Friday, 6 October 2017

Shotgun Review #5: Loydell's Annunciations

George Ttoouli reviews Rupert Loydell's Dear Mary (Shearsman 2017)

Poetry book - available from Shearsman

Time taken to read: This was my toilet book for a few weeks while I was meeting a deadline. For a week I kept getting stuck on the preface. Then I switched to dipping in randomly, reading a few short pieces in a row or one long piece, to get a sense of the mood, tone, etc. Finally, I read the whole book (exc. preface) in one sitting while listening to ‘Dear Mary’ on repeat – about 52min. I still haven’t finished the preface, not for any fault of the writing, just, well, it’s not poetry.

Time taken to review: 1hr (+ some editing)

Where found: Sent by Shearsman. Possibly for review. It’s hard to tell with Rupert, he’s been sending me things in the post for over a decade. I didn't even give him my new address.[1]

Transparency: Rupert has been a long-standing affiliate for G&P. We’ve published his solo work, some of his collaborations, various bits and pieces. Also that aggressive interview, which is still the most successful in the series, despite being the first attempt. Rupert has also published some of my work at Stride Magazine and smallminded books and also the other one which published the thing he did with Sarah Cave, which they've been talking about on G&P this week. Some might say I’m too close to him, but this is a poetry-only love affair, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think we’ve met face to face since, oh, about 2002, when he told me over a busy restaurant table that I was trying to be ‘too clever’ in my poetry. I’ve always appreciated that honesty and respect him enough to serve the same back.

Time started: 13:15-14:15 to draft + editing


Anyone wondering where Luke Kennard gets his schtick from could save themselves the bother of digging around and read Rupert Loydell's poetry.[2] Particularly this new book, Dear Mary, just out from Shearsman (April 2017). The hallmarks are all there: the strangely inviting personal voice, the diaristic sense of someone's idiosyncratic life being recorded, a headlong confrontation with religion (tho with less of LK's trademark doubt and self-castigation), and, of course, the wry humour. But where Kennard's humour is the dominant note for a lot of his work - a bass line from which he deviates, much to the disappointment of his audiences, no doubt (stop trying to show range!) - Loydell's poetry carries a less-than-obvious central emotional tone, from which he can go many places. The work isn't pigeonhole-able in the same way.

As a result, it's easier to start with the complexity underwriting this book: the multiply-threaded frame, the sense of a lived experience undigested or filtered for 'meaning.' One of the pieces that most brilliantly encapsulates Dear Mary's range arrives early on, dedicated to David Miller. Starting as if it wants to be a prose review mixed with diary, it shifts to a slim column of images, before returning to a summative prose:

The poet's book has served me well, and has sat literally and conceptually alongside a short book on colour, a re-read novel of occult training and enlightenment, and a fictional exploration of moments when the celestial and human met or even touched.
('"A Process of Discovery"' - the title has quotation marks to denote its origin as a title from Miller).

I didn't check the notes before reading and assumed the book on colour was Wittgenstein's Remarks on Colour (which serves as the title of one of Dear Mary's later poems). The notes tell me otherwise - it's not entirely significant however. What's obvious is how well Loydell weaves these aesthetic and personal elements through the book, using journal styles and minimalism and a range of other modes, somehow held together by a deft complexity of tone and emotion.

Colour is the strongest, early feature-of-significance to the poems. Part of the book might be taken as a discourse on painting, on sensory visuals, on the meaning of colour preferences. An early poem ('Lost in Colour') notes, presumably, Loydell's artistic training and how to others he seemed "seduced by colour" - a criticism he wears proudly. (The moment is reminiscent, to me at least, of Robin Blaser sharing Charles Olson's accusation, that Blaser's supposedly rubbish with syntax, in a collection called Syntax.) Of course, the play with voices elsewhere suggests I'm just making a rookie mistake, associating the training with the author's biography, but that's the mode at the beginning: lyrical memoir.

Yet this colour-conversation is where the book's 'realism' or 'interpretability' begins to break down for me. Ostensibly, we're led in the first half of the collection through Loydell's love affair with Italian Renaissance paintings of Mary and the Annunciation, while on holiday in Tuscany. He paints, he swims, he mucks about with colours, he drags his family on long drives to see his favourite paintings in remote churches, only to find the churches closed and no one around to let them in... If you ask me, Loydell must be an insufferable person to go on holiday with.

But this is a projection, a reconstruction. By the mid-point in the book I found myself thinking Loydell's never been to Italy in his life. The whole thing is a set up. All the artists and poets and critics referenced are actually twentieth century or more recent: Francis Bacon, Deborah Turbeville, David Hart, David Toop, David Batchelor (a lot of Davids) - the 'Fra Angelico' is Diane Cole Ahl's, not some 16thC maestro.

The 'aha!' moment for me is in a piece called 'The Pictures Started to Instruct Me': "I wanted all the colours to be present at once. / ... How difficult it becomes when one / tries to get very close to the facts". This is not real representation, but an interrogation of how difficult it is to turn the real world into art. The danger then is that you start to believe these unreal representations more than the world itself.

Moments of real experience in the first half of the collection contribute to a sense of the ridiculousness of artistic living. At the end of the poem for David Miller, the painter-poet gives up for a bit, decides to go for a swim: "A startled lizard runs from the sudden splash." The juxtaposition is somewhat ridiculous because the poem has barely made an attempt to locate the poet spatially in Tuscany. Is he in the sea? A lake? A pool? Where the hell is the lizard and how has the painter-poet even noticed it, if he's jumping into the water? The perspective is all shot through: that's the point: this isn't trying to represent reality. It's interrogating the ease at which we are 'seduced by colour' when we read, or view art.

Which then leads me to the second thread: "a fictional moment when the celestial and the human met or even touched". The 'Mary' of the title is, unobviously, a composite. The notes here reveal the lyrics of Steve Miller's 'Dear Mary' are themselves collaged from the lyrics of several other musicians' songs.[3] So too this Mary, filtering multiple Marys into a composite; they're not really about Mary herself, most of the time, but about the process of hunting down what Mary means, building that picture from multiple sources, making idiosyncratic connections and compiling them into something that seems believable enough to be real, but in fact, like the worlds built in each painting, is just another subjective version of the world, a new world, a world-in-itself.

This sense establishes itself and then, having prepped you through a kind of uncanny accrual of not-quite-right glitches in the matrix, we're offered the first proper discomfort provided by a number of long pieces: 'Shadow Triptych' after Francis Bacon. The three parts are not numbered, and the columns are, in turn, located to the left hand side of the page, the centre and the right, each in straight-edged columns, like the panels of a triptych. The series is in fact a kind of essay, or series of essays. And it's here (and in the later long pieces, particularly 'My Paper Aunt') where the collection's occult influences seem most prevalent.

The essay combines all the threads I've emphasised, but the tone shifts to something unnerving: the tones of Bacon's paintings, the fleshy torture, the sense of darkness inside those faceless jumbles of tendon and muscle. The notes to the poem are a long list of influences, including Bacon's paintings, of course, but also, surprisingly Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase' and, unsurprisingly, E.M. Cioran's The Trouble with Being Born. I wouldn't be surprised to learn the entire 'Shadow Triptych' is a cento, but then, that's the beauty of the whole collection: it never lets you shake off the createdness of its 'world,' and that its 'world' is nothing more than the subjective experiences of just one person, nexused through many other subjectivities. (Nothing more! Hah!)

That said, there's more here than merely listening to someone else's heartbeat-in-language. That's not the point. I started with a comparison to Kennard at the beginning (my association, deployed in expectation (some of) our reader(s) might be familiar), I'll deviate back there now. There are a few poems here that I almost took as sacriligeous. In one, Mary goes online dating while Joseph's out. An angel shows up and "When he disrobed, it was a bit of a shock to see what he'd kept hidden" ('Online Dating Annunciation').

Later, there's 'Alien Annunciation': "according to Mary her pet's barking continued to get louder and louder throughout the visitation." If these had been part of a novella by, say, Colm Toibin, there'd probably have been a witch hunt. Instead, located here, there's a gentility and a kindness - a making senseness to how they form part of the picture of someone trying to make sense of a celestial encounter with the human, the real. The need to make sense, even where it transcends understanding.

These parts are perhaps closest to the aforementioned Kennardian absurdism. Tonally, however, they range out of easy laughter. There's a batch of poems in the second half of the book where humour seems to be the dominant mode, but in context of what's gone before, particular the doomy triptych, it's hard to take them as release or relief.

Or perhaps they're a temporary relief. A bit like the process-driven pieces. A few poems smack of googlisms, lists heavy with repetition and wild juxtaposition, where the ego shines out from the cracks between curated pieces, rather than glowing in the voice-driven language. The more deceptive pieces, the ones where the voice does a very good job of sounding familiar, are the places where I found myself least secure. The process-driven stuff - flarf, Oulipo, those conscious moments of trying to get outside of representational, first person lyric conventions - feels, to me, like it has had its day, especially here, with Dear Mary's unstable eye/I. Those diary pieces, so deceptively inviting, stretch the lyric mode into strange places, finding room to manoeuvre a personal personality within the constraints of very poetry-looking poetry.

Actually, if I had to give you an accurate sense of this book, I'd say, it's a bit like wearing a Rupert-suit for an hour. Yes, really; this is poetry as a record of experience, through and through: lived moments coupled to the reflections on, the long-running tracks of thought to which one person idiosyncratically returns, time and again, coupled to a private journalism, curated through a totalising subjectivity, but one which is always overstretching the rigidity of those boundaries with new perspectives, alternative subjectivities entering through, melding with the pluralist eye/I.

The poems in Dear Mary are knitted from the real experience of a person, filtered through the alembic known as Rupert Loydell and passed on, partial, imperfect, formed into meanings and moments, against which you'll find a flicker of what it means to be not-yourself, for just a moment. If that sounds a little bit Buffalo Bill, well, maybe that's fair enough: it's just the wrong side of understandable to leave me with an uncanny feeling of having been dropped into something too familiar to be knowable.


[1] This is a lie, of course, and I should also add, I've had some delightful things in the post from Rupert, including a dozen or more issues from small-minded books.

[2] The fact check elves (OK, read: Rupert) notes that Kennard and Nathan Thompson and Rupert were all associated around Exeter at some point, along with people like Andy Brown (still there) and Alasdair Paterson (not sure if he's still there), latter of whom used to run a reading event, where perhaps they fraternised. The influence is speculation on my part. Also, I've slightly edited the passive aggressive, 'I miss you, Luke' out of the first sentence of the review, for reasons just stated.

[3] My rush job missed the fact that it isn't Steve Miller's song that's collaged, but Rupert's poem of the same title.

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