Joe Brooker

The Needle and the Language Done

I receive a copy of a poem, or maybe six poems. The file is called 'Where Is Love', or even 'WHERE IS LOVE'. I start my own file on it: I try to call it 'Where Is Love?'. The computer forbids my question mark, as I half-knew or should have known it would.

'***': Stars mark the lines between each section, or each poem. This is less insignificant than it seems: for stars, their power and their uses are implied in the poetry itself.

            The quivering needle of an
Old compass points in the opposite direction,
we read in poem 1; and the others poems pick up on this. 'Starry points direct wrenched bridges' (poem 2); 'Several points northern direct trading co.' (poem 3). An imagery of navigation threads its way through this work. One thought it prompts is that in work like this, we need a means of navigation. Easy to get lost in lines like these:
A blunt tab is that we pull over
Put upon the ruined counter
The worktop of choice with a charred
Coaster, a cracked lip, a swervedriver (poem 2).
Yet there is method in it, even if the method's results can look indecipherable; and there is structure in it. The first three poems of sixteen lines share that, and point it up in their arrangement on the page: a blunt tab, indeed, nudges each poem's second and final lines sideways and insinuates a repeated form. The repetitions are more detailed than that, too. The first start
Where is love?
             Love has lost its way.
While in my heart its blind trueness
Sharpens like a needle every day
is picked up by the second:
Where is thought?
            Thought has shot its last bold bolt
Twice in a heart-tree, its bland tiredness
Pulses like a minor motor way;
and this in turn is reprised:
It's lost that thought.
             It's shorn shod bold into a dry well,
Told twice to heat ray treatment for blind
Pulses in a ratchet mirror glance.
What strikes more than any other feature of this work is not its daring modernity, its encounters with the incomprehensible, but its interested returns to what feels like tradition. 'Where is love? / Love has lost its way': the voice is plaintive, the poem starts with a tune of elegaic gallantry. ('Love is unhappy when love is away', read the necklace James Joyce gave Nora Barnacle in 1909, 'hung with five ivory dice over a hundred years old', the words engraved 'in fourteenth-century letters'. I initially thought of the phrase as a deliberate foray into paradox and ideas of a split self, present and absent: I was slightly disappointed to learn, or at least to come to think, that I was misreading.) More than this: I start to suspect I may be reading, not merely a pastiche but a translation, a neo-Poundian effort to make the mediaeval new. Be that as it may, love has lost its way: and what most matters here is the poet's readiness to deal in such phrases. They bear a little archaism, but they are also ordinary: monosyllables, and ordered in a way that presents no special difficulty. Among the most diverting features of this poem is its handling of such material. Material, that is, which is readily available to the reader, but does not slip into mere banality: for it also intimates a lore which remains out of view.

'Love has lost its way' is not a perfect answer to the question 'Where is love?'. At most, it answers an implied question: what has happened to love, what is wrong with our love? What's odder is that the next two lines offer the opposite emphasis:

While in my heart its blind trueness
Sharpens like a needle every day.
Nothing has lost its way here: nothing is in want of a place. The location, after all, is 'in my heart'. The subject of the line must again be 'love': it is love's blind trueness that sharpens. Here two or three of love's putative qualities are combined, assembled. Love, like justice, is blind: which means, it goes wrong, it makes a subject make errors due to their submission to the higher power of love. Love is also true (does it stop being love if it isn't?), though 'trueness' isn't the most felicitous of nouns. Is that why it is also sharp because truth implies precision, a getting ever closer to the point? My Aim Is True: my arrows are sharp. Or, Morrissey, of all people, in a verse I'd forgotten till now:
My love is as sharp
As a needle in your eye
You must be such a fool
To pass me by.
Something of those words' menace echoes, for me, in Thurston's. Love 'sharpens like a needle' in the heart: so has the heart already been pierced? If the dart that pierced it grows steadily sharper, so, perhaps, does the pain.

That is the first prick of the needle. It comes back, as we have seen, as not a seamster's tool but a sailor's. 'The quivering needle of an / Old compass points': here is one of Thurston's regular tricks or tics, the setting of a word to quiver between two senses. In the syntax of the sentence implicit here, 'points' is a verb: yet 'compass points' drags it into the land of the noun. Again, in poem 3's 'Told twice to heat ray treatment for the blind': 'heat' here seems to modulate across from verb to half a noun, 'heat ray', or indeed a third of 'heat ray treatment'. There is a related ambiguity in his use of the sound 'float', which surfaces in poems 1 'Aloft for a float in clear sky' and 2: 'Trapped lights pull; a float under'. Or in the first line of poem 3: 'It's lost that thought'. Something has lost its thought; but there is the hint of an invisible comma. 'It's lost, that thought': which would make thought equivalent to the love with which we began. Slippages occurring as words happen, as we encounter them: we are pulled two ways at once, poised between different senses which seem to run down different tracks. Words are junctions, and we can't quite take every line at once.

There's a simpler kind of revel going on too, a linguistic carousal. A delight in rhyme, sometimes in proximate words 'Buy not share my shoddy ware' (poem 2), 'Snooze cruise' (poem 3), 'these small tensions / take their attention out / on me', 'how to / find, ride the rind' (poem 4), 'Book by cover lover lodged', 'a tight rope bridge / of tight hope' (poem 6) sometimes at a distance: the 'charred / Coaster' of poem 2 seems picked up by the 'manky / Toaster' of poem 3, for whatever that's worth. Not much, by the sound of them. There is an attempt to make a poetry of objects. 'Put upon the ruined counter / The worktop of choice'; 'Cutting out on a free way chip board' (poem 2). If some of what's going on here is intellectual, or just obscure, there is also a bid to grip things. We are sometimes in a domestic environment 'A heaving tub', 'a stripped sideboard', 'a bulging drawer', even a 'lamb supper' (poem 3) and perhaps also in the 'workshop' of poem 4, where objects and tools are laid out and acted upon. (Something seems recurrent in Thurston here, an imagery of poetry as work on words: 'Register us designers', he says in his poem 'For Roger Fowler', whose request or command the end of poem 4 here, 'open my workshop / take me prisoner', faintly parallels.)

Other things too are going on in these verses: other kinds of reaching back which feel new in this poet. When he writes 'Thought has shot its last bold bolt / Twice in a heart-tree' (poem 2), and 'It's shorn shod bold into a dry well' (poem 3), I inexpertly hear something very old: plain words, deliberate monosyllables, and the irresistible compound adjective 'Anglo-Saxon'. But stranger still is the discursiveness of this text. When Thurston asks 'Why should I be able / To choose?' (poem 1) I can't quite hear the rhythm, or grasp the question. But in the fifth poem he breaks with much of his own previous practice to run his thought, lost or no, through a series of enjambed lines:

As if it were ever any less

than obvious. That time is past
now. It is still

here. Calls and conversations echo
in the street. I no longer want

to abstract these things that
impose their attention on me;

that I impose my attention on.
That was a way of avoiding

responsibility for them, for me, but also
a way of changing them.

There is the suggestion of confession here, the performance of surrender: as though an alteration in the poetic credo is being announced. No ready way of knowing how literally to take that but what's surely inescapable is the extraordinary echo of Eliot. To be sure, certain triggers make this easier to hear than it might be 'time' above all but it is not merely a thematic affiliation, but the formal or tonal similarity with one of the recurrent voices of Four Quartets, that insists here. Eliot's deceptive simplicity, his combination of plain words and continuing mysteriousness, sounds in a phrase like 'As if it were any less / than obvious' (as if, indeed: as if we were in a position to agree or disagree, to do anything but watch the meditation unfold). And as for 'That was a way of avoiding / responsibility': hard not to hear again here that unforgettably, wilfully banal line, 'That was a way of putting it not very satisfactory:', which begins a stanza which ends with the claim that 'humility is endless'. Something of that work's reflexivity is in play here, and the mystic-tinted struggle for 'humility' that accompanies it. But to find these themes enunciated in these tones intrigues, and leaves me wondering what this poet might next do with such unexpected voices.

Joe Brooker


ed: the poems discussed here are planned to be out with Stride this Summer

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