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Johan de Wit: Up To You Munro

- Will Rowe

To expose the languages that sustain systemic violence, such as those of commodity fetishism or political populism, by placing them in a space that no longer naturalises them, is one of the ways in which recent poetry has sought to achieve a critical action. Criticism merely at the level of content is insufficient, poetry needs to be concerned with the mediations: this is the general agreement after Language poetry. But Johan de Wit’s latest book has normative phrases such as ‘focus groups’, ‘deep pan pizzas’ and others appear not as alienated language to be subjected to ideological critique but as part of the semantic drive of language as such. Of course, ‘Language as Such’ is Walter Benjamin’s name for the theological foundation of meaning, its ‘magic’, which permits things to exist inside language (‘the language of this lamp . . . communicates not the lamp . . . but the language-lamp . . . the lamp in expression.’) But is there any longer language as such? Or rather, doesn’t speaking of language ‘as such’ implicate us in a belief that screens us from the actual situation we are in and prevents us getting to grips with it? Screens and misleads because it suggests that there is some level at which language has not been penetrated by the logics of late capitalism.

In de Wit’s book the normative phrases are not set apart, attention drawn to them, by sound or capital letters or other typographical devices. Here is a sample of some of them: ‘naked romps . . . memory banks . . . heat resistant . . . mealy-mouthed’ (p.  45). Where Bruce Andrews visually isolates ready-made phrases, de Wit embeds them in the continuum of sense: ‘naked  romps / reach overmuch chill factor . . . memory banks / equate liner bins with top spin / . . . heat / resistant speech funks until it / comes  mealy-mouthed with shoulder /  pads in public’. The normative or commonplace phrases are placed alongside unfamiliar word patterns: they are embedded so that their work is flush with the semantic as such. They are normative in the sense that as ready-made expressions they appear to be tokens of an immediate and unquestionable world, tangible and to hand. They are comforting: hence their use by journalists and politicians. Their placement pushes a reader to find a common statute of referentiality that unites them and makes them consistent with the less familiar word sequences, and not finding one, i.e. finding there is no continuum of reference to this book, to fall back on some shared semantic process. What is that process?

My hypothesis is that there is something like a semantic pulse or drive that traverses the heterogeneous verbal material of this book. In other words that to read it is to encounter a thrust whose manifestation is not rhythmic in the usual sense (stress patterns, line length) but is to be found in the making of sense. Take the following: ‘now why’s  that / his encourages him / once three twice three thrice three / hymns break  down / parents  rubbing  forbidden  fruit machines brew / intergalactic dreadlocks give  sudden death / the  chop chops / fossorial digs slunk  from sororal / fonts in Lanarkshire collective nervous /  breakdowns  stabilise the stock  market’ (p. 67). By avoiding speech patterns it is less patterned than speech. As a consequence, the attraction to pattern, the need for repetition in language, moves to other levels: from semantic recognition to semantic generation. It’s as though internal processes, not ruled by reference, were pushing, like some sort of peristalsis, though also with the help of Milton, into the foreground: so that with ‘his encourages him’, ‘encourages’ can be taken as the animation of a purely grammatical logic of pronouns. Likewise ‘once three’ etc. presents logic of multiplication without subject, running on empty, to quote a phrase. And ‘chop chops’ both echoes the readymade though out of date ‘chop  chop’ and embodies a type of zero degree of meaning: what chop does is chops. Not far above the zero level are the frequent cases where a purely phonological logic presses forward: ‘sweet is the essence of wheat / . . . not a tall not  at all’ (p.  46), ‘core  now  rooks’ (p. 48), and the amazing ‘enjoy unjoy enjoy’ (p. 42). In all of these, in differing degrees, it’s as if some alien other of language were starting to emerge: the effects are not merely formal.

The reader may feel seasick with the unpredictable swaying as the usual back/forwards movement of syntax becomes delinearised. It would need a longer excerpt to give the full force of this but here’s a sample: ‘born child ferries / seaborne  chants  sonal  vials / caution growth is given what / you are given cumulative knees reversible / eduation bended hormones  which not that stage / views truculent voices’ (p. 51). In Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’ it’s the boat, i.e. the poetic subject, that’s seasick. In Up To You Munro the disorienting, sometimes nauseous, drift of sense attaches not to a given subject but to enunciation itself. Instead of a phonic drift that produces pleasure (the displacement that constitutes desire and its subject), what we get is ‘add / Austria to Australia’, a backwards movement into the automatic production of sense itself (‘blood ties blood’), whose ‘prerecorded classical actions mimic’ and ‘eventuate in phonemes’. Thus we can come into the fullness of the superb ‘enjoy unjoy enjoy’, a loop that parodies the pleasure principle (unjoy echoes Frend’s ‘unpleasure’) in that the command to enjoy is undone by its opposite which is then in turn undone, the very semantic movement itself pleasuring us, exposing how the lure is written into the language itself. That is to say, the critical effect comes in the gradual exposure of the alien substance of language, and of its synergy with the command structure of consumer society.

Is sense a plenum? Is there a continuum of sense? The usual approach would be to say that the materiality of language, prime concern of language-centred poetics, interrupts the illusion of fullness of meaning, makes holes in what McCaffery calls ‘the ideality of meaning’. Yet de Wit’s parodic handling of the continuum invites us to approach the question somewhat differently. To start with, the question whether sense is a continuum is not neutral but historical. For Pierre Boulez, the use of actual octaves in music has the effect of making ‘holes’ in the continuum of sound: ‘they create a weakening, or hole, in the succession of sound relationships by way of provisionally reinstating a principle of identity denied by other sounds.’ What’s historical here is the fact that this particular attraction of simplification could only be articulated with full theoretical awareness after the discovery of the principles of twelve tone composition. Mutatis mutandis, isn’t the issue with de Wit’s poetic language the other way round? i.e. it’s precisely the appearance  of  a continuum  that  is  held  up to criticism: by bringing to awareness the automatic production of sense, its  self-spawning, he exposes the continuum of making sense, the act which constitutes the subject of reading, to the critical realisation not only that the on-going fullness of language is a fantasy - this, on its own, is a commonplace of contemporary poetics – but also that  it is not so easily got rid of. One reason it is not so easily got rid of is that this fantasy of fullness is a feature of the way commodities speak – which, again, on its own is a commonplace of current debates about poetics – but the other reason, and the one that makes de Wit’s book unusual, is that the fantasy  of  fullness becomes the appearance of the substance of language itself. So that, among other things, ‘the materiality of language’ ceases to be a factor that guarantees a critique of  discourse and  instead turns out in part at least an embodiment of the perversity of language.

My hypothesis is that, in our epoch, the continuum of sense is the perversity of language: to put it simply, that it makes sense in spite of us.  Perhaps then the fear is the possibility of falling out of that. This would explain the intolerance towards non-mainstream poetry in the UK. It’s an old language (unlike US English) - as de Wit’s insertions of  Edwardian slang and 17c cadences remind us – and it can be relied  on to be  sensible. Which of course it can’t, especially in the epoch of Thatcher and Blair. And  what de Wit accomplishes  is  a  reversal whereby the reliability  - and ultimately the whole realm of belief that that notion entails – becomes horrible and disgusting.

What does it mean so say that language is perverse? Certainly, it is not a question of the impossible objects of  surrealism. There is more similarity with the impulse of ‘nonsense’ verse, in  which the  inner workings of language spawn strange creatures, though without nonsense poetry’s removal of itself from the  sphere of  language  as  public reality to fantastic scenarios, though of  course some  of  Lewis  Carol’s  poetry references public  life. Nor do we get in de Wit’s poetry the extreme, metaphysical,  case of Borges’s remake of Swift in ‘Dr Brodie’s Report’, where speech itself is shown to be  a perverse impulse, best abandoned. It is more as if there were a  substance in language that spurts out, recalling César Vallejo’s line ‘I come out steaming through my very own teeth’, whose anal  sense would  be that it is done  for someone else.  But there’s an important difference: de Wit’s writing deprives statements of a subject, or repels subjectivity in its usual mode of operation (‘one in five seven nine / torpedoes open as in pa / po ends papapo / ants shatter cole / another yellowish Dutch compound beats  air’ (p. 44)).  But it is not a  case of a willed exclusion of subjectivity as in some types of ideological critique: it’s more wild than willed. The lure  of sense is shown to include built-in  universality: ‘language  and people are  available anywhere’, which might be read cynically were it not immediately followed by ‘in / kind sustains half-life  curves  bump into / print venues’. In other words, once again the invitation is to a critical stance towards that which is not the will of any one of ‘us’, but might be that of some other or Other, so that the meanings would, to quote the Peruvian poet Mario Montalbetti, be ‘the perverse effects of a language that assembles meanings because it won’t tolerate our ignoring it.’ And the  perversity of (the) language would be that it creates an Other then obeys it.

Of course, that in some ways would be the theology of the  situation. Poetry, on the other hand, mocks: ‘redouble Falkland beer parry / faint trumpets in hand skewer’ and ‘eyelevel grills / mock homes melt in front-back language’ (p. 47). It also points up the alliance between this  perverse will and power in its particular British modes, in the shape of ‘huggermugger Eton fallacies’ (p, 41) and of ‘imperial incest reads and requests / you to be you / in or un / thinkable gullets’ (p. 51).

But nothing has been said so far about the book’s physical-geographic outside, which its title literally refers to, its pages mimic and its cover image represents: the range of mountains in Scotland  called the Munros, the qualification for inclusion in which  name being location  and a height of 3,000 feet, by which one of them was recently  disqualified for having shrunk to  2,986 or thereabouts. The pleasure of gazing at the names  and lines of maps (the cover image is a line drawing that resembles contours) is the reassurance that there is a world, that the thing registered by topography remains a place of meaningful existence. But someone or something else is pleasured by the medium of registration (‘Up To You’) as it comes out of the mouth (‘two-lipped tulips’). The 84 pages begin and end with 4 lines, in fact a title word plus 3 lines, building up a line at a time to a plateau of 32 lines then shrinking again finally to 4. Yet this particular transcription of the physical reality of landscape, instead of producing the fullness promised – remember Rilke’s  idea of  ‘Ur-sound’, a  device like a  gramophone  pick-up for transcribing the contours of a cranium into sound, i.e. into an inhabitable interiority – in fact makes a hole in continuity  of sense: ‘not on not / off’. Or, better, the sense into which it is transcribed makes a hole in itself. And through that hole and against the alien field of sense, the aliveness of the book comes out: a vital negativity.

Is this a way in which the infiniteness of language that Benjamin writes of can be recovered (‘all language contains its own incommensurable, uniquely constituted infinity. Its linguistic being, not its verbal contents, defines its frontier’)? Or has ‘language as such’ been definitively perverted? The question is not academic. It relates to how ‘Coca Cola’, in the well-know concrete poem, becomes Cloaca, i.e. shit, or why Armani has a perfume called ‘Code’. De Wit’s book displays the materiality of language, i.e. that in language which corresponds to what geo-logy is to mountains, as compromised. Does that not also undermine discourse analysis, one of the mainstays of poetics theory in the 1970s and 80s, in the sense that there’s an alien substance in language that does not yield to such analysis, ‘alien’ in the sense that it is motivated? Thus ‘hit squads ahead on Fuller’s beach / heads around corners / cut the edge off reference / augmented in secular / colons at the bottom / phrase’ (p. 56) suggests switch-overs between substance and meaning that relate to a scene that’s noir or paranoid.

Of course, ‘Up To You Munro’ also suggests that something has happened to landscape, a  kind of redoubling of its encounter with linguistic reference, such  that the initial confusion of physical shape with map contours (that require an  act of representation and a pact of  belief) is taken up  again and  repeated, this time as super-profit, madame la terre rejuvenated for M. le capital by the redoubling of  neo-liberalism (which pretends to be a return but is much more than that), except of course that rejuvenated means wrecked. The mountains are there through a perverse act of language. Yes, language is ‘magic’ but the semantic drive doesn’t make ‘world’ any more, or only makes it as landscape is produced in the sleeve notes to Radiohead’s Kid A (2000) or in Ballard’s novels, a direct product of the mind of characters, which  is  of course  predicated upon its previous  destruction.

Will Rowe

[Up To You Munro is published by Veer Books (London, 2008)]



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