Thought I'd up this - a review of Bonney's Salt book from a while ago. Chicago Review turned it down (too mimetic in its approach apparently). It's not perfect (ignore the stuff about Zukofsky at the end) but has its moments...
Sean Bonney - Blade Pitch Control Unit (Salt, 2005)
In a paper delivered at a Negative Poetix seminar at Birkbeck College in 2004, Sean Bonney noted that the London A-Z begins with a golf course and ends with the Metropolitan Police Dog Training Establishment and that the whole thing should be read as a novel. My later edition of the A-Z has had an extra page added which alters Bonney’s rather gruesome trajectory although a quick glance at it still reveals other sinister training centres no less-organised around systems of control: Paddock Mobile Home Park, Woodlands Poultry Farm, Downe Court Riding Centre and a Scout Camp. More immediately disturbing because of their anonymity and obscured origins are “War Bank” and “Blackness Lane.” I would hazard a guess however that this late page was added because of Holwood House, former residence of the Prime Minister William Pitt. It’s a far more appealing finale to this novel and Bonney might be right to demand that we read it as such, at least as a realist novel. With its quiescent narrative voice and claims of omniscience, and its promise of order, comprehensibility and unity, its view of the world is relatively unproblematic with a one to one correspondence between language and thing. Words designate what they say they do.
Blade Pitch Control Unit, which collects 5 years worth of Bonney’s writing from 2000’s "The Domestic Poem" to the recent and ongoing sequence, "Document", is an intervention into the bourgeois fantasies of the A-Z. It opens:
(cross harbour. at the right. windy crossroad. past the george. keep to left. got a market on your body. 3 souls. left at school. 1 minute. Manchester road. 3 minutes.
These sound like instructions for finding your way. The writing is notational, shorthand, as if jotted down quickly. It’s the kind of thing you don’t need to have done if you own an A-Z, but it’s precisely what hasn’t gone into the A-Z that makes this little paragraph worth reading, like the recording of weather conditions and the time it takes to move about the locale. But these instructions are not as useful as they might appear. Defamiliarisation infiltrates the promise of recognition. Capitalisation is irregular and punctuation interruptive. The language slips about. ‘Cross harbour’ is actually Crossharbour, a station on the London Docklands Light Railway, but the word has been prised open turning a proper noun into separate verb and noun instead. The word ‘crossroad’ then singularises and closes up what might be read as instructional verb and noun. Ambiguities enter into the instruction which could lead to losing your way instead of finding it. Take “at the right.” Is that right at cross[ ]harbour or at the windy crossroad? It’ll probably make a difference. Ditto “got a market on your body.” Is that like having a price on your head or is it “gotta mark it on your body” which you hear if you read it out loud? And who or what are the ‘3 souls’? Another pub, the one after ‘the george‘? But that would be “The Three Souls” surely, an unlikely name for a pub, and certainly not one Bonney would drink in. What about “left at school”? Is ‘left’ a verb or a noun? It’ll make another difference if you read it as the one or the other. And lastly, “Manchester road.” Does the poem’s first capital letter make it more important than the other words? Is it the name of a road or is it a road in Manchester? What city are we in?
Bonney read this poem at a small private ‘launch’ of this collection. Listeners there were unlikely to have registered all of the particularities I’ve just noted which are often closed down in performance but they give the lie to criticisms that have been voiced in some quarters that performance-oriented poetry doesn’t ‘work’ on the page. Bonney is renowned for his dynamic and impassioned reading but this has never been achieved at the expense of the page. Bonney doesn’t just work on the page but he actively works the page itself. As Harry Gilonis notes in his blurb to the book, Bonney is a poet of considerable textual range though this collection doesn’t include his more explicitly graphic work - for instance the wonderful visual sonnets of Astrophil and Stella (Writers Forum, 2001) or some of the more heavily overlaid texts of Poisons, their Antidotes (West House, 2003). These omissions aside, however, there’s still an overriding emphasis on the visual organisation of the text. Bonney’s is very much an open field poetics and those who know him know of his onetime research interest in Charles Olson. The graphic mark is as important in Bonney’s writing as it was in Olson‘s. Dashes, hyphens, slashes, underscores, brackets, dots, colons, bolds, and italics are all used to further the textual register. Consider the opening of Poisons, their Antidotes:
at Turnmill St, in
of grass-green silk
fifty siller bells
fear of strangers “that name does not belong to
in brass howls (ona)
churning over( ) bodies / wind
Olson’s typewriter with its ‘space precisions’ and ‘symbols’ clearly lies behind this, turning the page into a score, but the underlining of words and phrases retains the urgency of the handwritten. Bonney’s ‘symbols’ are often primitive and record a simple urge to make marks though they’re often only the ones a standard keyboard will permit. Sometimes I think of Bonney’s poems as cave paintings which have to, but which would rather not, make use of an available technology. That technology is also called language and some of the most interesting moments are when one language technology irrupts into another one. Look again at “siller bells” which is what happens when the phonemic (tongue technology) is written down (hand technology) and the resultant word or phrase has a strange, otherworldly cast to it.
Bonney’s writing is full of these strange words. They’re not neologisms which imply some kind of progress, as if language is constantly being improved upon. They’re more like the residues of abortive alchemical experiments which have no proper place in the world. The most frequent of their number are compound words: “splashveins,” “moonspit,” “boilfink,” “skymoss,” “tideclamps,” “slashpalms,” “evehiss,” “hearthair,” “faustspools,” “vowelpit,” “gullblack.” These compound words also share text space with hyphenated words which might remind a reader of Old English kennings (also to be found in the work of Bill Griffiths) but there’s a violence to Bonney’s combinations. Joining two words which don’t belong together creates a bastard word which wanders the world trying to find its place, like King Lear’s Edgar-as-Tom who becomes a focus of the sequence Notes on Heresy alongside Ann Bait of Morpeth, accused in 1673 of being a witch because she claimed to have turned herself into a cat, a hare, a greyhound and a bee. Bonney is drawn to these figures (both words and things) who can’t be housed. It’s no coincidence that wildflowers (‘weeds’ by any other name) such as the ragwort, foxglove and monksbeard also end up in this sequence and that they too are compounds. The poem becomes a place of protection where all these outsiders can exist without persecution. It’s the accepted that need to be watched. At the beginning of a section of the sequence called “Lyric Poetry: Surveillance,” Bonney quotes Raoul Vaneigem: “Poetry is always somewhere. Everywhere repressed, this poetry springs up everywhere. Brutally put down, it is reborn in violence. It plays muse to rioters, informs revolt and animates all great revolutionary carnivals for a while, until the bureaucrats consign it to the prison of hagiography.” And thereby silencing it. The reference to ’lyric poetry’ in the title isn’t ironic as Bonney is a lyric poet. It’s just that the word ‘lyric’ needs rescuing from those who’ve stolen it. In a conference paper delivered at The School of Advanced Study a number of years back, Bonney yoked ‘lyric’ and ‘noise’ to liberate the former from everyone who says it has to be quiet. (In the same paper he traced the etymology of the word ‘noise’ to ‘nausea’ and the sound of sailors puking into the sea).
Notes on Heresy also includes the figure of Abiezer Coppe who in 1649, Bonney informs us, “stood up at the pulpit of a church somewhere in central London, and swore without interruption for an hour” to the horror of the Quaker George Fox. This reminds me of Walter Wolfgang, the 82 year old ejected from the 2005 Labour Party conference for heckling Jack Straw, the then British Home Secretary. Both Wolfgang and Coppe are correctives to the likes of Straw and Tony Blair with their smooth and treacherous New Labour rhetoric. Coppe is clearly an important precursor for Bonney who himself ‘does a Coppe’ on a speech delivered by Tony Blair to the 2003 Labour Party’s Spring Conference in Glasgow in which he justified the invasion of Iraq after the largest demonstration against incipient war in British history. Bonney makes himself into a negative avatar of the Prime Minister, inflicting violence on the implicit violence of Blair‘s own language by cutting into his speech, not to remove what‘s diseased (ie all of it) but to wound it further and frankly it’s all it deserves. Blair’s “if we remove Saddam by force, people will die and some will be innocent. And we must live with the consequences of our actions, even the unintended ones,” is met with Bonney‘s “I am anemical : ath money gents wi’t tongue lict f vice ho : pril : pitch a ming spa.” This butchering of the language (Bonney has spoken of taking a razor to this speech because he couldn’t take a razor to the man himself) is one way of responding to the casual butchery of modern warfare and to the cowardice of Western leaders who use the first person plural as a linguistic human shield. Words are split open to remind us of the broken contract between People and State.
This ‘splitting’ pervades the final sequences of the collection, “Filth Screed,” “Burnt Nickle” and “Document” and the word ‘split’ is encountered again and again throughout the whole collection. In the opening poems of Filth Screed, all the lines end in dashes, again as if the rest has been cut away. These poems were written at the height of the Iraqi invasion and the images are violent: “stood-/once for 25 minutes watched an owl peel a mouse-”; “but if they hadn’t dropped bombs he’d still have his arms and legs-”; “same old thing-/tongue stuck in eye-” Something’s not right in the state of England. A “big dog” stalks the pages. London is a city where “all the trees/are bastards” and where “music has been privatised which means its everywhere, like sperm; split, sprayed and pointless like trying to fuck a window.” Like coalition troops, things are where they shouldn’t be. Moreover, the compound words of earlier sequences have started to come apart. Now we have “skin clock,” “spit boy,” “siren clench,” “eye rift,” “gull dust,” “silver burst,” “whip crust,” “tongue rasp,” “icon dust.”
It’s tempting to think of this move from ‘closed’ compound word, through hyphenated compound word to undone, non-compound word as three separate ’phases’ of this collection. I’m thinking of the three phases - solid, liquid and gas – that the American poet Louis Zukofsky borrows from the nineteenth century phycisist Willard Gibbs to characterise the materials of poetry - image, music and intellect - but I can’t satisfactorily map it onto the materials or the trajectory of Blade Pitch Control Unit which is resistant to the neatness of the analogy. To be honest, I’m not sure what these ’freed’ or ’undone’ compounds are. If, however, we try to read his collection as Bonney read the A-Z, starting with the first word, “cross harbour,” and ending with the last word in the book, “supermarket,” there’s a chiasmus at work which counters the ‘trend’ I’ve noted. ‘Supermarket’ is a closed word. However it would be typical of Bonney to thwart any attempt to systematise his work and like the golf course and the Metropolitan Police Dog Training Establishment, the supermarket is a closed world, a place of controlled violence and surveillance. The instruction with which the book ends, to loot it, is an invitation to open up both word and place for further inspection.