect of the text is the scarcity of punctuation except for question marks and slashes:
you had enough to drink in
this heat?/are we running
out of milk?/need to buy
more at some point this
dinner thoughts/no, lunch
The device effectively mimics the swerve of mind as the narrator tries to juggle and keep up with baby’s Bendigo-ings. The slashes throw into question the rhythm of the lines, their cadance, as the rhythm of routine might be disrupted by the unpredictability of young life. The line breaks aren’t allowed to be the only breaks in the poem, their authority as structuring device undermined, as the usual intervals in a day (between lunch and dinner, say) become disrupted in caring for a child. Combined with a strong lyric sensibility – the deepening vowel sounds in describing an escaping cat as a ‘silken pattern of / fur’, for example – this would be enough to produce an engaging book.
But although part of the poem’s appeal is in its stylistic eloquence, it quickly finds itself a wider scope. On the second page, a snatch of the radio intervenes:
at any one given moment
there are thousands of . . . /
We skip over this happily at the time, but its ominousness becomes clear in the other moments in which the radio’s background burble breaks into the narrative. The host discusses euthanasia, and the ongoing genocide in Gaza. But with the note that ‘most of the dead are women / and children/’ these issues seem to take a step closer.
milk/white blank sky
thick bandage/must buy
Soon phrases like ‘sky / deals death’ make their way into the main stream of the narration: the sky the narrator escapes into the countryside to look at with baby is the same sky from which death falls on the Palestinians. The device isn’t overplayed; we’re often unsure whether we’re reading the ominous hints of threat into the prosaic tapestry of daycare, or whether they’re really there.
In this way, the outside world’s concerns impinge upon the relationship between mother and child. Talk of Scottish independence raises questions of togetherness and separation which speak back to the personal relationship around which the poem is built. Images begin to do good work, like that of a washing machine –
full of sweet
smells and all your little
clothes/all the machines
The quick turn from sweetness into something ambiguously darker is effective, unnerving.
At times these reachings for greater significance seem contrived – even clumsy, and once or twice cringe-inducingly so – but those occasions are outweighed by how often the poem is subtle and skilful in the way it introduces (and sustains) political and social concerns into an intimate relationship.
RAF/RWF is by Sarah Crewe and Pascal O’Loughlin, although you’d only find that out in small print at the very back of the pamphlet. This authorial elision, along with several other things, marks the pamphlet from the off as openly rebellious: the cover bears the logo of the the Red Army Faction – a 1970s German militant left-wing organisation otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof group. It’s somewhat akin to using an IRA logo, and regardless of the sympathies of a reader to the group’s communist ideology, it’s an aggressively confrontational design.
Overlaid over the logo, though, are the stark black initials RWF – those of the german countercultural filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The promise of conflict, then, between violent revolutionary struggle and the aesthetisisation of that struggle is marked as central from the off. The publication’s opening line bears this out: ‘cockdrama with glossy Holocausty edge/’. This isn’t uncharacteristic for the pamphlet – the flippancy with which the holocaust is viewed as reducible to a cosmetic description is challenging, if not jarring. Also characteristic is the mixture of violence with sex, with the disregard for poetic convention working to allow a space in which mainstream (reading, you want to say ‘bourgeois’) sexual and moral conventions can be pulled apart. Indeed, whether a reader enjoys this pamphlet will come down largely, I suspect, to whether that reader considers the conventions of mainstream poetry to hold or imply the values of a heteronormative patriarchal bourgeois worldview.
Nonetheless, there are occasions where the need to transgress seems to become a principle in its own right, and passages lose their ability to signify further than the gesture of transgression a teenager might commit in drawing a cock on a toilet door. What’s most interesting, in fact, about RAF/RWF is the way in which it reproduces questions which face revolutionary groups such as the Red Army Faction, albeit on an aesthetic, rather than a military-strategic plane. To what extent does its violent divergence from mainstream ideas preclude the possibility of sympathy from that mainstream? There’s certainly no concession, here, to any generalisable conception of beauty, prosody or metre. The aim, presumably, isn’t simply to alienate; as with Fassbinder, the goal will be to provide a dramatic alternative to the damaging narratives and mythos of a prevailing culture, perceived as fascistic by its critics. It’s questionable whether RAF/RWF succeeds in establishing a cogent aesthetic position from which to mount such a criticism.
The pamphlet’s emotional heart, though, is in the unbearable struggle of Ulrike Meinhoff, a woman who set aside her career as a journalist, and her family, for the revolutionary struggle, for robbing banks and planting bombs, and eventually died a sad, lonely death, hanging herself in police custody after being arrested for her part in the RAF. RAF/RWF is a text deeply involved in her life, and its problems derive from the attempt to reconcile its rejection of most of the techniques by which poetry would usually aim for emotional affect. But they can do it, on occasion:
master says you have no heart you can’t rob banks you can’t
stop talking you cannot intellectualise a toilet brush you are not
joan of arc you cannot use scissors your slave mother begs you
ulrike come home