Posts Tagged ‘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.

In ‘Funeral’ we begin: ‘I too know it, the charm of funerals in the rain/ the ferocity of the veil in daylight’; here ‘ferocity’ associates ironically with the tone of the quotation-source (‘I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle…’: ‘Poetry’, Marianne Moore), with its measured, cultured tone; it also engages with the Stammers’ poem’s very real experience and stance towards grief. The ‘fiddle’ that is implied, suppressed, and thereby a subconscious force, could be read as the particular language-use in poetry of Moore’s period; and the un-important, only further emphasises our own contemporary and continued denial of the reality of death around (and within) us, and thereby creating what can be described as a ‘furious’ vortex, imaged as the dark veil in daylight; a feedback between competing modes of awareness.

Marianne Moore’s denial of the efficacy of poetry is the jumping-off point for Stammers: “Writing poems is horrifyingly important to me”, he commented in his earlier Wolf Magazine interview. ‘Funeral’ is the market stall poem for this book; and its wares, the psychological realms of Id, Ego and Super Ego. We are perhaps here stepping into that dangerous territory of Alan Jenkins’ Harm, in this book; but armed with a map (Freud), and a known landscape (psychoanalysed). The poem takes on the role of questioning the role of language (: “all this fiddle” i.e. the dubious ability to express anything clearly through language) in our understanding of ourselves, and our relations with the world. In this first poem we also encounter classic Freudian symbols: a wreath, and a cigarillo/swelling nose; and here, in the first-person address, we perhaps encounter Freud on his home ground – is the character yer man Freud personified? These were his smoking preference. But then, ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’ But this is a cigarillo, and so we have here a diminution: ‘a little man’, as they might say in the phallic lingua franca; here we are alerted to use of irony, of a strategic gendered deference.

That line, ‘disremembered rituals of the tribe.’ is very much in the character of Freud’s essays (I have not, as yet, found a direct quotable source for this in the Essays); and the use of the term ‘disremembered’, itself, a pointer to the classic Freudian exposé of the functions of lies, deliberate, and apparently incidental. Is there perhaps an Eliot-quality to that line from Eliot’s Mallarmé-phase (how was it, ‘To purify the dialect of the tribe’?) and language-use, particularly the use of language connected with and surrounding the rites of death, is the prime source of ritual in a culture. The overall sardonic tone to the poem also echoes early Eliot.

The last line: ‘Are you with me, yourselves, at the rendezvous?’ is such a splendidly ambiguous line, implying both the real event of each our own future deaths/ funerals, as well as the possibility of a resurrected, or maybe not so much that as a survival of spirit. The deliberate confusion of tenses destabilises; this is, as it were, the last push of a poem that destabilises the sense of self throughout its course. The ability of language to suggest, insinuate, lay traps for the reader, can be unsettling: ‘that abstraction/ known as giving up the ghost.’ is both suggestive of a metaphysical inference, as well as a defiantly physical one: we have here, as in ‘The grey twist of smoke’, both spirit, and cremation smoke. The ‘grey twist of smoke’ also betokens Freud’s own death through cancer, whose cause is accepted to be long exposure to smoking.

That last line of the poem displays, in its ambiguity, how language can inveigle us, persuade us, of different realities, posit alternative endings. As we work through its suggestions of possible survival, the sacred, we come to the profane, the cold douch of the final reality which is each our own inevitable physical death.

‘The Encounter of M’ has puzzled some readers; but if we read it as a take on Alain Resnais’ avant-garde masterpiece of French cinema, Last Year in Marienbad, then it comes somewhat more accessible. The ‘… geometric topiaries/ that seem to throw no shadow. I see that you and I/ cast long dark shadows’, is a direct reference to the classic iconic poster of the film; and there are the film’s long tracking-shots of the endless, involuted and claustrophobic corridors to consider when we think about the structure of this poem. This is made concrete in Robbe-Grillet’s text for the film, in particularly the long and continually looping monologue behind the opening tracking shots.

Does Stammers have enough film-nous to know that the actual character’s shadows in the film poster were painted onto the pathway, that they were false-shadows? Interview-comments and textual references seem to suggest his film-repertoire is quite extensive. The ‘large topiary pyramids’ are exact. The woman in the poem-encounter replies: ‘I find it tiresome practically to the point of death/ to be approached by a stranger in dinner-dress.’ Here we explore one of the suggested meanings of the film, that it is the after-death experience of the characters; this is part of the film aficionado’s many discussion topics. The poem is not written as a poetic attempt at cinematic writing, as one critic seems to suggest; it uses the film as a jumping off point for its own investigation into a recurring complex of relationships; it is suggestive, associational; the narration loops back on itself. As the above excerpt also shows through its rhythm, the piece has its tongue firmly in its cheek. The assonantal rhyme further underlines the quality of the poem’s tone: the slightly wobbly frisson of balance between threat and parody. Stammers here has the Orson Welles cloak about him; his manner is knowledgeable, as well as seriously playful. This poem could be a depiction of an obsessive haunting, but the writing balances the content and expression expertly.

The form of the poem is that of a continuous overflow of conversation between the two characters. There is the equivalent of a standard iambic line; it is open enough to allow catalexis and hyperlexis. The conversation often overlaps, but what can be discerned as we work through the circling, remembering, is a change in the power dynamics between the two. In the film it is the male character who persuades the woman of past intimacy, who railroads her into a future action; the woman slowly wakes from the torpor and we almost voyeuristically become aware of the relationship web she is a part of: the partner/husband she is with, the ‘other man’, her own self. The partner/husband displays certain diabolic tendencies. It is said that one should never play cards with the devil; in this film he wins every game that is set up; his power over the woman seems particularly diabolical. What Stammers does with this in the poem is present a more gender-friendly relationship, more balanced. The poem ends as it begins.

When considering the simulacra of Baudrillard, this artifact of a poem based upon a wholly fictitious film-event, that is, in an historical sense wholly unreal, would be an interesting candidate: as the characters and their shadows are unreal, false-shadows, so the film is a false-shadow of reality and a real event; the hotel featured in the film is anonymous, unnamed (Marienbad, after all, was last year) and as such the film inhabits a space out of place and time; and the poem here, a take on an emphatic fiction, an even further abstraction. The ‘real’ event of the film, and hence the poem, exists only in hyperreality.