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Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Priori (published by if p then q) by Tom Jenks

reviewed by Richard Barrett

The poetic tradition that Jenks has been primarily influenced by is that of Concrete / Visual poetry. The influence of Cobbing is evident in Jenks’ ‘3 reel to reel recordings of birdsong’ and ‘labyrinth’; whereas Caroline Bergvall can be detected as an inspiration behind poems such as ‘protocols[1] – [4]’ and ‘waterway’ and ‘love of zero’. With this first major collection of his he already seems to be on his way towards transcendence of that inheritance though. Without exception, each of Jenks’ poems is stylistically innovative and forward-looking, which creates a tension in the collection: as A Priori seems, as far as the subject matter of a lot of the poems goes, to exhibit a preoccupation with childhood and the past.

In the piece ‘nine magickal figures’ diagrams next to squares of text tell the story of a lonely child caught in the space between the town and the country trying to use black magic to ensnare the girl he regularly sees ‘coming back from forest on bicycle of hers’. Childhood references abound: ‘meet you there with coleslaw and PIZZA’, ‘shoot them down with catapult’ and ‘make GOLEM from airfix kit’. The piece also succeeds in conveying a peculiarly English sense of nostalgia, with its talk of ‘suburban gardens’, ‘maybe whistle theme eastenders’ ‘ salt sachets stolen supermarket café’, ‘coal bunker shadows’ and ‘AMBROSIA custard in bowl’.

Those themes of childhood and the past are discernible as well in the sequence which opens A Priori: ‘protocols [1] – [4]’. What the reader is put most in mind of as those poems progress is a child’s preparations for a summer camping expedition: ‘Moon / no moon’, ‘In summer you must sleep in garden’; and there are instructions regarding what to do if lost in a forest, and how to construct a base-camp, and reminders to check our compass. Reinforcing the notion that it’s the activities of a child which are being described are mentions of a ‘secret drawer’ and ‘secret spaces’ – both things which you can imagine a child having. Yet, while on one level it would be quite correct to say Jenks is merely showing scenes from a childhood, it occurs that he may also be describing a strangely childlike and innocent adult. There is a suggestion of a troubled adult relationship; acknowledgement, yet simultaneous fear of a ‘sexy lady’; and the sophisticated awareness of a lack of significance to life. The idea eventually suggests itself that ‘the child lost in a forest’ aspect of the poems may be a metaphor for an adult lost and floundering in contemporary society.

Jenks incorporates into this sequence shopping lists, advice from magazines and lines from medical self-certification forms which he seems to be saying should be taken as the adult versions of the child’s map and compass.

The combination of concern for the past and celebration of a version of Englishness shabby and second-rate can be seen again in the two poems both entitled ’10 deleted scenes’. In the first of those poems we have: ‘Ex-miner walking his wife’s Yorkshire terrier. / One of their names is Algernon’, ‘Forgive me Lord for I have sinned, / once, in February 1983’ and best of all ‘Gorillas on the bowling green. / Old men in their white socks, sighing.’ The reader has to assume Jenks was aware of the closeness of that last description of his to a Haiku and that he chose to leave it a syllable short just to be contrary! The ‘Gorillas on the bowling green…’ captures perfectly a child’s perception of overly-hairy pensioners; the lines also manage to contain intense sophistication as it’s realised that those pensioners are whiling away their final years playing a ridiculous game.

The second ’10 deleted scenes’ ends with: ‘A man my age can carry off a monocle / but only if he has at least one eye’. Taken together the two poems are a compendium of non-sequiturs, absurdities, sharp observation and really great jokes.

At the same time as A Priori can seem to be harking back to the past there is a sense, also, that there’s a looking forward in the book. Strangely, the subject matter of the poems displays no sense of looking forward in a dynamic, go-getting kind of way, but in a drive to embrace dotage and decline kind of way. That’s detectable, to a certain extent, in the lines mentioned above, regarding the pensioners on the bowling green, but it’s especially noticeable in the piece – probably Jenks’ most traditional poem – ‘surveillance notes’. Therein it appears to be the lives of pensioners which are under the microscope; and whilst there’s undoubtedly a level of mockery in the recounting of the way they constantly rearrange the comestibles and jars of foodstuffs, and count the rain, there is also a great deal of sympathy and compassion for their lives as well.

It’s that tension in A Priori (between the compositional innovations and the backward-looking subject matter, or the rush towards old age) which gives the book its momentum – the reader is keen to see what kind of resolution is achieved.

Perhaps the most interesting poem in the collection is ’99 names for small dogs’. It seems to allude to Queneau’s Exercises in Style. Therein one insignificant tale is retold 99 times in different ways; Jenks’ version involves coming up with 99 different names for dogs. That isn’t all there is to the poem though: it’s a history of a 1980’s English childhood with its mentions of: ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Flash Gordon’ (presumably the film version!), ‘Giant Haystacks’, ‘Herr Schmidt’, ‘Reginald Perrin’ and ‘Shirley Crabtree’. The historical figures named delineate the English Secondary-School method of teaching history: all Great Men and wars and battles. Finally: there’s a brilliantly euphonious quality to the names chosen: ‘Arbuthnot’, ‘Doctor Billabong’ and ‘Norbert Dessentrangle’…the repetition of those names becomes like a form of music.

As well as the stylistic innovation one of the other most impressive aspects of A Priori is just how funny it is. Jenks completely up ends the notion that experimental, avant-garde writing has to be po-faced and self-consciously serious. There are poems amongst this collection which are laugh-out-loud funny.

So, not only can A Priori be recommended as representing a significant development of the Concrete / Visual poetry tradition but it can also be recommended because it will make you laugh.

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