The main focus of attention of Stammers’ poetry in the first book is on the experience of the act of writing; his poems attempt to chart their own existence in space; that of their subject matter is maybe secondary to this. The experience of the act of writing is the source of the exuberance that is one of the most noticeable factors of the poems; it is also part of the experiencing of the self through the act of expression. And as we observe the process of the poems, which is what happens when we read them, then, as in quantum physics, we realize we are a part of what we observe; our enacting of the experience of the poem becomes part of our own myth as identifiable beings. So, with the event of writing the writing experience, is it possible that the two areas we interface are in fact further conjoined by our awareness of them in the act of writing?
I have no wish to put forward an entirely solipsistic slant to Stammers’ achievement here in his poems.
When we approach Interior Night we cannot help but notice a change in mood, in language-use. In terms of light and colour tones we encounter darker, more sombre colours. On reading Nightsweats in the Afternoon, we cannot but read it as another take, a darker, flipped, take on the earlier delightful House on the Beach of Panoramic Lounge Bar. In this latter book the role of language is undermined, the imagery and quotations that allow the elaborations, rhetorical flights, are questioned.
The poem The University recreates a self-enclosed, locked-in nightmare scenario; it is a world of seemingly real objects, but where the persona is only part-sensible: it is a dream landscape; these are all the qualities of the lucid dream. There is the seeming riddle of the subject of the poem that plays itself out twice (what Freud calls ‘repetition compulsion’), the constantly changing perspective, the changing uphill and downhill of the street to the shop; the colour schemes that tone down from brown to black. The poem has all the hallmark qualities of the half-awake dream state that enacts an unstated, unexplained complex event. It is a psychological memory that carries its own gestalt.
The earlier poem Ondine, opens with a take on a much-admired Pablo Neruda poem; the mannered style to the writing suggests to a certain extent the translatorese of the-poem-in-translation. Stammers constantly draws our attention to modes of verbal expression in this book, and how it perhaps has a conditioning effect on how we perceive the world. The subject matter, in this case alluding to a ballet, is of a water nymph whose song lures men to their death, and another classic Freudian concept. What Stammers does with the myth is investigate it from within, in this particular instance he takes up the central vehicle of the myth, the musical dimension: song, music, dance; he creates a typically Stammersian persona, and sees where it goes within the self- prison of its own existence.
In an early interview (Wolf Magazine), John Stammers commented that one the best pieces of luck in his writing career was to have Don Patterson for an editor, because he ‘doesn’t let him get away with anything’. Indeed, Patterson has joined that group of contemporary Scots poets whose commitment to poetics is strong and redoubtable: W N Herbert and Robert Crawford. This would imply that Stammer’s own use of poetics has thereby gone under close scrutiny. It is of a different order. Furthermore the Avenue (Stolen Love Behaviour) is a poem intent on sound. To read it aloud, read it for its patterns, is to trip the wire that sets it chiming; each metric foot has its own ring tone: Platters of sea bass, gambas and trinkling glass/do nothing but vie with the C-sharp of Lambrettas/ that dopple off down the street to G.’ Each ‘a’ sound of those first two lines, although linking in the mind’s ear with assonantal patterns, to the actual ear each has its own weight and inflection. The London voice weighs vowels differently. The stand-out onomatopoeic word ‘trinkling’ with its ‘r’ and high ‘i’s revs into the memory of the high warbling sound of a Lambretta; its ‘r’ specifically introduced by the preceding sharp pull-up sound of ‘C-sharp’. The long sound of ‘C’ continues the other sound strand through these lines, the sibilance. It is amusing how Stammers modulates high C to the key of G here by way of the pulled-back rhythmic stress in ‘Lambrettas’.
In Black Dog the Freudian arena is further explored. Black Dog is the classic image of depression (see Churchill), and depression in Freudian terms is the symptom of a suppressed complex. We have a mannered use of language: … the shadows commence a faint unnerving undulation… where coolness and distance could almost characterize it as a quotation from a clinician’s notes of a patient’s (analysand’s) dream record. This in turn contrasts with the later easy, relaxed, chatty tone of: … sciency new conditioner….. But it must be remembered that this is a description of the … awful sheen… the shadows wear. It is as if both of these types of language-use are ways of approaching the same suppressed gestalt of the subject matter. As we follow the poem we see it act itself out, we see the narrator and the experience become one. Similarly, in The House Sale, the persona is so very distinctly different from the Stammers of earlier poems; what is being enacted in this poem is an exploration of a dangerous, entrenched, state of mind. As this is an illustration rather than explanation of a state of mind/being, we readily accept the exaggerated aspects, attitudes, the reductive reasoning for what they are. Dead Alsatian… uses Martian distancing techniques, with their Hughesian undertones, for observing the concrete, the Real. Only, the real subject matter here is death; we have what is in effect a memento mori in miniature.
The Shrine of Proteus has a revealing prosody; the subject matter echoes Freud’s deep interest in classical myth, and its implications that play out in our daily lives. That is all very well, but it is what Stammers does with his subject matter is important, it is how it is written gives it its relevance. Structurally it is very interesting. The poem consists of nine stanzas, the first two of which have fifteen lines each, followed by a seven, an eleven, and then the last five of ten lines each. Metrically these lines pattern out roughly at eight iambics per line; but this is not the Stammers way: the line is the proper Stammers measure. Each line has its strong yet subtle internal audial patternings, whether by assonance or alliteration; it is usually a combination of both. It is tempting to say the line here is a breath-measure, but I don’t think it is so. The stanzas are built around polysyllabic patterns; the first stanza begins easily with a pocketful of small-change words, a jingling of copper and silver words, before we hit the larger denominations, the ‘barbarous’, ‘metaphysical’, ‘significance’, and ‘parodical’ before settling down again. Each stanza has its own variation. From line to line the pattern plays a variation on a basic sound-range. What this shifting does to the way we read the lines is important; this is particularly relevant in the last four lines of stanza nine, where the shift in level, tone, betokens a shift in perspective: we suddenly move from a fictionalised memory-tale, into something more sinister, psychological… Freudian. The form and range of perspectives, meanings, within the poem change; it is, in effect, protean.
Is it possible that, having said all this, in the volume Interior Night Stammers is attempting the Greek thing: catharsis? It is possible that by approaching the particular range of subject matter of the poems in this book, in this particular way, that Stammers is hoping to help us expose our underlying, suppressed, knowledge of the nature of the world around us: death, drugs, lust, fear… and so, to help us bring it out, see the world for what it is? What we do with that knowledge, is also of course, conditioned by the nature of the intent of that exposure.
I have name-checked quite a number of modern French writers in these pieces; can we go on and look for Irigary, Cixous, Kristeva? I have as yet not been able to locate any references. A previous reviewer of Stolen Love Behaviour commented to the effect that ‘Stammers says he is writing about love, passion. He can’t.’ At first I dismissed this as, ‘Well, when you look for only one (or two) definitions, or personal experiences, and then not find them… you know…! Well, need I say more!’ It was the dogmatic denial I reacted against. I think that maybe the mismatch here lies in that Stammers keeps strictly to an original-source Freudianism plus immediate interpreters for his life’s science, whilst the further French writers have produced critiques of Freud that at times dismantle both the efficacy of psycho-analysis, and of the Freudian conceptual framework. This then, is perhaps one other boundary of Stammers’ world.