Black Herald Press 2010
Paul Stubbs introduces his new long poem Ex Nihilo by explaining that “this is a poem of a poem happening, with the very first ‘form,’ a creation ‘felt’ by me into existence.”
Indeed, the poem, as a whole, seems very much an attempt to side-step language in any conventional sense. How so? the reader might ask… how can a poem behave in a manner that functions ‘beyond language’ while being made up of words? How to attempt the rejoining of the physiological aspect of thought with the physicality of language? It’s a fascinating notion, and so we might still, on reading Ex Nihilo, see how the shunning of an atmosphere of at least a ‘conventional discourse’ is very much on display here, with language squarely implicated. It might be perhaps advisable to suggest that the terminology used to get to grips with a poem like Ex Nihilo must at least be as considered as the poem itself seems to be. What we ARE resolutely confronted with is a poem that holds so close to feeling that language is weak to hold up its own physiological aspect. Regardless, this unique tension is very much the metaphysical ground on which the journey of this poem is built.
Firstly, the reader coming to a piece like this will immediately have difficulty with the supreme lack of what we have come to know as ‘reference’ in modern poetry, and in this sense it might be felt that Stubbs is resolutely working outside conventional norms of descriptive writing in English.
The same criticism was also made of Robert Duncan at one point, that, with the poem rendered as ‘pure act’ commented upon, a poem of process; i.e the moving away from the vocal frame of reference into an entire ‘process’ left the orality of the poem dead or ‘loose’ in some way. In many ways Ex Nihilo IS a poem looking for the sound of thoughts rather than vocalisations, or possibly a poem that appears out of the notion that thought itself is limited, ideological and fundamentally self-destructive without forms of unconscious balance… and there are positives and negatives in this regard…
as I, I milk back my ink
from the first etymological gland
while checking out new sensory terminus
for the arrival of what makeshift or barbaric form?
but nothing, as yet, attached,
only a blink by me, and silence regarding the oddity
of my hand, counting out its
presence on each
with reference reduced to bodily, or biological, description there is a concision in the poem that immediately strikes one as new and intriguing. All world is fundamentally self… and so the descriptive and imagistic function of language is given a final re-appraisal. Words, then, become one with objects and do not signify in any traditional vocal sense.
– A full-stop by me, a rock on a shoulder,
an exclamation mark, a sword undrawn still
from a scabbard.
As the piece continues we also see the metaphysical, biological urges slowly intermingle with the creative thought processes so that the whole sense of music and ‘lyric’ are displaced, becoming a landscape of sorts, a body of language, which is also a physical body. Add to this the usual philosophical concerns that feature heavily in Stubbs’s The Icon Maker and you have a sense of what this new step is.
my ‘identity’ taken to its most anthropological
conclusion in the act of myth.
An author then who is
not God, but who has abdicated his own private
morality; so of course cannot really carry any
true threat to civilization, or man, or to both…
Where Ex Nihilo departs from the earlier work, however, is its sheer ability to shed the heavy narrative voice. The voice here is the voice of the poem itself, enacted in journey of a ‘making’ of sorts.
The emphasis on myth, here, seems paramount. The role of the mythic, particularly in poetry, is the seed of all narration and all voice, and so this very much seems to indicate the journey and direction of Stubbs’s poem, in fact; it is the atmospheric direction over the narrative direction, which works under more energetic and philosophical terms.
In saying as much, it’s also worth pointing out that all the modern(ist) modes of entry into poetry seem succinctly cut off in their tracks (historical-fragmentarynesses of Pound, plain-spoken high lyric of a Neruda or a Darwish, the playfulness and flippant punning and playfulness of language poetry).
But now, look! coming into view,
an enfilade of mistaken ancestors, pulling
down their visors to hide the identity of my
and spitting blood clear from their mouths,
as, at once, army after re-battle to take
control of me…
The object bluntly at issue here is how a form of identity may multiply or coalesce with its self and selves, and particularly how self takes on an entirely new role in the 21st Century, particularly within its political and technological manifestations. We live in an era of mind control, spin, decision dressed as indecision, indecision dressed as decision, image, and brand, dressed as reality… when the real power lies dormant in the anthropologised form of the self, realised only in the sloughing off of egoistic ideas and manufactured self-images themselves
[…] I plant
now the seed of your own death
into my heart, and
then wait for it: your absence to
finally outgrow me.
Until off into whatever world awaits
me, I’ll go…
There is a great optimistic verve to the poem, here, in that there are certain mental terrains conjured that I don’t think we have seen anywhere else, meaning; in as much as a semblance of narrative is retained, and a tradition implied (perhaps something more resolutely Francophile/European… particularly in Stubbs’s using Valery in his introduction) Ex Nihilo seems simply to be creating its own rules, its own concerns, its own self and selves, and is unlike anything in British poetry right now.
As a long poem, also, Stubbs’s trajectory should not be confused with an aim, or a goal… it dissolves all the narrative aspects of myth and story (whilst evolving out of them) to bring us close to only ‘a speaking’, meaning that enlightenment or reading is not ‘arrived at’ but left ‘interacted with’ and wholly open to the reader’s own mind. That said, I hope very much it will turn some heads and, for those willing to experiment, will offer some very new ways of playing the ancient game of poetry.
A comparison between the poet of Ex Nihilo and Blandine Longre’s Clarities would be useful in the sense that each of them is working at carving out a voice in the physiological sense, and yet this type of exercise is best left to a larger forum of discussion.
What Clarities introduces us to is a poet absolutely fully formed, dealing with the subtleties of human communication in a pressured, psychologically intriguing way. There is also much of the ecstatic in the tone of this poet, a voice that closely adheres to its own joy, in the sense of, say, a Whitman or a Blake.
to the nearest unstoppable
move – as (in stillness) nascent
steps expect us
to our own everywheres:
suburban leaps over fleeting darkscapes
evading senses above wizened throngs
splashed-out paces along sharpened
meridians and riverbeds of pain –
all steering our stammering selves away
…perhaps this is one of the great fascinations of reading a French poet who is stranded, having crossed languages, in unique terrain… it is a freshness and candour very little currently around in the twin-monoliths of British and North American culture.
Can’t prevent my I-soul
(all drifting guts
and sturdy question marks)
from pacing from one beginning to the next
venture from taking ghostly
steps toward her own
air-borne reflections – won’t hinder her from
spreading her ruthless female
wings whirr-whirling above heaps of
shards scraps pieces
…the build-up of adjectives, here, proves infectious and cheering, particularly as we know it is anchored in such a strange and intriguing metaphysical conceit. The “I-soul” might be the well from which this multi-voiced voice springs? Or it could be twinned and multiplied to something larger? Regardless, it is the confidence with which that anchor is toyed with/frolicked around that surprises and interests this reader.
It would be useful, perhaps, to quote one of the most articulate and achieved poems of this collection in full; Away with
I anew, who never knew
what it was until
now the readiness has come to full-handedly
seize and slay and quarter
those self-slaving selves –
whatever corrupted bosomless atoms
debodied the soul and the inert rest
(deminding torments in the guise of mummified
yes, the readiness has now come
to fare this whatever well
to hurl it up and fast and down
the hallowed slopes of
In short, a poem about being prepared for something, about being aware and awake… seemingly the opposite of poetic concision in that it seems to extrapolate, instead of condensing that initial sensation. It is the psychic-build-up, the tumble-and-fall quality of the words that really opens up a wholly other space for invention. I can’t really think of any female poets, in this language, who have this ecstatic tone with its delight in run-on-lines, endless swervings of focus, and strange and intriguing enjoinments and connections. Conceptually speaking, only, there is an incredible amount of meat on bone.
1/”self-slaving selves”; the emotional letting go of the systematizing of a self, a breakdown in which poetry has been conscious of for nigh on two or three decades, but rarely has it been so expertly imagined and explicitly relayed to the reader. 2/ “bosomless atoms”; the connection of the physical so entirely imured in the mother figure 3/ “debodied the soul”; the notion of the soul’s real or original body being entirely historical other. The combination of these extrapolations on that initial ‘readiness’ brings with it some wonderfully imagined objects for consideration. But it’s most often the confidence with which these lines are multiplied that ultimately impresses.
Formally we have something akin to Elizabethan sonnets blown to smithereens and re-arranged by a combination of an Apollinaire, a William Carlos Williams and a Charles Olson. Longre’s lines slither and slurp across the page, others speed and jump proto-iambically… (in fact, what intrigues most about both of these releases is, formally, is their relationship to the spoken voice. Both seem much much closer to the spoken than the written. In fact this reviewer even records parts of them just to see how the oral interplay of the lines compared with the written forms, and this bodes very interestingly for the direction in which they are taking poetry).
don’t you dare
step nearer my messy shores and
unweave or carve or cement them out
of sticky-sickly nostalgia as
they’re mine, yes, these harrowed knots
and angst-stained clefts (be them
rapturous voids meeting raw sorrow meeting tight-
you knew not
nor wished until.
…the form creates its own sonic imperatives and bustles along its way in mixtures of half-rhyme, no-rhyme, vowel echoes, assonances and airs. Again, what impresses is the directness that is maintained despite the wordly acrobatics, the intention still present in each thrust and burst of language. From an English language perspective Longre seems to have conjured a poetics and poetry that is consistently joyful, satisfying and intelligent.
These first two releases on Black Herald Press, in exemplifying an almost wholly intuitive magnificence, have set the bar incredibly high for future releases, and in many ways one cannot repeat OR renege but simply continue and see what this incredibly interesting press is going to release next. If we stop to also consider the great energy behind the first issue of the press’s magazine The Black Herald one can only be thankful that such supreme acts of generation are very much alive and well, with poems still digging around in the ever expanding ground of modern poetry.
Andrew O’Donnell, The Fiend