On ‘Testimony’ by John Stammers (Panoramic Lounge Bar, 2001)

Posted: September 25, 2011 in John Stammers Page
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The elaboration of the themes of Stammers’ first book, Panoramic Lounge Bar, 2001, are to be found in ‘Testimony’, (the Dublin-and-Derrida poem). Here we find an exploration of some basic concepts from the writing of French thinker Jacques Derrida. And so, we find in ‘Testimony’, the classic Derrida query as stated by the woman in the poem: ‘What is it, after all, that is authorized?….’. Despite his disclaimer in that poem, Stammers did pay attention to what she was saying; this, of course, is a standard misdirection technique. What are we being misdirected from? From Stammers’ obvious knowledge of the concepts, ideas, being put forward. Or are we being misdirected from the degree of intimacy the relationship with the woman entails?

Are we being misdirected from seeing all these as the trappings of an entirely fictitious event? Obviously by now, by this stage in the book of poems, read in sequence, we are already deep in fictitious-author-land. There is direct-address, third-person reportage, commentaries on commentaries…. The opening poem of the book, Nom de Plume, illustrates amongst other things the effect of the Derridean concept of ‘differance’, of the dislocation-effect that deliberate misuse of language can produce on the reader.
At the end of ‘Testimony’, after Derrida is quoted, Dublin tasted: the Post Office with the bullet holes: ‘just standing there with the paths the bullets had taken/ passing right through me…’, the Stammers persona takes pains to present a gift of collected poems, as if to respond in gesture, saying: this, is what is authorized. It is as if the poem can bridge the divisions that have always been there, but newly exposed.

Is this, his Irish poem, a political poem? Is Stammers’ inner message here that poetry can indeed bridge cultures, politics… history? How serious is Stammers on these matters? In ‘Testimony’ he uses the partly pejorative term ‘Paddy’s Day’ for St Patrick’s Day. In effect he separates, demarcates, recognises a difference and border. He goes on to write, ‘So it was that I saw two sides of an antinomy take hold/ and go to undo me like a zip./ And I saw that it was writ/ that we should be the critics of our own juxtaposition….’: Church-law/ holy writ, and reason (it is obvious by this point in the poem that Stammers knows his Joyce well enough to know how Jesuitical this mix is; and also, by having the Irish woman quote Derrida to him, how Joyce’s Ireland is mirrored, as it was and continues to be, culturally (and now, economically) linked to Europe). Stammers not only uses the languages of the time and place, but avails himself of modes of thought both current and recondite. To one whose medium is language the whole of language’s document file is open, access-enabled, available. This reads as though he is here attempting to bridge the dialectics of cultural histories, religions, not through achieving a kind of culture-mix synthesis (which, historically, usually translates as being absorbed into the stronger ‘solution’) but through the medium of poetry.

And let us not forget the extension that O’Hara gives us here. Stammers is an admitted and committed romantic in his writing: he is, he has said “… trying to use irony as a lamp, which helps illuminate romantic motifs for the modern sensibility…”. This also fits in with Frank O’Hara’s practice as alluded to in his send-up Personism manifesto: “… to address itself” (the poem) “to one person… thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity…”.

The poem as act or expression of love between the writer and reader. Ok. Not to everyone’s taste. And not always so seemly; hence the “…vulgarity…”.; in effect, are we being asked to bridge…by love? No matter how unseemly.

Is it so, then, that Stammers resorts to the old belief in the autonomous I, that the individual unit of self has point (‘the myth of a unified selfhood’)? It is not for nothing that Stammers is often referred to as a latter-day Romantic poet (capital R). How autonomous are the poems? Do they depend upon the biographical details for elucidation? The use of rhetorical techniques, of irony, must always assume there is an authority whose value-judgments structure the contrasts, the ‘persuasions’. Is Stammers a Romantic poet? If so, in what way? In that he so values the experience of romantic love (lower R) as a valid part of our common experience/inheritance; or that the continued calling on Keats (‘John Keats Walks Home…’, Stolen Love Behaviour; ‘A Dramatic Monologue’, Interior Night) to play, is an invocation of comparative Kantian certainty, with still the faint whiff of revolution remaining? Kant, of course, was one of the sources from which Derrida worked out the possibilities of differance, dislocation. Would this make Stammers a retrograde thinker? Or is this the ‘new old’? I hate choices like this though; I suspect many others do also; I also suspect some poets love them. I suspect many actually choose not to choose, and that Stammers is one of these. Why miss out?

One of the criticisms of the writing in his latest book, Interior Night, is one of language use; the lack of precision in word choice; the relaxed use of form and rhythm. This presupposes an extant precision of word-meaning relationship in the previous books. Throughout his books, Stammers use of language, even where the imagery lifts the poem, or word use changes the poem’s tone, direction, range of meaning, has always been associative in nature; for Stammers the word is a piece of the jigsaw, relativistic, and never a complete unit. Language for Stammers does not have the precision of the lapidarist, of the picture-language advocate; the metric is based on the line. Marvin Minsky, in his exploration of the discoveries and implications of Artificial Intelligence research, writes (: Dennet, 1996): ‘Whatever we may want to say, we probably won’t say exactly that.’ that is, the ability of the mind to express a thought exactly, to communicate fully, is not a possibility we are functionally capable of. The lapidarist produces a refined, long considered writing, honing and honing to get closer to the ‘exactly that’; for a writer like Stammers the refining is concentrated on the flow of language, which has a spoken language quality; the ‘exactly that’ is not the word-to-thought match, but the whole of the piece; he is, one might say, a holistic writer, one for whom the whole of the experience is to be communicated; and, as usual, it can only be done by suggestion. This, of course, means that holistic writing is to a degree a combined experience, where reader fills in, as much as writer suggests (‘What is it, after all, that is authorized?’).

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