HIGH-WIRE ACTS AND LETHAL SYNTAX: Recent Ragged Lion Journals
By David Hackbridge Johnson ©11.v.2020
Two Ragged Lions at once. The months telescope and April and May arrive in one envelope. Reading them one after the other gives a distinct pleasure of continuities – albeit in work that often emphasises the disjunct, the conflicted, even the liminal hovering over the abyss. The editor, E.A.D. Sellors has not burdened the journal with lengthy justifications in the form of an editorial; neither has he offered biographies of the writers. This saves me the trouble of having to regurgitate such information as can be found elsewhere – on the web for example – something I haven’t done yet as I wanted to plunge into the work. Some poets are better known to me than not at all. Hence, for this reader, the freshness of discovery. The works published are all of merit – if I talk about some and not others it is simply that some pieces struck a few sparks off me. Others are works in progress for me as a reader and require a groping towards response. Both issues (which are #2 and #3 of the Ragged Lion Journal) contain poems, short stories, prose-poems and valuable pieces of criticism.
If I take (from RLJ #2) – Scott Wannberg (an arch re-telling of the Hamlet story), S. A. Griffin (many image-yokings in a nod to, perhaps, Breton and Ashbery in equal measure), John Dorsey (two poems of apparently simple nostalgia that belie a fear of imminent disappearance), A. D. Winans (a superb gangster poem), Neeli Cherlovski (a tragedy of compressed lives), – as a group exhibiting a quasi-Beat flavour I hope this doesn’t do too much damage to their individual voices. There is an admixture of the New York School; something of O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ – a willingness to let ‘everything’ into the poem even if that is not what we get. There is a laconic stance that appeals by means of demotic syntax; a rolling-barrage of imagery (especially in Griffin) that gives the impression that the words are searching for the form they will take. Thus, work that cannot be second guessed. So my assumption is that these are American writers – but I haven’t found time to check. Perhaps they hail from Oxford. Or Tooting.
Perhaps Erika Krouse fits in this group too – but I rather see her work as a condensed and fragmented family saga; a family hampered by generational distance, disappointment – a miniaturised evocation of dissolution in relationships as we find writ large in Jayne Ann Phillips’ Machine Dreams, or in John Williams’ Stoner. Krouse provides not a panoramic view but one of snapshots – or vignettes, each one sutured to the next by the linkage of word chains that meld the 14 sections together – a ‘prose sonnet’ form as she calls it. Most moving is the scene where the mother, whose daughter can't express love to her and vice versa, has had her luggage ransacked at the airport; we observe her sitting beside the empty suitcase: ‘She cried, not loud, but thoroughly. Nothing to give.’ A hollow space opens up here – one of hopelessness and defeat.
Bill Meissner’s short story Balancing: Karl Wallenda’s Watch is alarmingly vertiginous. A relationship is in the balance due to the fact that two lovers can’t tell each other the things that really matter – and these tender refusals are played out against the backdrop (I shouldn’t have used ‘drop’) of the death of Karl Wallenda, the dynastic head of the high-wire act The Flying Wallendas. The conclusion unites both fear and dependency in an image of falling: ‘They balance there together, as if it will always be this way between them: catching each other, then falling, then catching each other again.’
Derek Adams gives us a résumé of work by Pascale Petit and Matthew Sweeney. I just note that Sweeney has a high-wire poem called The Wobble (see the Wallendas, above – yes, hopefully they always remain above….), and that another of his poems, Reading, has a man in court explaining why he was reading in his car on the M1, but that it was poetry and ‘….they’re mostly short. You can look up/between them….’. I’ll chip in here with the thought that the arraigned driver must have been reading Ed Dorn who wrote poetry at the steering wheel of his car in short bursts. Adams informs us, among much else, that a poem of Petit’s features a mask of fire ants. This striking image makes me very much want to read her work, which I do not know.
Tom Bland is in both RLJ #2 and #3, so he is the link poet if you will. When a young boy gets run over in a poem (not a frequent happening) I immediately have in mind the image of the road death in Robert Altman’s movie based on Raymond Carver’s tales and poems, Short Cuts – ‘Casey didn’t make it this time….’. In Bland’s The pottery eyes, the death is not a pointless tragedy but a willed thanatos of celebrity-inspired suicide. A Lana Del Ray lyric appears emblazoned on a bakery lorry and the obsessed boy hurls himself under the wheels – his dream fulfilled. This is a Ballardian gesture – a pedestrianised version of Crash. The leap into metal, glass and plastic. An erotics of collision – Del Rey’s creamy baritonal lament as soundtrack, the roaring vehicle mistaken for her glossy image. More of a homage to than derivative of Ballard, the poem treats the incident as, incidental to buying a fridge. The fridge is nevertheless a ‘work of art’, made so by its associations with the ultimate creative act – that of creative expungement by suicide. The poem allows in other fetishized behaviours including necrophilia and incest. Even the lover in a sexual interlude is playing dead it seems. A poem both funny and alarming, The pottery eyes tells us much of obsession and realised fantasy, and the pay-off of potential destruction.
RLJ #3 has such themes of violence, to others and to self, at its heart – one may say that the central work here is R. J. Dent’s fine translation of the 2nd Canto from Count de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror – the canto featuring the appalling ship wreck culminating in the copulation of Maldoror and a shark. #3 might be subtitled ‘Under the Sign of Lautréamont’. The Count, that proto-Decadent, can be felt in the work of Jeremy Reed (who wrote the splendid Isidore – his novelisation of Lautréamont’s life), in the work of Audrey Szasz, and in that of Lana Durjava, whose Francis Bacon: A Corrosive Kind of Love, describes an abusive relationship predicated on some form of violence in order to release sexual and spiritual energy – the type of relationship that occurs in Maldoror in the heightened form of the lurid-baroque. To find Trakl, Daumal and Stanislas de Guaita – all expanders of consciousness by any means available, although usually in a jar, brings further voices to the Maldororian chorus. That de Guaita is mentioned at all (in Durjava’s other piece) is a sign of what I hope is a resurgence of interest in this figure, whose works I can boast of having read at least in part, and to whose flat in Paris I have made pilgrimage. These authors form an occult congeries worthy of Edmond Bailly’s bookshop in rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin! – (now an Apple Store….).
Bland’s boy suicide feeds a theme deeply adumbrated in Durjava’s essay Self-Destruction in Art and Life. We are given a list of the six famous suicides of the Dada/Surrealist groupings and the intellectual journeys that led them there. She also explores the idea of disease as a gift, illness as the ‘intention in life’ – her quotation from Svevo. I was put in mind here of H. P. Lovecraft’s almost disembodied descriptions of his own decay during terminal illness – the observing body outside the dying body. Durjava’s approach to such taboos is unflinching.
Disembodied violence finds apocalyptic expression in Paul Curran’s dystopian poem Generation Bloodbath. The world of the ‘we’ is under constant assault by poisoning, torture, firebombing and dubious therapeutics. A sequence of regimes – ‘old’, ‘neo’, ‘new’ – come and go, each one often strangely absent, their traces left in weird products that are tools of repression masquerading as benefit. Then, they ‘retreated for the weekend’, they ‘vanished from our screens’ – as if once set in motion the grinding down of the populace can be managed by remote access. Their acts of repression are trade-marked and copyrighted: ‘Atrocity®’, ‘Pseudo-Regime™’, ‘SnuffCorpus©’ – as if even murder is a commodity. Any nods to the Orwellian must be gratefully acknowledged as the message is still pertinent.
To return to Bland – his exhilarating style already recognisable from just two poems. The mixture of the philosophical and the popular strikes home again; this time it’s Slavoj Žižek and Kate Winslet. Why I Didn’t Fuck Zizek ends in a drag competition where the poet lets everything hang out – and I mean everything. The violence is more comedic than in Curran but the sketch-like scenes encapsulate thoughts of extreme violence nevertheless – even if they are things thought and not acted out. The death-drive that overshadows much of RLJ#3 is still there. I might mention an affinity between Tom Bland and the work a young poet Caspar Heinemann where a similar deeply serious yet very funny aesthetic is on display. The ease with which such poetry teases the notion of the post-modern might be enough to label them ‘post-post-modern’. Theory is not disbarred but left in play at the mercy of rapier wits.
Two poets to end this brief survey. Jeremy Reed needs no introduction to lovers of counterculture. He is, among much else, Soho’s poet-laureate. The sights, smells, colours, and above all, the people of the West End are everywhere in Reed’s work. He is a flâneur of the old, yet new school – the streets he wanders through, the bars he writes in are changing every day; he himself changes with the volatility of the environment. But his sensual eye always prepares a sting for the unwary – like much of the work here, he is unflinching in his revelations. In Crack we see a life crushed by addiction – even the syntax is crushed: ‘I catch one phrase in three’. Reed makes this person real and yet he knows that the life is on a knife edge – ‘until without warning you terminate’. In The Devil in Red Velvet, Reed glories in the luxurious colours and textures of Liberty fabrics – a feast of colour words on show like a swatch of vivid flashes that catch the poet’s eye. But an ‘ammonia smell’ instils fear and there is ‘a hammered red’ figure that is ‘dislodged from the dark’. As if the flâneur has met his malicious Doppelgänger. The glamour-syntax of Reed can be found in the poems of Audrey Szasz. There is the same fascination with dressed and adorned figures – a specificity by ‘sequins’, ‘lashes’, ‘zippers’, ‘sables’ and ‘minks’ – these words can be descriptive or used as similes; indeed such is the visual vividness that it hardly matters. Szasz’s work appeared in RLJ #1 and by now, like Bland’s, it is instantly recognisable. Whereas Reed is often celebratory or elegiac, Szasz plays on more grand guignol tropes – there is violence in the colourings and feel of clothes – as if threat is latent. Anger comes through, cutting but not severing the curiously delicate way in which the verse in structured. The knife is poised, but as in Ballard (again) the prosody is poised too, in a different way. The knife is finally wielded in New Mutations – here a grim murder which cannot be random since it must be staged: ‘the victim’s precision-crafted smile’ – the technique in this line is lethal!