Review of Keston Sutherland, ‘The Stats on Infinity’ (Crater, 2010)

NB: This review is for a book now out of print, focussing primarily on the long ode therein. It was to be published by an official institution, but was dropped. So here it be. 

This handsome, large and slim pamphlet, typeset on fine paper, produced by Richard Parker and John Packer for Crater Press, comprises ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’, six 12-line sonnets, and ‘Reindeer’. It follows the book-length project, Stress Position whose titular pun on torture and stress-guided versification invites an uncomfortable analogy between the poet coping with political complicity and the victims of pre-emptive neoconservative aggression. But the vanguard iconicity of the lyric is part of Sutherland’s special purchase on various spectacles, states of emergency and bathetic life manoeuvres. The network of passionate irony and dis-allegiance which rushes through Sutherland’s work to date are similarly shared by Stats: immanent longing within procedures of alienation and commodification, neo-con interlopers, spectacles of violent agents and populations, and a particularly vivid method of object production: recall the ‘miniscule 7-11 concealed in a special Yngwie Malmstein [sic] Signature version of Duchamp’s Hidden Noise’ from Hot White Andy or the ‘Mr. Plato Head guillotine’ in Stress Position. Both ‘Eli Roth’s Darfur’ and ‘Escape from Ciudad Juarez’ premiere in this present volume.

The Stats On Infinity is a welcome shift from the murky, jagged laminations of Stress Position, whose occasional injections of tacky superficialism failed to aerate the dense numerical blockages. In some sense, the purpose was to push language through an ultimate opacity to a kind of transparent and disposable cartridge system. Slippages into static narration hinted at the structure of a plot blueprint evaded. There is a writerly desperation in Stress Position, which is rather an aspect of precision in the more acclaimed Hot White Andy (London: Barque Press, 2007). The chromatic incandescence of the latter was diluted and prolonged into linear and predictable exercises. Now that we have Stats on Infinity, Stress Position seems like a transitional work, a conceptual addendum to Hot White Andy.

Contrary to its precedent, The Stats on Infinity is economical in its ambitions, and reminiscent of the local intonation and concentration of an earlier book, Neutrality (London: Barque Press, 2004). Its full A4 size feels unusual for a short collection, but the parameters are necessary for anyone familiar with Sutherland’s particular collusion of sonic and visual performativity, whose dual-aspect invites a particular synaesthetic practice. The eye-voice span becomes a rhetorical source of tensile power. It is what makes the lines elastic but often taut with anxious patterning and unreserved excess. As the reader negotiates the typographical traffic, he must also keep up with the intense and electric prosodic forwardness. Such parafoveal disruption is necessary here to facilitate an effect of alienation between the various kinds of performance the text might enact. Sutherland’s poetic form evades the traps of various transcriptions (I think of Olson or Cage), which were trying to systematically pursue visual form as an instrument of performance. As successful and exciting as Sutherland’s actual performances may be, his form never exists as a mere token transcript of a perpetually ‘original’ performance. Visualization becomes rather a conceptual auxiliary for the afflictions and hesitations of versification.

The cover-title page declares its contents in large Blast-like blocks, and offers two epigraphs. The first, taken from U.S. patent 5027473 published in 1991, is the précis for an automatic refrigerator door closer, whose spring-loaded hinge and pin design closes the door when less than 90˚ to the confronting frame surface. The single sentence is written in the vapid accuracy of legalese, which nevertheless has all the forensic tedium of Watt, and seems as much chosen for its intensely specific self-criterion of convenient kitchen praxis, as for its juxtaposition to the final two lines from Henry Vaughn’s ‘The Obsequies’: ‘That from the murd’ring world’s false love | Thy death may keep my soul alive.’ The ability to close your own door is a strictly pre-Gulf War sentiment and it warms the pittance of Vaughan. This montage creates a mental space between the two poles for the poem to interfere and intermit, as a locus of inflicted comedy and scorn, made salient by the sacrifice of the progenitor in order to save the victim’s soul from the killing fields of gluttonous artificers and deceitful opportunists. It is precisely the simplicity of closure which the fridge door allows for so perfectly, each rubber channel aligned to the body of the frame; such delicate, silent confrontations are supported in Vaughan’s technology only by the ordo amoris of musical thinking. But bathetic cheekiness is not (yet) the immoral high ground of the contemporary lyrical I, the spectator of political action at a distance. For the design of that distance is an enemy to exposure and one this ‘bloodless anathema’ seeks to dismantle. Sutherland’s technique of inserting abstract selfhood into the hypermediations of global capital is especially instructive at the beginning of ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’:

In 1983, over 13,000 workers’ compensation claims
to Erato I scream this bloodless anathema
a veto on forklifts’ trussed talons in its face scrub,
thrown out of the world
of which you were actually sick,
waxing anaemic, Halon fire-hosed,
Let be so sick with anxiety but you were actually sick,
Borders in administration for recalled aphrodisiac,
I am upwardly alive
a flesh that fucks the shit out of its bone,
‘counting stressballs up your piece of ass
one Exploding Rat
two Ghost Cow eased in by a phantom broken limb
three dark glut of idiot Ducklings, exudate from YouSqueeze
mambo on the impacted grit slope to
                                          Asylum & Immigration Tribunals

The units of reference seem at once opaque and transparent, but not particularly difficult. A fragment reportage splits cinematically into lyrical preface. We can easily link worker’s comp to the menace of forklifts. If we type it into Google, then we find that the first line cites verbatim an abstract about what we thought it might be about.[1] The rest of the sentence reads: ‘for lost-workday injuries involving forklift trucks were filed in 30 states’. As an allusion, the appropriation lacks power because its knowledge seems trivial or private. But Sutherland seeks to escape the pressures of the full-knowing reader. Here, the statistical accuracy of forklift injuries are treated as no more than quantitative ephemera, which like any given object put into such relation, may be accumulated, and used as evidence for a number of ideological frames. We do not sense that this has been done as a matter of ‘genuine’ research. We can plug it in and get a discursive context through which we can extend the vibrating scope of the lyric; but does such pseudo-allusive practice also make readerly cognition pivot on the Google-search feature? The target text can then saturate the poem and create a habitus of readerly expectation and distrust. It can also turn transparent and delete itself the moment it is acknowledged. This notional dilemma rests on an idea of language as a sedimentation of potential knowledge and world-recognition. But Sutherland’s practice attempts neither the restitution of the historical instance so that the lyric exists as a condensed fragment of some other type of experience, nor does it present an autodidactic feature within the text. Rather, these types of referral place the lyrical I into a spot of deprived recognition. It may indicate the traces of a privatleben, but even the most vacant referentiality confirms a context the poem takes to task, contra any poetic sincerity. These comp. claims go to ‘Erato’, the muse of lyric poetry, and invite the jarring entry of ‘I’. This functions like an incomplete allegorical screen describing the entry of lyric into public discourse, like some pronoun late for the warehouse.

Sutherland’s lyrical mode is the site of intense upheaval. His work jolts us out of the cathexis which accompanies desire’s commodification of vision. It is not enough to unlock the suitcase of tricks being played on citizens in some grand conspiratorial theme, for the theme is everywhere unthematic. It can be imbued into the very design of the object. The construction of dissent to which Sutherland’s polyvocality gives utterance invites the sympathy of the listener to take part in these pressures: not in order to evaluate an abstract nugget of injustice, but to create an excessive potential within our very encounters with objects and relations.

In this book, Sutherland’s negative philology risks the slinging of bad jokes (‘YouSqueeze’, ‘Ray Bans Apollo’, ‘payback to the future’). These are not allegorical frames which morph into micro-cosmological edifices of character-location, but joke-fractions, jibes at the kind of fluff that clots up the spectacle’s deríve of silly finds. We are deterred from emotional investment in forklifts—not even ‘Proxy’ compensates for the dull clarity of industrial metaphor—and we cannot seem to situate the silly decadence on the rear end of the noble. The denial of tension between ‘Proxy’ and ‘Inhumanity’ creates an unsatisfactorily simple undertow beneath the thermal surface. Along with its collection title, The Stats on Infinity, it is a kind of Neo-Romantic blunder, an irony so deficient in cognitive nutrients as to appear a frail resort to instant legibility, or perhaps the just dessert of a well-worn fulcrum in British irony.

One of the strongest moments of Sutherland’s verse comes after the frenetic numbered prose shaft in ‘Proxy Inhumanity’. The section begins in Gothic schtick, but then registers a hallucinogenic and apocalyptic zombie-vision:

It is midnight.
A foul mist creeps between the droning trees,
Dries to a scab on holograms of the bulging irides
In from the neighbouring governorate,
Come at last to see for themselves,
Inquirers into barcodes on broken eggshells,
Irides fixed like doormats on pentangles,
Their black holes glisten in the diaspora of limelight
As whine the Al-Kifah wraiths,
And one by one the grim convenors count
Spotless deskilled skeletal sluts cut into toothpicks,
Spineless embeds fried on sniper’s diazepam,
Tanked up preps all slurring their eat shits,
The rapid response post-avant errata of Who’s Who,
Marxist twinks, Muj holes pornographically licking shrinkwrap,
Sententiae addicts, fodder for Dutch Flarf Paeans to conceptual litanies,
antimetastatic to infinity.

A desire for reportage by image and contemporary references to foreign roles, industrial detritus, and other war-time sundries, enables Sutherland to construct mini-productions of surrealistic inventory. The carnivalesque atmosphere writhes against its own comedic description. The text insists not on the equivalence of corresponding realities but on the specificity and non-identicality of those objects closest to the mundane stupefactions we eat, think, discuss, and expurgate. The irrigation of desire is made possible by reification, and the involuntary contortions of body-image montage make this kind of self-inventory appear reckless and unhinged.

It is typical of the generosity and sympathy of the contemporary reader of this kind of work to catalyze loose assemblages of discursive references, and to make them fit an exophoric structure of critique or judgment on aspects of the contemporary world.[2] In a climate of informational saturation and accessibility, the aleatory effects of allusive play can easily become tokens of authorial heroism. The reader, intoxicated with little bits of ‘Muj’ and ‘Al-Kifah’, generates a heroic strategy by which the poet, poem wrapped around the chest, signals powerfully the atrocities and injustices of Western aggression and neo-imperialism in the Middle-East. Poets who find themselves compelled to pre-emptively manage their readers may reveal an anxiety about the political capacity of their verbal artworks. There is no mistaking the references to violence and violation, but contemporary readers are too apt to take the living word of the author as a bulwark against cognitive difficulties. Such generous, even gallant, historicism deadens the lyrical counter-knowledge which performs resistance to comprehension. In Rancierè’s terms, Sutherland’s work seeks to mediate between the politics of aesthetics and the aesthetics of politics, which coordinates the ‘double effect’, which ‘is always the object of a negotiation between opposites: between the readability of the message that threatens to destroy the sensible form of art and the radical uncanniness that threatens to destroy all political meaning’.[3] Poetry becomes predictable when it seems necessary to address a need that has become obvious. Direct counter-statement against authority and power may make the reader a kind of false friend, so that the whole hermeneutic practice reduces itself to votes of confidence.

The sonnets are études. Stress and end-rhyme patterns vary slightly, but they fail to interest. I think that this has something to do with a perception inherent to Sutherland’s work which views form as a container for content. This is by no means a naïve formalism but a standpoint on emotional reality. I think the purpose behind this is to indicate the fractured, fetishized and disgusting relations we may have with various kinds of objects and the production from which they emerge beautifully packaged. Sutherland has recently stated elsewhere of his interest in the accumulation of poetical commodities.[4] Sutherland’s own recent work seeks a way through the shadow-market of Prynne’s Brass (1971), Rodefer’s Four Lectures (1982), and Wilkinson’s The Speaking Twins (1992). To which we might add Hot White Andy (2007). But there is a tendency in Sutherland’s recent poetry to compromise its unpredictability and inventiveness, its high-intensity reification in order to simulate the manner of direct speech, of straight talk; but here, each line produces an assemblage of consumable devices and derogatory excesses. Elsewhere, however, the ‘same shit, different war’ on a single line, uncontravened by saturnalian horror or pharmacological hemorrhaging, seeks to make good on a gesture of political commitment, whose stupid obviousness, makes the thirsty reader of the spectacular and inhibitive poetic surface cringe. There’s no getting around it: ‘but to do what about it is stupid to do about it’. To act for or by means of the glaringly wrong ‘it’ is stupid because it is ‘about it’. The error lies in the ‘aboutness’ of consciousness; its purport of righteousness is the flakiness of a retarded realism, and yet its simulcast of radiant otherness is the instrumentalization of our desires. The synthetic events in the extract above appear not merely as adversaries of a consciousness able to see and speak with lucidity, whence those banal compromises, but more interestingly as a set of refracted personalities into which the intellectual jeers are deposited as satire capital. For this reader, these parlances of wit bask in a negative light, and are occasions of the cultural moment, reminders of catastrophe and the grotesque. It is in their playful negation of narrative that they achieve something which has revitalized narrativity in British poetry, as the synthesis of a virulent set of personae within the corporeal.

[1] ‘Characteristics of work-related injuries involving forklift trucks’, Journal of Safety Research 18.4 (Winter 1987): 179-190.

[2] See, for example, Adam Piette, Review of Keston Sutherland, The Stats on Infinity, et al, blackbox manifold 5 (July 2010):

[3] Jacques Rancierè, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. and introd. Gabriel Rockhill (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 63.

[4] See Zoe Sutherland, Danny Hayward, and Jonty Tiplady, ‘Brighton Poetry: An Interview with Keston Sutherland’, Naked Punch 14 (Autumn 2010): 41-43, 45-46.

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