Six lines into “Maelstrom Origami” and we’re already unmistakably on Planet Spence:
“Let us imagine someone who has encountered
the word ‘chair’ and does not know what it means.
Tonight there will be a magic lantern show.
Even in exile he was no longer safe yet there is
no simple correlation between colour and language.
Even basic typographical questions remain unsolved.”
The utterance is confident, the feint towards secure, expert meaning is convincing, the sudden shift from one domain to another disorienting and simultaneously resonant. Yet in this opening section of a five-section work, the verse pattern is markedly different from the downhill slalom rants that made Spence’s last book from Shearsman, “A Curious Shipwreck”, such a recklessly invigorating experience. We have long stretches of triplets, each short verse like a hand of whist that is played out and immediately swept away, or a game of exquisite corpse conducted during a pub lock-in by polymaths.
This verse format is repeated in the fifth section of the book, while the middle section is more like the familiar Spence downhill launch, and two other sections feature verses that number 14 lines, but with anything resembling sonnet rhyming and rhetorical structures not wanted on voyage. Throughout, Spence pulls off the improbable trick of building a case for the power, beauty, scope and indispensability of language while at the same time dissenting from any notions of fixity and reliability of meaning being conveyed by it. The triplets are dealt, they fizz, they vanish, and a new structure appears in their place. The sonnets go on their ziz-zag wandering. So we create ourselves too, it is implied, minute by minute, the atoms taking shape and then dissolving and reforming. And, we realize, the confidence of the utterances is borrowed too – it derives from the multitude of texts sampled and collaged or, a term Spence prefers, montaged:
“These were wage riots and attacks on threshing
machines. It’s important to keep an eye out for
extreme behaviour yet the Lone Ranger is never
seen without his mask or disguise. Such advice is
rarely given and in ancient cultures the dream
was largely seen as a visitation. Yet the faces
come back and are replaced by more faces.
Social banditry of this kind is one of the most
universal phenomena known to history.”
Yes, of course there are bandits, outlaws, bankers, defenders of the righteous - and some pirates. Even so, I can’t pretend that this is easy reading. Ten pages is a tiring stretch. But the texts do seem inexhaustible, not least because where you yourself are with language or with self-creation will marry differently with the texts at each re-reading. I think this book is a necessary purchase, to be read at a point bounded by ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it”, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins” and “What is the language using us for?” Or, to end with a line from Spence himself:
“All of a sudden the border was open, just like that.”