Indoor utopia welfare pastoral
The Lores: Robert Sheppard Reality Street Editions £7.50 ISBN 1-874400-23-7
The Lores, like Empty Diaries, constitutes a major section of Sheppard’s remarkable Twentieth Century Blues project. Like Empty Diaries, it is partly based on mathematical modes of construction, in this case, as Sheppard explains, the number of words in the book – 5040 – derives from Plato’s ideal number of citizens for his second Republic. As Sheppard explains, the fact that this number is divisible by most numbers makes it useful for ‘raising the taxes and militia, and – doubtless – for surveillance’. The tension between Plato’s laws and Sheppard’s lores, suggests the argument underlying the text – that absolute models of power must be resisted and replaced by plurality, even locality in the form of ‘bye-lores’. The poetics of this plurality are documented in Sheppard’s text ‘Linking the Unlinkable’, collected in his Far Language (Stride, 1999). A response to the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard in ‘Discussions, or phrasing “after Auschwitz”’ and Jacques Derrida’s reply to this lecture, Sheppard sketches a poetics of the ‘creative linkage’ of phrases (as opposed to the ‘authority of the sentence’), as a model of ethical writing which argues with Adorno’s notion that poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. As Derrida writes: ‘If there is somewhere a One must it must link up with a one must make links with Auschwitz’. Creative linkage is a means by which disparate materials may be yoked together in a politicised poetical discourse. This is not the same as juxtaposition – the links must appear both more and less disruptive, so that they persuade by their connection.
As poetic imperative, to link the unlinkable involves Sheppard in a set of complex engagements with the horrors of C20th history, including the concentration camps, but also the Spanish Civil War, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts and the years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The Lores is constituted in 12 books, divided into two parts, and each section adopts a different form, often of a repeated stanza, whose lines are measured by the same number of words per line – a device also employed in Empty Diaries. The effect of this in places is of extraordinary density – as if each stanza is a welded lump of language that requires close attention to pick out the traces of its molten constituents, an experience akin to reading Allen Fisher’s poetry. Here is an example from the opening of Book 3:
Counterpoint 80s speculation against the
clamping gape takes us whole
through collisions of semantic torques
twists on the page saddle
us to a fiery buck
assertively thrusting those isolate recognitions
(against the credit’s opening testimony)
In fact it is in localised pockets of attentive re-reading that the poem comes alive for this reader. On a first read through, the statistical density becomes rather relentless, but a return to details enables productive readings of an often assertive clarity within the welter of statements. The Lores also frequently speaks of the poetics of its own construction:
To make links of contractual obligation
ethically with her name walking puns
off maps which absolutely refuse linkage –
no sin intervention bless’d in external
lores, virtual times Are a Terror
The book is obsessed with trying to construct an alternative history of resistance – human figures are themes played out on a background of public misinformation by radio, poster, slogan, newspaper and microphone (nouns which recur time and again in this text). I find the most effective means of this construction is when the text becomes less densely abstract and frames the everyday subject within the historical record: ‘she / listens to Braxton, reads Adorno, judges / the moment’ (p. 31), ‘bangs out a Hoover bag on the / edge of her spectacular frame luminous moment’ (p. 45). It is these moments of apparent illumination that counter the impacted histories of oppression and which are further reflected upon in the books’ second and third poems ‘History or Sleep’ and ‘The Crimson Word We Sang’. In these latter poems, the dense stanzas give way to the mobility of short, heavily enjambed lines indicative of Tom Raworth’s influence. ‘History or Sleep’ meditates on the role of pleasure, particularly sexual pleasure, as a form of resistance – ‘you / owe it to yourself / to pleasure’ (p. 76) – and concludes with the speaker observing a trapped insect: ‘sticky wings / caught in summer’s shade’, as a figure for the human pain that pleasure must always be countered against:
centres this ecstasy
flaring in dust
The conclusion of the book’s argument in ‘The Crimson Word we Sang’ uses the words of George Oppen in an interview describing an incident of a camp survivor hearing again the singing of ‘songs of the / camps death songs’ (p. 83). The narrator reflects, troubled:
they look happy
I shouldn’t say they
they had meant
time they had
The narrator, like Sheppard, looks for the possibility of a link with something unlinkable, despite reservations – but this decision is tempered by the subtle ambiguity of the closing line, which could refer both to the time experienced in the camps and the time that is yet to come. This is an apt close for a book which is tremendously serious in its reflections on history and in its proposals for how such reflections can help us to live in the present.
This review first appeared in Tears in the Fence magazine, Issue 37 (2004), 117-119).
The Lores was reprinted in Complete Twentieth Century Blues (Great Wilbraham: Salt Publishing, 2008), pp. 168-217.
Copyright © Scott Thurston, 2012