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C.J. Allen


That Fragmentary Thing

Shifting Registers by Ian Seed (Shearsman Books, £8. 95)

There’s something rather fascinating about fragments.  They give off a sort of wistful melancholy, of course, a sense of loss & decay, but they also speak of the unknown, the unseen and the ephemeral.  The quiet (and at times quietly sinister) lyricism of Shifting Registers plays on & with these notions of fragmentation to great effect.  Poems are forever shifting & disintegrating under the reader’s gaze. 

‘A bit of the heart falls away at the reader’s
touch  - ’

(from Note-taking)

In a curious and delightfully counter-intuitive way the fragmentary is what gives unity to the book, which is divided into four sections or (one is tempted to say) movements: ‘Empty either side’, ‘The only ones awake’, ‘Each face printed for purchase’ & ‘Pressed together through rain’; each one itself a potential fragment from a lost or larger statement, each one in a slightly different ‘register’.  The opening section draws to a close with a poem titled, aptly & ambiguously enough, ‘Diminishing returns’, where we learn:  ‘The fog’s / chalk is rubbed away.  Yet still no-one can join // the beginning to the end, which is perhaps unknown / even to the narrator ...’  The world fades in and out in an unending series of reveals and recessions.

From the modernist lyrics of the opening poems, ‘The only ones awake’ shifts into the mode of the prose poem & contains what is, for me at least, some of the book’s most successful writing.  Here we find Ian Seed channelling Franz Kafka in eight surreal and luminous parables suffused with a kind of non-specific anxiety and/or low-voltage nightmare-like weirdness.  Some border guards swap the photo in the writer’s passport for the picture of a man drinking in a bar; someone looks in on a family watching TV and sees an image of himself on their TV screen; a man draws a picture of a house for his daughter & then mysteriously finds himself inside it.  These odd little fables speak to us as dreams do, in that they’re at their most powerfully expressive when they are at their most strange.  Like dreams, they often end abruptly too, & are all the more resonant & engaging for that.

If Kafka was being channelled in the prose-poems of ‘The only ones awake’, then maybe Carrie Etter or Peter Riley or Alan Halsey or Caroline Bergvall or Brian Catling or the whole bunch of them are haunting ‘Each face printed for purchase’.  Punctuation more or less disappears, syntax gets stretched and language is generally put through the assault course of itself to see what it can do & what kind of shape it’s in at the end.  Take the opening stanzas of ‘Sidestepping grace’ as an illustrative example.

the documentary skin
spells steep slopes

and other bells
treated as equals

girls
impossible to meet

or kiss in the stairwell
with the notion

of rain hammering the roof
bubbling fat

until midnight
with the light turned off

I like & respond to the rain hammering on the roof with the sound of bubbling fat & (sadly) girls impossible to meet or kiss in the stairwell mean something to me as well.  But after that I think we have to give up on what James Joyce called ‘cut-and-dry grammar and go-ahead plot’.  We have to rely instead on the music & the drifting, associative quality of the words, their ‘shifting registers’, I suppose.  In truth, something’s going on here but I don’t quite know what it is.  I think that’s rather the point, however; in one of the later sections of ‘Sidestepping grace’ we’re told there are ‘images that shrink / or detonate // we are not made in one piece’.  I’ll buy that.  It seems somehow to refer us back to Whitman’s expression of the idea that we all contain multitudes.  It is, I guess, that fragmentary thing again.

The more traditional sentence makes a comeback in the concluding section, ‘Pressed together through rain’, as we travel from the unknowable to the uknown.    

‘It’s always the same train that can be seen
rushing forward with us inside trying to leave
ourselves behind.’ 

                                                                        (from Shifting registers)

The persistently low-key tone could easily run the risk of trading in language that is a little, well, dull; but in Ian Seed’s confident grip it’s anything but.  The poetry certainly demands your attention; there are few flashy effects or fancy metaphorical tricks, not much in the way of poetry pyrotechnics deployed simply to impress – not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of dazzle now & again, of course – but here, instead of the showy stuff, you more often get a kind of muted, muscular surrealism which, the more you submit to it, the more it draws you further in to its hypnotic world.  And, in places, it is purely, plainly & arrestingly moving.  The last two poems in the book, ‘Entrance’ & ‘An interpretation’ address the disintegration & fragmentation, of a personality, which might be the result of madness or Alzheimer’s.  The language is simple & direct; the effect is simply striking.

Shifting Registers, Ian Seed’s second Shearsman collection, expands and develops the themes he explored with his first, Anonymous Intruder.  Once more we encounter poems of estrangement & distance, of the sudden intimacy of shared moments counterpointed with the unfamiliar & alienating landscape of the foreign.  John Ashbery (for it is no other!) comments on the back cover that these poems are clearly influenced by European surrealism, & mentions parallels with the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.  One can’t help but agree that there is something in Ian Seed’s poems of the atmosphere of those vast, empty plazas, something of their dream-like stillness & otherness, their brooding, uninterrogated menace.  But there’s a real enthusiasm and delight in here as well, an unforced pleasure in pushing at the language to open up new spaces and cast new light on the kaleidoscopic fragments of our experience.

 

Copyright © C.J. Allen, 2012