Penned in the Margins, Paperback
75 pages, 978-1-908058-02-7, £8.99
Ross Sutherland’s second full-length collection is made up of two mutually dependent parts. Five-sixths of the book are taken up by his original poetry, which claims to create ‘A science fiction reality of mirrors, windows and menacing simulacra’, and which challenges the concept of authenticity, in lived experience or in poetry. The final eight poems form what is at first glance an appendix, under the heading ‘The National Language’, but is, in fact, the culmination of this investigation. They have titles like, ‘Inside the Inverted Railroad of the Bilge: Translated from Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro”’, or, ‘It was Burnt from Displacement: Translated from John Milton, “The Expulsion from Eden”’. ‘Each of these poems’, we are informed, ‘was created in collaboration with an automated translation program. […] By the hundredth translation, the accumulation of errors was usually so great that the original was obscured completely. I worked as editor throughout this process, cutting and re-ordering the output as best I could.’ These poems have a particular beauty, liberated from any notion of original meaning which clears space for new, surprising significance. Pound’s poem now begins, ‘My internal multiplicity breaks / inside this illusion of a face,’ and, expanded from two to twenty-one lines, ends with the mournful ‘You have already placed your flowers. / Now, go.’
Scanning the QR code or heading to the link http://every-rendition.tumblr.com brings up a fascinating video in which Sutherland explains the process, and where the humour which is so essential to his poetry is at the fore. He begins with a spoof advert for a poetry-writing computer program, apparently inspired by an episode of Clarissa: ‘Fifty years ago, a few people wrote poetry, but no one read it. Now no one writes it either; the verse transcriber merely simplifies the whole process.’ He goes on to discuss J. G. Ballard and John Ashbery, and to pose some questions which have been kicking around for decades, if not longer, but not in quite so succinct a form: how do we conceive of what is lost in the mechanised production of art? In the interface between human and machine, how far can we minimise the human?
Beginning with these ‘translated’ poems, rather than what one might think of as the collection proper (though ‘The National Language’ is of course as much Sutherland’s as any other poem in the book – try messing around with BabelFish yourself and you’ll see what I mean), makes sense because the collection benefits from the conceptual questions raised by the translations. If the collection aims to take us through a ‘science fiction reality’, it does not really cohere, even if the point of that reality is that it is not cohesive, that everything is denatured or at one remove. However, after some time with the video – with Sutherland’s personality and project – I returned to the questions of mediation and the various manifestations of the screens, mirrors, or windows which perform that mediation with more enthusiasm. In ‘Your Future with Us’, we are shown the funny side of our technological dependence:
I am the woman from the next department
who keeps swapping your keyboard with my own.
A clunky alphabet, full-stop key lost.
Now all of your sentences outstay their welcome.
A benefit of seeing the poems set down is that anyone who has seen Sutherland perform, solo or as part of Aisle 16, will be able to appreciate the tension between humour and seriousness not so perceptible during his performances, which are very funny indeed. One form that that seriousness takes is the attempt to put the experience of the strangeness of our age, which can be violent as well as disorientating, above the fact of that strangeness. The implication is that people tend to simply reference that strangeness; a pernicious form of distance. From ‘The Rioter’s Prayer’:
People talking about the twenty-first century
like it’s a porcelain horse on their mantelpiece.
It’s a long walk home in a dream that keeps repeating,
running down the road like a deactivated thought.
Police in Harry Potter pyjamas.
Police ramming wheelchairs and falling in love.
Some of the poems – ‘Poem Looked Up on Google Streetview’, for example – look too chatty on the page, probably as a result of being written for performance. But in many – sonnets which attempt to bestow dignity on characters from Streetfighter II, ‘The Circus’, everything from ‘Twelve Nudes’ – his engagement with the hyper- and sub-real is subtle and enjoyable. Even when he seems to work back to the real and concrete, we are left wondering if the real can in fact have any content, or if everything is in the mediation. In what is, for me, Emergency Window’s standout poem, ‘The Prison Librarian’, the prison asserts its reality: ‘Regardless of poetry / it remains a definitive interpretation of a prison.’ However, the inside belongs to the realm of invention,
The men take new nicknames,
change their verdicts, rework their teenage tattoos
into gigantic, empty ideograms.
When the library closes, an inmate is found standing, significantly, ‘in the middle of the Fantasy section / like something incomprehensible / howled into a pillow.’ That image is arresting, more so than that of the prison itself which, upon leaving, dissolves behind, ‘like an aspirin, for example. Or a prison.’ Brute facts, suggests Sutherland, are nothing more than that.