Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Unpacking a box of books a few months ago I came across some brief notes I sketched out on Scottish poet Peter Manson. They were tucked inside Between Cup and Lip (Miami University Press 2008), a book I planned to write about formally when I first encountered the work three years ago. But I hesitated, uncertain as to how the poems can be or ought to be read. The poems seemed haunted by an enigmatic unevenness, an oscillating movement between continuity and rupture, between the determining force of a philological rootedness and the chaotic play of seemingly disconnected free-floating signs and sounds. But more than simply appearing new and feeling old — more than the tired juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary, or the filtering of ancient codes through contemporary forms or the other way around — the poems seemed to be doing and desiring something else. And this elusive quality, this "something else," which appears to characterize Manson's various undertakings became more readily apparent to me in two brief comments he made on the procedurally-based construction of a few serial poems, a practice he abandoned after composing the line, "Hear now voiced echoes of your face going transparent in buttercup light."

In the prefatory note attached to "Campaign for Really Authentic Poetry" and "Serial Drunken Boat Fragment," the two serial poems contained in For the Good of Liars (Barque 2005), Manson writes: 

This is intended as a quick footnote to a few poems I wrote in 1993: the term "serial poetry" as used here has nothing to do with the serial poems of Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser (which I hadn't heard about then) but is a reference to the serial music of Arnold Schönberg and others, in which each of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale are used equally often. My accent of spoken English (I come from Glasgow) has twelve vowel and diphthong phonemes, and the poems are written in groups of twelve words, with each of these twelve phonemes being represented exactly once in the main  stressed syllable of a word in each group. 

A couple years prior to the publication of this note, talking on Rob Holloway's Resonance 104.4 FM program Up for Air in February 2003, Manson says of these same serial poems:

I made an analysis of me own accent in spoken English which, as it turns out has twelve separate vowel and diphthong phonemes and my process in those works was a bit like serial music, like Schönberg. I attempted to use each of the vowels in my accent equally often in the piece of writing. Now, first of all, that gives you a very very odd sound text. There's absolutely no assonance. You feel as if when you're performing it that your tongue is getting the grand tour of your mouth. The other upshot of that process is that obviously if every word is locked very very tightly into permutational pattern you're working with a very heavy formal process. But because the actual structure of the poem only exists when its spoken by somebody who has an accent similar to mine ... [pause] ... So I think there are interesting political consequences of that. The poem in the mouth of an RP [Received Pronunciation] speaker, let's say, the words are the same, but the structure of the poem disappears completely ... 'cause you have a different phonemic structure. 

Unfortunately the second of the two comments on the serial poems is my own transcription included among the notes contained in my copy of Between Cup and Lip. As such this transcription from the Holloway show is likely unreliable, but what it offers, beyond a critique of the violence implicit in RP and standardized orthography, is a politically oriented strategy for investigating the spatio-temporal specificities of regionally specific language communities by way of a procedural poetics. In other words, unlike earlier procedural strategies aimed at "defetishizing" and thereby "liberating" signifier from signified, Manson's approach seeks the inverse; Manson's approach seeks to sheer away extraneous but nonetheless deteminate forms of interference like standardized pronunciation and orthography to arrive at sound structures and speech patterns which are culturally and regionally distinct and which are also, one can reasonably assume, class specific. The serial poems, and perhaps a good deal of Manson's work beyond these, are grounded in the logic of the shibboleth. Of course, any notion of shibboleth calls to mind Celan's well known poem of the same name ("Heart: | make yourself known even here, |  here in the midst of the market"), and with Celan it is difficult not to think of Derrida's comments on Celan and shibboleth:

A shibboleth, the word shibboleth, if it is one, names, in the broadest extension of its general usage, every insignificant arbitrary mark, for example the phonemic difference between shi and si, as that difference becomes discriminative, decisive and divisive. The difference has no meaning in and of itself, but it becomes what one must know how to recognize and above all to mark if one is to get on, to get over the border of a place or the threshold of a poem, to see oneself granted asylum or the legitimate habitation of a language. So no longer as to be an outlaw there. 

Derrida continues:

In the word, the difference between shi and si has no meaning. But it is the ciphered mark which one must be able to partake of with the other, and this differential power must be inscribed in oneself, that is to say in one's body itself, just as much as in the body of one's own language, and the one to the same extent as the other. This inscription of difference in the body (for example the phonatory ability to pronounce this or that) is nonetheless not natural, is in now way an innate organic faculty. Its very origin presupposes participation in a cultural and linguistic community, in a milieu of apprenticeship, in short an alliance. 

To make oneself known, even here, in the midst of the market, where one is otherwise rendered invisible by virtue of appearance or rendered silent by virtue of their ability to speak. Or to hear voiced echoes of one's face going transparent in buttercup light. If we look only at the cover image from the 2009 Barque edition of Manson's Adjunct: an Undigest (previously published online by Ubuweb in 2001 and in print through the Edinburgh Review in 2005), we see voiced echoes of this face, his face, going transparent, collapsing into or out of the Mona Lisa which, precisely through its everyday banality, functions as the belligerently enforced horizon of standard perfection in western culture. There is no synthesis here, only conflict, and looking at the image closer it becomes unclear which face is coming into focus and which is fading behind the dominance of the other.  


The super- or meta-imposition of one image over another here is much more than a cavalierly installed mustache above the lip of a Beatricean idol and the gesture points toward the text itself, Adjunct, an addition or supplement, an external addendum appended to the shirttail of a cultural totality which, through the very process of connecting itself to the totality thereby alters — or, to put it more modestly, aspires to recalibrate — this totality. Every shibboleth presupposes at least two, shi and si, and this condition is embedded in the very construction of Adjunct, an "undigest" that insists on announcing its situatedness as an external component, an exiled party and, toward the future perfect, an amendment.

On a very basic level Manson's prose Adjunct is an homage to Scottish poet William Dunbar, a reimagining of his Lament for the Makaris (circa 1505) that convincingly bodies forth cultural and historical continuity without refusing the contemporary. Like Dunbar's Lament, a danse macabre composed of quatrains written in Middle Scots and punctuated by the Latin refrain "timor mortis conturbat me" ("fear of death troubles me"), Manson's Adjunct contains within itself a frequently repeated refrain remarking the deaths, both literal and figurative, of various artists, writers, intellectuals and others. Generally any passage from Adjunct, taken at random, includes this refrain. Take the following, selected quite by chance from page 79. 
Watching Come Dancing with the sound turned down and Marcus Stockhausen on the radio. Acromegalic cheerleaders. Prynne-phone. Christmas card from Clydeside Press turns out to be from Robin. Crazed cripple. Strap-on Avon. The one about We like the Language Poets but not because of anything they believe. Job-matching section. Ken Wood is dead. 

Or this from page 23:

Thought I'd dreamed that Norman MacCaig was dead. Kurt Schwitters does the Laurel and Hardy theme tune in the middle of the Ursonate. watestiflagiess. Cltalisycho. Adding value to their cheeses. A bee in his vomit. Sensible drinking (giggle). Kneecap bruise larger than handspan. Three bottles of whiskey in six days. Peter Cushing is dead. Larry Grayson is dead. Donald Davie is dead. 

When we read, however, that "Enoch Powell is dead" (37) it becomes difficult to discern exactly how Manson may be remembering, lamenting, considering or mourning the deaths he announces. Perhaps in the simplest way finitude is regarded as nothing more than a leveling agent, that in death an unabashedly racist statesman like Enoch Powell and a filmmaker like Robert Bresson are the same. In Dunbar's case the deaths acknowledged are those of cultural and political figures Dunbar appears to have admired. At the very least Dunbar acknowledges, by way of inclusion, their cultural and political influence and this may in fact be what Manson is doing through the inclusion of a repulsive but nonetheless influential figure like Powell.

In any case, Manson's danse macabre reminds me, however inappropriately, of Spicer's Lament for the Makers. Published by White Rabbit Press in 1962, the book features a cover collage by Graham Mackintosh which, in its own way, is strikingly similar to the image on the cover of Manson's Adjunct.    

In Mackintosh's collage, likely constructed under the sign of Jess, we have two masks connected to the body of a single figure: a protective respiratory mask fastened to the head and, in the hand of the figure, a mask that resembles what might be his actual face. In this image one face is not repressed or subordinated by the other, as in the image on the cover of Manson's Adjunct. Instead, in the Mackintosh collage one face is replaced by the other. But in each instance it's hard to establish which of the two is the true face, despite the absolute plasticity of the gas mask in the Mackintosh image and the constructedness of the Mona Lisa in Manson's.       

The Spicer book is an exceptionally brief volume containing only five short poems beginning with his redux of "Dover Beach," a poem of particular relevance to Manson's work. The poem begins: "Tabula rasa | A clean table | On which is set food | Fairies have never eaten. | Fairies, I mean, in the ancient sense | Who invite you to dinner." Although Spicer's usage of "fairies" is "in the ancient sense" it is uncertain whether these fairies are themselves ancient. The word "pop" is repeated several times throughout the poem, suggesting most immediately "pop art," a moment marking a break with the past. But in "Dover Beach" Spicer is particularly sensitive to ghosts ancient or otherwise: "Only in one skull | Those waves | They change | Patterns. | The scattered ghosts of what happens | is kelp." Where Spicer sees forms of erasure and displacement, the eradication of the old by the new, Manson seems to see an opportunity for more firmly establishing historical continuity by way of recent cultural developments, practices and strategies. This difference allows Manson to attend, however successfully or not, to our inexplicable relationship to the matter of history and identity, "the voiced echoes of your face going transparent in buttercup light," or what Spicer refers to in the title poem of his Lament as "the timber drifting in the waves," "the sound that is not | really sound at all."