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Some initial responses, after 10 years reading, to Waves on Porthmeor Beach by Alaric Sumner 
[Part 2]

- Lawrence Upton

[Part 1 of this Special Feature can be found on issue 2 of  Readings]


Section 3

This is Sumner's poem The Hoax of Energy Contained:

The damaged beauty of the grid
fires a dream of structure
whose formal intricacy melts
at these shattering velocities

High above Manhattan
the sun's rays bisec t
a moment, halting sequence

Our technologies split
aesthetics into two
the grid of time and the grid of steel

Close readers of Waves might recognise a phrase inverted from Absence One:

Contained energy torn from vision, leads to a slice of sea in motion and emotion...  an activity of scudding clouds printed in intricate dots - or lack of them. Structure requires a frame, a containment...   or these gannets and shearwaters would glide from the page; auks, shags and scoters dive in these turbulent depths.

That image of "damaged beauty" might remind us of a question in Waves:

If the writer damages the work by including within it elements that discourage positive evaluation, by design or by incompetence, is that the equivalent of distortion on an electric guitar, the glorification of incompetence of punk? Or is it too clever by half?"
(FOURTH ABSENCE (28 July to 8 August 1991) / Writing)

I think the whole paragraph, including the last question, may be too clever by half; but there is a problematic quality throughout Sumner's writing; and that is his use of clichéd language.

It isn't that he cannot write originally or cannot find the right word, but more that he seems almost to have the ability to find the right word, almost worn out, but not quite in the use that he wants to make of it.

More troublesome to me is his use, here, of personification and familiar metaphors:

Enclosing arms of greenstone
surround water
in an embrace;

and even "the moonstruck rocks watch the moon expectantly."

And, yet, while such details make me break in my reading - and maybe that is the intention - rereading the whole in context one does find there is space for such a line as Sumner charts his interaction with his own sensory data and works his responses into a text:

The Plough distorted as a plane flew across it, and distorted again as a satellite crossed it. A star flashes red, green, blue and white over Clodgy - it is static in relation to the Plough, so it cannot be a satellite, an aeroplane. Below me, the moonstruck rocks watch the moon

In his talk in September 95, Sumner said "the descriptive passages of Waves are improvised on to the page at a particular time and in a particular place (and edited later)."; and he also refers to "...evocative descriptions of the waves and the beach, which were improvised on to the page on the beach, drawing from direct experience in the landscape."

I would stress that the talk concerned was part of a poetry reading and that Sumner, as publisher, was aiming to sell as many copies of the book as possible - time and place for purchase are set aside in the plan of the talk. It was not a talk for later publication and I am inclined to let pass in silence phrases like "evocative descriptions" which I might otherwise worry at.

However, the use of the word "improvised" is noteworthy. He's describing in general the writing process as it is for many writers. But fewer would use the word "improvised", which in the context of writing is generally used for speaking extempore.

But Alaric Sumner was one of those who did not see a great difference between the performance in the act of writing and the performance of reading that written text later.

He tended not to improvise in his readings but rather to be as accurate as he could in reading what was on the paper.

Briefly, it might be noted that Sumner had a very distinctive reading style. I have heard it described as "BBC" and as "posh"; and it is neither. Someone has referred to the voices of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter, but that's certainly not it.

He was trying to be precise; and he was trying to get the music of the words; and he was trying to make sure that he was making himself clearly understood. If there is fault to be found in it, then maybe the blame attaches to his actor training.

His enunciation worked particularly well in the very short and brief and intense poems of Rhythm to Intending where the deliberation of his reading voice worked well with the manner of the poems' methodology. In all his writing, he is trying to be able to get the maximum amount of meaning from the words he uses, even if those words have been heavily used before.

Here, for instance, is a continuous quotation which consists of a diary and insertion welded together. Hear how he uses the fairly tired and familiar "pick my way", giving it new energy by the precision of his observation; and how that precision prepares us for and guides us into the sharp change of register as he enters the following rhetorical verse:

I pick my way over the sand, avoiding the rivulets of fresh water, darker than the sand when no light is on them but bright when the reflected moon glitters in their ripples.

Insertion #2

I don't know
what sound wrings colour
from which patterns

Force and regularity
are read in distance
as a coming together

I don't know
what patterns change motion
into which colours

Angle and interference
in respect of view
are writing the distance

Inertia is sympathetic
to a literature of distance
and measurement of position

I don't know
what motion brings impulse
to which wave

Sumner speaks in Waves of a performance of representation - with regard to Blow's drawing, but clearly applicable elsewhere. It was at the page with pen or at the keyboard that he might take the leaps.

He makes, in his text, a good fist at showing the multiplicity of events constantly occurring within the reception of our senses. Even one's astonishment at the complex sea can be got used to; and what the tourist stares at the local may partly ignore, going about the affairs of domestic survival.

Yet any level of attention also involves considerable filtering and generalisation as the brain strives to cope with the quantity of data and the complexity of interrelationships. The sea is a system so complex that even the largest computers will only generalise if we want to know what is happening there before it happens on a daily basis.

By making a diary and accumulating data, the observer makes inroads upon this difficulty; but the result, the text produced, contains its own problems if taken as objectivity, in that it may too only be experienced in time. A structure capable of beginning to show a little of the many unknowables takes time to absorb and creates ambiguities. Language does not break down but it does begin to reach limits.

The limits of the spoken and written language are acknowledged and extended by the inclusion of the graphic artist and the extension of the written into the graphic. The very stuff of the text's narrative is rendered as a series of signs which the reader endows with significance by act of will.

Time and Place belong in much the same mechanical world as each other and, on a different layer, as it were, as us. We experience them constantly, as we experience Gravity. We rarely challenge them.

How to represent what are elements of our own fabric, as Time and Space are. And what kind of code are they for us, when we are effectively child code implementations and factors of them.

Contemplation of time in the regular sequence of words in lines on the page seems to fix it into the linear. A book appears to present its ideas in a form that needs to be studied linearly. Fixing truthfully (though readers have no proof of this) the time, date and place of each entry in this diary suggests that this linear sequence is significant and that the writer is concerned with the honest expression of time, place and sequence. The Insertions and Absences follow different rules; they express (and were created over) different time periods from each other and from the diary, yet seem intended to be read in linear sequence. Millennial forces in the text are juxtaposed with the minutiae of movements of droplets of spray on individual waves.

One may know as so far proven that there is a unifying mathematically-stated pattern which can account for the unconscious revelry of differing paths, velocities and forces exposed by close scientific observation of matter; but few of us experience the quantum world, much as we might only hear about a country where they do things very unlike us. In that, we remain human-animal and pre-scientific, with mythic accounts of an experiential universe, a self-painted veil of a self; while the unconscious federation of systems which are less than full persons which comprise each of us remains unacknowledged.

This - Porthmeor Beach of alien hydrological forces - is the edge of a landscape Hepworth called "pagan", as if the landscape knew anything of the history of religion and society, though its multiplicity of stone ruins records much of that history in fragmentary details. (Hepworth's Drawings from a sculptor's landscape... is one of Sumner's sources for parts of Waves.)

Others, perhaps the least attentive, arrive at the place and see economic potential. Others still see, amongst other things, remnants of ancient orogeny. And so on, all explicable, all arising from the perceiver's place in time and space, reading into their own prepared forms, and usually missing out what does not fit the questions they usually ask. Yet not a misreading because there is no true reading.

By pursuing his performance of writing about what is verging on the ineffable, Sumner tilts the experienced world a little so that, seen as a sign, we are given a means to see natures unread and unreadable, an infinity of times and spaces interacting.

Seen as a lab book, Waves will not add to human knowledge. It tells us from the outset that its pursuit is the mimesis of objectivity rather than an objective account, but even that is unreliable - " I leave rough elements which should be polished" (Note "should").

Mimesis of objectivity via fictionalised subjective accounts, perhaps.

Let time lapse
and intermittent images
of boats judder
over grey water
in lines of blue, green, red

As a book lab, however, it may be something of a generator of ideas and understanding. It places humans in their time and place in a way which leaves the non-human other without rendering it less than human. It gives us a glimpse of the depthless complexity of our physical universe and our experience of it. It starts a successful parley with the flowing poly- and heteroglossic sensual environment which really determines the course of all our lives.

In doing so, Sumner (deliberately) leaves the springs sticking out of some of what had previously comforted us. His narrative does not give us unity of time and place, but variability, as the world's readers experience it, that is. The evidence of the multiple timelines of the writing's timeline is part of the narrative; and the more one studies that, the more one is aware of the gradual but uneven variable decrease in the amount of time spent in writing, as not just the writer's marks on paper, but the writer's memories also determine the content and the structuring - there is no one structure here. Is there anywhere? Atop and alongside and underneath that are the practicalities of publishing; the ambition of the author to be published and read; and the need to fit in with others' aesthetic and curatorial agendas. For example, the Tate announced Porthmeor Beach: A Century of Images as a forthcoming exhibition while Sumner was writing; and the opportunity was too good to miss.

So that the representations of time and space which form the book provide a model, and a necessarily simple model, of the relativistic and chaotic mechanism of which we are parts, chronotopically, and from which we seek - uselessly - to part our consciousnesses, typified by waves breaking on a particular beach.

Waves is unusual in taking for its immediate subject the non-human quite so insistently. (Sumner was highly aware of Woolf's The Waves and even read a cut up of it in his 1995 reading.) And yet one could also say that its world is entirely human, with the pattern-making drive of the human, with responses out of human knowledge.

Waves offers us the interaction of time and space, but not in terms of accepted polity. Such activity is off somewhere else, yet near at hand.  That the text is clearly located in Cornwall in the 1990s is, if not coincidental, accidental. The book's topics are ongoing "creation" in a creatorless world, a creation experienced as change in a material world which is problematic of description under forces it is impossible to comprehend; and the very modern difficulty of an unhuman universe being observed by observers which are themselves constituents of that universe; written observers who are heterogeneous recombinations of human material.

I refer to "observers" partly to include the contribution by drawings of Sandra Blow into the text. Sumner speaks, in Waves, of her work as "language"; and his poem set relating to her 1997 exhibition is entitled "text out of image".

Though the text of Waves refers out of itself, its entire known world tends to be rather small; much smaller in some ways than the European-known world before Renaissance European expansionThe flow of time here is not in any sense progressive although it does have direction. There is change and that's it. The waves may eventually remove the whole of west Cornwall, the whole of western Europe, to build up land elsewhere, in an open-ended eternity; there is no purposive pattern.

The observer sees patterns. They are there to be seen, locally. But there seems to be no greater pattern.

Far from representing history, Sumner seems to be trying to represent otherwise undocumented moments and the process of representing those moments. He isn't denying history so much as being indifferent to it, as he generally was as a person.

Now predominates over Time. Here predominates over Space. When the narrative observer is unable to give us Here and Now, it gives us Absence.

It tells us repeatedly what it is doing, exactly what it is doing, as it incorporates a diversity of textual substances in such a way that analysis and dissection might become the same thing.

On the other hand, the book is put together in modular fashion and the sequential modules are clearly discernible as such and invite the reader to participate in their dialogic interaction.

And supporting this potentially unfinished and alterable state is the indeterminacy of the narrating voice which frequently incorporates scrap material from texts by others and clichéd material: e.g. "And now Orion stands guard over the beach.":

Small slaps of small waves on the rocks intensify the lack of pulse; but as soon as its absence is noted the pulse begins again...  [Interrupted by talkative holidaymaker...  note in pub later:] Intricate lace of white foam swirls round black rocks.
[Friday 19 July 1991, 21.30]

He sees the scene of his writing as a made thing which contains, on Thursday 28 March 1991, "Moonlit blue-white hyphens", though no other textual apparatus. He tracks the phenomenon from "emergence" until "they disappear."

He finds white lines and black lines. While all these phenomena clearly become visible at points on the time base, it is also as if he is looking at a constructed image over time, another uncalibrated time base.

He offers us a dagger and "a stiletto blade of silver", but does not build these up into a larger metaphorical construct, and leaves them as a record of his observation and his brain's response to the overload of detail which follows the artist's attempt to see all it can.

And such negatively capable data are sufficient, he demonstrates, in the following Insertion #1 [my emphasis] with which to work in the more considered i.e. more revised writing

From all over
This morning's pale-green sea
White emerges
Foam folds over
And re-merges in green

He writes (Friday 29 March 1991) "First a darkness rises out of the dull-silver sea"; and "darkness rises" sounds familiar, both in that precise form and various syntactical variations upon it. Yet no particular reference seems to be intended.

Yet rather than making this text, Waves, tired, I am reminded that, to adapt a phrase of Orwell's (Inside the whale, 1940), every word has passed through innumerable human speeches. And that is the quotation Sumner gives us from his intense often solitary writing vigils among the gatherings of others.


Lawrence Upton


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