on ‘Nom de Plume’ by John Stammers (2001)

Posted: August 7, 2011 in John Stammers Page

Nom de Plume (from Panoramic Lounge Bar, 2001)

The bunch of flowers in the vase, what are they called?
I’ll call them Anstruthers for no other reason

Many have read this poem as a charmingly disarming, though enigmatic, expression of our fellow vulnerabilities (see, perhaps, Annie Freud?). This is, after all, Stammers’ display stall, the first poem in the book; this is what is to be found herein. The opening of the poem echoes the opening of Michael Donaghy’s ‘Our Life Stories’, (Conjure, 2000): ‘What did they call that ball in Citizen Kane?/ That crystal blizzardball recalling his past?/ Surely I know the name.’ Here we have the questioning/questing form, and the internal rhyming; it is the form of the poem that Stammers echoes, as if by way of acknowledgement. Stammers’ poem, though, does something different, other: it is as good an encapsulation of the possibilities of Derrida’s “differance” as any we have; it enacts the blurring of boundaries, in the way ‘the powder and near-navy blues leak one into another….’ It captures Derrida’s dislocation-effect well, with the deliberate mis-naming of the flowers, the bleeding of boundaries. It opens, rather than limits, its fields of reference.

This approach to the poem references the oft-quoted Mallarmé-argument: “My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.” What I can say in response to this is that to me this, by now over-used, dictum, has all the tones of a riposte, and as such an entrenched ideology is being expressed, rather than a broad, conclusive commentary; I also suspect he, as with most poets, was really talking about his own poetry – even, how he wished to write, and not necessarily how he did write. We cannot take what one person says of writing, as necessarily applying to all writing; especially with a prescriptive intent.

If we take that title, for instance: Nom de Plume; then bring in the elaboration of the themes of that volume, that are to be found in ‘Testimony’, (the Dublin-and-Derrida poem), we find: ‘What is it, after all, that is authorized?….’. Despite his disclaimer in that poem, Stammers did pay attention to what she was saying. ‘Nom de Plume’ captures the mind-frame of playful authorizing that is going on in this book: Slimboy Fat, of course an obvious take on Fatboy Slim, whose real name is…. It does not do to underestimate just how playful Stammers can be; there are many notes on that keyboard, and Stammers can play them all, including sarcastic and downright laddish.
And Weldon Kees. Of course: Kees is the prime example of persona-blurring, who’s fictitious Robinson has caught many in his spell. Perhaps here we meet one of the boundaries of Stammers’ world of literary references: the most persona-rich of modern poets was surely Pessoa. Where is Pessoa? Could we also stretch the definition to Carol Ann Duffy’s book, The World’s Wife? Perhaps we begin to encroach here on the field of implied range of reference, on contextual meaning.

‘Nom de Plume’ gives us the clue to the reading of these first two books. From that first poem we enter the no-man’s-land of language itself; it is the interface between one’s experience of the world, and the subjective response to that experience; it is the realm of expression. This is a way of saying that Stammers’ focus for his poems in these first two books is the textual actuality of writing itself. It is a no-man’s-land in that although the language for expression perhaps begins with borrowing from the naming of external objects, it is the phenomenology of the self that utilises that language; and this self is not an identifiable whole, but a collision of associated states of being.

What happens in this use of varied modes of language can be best described as a decentering of language. This Stammers has been engaged with throughout his published books; it is a central postmodern device: “… playful, self-reflexive and self-parodying.” Borges is put forward as a master at this, whose, “… writings parallel … poststructuralist verbal exuberance…” (‘Contemporary Literary Theory’, ed Seldon, Widdowson, Brooker). We often now think of postmodernist, especially poststructuralist, writing as rather cold, academic, and unapproachable; that Stammers has produced warm, approachable, even lovable poems is his achievement. He has this verbal exuberance; it is his most admired trait.
Stammer’s decentering includes his use of the variable I, of an undefined narrator: Nom de Plume can sneak into any party and act the idiot savant (‘The Party’, Panoramic Lounge Bar; ‘The Truth in a Position’, Stolen Love Behaviour). As Lacan wrote in his critique of Freudianism (‘Lacan for Beginners’): ‘… the myth of a unified selfhood depends upon (the) ability to identify with objects in the world…’. He goes on to state: ‘Neither the imaginary or the symbolic can fully comprehend the Real…’; that is, neither the mind’s intellect, nor the use of language can comprehend the objective world ‘out there’.
In Interior Night Stammers writes, ‘The ego is a bodily ego… the self an organic self: that temporary organization is being imposed upon its constituents and his name that isolated one object amid the tumult and disorder.’: ‘Paris Anywhere’ (ibid).
The Real, the ‘out there’, is perhaps what Stammers went to find on his American road-trip poems in Stolen Love Behaviour and elsewhere (as Paul Simon had it, circa 1968, “They have all gone to look for America’; and this is a source that falls well within Stammers’ field of reference) only to find, as here, everything is a blend of perception, the perceived, the assumed, and the unknowable. It is enlightening to see just how closely the ‘he’ of ‘Paris Anywhere’ (presumably, ‘Texas’ included) echoes Roland Barthes in this above quotation (and so, hence, the Paris of ‘Paris’): ‘we write in part to the dictation of our bodies… ‘body’ (is used to) describe the source of… vital and characteristic determinants of a writer’s language …’. (John Sturrock, Structuralism and Since).

As stated earlier, Stammers’ writing is an exploration of a self, identity, persona that is locatable solely in the event of the writing. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes notes that ‘the relationship between writer, Text, and reader is an erotic one. And so, in Interior Night, Srammers reaches out: ‘Thank heaven for you at least, Alison Goldfrapp…’ because ‘All things die, and when you die you’re dead. End of.’ Eros and Thanatos; they polarise our existence; all else is, as it were, magnetised by and along the lines that run between these points.

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